Former City of Heroes developers talk design chaos, sequels, and the MMO’s enduring legacy


Last night, I happened to log into City of Heroes Homecoming just as the team was posting up the promised mega Q&A with former Paragon devs organized back during the April 20th anniversary of the game. It’s absolutely massive, so City of Heroes superfans can save the whole thing for their lunch break, but I wanted to pull out a few of the more interesting-to-me bits.

  • Melissa “War Witch” Bianco lamented never getting horses into the game. Floyd “Castle” Grubb says it was the Moon Base. Bianco also writes that CoH “was the right game, with the right team, at the right time. We hit a perfect moment. And, obviously, players who have been so loyal is a big part of that. CoH fans were always ALWAYS the most passionate, positive, and loyal.”
  • Chris Bruce aka BABs – now on the Overwatch 2 team at Blizzard – teased an Easter egg still in the game “that was never discovered.” Hop to it, explorers.
  • Grubb thinks PvP didn’t belong in CoH and regrets putting effort into the i13 PvP revamp. Likewise, he doesn’t seem like a fan of the AE’s design. “Given the opportunity, some players will optimize the fun out of a game. There’s a reason I always advocated for the Mission Architect missions to only give cosmetic or non-permanent rewards.”
  • Tim “Black Scorpion” Sweeney was surprised the dual pistols set didn’t take off and talks a bit about incarnates. “If you want to say the Incarnates looked tacked-on, I think that’s a fair opinion to hold,” he says. “It was certainly attempting to make an endgame/alternative advancement system that wasn’t part of the original systemic vision with limited resources.”
  • Sweeney also talks about how difficult it’d be to make CoH2 on a reasonable budget: “Every pitch for COH2 like games had to really scope down the character creator process and powerset count because otherwise it would have bankrupted any studio trying to do that to PS4 fidelity. And today? Forget it. As long as you have to hit that idea of ‘what a 3-D game looks like’ you’ll never be able to afford making another COX. 3-D games just got too good looking.”
  • Hosun “Black Pebble” Lee mentions a failed proposal to “use doppleganger tech to let you summon your offline friends to help you out.” Also, Lee is brutally honest about gamedev: “I think a lot of the systems in CoH were implemented with the best of intentions, but without a long-term plan. Mission Architect, Praetoria, powers customization, bases, etc.”
  • Kevin “Freitag” Callanan says that while he loved the original CoH community, the game “didn’t really click for [him] when [he] worked on it – but now, it does. “Going back and playing now, I understand and appreciate things way more. I was able to level myself to 50 finally, get a bunch of incarnate powers, and I felt like I actually experienced the game for the first time instead of being thrown in the deep end.” He also gently points out that “sometimes developers shouldn’t listen directly to the firehose of feedback from players.”
  • John “Protean” Hegner discusses the work being done to revamp all the game’s original content, just as the studio was being shuttered. “Paragon (originally NCSoft NorCal) was specifically spun off to both keep CoH running and to work on CoH2. However, things did not progress as expected with CoH2 development. So, we had the funding, but cooking gets messy and eventually we pivoted.”
  • Phil “Synapse” Zeleski lists more of the powersets that had originally been worked on before the sunset, including Eldritch Blast and Envenomed Blades, plus Wind Control and a buncha water-based sets. “The tweaks to Homecoming that have been most exciting to me are ones that make complex features more approachable. I feel like a lot of changes made were a reaction to how the Homecoming players actually engaged with the game, not how the Homecoming developers WANTED them to engage, which is great. I think the only parts of Homecoming that I am not a big fan of are the revamps of some of the endgame enemy groups. The Council and Circle of Thorns really stand out as just annoying to fight. They aren’t tricky or require counterplay, they just take longer to defeat due to resistances, revives and debuffs.”
  • Zeleski also has a great quote about “design chaos”: “I think the secret sauce is a bunch of design chaos that made City of Heroes what it is. It’s horrifically imbalanced and imperfect, but I think that’s also what makes it interesting. The art style is certainly dated, but it holds up in its own way and quite honestly, people have invested a part of themselves into the identities of their characters. That’s pretty sticky gameplay.”
  • Stephen “Rockjaw” Reid notes why the 5th Column was rebranded and expresses bafflement that “no-one else has tried to do a ‘generic’ (i.e., non-IP based) superhero MMO.” He writes, “[I]t’s not incredibly baffling given how hard MMOs are to make, but it’s saddening to me that no-one came in to pick up the torch, so to speak.”
  • Sean “Dr. Aeon” McCann plays Homecoming! “I’m still joining Death From Below groups and you’ll never know it’s me.” Apparently it was a whole thing for him even back during live. “One time 7 of us were playing at lunch time and got a random player to be our eighth for a few paper missions. The player started talking about a bug that, ‘would never get fixed’ with some power set. What they didn’t know was every person who could fix that bug (systems, FX, animation, QA) was on that team. After the lunch it was fixed in a few hours.”
  • C.W. “pohsyb” Bennett: “The programmer I replaced [when hired to work on CoH] was an assembly programmer from Atari and thought the best way to measure productivity was lines of code. After he left, I deleted 80,000 lines of code one week. Best week of my life.”
  • Fireman: Also plays Homecoming to this day. “CoH scratches an itch that no other games can for me. It is also great to see many old familiar names. […] I approve the proliferation of all other primary and secondary sets to Scrapper. Thank you Homecoming!”
  • Nellie Hughes: “I absolutely love it [the fact that CoH is back]. I didn’t realize how special what I was working on at the time because I was an f’ing idiot, but after being around the block a few more years and hearing about the shut down and the rise of it again, it’s so amazing.”
  • Favorite bug from Dark Watcher: “Three words: Ghost shark gun.”

We’ll end with a quote from TheOcho that’s going to resonate strongly with MMORPG fans:

“City of Heroes came about in a time where MMOs were still able to be developed with reasonable budgets and with that came about a lot more creative freedom and far less economic pressures to have mass market success. This led to far more interesting ideas and unique ways to play, something which is definitely missing these days. I’ve worked on more than 30 MMOs at this point, and the vast majority of them were functionally the same game. Different themes and powers, different systems, but all basically the same. […] The economic reality is that CoH couldn’t be made today. Game development has become exponentially more expensive, and the profit margins have shrunk tremendously. Games either have to be massive AAA blockbusters or small indie affairs. CoH is both too big a game to be developed by a small indie team, and too niche a game to reach the size of audience that supporting the team would require. It’s an unfortunate state of being; my hope is that advancements in tools continues to be able to make something like CoH possible again someday.”

Again, I just trimmed a 42000-word Q&A into my favorite 1300 – the whole thing is worth a read. Happy birthday, City of Heroes.

Source: Official forums. Cheers, Yrys!
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