City of Heroes ended not with a bang or even a whimper, but with a server disconnect.
Before the world went dark on Paragon Studios and NCsoft's superhero-themed massively multiplayer online game in 2012, players crowded online for one last run. They retreaded familiar ground and visited with old friends. Some gathered for an in-game vigil of sorts, while others continued as though nothing was happening at all. One by one, City of Heroes' servers blinked out of existence. Each end was met with the same message: you have been disconnected from the server.
But though City of Heroes died that day, the game's legacy lived on. From its death sprang Missing Worlds Media, Inc. — a community-based, volunteer-driven studio with a clear goal. A plan, in the words of Missing Worlds, to start again:
"We're committed to rebuilding and creating worlds that are missing. Worlds that died far too quickly with hundreds of thousands of fans waiting for, and committed to, a rebirth."
Maybe you can't go home again, but that doesn't mean you can't rebuild.
Count to 10
Today, Kaylan Lyndell-Lees plays the role of lore lead at Missing Worlds, but prior to City of Heroes, she had never been much of an MMO player. She picked up the game in late 2004 at the urging of her friends and husband; she stayed for its character creation.
By City of Heroes' end, Lyndell-Lees had upwards of 50 characters to her name. She enjoyed adopting new roles. Her primary characters were mostly defenders or healers, but there were those who were scrappers or brutes. She spent a great deal of time with melee combat characters, but would switch to kinetics characters with a knack for buffing. Overall, she strayed toward characters that were flexible, rather than being pinned into one role.
"I like being able to do support," Lyndell-Lees says. "I like the multifunctionality of the character, the fact that I can do many different things. I can go fight on my own. I can protect my team."
City of Heroes offered satisfactory complications for those seeking a challenge, she says, and yet was easy enough for a 4-year-old to play while sitting on mommy's lap — a big selling point for a player with four kids.
Lyndell-Lees is a mother, but more specifically she's a parent to two special needs children. Her boys, ages 9 and 7, are autistic. When her eldest son was a toddler, he had problems with speech. The words simply wouldn't come out right. And then, at age 2, he stopped speaking altogether. Lyndell-Lees and her husband couldn't get their insurance to cover speech therapy for their child, and shortly thereafter his brother was born.
Throughout this, Lyndell-Lees played City of Heroes. Eventually she began to notice her eldest son's interest in the game. He would watch her and her husband play, push buttons to help. Lyndell-Lees and her husband would sit him in their laps while they explored, talking him through their gaming. Slowly, City of Heroes became something else: a tool.
"We actually used City of Heroes as speech therapy because it was so realistic with graphics, and he was very much a superhero fan," Lyndell-Lees says. "Cape Radio, one of the community-run radio stations, actually allowed him to speak with them and make him feel like his heroes were talking back to him."
His words began to find their way back. Tree. Rock. House. Door. By 2007, he was counting. One. Two. Three. Four. But of course, her son was a superhero fan — the first time he counted to 10, it was five, six, Superman, eight, nine, 10.
A last-ditch, everything-else-has-failed plan
The final days of City of Heroes were scattered for everyone. Some tried to play as much as possible, and others did last runs of favorite missions and areas. Old friends returned for long overdue reunions, while others drifted away.
The players of Missing Worlds were no exception. Cameron Johnson, Missing Worlds' vice president, returned to the game after a college-fueled hiatus. He realized that his mantra of "I can always go back" was no longer true. On the last day, he logged into City of Heroes like so many others to see it off.
"For me, my emotion is suppressed by the exasperation over the illogic of it," Johnson says of the game's cancellation. "It just seemed like such a silly decision."
David MacKay, Missing Worlds' president, never left. On City of Heroes' final day, a long lost friend returned to the game. It had been 2 1/2, maybe even three years.
"There wasn't a great deal that I thought I could do, because I have writing skills and I have sewing skills."
"I actually didn't play the game for the last three hours," MacKay says. "I just spent the time catching up with an old friend, which is what gets to the heart of what City of Heroes allowed people to do. It was as much a game as a social network."
Lyndell-Lees had a difficult time returning after the announcement was made. For her, the goodbyes had been said. She distanced herself and her children from City of Heroes. It would have been too difficult see them get seriously involved again so close to its ending.
Instead, Lyndell-Lees turned to Save City of Heroes campaigns. She sewed capes and wrote testimonials to NCsoft about her sons and their speech therapy.
"There wasn't a great deal that I thought I could do, because I have writing skills and I have sewing skills," Lyndell-Lees says. "I'm not a computer programmer; I don't have a lot of contacts in the gaming media. What I thought I could do was make a last-ditch, everything-else-has-failed plan to keep something alive."
If you judge Missing Worlds Media by its organized chaos, it's easy to think of it as less of a fan effort and more of a community-driven company.
Lyndell-Lees, Johnson and MacKay are but three of many dedicated fans who answered a call to arms. Headed by a handful of project leads and upper management types, Missing Worlds is comprised of roughly 100 active contributors, with about half that number falling into a core, hyperactive group. No one at Missing Worlds is paid. Crowd funding is an eventual goal, but the effort so far has been completely self-funded. Everyone is donating their time, creativity and effort for the chance to create something worth far more than money.
The company got its start in September 2012, some time after fans learned of Paragon Studios' untimely end. Unwilling to give up without a fight, the community threw ideas back and forth. Some ideas were outlandish — buying the game from NCsoft, convincing another studio to do so. Others involved saving City of Heroes itself through fundraising and campaigning. Finally, one idea began to gain traction above all others.
"Initially, [it] was just sort of a pipe dream that people were coming up with," Johnson says. "It's almost inevitable that 'Well, I'll make my own game to make up for the loss of this one,' is going to come up. But as the month went on, it became clear that there was a lot of creative energy being put toward, 'Well, what could we put into this sort of thing?'"
"Without it being a business, there's no way the game could be formed."
By early October, the skeleton of Missing Worlds was slowly being pieced together. Now, the attention had turned to the daunting task of putting together a structure and business model.
"We were at a point where we had kind of reached a critical mass," Johnson says. "But all the creative efforts and such were pouring in and coming together. They needed to have a mold to flow into to organize all of the work and to figure out the steps that would have to be taken to really make this into a business. Without it being a business, there's no way the game could be formed."
MacKay, now the company's president, got involved around this time. MacKay never intended to become the president, and he jokes that he's still trying to figure out what happened. When Missing Worlds was being organized, MacKay had just graduated with a degree in business administration and marketing. He offered his help.
"Since I helped prepare a business plan, a business model," MacKay says, "they said, 'Hey, you know what? You've been involved with this absolutely critical stuff. Here's your title.'"
With a business as its backbone, Missing Worlds could finally focus on its heart.
"Ultimately, this project is developed to form a new home for a community that has lost theirs," Johnson says. "When it comes down to it, what I want to see is a fictional world where this community can come back together and build its bases, build its characters, build its stories and connect with each other again."
Every department in Missing Worlds has a lead who assigns work and keeps participants organized. As lore lead, Lyndell-Lees works with about 15 dedicated writers and another 30 or so who contribute in their free time. She spends her days balancing time as a stay-at-home mom and her nights focused on her group.
Lyndell-Lees assigns and tracks work through Trello, a web-based board used for project management. A group Wiki holds the project’s information. Skype is for brainstorming and discussion.
The process is similarly repeated in other departments. The game architecture group works on character attributes and combat mechanics, which it feeds to tech. Tech, currently using the Unreal Engine 3, codes, tests and reports back with regular summaries. Each group's separate work eventually loops back to the greater project, and volunteers go where they're needed.
"At the grassroots level, we have volunteers who say, 'I want to contribute in this way,'" Johnson says. "We usually point them to a department head, who they go talk to. Depending on how active they want to be and how much time they have, then a department head will give them assignments to do to produce some aspect of the product we need."
Most of the people working on The Phoenix Project have regular day jobs. Some contribute in their spare time, while others are on a more regular schedule. Project leads will typically spend anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week working. "The 20 to 40 is our hobby time that we devote to [The Phoenix Project]," Johnson says.
A house divided
In its genesis, The Phoenix Project was dubbed Plan Z, a blanket term the community assigns to all successor projects. The community cast the vote that would determine its current name in October. Heroes and Villains was a close second.
At the time, Lyndell-Lees was working closely with Amanda Brooks, known online as Golden Girl, who currently leads a separate project. But creative differences opened a rift between Brooks and members of The Phoenix Project team. Where others, including Lyndell-Lees, wanted to build the game from the lore up, Brooks was first focused on the building, programming and MMO components. Tensions grew as Brooks and Lyndell-Lees wrestled for control over the game's lore.
"[Brooks] has more writing experience than she's got programming experience, and she wanted to have more control over the lore than I was going to let her have," Lyndell-Lees says. "I'd done lore work before, and she has not."
"We tried very, very hard to work with her, and we do wish her every bit of success."
Unable to reconcile their differences, Brooks split from The Phoenix Project. She departed with the community's runner-up name, which made the break more amicable, Lyndell-Lees says. Brooks announced Heroes and Villains as a separate project in late November. Like Missing Worlds, Brooks' newly announced virtual studio, Plan Z, would operate with volunteers.
The divide came as a surprise to Lyndell-Lees. Despite their vastly different approaches to building the game, a joint effort was always the plan.
"We tried very, very hard to work with her, and we do wish her every bit of success," Lyndell-Lees says. "She's a very nice person, and she has a lot of great ideas. I hope she can see some of those ideas realized in Heroes and Villains. I wish she was able to work with [us], and we had been able to keep it from becoming a split. The Phoenix Project and Missing Worlds Media had not intended there to be a split at all. That was her decision that she made independently."
There is a very personal, yet universal, loss for the players of City of Heroes. When asked about what they'll miss most, there are two answers that seem to appear every time.
Two: the game's community.
"This is a community that still wants a home," Johnson says. "It's a community that wants to hold together, so I feel that they deserve the chance to do so."
It's a never-ending cycle for Johnson. The community's enthusiasm for the game feeds his desire to rebuild the game, which in turns spreads back out to the players. Johnson credits this phenomenon to the group's strength.
"We think that [The Phoenix Project] can sustain itself on the community," Johnson says. "The community is active, eager and more than willing in making sure that the spiritual successor, since the original game was taken away from them, is able to succeed and continue to be there."
It's a community unlike those Lyndell-Lees has seen before. Players go out of their way to help people they've never met in real life. They donate money to others in need, or talk to children that cannot speak back to them, she says. It's as if acting like a superhero encourages others to be more altruistic in their actions.
"Part of it is because the game itself started out actively encouraging people to help others," Lyndell-Lees says. "[City of Heroes] had powers that had absolutely no benefit to the person that had the power, but had immense benefit to the person's teammates."
Players with the power to teleport would wait outside areas difficult for low-level players. When those players crossed their path, they would teleport them to safety, rather than watch as they died over and over again. Lyndell-Lees tried something similar; she would heal and teleport strangers to their next mission. It made her feel good as a person, she says, to help.
"Sometimes life seems like it's got you down. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of good news out there, but you can log into a game and feel like you are actively helping people," Lyndell-Lees says. "Even though it's a game, it still makes you feel better. I think the hero aspect of that is unique and helped contribute to that sense of, '[Rebuilding] is something that we do.'"
Lyndell-Lees' boys haven't stopped asking about City of Heroes, but now they wonder about The Phoenix Project, too.
"What is Titan City?" they ask. "Mommy, are you writing new superheroes for us to play?"
To which she replies, "Yes, I'm trying."
Layout: Matt Leone
Image Credits: Missing Worlds Media, NCsoft
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts