Vague Patch Notes: What City of Heroes Homecoming means for the wider MMORPG industry


As you have probably noticed from the fact that I have been writing about City of Heroes nonstop since the Homecoming server got its official license to operate, I have been thinking a lot about this game and what it means. Obviously, much of that thought has focused on the game itself because let me have this. Like a lot of you, I went without this game for a very long time, and now I feel wholly confident that it isn’t going anywhere. It’s a good feeling, and I need those right now.

However, this has meant that I’ve kind of ignored the obvious and important question of what this means for the MMO industry as a whole. Because let’s not pretend that it isn’t going to be a big deal. A game died and was no longer operational, then it returned under the rogue server framework, and then the company that owned the game said that the core rogue server set is fine. It’s kind of a huge change from the way things have gone in the past, and that raises an obvious question: What about other defunct games?

Let’s start with the part that is going to make some people very unhappy: Some games are not going to be affected by this at all because rights issues are still a thing.

NCsoft completely owned CoH. There were no other stakeholders that needed to give their permission for NCsoft to do anything with the characters or IPs. This is not the case for, say, Star Wars Galaxies. Even if Daybreak wanted to give its blessings to one of the game’s various rogue servers, it doesn’t possess sole ownership, and at least to my understanding the same goes for Disney in terms of the actual game itself. (This is why you get a lot of wink-wink from Daybreak and former Daybreak devs and no legal action when it comes to the many SWG rogue servers playable today.) Basically any game that has some kind of meaningful license would require some negotiations that do not appear to be happening and might not even be realistically possible.

That having been said, there are other games which are entirely different. Titles like Vanguard and WildStar do not have other licenses to consider, as far as we know. So while there are some games that cannot be considered as prime candidates for revival, there are others where there is no major immediate legal impediment.

But that doesn’t actually mean that there aren’t still impediments. And as weird as it might sound, some of that impediment comes from the fact that CoH had a unique position in the genre.


Now, we cannot know all of the work that went into negotiation with NCsoft when it comes to the Homecoming server because even if you had behind-the-scenes info, you are probably obligated to keep it quiet. But I can’t help but assume that Homecoming’s position was substantially helped by the fact that the game had been shut down for a few years when it went public and the source code had already been loosed on the world.

The equation naturally shifts if a rogue server doesn’t already have a substantial amount of the code necessary to run the game. Heck, the situation changes dramatically if that source code is not already floating free in the world. I have to assume that because it was already out and known, NCsoft’s instinct was to try to achieve some measure of control over how it got distributed or never get that control infrastructure back again.

And it also has the asset of not costing NCsoft anything, apart from its own corporate lawyers. The company doesn’t have to pay for servers, and the fandom around the game is happy to pay for server hosting costs pretty dang quickly. You need a community willing to volunteer for all of that thankless work, and you may not necessarily get that with every defunct game. CoH is a unique game in many ways, and look at how many lost games just don’t have the critical mass of people necessary to really get a rogue server even running in the first place.

So the reality is that there are lots of impediments for games coming back beyond the obvious legal challenges. It’s easy to look at the companies that own these shutdown games as if they were the modern version of Smaug, sitting on a pile of video games that people love and would cost them nothing to share once more… and that’s not wrong. I don’t imagine that putting up and maintaining servers for Asheron’s Call would break the bank or something. But it isn’t quite as simple as just contacting the right people and saying “set this up with our blessing” and then walking away.

That having been said, as someone who is very much of the mind that game preservation is important and is indisputably benefiting from this outcome, I do think that Homecoming does send a message to companies that this is a viable ending. It represents a third ending beyond shutdown and maintenance mode for when games get older, and it does actually have some benefits.


Rogue servers for live games are not universally but quite frequently run by people who, for various reasons, were tossed off of the main ship, so to speak. Saying that there is a toxicity problem there is putting it mildly. Rogue servers for departed games, however, are generally run by people who genuinely love the game they’re trying to preserve and want to keep further development in the spirit of what made the game lovable. It makes sense why legally companies might see them as similar or identical, but they really aren’t.

We live in a world where a whole lot of entertainment is not given to us as the audience but simply loaned for a time, something I wrote about pretty recently when discussing how MMORPGs are fundamentally still games you rent. This is true of anything that’s online. Sure, streaming services are conceptually a great way to see things whenever you want, but it has also become clear that the people running those services can just decide to yank things off the service whenever they want for tax purposes.

MMORPGs have some reason to be treated this way, sure. You can understand why a company might decide that there’s not much point in keeping a game’s servers up, much less paying for active development. So long as you see the choice as being “keep paying for this” or “shut it down,” well, you can’t exactly feel puzzled when the latter is more appealing.

I don’t think that there are a ton of games that can necessarily do what Homecoming did and have a professional, competent group of people who can take the reins on a volunteer basis to keep the game online without stealing rights from the company. But that doesn’t mean no MMORPGs can (clearly, we have other examples). And seeing CoH as a high-profile example of exactly that has the knock-on effect of making more studios in our genre view this as a viable third option. It changes the narrative on what’s possible – and eventually, on what’s expected – when a studio must sunset an MMORPG.

Whether or not this is going to become a thing forever I can’t begin to say. But I am hopeful there will be a future where games aren’t just loaded to us and prone to shutdown. Only time will tell whether this was a rare situation or the start of a larger sea change.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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