Monday, April 29, 2019

Three's A Crowd : City of Heroes

I tried to log in to City of Heroes last night. The queue went 900 deep. Demand was so strong the volunteer team had added a second server so I thought I'd make a character there instead. It was quieter. Only 400 people waiting to get in.

The queue was dropping but slowly. It looked to be a good while before I got in. I decided to leave it. Playing U.K. hours on North American servers, weekend evenings are about the closest I ever come to U.S. Primetime. Not the cleverest time to taste the new hotness.

One of the main reasons I prefer playing on American servers, rather than European, is how it lets me manage population density. Evenings and weekends, any halfway-successful MMORPG feels comfortably busy,  not overcrowded. If I want the place to myself - enjoy rare spawns without competition, say - I just log in between breakfast and afternoon tea on weekdays.

I left CoH to settle. Today, when I tried after lunch, there were no queues at all. Probably helped that there were also two more servers online: four in total. From what I gathered from chat when I got into the game, so many people were trying to play on Sunday, even two servers weren't spreading the load enough. So they brought up two more.

OK, I want you to form an orderly line. There's room for everyone but you have to be patient!

This feels almost like an actual launch. A successful one, too. How long demand will last is uncertain but then isn't it always? Clearly there's a lot of pent-up desire being spent after six years of forced abstinence but against that you'd need to weigh the precarious legal position and the potentially ephemeral nature of any characters or progress being made.

With such an uncertain platform it's quite astonishing just how many players have come out in support. It has to be remembered that, unlike most shuttered MMORPGs, City of Heroes wasn't failing when it closed down. By most accounts it was running at a modest profit, albeit too modest for NCSoft's liking.

Given that CoH was always quite a singular proposition, it's hardly surprising that, in the six years since the sunset, no real alternative has arived to take its place. While tastes do change over time and lives move on, the seemingly perpetual appeal of very elderly MMORPGs like EverQuest, Ultima Online, Lineage, RuneScape and many others does tend to suggest that, if demand existed in 2012, it may very well continue to exist in 2019.

Demand is one thing but, sidestepping the issue of NCSoft's giant cartoon foot, there's also the question of supply. How much does it cost to maintain and operate four servers? And who's paying?

Don't you just hate in-game advertizing?

When you log into the game the very first thing that confronts you is a pop-up window telling you that the server team does not accept donations. I imagine the idea of accepting payment is a very touchy one right now, even if it is entirely and solely for the purpose of defraying expenses.

When I ended my previous post on City of Heroes wondering what the unexpected revenant's impact would have on the multifarious successor projects, Wilhelm suggested in the comments I should have frontloaded that question. I'm sure the teams behind Valiance, Ship of Heroes and City of Titans would agree.

Problem is, I really don't know enough about any of them to hazard a guess at the answer. I played Valiance's tech demo, which I quite liked, but that was more than three years ago. There was a public pre-alpha, which I may have tried (I think I did but I'm not sure). The game is currently back in closed pre-alpha with buy-in access for a minimum of $25. A public alpha will follow "sometime soon depending on how this phase goes".

Ship of Heroes responded to the news of the ghost server with a robust assertion that "Ship of Heroes is developing full-steam, and that we will launch as planned on the schedule we have announced". Prior to the recent revelations the team had already posted a detailed roadmap and confirmed that they were "on track for a solid Beta launch of Ship of Heroes at the end of 2019". So far, so bullish. Don't think anything's been added now the popularity of the revival is in the public domain.

When I said I'd sell my soul for a spot in pre-alpha I didn't mean it literally!
 As for City of Titans,  there's an announcement on its landing page asking backers to check and confirm their email addresses in preparation for the "staged rollout of pre-Alpha", which, I assume, is imminent. I couldn't see any dates.

From the outside it's impossible to tell how far down the track any of these projects has travelled. In my experience, pre-alphas (and even alphas) really don't give away all that much in terms of meaningful insight into either timescales or finished product, fun though they often are to play. If SoH really does make it into "solid beta" by the end of the year then it will be on the home straight, but few are the betas that hit the dates they announce a year in advance.

How things might play out between now and whenever these games come to market is anyone's guess. It's entirely possible that, by the time the first of them hits Open Beta or Early Access, there won't be any competition in the form of  CoH servers, official or otherwise. Or there could be a stable, trusted, NCSoft-sanctioned (or tacitly ignored) permanent City of Heroes server online 24/7, which would certainly obviate the desire of many of the potential audience to up sticks and move again.

The way I see it you're either on the bus or you're not. Or the monorail.

It was always going to be a rough ride for the trio, even without the current local turbulence. Three very similar independent MMORPGs, racing to open their doors to the exact same crowd at there or thereabouts the same time. But none of them could have anticipated having to compete directly with the very game whose absence brought them into being.

There is another possibility. One or more of the trio could turn out to be really good. City of Heroes, for all the affection and esteem in which it's held, is far from perfect. Graphically it's antedeluvian by modern standards and the gameplay loop is not to everyone's taste.

And, as Avengers: Endgame so forcefully demonstrated this weekend, Superheroes hold the core of the culture right now. If the market can sustain dozens, even hundreds of fantasy-themed MMOs, who's to say it can't support multiple capes-and-tights titles?

Before we can find out just what the demand is, though, someone has to make a game. For all their promise and potential, neither Valiance, Ship of Heroes nor City of Titans looks anywhere close to being ready to play.

As I write this, City of Heroes, somewhat astonishingly, is. What's more, for all its grey-market status, it's inarguably the real thing.

Authenticity and availability count for an awful lot.


  1. I never let not knowing the answer... or having little chance of getting the answer... stop me from asking the question.


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