A Secret Server for the Dead MMO 'City of Heroes' Has Players in an Uproar
When copyright law prevented the devoted 'City of Heroes' community from playing its favorite game, the community created its own solution, and a lot of drama.
In 2012, Paragon Studios announced it was shutting down City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online game where a community of players created their own superheroes, went on adventures together, and formed lasting friendships.
The news was crushing to the game's devoted community because they could no longer play and hang out in the virtual space they loved, and today, years after the game's shutdown, the community is in an uproar again. As Massivelyop first reported, a group of City of Heroes players called the Secret Cabal of Reverse Engineers (SCORE) had created their own, private server where they could continue to play the game for the last six years, but kept it relatively secret.
"I like the rest of you have been lied to," Reddit user avoca wrote in a thread titled "BE ANGRY" on the City of Heroes subreddit. "I have been told City of Heroes has been shutdown. Today, I learn I have been mistaken. For all of these years, City of Heroes has lived on. In secret. For every passing day and every withdrawal symptom, a person is playing on this secret server, and they are gaining xp, leveling up, performing task forces and forming supergroups."
In a lengthy statement to Massivelyop, Leandro Pardini of the SCORE emulator team explained that while many people in the community knew about the server and that a simple Google search would turn up forum posts about its development, the team tried to keep it a secret because it was worried about getting a cease and desist notice from City of Heroes publisher NCsoft. Pardini explained that the team already saw NCsoft take down a similar project in 2011: "Infinite Rasa," which attempted to create a new server for the MMO Tabula Rasa, which shut down in 2009.
"When City of Heroes closed in November 2012, this was very fresh in my mind," Pardini wrote. "Instead of trying to develop a server out in the open to suffer the same fate as Infinite Rasa, the efforts to revive City of Heroes focused on trying to acquire the IP from NCsoft through various means, with any server development being held in secret."
News of the SCORE server broke in the community when one player with access to it, Destroyer Stroyer, discussed it on the game's subreddit and in YouTube videos. Around the same time, an anonymous user also discussed the server in detail on a Facebook group of former players called CoH Survivors. According to Destroyer Stroyer, between 80 and 100 people were logged into the server at peak hours.
In this video, Destroyer Stroyer says that Pardini was not just part of the SCORE team, but also a moderator on the City of Heroes subreddit, which "silenced and banned" him for leaking the server over Thanksgiving 2018. The City of Heroes subreddit currently lists four moderators, none of which are obviously associated with Pardini, but an archived page of the subreddit shows that a Reddit user named LeandroCOH (Pardini's first name) was a moderator as early as 2013. That Reddit user is now deleted. The r/CityofHeroes mod team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the video, Destroyer Stroyer also said that he leaked the server because he saw how the SCORE team was manipulating the subreddit to hide the existence of the private server.
The Massivelyop story and Pardini's own statement say that people involved with the project agreed to an "NDA" (a non-disclosure agreement, or legal contract between parties to keep certain information confidential) but Destroyer Stroyer told me in a Reddit private message that "there was no NDA, i never mentioned NDA."
In the video, Destroyer Stroyer speculated that the SCORE team got the code to run the server from a disgruntled City of Heroes developer. This has led to a rumor in the community that the SCORE team has a database that dates back to the live game, which includes sensitive player information.
Pardini denies having this database:
"[A]t 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," Pardini wrote. "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.”
Destroyer Stroyer shows the signup email to the SCORE server that tells players how to "character transfer," meaning take a character that existed in the official, live version of the game, and move it over to the SCORE server. In another video, Destroyer Stroyer seemingly shows that he did manage to transfer his old character.
Impressively, Destroyer Stroyer claims that the SCORE server doesn't just replicate the original game, but is also adding new content to it, including new abilities and and a new leveling cap.
I reached out to Pardini for comment, but did not hear back.
As things stand now, the City of Heroes community is raging on the game's subreddit and Facebook group, not so much because of the database claims which are still unfounded, but because the secret server very much exists and not everyone was invited to play.
However, Pardini wrote that unless the SCORE team is certain that it will not receive a cease and desist from NCsoft, "the NDA regarding SCORE development will remain in full effect."
Pardini also called on players to support another user-created City of Heroes project called Super Entity Game Server (SEGS), which allows players to run around the game with their characters in a limited environment, but not play the full game as they remember it.
As City of Heroes player Richilieu noted on Reddit, part of the drama here points to a larger problem with copyright law and the challenge of preserving persistent online games like City of Heroes. Unlike an old Super Nintendo game, which can be "dumped," copied, and shared online forever despite Nintendo's best efforts to stop this behavior, an MMOs needs a live and populated server in order to exist. When a game developer or publisher decides it no longer wants to pay to keep that server running, no one else is legally allowed to step up and fill that void. Even when enterprising players manage to get their hands on the server-side code by reverse engineering client-side communication the company that owns the rights to the MMO can shut it down with a cease and desist notice. World of Warcraft developer Blizzard, for example, has shut down fan-made "legacy" servers of the game.
A ruling from the Librarian of Congress in 2018 theoretically made the preservation of abandoned MMOs marginally easier by allowing archivists to run them on their own server, but only if they acquired the server code legally. Additionally, while archivists can run the game in an "eligible library, archives, or museum," the public isn't allowed to access it from "outside of the physical premises," which defeats the whole purpose of an MMO's online community.
As Pardini notes, NCsoft has said that it plans to use City of Heroes' characters in new games as recently as 2017, but the MMO that players are so attached to and are lovingly beefing over at the moment is dead unless someone risks getting sued. If copyright law wasn't broken, and allowed people who care to preserve video game history and just run a City of Heroes server for all to enjoy without getting sued, this drama could have been avoided.
"Just today, the cathedral of Notre Dame burned," Richilieu wrote. "We lost close to a millennium of cultural history, art, architecture. It's a tragedy that should never happen - a tragedy that wouldn't happen if we were able to freely copy and distribute Notre Dame cathedrals as easily as code.
"Please do not let City of Heroes become another Notre Dame."
NCsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.