Just started playing it today and wanted to get some thoughts down. I'm not an MMORPGer; I played Ultima Online for maybe an hour when it first came out and never tried again until Puzzle Pirates, which I played and enjoyed for a weekend (I even paid the $10 for the first month), so City of Heroes isn't my bag. Still, some points of interest:
You have a very finite number of combinations when making your hero, game-mechanics wise. It's basically fighter-wizard-cleric-rogue translated into superhero. (Which was a dissapointment. You have a lot more power with Freedom Force. But I can see why they did it - Freedom Force could be abused - for example, I made a hero I called *The Human Target* who had absurd hitpoints, the empathy power, and nothing more; when people attacked him they'd die. You wouldn't want to unleash those kinds of exploits in an MMORPG.) But the look of your character is very customizable. This is a powerful draw, even though in game terms the differences are meaningless. One of my flaws as a game designer is I always want the decisions the player makes to mean something in game terms. If an axe and a sword do the same damage but just look different, why bother? The difference is style - different players have different personalities, and some are axe people and some are sword people. Some like to play fighters and some thieves. Some like to play the Allies and some like to play the Axis. I usually open with Ruy Lopez and my brother usually opens with the Scotch. When Nick Doran plays roshambo he always picks rock. I'm serious. In fact, game mechanics that make decisions interesting in game terms (you should use infantry against cavalry and cavalry against archers and archers against infantry) actually ruins the game for some people. ("But I like archers.")
That said, other people groove on interesting choices, and if you provide interesting choices to someone, it can even improve their perception of the game without them knowing why. Case in point: I was playing Jedi Starfighter last weekend, which has you switch off between two pilots, and I was enjoying one pilot a lot more than the other and wasn't sure why at first. It was actually a bunch of things, but one of the things was the fun pilot had orthogonal powers to choose from (shield, attack, slow motion time), and the not-so-fun pilot just had a variety of weapons. With the not-so-fun pilot it didn't really matter that much which choice I made - they all got the job done eventually, but with the fun pilot it did matter, depending on the situation you were in.
(Which brings me to another tangent. Mark Nau suggested last week that all videogame balancing can be thought of in terms of time; assume players are constantly looking for the fastest way, and balance accordingly. If a 1 minute mission gets you 100 points and a 2 minute mission gets you 300 points, people will do the 2 minute mission. If you have two attacks that do the same amount of damage, but one takes a little more time to pull off than the other, people will use the fast attack. If you have an attack that knocks somebody down, and you can't hit them when they're on the ground, people will rarely use that attack - it does not help end the fight quicker. This is an important idea - I used to think of time as being a 'shadow cost' (Andrew Rollings talks about shadow costs in *Game Architecture and Design*) - and things like hitpoints or money would be the main economy in which to do your first round of balancing. You can balance more accurately, though, if you think of time as your gold standard - the 'time standard'? - which your other economies are converted into.)
Okay, I've gone on so many tangents I need to scroll to the top to see what the hell I was writing about. The other interesting thing about City of Heroes is that it costs $50 at retail to start and there's no demo, but Puzzle Pirates costs $10 a month and you could play it for a while for free. A half-hour or so into playing City of Heroes, I was at the point where, if it was a free demo, I would have quit playing and never bought it. But, since I had already paid for it (and Frys is bitchy about returning games, I don't know why I buy from them anymore) I kept at it, hoping it would get more interesting, and it did, once I figured out how to team up with other heroes. This is a similar phenomenon, I think, as gyms getting you to pay your whole year in advance, because they know a huge fraction of their customers are going to bail before the year is up. I'm probably not going to play CoH more than a month; I don't know anyone else who is either. Although it sure is nice to maintain a big subscriber base to your MMO, it's still a win to sell CoH with this retail+subscription model even if everybody quits before the month is out, because of 2 things: you can't pirate a subscription based game, and retail is the best bang-for-buck advertising you can get. Piracy is huge - I'm convinced it's the reason PC games so dramatically undersell console games, and there was an article in the most recent Game Developer that said that in the days of Subspace, out of 8 Subspace players only 1 would have a valid copy of the game.
What would have happened if Diablo II used the same retail+subscription model? Or Warcraft III? Hell, why not Max Payne II? Just because a game is single-player doesn't mean you can't be required to log on to the internet and validate. The worst-case scenario is that the word of mouth for these high quality games is shot in the foot - ("Dude, Diablo II is awesome, you have got to download the ISO file!") - and they end up selling fewer copies because there's fewer pirates out there telling people that the game rocks. Another worst-case scenario is people not buying the game on principle - "If I pay $50 for something I want to own it". Final worst-case scenario is that there are too many people behind firewalls or not on the internet at all. But the best-case scenario is they keep the bulk of their customer base, they dramatically increase sales because 1 out of every n pirates actually shells out money for the game, and they also get a steady revenue stream from the diehards.