On the End of a World

Long-running Massively Multiplayer Online game City of Heroes is due to close this year. While the game remains profitable and has around 100,000 active users, the publisher NCSoft has decided it doesn’t fit with the company’s focus. Rather than sell the game to another publisher, they immediately laid off the 80 employees of developer Paragon Studios, leaving the game with a skeleton staff until they lay it to rest by the end of November.

The game has been running for 8 years – I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.

The first point I’d like to make is that this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.

On any article or thread on the subject you will find comments from people talking about the personal importance of the community to them, or of the memories they have of the game. I’m not here to talk about that.

What I think hasn’t really been touched on elsewhere is the fact that what we’re glibly referring to as a game is in fact a priceless work of art, unprecedented in scope and sheer scale.

City of Heroes has the most versatile and easy to use character editor in the history of gaming. Yes, you can create a muscleman in spandex with a cape and a mask. But you can just as easily play an elf, a wizard, a cowboy, a robot, a dinosaur, a monocle-wearing time traveller, a fireman, a police officer, a sky pirate, a brain parasite, a private eye, an accountant, an alien, or a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.

This is a world in which playing a cyborg elf cowboy who channels the might of the Sumerian gods is not only possible, but actually pretty normal. Players are also encouraged to write a short description of their character, his or her background and abilities.

In recent years, the game has added a feature called ‘Mission Architect’, inviting players to create content for the game; missions other players can play through and comment on. Since its inception players have built tens of thousands of additional missions. The highly customisable nature of the game also lends itself well to machinima.

Over the years, 9,000,000 people have played the game. Every single one of them has created at least one character. There are now more than 43,000,000 characters on the servers; a fictional population comparable to that of Spain.

What do you get when you ask millions of people to explain to you, in words and pictures, their idea of a superhero?

There are only around 3,000 characters in the above video, a tiny fraction of the population of the servers, but every one of them represents a real person. A person who, for whatever reason, decided that a giant panda or a fiery angel or a super-patriot with a star on his chest or a guy in pink shorts was how they wanted to be a hero.

The world of Paragon City is a vast work of participatory art, something absolutely unique and irreplaceable. It’s a glimpse into a particular corner of our collective psyche, a resource historians hundreds of years from now might relish – if it still exists.

Because right now it’s unlikely that it will. Electronic games are a new medium, MMO games even more so. The custodians of art and culture have yet to recognise it as art, or as part of our culture, or as worthy of preservation. Like the early silent films that were melted down to make boot heels, or the early episodes of Dr Who that were erased by the BBC to save on magnetic tape, it will be lost forever when the servers go down, because it was too new and too garish and too low-brow for anyone to think we’d ever seriously regret its loss.

As the campaign to save the game gets underway, we have an opportunity comparable to being able to write to the BBC in the sixties and telling them people will still want to watch Dr Who in the 21st century, to say that what’s being destroyed isn’t trash or ephemera, but part of our cultural record. Even if you’ve never played the game and never will, even if you aren’t part of that community, you can still join the calls for its preservation for the simple reason that together the players have built something huge and weird and amazing. Because what they’ve built has intrinsic artistic and historical value, and because once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.

So what can you do? I believe the most important and easy things you can do are to sign the petition and get the word out by sharing this article or a link to CoH Titan’s ‘Save City of Heroes’ board. If you’re sharing somewhere with hashtags, use #SaveCOH. If you want to join or just see the in-game protests, instructions on getting into the game can be found here.

Edits: Corrected the age of the game, and added figures for the lifetime number of players/characters.

52 thoughts on “On the End of a World

  1. Your post gave me chill bumps when I read it. This is actually something I’ve pointed out frequently in the press releases we’ve been sending out, that we have poured countless hours of creative invention into this game and made it the world in which our imagination lives. I know that to a lot of people it’s “just a game,” but to us, it’s our work of art, our Mona Lisa.

    Thank you so much for writing this, it really puts into words what a lot of people are feeling but don’t know how to express, and I too hope that we can someday arrive at a point where the kind of expression that is found in this relatively new medium can be preserved and enjoyed independently of companies’ decisions to reallocate resources to strategically align corporate priorities.

    –TonyV, Titan Network

  2. Thank you so much for this amazing article! I agree, CoH, as we call it, it a unique expansion of our world and a piece of art. I have 12 different characters, men, women, and children, a tree, an alien, a lion and two crocodiles. My partner of 16 years has a lot of characters, too, and since we play together, we live our stories together. But since we can only play one character at a time, we write down extra stories on paper about how our other characters interact, for us to read, and we both are always looking forward to read our little stories.
    Besides, he is an artist and has spend years as a freelancer and has earned the rent by drawing characters of others. This is not just a game. Thank you.

  3. Excellent piece; a perfect hit on the gravity and sentiment of the situation without the lately common ‘fight the man’ rhetoric. Thank you.

  4. Thank you very much! That article was thoughtfully presented and a wonderful explanation of the importance of our actions to the uninitiated. I’ll pass this along to try to get your take on this story more hits.

  5. Best article I have yet to read on the subject. Perfectly stated, computer games ARE art, not just City of Heroes, but games that came before it (though some are, obviously, master works, while others maybe “everyman’s” fair,) and any that come after it.

    Some how, some way, City of Heroes needs to be preserved, not just in screen shots, not just in videos, but as a playable game that can be experienced first hand.

    Thank you for lending strength to that thought!

  6. Thank you so much for this article, and expressing what many of us in COH feel every day about our beloved game. COH is more than just a “game”, it is a place where countless people interact each day. These people are my friends, and in many ways, have become my family. To lose that core group of people would be such a loss.

  7. This is a wonderful explanation of why City of Heroes is more than ‘just a game’ to so many of us. I know players who have posted a novel’s worth of fiction detailing the history and interactions of the characters in our supergroups. These words will live on, but without the game, they have no background.

    Thank you for this article, I am going to be sure to pass it on.
    @Ms Lith, Triumph Server

  8. This is one of the most eloquent pieces I’ve read on what’s happening to CoH, and really gets to the heart of the individual and group creativity that is part of what makes this game so special.

    Thank you.

  9. Very well said!! I have spent more than 8 years of my life playing this ‘game’. My wife and I enjoy playing together on the weekends along with many other friends we have made over the years. We are not fanatics as some people think, we just have a passion and will not let it slip away without a fight! No other game can replace what we have built here. Hope to see you in Paragon City.

    @Big Uns, Infinity server

  10. I don’t play online games…not because I don’t want to, but because I just haven’t, but I love this article.

    When you create something (I’m a published author of nonsense) and you let it out into the world and people fall in love with it, you owe those people. It’s no longer completely yours, you’ve given it to others to fuel their imagination, to give them something to look forward to. People have put huge emotional investments into it…and that’s a wonderful thing. If you can make people happy, give them adventures, then you’ve done something magical and wonderful.

    Abruptly taking that away is cruel, especially for the states reason…they should sell it to someone else, I’m sure someone would take on something as profitable as a game with several hundred thousand subscribers.

  11. Wow. Thanks for writing a fantasic article. Whether or not it’s saved I will at least have the memories and this article sumes it up nicely for me. Cheers.. I’m still hoping to be able to let my daughter play in a year or two. Taking after her parents she’s already a big Super Hero nut and i’d really like for her to have the chance to play this game like so many other kids have been given by their parents.

  12. Thank you for writing such a great article! It’s said over and over that this is more than just a game and that’s the truth. City of Heroes has a community unlike any other MMO and that was evident all the way back in 2004. I’ve met some incredible people and have made friendships that will carry on beyond any outcome. We have invested emotions, time, money into this community and we’ll continue to rally in support of it. We’re not here to whine, we’re not here to bash or harm NCSoft… we’re here because we’re heroes, and it’s what we do. Thank you to everybody who is supporting our effort.


  13. Thank you for explaining how this game is an avenue for our artful expression. For a great majority of the people that love this game the personalization and uniqueness we poor into our characters is partially an extension of ourselves. Your story brought that point to the forefront and I want to thank you so much for pointing this out.

  14. Thank you so much for this article. It’s beautifully written, and takes on an angle I hadn’t previously considered, despite the hours and hours of creative effort I’ve put into this game and its characters myself over the last 8 years.

    I met my best friend on COH, and he’s become a wonderful collaborative writing partner. Not a day goes by that I don’t speak to and write with him – and we’ve only met once in person. The rest of the time, it’s all been these beautiful works of art we call games.

  15. Thank you Markovia, Great write up and awesome cartoon. I’ve Play this “game” i hate calling COH a Game its more of a social club for a long time, and ive not finish with it yet. #SaveCOH

  16. I dearly wish someone had made a movement like this when LucasArts axed Star Wars Galaxies. A handful of screenies are all I have left of characters that dated to the inception of the game, and the dozens of buildings that I poured literally months into decorating. You’re right, that MMOs are a new and vastly underrated art form, and shouldn’t be simply deleted and erased. Though I never really got into CoH (I made one character that I played for a half-hour or so), I remember too clearly my pain when SWG was so unceremoniously thrown away. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I’ll sign to save your game, for everyone who didn’t have that chance.

          • That article doesn’t cite the original source, but those are numbers that were put out by Paragon Studios as part of the publicity surrounding the seven year anniversary of the game, and updated periodically in the forums since. Kotaku had a graphic citing some of the numbers, though they rather comically mixed up trillions and billions for the total XP and influence held by players.

            Another useful though somewhat limited place to get an insight into numbers for City of Heroes is the City Info Tracker website run by the Titan Network. Players have to “opt in” and run additional software for their data to be tracked, so we know for certain the vast majority of players and characters are not represented in this database. Even so, CIT shows 4,091 logins in the past month, and is currently tracking 97,195 characters.

  17. City of Heroes was the first MMO I ever played, thanks to a friend who introduced me to it. Since I picked up CoH, I’ve tried several other MMOs, but none have held my attention the way CoH has.
    In every other game, I feel like I’m playing somebody else’s character, with a background already mostly pre-written, and appearance dictated by gear. The only thing I really get to adjust with much finesse is my character’s head, and once I equip a helmet, even that goes away for the most part.

    But City of Heroes is different- with my powers improved by an under the hood enhancement system, I can make my characters look like anything. With the ability to write my own backstory, my character can not only look like anything, they can be pretty much anything. I have a creative freedom unprecedented in any other game. It really feels like I’m bringing my own character out to play, not just random elf or human no# whatever. The devs have created an amazing world, and we players are a lot freer to play back than in any other MMO.

    And the Devs- I have never seen any dev team so willing and even eager to come out and interact with the playerbase. Most others are anonymous, or figures “from on high”, with not a lot of interaction with the players. But these devs are so willing to give us windows into their world, how they do things. And within reason, so willing to listen to player feedback and ideas. There’s a lot of things in game that are there just because players asked. We’re not just playing in their sandbox, we actually have a hand in forming it. And that’s amazing, something I have never seen in any other MMO I’ve tried.

  18. Thank you kind Sir. This is one of the best written article on the subjet so far. You nailed it so well. This is exactly how I fell about this “game”, this universe… this home away from home.
    Some people want to take it away from us. We need to show them how badly we want to keep it.
    And you help is priceless.


  19. Thanks for an eloquent article that summarizes an often-overlooked aspect of the City. With the broad range of expressions City allows, it’s remarkably possible to express a concept that’s distinctly your own. Granted, for those of us who love the mechanical details, sometimes that concept is “as many defense bonuses as possible,” but even my statistically-driven characters get invested with an identity. As often as not, they end up among my favorites. Maybe it’s a roleplayer thing, but I enjoy inhabiting them and their innumerable subtle different areas of expertise.

    My stable alone includes a toxic earth spirit, an interstellar monk, a mutant hedgehog, the son of fire and ruin, an authoritarian roleplayer, a child prodigy, the three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional watcher, a homonculus of seasonal misery, an astral inhabitant trapped in solid form, an explorer of dream landscapes, a punk with a great hot sauce recipe, a hearth spirit of the grill, an instrument of wrath and mercy, an assassin droid, and a couple dozen more beyond them. In game terms they’re defenders, controllers, tankers, etc., but each of them is expressed differently.

    None of that even touches on the City community, which on the whole has always been the most consistently friendly and supportive I’ve ever seen. If I felt like City had been on the decline for a while, and that it was time for graceful closure, that would be one thing. However, by contrast, issues had been getting bigger and better with more content, systems, and toys. Ages-old promises had been delivered. Storylines were actively progressing. The sudden nature of the announcement makes it impossible to just accept and move on.

    I don’t harbor many illusions about our chances. In my perfect world, Paragon would reform as an independent studio. NCSoft would sell them the City property, hardware, data, and accounts for some reasonable amount. Paragon would consolidate to fewer servers to save money, and continue work on City using it as a source of income while developing a new title. That’s an unlikely best case, but I suppose it’s not our nature to surrender without a struggle.

  20. You captured it all, wrote it down eloquently and concisely, and put it in impartial terms to which anyone in or outside of the gaming community can relate. Well done. You have the gratitude of this player.

  21. Thanks for Your time and Your kind words.The studios responsible for bringing this world to life have really raised the bar with this one.
    Simply put,I just love playing this game, and I don’t want the ride to end .
    I think THE TICK said it best – “You can’t destroy the world- that’s where I keep all my stuff!”

  22. Thank you so much for writing that. It absolutely nails one of the most important parts of CoX.

    I was dragged into CoX over four years ago. I didn’t want to play an MMO, I wasn’t into superhero stuff but CoV grabbed me (I played Villains exclusively for a year) and I’ve never regretted it.

    There isn’t anything else like CoX. For anyone with imagination, it’s just fantastic; names, looks, costumes, powers, bases, badges. It’s as close to unlimited that I can think of.

    I hope we can save our world because the ‘real’ world would be darker without CoH/CoV.

    @Capa Devans
    @Capa Devans2

    Guardian (home), Virtue, Freedom, Triumph, Pinnacle, Champion
    Too many characters to count; too many bases to count!

  23. Ever since this ‘game’came into my life I have been creating. I created heroes and villains.. Biographies, stories, bases, spaceships, super groups…

    I made vampire witches, Super soldiers, Vietnam ghost marines, national heroes, martial artists, Fae, Banshees, Dryads, Native Americans… too many to mention. And I love them all. Many of their stories went on to get lives of their own.. to grow and develop. Making this virtual world and its editors not a game.. but a creative outlet for me. And a place to meet new people.. and old friends. Some who I know for years in real life now.

    I know we will not have much chance to change the minds of a Korean Business man of who his own job is on the line due to a debt created by other games… but surely there must be a way still to get money from COH!? Even if it would be just selling it to any who might be interested. If the core idea is to conselidate all business to Korea… why not sell this Superhero game to any interested USA company. I promise it will make money for them back. Even if it is only a little on the great scheme of things.

    Don’t let all these people down… City of Heroes still has many good years left in the black.

  24. Thank you so much for covering our story. I think you make such a great point about the concept of ‘art’. It really is a constantly evolving thing. So many people tout the importance of ‘great art’, but are incredibly short sighted when it comes to what’s next on the horizon.

    That being said, I’m not particularly an art aficionado; Paragon City is my home. I mean that in as real a sense of the word as is possible, considering I don’t physically exist there. This community, and it’s creativity (player’s and Dev’s alike) is unparalleled, and the accomplishments therein are not to be taken lightly. What happens will happen, but we will not give up our fight.

    We are Heroes. This is what we do.

  25. I wanted to echo the thoughts of so many others that have posted before me. The eloquence with which you have described the “more than just a game” aspect and your unique approach to the indefinable aspects of personal artistic expression and feelings of ownership has finally given a true description of our feelings toward this game.

  26. Thank you very much, this is the best description yet of our “game”. COH is truly a community I have been proud to have been a part of for over seven years. I have never seen such a caring and supportive gaming community. For the most part the people who created all of these fantastic characters do seem to live up to their toons heroic qualities, always friendly, patient, and ready to help. The reaction since NC Soft’s announcement on 8/31 does not surprise me at all. Of course, we don’t want to see this wonderful place and community disappear, we also don’t want to see all the great folks at Paragon Studios suffer because of this decision by NC Soft. The happiness, support, and help they have brought us all of these years has been amazing.

  27. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  28. Thank you very much for an insightful article which points out important considerations beyond those raised by most commentators. You only have to look at all the art, videos, writing, and voluminous other forms of artistic expression inspired by City of Heroes to realize how right you are.

    It is also indicative of the artistic value of our joint creation that several well known artists and writers are heavily involved in the effort to save the MMO. There is at least one published novel which was inspired by the writer’s experiences in City of Heroes.

    We will continue to fight to save Paragon City. We are heroes. This is what we do.

  29. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what so many players are feeling.

    This just isn’t a game for us… it’s become a way of life on such an intimate level. Families and friendships are formed here daily.


  30. First a note to the writer: the game has been going for 8 years not 7 :P

    Now that i am done being a nitpicky nerd, I would like to thank them for this article (as well as all the other news outlets game related or not0 that have helped to give us a Mega phone. When this started 2 weeks ago we already had a voice, you how ever have made it loud enough to gain notice and for that I (and I am sure all of us) thank you.

    It is as Tony and this Article said. This is so much more then a game, its a place to see friends, to explore the depths of our imaginations and see it come to life. This Was not only done through the creative Heroes, Villains and Missions we’ve made it is also reflect in sugestions made in the forums and brought to fruition by the wonderful Devs. When we asked for something (if it was possible) we where given. We asked for wings we, got them, we asked for custom colors for powers, we got them, we asked for Various costume sets and we got them including recently a fan requested and voted Retro-Scifi set. This was one of the biggest reasons I kept coming back to CoH! What other game do the Devs have offical threads of player requests and add them on a regular basis? what other game do you get to talk with the devs regularly and play with and against them in game? I have never seen the like before and I fear we won’t again… this saddens me greatly and if we can’t save CoH it will leave a hole in my life.

  31. Thank you for a great article. You have truly touched on what COH is really about. The ability to have made friends across the USA and built upon that is what has made this place so special.

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  34. This feels like a TED talk. It highlights the good in humanity and a desire to preserve something uniquely wondrous. Something held precious and worth caring for.

    Thank you for sharing, MARKOVIA!

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