The Game Archaeologist: Digging up the history of City of Heroes

    
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For the longest time in the early 2000s, MMORPGs scared me off. They looked too obtuse, too grindy, too ugly, and too unapproachable for my tastes. It took a special title to really draw me in with its more casual friendly structure and colorful graphics. In early 2004, I found myself entranced with this superhero MMO that let me be whatever type of caped (or non-caped) crusader I wanted to be. From then on, there was no going back with my interest in these types of games.

I assume that many MMO gamers owe a great debt to City of Heroes for the way that it introduced, encouraged, and excited them about MMOs. It was a new type of online game, one that boasted an unbelievably flexible character creator and invested in the fantasy of playing as a superhero fighting villains all across Paragon City.

Today we’re going to kick off a Game Archaeologist series looking back at City of Heroes. And as with any remarkable superhero, we have to begin with its origin story. Where did it come from? How was it made? Let’s find out!

A Cryptic announcement

It was 1999. Amid the boom of MMORPGs that saw the rise of titles such as Ultima Online and EverQuest, many studios were shifting their attention to the potential of this genre. Even more, other studios were starting up with the hopes of getting their piece of the pie. Among the hopeful were two childhood friends named Michael Lewis and Rick Dakan.

Lewis was a long-time Dungeons & Dragons fan who held a degree in computer systems engineering and ran a graphics chip company in the mid-90s that was acquired by Broadcom in 1999 for $60 million. He walked away from the company with $17 million and was approached by his longtime friend Dakan about the idea of creating an online game about superheroes.

“We’d been role-playing gamers growing up, and thought that online would be a great way to continue that experience,” Lewis said in 2007. “We decided that there were too many fantasy games in development — this was 1999, so we discussed many alternatives. Superheroes quickly rose to the top of the list. It is something people could understand and identify with quickly, versus ideas like science fiction or horror, because it provides an infinite background on which to create adventures of all kinds. And who doesn’t want to have super powers?”

Lewis also bumped into former Atari engineer Bruce Rogers, who was creating his own graphics engine, and recruited him for the project. Another employee was added early on named Jack Emmert, who at the time was teaching classics at Ohio State but soon became the MMO’s lead developer. With this core team in place, Cryptic Studios was born in summer 2000.

Suiting up

Ideas were one thing, money to make it happen was another. Lewis invested $2.5 million of his own money into Cryptic’s superhero project, and the studio secured $4.5 million more in loans from NCsoft. This would actually be pretty cheap in comparison to operating costs, which leaped to $18 million per year when the game went live.

Early on, the team decided that it was too expensive and somewhat unnecessary to obtain official IP licenses from Marvel or DC. Instead, it elected to make up its own unique IP that included well-known superhero themes, tropes, and powers. “Nobody really cares about the name, they just want to put on a suit and fight evil,” said Emmert in a later interview.

On September 26th, 2001, Cryptic Studios superjumped into the gaming consciousness by officially unveiling its upcoming online RPG, City of Heroes. Only the broadest of feature definitions and a handful of screenshots accompanied this announcement, but it was enough to get the attention of players and the media.

The originally stated goal was to get City of Heroes out in mid-2002, but as we all know, those initial timeline assessments never pan out. By early 2002, Cryptic cozied up to NCsoft even further by signing a loan and distribution agreement with the megapublisher.

Even with this to boost the project’s legitimacy, City of Heroes fell behind in its development and was frustrating its team and publisher with what was described as “ineffective code and joyless, fussy play.”

At that point, Lewis realized that he needed to take a much more firm hand in the game’s development. He directed the team to make the game simpler, combating the creeping complexity that plagued a lot of MMOs. Lewis also fired Dakan from the studio and tasked him to work on a City of Heroes comic book.

Ripped from the comic pages

Meanwhile, fans were growing increasingly excited about City of Heroes. NCsoft footed the bill for an exciting trailer to show off in 2003. It was a big hit at E3, winning the Best Online Multiplayer award and the Best Online Game award. All of this no doubt helped its rising popularity.

As a fun promotional contest leading up to the launch, NCsoft ran a competition to design a special superhero for the game. The winner of the contest created Numina, a ghostly being of pure psychic energy.

Cryptic talked up the game world as a “living city” with reactive NPCs, a deep character creator, and a setting that would offer far more variety and interest than standard fantasy MMOs. The basic premise of the game is that America’s largest and greatest city had been crippled by alien attacks and an influx of supervillains, and a call had been sent out to superheroes to come help restore order and promote justice.

The devs said that they didn’t want to adhere to any specific time period or comic book era for the MMO: “We all agreed, however, that the game should feel as ‘modern’ as possible. In other words, our heroes and villains will resemble those that you might encounter in today’s comics rather than ones you’d see in the ’40s or ’60s.”

The studio’s growing team of (eventually) 35 members crafted the initial MMO out of 480,000 lines of code, 25,000 graphics files, 400 different powers, and 30,000 enemy NPCs. Each of the game’s multiple servers were slated to handle between 2,000 to 3,000 players at a time. The balance of the game was struck at 75% fighting bad guys and 25% helping people and talking with NPCs.

Beta testing on City of Heroes commenced in January 2004. By April, more than 30,000 players were putting the game through its paces and helping the dev team to shore up its weaknesses and fix the biggest problems. Those who had pre-ordered the game were able to reserve their names shortly before launch, kicking off a long-running series of goofy and punny pseudonyms that would dominate the game’s history.

Finally, City of Heroes was ready to fly, and on April 27th, 2004, players entered Paragon City on the live servers, paying $15 a month for the privilege.

Next time on The Game Archaeologist

We’ll look at the launch, reception, and early years of City of Heroes that led up to its first expansion — and a disturbing lawsuit that threatened to tank the game.

Here’s the whole saga to date!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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Hikari Kenzaki

Fun, if nostalgia triggering, read so far. I didn’t have a computer capable of playing it until the day before Issue 5 released, but I’d been following it since it was announced.

This is when we post our screenshots, yes? lol.

But, seriously that would take forever… and I lost most of my shots to a computer meltdown.
We’ll just share one image compiled after the fall. (the line art was done by Agent Canada, the colors are mine). Spectra-Lass wasn’t my first character, nor my last and she wasn’t Hikari (who was there, too) but she’s the one that most represents my time there.

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IronSalamander8 .

Great article but it makes me miss that game more than ever dangit!

Funnily enough, I actually played the game essentially by accident. I was bored and was at the local game store (I think it was still Babbage’s back then, but it may have been Gamestop by then) and I had saw an article on CoH in PC Gamer so on a lark I bought the original boxed game and took it home. I started around September of 04, so a bit late but was there for most of its life and evolution.

I fell in love pretty quickly. I was still playing EQ1 heavily at the time but this game became my main one in a hurry. Over the years interest waned and I played other games but right until SWTOR launched I had a sub to CoX and played on and off for most of its lifespan.

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Jiminy Smegit

I miss this game so much. It was the only MMO I played where after playing all the way through with one character, I was still excited to make another character and do it all again. The story writing was excellent, it wasn’t just a pointless series of time-filler gather/kill quests (I am looking at you Neverwinter). The character creation was super fun. The different archetypes had vastly different playstyles (class balance is not always a good thing!).

It is not a game that I would play constantly but its a game I came back to a few times a year for a few months at a time. Still would be playing it if the story writing retained its quality and NCSoft were not giant corporate douchebags.

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Peregrine Falcon

I wasn’t sure if I should post this here, but this video has a pretty good timeline of City of Heroes. I doubt it’ll help your research Justin, but hopefully it’ll entertain my fellow readers until your next article comes out.

Demon of Razgriz
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Demon of Razgriz

I remember going to GameStop with a gift card for my birthday and saying I wanted to get a game for my laptop. The box art caught my eye fro jump. Booted it up and was hooked ever since. Still one of the best MMO’s I ever played. To all you ex-CoH/V’ers out there, whether we teamed together or not, thank you!!!

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Switch

great read and cant wait to read the rest i like many gaming hasnt been the same since and i basically havnt played or given as much time to any game since coh nothing feels right or the same and im so sick of todays mmo’s u pick a class and have like 3 options tank heal dps and the powers are so limited one reason i loved coh was the number of combos u could do per class and it never be the same or play the same every combo u did played just a bit diffrent . and i aggree today all the hero tv movies ect coh could be really at the top if not for ncsofts pullin the plug with no real good reason and they wanna make it in the west never gonna happen as long as they dont give us coh back cuz the asian type games they want to be successful here dont fly so they will either learn and admit their mistake and give us our city back or forever keep failing in the western market imo

lync513
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lync513

Good read! I look forward to the next one.

I find it interesting you kind of label CoH as a gateway MMO. I know myself and some others who found every MMO we tried afterwards disappointing when compared to CoH. For me, it was a gateway to PC gaming. When I first bought the game, I had no clue about PC gaming or spec requirements. Needless to say, it didn’t run well on my computer and resulted in me buying my first gaming PC just so I could play this game.

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Doubleplusgood

It was a gateway MMO for me. Up till that point I thought MMO’s were these hardcore games that sucked your life away and made every friend I knew who played them go crazy. Like this one friend that became a DAOC nut and would never stop talking about it every time we hung out. So I avoided MMO games.
Then I saw this game box with these super heroes on it and how you can create your own super hero which sounded super fun so I tried it out. I didn’t even think it was an MMO. First time I got randomly invited to a group I had no idea what to do. I was instantly teleported to this cave, saw everyone waiting. Figured maybe they were waiting for me so charged forward to the enemy mobs and died very fast.

shazanti
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shazanti

I remember CoH beta. I remember the characters I made in that beta: their names, their archetypes, their powers, their costumes- except for one, I remember all but her name, which escapes me. I remember how absolutely surprised I was at just how much I loved a superhero game. I’d expected to like it- but love it? Yet I did, and so I hyped it to my husband and our friends and when it launched we were there, and remained there… until the ED patch. That irritated several friends (heck it irritated a massive portion of the community) and my friends wandered off, and then those that were left were incredibly demoralized by that and most of those also wandered off.. until it was just me, for a while (I would later get some to come back). I never left. Yes, I took breaks, but CoX was always one of my games- maybe my primary, maybe my secondary, but it was my Forever Game. I never left it, until it left me.

/holdtorch

Looking forward to the next post! And reading all about the lawsuit. I was a DJ on Cape Radio at the time, and I remember how we’d planned to stop broadcasting for a while due to it.

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Tee Parsley

Yeah, I still remember a ton of my characters, and at the end I was counting slots left open, not number of characters created. Disagree about ED, but that should probably wait til the appropriate archaelogical article. ;)

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Duane_Does_not_check_email

I was supposed to share an account with the husband …. that lasted less than a month.
Love and miss this game.

abyssalstar
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abyssalstar

I won a copy of CoH at GenCon in 2004 (it was a trivia contest hosted by Emmert. He even signed the box). Started playing as soon as I returned home and stuck with it till the end in 2012. Loved the whole experience. I still miss my characters and supergroup.