Anyone who has followed my career for a while is probably aware of the fact that I love City of Heroes. This is not a revelation or a surprise. I was writing about the game from pretty early on in my career up to the point that we finally waved goodbye to the title. This is a pretty big deal in my life. This also means that I have connections to the various people involved in the “Plan Z” titles like City of Titans and Ship of Heroes, games pitched and developed specifically with the intent of filling the space that CoH left behind when it shut down.
Except, well… that was the story back when the game did shut down. At this point, City of Heroes: Homecoming is a thing, along with an assortment of other rogue servers with smaller populations. And while this is pretty unambiguously a good thing for those of us who like the game and even just general community (I haven’t forgotten the majority of our crew running around in Paragon City, for example), I wonder if it might be a problem for these titles where the plan was and always has been to recreate the no-longer-very-defunct game.
Let’s be clear about two things. First and foremost, if it needs to be said, this is coming from a place of love rather than contempt. My place within the CoH community alone means that I’m naturally inclined to like the people trying to bring the game back in whatever form it takes, and I’ve personally met the people behind most of the “Plan Z” titles and had lovely conversations with them.
Second, though, it’s important to also note that these titles do still bear a certain amount of scrutiny just by the very nature of our job. City of Titans was Kickstarted to the tune of nearly $700,000, for example. While it’s not one of the more egregious Kickstarter crash-and-burn projects out there, it’s still in the general wheelhouse of scenarios wherein a bunch of people gave a company money on the promise of building a game.
So where is the game? And more importantly, what do the future for these titles look like? I feel like an instructive case to look at here is… oddly, Champions Online.
Obviously, CO is not a project created in the wake of what happened to CoH. It is definitely a project that failed to capitalize on the moment in 2012 when that occurred, but “failing to hit the zeitgeist” is kind of the entire theme of CO, so let’s not dwell on that. But let’s also note that the game was developed specifically by some of the people who originally made CoH, the parts of the team that left with Cryptic instead of staying behind with NCsoft’s Paragon Studios. If anyone knows how to make what amounts to “more CoH,” it would have been this team.
But it is nothing like CoH.
All right, maybe that strikes you as a bit hyperbolic; both games feature superheroes and a robust costume creator and bland bulky men with stupid hats serving as the iconic face of the game. That part is pretty universal. But in terms of actual gameplay, CO is wildly different from CoH with its free-build option, as well as its build-and-spend power mechanics, its gear sets, and all the other changes it offers based on the same principles. The two titles have a big gulf between them in execution.
In some ways, this might have been a weakness for the game when it first launched because people who really enjoyed CoH weren’t immediately sure of what they were looking at with CO. (The bigger problem, of course, was that free creation was an unbalanced and unclear mess.) But the point is that regardless of which one you like better, you aren’t choosing between these two games based solely on their content.
It’s not just because CoH has CO beat in that department, although it does. It’s because the two games have very different gameplay approaches that you couldn’t mistake for one another. Especially now, if you’re playing CO, you’re doing so because it provides a gameplay experience that you simply can’t get anywhere else. It allows you to do certain things that are either difficult or impossible to replicate elsewhere.
And it’s here that we start running into problems. Because as near as I can tell, the goals of the various Plan Z games were always to make what amounted to CoH with a few coats of paint and some refinement. Which, you know… is also what all of the rogue servers are currently offering, with some powers and ideas that weren’t previously implemented.
Context can be a hell of a drug.
Now, when these games were initially being designed, this was in fact an eminently logical design decision to make in the first place. After all, these games were made to address the gigantic CoH-shaped hole in the marketplace. Making a game that was basically CoH with some tweaks and a more modern graphical engine was the logical design goal, with the added benefit that you didn’t need to spend quite as much time getting weighed down by some of the design details that the prior game had already figured out.
But that was then and this is now. And now, that CoH-shaped hole has been filled… by CoH itself. The game has come back in what is just shy of an official capacity, and we’re still hearing rumors that some official status is going to eventually happen from the title. This seems bizarre to me, but honestly, if NCsoft gets something for its trouble it’s functionally free money and doesn’t even have to worry about upkeep.
So what, exactly, is the marketing pitch now for the games that wanted to be CoH with slight tweaks? Because we’ve seen how well that business model works for other games promising to be X with tweaks, and those were usually much bigger projects with much bigger budgets and reaches.
The Plan Z titles were always going to be niche games, and that’s fine. A niche game is totally all right. So long as it can keep the staff paid and the server running, the only real problem comes when trying to overfill the niche. Too many games struggling to occupy the same niche leads to some of them going dark because they’re trying to fulfill a minor need that’s already been satisfied.
Sure, the cityscapes of City of Titans and Ship of Heroes look great. The player models for these games look nicely updated. The games look relatively attractive. But they’re also new and somewhat shaky projects when compared to CoH, and… well, you can actually just log in right now and play CoH if you want to. It’s a lot harder to convince people that you should jump ship from the established market leader when you’re doing 90% of what that existing game does with only a few tweaks.
I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but it’s hard not to be. I like the idea of these projects, I want them to do well, and I want good things to happen to the people behind them. But right now, I look at these titles and what I see are some good ideas and tweaks that are trying to serve as a replacement for something freely available… and that’s never a good sign.