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.

Repetition

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.

farmmaps

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.

WHATEVER MADE THE DESIGNERS THINK THAT PLAYERS WHO CHOSE TO PLAY COH OVER WOW -=WANTED=- RAIDS?

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.

godlike

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

Or burnout from repetition.

Whichever came first.

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The Repetitive Nature of Games and Why Endgame is Elusive

Here we go round the mulberry bush...

Scree’s back! And the criticism this time is repetition.

Here’s the dirty little secret: games -are- repetitive.

One of the points of a game is that it lays out a set of rules and you repeat and iterate on the scenarios it presents you with till you get better at it and “beat it” or “win.” Games have a learning curve.

The nirvana that everyone is seeking is that perfect state of flow, where one’s skill level perfectly matches the level of challenge so that one is deeply engaged.

(Image from Wikipedia.)
(Image from Wikipedia)

Problem is, everyone is different.

One game’s level of challenge may match one player perfectly, while another may find the challenge too difficult and thus end up worried and anxious.

I’m not sure that graph is accurate on the lower scale, where relaxation is graphed at a higher skill level than boredom.

For some, it could be the other way around, where high skill level and low challenge leads to boredom, while a medium skill level and low challenge leads to finding the activity relaxing.

Then again, for others, it’s a lot easier to be bored than it is to really relax – one may need l33t Zen monk skills in meditation to achieve proper relaxation, while nearly anyone can be bored outta their effing mind on a regular basis.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

It really comes down to what kind of repetition you find fun (or will put up with) in order to do something that you feel is enjoyable.

Different people reach different answers.

Scree finds that PvP produces a new situation every time it occurs. Those who prefer PvP tend to claim that they are drawn to this because the skills used can be the same, but the opponents are different, creating sufficient variety for them.

I’m especially tickled because I somehow managed to find that WvW was too repetitive and burned myself out from the game format some time ago.

You see, personality-wise, I’m very low on the competitive Killer Bartle scale. I’m just not really interested in the whole metagame of guess and second-guess your opponent in order to get one-up on them and win. So my tolerance for repetition on things PvP tend to be rather low, a couple rounds played for fun and variety… done.

Even in that eden of PvP, Eve Online, the blogosphere has been exchanging a little quote of the day highlighting a core repetitive aspect of the game.

Getting from one place to another apparently involves a lot of the same steps repeated over and over – turn off and on autopilot, manually warp to zero per jump gate. The only variety is what manner of shark awaits you at each step.

For some, that’s enough to consist of quite an adventure, and they willingly acclimatize themselves to the game’s little repetitive quirks to get the bigger experience.

I’ve been playing Don’t Starve quite a bit over the last few days. I easily get to my second winter and often get to days in the 100+ range. But then, I turtle.

homesweetbase

I turtle A LOT. I don’t play RTS games on a competitive basis because I tend to derive more pleasure spending two hours teching up to EVERYTHING and then creeping in the equivalent of siege tanks or battlecruisers to slowly demolish the computer’s bases one building at a time over outsmarting a real life person, who can turn out to be exceedingly obnoxious, win or lose.

I get that a lot of clever people have discovered they can shortcut this process and created dozens upon dozens of other strategies they can use to win against another party trying to turtle, which leads to more counter-strategies to defend against this, which leads to more counter-counter strategies to get the upper hand, unsoweiter.

I get that this is a delightfully deep metagame for some.

I admire it from afar with videos and commentators to help me understand it, but I choose not to spend a good part of my life learning one game to such a high degree of focus.

Back to Don’t Starve. I build a base. Preferably near 5-6 rabbit holes.

I expand it. I make a little tooth trap alley to the side to fend off hounds.

icallitthehoundnommer

I engage in tons and tons of repetition, including chopping wood for a day or two, gathering grass and twigs for another day, checking on my nearby spider den with pigs (aka silk farm) to make sure it won’t ever overgrow into a Spider Queen, catch and cook meals for another day or two, spend another day or two figuring out and reaching the next source of rocks and flint – just to prep for an expedition that may extend me into unexplored territory and necessitate a secondary base/firepit or an overnight stay not-at-home-base with a campfire.

When Winter comes, I run back to civilization central and my tooth traps and spend a good half my time just chopping wood and keeping the food supply going. Because I don’t want to starve, thank you. (Or freeze.)

NOT FREEZING.
NOT FREEZING. FIRE LEVEL ABOVE DESIGN PARAMETERS.

On the other hand, Azuriel would probably stab his eyes out from the repetition I engage in with the same game. He prefers forward adventuring progress.

Me, I haven’t even seen Maxwell’s door in many of my worlds, and never stepped once through it. I prefer a slow and steady stable state with some incremental creep.

My guess is that each person’s preference for how much excitement and adrenaline rush and thrill versus relaxation they want in their games is different.

(The old hard fun vs easy fun war again. There’s actually two more types if you follow the link.)

For those who find they enjoy a game that is short and linear but continually ramps up the challenge till the content is all done (like Portal and Portal 2), MMOs are going to be an inherently disappointing affair. Once they’ve mastered every challenge they care to, that’s it, done. Finite content is finite.

Time to go on to another game or another MMO, at least until the devs have enough time to produce more content to devour.

An endless endgame?

Whatever it is, it’s going to repeat -somehow-.

WoW raids are a delaying tactic. Kindly repeat the same fight but with the variation and difficulty of cat herding a lot of players with different schedules and skill levels for an RNG chance of desirable loot. Hopefully, this takes you long enough so that the devs can produce the next raid for you to do something similar till the next patch.

If you think that in Everquest Next, there won’t be players who will be searching for and making a point of repeatedly killing the most desirable mobs… I think that you’re sorely mistaken.

One hope that it has of stretching gameplay is the possibility of player-created content, which provides supplementary content to dev-created content, just like how mods can extend the lifespan of a single-player game.

Clarity of preference is important, rather than just dismissing a game as “too repetitive.”

I suspect that Scree prefers “impactful” games. A game where player actions can mean a great deal. Where player actions form the meat of the content via emergence. Where hopefully the NPCs have enough AI to form meaningful, discernable patterns that can be exploited but not TOO exploited.

Well, we’ll all be watching upcoming PvE sandbox games to see if they manage to achieve this elusive holy grail.

A lot of this stuff tends to break the moment you throw the “massively multiplayer” part of the equation in.

We’ve learned that player-created content tends to give rise to “xp farms” where players design, create and run repetitively an optimized encounter so that they can reach max level (and level alts) at the best possible speed. (Thank you, City of Heroes and Neverwinter. Possibly Everquest 2 too.)

We’ll see how fast ingenious players can map the world sufficiently to determine node spawning patterns (must farm crafting materials, y’know!) or provide trackers for mob movement or spawns to determine the most probable places to head to for xp/loot/combat action.

Case in point: observe niche game A Tale in the Desert – randomly spawning mushroom locations produced a shroomdar. This game barely attracts 1000 players at the best of times.

Do you think the combined brainpower of a popular MMO cannot crack what a single team of developers code? Or at least harness the power of massive crowds via  individual player reports? e.g. see GW2 dragon timers before the API was made available.

If you have xp in a game, players will figure out the best way to get xp fast. Even (and especially) if it means repetition.

Skills-based, not levels, you say? I point you to Darkfall and its stories of skill grind, where at least some players will macro it, or engage in the equivalent of leaving a weight on one’s keyboard a la Morrowind or other Elder Scrolls games.

If you have loot in a game, rest assured players will repeatedly do whatever it is to gather it.

Ideally, they are enjoying the activity they repeat. (Note: level of enjoyment varies based on player personality and preference.)

Whether that activity is combat (versus mobs or against other players), or gathering some form of resource (xp, gold, shiny loot for stats or looking pretty, craftables, luxury collectibles), or exploration and discovery or yes, even travel and commuting from point A to point B.

Eventually though, a player is bound to get bored of whatever repetition they were engaged in and wander off. Or burn out if they weren’t careful enough. Part of the gaming life cycle.

The real questions are:

  • Do they wander off to another activity in the same game?
  • If they wandered off to another game, do they ever come back to the one they left? (Check things out or pick up where they left off?)
  • And how frequently do they do it?
  • (Oh, and do they give the devs any money for providing such experiences in the meantime, of course. 🙂 )