Saturday, January 23, 2016

End Of The Line For City Of Steam

It's no surprise. Not really. For several months it's been in the back of my mind to play some City of Steam before that option got taken away. Well, no putting it off any longer.

Last night I logged in for the first time in maybe six months. For an MMO that's about to close for good in a week's time it seems in unusually robust health. A deal of content's been added since my last visit including airship missions and holiday gifts. Arkadia's central plaza still buzzes with activity.

Endless messages ping across the screen exhorting players to join in this activity or that. The chat box ticks with reports of purple and orange purchases and discoveries. For a game about to die it feels oddly alive.

Supposedly its not economics or lack of players that ran City of Steam into the buffers. The press release blames the shutdown at least in part on the eternal march of technology:

A number of factors went into this decision, the decline of Unity support in the browser is one of them – Google Chrome no longer supports NPAPI plugins like the Unity Webplayer, and Microsoft's next browser, Edge, won't either

That's undeniably so. I have never been able to get the microclient to play nice with Win10 so I've been playing through the browser. It works in Firefox, mostly, but if the platform your game rests on begins to crumble there's not much you can do, short of moving to another. After six years, two changes of ownership, and having already revamped the game several times to keep it limping on through various crises, there comes a time when it must just seem right to jump the tracks and head off in a different direction.

Closing down sale. Everything must go.

I've been with the game since its very earliest days. It remains the poster child for Better in Beta, with each later iteration losing a little something from the one before. The heyday of the game was probably late alpha or early beta but give me an offline, standalone version even of that original "Sneak Peak" and I'd come back to it with pleasure, now and again, for a very long time, just the way I'm playing old favorites from YouTube as I type this.

The version that still lives on for another week is very, very different from that original, dark, filmic vision. The enigmatic complexity of the crumbling city, weeds poking up through the flagstones, martial warnings ringing out across empty streets from hidden tannoys, all trains stationed and guarded against some existential threat; long since compromised, diluted, tossed away.

The endless, sprawling dungeons of early beta, opening on level after level after level seemingly forever were replaced by short, structured, tiered runs with flagged objectives. The fountains of loot that left you in fits of happy frustration as you tried to sort through the options dried up to a flicker of shillings and couple of drops from the boss at the end.
Never trust an elf who shoots his cuffs.

The promise of real housing that shone fitfully in early iteration was extinguished by a player vote in favor of concentrating development resources on combat. The stub that remains, never expanded, rots forgotten in the racially segregated refugee zones of the starting hub, along with the family that once looked as though it would form a backbone to every player's story.

So many great ideas wasted, withered, thrown away in favor of a frenzied cash-shop clickfest. And yet, for all the lost promise, poor decisions and wrong turnings City of Steam remains and will always remain one of my stronger MMO experiences. It would, without doubt, have been one of those worlds to which I always returned, in time.

Well, not any more. Now I have just one week to take screenshots, shoot video, revisit old haunts, say my goodbyes. Except this: I have unfinished business with City of Steam.

The plot curdles.

There is, after all, a story. A straightforward central narrative. I have been pursuing it for four years in dilettante, desultory fashion. Clearly I am never going to hit max level, extended some time back to fifty or sixty, and see all the remaining zones but I believe the main story hits a big reveal somewhere in the 30s.

My one and only character, a Goblin gunner, is 31. I have a week to find out if Imraphel has been playing me for a fool. It will mean some hard fighting. Every quest step seems to require clearing at least three dungeons and I'm at the ragged edge of what I can clear already.

Fortunately, Mechanist Games have chosen to brighten the dark last days with showers of cash shop currency. Last night I came into a vast fortune.

All City of Steam players will receive 30,000 Electrum per day until server shutdown. There's still time to upgrade your characters to their utmost potential, and to try things you've never thought of before, be sure to enjoy!

Thank you. I will. Last night I bought a spiffy new Aeronaut outfit. More practically I filled my bags with enough potions to enable the otherwise impractical, profligate Auto-Combat that allows you to sit back and watch as your character and her supporting team (mercenary, pet) clear dungeons and fulfill objectives with no regard whatsoever to cost or personal safety.
Quaff those pots like there's no tomorrow. Because there's no tomorrow.

In that way, and especially with the funds to take the "Revive Here At Full Health" option that I've always sniffed at before, I was able last night to burn through two full story stages in as many hours. Even then it was very tight on the final bosses. I'd buy my way out of difficulty by overgearing but there's no source I can find for gear in the 30s that's better than what I have. Oh for a true Pay-to-Win button instead of this half-assed "Pay-to-Go-A-Bit-Faster".

I have a week. I also happen to have a fair amount of free time coming up. At the very least I can give it a go. I'd probably settle for just watching the cut-scenes on YouTube but as yet I haven't found where anyone's posted them.

I'm afraid it's going to have to come out.
Some of the soundtrack is up, though. Here's the wonderful main theme for a taster. City of Steam has one of the very best MMO soundscapes I've ever encountered and Daniel Sadowski's music is a big part of that. It's also the part you can buy. So I did.

City of Steam is a game that's been exceptionally hard to capture in screenshots. The UI can't be turned off and as soon as you reach the level where you have mercenaries and pets they jitter and jump around, messing up the composition, photobombing like drunken frat boys. Even without that, the fantastic skylines and cityscapes are ferociously hard to frame.

My plan was to travel around and take some video travelogues before the sun goes down for the final time. Luckily others got there before me so I won't need to give up those hours from my questing. Indeed, there's a surprising amount of footage of the game available online. Rather than record my own I plan to trawl through YouTube and download the pick of it.

The "shuttering" or "sunsetting" of an MMO, sad, even heartbreaking, though it can be, isn't after all so different from the way time moves in the outside world. I can't go back to the Barcelona I knew in the 70s and 80s, before the 1992 Olympics turned Spain's gritty, overlooked second city into Catalonia's capital, a bright and shining global brand. City of Steam as it fades to grey is another world already from the one I first fell in love with four years ago.

In the end all we have are our memories, our photographs, those few fragments we shore against our ruin. It's been a good run but now it's over. Farewell, Nexus. May your rails never rust.


  1. Lovely post. I played a chunk of this game towards the end of 2014 and I found it an especially strange combination of browser soulessness and passion and charm. I'm sad to see it close, though I will absolutely check out the new game they're working on. ☺

    1. That describes how it's ended up very well. It was originally the pet project of a small group of people that just about bankrupted themselves attempting to turn an existing world they'd created (I forget the exact details but I suspect it was one of those longstanding tabletop campaigns) into an MMO. They ended up having to involve a bunch of third parties for funding and as a result some really horrible compromises were made.

      The current iteration is actually a lot better than the middle one under R2 games, who ran it into the ground. It may be a cash shop frenzy but at least it's a vibrant, lively one. Under R2 it was like a morgue. Had Kickstarter been a thing when they were first getting started six years ago I imagine we'd be looking at a very different game now.

  2. There was a time where I managed to play all MMOs before they shuttered (or failed to launch) but that was a long time ago. Since it is browser based and the browser platform is losing its support, seems even less likely for an emulation.

    1. I used to try too but there came a time long ago when the sheer number even of purely Western MMOs made that impossible. I was thinking about the chances of resurrection for CoS but there really aren't any. It doesn't have the profile or following for a fan-led effort to be even a remote possibility.

      It would be nice if the guy who started it all ended up writing a City of Steam novel though. All the hard work of world-building has already been done and the main quest is very well-written. There's definitely room for this story to continue and ebooks are a LOT faster and cheaper to create than MMOs...

  3. The moment I saw that piece of news on Massively I knew you would have something to say about it and you didn't disappoint! You were also the only person I ever saw writing about this game, but I found your initial posts about the setting in particular quite interesting. Another reminder to appreciate the games we have because none of them will be here forever...

    1. A couple of other bloggers have written about it on and off - Kaozz at ECTMMO for one - but yes, it didn't pick up the attention it could have. There are just so many MMOs though, it's hard to remember the names of most of them let alone find time to write about them.


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