Field Journal: A strong CoHmmunity

It can never be the same, but it can be good.

Last week a package arrived for me, sent by the incomparable Beau Hindman. He had been clearing out some of his old gaming paraphernalia, and when he happened on his old City of Heroes disks, something spurred him to offer them freely to anyone in the team who wanted them. I gratefully accepted. Ever since they arrived, they've dominated my thoughts, despite some highly dramatic events in the time since, weighty and uplifting alike. It's a game that just keeps inspiring acts of generosity and kindness.

I started playing CoH on the very day it went free-to-play, but it struck a chord with me nearly instantly. I soon found it had an amazing community on top of everything the developers were responsible for, and that's when I fell in love. It went from "that old game probably no one plays anymore" to "the best MMO I have ever played" to "the cancellation that broke my heart" in all too short a time. Fortunately, the example set by the incredible community and its determination to carry the torch helped to mend my coronary fractures. As much as there is to learn from all aspects of MMOs, the single most important element will always be community. I can think of no finer example to look to than CoH.

The hardest word to say is "goodbye"

There's been a lot said about the sunset period of City of Heroes: the defiant yet peaceful protests, the efforts to convince NCSoft to change its mind or sell the game, the fan-made tributes, the formulation of Plan Z to create a replacement, the creation of utilities to allow players to preserve pieces of the game and their characters. These stories show what a powerful, positive force the game was on its players. My story is different.

When I started playing City of Heroes, I looked at the roleplaying servers and decided to go for Union, the one for UK players. I honestly just wanted for once to roleplay online with people who weren't afraid to drop a superfluous "u" in a word. Sure, Australian and British English have some spelling differences, but I've always been a bit fuzzy on them. They're mostly corner cases no one remembers right anyway.

I was very nervous at first, but a little outreach from one of the established players who was inviting newbies interested in learning about the roleplay scene pulled me into a fantastic community. I've never known a more imaginative, intelligent, creative and considerate group of people, though I've known equals, like the Massively staff.

On the strength of that community and the love of the game itself, I ended up spending around $300 over the following months, including subscription fees. I haven't regretted a single cent of it because all of it brought me greater joy. I felt Paragon Studios deserved all the money I gave it, and I had made it abundantly clear to NCSoft how I felt about the game in the language it best understood.

Nothing gets you through trying times like the company of friends.

At the time the announcement came, I had taken some time off to play Final Fantasy XIV. I wanted to experience as much as I could of the old version of that game before it went away. To complete the irony, the news left me too drained and apathetic to play either very much. I needed something fresh to distract myself, and I had already preordered Guild Wars 2, which was mere days from launch.

Some people decided to boycott NCSoft as a result of the announcement, but I never saw the point. No boycott would bring CoH back, and no continued enjoyment of the games it published would vindicate its end. Besides, I had no reason to dislike ArenaNet. GW2 met my expectations but not my hopes, so I had some fun for a while until I hopped games again. It was only with the relaunch of FFXIV that I found somewhere I might be able to call home again.

This isn't to say I didn't care or act on my feelings about the cancellation. I cared a great deal and focused a lot of energy into debunking arguments mocking those who were taking action. Some say the best action against a bully is to ignore him, but that's utterly wrong. The best action against bullies is to expose them. While I didn't have the strength to log in on characters I was already grieving for to stand in protest in Atlas Park, I did have the strength to speak up for the validity of the feelings of those doing so.

I also joined my friends from Union on a forum set up to keep the community alive. Over time I've drifted away, but I still drop in on occasion, mostly to lurk. Forums were a big part of my early internet experience, but that was before I had MMOs. I have no doubt I'll meet with many of them again in another game, probably one inspired by the one we lost. Being part of a good community means you can drift away and still be happy to see each other when you meet again.

Losing CoH hit me hard, but I learned a lot by the example of its community.

Just remember that death is not the end

Some of you may be thinking dead games don't belong in this column. You would be utterly wrong. Not only is there no such restriction, CoH isn't dead. Sure, there's no game called City of Heroes that's currently legally operational, nor is there ever likely to be one until the trademark expires. Despite that, City of Heroes lives on in the community and the heirs they would make in its image.

You're not all you could be, but you've got potential.

As far as I'm aware, there are currently three games in the works being made by fans of CoH to fill the void left by its passing: Heroes and Villains, City of Titans, and Valiance Online. It's easy to say that there shouldn't be more than one, that splitting their efforts is a sign of fundamental divisiveness and antipathy among CoH fans, but I prefer a more optimistic view. Different people love different things about the game and have different ideas about what a game inspired by it should be. This is a natural consequence of human nature. Three games mean more chance for everyone to find something that resonates with his or her own ideals and less getting bogged down in compromise and debate during development.

I'm not wearing rose-colored glasses here. I know there's a chance that some or all might never see the light of day for all sorts of reasons. They are all fan projects staffed by volunteers, which is almost completely unheard of in the MMO space -- forget examples of finished products. What a lot of critics don't seem to get is that the prospect of failure is irrelevant. No one is participating in this because he needs it to succeed; people are doing it because they need to know they tried. Failure is something to avoid, not to keep anyone from starting.

Not that there is any shame in not helping even if you want these to succeed; there are many possible barriers to an individual contributing. Free time is a big one, especially since working on these won't be paying any bills for a long time to come. My only point is to celebrate those who are trying. I hope they all make it to launch and find an audience. I can't think of any greater tribute to City of Heroes.

The City of Titans Kickstarter was a tremendous success, blowing away my own high expectations. The resources those devs have to work with now will ensure a better end result. They can afford those resources because a volunteer team keeps costs down, but no matter how much passion every member of the team has, they will lose more members over time for personal reasons than paid workers. Of course, not every prospective volunteer has been taken on yet, and some who have yet to volunteer may be available later.

Byebye WiFi.

Heroes and Villains seems to have been making a lot of media noise without much substance. Every time some corner of the web has a little coverage of CoT, someone from H&V seems to be battering down the door to talk about their project without really saying anything about it. Not that the project itself is devoid of innovation, as shown in a recent update describing how interiors of buildings will have maps that include physically connected floors with soundly logical floorplans. That's a nice contrast to the sprawling, incoherent office maps of its predecessor. They just need to try to get the word out about what they're actually making beyond their own site.

If there's a dark horse among the three, it's Valiance Online. Whereas the other two threw themselves in the media spotlight, Valiance is rather reserved. Whereas CoT had a huge Kickstarter campaign and H&V is yet to unveil its crowdfunding plans, the Valiance team is content to take small donations over time on its own site. Whereas the other two are setting their games in an alternate version of the current day, Valiance takes place in the future. Whereas the other games are a long way from any public testing, Valiance already has a publicly available pre-alpha client. This quiet little achiever may yet surprise everyone, or it may disappear in a puff of pixels.

Whatever happens, I'm proud of all three for doing their damnedest, and I'm keeping an eye on their progress.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to waiting for a response to my application to volunteer as an editor on City of Titans. If there's one thing City of Heroes lacked, it was consistent editorial oversight. CoT can do better, and I mean to help. And if there's one thing we City of Heroes fans have in common, it's that we aspire to greatness and generosity. It's what heroes do.

There are so many weird and wonderful destinations to visit within the MMOscape, and Massively's Matthew Gollschewski hopes to chronicle them all for you every Thursday in his trusty Field Journal. Grab your camera and your adventurin' hat and join in on his next expedition, or just mail him some notes of your own.