By Carl Cascone

In April of 2004 a new phenomenon hit the MMORPG
industry.  Primarily dominated by the fantasy genre, the world
of online gaming received its first smell of old newsprint, and $0.65
serials.  There is no doubt that City of Heroes (published by
NCSoft and developed by Cryptic Studios) bashed in the portcullis of
the fantasy genre’s hold on MMORPGs.  Here is a game
full of clichés, and though it is often a bad thing, comic
book clichés are just what you need in a game focusing on a
comic book universe. What would a descent comic book MMORPG be without
villains that gloat to the heroes, brilliant scientists that help the
characters, and a full blown metropolis?  

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When CoH was
released, the character creation portion of the game was leaps and
bounds beyond anything anyone had seen before.

And you can’t leave out the most obvious
cliché: super tight costumes that, for some reason, people
who develop superhuman powers feel they just must have in order to
fight bad guys. City of Heroes did not leave that one out either and
their character creation system has been a model for every high end RPG
to follow.

City of Heroes (and its sister game, City of Villains) is a
title where creating the character is as exciting as the end game
itself.  Literally hours can be spent just designing the
costume of a character. If you ever wanted to try your hand at fashion
design while playing a video game, sit right down and play City of
Heroes.  For the less patient gamer, or those stricken with
Attention Deficit Disorder, there is a brilliant random function, which
will place features together and allow you to scroll through various
possibilities, so fear not.  Costume design can be as
complicated or as simple as one would want.  

Though costume design can be complicated, the character
creation process is simple and easy.  If jumping into the
action and skipping fluff is the goal, a player can be in the game in
less than five minutes. 

To start a player must pick an Origin.  Simply this
step determines how your character (or “toon” as it
is referred to in CoH and CoV) received their powers.  Was the
character bit by a radioactive arthropod?  Did someone kill
the character’s dog, motivating him to work out and kick
tail?  Maybe a bullet lodged in the character’s
spleen dooming him to a trait-boosting metal suit?  Could be
the toon was just born that way.  There are 5 possible
origins, and the one chosen affects what kind of items or enhancements
you can use later in the game.  So the origin phase is more
than just fluff.

The origins are Natural, Science, Mutation, Technology, and
Magic.  Natural characters train themselves to be the best;
think of the Punisher, Batman, or Submariner.  Aliens like
Silver Surfer, Superman, and Venom would also fall under this
category.  Science origin characters have been altered by a
scientific process.  Again, radioactive arthropods come to
mind with this one, or a family of four just out joy riding and getting
belted by cosmic rays like the Fantastic Four.  Any of the
classic characters altered by science in some way would fall here like
the Hulk or Captain America.  The Mutation origin involves a
character that received their powers through the genome.  If
you really need examples, think of Gambit, Rogue, and
Cyclops.  A character of Technology origin would get powers
from devices or inventions.  Iron Man, Cyborg, and Ultron are
3 examples that come to mind.  Finally there is the Magic
origin, which grants power through items, spells, deities, or
extra-dimensional pacts.  Example characters would be Thor,
Dr. Strange, or Wonder Woman.  

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Wings and capes have
been added to the game to give the players true super hero qualities.

The next step in character creation is to pick an
archetype.  The archetype determines what type of character
you play, and there are strategies that work for each
archetype.  The archetype is the most important factor in
terms of character development.   City of Heroes and
City of Villains each have a set of 5 archetypes that you can
play.  Heroes have the archetypes of Blaster, Controller,
Defender, Scrapper, and Tank.  Villains have the archetypes of
Corruptor, Dominator, Mastermind, Brute, and Stalker.  Each
archetype has a Primary power set and a secondary power set. 
No two archetypes have the same Primary power set, but the secondary
set of one archetype might be the primary set of another.  The
Scrapper and Tank are good examples of this.  The scrapper has
a primary set of melee, and a secondary set of defense, while the
Tank’s primary is defense, and its secondary set is
melee.  Characters achieve the highest ranking power of their
primary set earlier than the higher ranks of their secondary
set.  Furthermore, the magnitude of primary powers is greater
than the magnitude of secondary powers.  So a Scrapper with
the Broadsword’s HACK ability will deal more damage than a
Tanks with an Axe’s CLEAVE

Once the general character has been created, the true fun
begins.  The last phase is when a player gets to fully
determine what their toon will look like.  Every aspect of the
character is considered:  head, face, accessories, torso,
devices, belt, gloves, and boots.  The individual parts are
all menus so there is a finite amount to choose from, but the
combinations possible are astronomically numerous.  Also you
can add tails, ears (i.e. cat, elf, demon), strange noses, and other
sorts of prostheses.  The face menu gives faces of general
appearance which you than can alter through distorting some aspect of
the face.  The face generator is no where near the complexity
of Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion but many would consider that a
relief.  Each individual part has a menu for detailed
trimming.  As an example you can have a character with a suit
of tights, or a suit of robes, and Celtic knotwork detailing all of it.
If you wanted to you can mix mech armor with superhero tights. There is
also a menu of 160 shades of colors, for each part of the toon and each
accessory. Each accessory or part has a major and minor
color.  For hair color, shades can be mixed, giving a range of
color not present in the human genome. The generator is the same for
both CoH and CoV, so those players wishing to get the full menu options
available for their toons will want to purchase the City of Heroes:
Good vs. Evil edition.  Some examples of menu items are chaos
leather, barbed wire, chains, monster and zombie parts, and medieval
armor. All of these capabilities make an almost infinite number of
combinations, from pretty girls in skimpy bikinis to huge 9 foot tall

Before entering the game, the player can write their
character’s origin if they so desire. This written origin
story can be changed or written at any time throughout the game.

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NCsoft and Cryptic
Studios were attacked by Marvel Comics due to the character generator's
potential ability to create true reproductions of comic book

The fun with costumes does not end at 1st level. 
Many heroes need a costume change at some point.  After all
Spiderman traded the red and blues for black.  How many times
did Tony Stark improve his armor?  Even Steve Rogers needed a
new costume after he was stripped of the Captain America title and just
became the Captain.  This is mimicked in CoH after a character
reaches level 20.  At that point, the player can design an
entirely new costume.  The old one does not go away; 20th
level characters can switch costumes at will.  After 20th
level there are 3 more points at which a character can get a new
costume.  Eventually the player will be able to switch between
them all at will.

The costume generator is what has the most impact on the
MMORPG industry compared to other parts of CoH.  The CoH
generator is state of the art as far as generating avatars is
concerned.  In early 2006, with release of the Korean version
of City of Heroes, the character generator was released alone without
the game, and placed on the internet.  Many people that had no
interest in CoH downloaded the generator and spent hours making up
toons.  This prompted Marvel Comics to bring a lawsuit against
NCSoft, because Marvel Comics charged that their copyrighted
intellectual property could be duplicated with the software. 
NCSoft won the lawsuit, but there are strong warnings in the user
agreement that copyright infringement is not allowed.  It is
not possible to reproduce a published character’s name or
image in the CoH game.

CoH, while a great MMORPG, has its strongest point in its
costume generator.  In the future, fantasy games with the
depth of Warcraft should utilize similar models. The depth of CoH
coupled with the character generator, truly makes CoH and CoV hard
hitters in the gaming industry, as well as good alternatives to the
pure fantasy genre.

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016