2.5 Things City of Heroes Did Wrong

Ok, besides PvP. That's too easy a target. Here's the most amount of players in a CoH PvP zone ever. Attracted only by killing a dev in giant spider form.

As linked by J3w3l, Reports From the Field wrote a post on 7 Things They Felt City of Heroes Did Wrong.

Since I’m an idiot who can’t seem to figure out how their comments system works, and have a ton of CoH screenshots that are looking for an excuse to be shown off, I decided to do a blog post in reply instead.

I’m a little less picky.

I think they only got two or three things wrong.

Sadly, I think the biggest problem was a fundamental baked-in issue that the existing devs didn’t quite know how to solve.


I’ll narrow this down further to non-varying spawn sizes in instanced tilesets that were reused over and over.

Because frankly, a lot of what we do in games is repetition, over and over, and we can still find repetition fun.

City of Heroes had no problems with replayability in terms of alts – the insane number of character slots, classes, powersets and customisation was unparalleled.

The main problem was that each alt had to level up by entering an endless set of corridors masquerading as missions, which were optimally filled by a spawn meant for an 8-person team, and every combat encounter pretty much looked like this:

2007-06-16 22:05:10

2 Bosses, a couple of Lts. and a whole bunch of minions.

Repeat encounter 14-40x depending on how many spawn points were set in that mission, and how big that map was.

Very soon, players figured out that the most efficient way to mow these things down was via AoE attacks.

To let AoE attacks hit as many as possible, get someone to group them up for you.

(Enter the ubiquitous AoE target limit – but still, hitting 10-16 is better than hitting one at a time. And cone attacks hit 5 but need them all neatly stacked up anyway.)

There were only two main ways to do this:

Option A) Herd to a Corner

A sturdy character, usually a tanker or a brute, or in a pinch a scrapper, would initiate, aggroing the spawn and dragging them all to a handy dandy nearby corner.

Once in position, everybody else opens up with whatever they’ve got.

Riffs on this include the more skilled defender or controller with debuffing options who could set up some debuff anchors, turning a nasty spawn’s alpha strike (ie. retarded AI’s initial response of firing a salvo of attacks at the first person to aggro them) into some wimps trying to beat you with feather pillows, which by default, makes anyone a sturdy person. Pull to corner as desired.

Option B) Corners, Schmorners, The Spawn is ALREADY Grouped Up

Well, it’s true, ain’t it? They spawn in a clump to begin with.

Tank runs into the center of the group, taunts by skill or combination of aggro generation powers. The group turns inward on the tank, voila, please be to kindly open up with pewpew now.

Riffs on this include those with control options – usually controllers, dominators or the odd defender who would just alpha strike the alpha strike with an “everybody freeze” power, nullifying the usual retaliation, and then the beating things up began.

There was rarely any tactical variety required, beyond the odd variation of dangerous target to be prioritized or controlled due to faction. Yes, Malta sappers suck. Literally. Draining all endurance from players tends to make powers crash and ineffectual. So hold ’em or kill ’em fast.

Others just tended to be annoying nuisances that took forever to kill. Carnival Master Illusionists summoned a bunch of annoying decoys, and phased out for 50% of the fight, making them a time-drain to even hit. Rikti Drones projected so much force field defence that you needed pretty high accuracy or to-hit to pierce through their shielding – but if you did have enough, they were pushovers.

But by and large, it was see clump of enemies, group clump of enemies, fireball (or insert choice flavor of attack here) clump of enemies. Debuff or control if you had the options to, and yes, everybody loves buffs, buff all the time plz thx bai!

AoE attacks, the best way to fry things.

AoE attacks, the best way to fry things.

Soloing, it tended to be even worse.

You were guaranteed three minions or one minion and one lieutenant. This was somehow scientifically determined by a lead game designer as the appropriate amount of challenge for any player or powerset.

Before long, you had your skill rotation down pat.

Repeat over and over as you carved your way through numerous spawns to the end of the mission.

Skip the mobs in favor of mission complete?

Well, you could… but the mobs were a big source of xp anyway. Would you prefer to go through 3 maps of unending spawns of enemies repeating the same skills in the same patterns, or would you prefer to race through 10+ maps ignoring all the enemies except that required for completing the mission to get the same amount of xp?


Over time, I ended up street sweeping in order not to have to choose between either mindless option, forgoing the tasty mission complete xp in favor of actually feeling immersed into a world that had NPCs interacting with each other, spawns that varied in size and had to be approached differently, more space to move around and fly and tactically pick off enemies, and feeling like my actions actually had some impact on NPCs that needed rescuing or terrorizing depending on if I was playing a hero or a villain.

Not everyone was as motivated by immersion as I.

The achievement and rewards-driven folk eventually took things to their natural optimal efficiency point.

As Task Forces became more streamlined and rewarded better loot over regular missions, they became the go-to set of missions to run. As fast as possible. Gogogogo.

Imperious Task Force. Even the best TF can only be run so many times before getting old. Note endless spawns of Longbow in background.

Imperious Task Force. Even the best TF can only be run so many times before getting old. Note endless unvarying spawns of Longbow in background. (And yes, this is why one barely blinks an eye at particle effects in GW2. It’s a miracle we knew what all these things meant, with the powers customisation that allowed you to change the color of your powers.)

When Mission Architect released, of course the most popular missions would be the powerleveling xp farms with as many xp packages clumped together as possible, with the gimpiest powersets for doing the least damage to players possible.


And what did you do once you hit max level as fast as possible?

Either do it all over again with another alt, or go through the same set of missions at the end for… I dunno, kicks or something, or bitch and complain that there was nothing else to do and that the game was too repetitive and quit the game because you were done.

Each alt you went through, the chances were more likely that you’d eventually hit the more jaded last option at some point when you finally hit your repetition limit.

If only they could have varied the spawn sizes and positioning in each map more dynamically, I think it would have gone a LONG way towards ending the feeling of repetition.

But I suspect the mob distribution was sadly so baked-in that they couldn’t do anything about it without totally wrecking the game’s code.

The Incarnate System

Oh gods.

Words fail to convey my loathing for this system.

The solution the live team of CoH designers hit upon to prevent this burnout from repetition scenario from occuring was the ye olde raids system.

Vertical Progression. Ever Increasing Power at Max Level. Raids Involving Massed Numbers of Players. Forget Your Alts, You’ll Only Have Time to Build Up Phenomenal Levels of Cosmic Power on One or a Few Characters.

You know, City of Heroes launched at around the same time as World of Warcraft.


Thanks, devs. I really wanted my game to look like WoW, raid frames, more UI than anything.

Thanks, devs. I really wanted my game to look like WoW, raid frames and more UI on my screen than anything else.

Wanted to be FORCED kicking and screaming into adopting and adapting to the system by virtue of exclusive loot/power that could ONLY be gotten by participating in this brand spanking new system that the designers were so proud of spending their time on?

Personally, I was attracted to the game initially because it didn’t have all of the above.

Because it had a nice friendly community that were inclusive and open to anyone teaming up with anyone, who even gave away scads of in-game money to newbies just to help them out and feel like a hero, a holy trinity flexible enough that no one had to wait around LF tank or LF healer unless they were really really picky, because I could make all the alts in my head that I wanted look and feel like how I wanted, because I had options to solo or group as I preferred.

When the game no longer felt like it was supporting this style of play and when all the brand new shiny content went a way I disliked (which has some lessons that GW2 might be well-advised to heed, given the histrionics I’ve been seeing in my comments from certain players who are perceiving the direction of the game changing in a way they dislike – though I still maintain one piece of content offering nonexclusive rewards is -different- from ALL the content in an update offering exclusive rewards that can be only obtained by playing a certain way…)

…I quit.

I canceled the sub I had been faithfully maintaining for six years, through a few minor burnout episodes that I knew would recover from taking a month or three’s break time, and quit supporting the game with cash.

I sat around watching the game lead their remaining players on from 2010 to 2012 from one piece of group content to another, grinding the same set of missions repetitively for incremental currency to build the next piece of ‘gear’ that would make their characters more powerful, and played another game instead.

Because my preferred playstyle had no viable options for obtaining the same reward.

Because the designers were so insecure in the fun level of their content that they felt they had to sneakily ‘encourage’ participation in their massed group content by making it the only non-absurd way to earn that level of power.

I only came back to check things out when the Dark Astoria zone released, making it -finally- viable for solo and small group players to start earning Incarnate levels of power.

And yeah, I chose to jump into a few raids then, because it was a -choice- on my part to see whether I found it fun (not really, beyond seeing what the fuss was about) and not because I had no other alternative.

Still, there’s a fundamental problem about vertical progression systems that only drag out the death knell.

You separate the playerbase.

You really do.

Those attracted by phenomenal levels of cosmic power and don’t mind clumping together into a group become one subset. Playing at a much higher level of power.

Why yes, I am an Incarnate. And I will take all of you Rikti on.

Why yes, I am an Inventions-kitted Incarnate. And I will take all of you Rikti on.

Those who ignore the content because they don’t like it and continue doing their own thing end up on an uneven playing field of merely ‘blue and green’ level of power compared to ‘purple and orange.’

How do you balance future content for these two different groups of players?

You don’t.

It becomes skewed to one group only.

Applying more and more pressure to the other group to conform and learn the stuff they’ve been ignoring, or they quit.

You better gamble that the group of players you’ve designed that content for is big enough to support your game via cold hard cash.

(Which is another interesting parallel to GW2 – though its fundamentals are different – exotics baseline, Ascended better, no more power increase or they’ll regret it – and the payment models are different. Who’s paying the most in either game? Casuals or hardcore, y’think?

Also, Wildstar is gambling that their hardcore base is big enough, and that their casuals will be content to be strung along with housing and some solo options.

WoW, you’d think, has managed to get by with producing endless series of tiered raids, though I do note that every expansion they keep changing things up, making things easier and easier to access and ‘catch up’, with different levels of difficulty to appeal to different groups, and generally playing a very good balancing act of continually laying treadmill track in front of their carrot-seeking audience.)

Loot / Inventions

The last factor is one I feel mixed about.

It could very well be that City of Heroes could have collapsed sooner without it.

Without loot, without Inventions, without something shiny to chase and look forward to building up and improving and giving room for theorycrafting of various intricate builds, we probably would have lost a great number of Achievement-oriented players who needed the shininess of a gear upgrade to wrap their minds around.

But catering for this group of players had some fundamental repercussions on how the community ‘feel’ changed over time.

In my opinion, a great deal of the friendly community aspect of City of Heroes was lost in the later years due to this focus on loot.

It used to be about fun. About kicking ass, taking names and looking good.

It used to be about fun. About kicking ass, taking names and looking good. Together.

Originally, City of Heroes was about getting together with a bunch of friends.

And everyone was a friend  and welcome on teams because everything scales up with more people, giving more xp rewards to everybody.

No one needed influence (in-game money) beyond those necessary for Single Origins, bought from vendors at a very cheap price compared to how much influence was being given out from missions. So level 50s had so much influence they didn’t know what to do with it, and ended up going back to Atlas Park and sugar-daddying newbies with it, running costume contests and lotteries and fun social stuff.

Once loot came in and an auction house, well, influence had value.

Better hoard it now. Some heroes we were, accumulating large wallet amounts that would then be spent on more upgrades for more power. We turned commercially-minded and mercantile.

Rikti Boss farm - earn large amount of tickets, buy loot.

Plus Mission Architect absurdity: Rikti Boss farm – earn large amount of tickets, buy loot. Yes, handy dandy NPC buffers standing by.

Let’s see, help a newbie or buy a Luck of the Gambler for more defence? We’ll take being godlike, thanks, the newbie can fend for itself. (Of course, not everyone did this, but by design, loot encourages selfishness and self-interest over selflessness.)

Suddenly it didn’t matter so much if the team was just having a good ol’ social time hobnobbing it up while fighting bad guys, but more about xp and loot earned/hour. Fast runs plz. We r wastin time. More missions complete, more chance for shiny loot drops.

And what was the loot for?

For making yourself powerful enough that you didn’t need a team to take on a spawn size set for 8 players.

Who needs a team when I have bots?

Who needs a team when I have obedient bots with better names?

Your ubercharged Inventions-kitted out player would feel free to run off and separate from the team and take on spawns by themselves. Why not? They weren’t punished by faceplanting. In fact, they were helping you clear the mission twice as fast!

They were soloing while ostensibly on a team.

(Which, eventually made teaming pointless to me, and drove me into soloing because I couldn’t stand associating with those players any longer.)

Eventually, an update sealed the deal by allowing any player to control the spawn sizes they wanted to fight by themselves.

Yes, this made farming easier.

Yes, this made farming easier.

And now, there was no more need for teams. Or for much of a community. Or getting to know your fellow player or bother to be nice to them.

Just set your spawn size to 8, and run your endless series of unvarying missions as quickly as possible to keep earning more influence and more loot drops and getting more powerful.


Farm it, in other words. Farm it to death and world’s end.

Or burnout from repetition.

Whichever came first.

Digital Impermanence and Regret Is Not Contingent on F2P

Digital wings cost money.

Quote Post of the Day:

“But what I find most interesting is that everybody who bought virtual property in these games basically lost everything…  there were no refunds, nor was the compensation is any way measuring up to the large amounts of money some of the “whales” spent.

People who hate Free2Play games anyway and consider anybody spending money on them to be stupid will just laugh, or point out that virtual property doesn’t legally exist in most Western jurisdictions. But just as people believe they own the games they bought on a disc (which they don’t), they also believe they own the golden cow or palace or whatever they bought in a virtual world.

The obvious risk for the game companies is that the whales are going to wisen up. If the company you gave a lot of money to for your virtual property can expropriate you at any time with no legal recourse, a lot of those purchases suddenly look a lot less attractive. Especially if they don’t give an immediate benefit but were purchased more as a long-term status symbol. When the game shuts down, those status symbol at best survive only as a personal screenshot nobody cares about. If that happens to you once, you’re not going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the next game.”













94 characters.

6 max level 50s.

Personal play time: Dec 2004 – July 2012, minus a year or two from protests, boredom or burnout, plus some extra dollars dropped in the cash shop.

Let’s say 6 years of fun times.

6 x 12 months x $15 = $1080

Now all gone.

Nothing but screenshots and blog posts remain.

/no regrets

Two days ago, I bought a $10 virtual horn.

I’ve already painstakingly and slowly worked my way through:

  • Silent Night
  • Clementine
  • Happy Birthday
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
  • Old Folks at Home
  • I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing
  • Jingle Bells
  • Home on the Range

for my own amusement – though not inflicted it on anyone yet.

Did you spend money on an MMO (sub or F2P, who cares) for status symbols, or for experiences and memories?

P.S. How many of your non-digital tangible items last six years without breaking or getting moldy or being lost or thrown away or becoming obsolete or replaced?

CoH: To Save Or Not to Save?

Is a dinosaur worth saving?

That is the question, indeed.

I thought I’d said my piece about City of Heroes already and that would be that.

I’ve mourned it, quite a while ago in truth, and in a really roundabout way, tried to explain my personal opinion on why CoH’s core gameplay fundamentals are too dated to enthuse an audience of today.

Still, we’ve had various activist efforts springing up here and there, doing their best to save Paragon City, and lots of blogs keeping the CoH flame of hope alive – Levelcapped, Dragonchasers, Stylish Corpse, Of Course I’ll Play It, and some moderates throwing in their support, like Aardwulf and Syp.

To paraphrase a Massively commenter, grandmoffdaryl for myself, this is my stance:

“I’ve made a personal decision to accept the closure of this game with grace and equanimity, but at the same time, sincerely hope the activist players’ efforts to save the game are successful and wish them all the best.”

My personal contribution to their efforts had mostly been to keep a respectful silence on my blog, in order not to darken their efforts with any more cynicism or negativity, and hope for the best alongside them.

I am that queer representative in the corner that is the opposite of what Tobold jeers at – I did spend money on City of Heroes in 2012 and was bothered to play it (alas, not liking a great deal of the later additions, but I did like some) but I won’t be joining in any letter writing campaigns or petitions as I don’t want to raise false hope for myself.

(Nor am I personally sure that keeping a gradually ailing CoH on life support is a better fate than laying it to rest while there are still enough people to think well of it and mourn. More on this, later.)

But now I can’t shut up when I read a piece like this, The Reason NOT to Save City of Heroes, which grates on me so much that I have to say something. Congratulations, you won, you just trolled me into responding. :)

I suppose it’s all for the best, keeping the discussion alive, when it could be forgotten.

Here’s where I agree with Jomu from Just One More Unlock:

I wouldn’t say that accepting the closure of CoH is being one step above a vegetative state, but more about being realistic, being mature and understanding how the real world works.

It’s a response to Chris Smith from Levelcapped, where he indulges in a little hyperbole:

I prefer to think of it this way: “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.” Simply throwing up your hands and saying “that’s life” is to acquiesce to living only one step above a vegetative state. You’ll accept whatever people tell you, take whatever life gives you, and won’t utter a whimper of dissent no matter what.

Actually, acceptance is just another kind of equally valid response. Different folks react in different ways, and while I get that this is written in the spirit of a call to arms and action, sitting around insulting folks that respond differently from you may not be the best way to endear them to what you’re trying to convince them to do.

As any of you who have read this blog for a while should know, I like observing sociological phenomenon. Activism is one of those things I find distinctly American (though that is not to say that other cultures have not appropriated it for use.) It veers towards taking an active role and doing stuff, and can go down the slippery slope into extremism. It also takes a strong, charismatic leader doing a lot of work and focusing the masses towards a direction (and I think we see that in TonyV in this case) and a cause around which passionate people can believe in and congregate.

And here’s where I start disagreeing intently with Jomu. City of Heroes is not just a product like a can of beans on a supermarket shelf. (And even that can of beans has a following – just think about what can happen if someone tries to fool around with the taste that people are used to.) MMOs have the emergent property of becoming a virtual world, and a place where a community forms around.

It so happens that one of the most passionate MMO communities ever formed is the City of Heroes community. I don’t know how or why, but it did. Was it because of the superhero setting that make people feel like they can also be heroes in real life? Was it simply because it was the very first to dare to be different and not aim at generic fantasy or sci-fi MMO, but modern day comics? Was it due to the insanely innovative character creator that allowed people to visualize their daydreams, their unpublished characters in their imagination and yes, even their Mary Sues? And in so doing, made them fall in love with the game and the community that formed around it.

It was one of the first MMOs that let the developers of the game post on forum boards, giving, receiving and responding to feedback, and despite a few spectacular controversies and blowups and meltdowns, overall, it built fans and brand loyalty, and likely provided an example to other MMOs that made them realize there was something valuable to be gained by doing this, even if it’s safer to hire a community manager or two or some PR to vet potential thoughtless posts from devs first.

It even attracted celebrities – actors, comic book artists and writers –  that played the game, enjoyed it, and found the community safe enough to share or hint at who they were.

If there is one MMO community that might fight closure successfully, it is definitely the CoH one.

And it is extremely disrespectful of their efforts to tell them all-knowingly that it doesn’t matter. Because to them, it does.

It doesn’t matter to you. That’s fine. Say that.

Can We Save City of Heroes?

Probably not. There are a lot of strikes against it. NCsoft’s track record for slaughtering games is one of them. (Not killing this one would be such an immediate PR boost, they should indeed consider it.)

The argument that closing down the servers of this game in order to reallocate resources to a newer, better game is just bunk, though. The servers of CoH aren’t going to be given to GW2 or whatever. NCsoft is a publisher of games, they sponsor separate companies that are developers of games. They certainly are not going to reallocate the staff of Paragon Studios to other games in their development stable (unless it so happens that the staff in question applies for a job with one of those game studios and is accepted,) they are closing the studio down. Kaput, no more jobs.

The only resource they are reallocating is cash.

To other projects, which are all but certainly not going to be a superhero MMO, not a CoH2, so from where is this mystical new superhero game going to emerge? Let the sidekicks step up to the plate, you say? CO and DCUO? Don’t make me laugh. There’s a reason CoH clung on to its market share despite being the oldest game on the block. It’s unabashedly still the best of the three.

The real problem, imo, is the overall market and mindshare of a superhero-themed MMO. It’s not… great. From an outside perspective, dressing up in brightly colored spandex and fighting crime has certain… connotations. I used to think that way until I actually tried the game and realized, hey, this character creator is so powerful, it goes beyond that, and also realized that I did appreciate a more grimdark style of comics and enjoyed making antiheroes and villains. But it’s a hard sell. Just check out various troll comments about CoH closing down to see a mean outsider’s perspective and that should give one an idea of the uphill fight.

The other problem, in my opinion anyway, is the age of the game. Which shows in both its design and its engine, though the graphical update does make it look much better. When the fundamental gameplay involves reading walls of text without any voice-overs and entering instances with a limited number of maps and tilesets to cycle from and fighting equally spaced, equally sized clumps of mobs until you get to the end and rinse and repeat, with an exponentially large xp curve till max level, players run very quickly into boredom from repetition.

Especially in the wake of all the action combat MMOs lately, which makes CoH combat feel slow and laggardly, especially at low levels without good slotting or sufficient skills. The “wait till level X” argument is not cutting it any more when there are too many MMOs to choose from.

If you cannot get new blood into the game, the game is doomed. It’s going to die a slow painful death from entropy, and Unsub’s graphs of CoH revenues pretty much indicate that’s how CoH has been going lately. Still profitable, but not by much, and steadily dropping.

Not for lack of effort, certainly. They’ve tried an expansion, Going Rogue, they’ve introduced raids to keep the “I want an endgame” folks happy, they’ve made it F2P and added a cash shop.

Here’s another reason why I’m leery about keeping the game alive. At what point is this struggle for cash and sufficient revenue going to turn the game we loved into something unrecognizable?

What if the monthly sub becomes $25 a month, or $50, or $100? What if every new costume and powerset and zone and story arc had to be paid for? What if we had those real world ads on all the city’s banner space again? What if lots of lockboxes start dropping that you need to buy keys with real money just so that you can be on par with everybody else? What if the cash shop starts selling power for dollar signs? What if the game turns into a hamster wheel grind to repeat the same things to get better rewards that make you go up a tier so that you qualify for a hamster wheel on a more rarefied level? (Oops. Too late.)

How many would stay and play, and how many would decide the game is no longer for them and leave? And just how tragically deserted would Paragon City’s streets get, before the end?

Should We Try to Save It?

Why not?

It couldn’t hurt.

The ideal would be if some investor or company feeds money into it, keeps Paragon Studios around, and does huge revival efforts on it to fix the fundamental gameplay issues. Making combat faster and more fluid and varying the spawn sizes in the missions would probably be enough. Doing nice things for the superhero base system and mission architect would allow player content to also help dev content along. And as long as the devs kept working on episodic lore-based content releases, the game would probably keep on chugging.

Far smaller games keep on chugging.

Perhaps it would also be fine to stop all development work, just leave the lights on and one server around as a museum piece to posterity and let it accrue that small group of ol’ faithful, “fossil” players that all games (even MUDs) will acquire, and leave it free for those interested in a piece of MMO history to wander in and out as the spirit takes them. It’s certainly got content enough to last quite a while. (The question is, just how costly would that be, in terms of servers, bandwidth and IP rights? And would anyone or enough pay for it?)

Convincing NCsoft to let go of it though, might be considerably more difficult. Talks are in progress, they say, so let us keep our fingers crossed. Bombard them with polite letters, if you like, sign all the petitions, if that’s your thing, make all the noise possible (just do nothing rude or counter-productive) to let the world know that the game’s community will certainly not go gently into the good night, at least, not without a heroic fight.

This community, as I said before, is certainly passionate enough.

Who knows, a miracle could happen.

(You’ll forgive me if I don’t want to hope too much. I have this crusty pessimistic outer core of a cynic that protects my soft, eternal optimist insides. I’ve come to terms with my own relationship with CoH. But I’ll be cheering you on from where I sit, and growling some at the naysayers who have nothing invested in this. Just remember: they could come for your game one day.)