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The Magic of City of Heroes. What Was and Could Have Been.

5pm Nov 20 2012... 7 hours before goodbye.
5pm Nov 20 2012... 7 hours before goodbye.

City of Heroes was my first, and only, MMO. It was a magical time that I've always wanted to experience again. For many years I hoped they would work out a deal with ncsoft to purchase the game and make it available again (or that pirates would hack and release it… either way), but it doesn't look like that will happen so we have to pin our hopes on the new games instead.

It's actually quite exciting because the new games are being made by fans and players of City of Heroes which means they should have a solid idea of what to capture from the old game as well as pushing boundaries that CoH never could, but the problem is that there are at least four in development:

The first and biggest. Hit by delays, it's now destined for release possibly by late 2018. It had huge Kickstarter success. We expect big things.
The first and biggest. Hit by delays, it's now destined for release possibly by late 2018. It had huge Kickstarter success. We expect big things.
Mostly quiet until recently, SoH has been kicking it into gear with videos and media and news. They certainly have a look and feel that most closely matches CoH so far.
Mostly quiet until recently, SoH has been kicking it into gear with videos and media and news. They certainly have a look and feel that most closely matches CoH so far.
It's hard to know what to make of this one. They look very polished, but it seems to be more of it's own game than a successor.
It's hard to know what to make of this one. They look very polished, but it seems to be more of it's own game than a successor.
Another grassroots creation with some impressive models and fan art.
Another grassroots creation with some impressive models and fan art.

In some ways, the multiple options makes me nervous. Has the development base become too divided? Why can't these teams work together? What if one launches and I like it, but then I like a later one better? What if one is better in some very important ways, but another is superior in other ways? One things for sure, I agree with the players who've said that they really only have the time/energy for ONE game.

The Devs have generally been good about seeking player input in the design phase, but rather than try to evaluate and provide feedback to each of them, I want to list in a centralized place everything I hope for in a City of Heroes successor:

Character Creation

The first and most obvious is something that City of Heroes did well: Costume creation.

The game doesn't limit you to certain styles or colors or types: if you want to make an ugly, stupid, hero… you can. Heck, half of the fun was making something unique and different to show off to others. I once made a giant, mean looking punk who was entirely pink. His skin was pink, his clothes were pink, his powers were pink… For story, I said that he was afflicted by a magical curse that turned him and anything he touched for long pink. He was angry about it though so you had to be careful not to tick him off!

Which brings us to some other important details. You can customize how they talk, the color and text of their battlecry or any other things they say. Your character is fully yours and even if you don't role-play, it's fun to have a character that's completely distinct from any of your others (or anyone else's).

The key to making custom characters work: no armor or items cover up your design. What's the point of making the perfect character design if they're hidden behind the Uber Armor of Smashing +2 in the late game?

Making it BETTER!

  • More hair options
  • More faces or just let us control facial attributes like expression, eye color, eyebrows etc.
  • Better UI with thumbnail lists of costume items instead of just lists of words that take forever to scroll through.
  • Make it possible to have fat, young, or enormous heroes, not just various scaled versions of the same model!

Real people don't look exactly the same at 7 feet as 3. Body proportions change in different sized people.

Power Customization

It took a long time before City of Heroes was able to to give us power customization, but it was a great thing! Finally my pink powered Brute could have powers that were actually pink and not red:

His powers are red... meh.
His powers are red... meh.
Finally we can go full pink!
Finally we can go full pink!

They really went a long way toward making power customization cool particularly with the alternate cast options:

Slam it! Woo!
Slam it! Woo!
Sure... default is ok.
Sure... default is ok.

The big opportunity they missed was making powers more visually awesome as they gained in power! Let's say you increase damage… why can't I SEE it? Make it explode with power! What about a secondary effect? If it drops armor, then why not have an ever increasing shatter effect based on how much that effect has been buffed over time?

When I go nuclear, I want to FEEL it!

Granted, high level powers like Novas looked pretty amazing, but you couldn't FEEL the impact of it because the enemies reacted the same if you hit them with a level 1 punch or a nuke. On the plus side, nothing made me more gleeful than seeing a wave of floating orange damage numbers over the heads of enemy groups. Let's keep that!

I couldn't find a better picture, but here's some floating orange damage numbers... it was nice watching tons of enemies dropping in front of you!
I couldn't find a better picture, but here's some floating orange damage numbers... it was nice watching tons of enemies dropping in front of you!

UI Customization

Right or wrong, it's because of City of Heroes that I play all games with inverted Y (because that was CoH's default). As anyone who's had to sit down to a game where the invert wasn't set to their liking, you understand how frustrating it is to have to play with an interface that doesn't suit you.

One of the great things about CoH is how you can customize windows colors, locations, contents, etc. This freedom not only improved gameplay, but was also a cool way of having each character FEEL different when you played them (another cool customization):

Default UI
Default UI
Windows where I want them, more powers available, colors matching my character.
Windows where I want them, more powers available, colors matching my character.

Binds

They keybind system allows you to set various programmable actions and small sequences of actions to keys on the keyboard. If you're a Starcraft player, think "assigned hotkeys and keyboard shortcuts". They're not necessary to play, but they can add whole new levels of fun!

I had binds to say things in character, to find and highlight certain problem enemies, to control my Mastermind pets with fine control, to have an emergency escape button (Self Destruct) which would keep me from earning debt on death (AND hurt the ones who would have taken me down otherwise).

I have a whole guide that covers this if you want to see some of the cool things you could do:

It's because of all the above awesomeness that it could take an hour or more to create a new character. Building the perfect hero to run through the game is part of what made it fun!

Quality not Quantity

Time for a nit: City of Heroes had some neat stuff to see, but focused far too much on expanding into new zones instead of making zones cooler places to be. Did you know that there were 22 Hero Zones in Paragon City? Long before there were zones like Croatoa and the new Faultline, there were zones that were basically empty and useless like Boomtown and Skyway.

Even if you like to play solo (like I do), it's really cool to see other people and their cool costumes (plus we all like to show off a little since we put so much time into our characters right?) so what's the point of spreading everyone so thin that you see less and less of people?

Why not:

  • Have weather? They started this in the Pretorea with the lovely clouds, but let's get some rain. Some snow. Make it real!
  • Have actual alleyways that are worth spending time in (model them after real big-city alleys):
  • Give alleys some character. Give me a reason to go there. Give me a reason to spend time there!(<a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/baughj/170934735>Source</a>)
    Give alleys some character. Give me a reason to go there. Give me a reason to spend time there!(Source)
  • Make city zones more immersive and cool. Better and more interesting buildings. Maybe we can see outside when we're inside?
  • Props to Paragon; they were actually doing really well with the Atlas City redesign
    Props to Paragon; they were actually doing really well with the Atlas City redesign
    Here's a building you can see outside of.
    Here's a building you can see outside of.

  • More natural NPC characters and actions (what if enemies would occasionally stir up trouble and people panicked and ran from them so we could find trouble by tracing back panicking citizens). More realistic traffic (how about a jam)? Have both NPCs and enemies DO stuff. Gather. Rave. Whatever. Maybe a painter in the park. And definitely NO purse snatchers on the roofs of buildings.
  • Stop making mission entrances random and senseless. Give the cities more character by having a mission at "the Plaza building" or "Knockturn Alley". Absolutely bury the place in things to see, hidden areas, highly details nooks and crannies and maybe even hard-to-see special items or events out in the zone. Maybe you pick up a mission when you notice a bag of money in a random dumpster somewhere. What about rare enemies now and then that have special drops or trigger cool events or unlock customizations?

Bottom Line: make it worth my while to just wander the city instead of flying/super-speeding through it and forgetting that most of it exists (day jobs helped with this!)

Mission Quality

For the longest time, mission maps were tedious and boring. Warehouses made little sense, bases were crazy, and caves monotonous. It was only when Croatoa came around that they had some interesting things like office buildings that led to caves, but that's only scratching the surface. Why not a building with an escape tunnel leading to the docks? How about a Gas Station with a hidden tech lab underneath? What about working through the sewers and popping out in the basement of a building?

And for that matter, why did all office buildings look the same on every floor? Why not an open lobby that goes up a few floors followed by the cubicle floors then the secluded offices of the executives? How about the basement with pipes and machinery (that's where the sewer entrance can be!).

Instead of making so many fantasy and space maps (like the Rularuu zone that no one ever paid attention to), why not have a large shopping mall that INCLUDES the ability to go into the places we're not allowed to go in real life? Part of the fun is having the power to not only blast enemies to dust, but be able to walk through the access passages and loading dock of the hotel/convention center or busy construction zones or military bases.

Convention center loading area (<a href=http://www.raleighconvention.com/album/behind-the-scenes-16>Source</a>)
Convention center loading area (Source)
Large open lobby of an airport (<a href=http://vintage.johnnyjet.com/folder/archive/WheresJohnny101120062.html>Source</a>)
Large open lobby of an airport (Source)
Machine room of an office building (<a href=https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:19th_century_heat_machine_room_with_coal_boiler,_Auckland_-_0951.jpg>Source</a>)
Machine room of an office building (Source)
Executive offices (<a href=http://www.quantumoffices.com/office-suites/>Source</a>)
Executive offices (Source)
Office spaces (<a href=http://www.ceh.org/safer_office/>Source</a>)
Office spaces (Source)
Secretive military base (<a href=http://www.norad.mil/About-NORAD/Cheyenne-Mountain-Air-Force-Station/>Source</a>)
Secretive military base (Source)

Build/Solo Friendly

The most important feature of the game by far was that I was able to build and that I was able to do it alone. I've noticed that a lot of games shoehorn multiplayer experience into everything even games like Batman or Mass Effect. That's fine I guess, but for someone like me, that's a waste of time because I'm not learning, I'm not building; I have nothing to show for it and all I've done is waste time.

People like me who spend hours customizing a character's design, personality, backstory, powers, enhancements, and optimizing every part of their build are what I call "builders". I spent the time, because I was getting something for it. After the many hours of entertainment, I had ALSO made something I could be proud of: a hero with power and style!

That magical moment I made level 50 with my first and most beloved character!
That magical moment I made level 50 with my first and most beloved character!

For people who don't get this and how important it is to my gaming choices, let me share a confession: it was because they killed the build experience that I quit CoH in 2011.

That time I quit CoH

I loved the level cap of 50! Not only did you get he awesome explosion of light, but the first time let you unlock special archetypes (Kheldians). Best of all, I was able to consider my character "finished" and start a new one without regrets.

Eventually they created the invention system which gave us some really cool options and variety in enhancement and that was fine. It wasn't too hard to get most of the useful enhancements (though they shouldn't have tied the most rare enhancements to PvP… that only made it near impossible for people like me who didn't care about PvP to get them). I actually quite enjoyed playing the market and perfecting my enhancements and gaining new badges for building etc (see that "building" theme again?).

The thing that did me in was the Incarnate system.

The Incarnate system didn't raise the level cap, but it had a similar effect. It had some cool abilities and customization possibilities which was GREAT… the problem was that the ONLY way to complete it was to grind TFs. TFs were already a huge problem for me since they take several hours to complete which for someone with a wife, kids, and job is already extremely difficult. Putting the most advanced customization behind a requirement to play the hardest and most lengthy TFs made me feel like all my carefully crafted 50's were suddenly undone and I'd never, ever be able to "fix" them.

What was the point of it all!?

Chances are that if I could have done it all solo, it would have changed everything which brings me to:

Why Soloing is so important

On the plus side, City of Heroes was definitely an example of (mostly) doing it right. If I wanted to play for a few weeks then not again for six months, I could do that without penalty (while other games will punish the player for leaving in various ways). Sure, you could lose your right to a character name if you quit for TOO long, but that was a reasonable function (though maybe longer than 90 days would be nice).

They worked on balance so that players playing alone could be successful with any archetype and there were few missions or events that required more people. Where they could have improved was by making it possible to complete even Task Forces and other team events by yourself even if it did take more effort over a longer time (which would be fine so long as you could stop in the middle and pick it up again later).

This is a video where I use my fire/fire blaster to take down the notorious archvillain Dr. Vhazilok by myself! He was scaled down to an Elite Boss thanks to CoH's solo-friendly scaling

Basically, this is all part of the philosophy of letting us play the way we wanted. Another example was how we could set our own in-game difficulty for missions. If you wanted an easier experience, you could do that. If you wanted more enemies per mission because your character was great with crowds, you could do that. If you had a build that was great with fewer, but tougher enemies you could do that too!

I'm not unfriendly!

Playing with pickup groups was fine now and then, but I have to be careful committing to a story arc or TF when I have nearly constant family interruptions. Kids gotta be fed now and then. Cats gotta be rescued from whatever stupid situation they're in. That's life as a married adult (shrug).

Playing an MMO (emphasis on the multiplayer) solo may be weird or selfish or whatever judgement you can think of it, but if I can't play it solo, I basically can't play at all. It's not a complaint or entitlement, it's just the way it is for me.

To Sum up:

    Build Friendly

  • Limited attrition – You can outlevel enhancements, but only the cheapest kind. IOs lasted forever. Things ou put on the market and your character names would eventually disappear, but it was several months before you were at risk (longer like 4 or 6 months preferred).
  • Non-purchase paths to content – I can pay, or I can build. There were some things that were "buy only", but I think it would be cool if you could find your way to any content through in-game missions or challenges.
  • Superbases did have a cost, but it was pretty reasonable. And most importantly, your base didn't crumble or disappear if you let its payment lapse… it was just unavailable.
  • Archetypes diversity and balance – In other games (so I'm told), teams won't run without specific archetypes present (like a tank) where in CoH, there's almost nothing as powerful as a team of all Controllers or Blasters or Defenders. You could build the kind of character you wanted without worrying about no one accepting them and being shunted to the side.
  • Solo Friendly

  • Instanced missions – I can play by myself without anyone else except who's on my team (if anyone).
  • Balanced archetypes – I can play almost all content by myself with any character type
  • Dual-account friendly – Using assist targeting, I can play another account with a complimentary character without too much trouble.
  • Stop and Start – You can stop a mission or TF in the middle and pick it up another day if necessary.
  • Difficulty slider – You could fight larger numbers, tougher enemies, both, or neither (whatever suited your particular character at the time).
  • Side-kick and Exemplar systems – You could team with anyone at any level to play any content of the game at any time. Others tell me similar things are rare in MMOs, but I can't imagine playing a game without it.

I almost forgot! Make sure that PvP is optional in all ways possible. I managed CoH PvP only by sneaking in when no one was around or when I was in large groups. I don't have the reflexes or talent for PvP so that content is basically inaccessible to me.

Lastly and most importantly

No game is perfect. When CoH started, we had several ideas for improvement that they eventually gave us and it was great! Certainly we hope the developers love the game too, but it's their job, not their entertainment. It's only the players who really know what works and doesn't in the game so you have to include them in your decision-making process.

Sure, business needs matter, but it's senseless to make those decisions without also taking player opinion into account. Devs and players: PvP, soloers, and casual players; we succeed together, or not at all.

We need to work together.
We need to work together.

Bottom Line

People who've tried other MMOs have consistently told me how much they fail to match up with CoH even though CoH lacked the budget, backing, and sophistication of many other games (especially now). If a new game can't manage to be at least as good as CoH was, why would any of us bother? It's not asking too much for a game to treat us well, give us creative control over the experience, and not nickel-and dime and harass us with dirty manipulative tricks. Just give us a place to be super and we'll do the rest ourselves!

Comments

1 Comment to “The Magic of City of Heroes. What Was and Could Have Been.”

  1. Great summary of what made CoH so entertaining and what the developers should strive for. I’m eagerly awaiting CoTitans, and I am praying it can capture that same magic.

    I’ll add one more thing to the list, which is immersion. CoH did an excellent job of making you feel like a protector of the city, which was reinforced by the great theme music and comic-book like atmosphere.

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Devs

Developers. The game designers.

Nova

Nova is a high level attack power for energy blasters that does a massive amount of damage and knockback in an AoE around the caster. Eventually, all similar powers came to be referred to as Novas.

TF

Task Force. Certain contacts give task forces and each requires a certain minimum amount of players to begin. They consists of a series of missions or tasks while you follow a small story plot.

They are typically excellent experience and let you see some places in the game you'd never get to otherwise.

TF

Task Force. Certain contacts give task forces and each requires a certain minimum amount of players to begin. They consists of a series of missions or tasks while you follow a small story plot.

They are typically excellent experience and let you see some places in the game you'd never get to otherwise.

TF

Task Force. Certain contacts give task forces and each requires a certain minimum amount of players to begin. They consists of a series of missions or tasks while you follow a small story plot.

They are typically excellent experience and let you see some places in the game you'd never get to otherwise.

Solo

Playing alone. Without a team. Solitary. etc. etc.

IO - Invention Origin

IO stands for Invention Origin and refers to the new enhancement type introduced as of Issue 9. They are typically stronger than standard enhancements and have the awesome advantage of never becoming outleveled. Further, there are sets of IOs that provide special bonuses or powers when arranged properly.

Controller

Controllers use powers of deception and manipulation. They have fairly week attacks and low defense, but are often critical to team success due to their ability to alter battles.

Blaster

Blasters are powerful heroes with primarily ranged attacks. They have weak defenses so can be challenging to play.

Defender

Defenders have decent attacks and strong support powers. This ranges from heals and buffs to massive debuffs. Many times having a defender in the team means the difference between success and failure for a team. They also have the widest range of powers to choose from by far.

TF

Task Force. Certain contacts give task forces and each requires a certain minimum amount of players to begin. They consists of a series of missions or tasks while you follow a small story plot.

They are typically excellent experience and let you see some places in the game you'd never get to otherwise.

Devs

Developers. The game designers.