When City of Heroes, the beloved comic-book hero MMO, was shut down in November of 2012, tens of thousands of diehard fans were devastated. In the days prior, players gathered to protest the closure while others tried to organize efforts to buy the intellectual property from publisher NCSoft. It was all in vain. City of Heroes' servers shut down and eight years worth of characters, stories, and memories were all lost.
Or so everyone thought.
For the past six years, a secret City of Heroes emulator project has been quietly running using game data from the original servers, meaning players could, potentially, resurrect their lost heroes and play City of Heroes as it existed back in 2012. Until now, public knowledge of this server has been considered an urban myth, condemned in the few City of Heroes communities that remain to this day. But thanks to a YouTuber and some investigative work by MassivelyOP, that secret is now out in the open, and it's tearing the last vestiges of the City of Heroes community apart.
"I like the rest of you have been lied to. I have been told City of Heroes has been shutdown," wrote one redditor in the City of Heroes subreddit. "Today, I learn I have been mistaken. For all of these years, City of Heroes has lived on. In secret."
Not so secret anymore
As MassivelyOP first reported, yesterday a YouTuber named Destroyer Stroyer uploaded a video explaining how, several years ago, he received an exclusive invite to join a top-secret City of Heroes private server after posting some old images of the game on the City of Heroes subreddit.
What he discovered was a project called SCORE (Secret Cabal Of Reverse Engineers), a fully-functioning recreation of City of Heroes as it existed before NCSoft shut it down almost seven years ago. Destroyer Stroyer says that this server only has around 3,000 total players with many of them being friends and family of the SCORE development team, who in turn could invite others. Everyone who joined had to be vetted by a group of admins who also made new players agree to a non-disclosure agreement in order to keep SCORE a secret.
But, as Destroyer Stroyer explains, he was uneasy with the way the project was being hidden from the larger City of Heroes community and decided to leak the server's existence while accusing notable members of the City of Heroes community, including moderators of the subreddit, for being complicit in keeping SCORE secret. Another leaker named Destiny Virtue also talked about SCORE at length on Facebook, corroborating those details while also claiming that other emulator projects like Paragon Chat were just a "smokescreen" to distract players away from the real project.
The most troubling accusation, however, is that the SCORE team has access to databases that contained sensitive player information from when City of Heroes first shut down, including payment details, home addresses, and more. In his video, Destroyer Stroyer speculates that a disgruntled member of Paragon Studios, City of Heroes' developer, released the source code and player databases to members of the SCORE team. That speculation led to the widespread rumor that SCORE had access to players' private data.
It was these accusations that forced a member of SCORE named Leandro Pardini to provide a statement to MassivelyOP.
In that statement, Leandro explains that, before NCSoft shut down City of Heroes, he was a member of another private server project aiming to resurrect another NCSoft MMO called Tabula Rasa, which NCSoft also shuttered in 2007. That project continued for four years until, in 2011, NCSoft issued a cease and desist order. Not wanting to risk the same mistake twice, Leandro and other members of SCORE were adamant about keeping their City of Heroes emulator a secret so as not to attract the ire of NCSoft lawyers.
"For the most part this was not an issue, because the community at large, at the time, understood that this was a secret project, a backup if everything else failed. That seems to no longer be the case," Leandro writes. You can read the statement in full at the bottom of the MassivelyOP article.
He goes on to speculate that SCORE was never much of a secret to begin with, but that as the City of Heroes community evolved over time, players forgot about SCORE's existence and the reasons for keeping it a secret. "It is possible that a lot of people that played City of Heroes while they were teenagers, and never engaged with the community at the time, are now adults who never knew about it in the first place," Leandro adds.
Leandro then goes on to address Destroyer Stroyer's accusations of conspiring with other City of Heroes emulators and the subreddit to keep SCORE a secret. Destroyer Stroyer's video accuses Leandro himself of being a moderator of the City of Heroes subreddit, which Leandro denies. However, as Motherboard reports, an archive of the subreddit shows that since October of 2018 and several years prior, the subreddit was moderated by accounts named 'LeandroCOH' and 'LeandroBTTF'.
Update, 3 pm PDT: Leandro has clarified in an email that he was a moderator of the City of Heroes subreddit at one point. He says he used these accounts to set up automated rules so that posts discussing private servers would first require approval from the mod team and occasionally checked the queue for posts and comments requiring moderator input. "Saying that I 'ran the subreddit' is a massive stretch; being a moderator requires a lot of time and attention that I just don't have," Leandro tells me.
Leandro also denies the accusation that SCORE has access to City of Heroes sensitive player data from 2012. "At no point did I, or anyone else I know, receive a database containing player names, emails, birth dates, payment information, or any other personally identifiable information," Leandro says. "Not only would this have been a massive breach of privacy, but that is not information that a game server would ever need to operate, and so it would have been completely pointless to share."
Update, 3 pm PDT: Over email, Leandro explains how he came into possession of character data only stored on NCSoft's servers. He says that before City of Heroes shut down, players created tools to backup and save character data stored on their local computers. But six months into developing SCORE, Leandro was contacted by an anonymous person who claimed to possess all the character data stored on City of Heroes' servers before it shut down. To prove it, this person provided Leandro with server files containing his own character data. Over a period of weeks, this person transferred the entirety of City of Heroes' character data through encrypted networks and then disappeared.
Leandro again stresses that none of this data contains personal information and provided me a sample dump of a character file.
Though the community seems inclined to believe Leandro regarding sensitive player data, many are still outraged that SCORE was kept a secret for so long. For years, the hardcore players have been making due with severely limited simulacrums that contain little of what actually made City of Heroes so beloved in the first place. "Well that just sucks to be honest… I check this sub and other forums almost every day to see possible updates and have for years," writes one redditor. "I'm sure I'm not the only one. I never thought in all those years there would be a private server… because why would they close off something so full of nostalgia to the rest of us, just seems mean. So much for holding a torch."
One of the most upvoted threads on the subreddit currently is a call to release SCORE's source code so that it won't be lost entirely in the event that NCSoft were to issue a cease and desist.
"The lawsuit against City of Heroes through Marvel, wherein a court upheld that its developers were not responsible for the user generated content of the tools they were given in the costume editor, still holds legal significance," writes redditor Richilieu. "In short, the game is important academically, culturally, even beyond the sentimentality of its community."
"But at this point, in 2019, to keep the code hidden away is akin to hoarding the Rosetta Stone. It's finding an Egyptian mummy and storing him in your attic to bring out at parties. It's discovering an ancient Babylonian stone tablet and using it as a coaster," Richilieu adds.
Despite the growing pressure to make SCORE public, or at least release the source code used for its server, Leandro says that the project will continue to operate behind closed doors. "Unless and until we are certain that a Cease and Desist order is no longer a threat, the NDA regarding SCORE development will remain in full effect," he writes. "For most people this will seem like a moot point since most of the community are aware of it, but keep in mind, that is also how we started."
Update, 3 pm PDT: In an email, Leandro clarified that while the SCORE server wouldn't be made public, eventually the source code behind it would be. Because of the legal risk once the project was made public, Leandro says the team has pushed back a release in order to get it as feature-complete as possible. "So the deadline of 'when it's done' was probably pushed way farther that it needed to be, in retrospect," Leandro writes. "The last discussion on an open event leading to a public release was for the game's 15th Anniversary, which is coming in just a couple of weeks. Nobody who wasn't part of SCORE will believe that, but sometimes timing is just that bad."
Leandro says that the SCORE server that players like Destroyer Stroyer played on will remain invite-only because he doesn't "want to expose anyone else that ever contributed to it to the same kind of reaction" he is receiving. Attached to his email, Leandro provided a screenshot of one of the several death threats he has received because of this. That email threatens to "violate" Leandro and murder him with a "Bersa" (an Argentinian-made pistol).
"My main concern now is to make sure everybody else is shielded from the kind of email I have been receiving," Leandro tells me.
Of course, all of this drama could be avoided if companies like NCSoft didn't insist on erasing years of digital history when a game fails to meet financial expectations, leaving dedicated fans with the burden of preserving and archiving it themselves. Many private servers, for games like Ultima Online and Phantasy Star Online, are ignored by their property holders. Though some companies, like Blizzard, have taken an aggressive stance against private server operators, others have found a much more consumer-friendly approach. Back in 2015, Daybreak Games officially sanctioned the EverQuest private server Project 1999, setting an important precedent by celebrating the passion of its fans instead of punishing them for trying to relive the games that obviously mean so much to them.
NCSoft neglected to comment on this story.
Update, 3 pm PDT: This story has been updated to include comments from Leandro Pardini, one of the developers of SCORE.