City of Heroes: Rebirth Amid Drama

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!

Transported through time, Arthur Morgan is here to Yee your Haw

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 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.

Dramatic Reenactment

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.

Jesus ap­proves of this comparison

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.


Related Links:

Forums for the cur­rent serv­er set­up —

Resource Guide (in­stall guide, FAQ, serv­er sta­tus, etc) —

Patch notes for i25 (SCoRE) de­vel­op­ment —

Server de­vel­op­ment track­ing and set­up guides —

Homecoming Public Server Discord —

City of Heroes Community Discord —

City of Heroes Reddit Discord —

/coxg/ Discord —

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

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