As I sit here, I should be writing about more pressing things. Games press are going nuts (what’s new?), Google have recently announced changes to AMP that have gotten under my skin and what I’ve collected about their Stadia project have me with some interesting thoughts. So it seems apt that I get totally distracted from any of that to write about a game that has distracted me from important stuff this past couple weeks anyway!
Fellow Heroes and Villains, Rogues and Vigilantes… We’ve got Paragon City back!
The story of which is filled with as much drama as any good comic book would have.
Before I get into the tale of how we go to where we are now, a time when you can login to City of Heroes/Villains (CoX as it’s colloquially called) while also keeping up on the dedicated coders and idea people working to bring the server hosting experience to the masses in real‐time, I’d like to give a brief history of this venerated MMO for those who might have only heard of the title. Or for those of you just feeling nostalgic.
City of Heroes launched on April 27th, 2004 in North America. For those keeping track, that is months before World of Warcraft would launch and change the MMO landscape forever. This means that our plucky superhero title was not trying to copy WoW from day one, which made for some interesting design choices that helped it stand out from Blizzard’s behemoth and the titles that went chasing after it. On August 31, 2012 NCSoft terminated the developers of the game (Paragon Studios at the time) and closed the service down November 30th of that year.
A bit unceremoniously I might add. We went from having dev streams one week showcasing new features to the service shutdown announcement in a very short window. But end it did, and us heroes and villains retired from Paragon City.
I’m hard pressed to think of an MMO that focused more on individual character than City of Heroes. Even if the story was fairly standard fare, and didn’t quite stand out as making you unique in the universe most times. It wasn’t horrible either, especially for it’s time.
A lot of your story was left up to you. The expansive character creator and how you chose to express your hero in the game all built‐up your personal story. And your exploits with friends and parties felt more like role‐playing in a tabletop experience than a computer game when you talked about it afterwards. That feeling would be expanded if you got into a group that would RP their characters more.
You might laugh a little there, but City of Heroes made it very easy to feel like you wanted to act out your characters more than any other game I’ve played. You could keep different costumes over time, acting like your character went through the kind of growth and arcs that our favorites in the comics do. And while there was pretty big ERP community (erotic role‐play), but try finding an MMO that doesn’t have that segment. That last point may be a draw depending on the reader!
The aforementioned character creator and costume system tends to be what sticks out most in the minds of players. These days some of the limitations do show, but it’s still hard to find a character creator that allows you the pure freedom to express so many ideas. Champions Online (also from Cryptic, the creators of CoX) has a pretty robust system going on, iterating on their work from this game. But sadly the game play and world of Champions Online was just not quite up to par with its older brother, City of Heroes. Which is a bit of a sad story for another time.
Character is everything here to me. How you dressed and played your character was paramount in City of Heroes, which I believe plays a huge part in why people became so attached to their “toons” and to the game in general. To punctuate the emphasis on character, the game even forewent a typical gear drop system. There was no mismatching armor to min/max. You would get drops of what are called Enhancements instead. These would have effects like Increase Damage, Decrease Endurance Cost, Increase Healing Power, and many more. You would then slot these into your powers, with certain levels gaining you more Enhancement slots to assign. So even in builds with the same power sets, what Enhancements you choose and how you slotted them could drastically change the performance and play style of your character.
Over the years, City of Heroes grew a respectably sized and incredibly die hard audience. So dedicated that there were legit talks to buy the IP from publisher NCSoft at the time of the games’ death. NCSoft declined to sell, but that the community was willing to literally throw money at them to buy the game wholesale is a testament to the following this title built.
I could go on with the highlights and pitfalls of the game systems specifically, but this isn’t a review of City of Heroes. This is about City of Heroes being playable again, six and a half years after its demise and starting the week before it’s 15th anniversary. Rising like a phoenix on Easter weekend of all times.
How did we even get here?
Sadly it is not without an amount of drama, lies, threats, dox, and more. The story has a happy ending, but the journey here was messy to say the least.
For some of the more detailed blow by blows, along with statements from people involved, I will defer to the wonderful MassivelyOp.com. Their dedicated coverage is a large reason why we know as much as we do about some of the more reclusive details of this roller coaster ride.
On April 15th, 2019, Massively Overpowered reported on the rumors of a privately ran server for City of Heroes that leaked from a former member of its player community that got banned. This wouldn’t be the first time that rumors of private server being ran in secret would come to light, but this was the most widespread ever.
Reactions were mixed to say the least, and there was a more virulent aspect to parts of the reaction. But this would be due to how the server situation had been handled, as some felt it was extremely disrespectful how some things were done and others felt gaslit by certain members, including mods of /r/CityofHeroes. Despite knowing about the server, this subreddit was found to be automodding mentions of “private server” and other things out of discussions, and members of the private server were being a little smarmy at times on other forums in how they responded to questions and accusations of a server even being in existence.
But there had been a server running. For a few years to boot. The reasons why they worked in secret would come clear, though.
The server was running because of the work of people who had the source code, as well as a number of databases that were leaked from NCSoft. Say what you want about how they handled the situation, but keeping the server secret would be the best option in my mind as well at that time. These folks were under extreme legal pressures in how they proceeded.
There are things about the leaked source code origin that we still don’t know to this day, and may never, due to the parties leaking said code extracting certain promises. I’m sure as to avoid as much legal trouble as possible. Bless their hearts, but they put themselves in an awkward position, and I hope that whoever leaked the code doesn’t ever get into trouble.
I cannot emphasize enough the reporting done on this by Massively Overpowered. I’m not going to rewrite what they’ve done, so I highly suggest stopping here to read their reporting on the initial leak and the responses from the now infamous Leandro. Don’t worry, I will still be here. I promise.
This is where things start to get messy.
Now enters the rise and fall and rise of Leandro in the public eye. Who is Leandro?
Leandro was the public head of the SCoRE private server that had run in secret (and still offers technical support and advice for those running the Homecoming server), and in the past few days the only person who has been able to get large public facing servers for this game off the ground in short time frames.
Depending on who you ask, Leandro is a pariah justified in his actions or possibly the root of every aspect of drama regarding the building of public servers. He might also be secretly in the Skulls. We’re sure the truth is somewhere in between (except being a Skull, I’m 95% sure of that). We are not here to judge specific actions and take no stances, but I do want to give reasons for why people are suspicious of him, or at least have a bad taste at the thought of him despite his work. I would at least say mistakes were made in how things were handled at points in the overall saga.
He was felt to be lying to the community, withholding information to the point of accusations of gas lighting. He also held key bits of data needed to get reliable servers for the game running as the code stood, but he claims it’s because their team still needed to scrub the code and databases for information that could lead back to the people who leaked the source and databases in the first place. This looks to be mostly done, though.
Members of the community claim he had long enough and that he withheld on purpose, and feel he is still withholding information and code along with the current admins of the Homecoming servers that are running currently.
In the firestorm of attention that brought the private server to light, Leandro received a deluge of harassment from death and rape threats to doxing. Needless to say, this is nothing that should ever happen because of a game, no matter what you think of Leandro. We are as passionate about this game as the next person, but it should be needless to say that this has no proper place in our community.
Regardless, the source code, and databases that could be shared, were out in the community now. And a thousands strong crowd gathered to watch the temple be rebuilt. On Holy Week, the SCoRE server went public and on Easter weekend over three thousand people got to relive their exploits in a resurrected Paragon City.
I really wish it were over here, and I could say happily ever after and point you towards where to get access to this wonderful game again. As of the time of this writing, there is a server back up and running. And server coding efforts continue apace. Links will be available at the end for accessing City of Heroes currently.
But for a time, this did not seem so certain. The jubilation of Easter weekend wasn’t to last.
Thanks again to the wonderful reporting of Massively Overpowered here, but part of the post‐weekend drama came in the form of a threat from NCSoft regarding the now publicly ran server. These threats would turn out to be a hoax, but that did not stop the person running the hardware from wiping the whole thing in fear. Their own actions have been criticized already, but they were a person who had been awake for near two days working on server operations and I can understand a bit of freaking out over the event.
Hoax it was still, but it had a profound effect. The server was down and gone. No backups were kept. People still had the source code, but not the binaries. And not some crucial bits that Leandro contributed but still held onto to finish scrubbing (Queue more Alex Jones‐style conspiracies about him).
During this same time, there was a splintering of the community over an entirely different bit of drama. The Reddit community of /r/CityofHeroes chose to split off their community (but not server development) from the main City of Heroes Discord community that had sprung up. The details and discussion can be found in their post here, but among the complaints lodged where how the moderators chose to handle certain situations about the newly risen server and accusations of transphobia lodged at the lead of the main Discord City of Heroes server efforts, Innocuous. Innocuous has since stepped down as head of that community, but the Reddit community decided to splinter still as to keep up safer spaces.
Politics invaded Paragon City hard those couple of days after the hoax and the Reddit splinter. Thankfully it has died down since then, coming to bubble up only now and then, but it reached a pretty fevered pitch in both Discords while server restoration efforts were underway.
And I do have a certain bit of speculation regarding all of this. The main Discord group for the renewed community was a mish mash of passionate people. What ended up congregating was a large number of people from 4 and 8 chan, mixed with people from Reddit and other areas. This is like mixing acid and water, and I believe third parties exploited this by sending the fake legal threats to cause a volatile mixture to explode. And if so, they got their wish.
Things were pretty tense and troll filled in the Discords for the next 24 hours after that. Things certainly died down since, especially with the happier ending this story has. But it was a bit of a madhouse for a time. Thankfully the blessed coders were still hammering away at things on their end. And when things started dying down, we got word from Leandro.
Leandro, the seeming only person who can spin up these City of Heroes servers at the scale we’ve seen with the code as it is announced patience as he was working with someone to get the public servers back up and open.
There is a lot of in between details of politics and conspiracies that I just do not have the energy to chase. But if you check out the sourced articles, their comments, and search around then you can find the more lurid details of some aspects of the past couple weeks.
Where it stands now is at a happy medium at least, with a bit of extra hope on the horizon.
With SCoRE back up, you can register accounts and login. You can play and grind and level and be merry! Links will be below for all of this, but do know that this server is in a testing phase. That means any characters created are prone to be wiped before a true “Live” server is brought up by Leandro and the SCoRE folks. Good thing that the character creator lets you save costumes you make so you can easily recreate your heroes and villains. Wipes may not be needed, but I would keep the possibility in the back of your mind until things are more stable.
The coders from all the communities are still hacking away at modernizing the code to run on “commercial hardware” and bringing up servers of their own. Despite Reddit splintering in a community aspect, it does seem that bridges were made between everyone, and the different people developing on the source code are all working together towards common goals. A beautiful sight indeed, because politics be damned… we will be Masters of Paragon City my friends. As I write this, they are even working on Auth server efforts so that publicly ran servers can be accessed with a single account and you just login to which “shard” you want.
But it takes teamwork and patience, much like any worthwhile project.
And that extra hope on the horizon? While the coding efforts keep going towards getting public ran server binaries out there for folks to spin up, the well‐known TonyV has started tentative talks with NCSoft about official community ran servers!
For those who don’t know, TonyV runs the Titan Network, a City of Heroes forum and community that’d been going strong even years after the service was shutdown by NCSoft. A well known player and high standing member of the community, he has gone to bat for us players. And while I am not holding my breath on the results, I am hopeful as there is precedent for things like this. And seven years is a good time for a company to change their feelings on an IP. Other members of the community are less hopeful than that even, as TonyV has been someone that parts of the community have criticisms of as well.
But even if officially sanctioned community ran servers never come to be, the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to the source code and fan led development efforts. While it has been stated they will stop their efforts if legit cooperation ends up happening with NCSoft and their efforts hinder things, various groups are at this moment working hard in the coder mines to tighten up the spaghetti code left by Cryptic and then Paragon Studios (turned NCSoft West).
One of the bigger hindrances at this time is that the code is meant to be run “wide not tall.” Meaning that in the day they would pretty much just throw more hardware at the server code and not have it work efficiently in a single rack. It is also meant to work with bare metal more, and didn’t run well on virtual machines (that’s being worked on as you read this and VM software has improved at least). Did I mention yet that it runs on Windows Server and MSSQL?
To be honest, it would be in NCSoft’s best interest to let these people work for free on modernizing the code, and then profit off the work. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there is some money to be made in this if the server code can be made to run smart enough. And with test servers running at three thousand people and
14,000 31,000 account sign ups, I would say that interest is still there for this aged but charming title.
But one more aspect needs to be touched on, I feel, before we round out our story. What is the legality of all this public server stuff?
As is the pattern here, I will defer to Massively Overpowered, as they wrote a great article looking at the legal aspect of running a server and playing on it. But the short of it is, you are fine in a personal regard while playing. While you are absolutely breaking EULA, and there are provisions for the EULA to still stand even after the service died, but it’s also not like they can ban you from City of Heroes for playing in a publicly ran server with the service dead. It’s also not in the realm of possibility for them to go after players legally, given the extreme costs of such an action (monetary and good will costs).
As for running a server, you could be in a bit more trouble if NCSoft ever decided to turn a more wrathful eye on people. From DMCA requests to Cease and Desist orders, NCSoft actually does have ample room to crack down on these servers considering the leaked nature of the source code and databases used. It could be even worse if one were to take money for running these servers, as profiting off of a stolen IP violates no small number of laws. Will NCSoft go after these servers? Only time will tell. Things are looking well enough on that front as they are aware of the server projects, but considering they are in talks with TonyV about community ran servers, maybe they will buck game publisher tradition and embrace this reinvigorated community and it’s rabid talent pool.
The future is looking bright for Paragon City and it’s Heroes and Villains. We shall see the direction fate takes on this, but it seems that either way gamers will be able to take to the streets, skies and sewers again to live out our superhero dreams. The journey here has shown both the absolute best and worst of a passionate community. I’m hoping the road is more positive from here on, because there is no community quite like that for City of Heroes/Villains.
We’ll have our disagreements, but we are all family in the end.
With that, I’m going to go launch up and try to sweep some streets myself now on some overloaded servers! If you want to know how to join me (for research and education purposes of course) then you can follow some of the links below! I also highly recommend joining the Discord groups to keep abreast of server updates and coding progression. Plus the community, while passionate and ornery at times, is one of the tightest and most helpful you will ever find.
See you Heroes in Paragon City! My global handle on Homecoming servers is @DocBray.
Forums for the current server setup — https://score.savecoh.com/
Resource Guide (install guide, FAQ, server status, etc) — https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OQ68rHr_BbA9QoHEEx9atG-xZiMFKCiXZVDPQ1JvrKc/mobilebasic
Patch notes for i25 (SCoRE) development — https://docs.google.com/document/d/11cLJiSYlfueJheOumRywG8Evip2Mjmu_30Y6ePaetqY/edit#
Server development tracking and setup guides — https://ourowiki.ouro-comdev.com/index.php?title=Main_Page
Homecoming Public Server Discord — https://discord.gg/hkKajhQ
City of Heroes Community Discord — https://discord.gg/Jeg7Sxp
City of Heroes Reddit Discord — https://discord.gg/nsbeXKw
/coxg/ Discord — https://discord.gg/e8sFtkj