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City of Heroes is the massive multi-player online game that allows subscribers to build unique heroes and villains in a fantasy setting of Paragon City, Rhode Island, USA. This fictitious city has become the unintended intersection of super powers, aliens, and giant robots. Throw in some dinosaurs and Will Ferrel and you've almost got Land of the Lost. This unfortunate city has been the target of dozens of alien invasions including being the epicenter of a world invasion, inter-dimensional invasions, a bizarre cast of villains vying for control of the city, and if that isn't enough this place has ghosts, witches, and zombies every Halloween. This rich tapestry of characters has been woven by both the players, designing their own heroes who participate in this menagerie of menace, and the developers who provide the backdrop, city, tapestry of villains, and more. Recently, the developers of CoH realized that their talents might not be enough to keep it's denizens entertained, so they have unleashed a first in the MMO-world: Player-generated content.
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Mission Architect Background
Mission Architect is part of the Issue 14 update and it allows players to create their own NPCs, missions, dialogue, story, and more. Essentially, the developers have taken their own mission creation tools and refined them into end-user class tools that players can leverage to create their own stories and content. The process is as easy as Choosing Your First Archetype. The player activates one of the Architect Entertainment terminals, click new story, and start filling in the blanks! Everything is driven either with fill in the blanks for things like dialogue, story title, and more; or it utilizes simple drop down boxes with choices. This makes building a mission a snap. You can make your very own in less than five minutes.
As with any new feature to an established game, there has been some mixed reaction and, as new features go, it has it's share of issues while bringing a surprisingly fun element to the game. Let's first tackle the good parts, then the bad parts, and lastly some analysis.
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The Mission Architect feature really excels in allowing someone to easily and creatively tell a story in the world of City of Heroes. The simple menu choices and fill-in-the-blank methodology leaves even the most skiddish of would-be-developers instantly within a comfortable setting not unlike a web page might offer simple dialog boxes and drop downs. I cannot stress the importance of the accessibility of this feature to even novice computer users. The developers get major kudos for lowering the bar to, arguably, just the right height especially for introducing the feature.
Architects may select a map, an enemy, and a host of mission goals to create obstacles and challenges. Some of the basic mission goals include obvious elements like defeat a boss or defeat all enemies. There are advanced mission goals including things like adding an ally to the map, or creating a battle on the map between two different NPC groups. Some of the more advanced mission elements can create exciting behavior like ambushes, enemy patrols, and more. Beyond this, architects are offered a very modest selection of triggered speech so that they can add dialog by the NPCs. With so few opportunities to guide the story, it's critical that architects really take advantage of every chance to push their story forward.
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The Really Good
The system is really all about creating stories, and the players have done that with a whopping 250,000 plus arcs already registered into the system with more being added daily. So many stories in so short a time clearly indicates this feature is getting a good deal of exercise. If anything, it proves that CoH players have been starved for content for quite some time. Arguably, that was the main reason to release the feature. Let's face it, about the only activity left before this was reading CoH powerleveling guides. The developer's content, over the past five years, adds up to a very light game with about 1/3 or less content you typically find in a game of this age. The Mission Architect feature changed that practically overnight with player-generated content now far outnumbering developer created content. If I'm being honest, a great deal of the player generated content is absolute drivel. It's just awful and proves why the majority of people aren't cut out to be writers, developers, or any other skill required to create these missions. On the other hand, you have these exquisite works of arts lovingly hand-crafted by an inspired individual with a story to tell. This is powerful. This is moving. This is fun.
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The Analysis (Good)
In a game where nearly every developer-created mission appears to suffer from the “Just Another Warehouse Mission” (JAWM) syndrome, a breath of fresh air gets whisked in with this latest feature despite the fact the players are limited in their selection of maps and other mission building material. I've already played several missions focused on creating content the game has sorely lacked for four years – end game content. Until now, the NCSoft developers managed to create the only MMO in the world you could actually beat, but the players have taken up the call where the devs have not. Players are creating compelling, dramatic, and story-driven level 50 content so that you can continue to enjoy your favorite hero long after the developers suggest shelving him, her, or it.
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Most of the bad falls pretty squarely under the “leaves me wanting more” category as opposed to the flat out stupid category. Most importantly, the largest number of complaints about the system have to do with the level of control the architect can exert over the story. Mission builders are already clamoring for more complex tools, scripted behaviors, and even cut scenes. In fact, players want basically the same tools available to the developers. For example, conditional dialog cannot be created beyond the standard mission pass/fail dialogs. Architects need the ability to create conditions based on mission goals as well. This would allow for many outcomes instead of the incredibly rigid and linear storytelling now. If, for example, I build a story that spans three missions I cannot branch the story based on the success or failure of the missions; nor can I branch to a totally different mission based on some combination of failure and success. That means that the two mission results: failure and success must blend into the next mission narrative smoothly regardless of the outcome. It's very difficult to write a second mission so that it reads correctly whether the previous mission was failed or succeeded. The unintended consequence of this is that it seems, for all the but the best written stories, mission success and failure in all missions but the last matters little.
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The Really Bad
The system contains some very heavy restrictions specifically designed to combat “farming.” Farming is a typical MMO term referring to repeating the same actions or activities over and over until a desirable result is produced, or until some goal is reached as each successful repetition of the activity results in some net gain. Most people know this term in relation to “Gold Farming,” which is a practice popularized originally by games like EverQuest where large amounts of money were required to participate effectively in the highly volatile virtual economies. In CoH, experience points, recipes, merits, Vanguard merits, and a few other items/stats can be farmed effectively. Heck, we even have a guide or two about it. The devs, every month or so, come up with a new way to “combat farming.” Like fighting spam, this cycle will continue endlessly until the activity is devalued to the point where no one willingly participates. This is one of those incredibly stupid “You're playing the game wrong” attitudes often adopted by stubborn developers who are convinced their game should only be played in specific ways. When I instruct my martial arts students, I often have them stand waist high in the ocean and ask them to stop the waves with their bodies. When they report they cannot, I ask them instead to work with the wave and ride it to shore. Nearly all of them do this on the first try and comment it was easy. I'm afraid we have a similar situation here, but none of the devs are as smart as my students.
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The Analysis (Bad)
If this new system has an Achilles' heel, then it must be the limited slots for each individual story. Players are given only three slots to publish arcs – period. In anticipation of the system's success, the devs have started selling additional slots in packs of 1, 3, and 5 for $9.99, $15.99, and $19.99 respectively allowing for a maximum of 8 slots. The only way to ever earn slots beyond this is to have your story voted into the Hall of Fame or the Dev's Choice. This will free up that slot from your published limit and allow you to create a new story. To date, there are exactly 16 Dev Choice and 6 HoF stories so I wouldn't plan on getting an extra slot anytime soon. Compound this with the fact that the players themselves conspired to push certain arcs to the top by forming voting cartels, and you have a situation where the stories garnering the accolades and attention may not even deserve it. Much of it seems to come from self-promotion or popularity in the official forums.
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The Mission Architect feature, overall, is a welcome improvement to CoH, but it isn't without its flaws. Sadly, some of those flaws threaten to hurt the feature overall, but it remains to be seen exactly how that will be handled in the future. In general, this is a solid feature, but the devs need to wake up and smell the discontent. Charging for extra story slots is a bad move especially when you've made it pretty much impossible for the average person to ever earn that slot. The voting system is ripe for exploitation and the result is that many great stories get little or no attention.
Personally, I'm disgusted by the selling of the additional story slots. Arguably, I'm already doing their job for them, and now the devs want me to pay for the “privilege” of doing their job? That's too much! You already charge me $15.99 per month, restrict costume and power choices with pay-per-add-on booster packs at $9.99 or more each, and now you want to charge for my creativity too? No! No, I say. You have gone too far, NCSoft. Of course, this just brings us right into the new paid expansion they have planned called “Going Rogue.” Essentially, this expansion will allow your villain to play hero missions and vice versa, which they will gladly charge you anywhere from $29.99 to $49.99. Of course, I object because they artificially created the need for this expansion by separating the two games initially. Introducing bad design and then charging me to fix it is not a good practice! At this rate, I'll have to take up with nefarious gold farmers to learn their secrets just to afford the game.
At the end of the day, no other MMO, including Champions Online, Lord of the Rings, DarkEden Online, or even Pangya is offering you the chance to create content so you'll have to take the good with the bad here. On the plus side, CoH still has plenty of time to fix this offering before some other MMO realizes this could be a real money-maker if implemented correctly.