What’s going on with City of Heroes now: ‘This game is a unicorn’

    
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Last night, following our podcast on the City of Heroes SCORE private server mess, I hung out on the SEGS Discord thanks to an invite on Reddit. When I got there, I was being attacked and harassed. By the time I lay down for a nap at 7 a.m., I felt pretty giddy. I can’t even talk about everything I heard and saw, but let’s just say that there was wild stuff, from chan trolls spamming snuff pics to genuine, heartfelt cooperation between coders trying to in their mind save the community and navigate a tricky emulator/private server quagmire. A lot of the faith I said I had lost in the community has been restored. Someone in voice chat said “this game is a unicorn,” and I’m relieved to find myself in agreement and able to share some hope.

You can check out a longer recap on Reddit, but the short version is that Leandro spoke in person to gathered members of the community on Discord and effectively confirmed he will release the SCORE code presuming he can properly scrub it of its naughty bits. In other words, folks who know how to make this happen seem to be making this happen, potentially with the character database that has sparked so much attention.

And while there was forward motion, there were also some frustrating parts revolving around harassment: specifically, the fact that the harassment against Leandro was far, far worse than just a couple of death threats as previously disclosed.

There was also a surprise appearance from a person asking everyone to put on the brakes to work with NCsoft instead – a person who allegedly has been trying to delay the private server for many years. [Update 4/19: I’ve since spoken to the person accused here, who continues to wish to remain anonymous. He told me that he indeed was attempting to facilitate discussions with NCsoft, but he doesn’t know what will happen next, and he was not the person or people attempting to delay emulation over the last few years referred to in the chat. It is certainly possible this is true, as we’ve known about multiple other groups attempting to negotiate with NCsoft since the sunset. Please don’t harass this person or anyone else.]

Definitely the weirdest chat I’ve ever seen and heard. I ran out of popcorn.

To be clear, we are not encouraging illegal activity and advise everyone involved to consider their actions carefully.

This article was originally supposed to be a dump of a random assortment of interview questions with Leandro, several of which were submitted by community members from SEGS and Reddit. I had also planned to print a statement made to me by Destroyer Stroyer, the original leaker whose video we covered Monday.

But Destroyer Stroyer actually retracted his statement. “I think it’s better that we focus on the progress being made, not the past leaks or my bullshit,” he told me. (Good attitude!)

And as I noted, Leandro was on the chat all last night, discussing a broad range of topics, from the difficulty of streaming the game without being banned to dealing with third-party cleanup. Frankly, the semi-public conversation invalidated and answered some of my questions, and because of how late everyone was up on the discussion, there’s no way Leo is going to be able to answer the extra questions I sent him before this article goes live. But I’d like to print the ones I do have anyway just for the record, and I will add the rest too whenever/if ever he does get around to them. Please remember that these questions were originally posed and answered on Wednesday afternoon/evening before the Discord chat. I promised the community I’d post them, and I want to keep that promise.

MassivelyOP: The provenance of the game’s server code – where did it come from, and when? I’ve seen the forum thread from January 3, 2013, where you note emulation isn’t possible, but then one of the screencaps appears to show you organizing donations for the emulator a week later. I’m trying to make sense of this – did someone just hand you the code in that period? Or was the first post deceptive in some way? People seem to believe it would be impossible to put it all together at all, let alone so fast, without help from somebody from Paragon. And honestly it just makes sense that if you got a dump of the character database, you got the rest too. Can you settle this?

Leandro Pardini: I can’t address that without breaking the promise of keeping any collaboration from former developers secret; they have a lot more to lose than I do. The character database is easier because it fell into my lap the way I described before. Specific dates and specific content could be used to narrow down sources, so I can’t do that.

Can you explain this thread? It appears to show you implying that somebody (but presumably not you) has a dev build and that you do not think anyone should leak it. And yet this was 2018, when apparently this server was hosting thousands of players. I’m really trying to understand this – are you suggesting here that you aren’t you using original server source code? How on earth did you get the server up and running so fast if not?

This also applies to the [this question]; I can’t answer any questions that ask exactly what kind of help I got from who.

Can you address the donations? I’ve seen people making all kinds of wild claims over the screenshot of what appears to be you discussing the emulator’s finances in a private forum. I am well aware that emulators are expensive and that basically all of them operate on donations unless they have some sort of fancy rich backer. I saw one claim that you were engaging in “tax fraud” for discussing what appears to be how to legally reduce your tax overhead, another that you were pocketing money as a “scam,” another that you started with no perks for donors but changed that policy midstream, and another that you were being funneled money from various other projects – or maybe the other way around – it’s out of control. I haven’t found a single thing backing up any of those claims. Can you rebut any of that? I’d like to get all of that on the record.

A guy on Reddit already covered the leaked donation thread and confirmed that the numbers add up. The tax fraud claims are debunked by the same screenshot they post; in there I explicitly say that we are putting money aside for taxes. Yes, we did research how to lower the tax burden, but only through the same legal means that everybody else does when they’re trying to do their taxes. Every single cent was taxed properly, because trying to hide income from the IRS would be suicidally insane.

The leaked budget was for the original server that ran on a VM. It outgrew that very quickly, so physical servers were purchased eventually; used ones, because the cost of new ones was too high. Most of the arguments regarding the expense focus on how much it takes to run software with that much processing power now, ignoring that six years ago, it was much more expensive. The often quoted number of $1000 a month is for a full rack on a datacenter, which is pretty average.

Related to this: Someone claimed SCORE has a functioning in-game cash shop. Is that true? When did it go live, and where does the money go?

Absolutely false and demonstrably so by existing leaks. The forum screenshot explicitly states that there would not be any in-game benefits for donations. The original gameplay videos posted on YouTube show a player scrolling through the “Pay 2 Win” vendor, where all the premium items are available for influence. Nobody has ever received special treatment for donations, and the expenses were transparently disclosed to everybody much like in the forum screenshot that was leaked. Everybody in SCORE knew exactly where every single cent was spent; it was either hardware upgrades or colocation costs. This was also part of our rules of conduct for players; nobody was allowed to ask for real money for in-game benefits, be it “products” like recipes or “services” like powerleveling or base building.

Can you explain why it was that mentions of SCORE were automodded on the City of Heroes subreddit when mentions of other projects weren’t? Or is that a misperception from the start?

Misconception. The filter was for the keyword “private server”. The reason some weren’t caught is because an automoderator filter isn’t perfect; a typo would be enough to defeat it.

I want to talk about the gaslighting accusation. I’ve seen it thrown around everywhere now, but every thread turns out to be super old, or it shows you discussing the server in hypothetical ways or ways that confirm it exists but that you’re still working on it, that it’s not ready for the public, that sort of thing. Can you talk about the timeline a bit there – when exactly did it get to the point that you started letting a lot of people in? I mean, we’re talking thousands of people, so it’s not like you knew everyone.

I can’t give you an exact timeline because it has been over six years; my recollection is not that great. Invites started pretty much immediately; remember that, at the time, the “secret” SCORE project was well known by everybody, so anyone who asked to join was invited. The leaked forum screenshot shows that, early on, I had a queue of 26 invites, that I was processing manually, thus the need to keep track of everybody. That obviously doesn’t scale, so eventually an automated system was put in place, which the YouTube leaks already show and address; anyone could request invites for whoever they wanted to vouch for, and the YouTube leaker himself says he invited 8 people with no issues, all using the automated system. This was all based on trust.

I am aware that having a closed system where anyone can invite anyone and all invites are based on trust sounds incredibly naive and destined to failure. You have to remember that this system was decided back when SCORE was secret, but everybody knew about it. This was not a system that was ever intended to excessively run a background check on people; if someone vouched for you, that was enough.

Clearly, if someone digs through my post history deep enough for old and deleted comments, they’re going to find something to make me look bad. I am only human! Yes, there is an email screenshot out there that shows me being angry and demanding to a player who leaked the server. They had just leaked the server and broken the trust I had placed on them; of course I wasn’t going to be perfectly pleasant at the time. You can’t judge a person’s character based on a dozen posts spread over six years that show them in a negative light. I have been as forthcoming and transparent as I can be under the circumstances.

Can you discuss the method by which you kept the server quiet? One of the screencaps being passed around purports to show diagrams from you where you’ve linked individual accounts/people to others based on whom they invited. On the one hand, I think folks understand why there was some measure of secrecy, but on the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the people who say it’s super creepy that player relationships were being “monitored.” Like what was going on there? How on earth were you doing that for 3000 people?

I wasn’t. Again, leak from very early on, when I was manually processing the invites, using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of who invited who; the graphs were generated with a software called Graphviz based on that data. As soon as the automated invite system was in place, that was dropped.

A lot of the confusion on how things were run comes from taking partial information from six years ago and applying it to the current day. It just doesn’t work that way. Things change and evolve; if you see two things that are different six years apart, that’s not a contradiction, that’s just time passing.

We saw your retweet of Eliot’s article about the harm done to and by the community and your comment in our poll about watching the results. Do we take that to mean you’re actually considering either distributing the code or opening the server? If the latter, how do you aim to re-earn the trust of the people in the community who are whipping up a mob on Reddit right now? (I gather people are particularly angry because they have this impression you’re sitting back watching and judging how worthy they are.)

Opening the server as it currently exists is out of the question now, because there’s an angry internet mob ready to descend on it and try to cause as much damage as possible to anyone involved in it. I am not willing to expose anyone else to the same kind of hate and threats I am receiving. I have seen a couple of offers to host a new server under someone else’s control; I don’t think they realize the expenses they would be incurring by doing so, but if someone is really willing to try, that is not out of the question.

But it seems like what most people want is a release of code. There is internal discussion going on about that, because due to the current toxic atmosphere, nobody who collaborated with it wants their name out there to be lynched by the mob. So at the very least, I need time to sanitize the code, remove comments that could be used to track down individual people, and make sure nobody is put at risk by it.

The character database is potentially a lot easier to release, but it still requires some effort to make sure it cannot be used to track the source. Honestly, what I need from the community right now is some patience, but unfortunately cooler heads are not prevailing right now. I am trying to keep things from falling apart completely, but if people keep trying to dox SCORE members and exposing them to threats, at some point the risk to others becomes too great and it will all vanish to protect them. So please, I ask that people have some patience and stop the hate and threats. It’s not helping anybody.

That was the money quote we took to the podcast last night, by the way – it really sounded like movement was happening, and now, well, we know it is. We’d like to thank Leo once again for answering our questions. When/if he gets to our other questions, we’ll update with them.

A few more things we want to note here: The reason we kept using the term emulator is that we have always used the term colloquially to refer to all player-run video game servers. Apparently specific people in the City of Heroes community got really offended because they believed the game wasn’t technically a reverse-engineered emulator but a complete copy of the real game. That does seem really likely now, and I apologize for the technical inaccuracy. We’ll try it make sure to call this one a private server for clarity’s sake in the future. [Update: In fact, we’ve decided to use the term “rogue server” to refer to all such efforts.]

One player on Discord asked about what kind of hardware/software the server actually needs. I think this forum thread from Leandro himself sums it up for you. It definitely sounds like the hardware required is mighty thanks to the game’s age and messy code.

I asked the SEGS guys specifically whether movement on SCORE here will change anything about SEGS’ development. Nope, they said. SEGS will continue on in its goals in helping people run their servers within the scope of the law.

Finally, I just wanted to say for the record that the fact that there’s forward motion on community access of some sort to these files isn’t necessarily going to wipe away the past for a lot of folks, and it’s not going to shake all of the skepticism swirling around the project. There was a private server for six years and you didn’t know about it – SCORE is responsible for what it did and said. The City of Heroes Facebook and Reddit communities did spiral out of control with conspiracy-mongering and harassment when it found out – the agitators in those places are responsible for what they did and said. Part of the community – the whole community – healing is going to be recognizing that and taking responsibility for that. I genuinely hope everyone does exactly that because it’d be nice to hang out in Atlas 33 again with y’all someday.

Update April 18, morning
Valiance Online has made a statement (previously we’d heard from City of Titans and Ship of Heroes).

Update April 18, afternoon
Now we have a statement from SEGS too.

“Just a quick comment from the SEGS team. During the events of last night, a contributor to our project (who was made a Mod moments prior to help deal with the overwhelming flood of messages) was sent a file with the authserver code. That person didn’t ask to receive it, and didn’t want it, and did not distribute it publicly. It would seem that some members of the community eventually did.

“SEGS aims to remain completely free of any association with leaked server code. Our mission relies on this level of impunity. In short, the SEGS project, or it’s team members will not publish, propagate, or utilize leaked server code to reach our goals. The risk to our project is too great. This was discussed several times over the last few days by several of our members, but I want to make it clear here for the record.

“Aside from that principal, we have built our own authserver from the ground up, and would not gain any benefit from the AuthServer code that is mentioned here.”

Update, April 18 late afternoon
The code has now been released – here’s our chat with the folks behind it and what exactly is in it. To be clear, we are not encouraging illegal activity and advise everyone involved to consider their actions carefully.
Update, April 19 morning
We’ve updated this article with our summary of a discussion with the person who claimed to be facilitating discussion with NCsoft (embedded in the text above where it was first referenced).

Here’s all of our coverage to date:

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