When I attended GenCon in the summer of 2004, some friends nudged me towards a booth where a new Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game was being advertised, called City of Heroes (or CoH for short).  They were already playing, and they wanted me to get into the game so we could all team together and have fun superhero adventures.

Now, I’ll admit that I was skeptical — up until that point, my only experience with MMO games was watching a friend play Ultima Online, and watching another friend play Everquest.  The UO viewing consisted of little more than spikes of massive lag, between which my friend was surrounded, executed, and robbed blind by other players in about five seconds.  Wow, that sounded fun.  The EQ player proudly showed me his new character, a monk, who looked to be dressed in drab brown sackcloth.  The uninspiring “hero” bravely charged towards wild bears and jabbed a pointed brown stick at them until they fell over.  Not exactly thrilling.  Oh, but don’t let those things discourage you, my GenCon friends assured me, City of Heroes isn’t like that!  For one thing, there’s no Player Vs. Player content at all (which would be added later, but even now it’s completely optional), and secondly, your character looks awesome and has awesome powers right from the very start.

So encouraged, I approached the booth during a superhero trivia contest giveaway.  I won a free copy by being the first to shout out the answer, “Lobo!”, although seven years later, I don’t remember what the question was.  Two days later, I was back home from Indianapolis, and learning how to set up my first MMO account.

I’ve been playing consistently ever since for the last seven years, and I’ve watched with interest and fascination as the game’s evolved, added new features and new worlds, and fended off not one, but two aggressive competitors to be the world’s premier Superhero MMO.  One of Paragon Studio’s biggest strengths is their ability to balance business needs, their own ideas about the games’ direction, and the feedback they get from their player base.  They’ve also been consistently ahead of the curve on game design — they were an early adopter in adding badges for in-game goals, well before the now-ubiquitous Achievements and Trophies in games these days.  Additionally, CoH was one of the first MMO’s (possibly THE first, but I haven’t been able to verify that) to allow user-generated content, with their Mission Architect system.  On a side note, I created a mission in that system myself, titled “The Internet is for PWN”, back when the Architect system was still new.  It’s still posted, and I’m actually rather proud of it.  But I digress…

Another thing I like about CoH’s development is that they’ve gone through several Lead Designers over the years.  Jack “Statesman” Emmert started things off, and created the basic mythology and structure of the game.  Eventually, Jack moved on, and Matt “Positron” Miller took the reins for awhile.  Many people worried that this changing of the guard would somehow damage the game, but that predicted chaos never manifested.  Rather, the game continued to grow and prosper, with the influx of new ideas making the game experience all the richer.  Then in 2010, Miller took a step back to focus on technical aspects of the game, leading to Melissa “War Witch” Bianco getting promoted to the captain’s chair.  Now, this is exceptionally noteworthy, not just because we have a woman leading in a very male-dominated industry, but also because Bianco started in 2002 as an office manager, not a programmer or producer.  She became involved with the creative process over time, helping with new methods of developing storylines for the new play zones opening up, slowly rising through the ranks to reach the position she has today.  She’s living proof that a gifted creator can come from anywhere, and the game has continued to thrive under her leadership.

Which brings us to the present day, with City of Heroes preparing to launch their latest free expansion, “Issue 21: Convergence”, which in turn leads to the retooling of the game into “City of Heroes: Freedom”.  The basic idea is that CoH is going “free-to-play”, although some people like to call it a “freemium” system.  In the last couple of years, a few MMO’s switched to this method rather than ask for a monthly fee, and the results have been surprising.  Perhaps the best-known examples are the Turbine MMO’s, Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online, who both saw a sharp increase in profit under this new model.  Well, CoH is about to join them.

The idea is that by making the basic game free, you entice a legion of new players who would otherwise never try the game out.  Once they’re in, they can just keep on playing the basic free game forever if they’d like — or they can start spending a little money to unlock extra features, new areas to explore, new types of characters to make, and so on.  CoH follows this exactly, but also offers what’s called a “VIP” membership, where you pay the usual $15 monthly fee, and get access to nearly everything, plus a monthly stipend of in-game currency to unlock further things.

Issue 21 is currently available to play in Open Beta, if you have a paying membership (free to play is NOT live yet).  This issue marks a major face-lift for the game, with graphical upgrades, newly designed starter areas and missions, and some exciting new powersets.  “Time Manipulation” is a buff/debuff set, with lots of whirlpool-like effects, and powers that stack in some interesting ways.  For example, if you hit a target with the basic slow debuff power, some of your other powers will now affect that target even more than before, which will make for some very interesting strategies as your arsenal expands.   On the offensive side, we have “Beam Rifle”, a ranged set that also plays with stacking mechanics — if you hit a target with the “Disintegration” damage-over-time power, other attacks you make against that target will cause additional damage, or other helpful extras, like splash damage against other nearby enemies.  It’s a powerset that works best focusing on single targets, but there are area-of-effect powers available as well.

There was also a melee powerset in the works, called “Street Justice” — a combination of punches and kicks, with some combo effects not unlike Rogues in World of Warcraft, but Paragon Studios has chosen to withhold that set for now, although they do say it will be released eventually, once some additional work is put into it.

If you’ve played City of Heroes before, but stopped, I strongly urge you to give it another look — if not now, then definitely when Freedom goes live.  So many things have been updated!  The character creation interface has been completely overhauled, to be much friendlier to new players, and its just better organized now.  The opening zones are absolutely gorgeous, and many of the enemies have gotten a much-needed facelift.  The Circle of Thorns, evil sorcerers that they are, now look like serious threats rather than D&D cosplayers.   The mysterious aliens called the “Shivans” have been overhauled as well, with a bright, vivid, chaotic look that I rather like — a big improvement on their original green blobby selves.

There’s so much new stuff going on that I haven’t had a chance to explore all of it yet!  There’s a new giant monster to fight, called “The Seed of Hamidon”, a new magic-based zone called “The First Ward” that’s getting some rave reviews on the forums, and a new Incarnate trial for the post-level-50 endgame… but trust me, the game has never been better.

If you’re on the beta server, I’m running around as “Commander Cosmos”, a Beam Rifle/Time Manipulation corruptor, in red and black with yellow power effects.  I’m having a blast (pun unintended), and this open beta has reinvigorated my already-strong interest in this game.  Keep in mind that this is still a *beta*, and that Paragon Studios is still working out the kinks in things, but quite honestly things are moving quite smoothly, and the new systems in place really add to the game.

One last thing — DO buy the hoverboard power!  It’s a very fun and easy way to get around town in the early levels, and a very welcome addition to the game!