No Room For Heroes

When the alt-a-holicism reaches such a fevered pitch that I can’t even get a character to level 5 without feeling bored out of my skull, it is then that I know my City of Heroes burnout has reached fruition, and it’s time for a break. Account canceled.

I canceled because I had enough of the core game for now, but there was another problem: I had nothing to look forward to. I reached level 50 before, found it was pretty much the drill as level 1, and become discouraged. I level up a baby hero to the pantheon of Gods and what do I get? Early retirement. Was this some kind of terrible joke? Where was my heroic destiny? Where was the meaning?

“It’s a game,” you might say, “games aren’t supposed to have meaning.”
Well, good art has meaning, doesn’t it? Games and good literature really should be able to generate the same kind of meaning. Without, it’s a little wonder the participant is left feeling unsatisfied.

So, where is this artistic message in City of Heroes? I would say it’s in assuming the virtual persona. You team up with fellow superheroes while working with the local legends, defeat criminals, perform rescues, and make a genuine difference in this virtual world. This experience, that of the hero making a difference, is the message a MMORPG about being a super hero should exude.

If this is the artistic message, then City of Heroes is lacking in execution in one important way: Nothing really changes. No matter how many times you defeat the bad guys, they’ll just respawn a few minutes later. No matter how many time you rescue someone, they’ll remain in peril. At times, the streets are lined with purse snatchers, and it’s not for lack of effort on behalf of the players.

Rikti Invasion in Atlas Park.

It’s not that the developers have no dynamic content at all. For example:

  • Issue 7 introduced Recluse’s Victory. This is a Player versus Player zone with capturable pillboxes that players can fight over. The entire zone changes appearance depending on if the villains or heroes have the majority control over it.
  • City of Villains’ release introduced Mayhem Missions which would come to City of Heroes in the form of Safeguard Missions Issue 8. These were missions which took place on copies of sections in Paragon City and had actual minor terrain destruction such as cars and parking meters.
  • Issue 10 introduced Rikti invasions, where the force walls come down and a zone is bombarded by attacking Rikti dropships and troops.

Yet, as excellent as these are, none of these events really produce a lasting change on the world. Recluse’s Victory comes closest, being an actual public accessible zone that changes appearance, but Player Versus Player has never really caught on in the game with the majority of the players and so they shy away. The Hellion Arsons in Steel Canyon are perhaps the closest to the ideal that can be found anywhere.

Many players (and perhaps developers) are afraid of what I want because it’s easy to see how it could be potentially disastrous:

  • I want a series of ongoing disasters every bit as disruptive as Rikti Invasion sequences.
  • I want there to be lasting consequences for the city depending on the players’ ability to cope with this series of world-shaking events.

And so on. In other words, I want to give the game world enough life that it even has license to disrupt and inconvenience players. For many, that’s totally unacceptable. However, this is where the line is drawn: change and consequence may be inconvenient, but without, there can be no real meaning of player’s actions in a virtual world.

I would say that the true challenge is in stimulating meaning in this manner while still producing an enjoyable game to play. Many would say that bringing the two together is a totally impossible challenge and you shouldn’t even try. I disagree – I think it’s just a matter of being willing to see such a project through to true completion.

I guess time will tell what will happen to City of Heroes. The developers seem pretty on-the-ball and may indeed have some plans like this coming. However, most MMORPGs have been stuck in this rut for time immortal, convinced that there really is no compromise between a high level of dynamic content and enjoyable gameplay, and are making no sign of budging. There have been exceptions, such as EvE Online and 10Six, but none could really be classified as an intimate RPG experience. The best odds an individual has to seeing this concept to fruition is to shoulder the burden in order to realize it themselves. Dwarf Fortress, anyone?

6 Responses

  1. “However, most MMORPGs have been stuck in this rut for time immortal, convinced that there really is no compromise between a high level of dynamic content and enjoyable gameplay, and are making no sign of budging.”

    This affliction isn’t limited to MMORPGs: it’s the same for single-player RPGs and almost all other computer games. Setting aside CoHV, the same could be said for WoW (the current 900-lb. gorilla), EQ/EQ2 (the previous 900-lb. gorilla), and the upcoming AoC and WAR (although those games have some interesting new features, at their heart they’re still EQ/WoW clones).

    Unfortunately, there isn’t any solution to this while the developers retain control of the content. No single developer can develop content complex enough or fast enough to satisfy everyone. There will always be someone who will “beat” or consume content faster than it can be replenished.

    That’s why most MMORPG developers have to put in time-sinks like PvP, crafting, trade, etc. Those are supposed to occupy, distract, or otherwise engage the player in those interim periods between significant/meaningful content updates.

    The other alternative is player-provided content, and some MMORPGs provide good tools for that, while others don’t. But mostly, they don’t. What every player wants is the next conquest, the new frontier, a fresh challenge. Player-made content could offer that, but unfortunately, that puts the developer/publisher at significant risk of loss of control of their IP, or loss of control over quality, or both. This is the very reason that “fan-fic” is differentiated from “canonical” fiction. Most player-made content would be either unsuitable or inconsistent with the developer’s original vision, scope, or intent.

    So as long as developers make games with proprietary content, their options for extending the creation of such content is severely limited, bringing us full circle to the developer not being able to develop/review content fast enough.

    Perhaps one day a MMORPG developer will be willing to accept a “wiki” approach to content. But that day isn’t today, as long as WoW — with its static content — has 9 million subs, dictating terms to the rest of the market. MMORPGs are so freaking expensive to make and maintain, no investor is willing to risk losing control.

  2. Thanks for the excellent comments, Olphar.

    I’m trying to remain optimistic and say that if only investors were willing to loosen their pursestrings a bit, the success of a more dynamic game would pay for the risk. However, it’s an easier assertion to make when it’s not my money on the line.

  3. The concept I have is a medium between the idea of player-provided content and developer created content. Rather than distracting the players with the usual grind, you allow the world to evolve but within set parameters defined by the developers. In time, you add addition pieces to the dynamic content of the game and the overall breadth of the experience the software can convey increases exponentially. The end result should multiply the developers’ usual content production while creating an evolving story for the users.

    The trouble, of course, is in the details.

  4. Sure allowing the game to change and evolve over time is good but most would simply say that, that is simply a patch produced everyonce in awhile to expand the life of the game while offering gamers new experience, my clue however is to take an existing game like wow, and have developers really take time to consider all player sent ideas and then integrate these into the game not merly via patches but character ideas, and item ideas, how would you feel if you were playing a game and got to use an item that you created or helped to create. By doing this you are allowing people to create player submited content while still alowing profesionals to moderate quality or stats reps. In essence you could make a great weapon via stats and have a great drawing but its not quite profesional enough, well then blizzard can take the base design and stats of the item and change it so that it works.

    Some may say that this would change the initial purpose of the item or content submitted, but really how many of us can say that we have are own submitted content in games, via expansions or patches, the answer only a few, so i ask all those who read these to send blizzard or whoever your main game provider is a message saying that in order to plz the consumer you must intigrate a less bias selection and should except ideas from the consumer for the next patch or expansion before deciding the way to progress with it.

  5. Thanks for dropping me a line, Hallogen74. Those are some two meaty paragraphs you have there, and they expand across several core concepts I see a lot:

    1) Patches produce change and this introduces a dynamic feeling into MMORPGs.

    Totally agreed. However, they produce a different kind of dynamic feeling, more of an external “the world is changing on its own” feeling instead ofan internal “the player is capable of changing the world” feeling. It’s this later player influential meaning I was referring to here.

    2) Player created content.

    Personally, I wasn’t referring to player created content so much as developer created content that supports more player influence.

    In other words, instead of allowing players to arbitrarily decide to open a chain of virtual whore houses (a common trend in open-content games like Second Life) the developers instead have said structures which can be taken over by different populations of critters depending on the actions of the players. This is just one kind of dynamic content, and something you can currently see in Tabula Rasa outpost capturing.

    I think that, given adequate thought and implementation, they could take things much further than the current Tabula Rasa implementation without giving the players enough freedom to ruin the gameplay introduce unwholesome values. In fact, I hope that’s what Destination Games has planned for Tabula Rasa, because it would be a really good direction to take it.

    3) The Wiki approach to player content.

    The concept of allowing the players to police their own content is not a terrible idea, but I think that the developers will need to have controls in place to steer things in the right direction. As players, we like to think that we have the best picture about how to advance the game because we’re the ones playing it, but I disagree with this assessment. Having dabbled a bit with game design and online GMing myself, I’d say that the external perspective is better empowered to do this.

    To use a simple analogy, allowing the players to have that much influence over how the game unfolds is like hosting a puppet show and asking the kids to tell you how the story should unfold. What you end up with is interesting to the audience in that it is dynamic, yes, but you also end up with a very mediocre end product because the fact of the matter is that the audience is not very skilled at formulating a good puppet show. What there needs to be is a medium.

    4) The moderators should listen to the players.

    It might sound like I just said, “no”, to this idea, but that’s not 100% what I’m saying. While the developers are best empowered to determine a good direction to take the game, they’d be foolish to “fly blind” by ignoring their playerbase.

    The Star Wars New Game Enhancement did this in that, while they recognized their existing game was not fun to the majority of players who discarded it, they did not recognize that the remaining playerbase they possessed did enjoy the virtual would approach to the game. A better path would have been to develop an parallel product and appease both camps through complete segregation. Without permission to use the Star Wars license such, they should have just expanded their existing game to appease to a larger playerbase through enhancing the core mechnic already in teh game.

    But, again, these are easy assertions to make when it’s not my money on the line.

  6. […] is exactly how I felt the last time I canceled my subscription back in Summer 08′.  This was not the only reason I’ve ever quit the game, […]

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