Monday, August 27, 2018

Head Full Of Steam : City of Steam

I sometimes refer, rather glibly, to "my top five favorite MMOs of all time", which makes it sound as though I keep a list. I don't. I tend to slot things in and out on a whim as the occasion arises, as my mood changes or, as is most often the case, as I remember some game I'd entirely forgotten and succumb to a surge of nostalgic affection.

One such title is City of Steam. I have a lot of history with that unlucky and mostly unloved MMO. There are more than fifty posts tagged for the game here on Inventory Full, starting with my thoughts about the pre-alpha Sneak Peak back in March 2012 and ending with a brief mention in May of this year, when I said  "One of my favorite MMORPGs and definintely one that failed to live up to its full potential".

I also wrote "The original vision for the game was... a real labor of love". What I neglected to mention then, or probably ever, was that the "original vision" was also a published pen and paper roleplaying game.

I vaguely knew it existed. Or once had. The subject came up occasionally on the forums but that provenance was never really pushed as heavily as it might have been. Instead, Nexus seemed to  emerge, fully formed, out of the void, something that was  - and still is - quite common with MMOs.

Nevertheless, it's clear from early promo trailers like Room for Rent that someone knew a backstory we didn't. I felt much the same about WildStar. It's a good way to create interest in an otherwise unfamiliar property.

On a few occasions I've commented that City of Steam was at its very best in its earliest incarnations. It's commonplace to claim that MMOs are better in beta. That's not always objectively true - there are several subjective factors - exclusivity, novelty, camaraderie - that influence opinion - but also it is an indisputable fact that games do often change radically in development.

City of Steam changed many times. The Sneak Peak was perhaps the purest, most distilled version of creator David Lindsay's original vision, while some of the Alphas may have been the most immersive. I called the first Alpha "a disturbingly compulsive experience".

The game changed a lot in beta and in it's various Live iterations, first drifting and then sprinting away from its original conception. The final version, City of Steam: Arcadia, was arguably a better game but it was also as a neon-lit carnival, almost a parody of the dark, brooding, anxiety-inducing retro-future I'd fallen in love with five years before.

City of Steam shuttered in early 2016. There were vague hints that it might not be the end for the concept but Mechanist Games moved on to a new project, Heroes of Skyrealm.

HoS was a mobile game. I've played it. It was quite good, in its way. It almost felt as if it was part of the same world as City of Steam, but much shinier and more upbeat. Yesterday, for arcane reasons I won't go into, I thought of it and went to check the website to see how it was doing.

It's dead. But I didn't know that until this morning.

Heroes of Skyrealm launched in the Spring of 2017 and closed in June 2018, just over a year later. I only learned that five minutes ago as I was fact-checking for this post. The website is still there, frozen in time at the moment before Open Beta began in February last year. The links still go to the Google Play and Apple Store but the game is no longer there. I found the sunset announcement on Facebook.

The reason I didn't discover the sad news of the demise of Heroes of Skyrealm yesterday is that as I was following links back to Mechanist Games to see what they were up to I landed on the "About" page, where I read this:

"City of Steam: Arkadia... is based on The New Epoch, a series of table-top game books written by David Lindsay, co-founder of Mechanist Games" 

So I googled "The New Epoch" and found this. Minutes later I was the happy owner of Watermarked PDFs of both The Character Codex and The Adventure Codex for what is to all intents and purposes the roleplaying game edition of City of Steam.

I've written before about how reassuring and comforting it is to have a solid, physical representation of a virtual world. Novels, gamebooks, comics, even soft toys all help shore up confidence against the inevitable day when the last server goes offline.

Best of all, though, is a full set of roleplaying rules that let you feel that you could re-create the entire gameworld on your kitchen table. If you wanted to. You never will, of course, but you could, and that's what counts.

A PDF isn't quite as good as a printed book but it's a darn sight better than nothing. And these PDFs are stylishly designed and lavishly - gorgeously - illustrated in full color.

I haven't had time to read much in depth as yet. I need to transfer the files onto a device I can hold in my hand before I get stuck in to the detail.

Even so, at a skim, I can already tell just how fascinating a read it's going to be. It's not just the pre-cursor to the game I loved - it is that game. Some of the illustrations in the book are even the very same ones that were used in the early promotional videos.

One of my few gaming regrets is that I never finished the storyline in City of Steam or saw all the zones. I can't change that but now I have another chance to dig deeper into the lore and history that was always evident but ever elusive in the game itself.

And, I guess, one day I might even get to tell some stories of my own.


  1. Man, that feeling! I didn't play CoS, but the joy of finding *more* to something you love, especially something you thought done and gone, is amazing.

    I remember finishing book five of the Lone Wolf series back in the days before internet and feeling A Great Sadness. And then a year later finding book six somewhere, with the opening pages listing books up through twelve and being giddy with excitement.

    Happy for you as a fellow gamer that you found this! And holding out hope that one day will open up an MMORPG section and let us play old MMO's on personal servers. :-p

    1. That would be amazing! And thanks, it is a great feeling. I transferred the PDFs onto my tablet today and I'm looking forward to reading through them in depth.

  2. > One of my few gaming regrets is that I never finished the storyline in City of Steam or saw all the zones.

    See, reading this I now remember many, many years ago that I heard something about a Steampunk MMO and was kinda excited. And then I missed everything you described, including the betas, the launch and the shutdown :(

    1. It's not like there have been a whole lot of Steampunk MMOs either. I played NeoSteam, Gatheryn and City of Steam, all of which claimed to be at least steampunk influenced but only CoS really was.


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