Goodbye, old friend. Again

I’m thinking back to a party I attended/held a few years ago. As often happens, the menfolk self-segregated and began talking about this hip new computer game that had just came out.

At that time, despite battling constant addiction with Civ2 and MOO2, and the burgeoning pre-smartphone mobile games, I was primarily a console gamer. I had (and have) been moving around all my systems from place to place, connecting them to ever more impressive televisions as I made my way through the nerd world.

(for the record, Combat plays awesomely on a plasma television, especially with the subwoofer cranked up)

For me, the 100-ish hours involved in fully mastering a Final Fantasy installment, or getting the most out of Xenosaga or Saga Frontiers was about what I thought a game should be. They (My friends) were also console gamers, but also had spent a great deal of time playing Everquest, mainly because they always had nice computers.

I’ll admit it, as a techie-geek, my computer knowledge was far behind that of my peers. Despite having attended a technical college, there was nearly a decade between my scratch-built 286 and the hand-me-down gateway I picked up in ’99. My world was mainly one of pen-and-paper adventures, and the computer games were a distraction, nothing more.

But they intrigued me. Incredibly detailed character creation, myriad storyline options, infinitely repeatable play experiences. This sounded like just what I was looking for.

The problem? I’d just closed down a business, was living in the attic of one of those friends, and the laptop I’d seconded from another company could barely stay awake long enough for me to answer online job ads. On-board graphics and an iffy power-supply made for a not-satisfying gaming experience, and there was no way my unemployed self could pay a monthly fee.

Yes, it was a dirty, shameful MMO. The same type of game that led me to not even consider playing FFXI on my PS2, despite how awesome I thought it would be to plug a hard-drive into the back and connect to the intarwebs. I went back to my world of words, and even after I landed another job (making games, oddly enough), it was another few months before the game and I crossed paths again.

Oddly enough, it was when my own company embarked on a cross-promotion with theirs. You see, we made tiny superhero miniatures, and they made a Massively Multiplayer Online superhero game. So the chance to put a HeroClix figure in a box of City of Heroes seemed like the best possible combination of worlds. I even got a couple free copies of the game to look at.

But, no computer on which to play it. Until one of my aforementioned friends announced that he was upgrading his machine, and really had no use for his old one. A machine he’d built specifically to play this game, no less.

Seems like a great plan! So one drunken night we fired up the machine, installed the game, and I made the absolute ugliest character ever, not realizing that the joke name we’d picked was to become my online handle for the rest of eternity.

Oops. Because the game was really, really fun. It took me a while to get a handle on how the superpowers worked, what I really needed to do to win, and to find a good group of people to play with.

Well, to play with, anyway.

Over the years I’ve fought crime (and later, crimefighters) with the full gamut of “internet superstars.” In general, my interactions were calm ones, but the occasional dramabomb really made me question online gaming as an activity.

And yet, my invisible friends always drew me back in. My account lapsed for 8 months once, and when I was ready to play again I went at it full-bore, even acquiring a second account from a friend for maximum insanity. Character after character climbed the leveling charts, for the bargain entertainment price of one dollar a day.

A pittance, compared to what I was accustomed to spending on a 3 1/2 hour baseball game, or a single night out’s worth of beer.

It was such a minor amount, that when I stopped playing for almost a year, I hardly even noticed the expense of maintaining my accounts each month. But my characters were there waiting for me when I got back, as were the colorful and crass nerds I’d come to embrace as part of my extended family.

Sadly, all that came to an end about two years ago. After working on several high end, beautifully rendered MMOs with far more exciting gameplay, I said goodbye to my digital friends with a sadness inside me. The game was just not fun anymore, and really had received no “mechanical” upgrades since its release in 2004. The graphics were dated, and even the content I hadn’t seen before wasn’t interesting to me. I’d grown up, and City of Heroes hadn’t.

A while back, the game went free-to-play, meaning I no longer needed a monthly fee to enjoy the game. I did need a lot of convincing to try out the game, especially since the first thing I found out was that my 21 max-leveled characters were all but inaccessible to me. Worse, my friends had moved to a different server altogether, meaning that in order to play with them again I’d need to spend a great deal of money on a game I’d already determined was worth none.

Yesterday, its owners decided the same thing. As of November 30th of this year, City of Heroes will just be a fading memory, much like the enjoyment I used to get from tabletop role-playing, baseball, and beer.

And yet, I’m sad. Perhaps it’s because I’m not working right now, or perhaps it’s because I rarely chat with my goons of yore. But City of Heroes was MINE, and it’s finally dawned on me that the relationship really worked the other way around.

So goodbye, old friend. You’ll always be my first, and my characters and I thank you for the thousands of hours you let us play in your sandbox.

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