They say you never forget your first kiss. I honestly can’t recall much about mine, but I do vividly remember the day that I ran to the store before work to grab a copy of City of Heroes for its launch. April 28th, 2004, ended up being my first big introduction into the world of MMORPGs and my first of many infatuations with Cryptic Studios’ titles.
Cryptic MMOs are almost never my main games — my virtual “home” — at any point, but since 2004, they’ve always been either a part of my gaming routine or a promise of an inviting return. Apart from the mismanaged Magic Legends, I’ve gleefully enjoyed Champions, Star Trek Online, and Neverwinter to the tune of many hundreds of hours. So what is it about these B-tier MMOs that are so welcoming and comforting to me?
To sort through the answer to this, let me return to City of Heroes for a bit. This game came along at just the right time in my life when my interest in this emerging MMORPG market was about to crest over the wall of my apprehension at many of the genre’s games being unapproachable and obtuse. While World of Warcraft often gets much deserved credit for creating a highly accessible MMO, I’d argue that City of Heroes did this as well earlier that same year.
This wasn’t a game you had to extensively research to figure out how to play. Rather, your first experience was engaging in a free-form character creator that was limited only by your imagination. You picked looks and powers that seemed fun and then jumped into the world to see how it went. The gameplay loop of CoH ended up being more about coming up with new character concepts for alts than it did grinding high-level dungeons, and that was refreshing to a gamer terrified of making a bad decision.
City of Heroes deliberately pulled a curtain over stats so that you had only a vague idea of your character’s precise abilities. Maybe that was a bad thing in the long run, but I appreciated that it didn’t overwhelm me. I had an array of fun choices, a colorful world to blast through, and plenty of superhero concepts to summon on a boring day.
Spending those initial years in City of Heroes cemented the mental connection between Cryptic’s design and my growing love of MMOs. The UI, sound effects, and animations became burned into my brain, which is why I immediately connected with the studio’s subsequent titles, as they shamelessly copied many of those design elements.
So you will forgive me that I placed perhaps way too much hope and anticipation for Champions Online as the second coming of City of Heroes. It was a fine game with a few stellar elements, but it ended up being the only Cryptic MMO that never really clicked with me.
But that disappointment soon vanished when both Star Trek Online and Neverwinter hit the scene. Both of these enjoyed a bigger bump in prestige and visibility thanks to their powerful IPs. And despite uneven early years, both titles were gradually built up into incredibly robust MMOs that aged remarkably well.
Out of the two, Star Trek Online earned more of my playtime, mostly because I’m a recovering Trekkie who doesn’t mind playing a space-themed game once in a while as an antidote to the plethora of fantasy MMOs in this space. That said, Neverwinter proved to be a great source of enjoyment, a sit-back-and-follow-the-sparkly-GPS-trail affair with a more arcade-like approach to Dungeons & Dragons.
I can say that I’ve racked up a load of play time in all three of these MMOs and seen large swaths of their content (with Neverwinter being the least explored for me). One might think that I’d chewed all the flavor out of those sticks of online gum, but sooner or later, I always end up logging back into one of them.
This seems to happen even more when I’m feeling at a loss as to what to play and am casting about for a different MMO. I’m shameless about returning to a Cryptic game when I’ve burned out on a regular mainstay. It’s really all about that comforting presence that these titles provide, and if you have any source of comfort entertainment — movies, TV series, books — you’ll know the allure that a familiar old friend can boast.
In my mind, there’s nothing like a Cryptic MMO out there. No other games have that same feel to them, jank and all. They’re not the prettiest, nor the best voice acted, nor even have all that great of a soundtrack. They all have a business model that can be downright annoying at times as they fish for them whales.
But I know when I log into any of them what I knew that first day in City of Heroes: I am going to have fun. Silly, colorful, numbers-flashing-everywhere fun. I won’t find myself lost for what to do, but instead will have a wide array of customization options at my fingertips and a game world waiting for me to conquer it.
This is why I truly hope we see another full-fledged Cryptic MMO in our lifetime: I’d love to add another title onto this pile of comfort gaming.