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It's been a while, yet again, and this time I have no good reason for it. It's not illness or complications. It is one thing. Star Trek Online. The Open Beta consumed me, which gave way to the Headstart consuming me, and then Launch, and here we are now. If I have had a computer open, it is to play this game. I am obsessed, and I am not only not ashamed but proud of it.

How obsessed?

I took vacation so that I could bury myself in the game. And, admittedly, in various car repairs. So I am both poor and obsessed, but rich in spirit.

Needless to say, I like the game. I like it a lot. And I'm not alone. One report Atari has issued indicated one million active accounts after Launch. That's pretty freakin' huge. And the game has had congestion issues which have led to Queues to get in, because the concurrent users continues to be monumental -- which means a much larger than expected percentage of the total player base is actually in the game playing -- or trying to be -- at any one time. People are trying to play, and after they play they're coming back for more.

Naturally, this has led inexorably to claims the game is doomed. DOOOOOOOMED! After all, if people are having to wait in queues to play, they'll be turned off by Cryptic's unprofessionalism and leave.

That's right. This game is doomed because it's too crowded.

This is the kind of problem developers dream of having.

This is not to say, however, that the game doesn't have problems that need resolving. It has them, all right, and it does indeed need to fix them and build upon them. In a lot of cases they're stuff that another six months in development would have helped -- content issues, some gameplay bugs and the like. But, for various reasons that was not to be (most of them spelled A-T-A-R-I and M-O-N-E-Y if some of the interim shareholder reports are to be believed), so the question becomes simple:

What next?

Look, this is a hit. You don't get to a million users, all trying desperately to play, and call it anything but a hit. But as others smarter than I have said, MMOs aren't a sprint -- they're a marathon. In six months or a year you're still going to want to have hundreds of thousands of players. What's worse, a good number of the most dedicated players aren't going to be contributing to the bottom line any more. See, there was a 'Lifetime Subscription Deal' which mean that for two hundred and fifty bucks you got to have extra character slots, plus the ability to have your Captain be a 'Liberated Borg,' plus you'd never have to pay the monthly fee. The true believers, the hungry gameplayers and the far game thinkers grabbed that deal. Hell, I grabbed that deal, representing most of my personal 'fun' money for the next half year, honestly speaking.

And that's fine and dandy, but that means at least tens of thousands of players -- maybe more -- who are both going to be demanding and who aren't going to contribute fifteen bucks a month to the game. That means Cryptic needs needs needs needs needs to hold on to the teeming masses who aren't hardcore believers and fans of Star Trek Online to keep paying the bills. And that means the next 12 months are crucial to the success of this game.

These are the same issues plaguing unqualified hit games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, it's worth noting -- huge initial sales, followed by steep dropoffs in subscriptions moving forward. And it's very unlikely that Star Trek Online will grow in subscriptions past the six month mark right now. In order to gain the kind of forward momentum and actual subscriber growth that something like World of Warcraft enjoys, Star Trek Online is going to need to do more development moving forward than it did previous to release. It needs more people working on the game, in other words. Not only can't they rest on their laurels, they need to start cultivating fields and planting more laurel trees stat.

To their credit, they seem to know this. Right as we opened Headstart, they began to tease the first free content update. High end/endgame content. "Raidisodes" which will require teams to complete, with the depth of the full "episode" style mission-arcs. The Borg. More playable species. Klingon PvE content (exploration style, which means they can explore strange, new worlds... seek out new life forms and new civilizations... and conquer them for the honor and glory of the empire! Kai kassai!), et cetera et cetera. That's good. It's a start -- a palpable start.

But it's not enough. It can't begin to be enough. They need way more than they're even implying.

Here then is my humble offering: a course they could set through the choppy postlaunch waters, if you will. There are many like it, but these are mine.

1. Hire at least two more full content development teams. Look, the head writer of Star Trek Online -- Christine "Kestrel" Thompson -- is fantastic. She really is. If you haven't yet gotten out of the Sirius Sector Block, and are convinced the game is nothing more than "destroy six Orion ships," you haven't begun to understand where this game is going. About the time you step through the Guardian of Forever or find yourself staring down the hungry maw of one of the most iconic and horrible threats to come out of Star Trek you realize the game's got depth. When you actually get a reasonable explanation for the horrific 'physics' behind the destruction of Romulus in last summer's Star Trek movie, you're into full-on thrilled territory.

However, Thompson is just one person, and the content development team she works with is already maxxed out trying to keep ahead of her vision. No matter how good the rapid development tools they have are, a lot needs to happen to turn an outline into a coherent and engaging story.

So. Priority number one for Cryptic needs to be hiring more content-specific development teams. Not add more developers to the existing teams, but whole new teams. Give Thompson a well-deserved raise and make her both Head Writer and Editor, while Craig Zinkovich stays the Executive Producer. In effect, make Zinkovich into Rick Berman (or Gene Roddenberry if you can't stand to consider Rick Berman, ignoring for a moment that he was responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed Trek as well as some of the most panned stuff) and make Thompson into Brannon Braga or Ronald D. Moore, with multiple dedicated writing/art teams doing nothing but content development underneath them. This leads us to point two....

2. Create multiple 'sequel series' in Star Trek Online. One of the cool dimensions of Star Trek Online is the "Episode" Structure. See, an Episode, in game terms, is a multiple-mission arc, usually with both space and ground components, wherein you work your way through a story -- the idea being this is a one or two-part episode of a television series. These episodes are interrelated, and connect together to form 'seasons' that correspond with the level requirements of the missions. Season 1, for example, is a Klingon-heavy season (with bonus Gorn, Orions and Nausicaans). Season two brings us into Romulan territory with the Romulans, Remans and-- well, but that would be telling. Season three heads out to Cardassian space and Deep Space Nine. And so on, and so forth.

This is smart. Brilliant even. Kudos to the whole team for the concept. Well done.

So what happens when you get to the last episode of the last season?

It's not enough to have 'endgame' episodes, now with bonus team requirements. Up until that day you hit maximum level in your stunningly powerful starship, you are the star of your own Star Trek series. You have seen your Bridge Officers develop. You have your logs. But where do you go from there?

Well, the current development team is working on that -- working on ways to push beyond that maximum level. Working on ways to give you more late game and endgame content. But the other option in an MMO has always -- always -- been to roll a new character and try something different with them. You've had your Dwarf Rogue? Try a Human Priest or an Elf Hunter instead -- or jump the fence and go with a Troll or Orc. Here's all new places, quests, stuff to do, things to see. You can do this many, many times before you run out.

In Star Trek Online, on the Federation side, you can roll your new Captain -- go with a different race and specialty maybe. Replace your human tactical officer with a new Vulcan science officer, say....

...and proceed to do the exact same episodes in the exact same order you did the first time.

Oh, there's other stuff to do. You can run exploration content and get perks and advancement, or Deep Space Encounters -- little mini fleet actions -- or PvP PvP PvP. But if you're looking for the game you just played from Ensign to Rear Admiral, there are no more surprises left.

And if you want to be a Klingon? Well, like I said in my last post on the subject -- they're in the game, and that's all they are. You can do some cursory PvE content (with exploration 'on the way), and you can fight other Klingon players or Federation players in a variety of scenarios. In fact, they'd like it very much if you'd do just that, because without you all those Feds who want to try out PvP have very little to do.

So. The solution is this. Sequel 'series.'

Remember point one? Hire at least two more full content development teams? This is why. One team should do nothing but Klingon development. PvE development, mind. Their task is to create a full story of all the necessary 'seasons' of episodes from Level 1 (not 5, as it currently stands) to Endgame, all for Klingons. Period. The second team does the same thing on the Federation side. Have them create a new starting area -- say in a spacedock on Vulcan instead of a spacedock over Earth -- with all the episodes to make up all the seasons to go from 1 to endgame on the other side. Focus on the Gorn to start with -- go in depth on what's going on in their subjugated state. Or focus on the Orions. Or heck -- do lower level Romulan content for a much lower Klingonesque storyline.

And then -- and this is key -- don't let people who haven't played through the PvE content in the 'main' storyline touch the new content. In fact, when a player plays the last episode of the last season in the current content, automatically unlock a new character slot for him and unlock the ability to play through the new series. If someone wants a single character to play through both, he'll need to team with someone who has the other series. (In effect, 'guest starring' in their series.)

When these are done, do them again. And again. Do a Cardassian-focused series based out of Andor. Do an Orion-based series based out of Risa. On the Klingon side, do a series based out of Rura Penthe.

And don't charge extra for these series. These are being developed purely as new and fresh content for existing players. Don't create new Sectors or environments -- use the vaunted Genesis engine and build these out of the current stuff you have. Yes, there will need to be ongoing art and other assets created for the new episodes. There's no getting around that. That's why you need new, dedicated teams that do nothing but develop them.

In the meantime, the original team(s) develop content just as they are now -- new high level/endgame content. And of course, new expansions - the kind of expansions that give us entirely new factions to play. Those can be for pay. If you let me not only play as a Cardassian but play as a Cardassian in the Obsidian Order serving the True Way and the fragmented Alpha Quadrant castoffs of the Dominion War (with bonus Breen!), I will happily give you another fifty dollars for the privilege.

But right now, work on ways to let players go from Ensign to Admiral in entirely different series, each new old unlocking the new. If someone wants to play through the old content of a given series again, let them. Some people love to do that kind of thing. But for someone who wants something new around every corner, there should be a chance for them to have it.

3. Develop new stuff for the Cryptic Store, and release it on a set and regular schedule. Right at the beginning, as we were all trying to unlock our preorder content so we could take our new Constitution Class ships and Joined Trill out for a spin (for the record? Both rock.) we discovered that someone had been added to the Cryptic Store. This made sense, since a number of the 'preorder' packages put out by different vendors included Cryptic Points that could be spent in the store -- I remember Cryptic not having anything in the Cryptic Store on day one of Champions Online, and wondering what good the free points I had for it would do me.

Well, the stuff in the store now? Are unlocks that let Federation players make Klingon and Ferengi Starfleet Officers.

For my lights, this is a perfect use of the Cryptic Store. You don't need a Klingon Starfleet Captain (you can get Klingon Bridge Officers without buying them from the Cryptic Store) to enjoy the rich taste of Star Trek Online, but it's worth the less than three bucks it costs if you want it. I have never been anti-microtransaction. So long as the game can be played without the purchases, then go for it, I say.

Well, the Cryptic Store needs to have regular infusions of new stuff -- stuff that costs just a little bit of cash mangled through Cryptic's own currency -- to keep our interest. And that stuff should be cool while being moderately resource-light to create. New playable species are -- like I said -- perfect. We can easily see Orions joining Starfleet. That should be in there. Humans and Andorians should be in the store as well -- purchasable for the Klingon Defense Force.

Or, take the very popular (and cool) preorder original Constitution Class ship. I have that from my own preorder bonuses, and it's great. It takes the place of my Tier 1 Miranda, and it's neat. I have blue phasers and nostalgia wrapped up in an off-white hull, and at the same time with the exception of an engineering console slot, I have no real advantage over other players. A well kitted out Miranda is just as effective in combat as a well kitted out original Constitution class ship.

So, extend that. For example -- a lot of people have asked for an Excelsior class ship. The Vesper looks a bit like a squashed Excelsior, but it's not an Excelsior (as flown by Sulu, not to mention the Enterprise-B that Kirk died on or half the non-Enterprise ships on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Fine. Put an Excelsior in the store for, say, 340 points. For a few dollars, someone could buy one. Have it as a 'replacement ship' for Tier 3 -- don't let someone climb into their Excelsior until they make Captain. Give it an extra console slot. Now here you are, with a replacement starship that's iconic and fun, yet inexpensive. It might not be the four-nacelled Constellation class knockoffs currently at Tier 2, but it would be distinctive enough to make recognizing it simple.

Do that same thing elsewhere. Want to fly a Nebula? Make it a Tier 5 replacement for the Luna. Want an original D-7 Battlecruiser from the original series in place of your initial Bird of Prey? Just a couple bucks.

Add in distinctive ship paint patterns in the store, distinctive costume sets for your characters, additional character slots, additional costume slots for your characters (and for your bridge crew -- more expensive to pay for the additional database space), and designate a specific day of the week new C-Store content drops, and you have a never-ending cycle of enthusiasm. And bitching, from the anti-microtransaction crowd, but trust me you're going to have that no matter what. And that trickle of cash will naturally help pay for point 2's additional development teams and give Jack Emmert a bigger money bin to swim in, and both of those are fine by me.

Also, Wednesday would very very very much like it if there could be Star Trek: The Motion Picture pajama-style uniforms and Deltans in that store. I'd like them too, mind.

(Other things that could go in? Enterprise era jumpsuits, the suede 'Captain's Jacket' Picard wore for the last few years of TNG, the Captain's Vest that Kirk and Scotty wore near the end of the original cast's movie era, the white 'plug suit' radiation suits from the movie era, the variation Captain's Vest Picard wore in Insurrection and Sisko wore the last couple of years of Deep Space 9, a specific 'lightning bolt' ship paint design a la the I.S.S. Enterprise from the two part "In a Mirror Darkly" episodes of Enterprise, Porthos the beagle or Spot the cat who can follow you around a Starbase....)

4. Communicate each of these well in advance, and improve communication in general. Right now, communication is Cryptic's kryptonite. They're just plain not good at announcing new products. Over on the Champions side, this has become a comedy of errors that has led -- possibly -- to at least one good community representative being fired for -- possibly -- saying too much.

And when there's a real problem -- say, the servers going down because eight hundred thousand people worldwide all try to play at once, and man isn't that the kind of problem a developer loves to fix? -- there is no easy or focused means by which that problem is acknowledged and information is spread. Right now, eventually a notice goes up on the Support page and someone posts a notice (eventually) on the forums -- but part of the problem is all of Cryptic's communications equipment is interconnected. The same authentication servers that log someone into the game also log them into the website or forum, and account information is bound up in there. So, when the server goes down, things like the forum search function die a horrible relooping death -- and right now the only official way to filter out Developer comments from a thousand angry forumites shouting at once that they can't log in is the "Dev Tracker," which needs that search function to work in the first place. So, when the server dies the Dev Tracker goes with it, right when the users most need a single place to go for updates on these issues.

(The Support page doesn't count for this -- once a notice goes up on the page, it rarely changes. It's nice to have the acknowledgement, but it's not enough.)

So, the already frustrating situation of the servers being down becomes infuriating for the average user when all Cryptic's pages take forever to load because they're sending calls to a broken server as part of the process and they can't filter out other other infuriated users from the decent updates on the situation.

That has to stop. Cryptic needs to fix that across the board, and they need to do it today.

One advantage they have is a gregarious and engaged developer community. Folks like Coderanger and Gozer (not, I'm given to understand, their real names) love to interact with the forum community one on one. But developers answering questions (and community managers managing that connection and passing info back and forth) are not a real communication strategy. Communication is as much marketing and perception as it is information, and that's problematic right now.

Finally, in addition to gameplay and expansion information and emergency information needed during outages, there also needs to be 'in-game' information updates on a smooth and regular process. Things like the old "Path to 2409" which stopped updating right when they went into Beta, stunningly enough, or ship class information pages, or details about who some of the movers and shakers in the 25th century Star Trek Online universe are. Right now, we get little bits here and there, but not nearly enough.

So, this point has three subpoints. We'll call them 4a, 4b and 4c.

4a. Create a 'clearinghouse page' for server status and regular updates during outages, completely independent from all other Cryptic webpages and their interdependencies, and have a designated person who updates it during downtimes regardless of the time of day. Really, this is basic. Take a basic, straight XHTML page with absolutely no database or other calls to the Cryptic servers, whether we're discussing the game server controller or the authentication server or streaming ads or anything else. Make it rock solid and loadable using techniques proved to work since, oh, 1997 with tens of thousands of hits per second hitting it. And have someone on duty in the customer service department 24 hours a day 7 days a week whose first priority whenever there is an outage to immediately update that server acknowledging the issue. Then, whenever an update comes out of netops or whoever else needs to be involved, that person posts it to that site immediately. It should have estimated downtime (expressed as times, not "two hours" or other things that are meaningless without referents" and should reassure the customer that Cryptic is both aware of the problem and working on it.

Hand in hand with that should be an official twitter account -- say, @startrekonlinestatus or the like -- that repeats the basics.

(As a side note, in the absence of either of these tools all STO players should know about @sto_devtrack -- this is a third party unofficial twitter replicator of the dev tracker posted over twitter that doesn't need the Dev Tracker working to keep churning stuff out. So for right now, if there's an outage and you want the latest words from the developers about it, this twitter account is your best friend.)

All this does, in the end, is give everyone a place to go that calmly acknowledges issues and makes it clear someone's working on them. There should be no comment fields or anything like them. People who want to vent about how the evil developers and their crappy servers are viciously keeping them from their game can go to the forums to do that, just like they do right now. For a huge number of players, just having some sense of what's going on and knowing someone knows about it and is trying to fix it is huge, and making and updating a page like this is trivial. And it will resolve one of the worst 'immediate' communication issues almost completely.

Which brings us to the non-immediate communication issues -- less emergency, more marketing. And that brings us to:

4b. There should be weekly updates on future development for Star Trek Online, right on the front page. Right now, PR is very haphazard. We don't know when we're going to get an update and when we do it's often stuff we've already heard. (For about a month before launch, 95% of the PR posts on the Star Trek Online website amounted to a post pointing out where other people had written about STO -- and 99% of that was information anyone interested in Star Trek Online already knew. The eighteenth time you read that tired joke of Craig Zinkovich's about how they considered having a guy level up by pushing a button in Transporter Room 3 every twenty minutes for twelve hours -- insert EvE Online subjoke B-9-Alpha here -- you were ready to spork your own eyes out.

At this point, the game is live. There are paying customers. And right now job number one of the public relations department isn't getting new subscribers. It's keeping the old ones. Those folks who weren't passionate or certain enough to fork out $250 for a Lifetime or even $100 for a yearly subscription, but are deciding with each monthly credit card bill to stay or leave. That's the folks they need right now, and those folks need something to look forward to. It isn't enough to give them a good game experience today. You have to convince them they'll have nothing but fun in six months, too.

So, alongside the above-mentioned regular influx of new content into the Cryptic store for people to spend points on, you need to have a weekly update on future projects. Things that do nothing but tease stuff that's going to be coming out, with everything from specific release dates for stuff coming out in the month (and pimping the new C-Store stuff that came out that week) to vague "look for this -- we hope -- in the Fall of 2011" mentions. Give people the sense that you've got a ton of content coming out, and that ton of content is progressing. Make the game eternally in a state of continued development and be proud of that fact. Give everything fun codenames like "Project: Targ Bait" or "Let This Be Your Next Battlefield." Have a weekly interview with someone on what's around the corner, and touch on things in the far pipeline. Most of all, give people a reason to keep coming back to your website often. When they've burned through all the pregenerated content on the site, are sick of Exploration and Deep Space Encounters and can't imagine going back to that freakin' "Ghost Ship" PvP map, give them hope for the future.

Of course, for this to work there needs to be new content coming out on a regular basis in a regular stream. See Points 1-3 above once more. Develop develop develop. There is no ending, there is only Zuul.

4c. Every week should also add in-game information and content to the main website. Do you see a trend here?

Look closely.

That's right. Weekly content, updated without fail. Right now, I'm proposing at least one new thing in the C-Store every week, a full update from the PR guys on what's coming up every week, and now something updating the Lore of the game every week. This goes all the way back to the core Webcomics truism: consistent updates are the key to audience retention.

In fact, let's make this a little plan. On wednesdays of each week, there should be a new piece of Lore. A "Path to 2409" update, say, whether a main year or supplemental. A new starship writeup for "Ships of the Line." A brief essay on Sela, or the new Klingon Chancellor, or Admiral Quinn. A report on the weird variety of new tribbles that a somewhat shady breeder has found in his travels. Science officer reports on the odd gravimetric forces that are shattering so many freakin' planets. All kinds of potential stuff.

Then on thursdays put something new in the C-Store. Big or small almost doesn't matter. It's just a quick thing so people have a reason to come back and see what it is.

Then on fridays we have the PR update, which makes mention of both the wednesday and thursday updates (hey, stuff to talk about automatically) plus appropriate tidbits about what's coming up -- what new wednesday content might be seen, what c-store stuff is close to release, and most of all what new free (and paid) expansions are coming with vague-to-specific timeframes for them. This gives people the weekend to discuss everything and a chance for the forums to declare it A) wonderful, B) the final doom of Star Trek Online, or C) both. And then we start over.

This is a lot of work. A lot of work. But that's what Cryptic signed on for. Right now, they have a million mouths to feed, and that means doing tons of cooking, right from the start.

Let me reiterate something I said up top. I love this game. I really do. It ate my brain and now I serve it as its host body, and I'm okay with that. This is not an angry, frothing letter about how Cryptic is doooooomed. But because I love this game -- and because I have a lifetime subscription -- I want to be playing it five years from now with great prospects for five more. That doesn't just mean the game today needs to be good. It means the game needs to keep getting better, keep upping replay value, keep increasing endgame talent, and keep adding stuff. And being much, much better about telling us about that stuff than they have been. They have the perfect chance to get started on this -- the game has outperformed expectations, which means they have money in the bank. That has to go into the long term health of the game.

Whether or not it does we just won't know yet. If they don't take this course through the post-launch waters, I hope the one they do take will be a good one -- because those seas are rough, and lots of big boats have gone down in them.

Are these nautical terms doing anything for you? Anything? Ah well. See you you at Spacedock.

Captain Teegan of the U.S.S. Fort Kent(All pictures are screenshots taken by me while in Star Trek Online. Click on the thumbnails to get full sized easily looked at pictures and junk.)

So here we are. It's January. Earlier this week, Star Trek Online went into Open Beta after being in Closed Beta since October.

And, unlike many or even most folks, I've actually been in that Closed Beta almost from the beginning. My invite came in early October, which isn't quite the beginning but is near enough as no-nevermind. Certainly, I feel fortunate in that regard.

And so, I've seen a lot of changes and evolution, I've written forum posts and bug reports. I've tried my best to make it a better game. And now here I am and I can finally talk about it publicly.

Do you want the 'in a nutshell?' Okay. This is a good game. It's a lot of fun. It's pretty darn Star Trekish. I'm glad to have been a tester, I am preordered for the game, and I expect to be playing it for years to come.

Not everyone will agree with me on these facts -- which is understandable. The game isn't what I would have created if I were capable of creating a game. Neither is it the game you would have created. In the back of every gamer's head, every Star Trek fan's head, and every game-playing star trek fan's head is a nebulous half-formed idea of what a Star Trek Game should be. It's impossible for any of us to articulate what that is, because it's just a half-formed notion. However, you will know it when you see it. And when you look at Star Trek Online or any other game, you're going to have to leven your "this is so cool!" or "this sucks!" reaction with the sure knowledge that this game isn't that game in the back of your head. It can't be.

So. I'm going to go through some of my impressions of the game, and some of my beta experiences, and there will be lots of screenshots. Not screenshots generated by the press kits or PR folks at Cryptic, mind. These are the screen shots I took as I went along in the game. The ships you see in these shots are ones I created and piloted. The characters you see are either my Captains or their trusty Bridge Officers. That initial picture up in the corner? That's a perky red haired Trill Captain, crouching next to her Captain's chair on the bridge of the U.S.S. Fort Kent.

And at least one of those bridge officers? Is a tree. I totally made a Tree bridge officer. I am weirdly proud of this fact.

And, as this is going to be long and there will be many pictures, I am going to put it behind a 'click here to continue' wall. And I'm going to try and avoid just going over all the stuff that press previews and beta reviews and the like have done. This is "what Eric Burns-White liked as he went through the game." Sure, I like the whole "fight in space and then down on the ground in an episode" thing, but that didn't excite me nearly as much as "oh my God did that tribble reproduce?" and "Holy crap, I made a Tree bridge officer!"

Click on, if you dare. Or, you know, feel like it.

On Being Super

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One of the epic tales of Closed Beta, over at Champions Online, was an ongoing discussion on the game's challenge level. And by ongoing discussion, I mean "impassioned argument."

Put simply -- there were certain closed beta testers who didn't like that lower level enemies were still a threat to their character... and they weren't too happy about same-level enemies being a threat either. If they got two or three levels ahead of a pack of NPC bad guys, they felt that they should essentially be invulnerable to them. If they left the keyboard for a drink, leaving their L15 character in a hazardous area, and nine L11 or L12 bad guys spawned while they were away and proceeded to beat their character into a pulp... well, they found this to be suboptimal.

And, whenever this argument raised its ugly head, the same argument came up. "I just don't feel super" they said. Each and every time.

It's a familiar complaint. I heard this dozens of times over the past five years connected with City of Heroes. "I just don't feel super" inevitably meant "I don't have the opportunity to bust out equal doses of Cool and Kickass often enough." And, there was something to be said for it -- the early opposition in the game, even though you were told they were enhancing themselves one way or another, just didn't seem like they should be that hard for a super hero -- even a young and inexperienced one -- to take down. Further, you got powers slowly, and some powers were arbitrarily spaced out (why someone needed to hit L14 to fly in a Superhero game has always been a mystery). It was showing some of its MMO roots: cool things came at higher levels. Want to ride a horse or war ram or pink elephant? You need to hit 30th level first, Toby Nightelf, and even then don't expect the horse salesman to sell you a horse if you're not in good with his race: economics be damned, horses are human technology and not just any Elf can be trusted with one!

(As a total side note, both World of Warcraft and City of Heroes have been drastically reducing the level requirements for travel options or powers -- it took quite a few years, but they finally figured out no one's that excited by jogging. But I digress.)

The problem is, and always has been, that 'Super,' the way these people mean the term, means 'Unchallenged.' For a lot of people, 'superhero' means 'unstoppable badass,' and anything that makes their character seem like less than an unstoppable badass means by definition their character is not being a superhero. From there, it's simple to see the formula reduced down to its component level:

character + defeat = nonsuper

That's what their argument really boils down to. "I lost the fight, and Wolverine never loses fights, so I'm not a superhero." "I got knocked out, and Batman never gets knocked out, so ergo I'm not being super."

Oh, in debating this point the people in question will make allowances. Sure, the archvillain at the end of the scenario can take you down -- at least every now and again -- and that's okay. Batman is sometimes knocked out by the Joker, after all. But in everyday life, there shouldn't be anything -- but anything -- that leads to you being beaten. It was perhaps made worse in early City of Heroes levels by the type of opposition you were facing, of course -- even if the Hellions use magic to beef themselves up, it's rough to be a mighty hero and have a bunch of street punks who think orange is a good color choice take you down because you bit off more than you can chew -- but the principle still applied. Superheroes didn't lose, they kicked ass.

The problem with this argument, in the end, is that it's wrong. On every level. And that's true in City of Heroes, it's true in Champions Online, and it's true in Marvel Comics. And it underscores something that every writer, developer, artist, or gamer needs to understand: Challenge is Good. There needs to be real stakes involved. Accomplishing things should take effort.

We've talked about such things before. Conflict is good, as I was wont to say in the days when I was wont to say things. When bad things happen to characters in fiction (sequential-art based or not), that set up interesting and engaging situations that became fodder for drama, comedy or both. Well, when reading about super heroes, there has to be a sense of challenge. You have to believe that Spider-Man could get shot in the head and die even if it was desperately unlikely he would. You need a sense that your heroes have to work at their goals, and that there would be consequences if they fail.

The seminal example of this, of course, was the difference between Superman and Spider-Man in the sixties. In the end, the Mort Weisinger era Superman is exactly what those guys who "just don't feel super" are gunning for -- a character who is so powerful, so indestructible that his enemies are less threats than annoyances. Sure, there was Kryptonite, and sometimes there was magic or "the rays of a red sun," but for the most part Superman was amused by the silly gangsters with their silly guns. An MMO that centered on a Lois Lane type character breaking two hundred pairs of scissors on your invulnerable hair as a requirement to level up wouldn't be fun -- it would be excruciating.

(Actually, if someone wants to create a game where you play an all powerful godlike superhero who spends all his time tricking his friends, teaching them humiliating 'lessons,' and being amused when accidents turn them into monkeys or insect people, a la Superman in the sixties... well I'd buy a copy. But the challenge of that game wouldn't be physical danger -- it'd be setting up the perfect humiliation of the pathetic love interest whose major crime is wanting to marry you. But I stray from my thesis.)

Now, Champions Online is good at giving you challenges. In particular, it doesn't reward stupidity. If you stop paying attention because everything around you is two or three levels below you, you will in fact be defeated. If you engage 30 lower level enemies and lack a decent Area of Effect attack, you will in fact lose. And sometimes, this pissed people off. "These guys are mooks! I shouldn't lose to them! Sure, I was stupid, but still -- I'm supposed to be a hero! Batman wouldn't lose to them! I just don't feel super!"

In one of these exchanges, where Batman was in fact brought up, I chimed in. For me, one of the joys of Batman -- when he was written well, at least -- was that he was constantly having to outthink his opponents. Oh sure, he was a great fighter -- but his strength came from using every advantage. He had gear in his belt designed to confuse, surprise and subdue his enemies. He used fear (and the dark) to panic them, forcing them to make mistakes. He was patient, and quiet, and took them down two or three at a time in ways that made the remaining crooks increasingly jumpy and paranoid. And yes, if he were to drop all that and charge into the middle of the room, he'd probably get beaten. Lord knows he'd been knocked out by lucky saps to the head any number of times. It's why he kept waking up in dark rooms tied to a chair with dynamite underneath it (or chained in giant hourglasses that would slowly pour sand on him until he suffocated -- Batman's enemies spend way more money on death traps then they ever take in from bank robberies. But then, Batman's enemies treat crime like performance art.)

"No way," my debate partner responded. "Batman doesn't need to do all that. He's the greatest martial artist who ever lived! He could take them all down!"

What can you do?

Amusingly, I'm reminded of The Dark Knight Returns. In one of the most famous scenes (which I'm about to entirely Spoil, so, you know. Spoiler Alert on a 1986 comic book that 97.6% of the people reading this have read dozens of times) Batman -- now old, of course -- sees the young, vicious warlord ruler of the Mutant street gang, who challenges him to one on one combat. Batman has enough pride to be pulled out of the safety of his Bat-tank and goes at him hand to hand. And the mutant leader -- younger, stronger, in better condition, and much faster -- proceeds to beat him nearly to death. He would have died right there had a fangirl not spontaneously become the new Robin and pulled him out. He had let himself be coaxed into acting stupidly, and that nearly killed him. When he had a rematch with the mutant leader, it was on his own terms, using psychological effects to prod the leader into a rage, then dropping him into a mud pit. That takes away his speed advantage, and while he's still younger, stronger and in better condition, Batman is smarter and more experienced, and utterly in command of the environment. He proceeds to take the leader apart, brutally beating him down in front of his gang, and completely breaking their morale (and leading to a number of them aping his style and eventually becoming his army).

Batman wasn't super the first time. He was stupid, and he got pounded into mush for it. Batman was super the second time, when he used strategy and tactics to accomplish his goals. And that led inexorably to Batman fighting Superman -- the last hurrah of that Pre-Crisis, all powerful, Mort Weisinger super Superman -- and beating him.

That last scene, by the way? That scene where Batman takes down Superman? That completely redefined Batman and Superman in popular culture. That took the World's Finest team of best friends and made them barely tolerate each other. And that cemented in the minds of comic fans everywhere that of course Batman would beat Superman in a fight. Duh. Before that scene, Batman was just that guy with the ropes, the car, the sidekick and the Bat Shark Repellant. We made fun of Batman in the Super Friends.

But Batman was the character who had challenge in his stories and overcame them, and in the end the indestructible man couldn't compete.

I have always liked the challenge of City of Heroes. I like that I have to pick and choose my fights and be intelligent about them. One of the key complaints about City of Heroes these days is that because the underlying A.I. is five years old and so many of us are so experienced in its nature, we've become too good at it. The challenge is less. And NCSoft is responding by allowing us to alter our difficulty with incredible granularity. If you want to solo a mission as though you had a full 8 man team on Unyielding, you can.

And I like -- I really like -- that if I run through Maniacs territory in Champions Online, even if they're a few levels below me, and I don't have my head in the game, they'll wrap chains around me, haul me off my feet, and beat me into paste. If I'm going to be a hero -- if I'm going to win -- I'm going to have to use my brain and my skills in the game to overcome the odds.

And there's nothing that makes me feel more super than that.

So... yeah. I've been gone a while.

In a way, it's been symbolic of a deeper thing. I haven't just been away from Websnark since... yeesh, May. I've been away from writing. I haven't updated my livejournal. I haven't written fiction. My word processor hasn't actually been launched more than twice in all that time.

This is, as I've mentioned before, very unusual for me. I'm the kind of person who writes to keep my brain on an even keel. Which is really where all this has gone -- I hit the point some time back of full on writerly burnout. My mind simply stopped working in that way. I needed time away from... well, from everything like this.

Am I back now? I think so. We're going to give it a shot, see what kind of momentum we can get going. We'll see. Weds and I also have some plans that I won't go into now, but suffice it to say Weds is a very cool person who knows things I do not.

So what have I been doing with my time these last few months? Not counting stalking the wild Transformer toy with Weds and having a pretty decent married life, anyway?

What else. Video games. Specifically, I've been playing City of Heroes, The Sims 3, and, most significantly, the closed beta of Champions Online. And I have thoughts on all three -- thoughts which will turn into longer essays later, but for now let's get something 'inked,' shall we?

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City of Heroes

It's weird. Not counting games like Soulcalibur, where I'll play each new edition that comes out when it comes along, I haven't stuck with a single video game for a long period of time before City of Heroes. Really, City of Heroes has been a reliable standby for me -- something that has kept my interest, that has continued to engage me, that has inspired me, that has been tons of fun for over five years now. I've been playing City of Heroes longer than I've been writing Websnark, for Christ's sake.

And that is a testament, really, to the job that the developers have done over the past years. They have continually updated the game. They have strived to push the envelope. They have expanded the game's content and gameplay. They have added yet more hot babes, some of them in loincloths. And they are continuing in that vein. It's a remarkable achievement.

Which is somewhat bittersweet, because City of Heroes really has crested the hill. While they are doing a yeoman's job, it is in fact all downhill from here.

That seems odd, in one sense. Certainly, Architect was a monumental shot in the arm. As I've discussed before, it was amazingly fun, especially for a person like me who lives to dig into backstory and adventure design. During the beta process, I freaking lived in the Mission Architect. And after release, I filled my slots up almost immediately.

Well, I mentioned in that linked essay that the biggest problem with Architect was how fast you burned through your arc slots. That was very true, and it took a long time for Paragon Studios to resolve that. Too long, really. When they finally announced that you could buy additional arc slots, the momentum associated with the launch of the system had turned to inertia. And, unfortunately, there were some major issues that came up which ended up harshing the buzz on Architect. People had developed any number of 'farming' missions -- designed to powerlevel characters or farm the Architect badges. Paragon Studios responded with changes -- some of them pretty draconian. They dropped dozens of badges from the game. They even deleted some of (what they described as) the most egregious examples of powerleveling from the game entirely....

...and unfortunately, they caught some innocents in the process. See, they have a feature called a 'leveling pact,' and that leveling pact allows two players to link their characters, so that if one earns experience while the other is logged out, the experience is divided between them. It's a great idea and a nice system in the game.

Unfortunately, a number of leveled-pact characters looked like powerleveled characters to the search algorithms they were using. And got wiped. Right at the same time that they were eliminating those dozens of badges from the game.

Now, here's the thing. A lot of people were pissed off that they were eliminating badges. Badge hunting is a popular pastime in City of Heroes, and a lot of players had devoted weeks to hunting these badges down. By eliminating them, the players who were legitimately hunting badges were being punished alongside the players who had found exploits in the system. It is never a good idea to take something away from your players, after all. Sometimes it's a necessary idea, but it's never a good one. There's almost no way to spin it as a positive, after all. So, tempers were already high because of the changes.

Now, add to that characters getting deleted. And add to that innocent players having characters deleted because of an error.

Paragon Studios fixed the issue. To my knowledge, lost 'innocent' characters were restored with all their perks, as quickly as the GMs could do it. But, the damage had already been done -- and between all of that and continuing issues over players gaming (or trying to game) the rating system, the Mission Architect honeymoon was pretty well over. It didn't help that at the time they still hadn't had ways to buy additional arc slots, so the most passionate users of the Architect system were already out of the loop, cutting down on impassioned defenders when it was having growing pains.

It's still an amazing innovation, but it's not enough to sustain the game at this point.

Paragon Studios knows this. They came out with a new content update -- Issue 15: Anniversary -- in hopes of invigorating the game. But Anniversary -- despite the fact that it returned the coolest villain faction ever developed for the game to the game (and reversed one of the worst early decisions City of Heroes made) -- was an extremely lackluster content update. Sure, the Fifth Column was back... but their return was focused on a single hero task force and a single villain strike force. Task forces and strike forces are problematic, because they can't be run solo. You have to have a team, so players who don't have a regular group have to grab a pick up group or else just skip the content.

For the record? My regular group of City of Heroes players jumped out of the game and started in on World of Warcraft many, many months ago. My only recourse for anything that requires a team is pick-up groups, and I don't actually like them. They're just too uneven for my tastes. So despite my absolutely love of the Fifth Column, I haven't actually seen their return as yet. Well, except in player-made Mission Architect missions. I fought Nazis on the Moon at one point, and that's entirely cool. It just doesn't help Issue 15.

Otherwise? They added some new costume sets, added a bunch of new character faces (several of which honestly aren't to my taste), and added some costume change animations. All of which is cute, but don't really affect gameplay at all, and the gameplay in City of Heroes is pretty stale right now.

Oh, and they added some refinements to the Mission Architect -- in particular, to quote their update page, they made it so "[missions] can now be selected for both 'Hall of Fame' and 'Dev Choice,' allowing players to attain both badges," which would probably be more exciting if A) more than 0.04% of the total number of arcs had gotten either Hall of Fame or Dev's Choice, and B) if they hadn't eliminated both of those badges as part of the purge.

Issue 16: Power Spectrum is currently in closed beta. It adds a feature people have been asking for since, oh, Issue 2, namely the ability to customize the look of their powers. Generally, that means being able to change the color of powers, as well as changing some animations here and there. That's awesome... and absolutely necessary, since Champions Online will be out soon and it's shipping with powers you can customize. It also includes more "powerset proliferation," which gives different archetypes access to powersets previously reserved for other characters. (Which also feels like a response to Champions Online, since they let you mix and match powers as you will). And you can tweak your difficulty more easily, which is a good thing. All of these are good things, really. They're just not overwhelming. At least in theory -- like I said, they're in closed beta, so I can't report on their actual implementation at this time, which neither confirms nor denies whether I'm in said closed beta.

At least the powerset proliferation constitutes new gameplay, which the game really needs at this point. Really, the game needs a monumental influx of new content and new gameplay, including major AI revisions, a ton of new maps, new zones -- the whole nine yards. As it is, new issues come out and they're just not as exciting as they used to be. The Mission Architect is partially to blame -- who cares about new content when there's 50,000 story arcs ready to be played in one building? But part of the problem is... well, it's over five years old. Its underlying technologies date back to the first Bush Administration. The biggest, most innovative games of its graduating class were Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Katamari Damacy, and... oh yeah, World of Freaking Warcraft. We've had multiple sequels to the first three of those games, and not only has WoW had monumentally more success and several major content updates (including two huge paid sequels)... but it too is showing its age at this point.

The future still looks bright for City of Heroes. Their second paid expansion (and the first since '05's City of Villains), City of Heroes: Going Rogue promises to resolve many of those issues. New gameplay systems (including the long long long overdue capacity for heroes to fall from grace and villains to redeem), a whole new world (cue song) with new zones, entirely new powersets and a move forward in their mythology is all really exciting stuff. At the same time, they've announced a loyalty program that's a bit telling: if you stay subscribed to City of Heroes from August through November, you're guaranteed a spot in the City of Heroes: Going Rogue closed beta test.

Champions Online releases in September. They practically could have named this promotion the "please don't quit our game when Champions Online launches" campaign. It's certainly the most telling sign so far that Paragon Studios knows it needs to step up to what could be a major blow to their subscriber base.

Still, Going Rogue does give some hope, and I for one am keeping my account for now. Besides, I've stuck with them for five years, and it's still a good game. I'm not ready to cut the cord. There's too much history there.

For now.

Still, one hopes they either have a lot of real gameplay followups behind this... or else City of Heroes 2. (I for one think a true sequel should be named Nation of Heroes, but then I'm weird.) While City of Heroes may last years before it becomes uneconomic to keep the servers running (Hell, The Matrix Online just shut down at the beginning of this month, which is just stunning when you consider no one on the planet thought it was still online. And the original Everquest is still getting new content, much less still running! Seriously! The Underfoot expansion's scheduled to hit servers this November!) there will come a point where the major development of the 'City of Heroes' universe will require a new engine and design, to take advantage of all the lessons they've learned over the past five years.

Of course, there are those who say Champions Online is, in fact, City of Heroes 2. Paragon Studios needs to fight that perception tooth and freaking nail, and Cryptic won't make that easy. But that's for down below in the third section.

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The Sims 3

The Sims has been one of those franchises I've plugged along with from "small times" as Ray Smuckles would have said in happier times. At this point, they know how to sell us this thing. Each new generation of the game is a significant improvement in gameplay and design. You get hooked on the (mostly mundane) beginnings of the new generation, and then expansions come out that build on your game in weirder and weirder ways. This was true back in the days of The Sims, it was true in The Sims 2 (and I'm still pissed off that the last two expansions never came out for the Macintosh), and it's true now in The Sims 3. The major innovation this time is that you're not playing a household, you're focused on one household of the whole neighborhood, but as time passes all their stories evolve at the same rate yours does. People don't just get old, they get married and have kids. New people move in as old people die off, and if you want to send every one of your household's residents to entirely different lots in the neighborhood, all in real time, go for it.

It's all smoother and slicker than in previous years, and the expanded sense of scope really is an improvement. It feels far more like a town now. There's lots more to do. There's challenges to achieve. There's a truly startlingly large amount of fishing. And there is a real feeling of evolution. You're meant to have your characters hook up, procreate, grow old and die while their children do the same, and on down into the ages.

As with almost everything in the world, there is an up side and a down side to this.

The up side is an increased sense of the Soap Operatic reality that has always been the Sims. Friendships are reworked, so it's less important that you befriend everyone and his brother. Mistakes can last for a long time indeed. Ghosts (the token magic of this first game) can be a part of families and even if they're not, you have a sense of the past becoming the future and beyond. And, if you don't like all that, you can turn aging off and say the heck with it.

The down side is some loss of effective functionality. In The Sims 2, when children grew up and moved out, that became a different playable household. If you wanted to jump over and see what they're up to and play them for a few weeks, leaving your main house alone, you can happily do so. Not so in the Sims 3. If you change the household of focus in the Sims 3, your old household continues evolving -- they just do it without you. They become NPCs. You can turn off story progression the same as you do aging, but at that point what is the point? You might as well play The Sims 2 and get the ability to send them Sims to college or send them into a hot tub for unhygienic sex.

(As a side note -- the lack of hot tubs in The Sims 3 is the first thing everyone notices. Somehow, the Hot Tub experience has become emblematic of the Sims as a whole, and its lack feels palpable. So, while I maintain that The Sims remains a Soap Opera simulator, let's not rule out scrambled soft-core couples porn as a secondary goal. This is only exacerbated by your ability to seduce the pizza delivery guy or the plumber.)

The tradeoff of tight continuity over ease of shifting plotlines is a relatively minor one. The major strike against The Sims 3 is economic. Now, it's worth noting they've made it trivially easy to recolor and repattern... well, anything in the game. If you want to have a Toyota Prius painted like a cow, you can. If you want your bookshelves to be painted like a cow, you can. If you want your clothing, kitchen appliances, laptop computers, carpet and juice bar to be painted like cows, you can. It's the cow apocolypse! Run!

On the other side of it, if you want new objects to paint however you'd like... well, you go to an online store and you spend "Sims points" on it. Which is to say they've implemented the same kind of microtransactions that every other video game has. Yaaaay. I suppose it's not significantly different than the DVDs of new clothes and stuff you could buy for The Sims 2, only it feels chintzier somehow. They know it's easier to get someone to spend a hundred 'points' (in reality, about a buck) than it is to get them to shell out thirty bucks for a DVD collection -- even if the collection then comes to significantly less money per object than your online purchasing.

When hot tubs become available, it's a pretty safe bet they'll cost a few thousand points in the store. Assuming they're not going to be part of a paid expansion, anyway.

All told, The Sims 3 remains a lovely way to accidentally spend nine hours reminding your character to eat while forgetting to do so yourself. And with the upcoming World Adventures expansion scheduled to hit personal computers in November, EA is going to continue to print money off Wil Wright's legacy for a long time to come.

Champions Logo

Champions Online

Not long after my last City of Heroes essay (and in part thanks to an offhanded comment in that essay) I got into the closed beta of Champions Online. As with all closed betas, Champions Online has been a bit of a rough ride, especially since their beta schedule was two nights a week, typically -- Wednesdays and Fridays. The first (pretty unstable) build of the week would be pushed for Wednesday, and a bug-fixed/stabilized version of that build would go in Friday. Sometimes it would be spectacularly broken, and sometimes it would be pretty amazingly flawless, but all in all it was... well, a closed beta. Betas aren't there for the fun of the testers -- they're so that the game breaking bugs get caught before someone actually pays for that thing.

Still, those sessions gave me a pretty good idea of how Champions Online was supposed to go. And now that the NDA has been lifted and we're into Open Beta, I can share impressions with you guys.

Now, before I got into Closed Beta, most of what I heard about Champions Online was... well, pretty awful. Generally, the word came from disgruntled beta testers who'd up and quit, often for legitimate reasons -- though naturally that gives you a pretty one sided sense of things. I'll write a bit about the nature of a closed beta process -- and what it is and it isn't -- later on in the week, luck willing. Suffice it to say I've watched the game evolve a tremendous amount since getting in, and I can make a few subjective assessments.

On the whole? This is a really, really good game.

Seriously. Cryptic Studios developed City of Heroes before the NCSoft buyout and development split (though all of the developers who were still working on City of Heroes at the time of the split stuck with the property), and their experience with the older game informed Champions Online tremendously. In particular, Champions Online addresses a lot of the long standing complaints people have with City of Heroes. Hitting some of the high points:

  • Characters can be built out of any combination of powers, eschewing classes (or archetypes) and permitting a broad spread of abilities, which themselves can be customized in color and often in animation or anchor point. (My current open beta character concept is a techno-shaman whose basic abilities are reflected by light blue electricity, along with some sorcerous powers. The technological spirits of the character's shamanism are reflected by various summonable robots and toys. Needless to say, this character couldn't exist in City of Heroes.)
  • Travel powers are automatic after the tutorial finishes, and are far more usable in combat. One can legitimately have a flying hero who never touches the ground. Further, there are a lot more travel powers available -- tunneling underground, riding a flying disk, having an ice bridge carry you a la Iceman, flying wreathed in flame a la the Human Torch (or, if you colored it green, Fire from Justice League International), an acrobatic style of flips and bouncing, and swinging. Swinging. Screw fighting crime -- I'll happily swing half-way across the desert for hours on end just because it's fun. There is far less of a sense that your character has to slog on foot everywhere in this game.
  • The character creation engine is astounding. Not only does it have broad uses, but almost everything is adjustable by sliders. What's more, a good number of the costumes incorporate not only patterns but textures. (A leather bodysuit is different than a cloth one, and both of those are different than metal -- and all three of these can be put through a knit weave or various patterns and cuts of jumpsuit, and that's just bodysuits.) You can have a stag's head. Or a shark head. There are jet packs and rockets and backpacks and freaking quivers. You can change your character's eye color. You can make his eyes glow, even, or go with the Batmanseque 'pupilless eyes' look. (I may create a Little Orphan Annie parody with no pupils, if I can figure out a good batshit insane powerset.)
  • Barring names that infringe on trademark, names are tied to a specific account instead of a server. Which means that anyone can have any name, but only one character in their own account can be named that name. So, if I want to name a character Force, the fact that my friend Mason might have a character named Force wouldn't stop me. Messages or mail to our respective characters would just go to "Force@ericburnswhite" or "Force@masonkramer" (neither of those are our real global names, for the record.) So, the days of trying to find a misspelled variation of the name we wanted in the first place? Are over.
  • Immersion is immediate and heroic. As much as I've always loved City of Heroes, the City of Heroes tutorial, while good at teaching you how to play the game, was terrible at making you feel like a hero. You were in a sealed section of town, beating up sick men (with, admittedly, glowing eyes) who were throwing small rocks at you and hitting you with pipes. And it took a few hits to beat them at that. As much as the backstory of the game justified the events, you never quite shook the feeling that the freaking Wondertwins could have solved this 'crisis' in ten minutes and still had time for a heartfelt moral and some cruel mocking of their monkey.

    By contrast, in Champions Online the entire of Millennium City is plunged into abject chaos by an alien invasion. Forcefields are everywhere. The police are cut off. You have to fight insect aliens, rescue hostages, free trapped people from rubble, rescue a lost freaking cat and return it to a grandmother, figure out where the alien menace came from, mount a counterattack, and storm the contested headquarters of the signature heroes in the game. Along the way, you meet several of those signature heroes, not a some L1 newbie unworthy of their attention, but as a peer, save at least one from a horrible fate, then fight alongside the game's Superman figure. And in the major supervillain fight near the end of the tutorial, almost always that Superman figure will go down and you'll have to save the day in his stead. And that is followed by a celebration, and for the rest of your time in the game, whenever you're in Millennium City random people will run up to you and gush over the fact that you saved their lives and the whole freaking city.

    Now that's superheroic.
  • While there aren't many zones, they are positively huge, and you move back and forth between them throughout the game.This also means there aren't loading screens all the time, and you get a real sense of city. (Or of desert or frozen countryside, depending). They're also totally beautiful.
  • PvP is in the game from the beginning and works the way you'd expect superheroic PvP to work. You can invite anyone in the game to duel, and then (after a rocket drops from the sky to mark the duel field) you two can duke it out. Or, pretty much anywhere (with no travel time) you can queue to go into team based or free for all PvP (under the title 'The Hero Games' after the original publishers of Champions). PvP grants experience and in-game rewards. If the model sounds familiar, it's because it's been largely taken from World of Warcraft, who did it as well as anyone in the business. I hate PvP in general, but this is a fun occasional diversion, and because I don't need to travel to special arenas to participate it can be done whenever I have a vague yen -- or see someone on the street I want to have a zero-penalty slugfest with. At the same time, I can never touch it at all and I'm out nothing.
  • Because they have access to the decades-long Champions intellectual property, they have hundreds of fleshed out supervillains and organizations to fight. You fight an actual supervillain in the tutorial. You fight a couple of Supervillains in whichever Crisis you choose after the tutorial. You actually run into costumed supervillains as a part of the missions you take place in, even outdoors, in the game. At any point you might discover yourself facing a full on spandex-clad nemesis -- and for those of us who've been playing Champions for half of forever, you'll also do some undignified squeeing during the process. (I was pathetically happy to fight Ankylosaur at one point.)
  • Viper (which by the way predates "Cobra" from G.I. Joe by several years) is a monumentally cool recurring enemy. They'd take 'the Council' from City of Heroes any day of the week.
  • Environments are moderately destructible, and your stats give you environmental options. A character with an area of effect attack will often lay waste to cars, boulders, computers, lampposts and the like. At the same time, the stronger your character the heavier an object he can lift. The first time you have a superstrong character who manages to pick up a tank, fly into the air, and hurl it an an enemy as an opening attack will stay with you for a long time.
  • You can make your own costumed nemesis, and that nemesis actually engages you in the game proper. I can't overestimate how cool it is to have a pack of your nemesis's minions show up and reinforce your opponents because they cut a side-deal to specifically take you out. Further, your nemesis is among the hardest opponents you face in the game. And after a while, you get the option to create more, until you have your own Rogue's Gallery.
  • The game is beautiful and laden with little touches. For example, going into a simulated wild west saloon in a robotic theme park, you see a saloon like interior. However, there's also a robot piano player. And he's merrily playing a slightly out of tune piano. And a whole line of robotic cowpoke girls are dancing in a choreographed western style line dance to it. That doesn't add a thing to gameplay, but man it's cool.

This makes it sound like Champions Online is in all ways a better game than City of Heroes, but that's unfair. There are still plenty of issues that need to be ironed out, and lots of those issues will only come with time and development of content. Let me hit those high (low?) points too:

  • The game is incredibly linear right now. You must start in the Tutorial (and no matter how awesome that Tutorial is, the fifth time you launch Ironclad you're pretty sick of his bizarrely Ted-Cassidyesque voice). Once finished the Tutorial, you must go to a crisis zone either in the Desert or the Canadian Wilderness. You must do the multiple missions to complete the Crisis. Only after all that is finished are you in a position to take control of your own path, and even then it's strongly suggested that you stick to the non-crisis version of the zone you're in until you level your way up in that content. One won't realistically start having adventures in the 'main' location of Millennium City until L11 or L12 at the earliest. (Though that does give an in-game explanation of how they were able to clean up the damage from the alien invasion so quickly). Someone who enjoys building lots of alt characters is going to get really sick of going through that same content over and over again. While one gets to know all the City of Heroes content (not counting Mission Architect), there's a lot more variety in the early levels before you end up following mission chains. World of Warcraft, which really is the gold standard for MMOs right now, has two major factions and those factions each have three different starting locations and quests, not to mention lots of quests that are specific to given classes or the like.
  • On the other hand, Alts are hard to come by anyway. You get a whopping eight character slots to begin with. You can earn (or buy) more, and people who get a permanent account during the promotional period get an additional eight. Compare that to World of Warcraft's fifty total alts, and bear in mind that if you spread alts between servers, you can make a whopping one hundred and twenty one alternate characters on City of Heroes without even touching on earned or bought additional slots.
  • While the character creator has incredible depth, it's also mired in a specific house style that's less comic-book and more cartoon. Even if one turns off the trademark 'black outline' surrounding characters to make them look inked (as almost everyone seems to), characters look closer to Kim Possible's wide eyes, the Tick's chin, or Justice League Unlimited characters than they do to a Greg LaRocque drawing. In particular, though you have a ton of sliders that let you change a person's features, those faces look very much alike unless you make them full on grotesque.
  • Crafting is, charitably, a work in progress. They're trying very hard to make crafting useful and relevant, and having it incorporate the capacity to swap gear and change your stats and abilities in other games while avoiding changing the lovingly created costumes in the game to something canned. However, the result misses the visceral joy of turning leather into pants that's such a bizarrely addictive subgame within World of Warcraft and other fantasy games. The three professions -- mysticism, science and arms -- feel arbitrary, and they've recently added a byzantine series of specializations within the main fields that just muddle everything. (As a side note, I have long maintained that the 'crafting' system in a superhero MMO shouldn't be goods, it should be based on in-game professions. For example, crooks could drop 'clues,' which a character can gather. If that character is a reporter, he can smith those clues into leads, which in turn could be made into a story you can sell, or you could take several stories and smith them into a series or expos´┐Ż. Those could then be made into mission arcs or other in-game benefits. Meanwhile, a 'Detective' could take those same clues and smith them into leads, which become full cases. And so on. Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime soon.)
  • As cool as your Nemesis is, you don't see very much of them, and what you do see feels canned. You don't even create them until L25, which is more than halfway to the current maximum level. Even after you get your nemesis, you spend a lot more time being ambushed by your nemesis's enemies than you do actually confronting your nemesis. I really, really hope they drop your nemesis's entry to L15 or even lower, and make the Nemesis himself a more prevalent part of your day to day adventuring life.
  • Rather than have multiple 'named' servers, all the characters in the game officially exist on the same server, which then will spawn additional virtual servers to reduce load as much as possible. This was meant to put everyone into one pool, so that you don't have separation of players by what server they exist on. However, the dynamic splitting of servers means players are never really sure which instance their friends are going to be on and there can be a lot of confusion.
  • On the other side of it, as weird as it is to type this... it's not like the game goes out of its way to encourage friends to meet up in the first place. It's got plenty of social options, but in terms of actually adventuring together? The game is much more solo-friendly. In particular, though there's a mechanism to 'share' missions, it seems like most missions can't be shared via that mechanism. Most teaming that takes place are very short ad hoc pickup groups so that everyone waiting for mission objectives to spawn can clear the mission at once, then split up and go their separate ways.
  • The above probably highlights the most obvious weakness. Almost all the missions are live on the streets, in shared areas, rather than in discrete instances. As a result, during earlier levels when there's a lot of people trying to work their way up the only possible way to complete missions is to camp the various spawn points for objectives. There's something innately unheroic about camping a spawn point to beat up Canadian separatists before your fellow heroes have a chance to do the same thing.

As you can tell, the exciting parts of Champions Online boil down to the new and exciting gameplay options in the game. (It is certainly worth noting Champions Online has a much smarter AI than its predecessor. The days of taunting a room of bad guys around a corner and having them all pile around it to let you fry them with AoE attacks seems to be done.) The problems Champions Online has largely boil down to the game being brand new and immature. While there have been plenty of broken and bugged bits (culminating in the first day of open beta being kind of a disaster as everyone hit the patching server at once and it melted under the weight), I won't officially hold those against Champions Online until after launch. That is, after all, why one has Beta tests.

Needless to say, however, I'm preordered on Champions Online. I'm really impressed with what they've done, and the game is fun and fast paced and has shiny bits I rather like. What this means for City of Heroes only time will tell, but I think I can officially state that right now? We have ourselves a ball game.

Coh Architect Logo V4B
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.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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