It's my second post in two days. Ergo, it's about City of Heroes.

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So it's been a long while. And hey, no promises about how long it'll be this time. It mostly depends on whether or not I actually have things to say.

That's a more powerful drag on blogging than you might realize. In the several million plus word history of Websnark, I've said a lot of things. Some of them haven't sucked. Others have. On the whole, I've done okay. Mostly.

On the other hand, very few bloggers manage to get married as a result of their blogs. By any standard, I'm way ahead of the game. But I digress.

The thing is... I don't have a lot of impetus to repeat myself. When I have new things to say or something catches my imagination, I write about it, but there's only so many times you can write about putting a fucking cast page on your webcomic and keeping it at least moderately kept up before it all sounds repetitive. That's what ultimately killed my enthusiasm for State of the (Web)Cartoonist, by the by. It's not that I ran out of strips I read. It's that the stuff I was saying about them just felt repetitive. "X does this pretty well." "Y used to do this better." "Z writes a better strip than I gave Z credit for." Blah blah blah blah blah.

But, there's still stuff I like to write about. And every now and again I'll bring them back up. Sometimes it'll be old hat, sometimes it won't.

Which brings us back, yet again, inexorably, to City of Heroes.

A lot of my friends have given up on the old City. "It's too repetitive," they say. "Gameplay doesn't evolve," they say. "I'd rather play World of Warcraft because it has variety," they say. So, you know. They're weak. Weak like flowers. Weak like children. Weak like children of flowers.

But they have a point. For all the (pretty freaking amazing) content updates that City of Heroes has had in its five year history, it's also pretty long in the tooth. There's only so many times you want to fight Skulls and Hellions. Only so many times you want to contend with Nemesis or run the horror that is the Positron Task Force. Only so many times you want to do the Portal missions or claw your way into Grandville. And when something new comes out, it's usually pretty limited. When Issue 12 hit the servers -- that being "The Midnight Hour" -- it included what looked like a ton of new content. New missions for Levels 10-20 of both heroes and villains. New post-35 content in a co-op zone back in Roman times. The epic archetypes for Villains, giving redside players access to Widows and Wolf Spiders and their various paths for growth. A remaking of the Hollows trial zone to give it more gameplay and missions and stuff. UI improvements. And "powerset proliferation" that opened new powers to new archetypes and even added more powersets to the game entirely.

That seems like it should be enough, damn it. That seems like it should be more than enough, for a good long time.

But... more powersets means more alts, not more content. The Epic villains only applied to the relatively small subset of players who took a villain all the way to 50, and then the custom content for those new epic villains was... relatively sparse. The new Midnight Squad missions pretty much included a pizza run to read content (customized for your character origin, not that it seemed to make much of a difference other than as a proof of concept) about the origins of superpowers, a single mission string at lower level, a mission string to 'become a member of the Midnight Squad,' and then access to an entirely new and pretty zone with... not a lot to do in it. There was an introduction mission string, plus the chance to have continual repetitive missions, and a really good task force which needed six players to try out. They came right out and admitted that the new zome of Cimerora was more a proof of concept and a place where content could be added than a fleshed out zone in its own right.

Put simply... it didn't take long for everything new in Issue 12 to feel played out. A nice fresh influx of content... which quickly felt kind of stale.

This might seem odd, but you have to remember something important about most new content at City of Heroes. If they build new virtual sets, that can be really pretty and really interesting and there can be lots of easter eggs and the like. However, new missions really come down to new text to read and maybe a few new enemies to fight, but for the most part things work the same way that they always have. You click the glowing object to 'disarm' it or 'collect' it or 'interact' with it. You use essentially the same tactics to fight enemies regardless of what their outer appearances look like. It really, really comes down to what you read in the text boxes, and once you've read them... you've read them.

(I have some friends who clearly don't care even slightly about what's in those text boxes. For them, new content is meaningless without new gameplay. There's not much to be done for them, though.)

Cryptic NCSoft NorCal Paragon Studios rallied, though. They came out with two more content updates and announced a third within that same year. The first (Issue 13 - "Power and Responsibility") gave a new system of 'day jobs,' letting players get bonuses for where they happened to log out (and badges badges badges to boot). It also filled out Cimerora's sparse missions (somewhat), and put in several new systems (like a leveling pact that lets you pair your experience to someone else, keeping you both in sync, and a system that lets you earn some of the better trinkets without having to do some of the more repetitive content and the like). It was okay, and kind of cool, and once again lost its new content smell pretty quickly.

The next issue -- Issue 14 - "Architect" -- was the big one. It got monumental press, and was almost universally loved, in part because it really did change the City of Heroes experience. Now, players can actually create their own content. They can create their own missions and create their own enemies (which are actually considerably harder to beat than most of the in-game enemies). It's amazing. And the Mission Architect itself is really well put together. There is amazing flexibility, and tons of maps, and the same capacity for costume designing you get for character creation with the added bonus that all the special event costume bits are available too (with the use, admittedly, of skee-ball tickets you collect when playing in the Architect. And no, I'm not kidding.)

If you wondered where I was in, oh, February and March? I got into the closed beta. I lived in the Mission Architect. Weds was very, very kind and understanding despite my spending hours a day creating new enemy groups and building mission strings, playing other peoples' Mission Architect missions, and in generally just devouring this thing. And then it released and it was a monumental and fast success, with incredibly fast growth....

...which then stopped.

See, you have three slots you can develop. Three mission arcs, with up to 5 missions each. That's it. When you've built three mission arcs, you can hope for one of the Developers to decide your mission is one of the best they've seen -- out of the literally tens of thousands being written -- and make your arc "Dev's Choice," making the arc permanent and freeing a development slot for you. Or you can manage to get a plurality of players -- several thousand being required -- to rate your arc as one of the best in the game, putting it (at least temporarily) in the Hall of Fame, which does the same thing.

Otherwise, if you want to publish a new arc, you have to delete an old one.

I'm sure their intention is to keep the database clear. After all, there are so many more thousands of arcs than there are players to play them. (Before the Beta finished, one of the Dev's admitted that the Beta testers alone had managed to create more content than the Developers had made in the official part of the game over the five years City of Heroes had been out). But the problem is, the kind of person who loves this kind of shit doesn't want to delete their arcs. Someone might play them, after all. They want to hold onto them. They want to build sequels to them. They want to keep going.

Only they can't. It doesn't take that long to make three mission arcs. Even three good ones. Inside of a week or two the kind of person who... oh, I don't know, buys the freaking "Architect" edition of the game on a store shelf is going to have more content than he can publish.

And it's not even a matter of letting your content out to play for a while, then rotating it. If you unpublish one of your story arcs to make room for another, even temporarily, all the ratings and evidence that people have played the first arc disappear. You are starting from scratch. So if a few dozen people have played your arc and you're still sitting at a 4 rating or above, you really don't want to shoot those ratings in the head so you can publish something untested.

I said above -- the only ways... the only ways to get more slots right now are to catch the eye of a developer (and get "Dev's Choice") or to earn your way into the Hall of Fame. And as of this writing there are exactly fourteen missions selected for Developer's Choice (out of 168,000+ arcs that have been published to date). So only fourteen different people (no one has more than one Dev's Choice, and the rumor is no one will get more than one) can have a fourth arc published by that method.

And Hall of Fame? Please. Hall of Fame is conditional. You have to keep your averages up. Groups of players formed coalitions to auto-five-star everything they produced in order to try and force their way into the Hall of Fame. Other groups of players began auto-one or zero-starring everything with five stars to combat it. The rating system is currently so polluted it's eligible for Superfund cleanup money. With over a month of play and over 168,000 missions published (though not necessarily active), a grand total of none have hit the Hall of Fame. It is, at least for the moment, not only a non-entity but not worth going for.

Which is not the worst of their problems. Hand in hand with all that have been a startlingly large number of farming missions that have been built, and a lot of people who are exploiting the Mission Architect to create powerlevelers' dreams. I've heard rumors of characters going from L1 to L50 in a day, and I can believe it. They've started to crack down on these things and redesign the badges you can earn from the system, but it's going to be an ongoing problem and it's further coloring the long term success of the Mission Architect. It probably doesn't help that the people who are really into the creative side of the system run out of arc slots and either have to dump their output or stop creating, while the farmers can cheerfully nuke a farming mission that gets compromised and build the next one in their list without batting an eye.

Now. I'll let you in on a little secret. You know those 14 Dev's Choice missions? Yeah, one of them is mine. Arc ID 1006, Ripping Out Reform. It's a low level villain romp where you're trying to keep efforts to reform the Rogue Island Police from succeeding. I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it being one of the fourteen Dev's Choices. And as a result, I have not three but four published arcs. Of my three non-Dev's Choice arcs, not one of them... not one of them is below 4 stars in rating, for whatever that's worth in this environment. I like them all. I don't want to delete any of them.

As a result... the Mission Architect -- which I'm apparently pretty good at -- is meaningless to my ongoing City of Heroes experience. I can't publish any more story arcs. I'm done. And I only have so much right to complain, since I'm already ahead of put near everybody else.

I sent a message in the system, begging for a chance to send them more money and open up more arcs. (I honestly can't afford to spend the fifteen a month extra it would cost to have another account purely so I could have the three slots open to that account, but I can drop some one-time cash on getting new slots over time.) Sadly, a few weeks later, that message hasn't even been read. It doesn't matter, they've heard it from a lot of other people. C'est ca. There's nothing to be done for it. I can play other peoples' arcs, but barring a new system that lets us buy new arcs, there's nothing I can add.

Amusingly, we now have new content pouring into the game. New missions, new challenges, new text to read, new costumes to look at. And some of it's freaking amazing. And so people who don't care about creating content are sitting pretty. They can play all kinds of new stuff. But the major selling point of the new update -- the content creation system -- either has a very short shelf-life in a player's experience or encourages the player to not get emotionally attached to what he writes.

Also amusingly, the bar for further new content issues has now been raised. We have a new issue announced for early summer -- Issue 15 - "Anniversary." It sounds pretty damn spiffy, with the return of one of the best of the villain groups the game has ever had, the 5th Column. (Long time readers may recall I had rather firm opinions about the removal of the 5th Column from the game.) But while I'm glad to hear there's going to be some new 5th Column content in the game, it's no longer as exciting for me because... well, because there's tons of 5th Column content in the game right now -- it's just in the Mission Architect. I had an incredibly fun time not too long ago fighting Evil Deep Freeze Nazis on the Moon. Do you know how awesome the official return of the 5th Column will have to be to engage deep enthusiasm compared to that? And even if it is awesome, just knowing there'll be a couple of new Taskforces (solo players need not get excited) to play is no big deal. There's vastly more content in the Mission Architect than can be played, and a lot of it's as good or better than anything the developers come up with. They also have new costume stuff and the ability to change costumes by doing a backflip (which is an extension of a recent paid 'booster pack' that lets you infringe on DC's trademark transform by being hit by lightning or infringe on Warner Bros' trademark spin around into a new costume, among others.

In other words, it may be cool stuff, but it's not amazingly cool stuff the way it would have been, say, a year ago. And they're going to fight that impression with any free content update that doesn't have a significant gameplay experience improvement going forward.

On the other hand, an accidental leak (which actually seems accidental, this time) has revealed the first paid expansion since City of Villains is on the horizon. City of Heroes: Going Rogue is going to cost money, but will also include at least one and perhaps many new zones, plus a new "alignment system" that lets you ultimately Fall From Grace (making a hero into a villain) or Redeem Yourself (making a villain into a hero). That's exciting, and it opens up some really cool possibilities.....

...until people get used to having Corrupters and Masterminds (probably under new names) on the 'hero' side, in which case it falls under the heading of 'new text boxes to read and costumes to look at until you've seen them all' again. And with my luck, half the stuff will only be available to a group of six players or more, or be locked to level 40 or above, which quite frankly is boring. (The chance to Redeem a villain is exciting. The chance to have my L50 Mastermind gad about in Paragon City instead of the Rogue Islands isn't.)

Still, we don't have hard details yet, and I'm optimistic. It's certainly possible there will be a wide range of new things, and there may well be solid new gameplay options. As the first paid expansion since City of Villains, with its own logo and everything, it's possible Going Rogue will include new archetypes to play. It may give us new power customization options (a system that's incredibly hard to retrofit into City of Heroes, but a paid update may give them enough resources to do it). It may let us start as a 1st level character in an entirely new City/Universe, with multiple zones of entirely new content on the level of Wrath of the Lich King over on World of Warcraft. It may add new functionality. New options. New ways of playing. New powersets. New more robust tactical situations. It may be a complete upgrade across the board. It may be a retrofitting of old content into new and exciting things. It may be an excuse to rebalance powers (and endure huge arguments from people, including very possibly me) to help roles fit together better. It may be everything City of Heroes needs.

And almost certainly it will keep City of Heroes's competitive edge over Champions Online (which has been delayed and which has had rumors of being... underwhelming in many ways, none of which I can confirm since I've not been selected for that beta) and the eventual DC Universe Online (and the re-announced Marvel MMO). No matter what the new MMORPGs bring to the table, it will be a long time before they can offer the depth that City of Heroes does.

The problem is, if one of them offers truly next-generation gameplay over City of Heroes, there will be defections. Maybe a lot of defections.

City of Heroes needs to keep really innovating and building truly new things -- not just content-wise, but gameplay-wise. And when they do, in fact, develop a truly new and innovative thing like the Mission Architect? It's probably a good idea to ensure their players get to use it for more than a couple of weeks.

You know. I'm just saying.

21 Comments

I still haven't read up on just what you can do with custom missions, but I assumed there were ways to prevent you from using it to farm and power level.

Is it really nesecary for them to have experience and rewards? Couldn't they just rely on the story?

I really love the idea of the mission architect and I would love to see it ported to other games where denying all rewards would have to be a given.

So, after reading this I logged in to try your storyarc, and discovered it's one of the ones I've already finished, and liked a lot. :) Good work.
Now to try running your other arcs. :)

--Penn (@Canuck)

It sounds like (not being a CoH player) it would be nice if you had a testing area where you could create and possibly playtest as many missions as you wanted (maybe just on your system, or on only one server) and only publish the creme de la creme to the servers (so you don't have to publish EVERYTHING to the world and it's not just the first three you came up with).

That may actually exist, I don't know, but from what I'm reading it doesn't sound like it and would be a good compromise.

Morgan, that capability is in there. You can test things to your hearts content, because until you push publish the mission is only stored on your machine, or, if you group, the mission gets sent to the players you're grouped with, still in testing mode. Once you hit publish, the mission is then stored on the main servers and anyone can play it.

I still think they leaked this info because I canceled my account yesterday...

I like this game, mind you. I've enjoyed it for over four years. I've enjoyed it enough that even though I've gone to the Warcraft side of the Force, I've been maintaining both subscriptions and poking my nose back in from time to time.

And I loved the promise of the Mission Architect. The system isn't perfect, but it's Really Freaking Cool and, so far as I'm aware, unique in the world of MMOs. And if you're willing to dig, there's a lot of good stuff to be found in the missions.

I'm just burned out on the gameplay. I've hit the top level on a couple characters. I've tuned them and several others as finely as they can be tuned. And I can sleepwalk through most missions to get to the end. I can recognize the map layout from the first room.

And yes, the mission text is a big draw, but it's very short bursts of text with gameplay I'm burned out on in-between.

I have high hopes for Going Rogue. I'll almost certainly reactivate and get that when it comes out. But for right now, it's just not worth the fifteen bucks every month.

Just a nitpick, there were many Hall of Fame plot arcs. They usually last a day or so before the zero-star coalition bombards them back into obscurity.

So, yeah, it's a broken system. But in my opinion, it's still the most exciting thing to happen to MMOGs in a long time. Even if I'll never have a popular plot arc. (I have no idea how to get people to play my arcs -- after advertising on the forums, I have a maximum of 5 plays.) It's still a fun toy to play around with.

Remus -- I'm aware, but the core point remains. The Hall of Fame as a potential "fourth published mission" doesn't work. In a practical sense, no one makes the Hall of Fame (because no one stays in the Hall of Fame).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQdwkufCUQg&feature=channel

You might not be in the Champions Online beta, but someone who is decided to post a bunch of videos depicting chargen and the mandatory six-level tutorial.

It's atrocious.

Eric, Congrats on the Devs Choice.

Turns out, your arc is one of the few DevChoice arcs I hadn't played yet, as I had focused on heroic arcs for badge progress on my main. I'll have to get to that tonight. And then check out your other arcs.

Have you read any of the arc reviewers on the forums? I'd be curious what you think of some of them, especially Venture.

The problem I'm finding with finding an audience for my storyarcs is that I'm finding I don't have a niche to appeal to. I have too much story for the people who just want to kill things, apparently. But, I've put some challenging fights at the end (story justified), and that seems to turn off some of the people who love all the text.

Still, I've gotten some great compliments from people who have played the arcs, and that's very encouraging, letting me know that somewhere there are players who want to play my kind of arc, if I can just find them, somehow.

With the Mission Architect, many players are just discovering how difficult the playerbase is to please, with various sub-groups wanting mutually contradicting goals from the missions. There seem to be wildly varying tolerances for things like combat difficulty and the amount of text in those little boxes. I think finding out more about the borders of the various sub-types of COH players and their expectations could be interesting, as it impacts on the "culture" of mission design going forward. (already, discouragement of "defeat alls" and hatred of that darn cargo ship map seem to be ideas which are spreading through feedback and reviews)

(oh, and shameless plug: arc numbers 5909 and 6143. They've got sexy amazons that will kick your butt. Oh, and story too.)

-Eric Johnson (@FemFury)

Actually, there has been one hall of fame arc, The Footsteps Initiative. Still, that's only 15 people who can have 4 arcs instead of 3.

I've actually taken to rotating out my least played arc to put out new ones, because dammit, I love making these things.

I should note that arc 1006 is not solo-able by an L14 Dominator. Died 12 times before using up all my patrol XP (hadn't played the character in about a month) and giving up. Got one level out of it, but no tickets.

>Got one level out of it, but no tickets.

Devs Choice arcs don't give tickets, but do get normal salvage, enhancement, and recipe drops, just like Dev-written arcs.

They don't? That's quite possibly the worst idea I've heard of yet, as it's effectively a penalty on anyone who plays those arcs. Since most of the Dev's Choice arcs are, so far as I can tell, nearly impossible to solo, and as most groups are interested primarily in farming tickets (and who can blame them, in about an hour of play in one farming group, I got enough tickets to buy well over 20 million worth of salvage and recipes) that means it's nearly impossible to play them. I really like the idea of Architect. The reality, not so much. The rest of the game is languishing while everyone flocks to the massive lagfest that is Atlas AE to find farming groups. I just went back to the game and was enjoying it immensely until Architect launched. Now it's impossible to find a decent mission group.

Given that you have a DevChoice arc, you got your slot back, right?

Also, Leons1701? The Dev's Choice arcs ARE SUPPOSED TO BE EFFECTIVELY CANON. That's the big attraction for me - having a REAL effect on the game. Even though there are some which contradict one another.

Ah I get it. Dev's Choice is cannon and so has to be unplayed, just like everything else in cannon.

Hola. Tried running your arc, couldn't solo it on a Blaster, got as far as the third mission before I had to break off for other things. It's well thought out, you've given the bad guys decent dialog (it annoys me when I find an arc where the bads say nothing, they just stand there taking blows... shows there's not a lot of effort put into it, which is sad). Gave you five stars. Hope to run it with a small team in the future...

Oh, by the by, couldn't deliver in-game comments, your global @ inbox (not the spam-filled email by the by) was full. Might wanna log in for a few minutes to empty it out once in awhile.

As someone who's gotten 3 arcs published (3630, 3691, 13088) I know full well the frustration of being limited like that. All three of my arc are doing well ratings-wise (each of them 4-star averages!), with good player counts (270 reviews on Arc 3691 last I checked), and I love 'em. But I've got 3 other arcs sitting in test that I'd also love to publish... and my long arc (13088) is part of a planned multi-arc series that I obviously can't complete any time soon. I understand there's a limit to the number of publishable arcs (memory memory memory), but given the overwhelming popular response to Mission Architect (even if you disregard the massive farming) you'd think the Game Devs would plan to expand storage capabilities. Like, by tomorrow. ;)

Congratz for making the Devs Choice!

Hmm. When did you register for the Champions Online beta? Are you interested? I can help with that. Contact me at my gmail address, same username as here.

@kafziel - those videos were terrible. Thank goodness Youtube pulled them.

I am very interested, and I've sent e-mail. :)

Eric,

I tried running your "Dr. Unorthodox and the Red-Haired Psychic Legion", and the arc wouldn't start.

Arc may have become invalid in a recent patch due to a pulled map or using a now unavailable emote or something. May need a quick edit to get it running again.

Posting June 29th. Issue 15 is up. The 5th Column is back and led by a Nacht version of States called Reichsman. Time to go beat up States! Uh, Reichs!

As of 7/7/9, you can buy up to five extra Architect slots, up to a maximum of eight. Now get in there and resume writing.

And I loved "Ripping Out Reform." Especially considering how little it seems criminals in the Rogue Isles get to actually face law enforcement. It hardly seems worth being a criminal some days, when you almost never get to face law enforcement, much less a cape. (But then, my main villain(ess) is a purple-clad burglar who embraces a feline theme, so a scrap with a hero is at least half the fun. ;-> )

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