Nobody can keep a secret in 2019, but SCoRE, a City of Heroes private server, did its best for a very long time. Now that subreddit drama, legal panics and six-year-old secrets have all blown up and subsided, thousands of City of Heroes fans are doing something they never expected: They're playing City of Heroes again.
Here's the quick version of what led to this moment, in case you missed it. In 2012, NCSoft terminated Paragon Studios, the developer that supported superhero MMO City of Heroes since its launch in 2004. City of Heroes never managed a World of Warcraft-like cultural zeitgeist, but the game's optimistic mid-century modern glean, and the fantasy of creating your own Justice League, resonated with a small, eternally dedicated community. When the apocalypse hit and the server bays were taken offline, City of Heroes lifers seemed fated to spend the rest of the decade in exile.
While a few fragmented mirrors of the old content washed up on the internet, none of them rebuilt Paragon City in the way players remembered. Instead, the City of Heroes subreddit morphed into a repository of old screenshots and threadbare memories. And then, in April, all of that changed forever.
A YouTuber named Destroyer Stroyer released a video documenting a fully-functional City of Heroes server, called Secret Cabal of Reverse Engineers (SCoRE), that was surreptitiously whirring away in the dark corners of the internet. Destroyer said he had signed a nondisclosure agreement to play on the server, which asked him to keep it secret from the rest of the community, and alleged that SCoRE had been keeping up this ruse for six long years.
City of Heroes lifers didn't know how to react. On one hand, it was liberating to know that the old server code was saved somewhere, and it was finally possible for them to crack the sky with their friends again. On the other, it meant that an elite cadre of snobs were hoodwinking thousands and thousands of eager veterans.
The community spiraled into madness. They wanted to retake their city, and they wanted to string up the supervillains responsible for letting them go hungry.
It takes a village
It's been three months since the City of Heroes insurrection, and miraculously, things have mostly gone back to normal. A prevailing sense of sanguine calm has settled on players.
"[We're] back to what [we] used to be: Friendly, helpful, accepting of newcomers," says one of the subreddit's new mods, who took over earlier this year after the SCoRE debacle. "People are sharing pictures of their characters all the time, asking for help, organizing events and such."
He's right. Scroll through the forums today, and you won't catch a whiff of the bloodshed. The kismet arrived because, basically, everyone has gotten what they wanted. On April 18, a week after SCoRE's revelation hit the internet, the server's top brass made the decision to leak their code to a Discord channel. Those files quickly spread across the internet, with small collectives of amateur programmers banding together to prop up their own interpretations of the data SCoRE was hoarding.
There was an initial fear (or perhaps fearmongering from the cabal) about legal action if the code got out, but that hasn't happened so far. Instead, City of Heroes is thriving.
In total, MassivelyOP now counts nine total private servers, with misty-eyed names like Rebirth, Unity, Victory!, and Project Ouroboros. The first of all of these was Homecoming, which launched mere days after the code was liberated. It remains the largest server of heroes, with 100,000 registered players across five shards.
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A Homecoming developer, speaking on behalf of others they consulted with before answering my questions over Discord, told me that most private servers are running a version of City of Heroes called I24, or "Issue 24." It's a reflection of what Paragon Studios was working on when it shut down in 2012, and the code that's been dredged up essentially represents what was left of the widely available Public Test Realm. It's full of prototypes left unfinished at the time of the layoffs.
The exceptions are Homecoming and Victory, each of which are powered by "Issue 25," a homebrew update to City of Heroes that was available to play on SCoRE. That implementation included new systems and content that were completed by the team behind SCoRE. It is genuinely bewildering to watch YouTubers jump into cadaverous server code to play around with a brand new class like the Sentinel, which was allegedly an idea batted around the NCSoft offices for years before the layoffs put those ideas to rest. Until SCoRE made them a reality, anyway.
For now, at least, City of Heroes fans can't get their hands on Issue 23, which was the state of the game on the last day servers were live, and the last 'official' version of the game people can feasibly remember. Nor can they go backwards, to the MMO's mid-2000s heyday, in the way that Blizzard is currently resurrecting a scrubbed, nubile version of Azeroth for World of Warcraft Classic. That may never be possible.
"It's slim-to-none at this point," says a developer who works on the Rebirth server, on the chances of reanimating those older gamestates. He explains that revising the code they've acquired to its launch-day elements would require someone removing content, piece by piece, by hand, which is not a particularly elegant solution. Already, though, people are cooking up some strange, uncouth experiments with the available tools. "Some have removed the aggro cap," he continues. "Originally a player can only pull up to like 17 critters."
Like many people in the City of Heroes community, the Homecoming dev I spoke to caught wind of SCoRE before it was officially revealed to the public, and he responded to the unmasking gleefully: "About time, now more people can play." But he's still extremely aware that as the chairman of a cosmopolitan, highly accessible City of Heroes server, he's putting himself in legal crosshairs. That was the one advantage SCoRE held; NCSoft couldn't litigate what it didn't know existed.
Everyone involved in City of Heroes' resurrection doesn't have that same cover. "We still fear the legal hammer is coming," he says. "We don't know where, how, and when. We're trying not to poke the bear but we'll see."
Another developer told me they feel that same anxiety. He told me that recently, NCSoft transferred the City of Heroes intellectual property to the US-based NC Interactive, which, in theory, would allow the company to issue cease-and-desists against private individuals. For now though, he reiterates that the company has kept silent. No news is good news, as far as he's concerned.
The private server that could be most easily implicated in a lawsuit is probably Homecoming, which is both the biggest operation, and also one that's started to take donations. As the Homecoming team explain to me, they made the decision to open up fundraising on May 6, after they personally sunk $1400 into the project. "Simply put, it wasn't sustainable for us to keep this up," he says. Together, the team generated a plan to gather patrons as ethically as possible. In particular, they promised to only take the exact amount of cash they need to run the servers each month.
"We opened donations up on May 8th and we raised the total budget for that month ($6613.86) in just under 20 minutes. The donation drive for June followed very similar figures," he and the team say. "We've been overwhelmed by the amount of support we've received from the community, and can't thank them enough for the faith they've put in us."
The point is, these are still early days. The future of City of Heroes has been blown wide open, and that can swerve between either euphoria or heartache if, and when, the rights-holders take action. What the private servers can count on, however, is each other.
A few weeks ago a server named Pleaiades went belly-up, without much warning to those who decided to roll characters there. Together, the disparate coders banded together in order to dredge up Pleaiades' database from the abyss, so that all those characters and accounts could be rescued. "The efforts were successful and the server was relaunched," I'm told by a member of the team. "Which just shows the collectiveness of the City of Heroes community."
It's a good attitude to hang your hopes on. A few years ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine the City of Heroes faithful earning restitution in Paragon City. For as many unanswered questions that linger around the scene, they have no shortage of good intentions. They've already conquered a miles-deep conspiracy to keep the proletariat away from the server code. Whatever challenge comes next, they have entire cities full of heroes to face it.