Into the Super-Verse: Reflecting on City of Heroes, back officially at long last


As a dedicated fan of superheroes, I have to be honest that yesterday’s news feels downright poetic. City of Heroes died in November of 2012. We lost a hero ages ago. But as of yesterday, the oldest adage of superhero comics proved to be true. Nothing really stays down forever, and City of Heroes: Homecoming is now a licensee allowed to operate City of Heroes with official sanction from NCsoft. Homecoming servers are, as of right now, no longer rogue servers.

This is kind of huge.

Now… it’s also the kind of “huge” that is easy to misunderstand or find somewhat ambiguous because you might say, at a glance, that it doesn’t look as if a whole lot has really changed. It didn’t seem like the server was going anywhere before, and now it’s just… continuing not to go anywhere, right? And the answer is that this is both sort of correct and sort of not. So let’s pick this apart a little bit as we look at what this means for the City of Heroes community now that our beloved game is back in the saddle again. And if you’re wondering if I am excited, the answer is yes, of course I am.

Obviously, I am not a part of the Homecoming team and thus cannot speak to everything going on behind the scenes with the server. But I think it’s worth understanding what the license means in this case when you see that the business model isn’t changing and the announcement outright says “yes, NCsoft can still shut the server down.” What’s different between Wednesday and today in that regard?

The answer is actually a lot. On Wednesday, from a legal standpoint, there was no actual legal agreement in place and thus Homecoming continued operating basically because of NCsoft’s goodwill. If corporate leadership changed (and it did last year!), it would have been easy for someone in the new leadership to decide that Homecoming shouldn’t exist, and that benign neglect could’ve just as well turned to legal action. It would be a worst-case scenario, but also entirely plausible.

What happens now is that the Homecoming servers have to operate according to specific rules set forth by NCsoft, with restrictions on who gets access to some of the developed code, what standards must be followed in regard to content, and so forth. In exchange, the agreement reduces the odds that NCsoft is going to just order the server set shut down in a fit of pique.

Sometimes it's a bit less clear.

“But why would NCsoft not just bring the game back directly?” Presumably because the company doesn’t consider the profit margins substantial enough to justify the costs of getting servers set up and hiring staff to manage development and bringing it all back up to date again. Moreover, licensing servers is a pretty good bulwark for the company to maintain some measure of control over the game. Once the code was out in the wild, players put up a bunch of servers, but now NCsoft has a single “official” point to reference.

I freely admit that some of this may turn out to be wrong; as mentioned, this is broad-based speculation. The most important thing is that Homecoming is real, people. We won.

Speaking as both a journalist and a member of the community, and even knowing that we have a small handful of these player-licensed games in our genre, I must stress that this is generally the kind of outcome for a major MMO that we just don’t get. If we look at the whole thing from a purely objective standpoint, CoH is an older MMO that was killed off rather abruptly under a cloud of corporate chaos in spite of reasonable profits and a reasonably large playerbase. At the time, sunsets weren’t an unusual occurrence, but the scale and impact of this one made it an anomaly, and it certainly hit me really hard because the game had become one of my adoptive homes over the years I’d been working on Massively-that-was.

My first few big events were covering CoH and Final Fantasy XIV primarily, and if you had asked me in early 2012 which game I felt most comfortable about, the answer would definitely have involved Scrappers, War Witch, and going to hunt and kill skuls. The world shifted out from underneath me. I remember when I first read the news I was just staring at it, feeling oddly numb about something that had been such a major part of my life suddenly vanishing.

And on many levels, it’s not going to be the same as it was. Ever. The game that I can log in and play right now is not the game that I played for years on what were then the official servers; it doesn’t have all of my characters I developed over time. It doesn’t even have Javier Placeholder, my greatest creation. (That’s not true, but I pray some of you indeed recall Javier Placeholder just the same.) There’s already lots of new content, and there are plans for even more new content, and it is not going to be exactly what the Paragon Studios envisioned for the game.

But you know what? That’s still all right. That’s better than all right; it’s awesome.


Let me be clear that I do not have unrealistic expectations or understanding here. I know that even with the license agreement, tomorrow is not promised. There’s always the chance that we’ll suddenly find out that it’s too expensive to maintain the Homecoming server or something else will change. But it’s unlikely in anything but the distant future, which is true for all MMOs, and more importantly, the lobbying and protesting and screaming by fans about how badly we wanted our game back mattered. The game is here. It’s not just a dream any more.

We cannot uncross a river. The shutdown still happened. Things were lost. It’s even possible that you wanted the game to come back when it went away, but you no longer really care too much about it. We are not all the same people we were back in 2012, and the gaming landscape has changed as well. Heck, maybe you were a huge fan but now the thought of anything superhero-related makes you cringe. Which is a weird flex, but hey, you do you.

But the fact remains that if you’re a fan of the game, you should be happy about this. NCsoft did the right thing. The Homecoming crew did the right thing. People kept trying and kept fighting to make this possible, and as of this moment, there are official CoH server running, with more still joining the party through the City Council. It’s not being run by the same developers, and it’s in the hands of truly dedicated fans, but it is recognized by the owners and it is legitimate. It has been de-rogued. It’s no longer a rogue server. It’s City of Heroes: Going Un-Rogue.

I am not even a little bit sorry about that joke.

Right now you can download the launcher, fire up the game, and make a character who exists on the server and can run around with other players. It’s not the same game you remember – there are changes – but that would have always been the case this much later. And the simple joy of the game remains intact, even now.

Speaking personally? I love this game. I’ve loved it for years. And the fact that after one of the most emotional shutdowns I’ve ever experienced the game has come back once again is beyond incredible. It feels too good to be true. But it means that years of anger and resentment can start to be let go.

At the end of the day, we won. We wanted CoH to be saved. And it was. It took a long time getting here, but it’s back.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.
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