End of an Era?

Say it ain’t so, NCSOFT! All ye who know if it, assemble in Atlas Park today at 5:00PM EST to protest the obliteration of our home!

If anyone remembers Mean Green Beamer, my Rad/Rad 50 defender, or Aesculapius, my Empath defender, lend me your ears.

I crawled out of my writing cave and headed up to Gainesville with my older brother James for an evening with some of his friends from his University of Florida days. We ended up at the home of Linda and Rodger. Years ago, James had been best man at their wedding. They’re still together, which nourishes my own hopes of finding a woman with a big heart and poor eyesight. I admit I am a romantic at heart.

It was a happy time to meet old friends and make new ones. But my joy at this fellowship of agile and similar minds was blown away like the snows of yesteryear when their friend Ray caught me up with recent game-related announcements.  NCSOFT and Paragon Studios have announced that they are closing City of Heroes!

I begged Ray to tell me he was kidding. I have been so nose-to-the-grindstone finishing my new novel that I completely missed this bombshell when it was announced a week ago. Ending, the first and best superhero MMO?? I was aghast at this latest example that absolute power lowers IQs.

I began playing City of Heroes in late 2004 while I was writing my first novel, Black Sea Apprentice. I had missed Ultima Online so CoH was my first experience in massive multiplayer online gaming. I was floored by the quality, and, remember, I am a programmer myself.

I am a child of the Fifties, born near the trailing edge of the first Baby Boom. I was a kid in the Sixties and it was a time of Wonder. I remember watching Steve Reeves play Superman on our black-and-white TV. I saw the first Spiderman cartoons. In between losing my heart to Morticia Adams, the Goth Girl harbinger ahead of her time, and trying to see through the harem pants outfit of Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeanie, the first mainstream BDSM innuendo, and seeing Captain Kirk and Uhura do the first broadcast interracial kiss, I like so many others watched the Saturday Morning CBS Cartooniverse, a crescendo of short-lived shows such as the Impossibles and such, capped by the Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Show. I was in kid heaven.

That feeling of Wonder, so long dwindling as I grew to adulthood and began my programming career,  came back to me like an epiphany when I started playing City of Heroes. I saw instantly what this type of virtual world could do for understanding in the Real World. It was not merely a chat room with eye candy. The camaraderie and bonding I felt with my team mates was incredibly intense; it was obvious that these MMOs would transcend local and national boundaries and forge friendships between diverse people. Most of us would never have met without games like this. The world is huge, but MMOs fold it like cosmic origami, joining us all in their webs of glory, bonding through shared danger and achievement, and random selfless acts of kindness.

I was soon hopelessly addicted. So much so that it contributed to the breakup of a wonderful relationship, when my girlfriend Renee moved out two years later. She just didn’t understand how I could refuse to abandon my team mates in the middle of a mission to spend time with her when she got home late in the evening from her own programming job. I am not defending my actions. If I had a second chance, I would have been less obsessed, and more attentive to her needs for companionship. Between friendship and love, I will choose love. But I was not thinking as clearly back then. And I was Aesculapius, the God of Healing, an Empath Defender, one of the best in the game (as far as I knew, heh!).  I was popular for the first time in my life and I knew what kind of stress and frustration would ensue if the team Healer left in the middle of a mission. All too often, a good Defender on the team of 8, when the baddies scale up to large groups of MOBs and more bosses appear, was the difference between people happily leveling, and shattering and discouraging team wipes. I was good, I was valued, and it was intoxicating. But I was losing my girlfriend, just at the time when her resistance to getting married again was finally beginning to weaken.

But I cannot blame the game. I accept full responsibility. If I had found a way to interest her in it so that we could play together, I would be married now. But she arrived home late in the evenings, having flex hours at work. I, on the other hand, had been hired at Agile Access Control to work on Web development for the FundraisingManager.com account (ASP pages), and I could telecommute. I worked for Agile remotely from 8:30AM to about 5:30PM, grabbed dinner, and logged into City of Heroes every evening. By the time Renee arrived home, tired and just wanting to cuddle in front of the TV, I was in full swing on a mission, healing and buffing and fighting and feeling like a Hero. It was not good for her. I’m sure her feelings were hurt often, when I forgot my commitment to her in favor of  ”saving’” my team mates. She saw a fool obsessed with perspective-rendered 3D cartoons. I saw my friends, who were in trouble and needed my help. And this was even before I discovered TeamSpeak and Ventrilo and even Yahoo Instant Messenger with Voice. I was actually such an idiot that I was too busy healing and text-chatting these distant warriors to talk to the flesh-and-blood woman who had given me the precious gift of her love.

But none of that was the fault of City of Heroes. Games do not break up relationships; obsession with games can and does break up relationships. Plenty of ladies (and some gentlemen) know the pain of becoming a Football widow. Renee suffered becoming a MMO widow, and it was completely my fault.

But enough of this mea culpa. Although it led to our breakup, along with my other numerous faults, I cannot deny that City of Heroes was a mind-blowing wake up call to me when my professional life had turned the joy of programming into the grind of work. Perhaps some of you who are still reading can understand why I ended each day grinding for XP instead.

City of Heroes had the BEST character generation and editing features at the time. When Guild Wars I was turning out Elementalists and Monks etc who all looked alike, CoH allowed you to choose your build, your height and weight, your face, your colors, and so on. No matter what your archetype. You could look like Superman or just a guy in street clothes. Making a Hulk lookalike was trivial: choose a gigantic body type. add a pair of torn shorts and messed hair and tint the skin green, voila! So easy, in fact that NCSOFT was sued by major graphic novel makers. It was an amazing event to see two player avatars who looked the same.

And you could fly. Or your Hulkoid could literally super-jump over buildings. Or run in super speed at 60 mph. Or teleport.  I hate the way people overuse amazing and awesome these days, but it was hard to find adjectives good enough to describe the gameplay. It was awesome.

When Cryptic Studios split from NCSOFT and NCSOFT bought out their 50%, I was hopeful of even more improvements. But not all of the original developers elected to stay with NCSOFT. Soon I began to notice that the level cap was just never going to go up any more. As WoW raised their cap to 60, 70, 80, and 85, leading their fans up an ever-growing stairway to heaven, NCSOFT played with Zone changes, added some new archetypes and power sets, but seemed to be avoiding improvements to the game I nearly worshiped, along with millions of other players. I should have seen the handwriting on the virtual wall.

Now I am told they will be closing the game before the end of the year. Are they serious? Believe it: they are going to stop rebilling their subscribers. When a MMO is ready to start refusing money, it is clear that the vision that created such a masterpiece has been sold out to the soulless suits who make corporate decisions. It is enough to make an old cynic weep.

For me the pain of this recession angst is acutely intense, since Aesculapius is the inspiration for my new novel. I have wanted to write this book since I made Aes back in 2004.

Soon, it may be the only way to keep his memory alive. I will keep gaming. but there will never be another healer quite like him. The world in which he was incarnated will no longer exist.

Like City of Heroes, the healer Aesculapius shall return again to the Realm of Legends.


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