I'm not entirely sure why I'm playing a lot more CoH this pass through than I have the last time two times I subscribed to it. There have been a few huge qualitative improvements since my last flirtation with the game, granted. The largest is the implementation of "temporary travel powers".
In almost every MMORPG I've played, getting from Point A to Point B has been somewhere between an annoyance and an aggravation. When I first played EverQuest, back in 1998, it took two terror-fraught hours for our twelfth level characters to get from Qeynos to Freeport. Which meant that it was an exciting adventure the first time, and a tedious, annoying slog every subsequent time. There's a natural tension in game design, between the desire for the game to be exciting (ie, dangerous) for people who are exploring the landscape for fun, and yet still navigable for those who are running errands or meeting up with their friends. Most games lean towards making the terrain "exciting", which means it's a pain in the butt to go anywhere. Puzzle Pirates decided to go in favor of "painless" by adding "whisking", which lets characters (but not ships or cargo) teleport across the map so you can instantly join your friends.
City of Heroes has always been one of the kinder games to travelers, with multiple-destination monorails and travel powers available at 14th level. However, getting to 14th level does take a little while. In my first two lackadaisical efforts to play the game -- I was probably subscribed for three or four months, total -- I only got one character past 14th. I think she was 18th when Lut got me to re-subscribe back in June or so.
Now, CoH lets characters get temporary travel powers by accomplishing certain missions, which can be done as early as 5th level. Getting to fifth level is pretty trivial; perhaps a couple of hours' play even if you're not particularly trying to level up quickly.
The first temporary travel power, the flight pack, is good for two hours of use (that's minutes spent with it on and your character flying around). This is more than enough time for low-level characters to use it to fly to every mission until 14th level, when they can get permanent ones. Or not; temp travel powers are plentiful enough that you don't need to get a permanent one if you're sparing about how you use the temp ones.
The travel powers make the game not just easier to get around in, but most importantly: they make it easier for me to play with my friends. For the most part, it doesn't take more than five minutes for me to meet up with anyone, no matter where they are or I am in the game, and start playing with them. And because the Sidekick/Mentor system allows players to bring their friends either up or down to their level, once you meet up with your friends, it's possible to play with them regardless of how much time either one of you has put into the game to date.
The combination of the two -- ease of travel and negation of level differences -- has a third side effect: even when your friends have characters on different servers, it's not that big a deal. Because you can make a new character on their server, or them on yours, and the fact that you're starting out at 1st and they're 28th isn't much of an issue: you'll soon have a travel power, they'll sidekick you to 27th, and off you go. If your friends have a little patience, you can skip the "get a temp travel power" step. Navigating zones well beyond your level is trivial with flight; without flight, it's a pain but still possible with an escort, and usually doable even without, if you're careful.
There are still gaps in the system (you can only have one sidekick or mentor, so, for example, three people with characters of 10th, 20th, and 30th respectively can't really work together without finding a fourth whose level matches one of the three) and being close to the same actual level as the other players has some advantages. But overall, it works pretty well.
There's also a "it's-not-a-flaw-it's-a-feature" aspect in CoH that benefits me: there's not much in the way of high-end content for the game. This means that players either quit the game at level 50, or make new characters to play. Most of the people who've been playing the game for a long time have opted for the latter. This means that my friends who've been playing continuously for three years are generally happy to play with my low-level characters and often have lowbies of about the same level.
All of this combines to have me spending a lot more time playing CoH with friends from outside the game. And a lot more time playing whatever character I feel like playing, and not merely whichever one I've already invested the most time in. With travel becoming easy at 5th level instead of 14th, I've spent more time figuring out what character type I want to play, instead of leaning towards playing the one who's over 14th.
Another factor that contributes, which is where CoH happens to mesh with a quirk in my own personality, is that I'm enjoying playing with the auction house. I'm still arbitraging, not so much because my characters need the money but because I like doing it. I've branched into other activities; dabbling in speculating and selling some items to work towards badges.
That last, I believe, is the real answer to "why are there so many people selling recipes at auction for less than they sell for to NPCs?" Because characters get badges for selling on the auction house. And everyone likes badges. I've undersold a bunch of low-end salvage personally, just to get the salvage-selling badge. If I'm right and people are selling at auction for badges, then the arbitrageurs actually are performing a valuable service to the market: providing liquidity. The recipe and salvage markets, where you can buy in lots of 10 and arbitraging works best, have a lot of liquidity and it's easy to buy or sell most ordinary recipes or salvage in minutes if you're not too concerned about price (one way or the other). By contrast, the markets for single-origin enhancements have very little liquidity. I've tried both buying and selling single-origin enhancements, and it's not worth the trouble because even when I'm willing to buy high or sell low, there are no takers on the other side. If there were arbitraging in this area, it'd make the transaction at least possible even if it wasn't terribly attractive.
Anyway, having quite a bit of fun with the game at the moment. I will probably go play a bit more shortly, but first I'll do some housecleaning, just so I can claim I didn't waste the whole day gaming.