Post Mortem: City Of Heroes / City of Villains


City of Heroes, originally launched in 2004, saw its servers turn off for the final time this November 30th. The sunset period of this game lead to some surprising revolts but the game still shut doors to the dismay of fans.

City of Heroes didn’t have a necessarily complex or troubled history but what it did have was a plethora of interesting and novel features as well as a decent standalone identity in a world, where the MMO market mostly consisted of sword and spells RPG archtypes. What really stood out for me when I played the game, and I’m sure this isn’t a unique or original opinion, is the costume creator. For a game released in 2004 the depth the creator went into allowed you to fully customise the costume of your hero, or villain. Although, most of the time a large amount of users made a giant green man with super strength; Hulks were popular in my time in CoH/V. I had a few characters in the game but only one made it close to end game – I was never serious about CoH/V but i did enjoy my time in it.

My character was called The Preaching Christian he was of the villain mastermind archtype, he controlled a horde of zombies that were used as his first line of defense as he teleported around the city for a travel power; I was only asked to rename my character once. I came into the game rather late when it was first ailing, low level areas were all but empty with a few groups wandering. Activities to partake in consisted of entering instances together with the same groups for a few hours, grinding the game missions and taking part in activities such as bank robbies and stealing from other villains.

The game was released in the US in April of 2004, 8 months before World of Warcraft, and was an initial success in the growing market. At the time despite successes like Everquest previously there were no real expectations of the MMO market and the internet itself was still a fairly alien concept to some, MySpace was still a thing, so lower subscription numbers were acceptable in this time. City of Heroes drew in initially 180,000 active users according to a press release from NCSoft for the US market release. The game had 3 patches released before the European release of the title. The European release of the game had an interesting edit that some users noticed. When the game was released some noticed that references to a certain ingame group called the 5th Column, a Nazi themed group, that had all references to it removed at release (for more information, look up the ’5th Column Controversy’).

City of Villains was launched as the games first expansion which introduced an opposing faction to the heroes, the villains had all new powers and archtypes yet for all intent purposes the gameplay was largely the same with some minor changes to mission layouts and text. This introduced a more active player versus player aspect to the game with a form of battlegrounds known as PvP Zones. These zones did what a lot of recent MMOs do and lowered and heightened player levels so that they could compete on fair ground, much akin to the way Guild Wars 2 lowers the player level when they enter a lower tier area. Villains were introduced with a hard cap of level 40, with Heroes having their cap already at 50, restricting high level PvP and gating the high level villain content until June of next year. Before City of Villains was released numbers dropped to 169,000 active subscriptions. After the launch of CoV it jumped to 194,000.

The game went largely unnoticed in later years serving a niche part of the market and acting as the defacto super hero MMO. Other challengers would appear in later years but they actually had strange back stories. In 2006 Marvel attempted to push a lawsuit against Cryptic Studios due to the character customisation options in the game. The argument was that the imagery in the game was very similar to some of their character designs, allowing players to create their own Captain America or Spider-man and allowing them to name their characters as such. The resolution of this was that Cryptic redid some of the character costume pieces to resemble these less and blocked players from naming their characters after popular superheroes; a tradition that would be carried over to their next game, under the new studio title Paragon Studios.

Eventually Marvel would choose to work with Cryptic Studios, under their new name Paragon Studios, to develop a Marvel superhero MMO titled “Marvel Universe Online”. This was shown briefly at game shows but faded out of existence as Marvel decided to drop the idea later on. Marvel Universe Online would continue development in two different paths, the first was with Paragon, which eventually birthed Champions Online a superhero role playing game which was ill fated as a pay to play title and joined the Perfect World Entertainment group of MMOs. The second pathway which Marvel continued with was with Gazillion Entertainment which has been developing a Diablo style Action RPG called Marvel Heroes.

The game would have one more expansion released for it called ‘Going Rogue’ which was the expansion that introduced elements such as the mission creator and the ability to change your characters morality from hero to villain, this was the games last expansion before going free to play. Unlike Champions Online, City of Heroes stayed with NCSoft when it made the transition to Free To Play. The game saw an influx of users boosting its numbers at initial switch to around the 500,000 users number. The game introduced micro transactions under the title of “Paragon Points” for vanity packs and some minor buff items. The game lulled in existence until eventually it was announced the game would shut down due to reasons not stated by NCSoft.

At its lowest point City of Heroes on the free to play model dropped to 200,000 active subscribers, however there is discussion on whether this was truly the motivation that NCSoft had for closing down the flagging MMO. NCSoft was the sole owner of the license and there is some question over whether NCSoft didn’t renew the license because they wanted to remain owner of it or didn’t see any point of the game continuing in the current market. All that aside the closure notice was met with quite a vocal backlash from the active community of the game and those who loved it, protests were staged in the games major city in Atlas Park under the statue of one of the games flagship characters. Players petitioned and pleaded with NCSoft not to shut down the title and even went so far as to raise money to treat everyone who worked for Paragon out for dinner.

Unfortunately, none of these events proved much use when it was announced that the game would close doors on November 30th. Players sat on the servers until they saw the server shutdown messages appear on their screen, grabbing their last sights and screenshots of one of their favourite games.

City of Heroes was a unique game in a very competitive market, not only did it stray away from the comfort of the swords and spells RPG but it attempted to do things its own way, whilst that way may not have been for everyone in a game marketplace where the WoW model was considered the most suitable and most profitable it managed to stay alive, and much longerthan most games these days do before shutting down. With 42 million characters created and a lot of game time logged for some people, this is a title that will obviously be missed by some.

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Author: Sam Connolly View all posts by
Guess what, I like video games. Don't wanna make video games but I sure do like them. I talk about things here and something tweet at @sproutstalk on twitter
  • Lackey

    I’m afraid you have many of the “facts” of your article substantially wrong.

    Most notably: NCSoft bought out City of Heroes and part of the original Cryptic Studios, and it was under NCSoft aegis that the new entity of “Paragon Studios” was born. Marvel never worked with Paragon Studios; it was Cryptic that they went to for their MMO, then canceled the project, forcing NCSoft to look for another licensed format for their 3/4ths finished superhero game. Atari was briefly involved, then dropped Cryptic, even after Cryptic acquired the license for Star Trek Online. Eventually it was Cryptic, with new owner Perfect World, that turned to the tabletop game, Champions, to re-shape their superhero MMO into Champions Online. Champions has not seen much development in the last couple of years, with most of Cryptic’s resources being put into Star Trek Online.

    Paragon Studios had nothing to do with any of that, nor did NCSoft.

    Also, if you had checked with anyone at Cryptic, you would have been told that when Cryptic sold the rights to City of Heroes to NCSoft, the license for the game engine was passed along with that “in perpetuity.”

    • Sam Connolly

      Thanks for the corrections, really appreciated. More I know now.