A large portion of the current CoH/CoV player base is relatively new to the game, having started with CoV or a few months before with the advent of PvP in I4. So the changes in I4 and since really haven't hit them that hard, and while I'd argue that 90% of the changes and nerfs have been good for the game as a whole, I do find it easy to sympathize with the Issue X naysayers.
So consider this a Journey Into CoH History from Old Man Hero, a veteran of CoH beta. Come aboard. We're expecting you...
City of Heroes Goes Live!
"Dude, those tights are a little, ummmmm, tight. I can tell what religion you are, if you get my drift."
CoH launch went off without a hitch, and it wasn't just the genre that was new to the MMO community. It was also the first major MMO release to be based in a world much like our own. The first seven zones are impressive cityscapes, and the hazard zones help define the game's backstory.
Oh, and you got to feel kinda heroic from Day One. No fighting rats and bats for 10 levels in CoH. It's zombies, robots, and gang members right from the jump, and people really dug it.
Given the game's quick pace with no down time or time sinks, powergamers gobbled up the first 40 levels in no time. But the majority moved through the content as intended and generally loved it, making CoH a critical and commercial success right out of the gate.
Then, before anyone knew what hit them...
Issue 1: Through the Looking Glass
"What? Already? I still can't tell a bind from a macro."
Issue 1 hit the live servers a couple months after launch, which was faster than anyone anticipated. They raised the level cap to 50 and added plenty of content to get you there. New zones (Peregrine Island, Rikti Crash Site), new villain groups (Carnival/Praetorians/Malta), the Sewer Trial, instanced outdoor missions, and Icon opened its doors, allowing for multiple costumes. As far as content patches go, this one was perfect.
And that it came so damn fast and was free to boot? Cryptic was setting the MMO world on fire with its commitment to ongoing development and unsurpassed communication with its players.
Issue 2: A Shadow of the Past
"Look, I only created this female toon to watch her butt all day, and now you want me to cover it with a cape? Blasphemy!"
September 16th, 2004. Less than 6 months after the game's launch, another major content patch hit the live servers. People remember it as the Capes & Auras patch, but there was a lot more to it than that.
First of all, the Terra Volta Trial opened the door for character respecification. I don't think I need to elaborate on the impact of the Respec Trial. Suffice it to say that prior to this patch, if you made mistakes or glaring omissions in your build, you were outta luck.
Secondly, yes, the capes and auras. More visual customization to the best character creation in the industry was just icing on the cake. Auras got (and still get) mixed reviews because of the perceived redundancy when stacked with toggles that already have visual effects of their own that can't be turned off. But capes were rendered amazingly and went over very well with the player community.
Third, even more new zones. Sometimes people forget that I2 was the birthplace of The Hollows and The Shadowshard (with 4 expansive subzones), which added a ton of new content at both ends of the level spectrum.
Badges and Accolades also showed up in I2, as well as new chat features, the Exemplar option, new villains (Igneous/Rularuu), The Eden Trial, The Cavern of Transcendence Trial, and the LFT system. And the real kicker for I2 is that Cryptic was so confident about its stability (a little overconfident as it turned out) that they released I2 and started a major server-wide event on the same day (The Rularuu Invasion).
So how cool was Issue 2? Is "perfecter" a word?
Issue 3: A Council of War
"Get this straightjacket off me! I'm not crazy! I REALLY SAW FLYING SQUIDS! I SWEAR!"
The big additions in I3 were Kheldians, Epic Power Pools, and Striga Island, but let's not forget the big one. That's right, folks. I3 was the I-Can-Now-Hit-Fleeing-Enemies-Without-Ch
More important than that, however, was the genius of the development cycle up to that point. By I3, powergamers had already hit 50 at least once, if not three times. Cryptic never expressed any intentions of raising the cap, instead focusing on adding more content throughout the game to give a player something new to experience on their next trek to 50.
The first two patches embraced that concept, and though there wasn't as much new content in I3, the introduction of Kheldians allowed for an entirely different 1-to-50 experience. Peacebringers and Warshades could be built literally hundreds of different ways and still be viable, and the added bonus of a Level 1 travel power along with more overall powers to choose from, gave the 50-cappers enough to keep them interested.
There were content additions aside from Striga, however. The Ghost Ship, Lusca, and Paladin were added as random zone events, and The 5th Column was majorly revamped into The Council. I2 also saw the introduction of the Mission Difficulty system, Elite Bosses, and a new supergroup window. Global Chat was pushed back some, but was considered part of the I3 development.
Cryptic chose again to chase an Issue release with a server-wide event, but this one introduced its share of problems. The Winter Event spawned Winter Lord giants in nearly every zone, and with the I3 changes to how monsters worked (everyone can fight a monster regardless of level), you could participate in Winter Lord fights at level 1 and easily reach level 20 in a couple of hours because they yielded thousands in experience per kill. I'm not sure why it took them so long to remove this from the live servers, but it was a huge distraction from what was otherwise a great patch (can you tell I hate powerlevelling?).
So new Issues were still coming fast and furious (I3 debuted about 14 weeks after I2) and were packed with new goodies. Cryptic was still kicking butts and taking names.
Issue 4: Colosseum
"You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have a boatload of nerfs and an empty Arena."
This is where the wheels came off the bus. I'm not going to get into the whole nerf debate because it's all subjective.
So let's stick to the simple truth about I4: The Arena was a bust.
There, I said it. It just didn't work. 2 weeks after I4 went live, the Arenas were mostly deserted. I can't explain why it didn't work because, again, it's subjective. You either like PvP or you don't, and even if you do it's gotta be challenging and entertaining. Personally, I didn't find Arena PvP to be either of those things. Maybe others loved it, but they certainly weren't frequenting the Arena for whatever reason.
I4 introduced a lot in the way of nerfs, and most of it was geared toward PvP balance. The advent of PvP would make the sacrifice worth it. But if PvP is a bust, if no one's using the Arenas, then all you're left with is the nerfs. Now, given their future plans for CoV and PvP zones, this was a growing pain that eventually had to happen. Like I said up front, I think the balance they've achieved now is really terrific.
At the time of I4, however, it sucked. It felt like nerfs for the sake of nerfs. There was no payoff.
I4 wasn't all bad, but what it lacked was content. The new costumes, body scaling, and coalition chat features were outstanding, but there was nothing new to do if you're not a PvP fan or didn't like the Arena.
So now they had a problem. It'd been 4 months since the last Issue release, the Winter Lord situation saw hundreds of characters skyrocket through the first 20 or 30 levels of content without leaving Atlas Park or Galaxy City (including the new Kheldian toons), and Striga content wasn't enough to keep everyone interested. CoH isn't Everquest, so without the immersive time sinks it's all about devouring new content, and all I4 delivered was nerfs and PvP.
People started leaving the game. I was part of one of Pinnacle's largest supergroups, and prior to I4 we had 5 SGs going to hold all of our players and alts, along with a few themed groups for giggles. After the debut of I4 up to the first few weeks of I5, our supergroup, a group that made Pinnacle's Top 5 during the 1st Anniversary polls, had all but folded. Most moved back to games they'd played before, and others moved on to WoW.
It's hard to look back and see the virtue in I4, but it was there. Like I said, it wasn't all bad, and I definitely admire the effort Cryptic put into developing it because you know that was a ton of work. That a large portion of it fizzled is unfortunate, and I can certainly see why so many people didn't like it.
Issue 5: Forest of Dread
"Hey, new powers! And look, a new zone! Wait... Where did everyone go?"
Things got back on track with I5, but not so you'd notice. There were some more nerfs, but I think by then it was far more clear what Cryptic's vision was when it came to balance. So while there was a lot of moaning and groaning, the I5 changes were mostly good ones in terms of overall balance. Still, no one likes a nerf. Better to never have something at all than to have it for well over a year and have someone come along and take it away.
The new Sonic and Archery powersets were nice, but really didn't offer much in the way of new gameplay. An Archery Blaster, for example, didn't feel all that different than an Assault Rifle Blaster. Nice to have more power choices and new animations, but it didn't really amount to much when it came to keeping long-time players interested.
Croatoa, on the other hand, was booster shot of content that put us in mind of the first few Issues. New villains, some interesting missions, and a fun task force was just what the doctor ordered. New mission types, zone events, and an updated debt system didn't hurt either.
Unfortunately, it was a clearly a case of too little, too late. The damage had been done. The population (at least on the servers I play on) had dropped quite a bit, and with CoV in the offing, it seemed as though many players were just biding time until the new game debuted.
Issue 5 was the swan song for CoH content patches up to now. I6 and I7 haven't done a whole lot for CoH except opening up the PvP window to CoV. And while I do enjoy CoV quite a bit, I still prefer the hero side.
It's hard to get a feel for how large the player base is now because it's so spread out. The number of people playing heroes has dropped dramatically, to the point where if you're on an even-level team it's likely that you guys are half of the heroes that level online at that time. Not as bad on the villain side, but I can't say that I've been impressed with the numbers there, either.
A server consolidation is a can of worms they'll likely never open (the name issues alone would cause a riot), so I hope Cryptic keeps chugging along to keep the game viable for new players. I'd like to see an option to switch servers so that players can elect to move to one with a larger population, but I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Well, there it is, gang. CoH History through the eyes of a long-winded long-time player. If you're getting frustrated with all the naysayers on the boards crying about this, that, and the other thing, keep in mind that it's not entirely unreasonable to be a little jaded if you've been around a while.
CoH is still a fantastic game, and I'm looking forward to I7. But I drink entirely too much, so what the hell do I know?