World of Warcraft and City of Heroes: Some comparisons

2010-10-09 15:42

One of the frustrating things for me about looking for a new MMO when Blizzard turned evil was trying to find information about them which actually communicated anything to me. For lack of a better resolution, I’m writing up a brief comparison of City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, in the hopes that it might be useful to people who are trying to pick one.

Long story short: At a pure gameplay level, I somewhat prefer WoW, but when you add in the user community and the companies, CoH wins.


Both WoW and CoH are classic MMORPGs — that’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games. You create characters in a fictional setting, the characters advance and develop through play, and there are many other players; you interact with those other players, mostly cooperatively. WoW is a much larger game, with around 12 million “subscribers” (this means a smaller number of players, but no one outside Blizzard knows exactly how many), while CoH probably has a couple hundred thousand. However, in both cases, the customer base is divided up among multiple servers; the net result is that in either game, you’ll see a fair number of people to interact with, usually.

WoW runs natively on Mac and Windows machines; CoH runs natively on Windows, and there’s a Mac “port” which is essentially a Windows emulation layer. Both are playable on Mac and Windows, and both can be run on Linux with a bit of extra effort.

Both are subscription-based, with subscriptions costing on the rough order of $15/month. Buying the initial game is $30-40 for CoH, and about $80 for WoW — you have to buy the game and two expansion packs separately, while CoH sells the whole current game at any given time. WoW has a new expansion coming out in December, which will be another $40.


Content comes in a couple of categories; there’s quests (WoW) or missions (CoH), “instances” to explore, and various non-combat content. WoW has more developer-provided content, by a large margin. There are more instances, and there’s a pretty large supply of things to do outside of fighting evil. CoH provides a lot more options for exploring the content it has, though.

Instances and dungeons

CoH tends to have relatively simple scripted events, many of which take place on standard maps that are used elsewhere in the game. WoW tends to have more custom instances and environments to explore, with more customized opponents and scripted events.

However, WoW content is tied to character level, so once you outlevel it, the content is pretty much pointless; you don’t get anything of particular value from it, you can’t gain experience from it, and it’s basically useless to you. At any given time, there’s only a small amount of content that’s really rewarding to a particular character. There are some mechanisms for redoing some content, but they don’t really change the experience much; it’s still the same old content.

City of Heroes has a very flexible system in which content scales to the levels of participating characters, and furthermore, to the number of participating characters. The same adventure can be pursued by a group of eight people or by a group of two people, with the enemies scaled appropriately. Furthermore, CoH lets you change to the level and power of other characters — if they’re more powerful than you originally, this is called “sidekicking”, and if they were less powerful, it’s called “exemplaring”. Either way, you become approximately the level and power of other players so you can play with them regardless of the gap between your real power levels. Rewards are scaled so that it’s still rewarding to go adventuring with people twenty levels below you — you get rewards as though you were fighting things of about your real level.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of that change on content accessibility. You are never just wasting your time going through old content which is way below your level; you’re getting the sorts of rewards you would if you were doing stuff at your level. That means you aren’t discouraged from grouping with friends who are of different levels. It also means that if you start a new character, who starts out very weak, you can just keep playing with your friends anyway.

In WoW, different content provides different rewards. In CoH, most content provides essentially the same rewards; if you want a particular thing, you can get it by doing nearly any content you enjoy. In WoW, you do the content that has the specific rewards you’re looking for.

Non-combat content.

WoW’s crafting/gathering system is much, much, more involved than CoH’s. Some people like this, some don’t. In CoH, any character can, without any special training or “levelling up”, craft any craftable item in the game, and the vast majority of the Best Stuff is all crafted. In WoW, you have to pick at most two professions out of about ten, which can include some combination of skill at gathering materials (such as Herbalism, to let you pick flowers) or crafting (such as Alchemy, to let you convert flowers into potions).

If you enjoy crafting and gathering, WoW wins here. If you think it’s a distraction, WoW loses here.


WoW has many, many, more quests than CoH has developer-designed missions. CoH relies somewhat on randomly-generated missions, which are pretty story-light, but then, they’re just an excuse to beat up bad guys (or good guys if you’re playing a villain.) WoW has more story. Well, let’s qualify that. WoW has more developer-written story.

Then there’s player-written content. CoH wins this, because CoH has some. CoH provides a mechanism for players to create their own story arcs and missions, which other players can then play. WoW hasn’t got anything remotely similar to this. The quality of the content is, of course, widely variable, but the net result is that CoH has an amazing density of interesting story arcs you can explore, many of which are hilarious, or touching, or otherwise interesting… and WoW has nothing comparable to this at all. The rating system provided isn’t great, but it’s good enough to let you find dozens of interesting story arcs.

Perhaps more interestingly, you can create your own. This is a completely new category of experience, and WoW has nothing to compare to it. I think it’s a great feature. On the other hand, if you just want to explore the story of the world, CoH hasn’t got as much. (The new Praetoria arcs introduced in their recent expansion, though, offer some pretty good writing — I found them more interesting than most of the WoW quest content I have done, perhaps in part because they actually offered significant choices other than “take this quest or don’t.”)


This one’s tough, because there’s a lot of room for personal preference. In general, WoW offers a more polished experience, CoH offers a lot more variety and choices.

User Interface

WoW’s user interface is customizable, and ultimately, that means it pretty much wins. You can get all sorts of interesting addons that let you do things like track values of goods, make notes of which of your characters have particular items, and so on. CoH’s interface has more options in the base company-provided interface, but can’t come close to competing with the variety allowed by the addon interface. That said, if you don’t want to spend your time debugging code written by some geek somewhere, you may find CoH’s interface more amenable to successful use without having to modify it.


The games play very differently. CoH combat tends to be a little less timing-dependent; you can queue up an action to take place “as soon as possible” (say, after the current attack finishes, or when the action in question has recharged), so you don’t have as much emphasis on hitting buttons precisely when they become available.

The two biggest differences are solidity of characters and flight. CoH combat allows flight, and many enemies and players will indeed fly during combat; this changes things quite a bit. Flying in combat is awesome. I would miss it if I tried to play WoW again. As to solidity of characters… In WoW, creatures can simply overlap. You can walk right through other creatures. This provides a smoother gameplay experience in many ways. On the other hand, in CoH, creatures can block each other… and this does in some cases allow for actual tactical play choices that WoW doesn’t have. This is a big difference, but I frankly don’t have a strong preference either way on it. Both work, but they work very differently.


CoH is generally designed to be fairly easy, but has a much larger range of options for increasing challenge than WoW does. By default, CoH content is designed to be reasonably easy to clear with any group of basically competent players. Some WoW content is designed to require “well-geared” players; CoH rarely (or never) requires more than basic enhancements to succeed.

The big shift in philosophy is that in CoH, content adjusts to the requested difficulty and the composition of your group. In WoW, content has fixed attributes and is only challenging if you’re around the right combination of level and gear for it. If you out-level or out-gear the content, it’s no longer hard. In CoH, the content generally scales to you.

Character design/development/customization

WoW has ten classes, each of which has three “specializations” available to it. CoH has 14 archetypes, most of which have a selection of several primary and several secondary power sets. In WoW, your role is sometimes determined by your specialization; a Paladin can be a tank, a healer, or a DPS (damage-per-second; it’s jargon for “damage dealer”). In CoH, your archetype defines your role, but your specialization shows how you go about it.


WoW has the classic holy trinity of MMO roles; tank, healer, DPS. They’re straightforward and they work about as expected. WoW is strongly biased towards five-man groups containing one tank, one healer, and three DPS.

CoH has tanks, healers, DPS, controllers, buffers, and debuffers, and people can merge roles. A “Scrapper” is a bit of a tank and a bit of a DPS. There are no real dedicated healers in CoH. Instead, you have archetypes which have buffing sets for helping allies; many such sets, but not all, include ways to heal injured allies. However, healing is much less significant in CoH than it is in WoW. Characters continue to regain health (usually slowly) in combat, so merely reducing the rate at which they take damage is enough to keep them alive and healthy. As a result, CoH teams tend to benefit a lot from control sets (powers that keep enemies from attacking or using their powers), buff sets (powers that make allies harder to hit or more effective at attacking enemies), and debuff sets (powers that make enemies do less damage or die more quickly).

The net result is that CoH has a lot more variety of team play. This probably explains, in part, the tendency to an easier base line of content difficulty; the game design doesn’t assume that you have an optimized team.

Character customization

To say that CoH wins this is really to gravely understate the case. After playing CoH, you might understandably ask whether WoW is at some point going to have character customization options.


In WoW, you can adjust your appearance very slightly — usually skin color, hair style and hair color, and one or two other options. All characters of a given race/gender have the exact same build, are of the exact same height, and so on. In CoH, you can pick any of three builds, there are multiple sliders for controlling specific traits (such as how muscular or thin you are, or how tall you are), and you have a lot more options for what your face will look like. (In WoW, human males all have one of about ten faces, all of which are ugly and look vaguely misshapen.)

WoW characters always appear to be wearing their current gear; if you have a cloak, that cloak is what shows up on your character. CoH characters don’t have gear, but rather, have access to a costume designer that lets them pick from hundreds and hundreds of pieces, most of which can be custom-colored. The net result is that CoH characters are much more interesting to look at, and can look however you want them to. WoW characters look like their gear — which can be a plus, but I think it’s overall a loss from a character customization and roleplaying standpoint.

Power customization

Finally, we get to actual mechanical customization. WoW characters are customized by spending “talent points”, which let you enhance some of your abilities or gain new abilities corresponding to a theme. Each character has access to three talent “trees”, which have various abilities some of which are prerequisites for others. For the most part, the right choices are pretty well-known, and if you don’t pick the right talents for your build, you will be a bit too weak for a lot of standard content, and people will think you’re an idiot.

In CoH, you get to pick your primary and secondary power sets, plus a third “epic” or “patron” power set later on. In each power set, you pick powers — you get a total of about 24 power picks during your levelling experience. Different people may take different powers. There are generic powers, called “pool” powers, which anyone can take. So, even if you have two characters, both of whom are “masterminds”, both of whom took “robots” as their minions, and both of whom took “traps” as their secondary power set… They may still have only ten or fifteen of their 24 powers in common.

Furthermore, you get to assign “slots” to powers; each power has one slot to begin with, and can have a maximum of six slots. Slots are used to enhance powers, and you can put different enhancements in a power; one person might put accuracy and damage enhancements in a power, while another might put in recharge time and endurance reductions (allowing the power to be used more often).

What this means is that character building in CoH is a much, much, more involved process than it is in WoW. In WoW, at maximum level, you have 71 talent points to spend, and usually at least 60 of those are spoken for by “you must take this or you will suck” talents. There’s very little reason to pick anything but the “best” gear at any given point, so advancement in terms of gear is just a matter of getting the best gear you can. In CoH, by contrast, you can have long and involved discussions about the respective merits of powers. Furthermore, the enhancements you get can have additional bonuses which affect all your powers — as a result, you’ll see people taking a power they don’t actually intend to use, solely so they can put a particular enhancement in it.

If you enjoy character design and customization, CoH wins this one by a mile. If you want to have cookie-cutter characters and focus on how you push buttons to get the best results, WoW may be easier to keep up with.

Community/social interaction

There’s three things I’d like to look at with respect to community and social interaction. The first is relations between players and the company, the second is relations between players and other players, and the third is the selection of tools available.

Company/player relations

Paragon Studios (the part of ncsoft which runs City of Heroes) is pretty small, and it shows. Developers do sometimes participate in the official forums — they can, because there’s not so many people there that this is overwhelming. On the other hand, ncsoft isn’t a particularly amazing company; they’re a little sleazy around the edges sometimes. They’re pretty much a generic corporation. They’ve never much cared, but they’ve never really pretended to, and they seem to be willing to let the developers focus on making the game the players want.

Blizzard is in the middle of a transition. For a long time, they were famously excellent at customer service, and some of that survives. However, they merged with Activision a while back, and this has started to have very noticeable, and very bad, effects on customer relations. The recent Real ID thing is a pretty good example; in the last few months, Blizzard representatives have openly and repeatedly lied to the customer base, expressed contempt for their customers, and steadfastly refused to acknowledge the substance of complaints about Real ID. They’ve gradually backed down a little, but ultimately they prize their relations with facebook a lot more than they prize their relations with customers.

A year ago, I would have said Blizzard cared more about their customers than ncsoft/Paragon. Now, I wouldn’t.

Player/player relations.

Long story short: WoW players are racist, sexist, and engage in open and overt gay-bashing through every publically available channel in the game, and on the forums, on a consistent basis. This is in theory prohibited, but Blizzard hasn’t got enough people to keep up with it, and furthermore, they have if anything reduced the number of people available to work on it. It’s just plain not a priority. If they wanted to spend maybe 1% of their WoW revenue fixing this, it’d be fixed. They don’t care, so it’s not fixed.

If you play WoW, you can reasonably expect to be insulted and harassed. Period. Doesn’t matter how nice you are. Doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, male or female, or anything. You’ll get harassed and insulted. On the other hand, if you’re gay, or transgendered, or religious, or Chinese, or Mexican, or female, it’ll be worse. A lot worse.

Now, people like to point out that the WoW community contains some great people. It does. There are nice people there. It’s just that there are also a lot of jerks. And by “a lot”, I mean, if I just sit in a major city telling the game to ignore each person who says something offensive (and I am not particularly easy to offend), it can take a minute or two for me to get the trade channel chat down to less than one message every ten to fifteen seconds which breaks some sort of basic social protocol. It’s amazing. It really, really, is amazing. (This is, of course, much worse during the summer, when kids are out of school.)

CoH does have some of these people, but, well. Some. I’ve met a couple. If I spend a day in WoW grouping with strangers, I’ll probably see random gay-bashing ten or twenty times. If I spend every day for a week in CoH grouping with strangers, I might see random gay-bashing once in the whole week.

More generally, CoH players are much more helpful, and much more sociable. If you show up in CoH asking newbie questions and obviously new to the game, people send you in-game money to help you get started, and answer your questions. In WoW, that’s pretty rare — it does happen, but it’s not commonplace. In CoH, it’s commonplace.

Social tools.

Here’s where that Real ID thing comes into its own. See, Real ID is Blizzard’s attempt to offer some of the basic social tools that other games take for granted. It’s the tool provided to let you mark a player, rather than an individual character, as a friend. The in-game friends/ignore lists are very small, and you simply can’t track even a smallish number of friends and their various characters using them. But Real ID relies on real names — if you have some reason not to use your “real name”, you’re screwed. (And as you will recall from above, having a name with identifiable ethnicity, or which is identifiably female, might be a good reason not to use your “real name”.)

So basically, Blizzard has the fundamental tool people want to use, but it’s not usable for everyone, and there’s a whole lot of people who find the additional requirements unacceptable. Even if you’re happy sharing your real name, you may not want all your friends to see all your other friends. But that’s not an option; friends-of-friends is on, because that’s the Facebook Way.

CoH has global handles. You pick a global handle, it’s unique, and people can use it to be friends with you as a player, meaning they can see you log in on any character, not just the one they met. Global handles are used for in-game mail. They are also used for global chat channels which are shared across servers.

In short, it’s just like Real ID, except that it works. Because they don’t have the cripplingly stupid policy of demanding real names, they don’t have to make up stupid excuses about how it’s only for use keeping in touch with people you already know in real life — and you can use it quite effectively to keep in touch with other people you just met through the game, without any major security risks.

CoH wins this one, hands down, simply because they aren’t going out of their way to break it. If you ignore Real ID, WoW just lacks basic social interaction tools. If you include it, they’re broken and dangerous. Either way, WoW loses.


If I had the option of playing either one of these games with, say, twenty or thirty people I knew, and no one else had access to the game, I’d probably prefer WoW. I like the crafting system, I like the variety of things to do, and so on. On the other hand, CoH really is a better-designed game engine in many ways; the down side is just the lack of content. I think I’d find WoW’s lack of diverse roles really frustrating if I tried to go back to it now.

In the real world, where Blizzard has gone out of their way to make their social tools intrusively hostile, and has done nothing about massive harassment and open racism, homophobia, and sexism, CoH is a more pleasant thing to be involved with.

WoW was a fun game despite the players; it was a great RPG, but a very unpleasant MMO. CoH isn’t as rich a setting, but the MMO part of it works a lot better, and offers a more rewarding play experience.

After a long day, logging into WoW to relax was a crap shoot; I might have a relaxing and pleasant experience, I might have a really nasty run-in with some jerks. Logging into CoH to relax is much more effective; I may end up playing with other people, I may end up going off and doing other stuff, but it’s generally pleasant.

Peter Seebach



  1. Thank you for this article, although I know I’m a little late to the party. Many of the negative things you said about WoW hit home with me, and are a big part of the reason I left that community. I’m currently in a trial period with CoH, and so far I agree wholeheartedly. The community is kind and in less than 4 days I’ve already added a few people to my ‘friends’ list. I haven’t heard any slurs yet (although I’m sure they’ll come eventually, but not every 15 minutes like WoW – no exaggeration) and although the content isn’t as polished as WoW, I’m glad to be away from Activision and the rampant idiocy that takes place within the WoW community.

    — Cazis · 2011-06-08 09:05 · #