Of all the MMOs in all the world, there's no happier moment for me than logging into City of Heroes after a few months away. Not into the game world - just the character selection screen. Laid out for me there is my curious history with the game, a half-dozen angelic, demonic, mutated, comical creations all of my own. No-one else in the world sees the same screen, and that never fails to excite me.
There's Hoffa, an enormous goat-legged brute in a sharp suit- he's the Satanic resurrection of Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary gangster who disappeared without trace during the Kennedy presidency. There's Ramses 5000, who's Egyptian Pharaoh-as-Robocop. The Flaming Moth is essentially Emo-Batgirl, the inevitable, impossibly long-legged by-product of letting my girlfriend loose on the character creator. And then, there he is. The Entomologist. My one true love.
Alright, so your Level 70 WoW Night Elf means a lot to you. He represents all your time in the game, a visual and statistical incarnation of all your achievements in dungeoneering and ganking and auctioneering over your hundreds of game-hours. His armour is his battlescars, a sign for other players to respect or fear him. But he isn't you. He's just a template someone else made. The Entomologist is me. I made him. From his appearance to his powers to his nebulous personality and back to a thousand new appearance tweaks later on, Ento is my proudest MMO achievement.
He isn't some preset Night Elf Warrior wearing the same Epic Armour set as every other Level 70 Night Elf Warrior. He's unique. Whenever I see him again, I smile. Sometimes I even shout "wheeee!" If I'm honest, the main reason I'm writing this is because it's an excuse to show screenshots of him to thousands of people. But more on him later. First, to prove I'm not mad, a word from some esteemed EG colleagues about how much more their City of Heroes characters mean to them than any other.
"Warwych actually was a character I made up in a real-world RPG I ran years ago as an NPC," gushes Kieron Gillen. "She was an agreeable mentalist possessee lady, and I'd kind of done a few things with her since. When I logged in to City of Heroes that fateful days all those years ago, I fancied making a character with a strong theme rather than just screwing around - in a game with as many actual meaningful options as City of Heroes, I wanted to live up to it.
"So I did my best to make Warwych - the glowing red eyes, the pale skin, the feral, almost anorexic build. I had no idea that one of the COH NPCs was called Warwitch, and it annoys me as I look like a knock-off, a W0lverine. Even so, I love Warwych, because there's a whole story of her - how she moves, how she fights, what she does... all these little rules existing inside my head when I go. Where most of the characters I've played in any MMO have had no personality, Warwych is mine."
Gillen, a Blaster - a ranged combat specialist, the superheroic equivalent of a spell-caster - fancied himself the leader of our little supergroup. Or, at least, he shouted orders at us. What we actually did, however, was stand behind Andov, Jim Rossignol's mighty Tanker.
"Andov was a remarkably important creation for me," explains Jim. "It wasn't simply the time I spent tailoring his enormous leather-robot physique that mattered, it was also the fact that I'd had such entertaining adventures - adventures that tied into the game mechanics. Andov was utterly maxed for damage absorption, and being able to stand there and get battered by twenty werewolves while my team dealt with them from a distance was uniquely satisfying. Of course, that's exactly how a tank is meant to feel. COH's success is in making you feel like your role matters which, when it's about keeping everyone else alive, it really does. No other game character fills me with quite as much pride as my giant yellow hero."
Accompanied by John Walker's gothy, reluctant healer Nitefall, we were quite the team. Hardened COH veterans would doubtless scoff at the impracticalities of a group consisting of two blasters, a tanker and a Defender, but, really, it wasn't about how well we played. It was about playing how we wanted to play, and looking exactly how we wanted to look as we did so. Nothing else offers that. Sure, we made appreciative noises when one of the others, fresh out of the Tailor shop (that you can alter your costume at any point is just one more sign of COH's unprecedented player expression) asked "how d'you like my new shoulder armour?", or displayed the new secondary costume they'd unlocked at level 20. We didn't care, of course. All each of us really thought about was how we looked ourselves, forever stopping to pose for vanity screenshots mid-fight.
I lost count of the number of times I left the others waiting for me outside a mission entrance while I faffed around in the Tailor, obsessively adding minor tweaks to The Entomologist. "Er, I got lost. With you in a sec!" I'd lie. "Didn't you have a spiked collar on earlier?" they'd ask when I finally arrived. In truth, I wasn't completely happy with the Entomologist until around level 18 or so.
His basic physique was, however, what I wanted to achieve, enabled beautifully by COH's still-unparalleled character editor. Bulging Hulk muscles, midnight-black skin, a ludicrous giant robot arm, and tight red briefs. And only four foot tall. He was my unrepentant love of the archetypal Marvel superhero, filtered through my inability to take anything entirely seriously. He was ridiculous, he was oddly cute, and best of all, his tiny stature meant the footstep sound effect played twice as fast as everyone else's when he ran.
The character editor, especially in the expanded form it takes these days, offers a vast array of possibilities. After the immediate choice between Male, Female and the ever-hilarious Huge, you alter individual scales - jaw size, waist, leg length - and battle against the game's admittedly poor facial graphics to create what's, at least, the silhouette you're after. Then you play dress-up. Look closely and carefully and you can spot the sets - robot, gangster, martial artist - but if you've got even the slightest spark of imagination, you mix and match.
There are two key mistakes the vast majority of new players make with the editor. The first is they go in with a specific interest - they want to be the Spider-Man, they want to be the Batman. So, they make the Spider-Man, they make the Batman, or at least as close as the editor allows, and as far as every other player is concerned, they look wretched and stupid. Plus, they'll doubtless be booted out of the game if a GM catches wind of them. If you want to be Wolverine, play an X-Men game. You come to Paragon City to let your geekiest imagination run wild, not to copy someone else.
The second mistake is greed. When you make your first character, you'll almost inevitably feel you have to choose one of every option - got to have a belt, got to have shoulder armour, got to have sunglasses, and spikes on the gloves and a tail and wings and a pirate hook on one hand, and oh, the kitchen super-sink. Then you can overlay a pattern or colour blend onto each piece - and you will, because you can. Which means you end up with some hideously spiky, incoherent psychedelic-Celtic-android that looks like a parent accidentally drove over their kid's box full of Transformers and glued them all back together into one misshapen mass.
I still shudder when I think of my first-ever character, The Amazing Dave. I knew before I'd reached Level 3 that he was all wrong, from his awful name to his big green afro to the vomitous rainbow swirls on his boots. I erased him forever, began a new character, and this time I thought about it. Simplicity is key to The Entomologist, and my tweaks to him as the levels wore on were reductionism, not expansion - bringing him ever-closer to the pure Pop Art, 60s superhero I wanted him to be.
I removed all patterning in favour of solid textures. He has no belt or shoulder armour - or trousers, for that matter. There are only four colours on him in total: his obsidian skin, including the insectoid antenna (his only visual link, stature aside, to his name); his red pants, mask, glove, and cape; his blue booties and robo-arm, and a touch of yellowy-gold on his cape's clasp. He wasn't complete until I added a giant, yellow E to his chest, the perfect finish to his straight-outta-Ditko silliness.
Now he is flawlessly ridiculous, but every inch of him (all 48 of them) nevertheless a superhero. Level 20 brought a cape, an event with a sense of importance and pride impossibly far beyond getting that last Purple armour drop. What greater proof of heroism is there than a cape, especially one that flutters impressively in the wind? Level 30 brings a glowing aura of some sort, but that's not terribly exciting, if I'm honest.
Which brings me to what's arguably COH's greatest problem. It blurts out its wish-fulfilment, its fantasy, its empowerment so soon. By Level 20, after just a few weeks of play, you've got your cape, you've got your transport power - super-speed or jump, flight or teleportation - and you've got your second costume slot. (In Ento's case, it's an all-white suit, a wonderfully unconvincing foot-long orange beard and a fedora through which his antenna jut. It's his secret identity, and it's fooling no-one. "Where's The Entomologist gone?", my colleagues would obligingly enquire whenever I changed costume.) And then what? Sure, there's new costume slots to unlock, a few new powers to earn, but really you're just locked into a rinse and repeat cycle of doffing up increasingly tough enemies. It's over, and that's why my returns to COH tend to only last a few days. I scratch my itch for leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, I pose heroically on top of cranes and giant plastic donuts, I terrorise the villain population of low-level areas just to feel mighty, and then I'm done for a few more months.
In a World of Warcraft, you're forever aware that there's bigger and better stuff beyond, both in terms of amazingly large swords and incredible bosses in high-level instances. There's just as much repetition underneath all the exploratory trappings, but it holds a carrot of progress in front of you at all times, a reason to keep playing. In COH, it's that much clearer from the off what you want to achieve from the game, and you really can achieve it. I love the game for it, even if it's now only an occasional presence in my life as a result. Most of all, I love it for Ento. I couldn't have made him in any other MMO.