On the End of a World

Long-running Massively Multiplayer Online game City of Heroes is due to close this year. While the game remains profitable and has around 100,000 active users, the publisher NCSoft has decided it doesn’t fit with the company’s focus. Rather than sell the game to another publisher, they immediately laid off the 80 employees of developer Paragon Studios, leaving the game with a skeleton staff until they lay it to rest by the end of November.

The game has been running for 8 years – I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.

The first point I’d like to make is that this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.

On any article or thread on the subject you will find comments from people talking about the personal importance of the community to them, or of the memories they have of the game. I’m not here to talk about that.

What I think hasn’t really been touched on elsewhere is the fact that what we’re glibly referring to as a game is in fact a priceless work of art, unprecedented in scope and sheer scale.

City of Heroes has the most versatile and easy to use character editor in the history of gaming. Yes, you can create a muscleman in spandex with a cape and a mask. But you can just as easily play an elf, a wizard, a cowboy, a robot, a dinosaur, a monocle-wearing time traveller, a fireman, a police officer, a sky pirate, a brain parasite, a private eye, an accountant, an alien, or a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.

This is a world in which playing a cyborg elf cowboy who channels the might of the Sumerian gods is not only possible, but actually pretty normal. Players are also encouraged to write a short description of their character, his or her background and abilities.

In recent years, the game has added a feature called ‘Mission Architect’, inviting players to create content for the game; missions other players can play through and comment on. Since its inception players have built tens of thousands of additional missions. The highly customisable nature of the game also lends itself well to machinima.

Over the years, 9,000,000 people have played the game. Every single one of them has created at least one character. There are now more than 43,000,000 characters on the servers; a fictional population comparable to that of Spain.

What do you get when you ask millions of people to explain to you, in words and pictures, their idea of a superhero?

There are only around 3,000 characters in the above video, a tiny fraction of the population of the servers, but every one of them represents a real person. A person who, for whatever reason, decided that a giant panda or a fiery angel or a super-patriot with a star on his chest or a guy in pink shorts was how they wanted to be a hero.

The world of Paragon City is a vast work of participatory art, something absolutely unique and irreplaceable. It’s a glimpse into a particular corner of our collective psyche, a resource historians hundreds of years from now might relish – if it still exists.

Because right now it’s unlikely that it will. Electronic games are a new medium, MMO games even more so. The custodians of art and culture have yet to recognise it as art, or as part of our culture, or as worthy of preservation. Like the early silent films that were melted down to make boot heels, or the early episodes of Dr Who that were erased by the BBC to save on magnetic tape, it will be lost forever when the servers go down, because it was too new and too garish and too low-brow for anyone to think we’d ever seriously regret its loss.

As the campaign to save the game gets underway, we have an opportunity comparable to being able to write to the BBC in the sixties and telling them people will still want to watch Dr Who in the 21st century, to say that what’s being destroyed isn’t trash or ephemera, but part of our cultural record. Even if you’ve never played the game and never will, even if you aren’t part of that community, you can still join the calls for its preservation for the simple reason that together the players have built something huge and weird and amazing. Because what they’ve built has intrinsic artistic and historical value, and because once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.

So what can you do? I believe the most important and easy things you can do are to sign the petition and get the word out by sharing this article or a link to CoH Titan’s ‘Save City of Heroes’ board. If you’re sharing somewhere with hashtags, use #SaveCOH. If you want to join or just see the in-game protests, instructions on getting into the game can be found here.

Edits: Corrected the age of the game, and added figures for the lifetime number of players/characters.

Smallville RPG: Avengers Campaign

I’ve been batting around the idea of running a Smallville campaign based on the Avengers for a while now. It’s an obvious enough idea: Take a series that shows the origins of DC heroes such as Superman and Green Arrow, and do the same thing with the Marvel universe. It’s interesting to me because it involves stripping away so much of the characters, not just down to the bare essentials but actually beyond that, and then seeing if you can still make them interesting characters and tell good stories about them.

So I decided to make some notes and share them, both for my own use and for anyone else who might want to run a similar campaign. With the success of the movie, the idea seems timely. The first question is when should it be set? In the present, with the Avengers forming sometime in the future, as with Smallville? Around 2000, with the Avengers forming today? Or a decade before they first formed in the original continuity, which would place the campaign in the 1950s?

I like the latter best. It creates an opportunity to see what the Marvel universe would be like without the floating timeline, with characters growing old and having to pass the torch to younger heroes. It’s also an interesting time in itself. You have the cold war, WWII is still recent, and Captain America is retired and working as a schoolteacher.

Of course, everyone knows that Captain America was frozen in ice after WWII, but that was actually a 1960s retcon – it didn’t actually happen! If we’re going by what the comics of the time showed, then he’s retired and working as a teacher.

Two things strike me about most of the other Avengers. They’re huge, nerdy, white, male geniuses. They’re also highly irresponsible in various ways. So let’s say you’re someone working for the powers that be in 1952 – Nick Fury, maybe. You have some brilliant but troubled teenagers, and the greatest hero of WWII refusing to punch anyone, but wanting to play teacher. Why not put them together? You don’t need to teach the youngsters to be smart, but if someone can instill some moral values and patriotism in them, why – maybe one of these crazy kids could help America beat the reds one day!

So, falling back on the ‘everyone knows each other at school’ trope, but it actually makes a lot of sense here. Tony Stark ran a company making arms for the government; Bruce Banner built bombs for the government; Hank Pym envisioned his reduction formula allowing whole armies to be loaded onto a single aeroplane.

Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers Captain America

Steve doesn’t really like fighting. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody; he just doesn’t like bullies. The idea of a costumed superhero hasn’t really become a normal part of life in the Marvel universe yet (despite his actions during the war, and the activities of the various golden age heroes). When he gets home he doesn’t look for new enemies to fight, he looks for ways he can contribute constructively, and for him teaching is the most noble way he can find. His arc will probably involve him dealing with his students and gradually learning that the world still needs Captain America.





Bruce BannerBruce Banner The Incredible Hulk

Bruce’s father, Brian Banner, feared that his son was genetically damaged due to his father’s proximity to the early A-bomb tests. This lead him to abuse Bruce, and finally ended up killing Bruce’s mother as she tried to protect him. Bruce was a troubled, nerdy youth, who tried to blow up his high school with a bomb of his own design, and who at college killed his own father in a brawl on his mother’s grave. So the key to this character is to realise that //he is already the Hulk//. The gamma bomb just unlocks that side of him and makes it big and green. He’s already a troubled soul capable of incredible violence, and really just wants to be left alone.





Tony StarkAnthony Stark Iron Man

Tony Stark learned to take responsibility for his actions when he was injured by shrapnel from weapons his company sold. This younger Stark will have had no such epiphany, so where’s his story going to go? I think that the best arc for him might be from feckless playboy to ruthless arms dealer. Early on he could simply be living for today and squandering his talents; later in the series, with his parents death in an auto accident, he could be taking on the mantle of his father, possibly becoming a quasi-villain as he tries to build on his father’s legacy, regardless of the consequences – while never quite losing his playboy streak. The story needs to set him up for his fall and rebirth. Also, I like the idea of him being tinkering already, probably with cars, building and driving a big red and gold hot rod to impress the chicks.





Donald BlakeDonald Blake The Mighty Thor

The movie kind of missed the point here, I feel. In the original tales of Thor, he was an impatient, murderous bonehead who tried to solve every problem by killing someone. In the comics when Odin sent his son to Earth to learn, he forgot his true nature and grew up believing he was an ordinary joe with a bad leg. He learned what it was like to be weak, to be crippled, to be a scholar, to be a healer. He learned patience and compassion. When he recovered his powers and memories that insight stayed with him, and made him the far more admirable figure we see in the comics.

Thor lived as Donald Blake for 10 years prior to discovering his powers, so at the start of the series he could be newly arrived on Earth – perhaps as a ‘John Doe’ with no memory of his past. He won’t have had any time to learn humility yet, so he’ll probably be frustrated, ill-tempered and impatient, needing the help of his friends to grow into the man he’s meant to be. That’s what his story needs to be about. It’s not clear how he became crippled; he may start out that way, but it could be interesting if it happens in the course of the series.


Hank PymHank Pym Ant Man/Giant Man

This one’s harder; I can see why they left him out of the movie. To begin with he’s just a scientist making cool stuff with no particular backstory or motivation. When Janet shows up flashbacks reveal that he had a wife who was killed by the Soviets on their honeymoon. She was a communist defector who for some reason decided it would be perfectly safe to honeymoon in Hungary. Janet happens to look just like her, and Pym initially resists his interest in her as she’s much younger than he is and he is afraid to love again.

The 1980s domestic abuse plot he was involved in has cast a pall over his character, culminating in the messed up excuse for a human being that was Ultimate Giant Man. Let’s forget about that. Pym debuted in Tales to Astonish #27, 1962, in a tale about a scientist who tests shrinking technology on himself and ends up being chased by bugs. It wasn’t a superhero story, but a few months later they brought him back as Ant-Man. In addition to figuring out how to shrink, grow, and control insects, Hank invented artificial intelligence, building Ultron and the Vision. He also injected his girlfriend with insect DNA to allow her to fly and shoot bolts of bioelectricity.

His backstory is just not very good. It starts when he marries Maria; so we’d have to wait for the end of the series to see him marry a girl and lose her and decide to devote his life to science. All the interesting stuff happens when Janet shows up, so it’s tempting to just make him a young man in love with exploring the secrets of the universe, bring the events of The Man in the Ant Hill forward to the time of the series, and have Janet show up early, being the same age as Hank.

I’m not really sure what to do with him, but one possibility is to present him as the consummate scientist, a bit reckless, absent minded, loves to poke at things to find out what they do. Kind of like Richard Feynman, but with more of a propensity to accidentally build killer robots.

Janet Van DyneJanet Van Dyne The Wasp

Pym’s girlfriend and assistant. She came to him during his run as Ant-Man seeking his aid in getting revenge for her father, a brilliant scientist killed when he accidentally summoned a beast from another dimension. Pym did what any gentleman would do – injected her with insect cells, shrunk her to miniscule size, and started dating her. She’s often been depicted as sort of ditzy, and certainly as clothing-obsessed. I’d like to keep the clothes horse aspect of her personality, but also focus on her obvious determination and ability to accept crazy shit. She let the crazy guy with the ants experiment on her so she could avenge her father after he was killed by an alien. I like the idea of her getting her powers early in the series, and being ‘super’ well before anyone else. She’s sometimes seen as kind of a joke so making her the heavy hitter, the Avengers equivalent of Smallville’s Clark, might be fun.

Another good thing about both Ant-Man and the Wasp’s powers is that they can be exercised in secret. They could be active as superheroes from fairly early in the series without anyone knowing about it.


Clint Barton & Natalia Romanova

Hawkeye is a circus performer and doesn’t get the idea to be a superhero until he sees Iron Man years later; he also gets off to a rocky start when he falls for and tries to protect the Russian spy Natalia Romanova. It might work to run with that – have him meet Natalia early, and run them as potential antagonists for the other characters.