The Game Archaeologist: City of Heroes’ launch history and the Marvel lawsuit


In our first part of this series looking back at the stupendous history of City of Heroes, we saw how the idea for this superhero MMORPG germinated from a tech millionaire who took his love for RPGs and comic books into the online world. Cryptic Studios was founded in 2000 with the intent of developing a new type of MMORPG, one with a superhero bent set in an original IP.

While the development period was fraught with difficulty, including a messy design, delays, and the departure of the studio’s co-founder, City of Heroes took shape by 2004 and finally entered into live operation that April to the delight of thousands of fledgling superheroes.

Today we’ll be walking through the next few years of this game’s lifecyle, including its launch, the initial issues, and a serious lawsuit that threatened to kill the game dead.

Go to launch

The end of the beta came with a huge UFO invasion that ravaged Paragon City. A few days later, players booted up City of Heroes, heard this iconic music, and started making their army of heroes. Cryptic stuck to traditional game pricing for the time, charging $50 for the box along with a repeating $15 subscription to access.

One of the perks of this subscription was the delivery of a monthly City of Heroes comic book. That was a neat idea, but gradually this deal changed, with NCsoft charging an additional fee for the comic and then scrapping the physical book entirelly and making them available only on the website. The first issue came out in June 2004 and the 32nd and last arrived in August 2007.

The MMO was an instant hit with the online community. Cryptic CEO Michael Lewis figured this would happen, saying, “City of Heroes is a groundbreaking title. Not only does it give the MMORPG community an exciting and fun alternative to sword-and-sorcery games [but] it has mass appeal, because virtually everyone at one point or another has wanted to be a superpowered hero.”

The studio’s expectations were met with initial success: City of Heroes enjoyed a relatively smooth release and climbed to over 100,000 subscribers within two weeks of its launch. It was certainly a very respectable number for the pre-World of Warcraft MMO industry. From May through July 2004, the MMO sat at the top of the best-selling PC charts, beating out titles like Far Cry and fellow NCsoft new release Lineage II.

While City of Heroes was praised for the fun of its character creation and combat, many day one reviewers noted that there wasn’t a lot of initial depth to this title. “Don’t expect a tremendous amount of variety: City of Heroes is basically an action game, where most of the city’s problems are solved by wailing away on villains with your assortment of superpowers,” said Gamespy in 2004. “It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it’s damn entertaining.”

It certainly was a vastly different MMO than the one that players were trying to save in its final days in 2012. The launch edition had no mission architect, no housing, no auction house, no badges, no economy — not even capes! In a superhero game!

This game’s got Issues

Almost right away, Cryptic kept up the hype by rolling out a series of meaty content patches that it called Issues (because comic books, you see). Over the course of the game’s lifespan, City of Heroes would release 26 issues (including two .5 patches) along with other major additions.

They all had neat names, too. Two months after launch, Issue 1: Through the Looking Glass raised the level cap to 50, added two more zones, and allowed players to make costume changes and store up to four outfits at a time.

September 2004’s Issue 2: A Shadow of the Past instituted the game’s achievement system — badges — as well as respecs, capes, auras, a dance party club, three more zones, and a chat UI revamp. Other patches over the first year-and-a-half included Issue 3 (Peacebringers and Warshades archetypes, epic power pools) Issue 4 (PvP arenas), and Issue 5 (archery and sonic powersets and a much-needed nerf to debt acquisition).

By summer 2004, most of the community was aware that Cryptic was working on the sinister half of the game that would become known as City of Villains, although it would not come to fruition until over a year later.

Almost from the beginning of its run, City of Heroes developed a reputation of being a game with an involved and awesome community. In October 2004, players created an in-game memorial to mark the passing of Superman actor Christopher Reeve. From memorials to costume contests to protests, City of Heroes was where players rallied to make their voices heard.

Marvel sues, ’nuff said

While Cryptic hoped that its original IP setting would keep it out of trouble with the major comic retailers, anyone who played the game and saw the countless superhero copycats sprouting up all over the place saw legal entanglements coming from a mile away.

And so it was that in November 2004, Marvel Enterprises sued Cryptic and NCsoft over copyright issues, stating that the avatar creation tools allowed players to make heroes too similar to the company’s IP-protected characters. Cryptic fired back a couple of days later by saying that the lawsuit was “meritless” and calling on the courts to reject the claims.

Players nervously watched the proceedings of this lawsuit over the next year, understandably worried that if Marvel won, it might mean the end of the game itself — or at least the necessity of major changes to how the character creator functioned.

By March 2005, it looked as though things were swinging in Cryptic’s favor. A US district court judge dismissed some (but not all) of Marvel’s complaints and barred the use of specific Marvel-created images from the game to be used as exhibits. Marvel took the decision in stride, stating that it was happy the copyright claims were upheld.

In the end, the lawsuit never saw a court case. NCsoft and Marvel settled all legal claims by the end of 2005, promising to “aggressively protect” intellectual property rights. The details of the settlement were not disclosed to the public, but City of Heroes players breathed easier knowing that no changes were going to be made to the game as a result of all this.

Next time on the Game Archaeologist

We’ll take City of Heroes on a journey through its first two expansions, its transition to free-to-play, and the formation of Paragon Studios.

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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