City of Heroes dev diary: Dr. Aeon's Guide on How to Make a Proper Interdimensional Invasion

With the upcoming Issue 19, City of Heroes is bringing in the long-awaited Incarnate system, the first step in improving and honing the powers of characters who have already reached the level cap. Of course, that would be rather unbalancing if there wasn't something new to challenge the newly-empowered characters, but the whole invasion of Praetoria into Paragon City and the Rogue Isles should give even the new Incarnates something challenging to handle. Two task forces are being added to challenge characters that have reached the apex of power.

So how exactly does one craft a new invasion in City of Heroes? We were lucky to get a brand-new developer diary from Sean "Dr. Aeon" McCann detailing how the Apex and Tin Mage task forces came into existence, from the challenges it presented in design to the result of all that hard work. Take a look past the cut to check out the diary, wherein we get a full rundown of how one launches an interdimensional war. (In the game, at least. Actual aggression against other dimensions is not covered.)
Hello everyone! My name is Sean McCann, or as I'm known on the City of Heroes forums, Dr. Aeon. I'm the developer in charge of Mission Architect, and I'm also one of the mission designers here on City of Heroes. Today, I'm here to talk to you about my experience in designing and making the Apex and Tin Mage Task Force. These two Task Forces are going to be introduced with "Issue 19 - Alpha Strike!" and will be the new content with which players can get some use out of their Alpha Slots.

In the Apex Task Force, Apex is looking for player's help in defending Primal Earth against the invasion of Praetoria, the alternate universe that was further revealed in the game's recent expansion, City of Heroes Going Rogue. The main hero groups of Paragon City have fallen against the initial invasion, and now it's up to your team of Incarnates to save Paragon City and Earth from the forces of Praetoria!

While Apex is more of a defensive Task Force, the Tin Mage's Task Force involves players taking the offensive against Praetoria. Players will help save the Rogue Isles from the Praetorian forces and then prepare themselves for a full out assault on Neutropolis, the staging ground in Praetoria for the next part of the invasion. As with the Apex Task Force, only the Incarnates, those who have attained the ultimate abilities, are powerful enough to stand against this threat. Other hero and villain groups have tried and failed to take the attack to Praetoria. It's up to your team of supers to succeed!

The Alpha Slot is a new method for level 50 characters to make themselves even more powerful. Only characters who have acquired the Alpha Slot can run the task force, and even they are not completely immune to Emperor Cole's secret weapon. A secret weapon that seems to be draining any person who has yet to achieve any sort of an Incarnate ability.

The goal in designing these two Task Forces was to make them challenging and also very fun. Players are going to be running these Task Forces often, so they should be something that is always exciting. To help achieve this goal, I sat down and examined our high end Task Forces: Statesman, Recluse, Imperious, and the Reichsman Task Force. These four Task Forces are all considered higher level content in the current game and are supposed to be some of the more challenging tasks that players can run. I also looked at the feedback we've received from the revamped version of Positron's Task Force, which was implemented in Issue 17.

Out of the four Task Forces, I believed that Imperious was one of the more popular amongst players, while Statesman and the Recluse Task Force are some of the more difficult. The Reichsman Strike Force is also difficult, but it the only one out of the four that has a final encounter that requires players to use temporary powers to win. I wanted to take the best aspects of these four Task Forces and put them into the new Task Forces. But first I had to ask myself, what was it that players liked about these Task Forces?

For the Imperious Task Force, the many times I've run it, it was the number of enemies to be faced and the epic feeling that the vast maps give you. For the Recluse and Statesman Task Force, it was the challenging encounter at the end, where your team wipes the floor with the main signature Heroes or Villains of the game. With Reichsman, the excitement of running it on villain side was coordinating with members of the team to defeat the almost unstoppable Reichsman with our special temporary powers. With all that in mind, I saw what these Task Forces should have in them: a lot of enemies to fight, challenging encounters, an epic feeling, and it should require the players to coordinate with each other. The latter is a special case that I spent some time to look into.

City of Heroes is unique in the MMO world because we break away from the "holy trinity" requirements. I, myself, love being able to just get together a team of 8 people, look at who is around and say, "Okay, we all know what we're doing, let's have some fun." Therefore, the coordination shouldn't be, "we can't start until we have X archetype", but rather that everyone is paying attention during the Task Force and has an understanding of how to proceed.

With all that in mind, I started designing the two Task Forces with help from Matt "Positron" Miller, Tim "Black Scorpion" Sweeney, Floyd "Castle" Grubb, and another one of our designers, Christopher Behrens. Much of our discussion went into the powers and entities that would be used in the final encounters in the Task Forces. We wanted to avoid it boiling down to 10 minutes standing around and hitting an enemy, but we also didn't want it to be so difficult that it required an astronomical amount of coordination. Lastly, we did not want the encounters to be so challenging that players felt the only way to defeat them was to use cheap tactics or have hours of preparation beforehand.

Another goal that I wanted to hit was the length of the Task Forces. Ideally, I wanted both of them to be about an hour long. But you should feel like every minute of that hour is jam packed with something exciting. There shouldn't be any part of the Task Force to "speed" through to get to the interesting part; every part of the Task Force should be the interesting part. The first mission of the Apex Task Force showcases this, where you're either constantly in interesting environments with something to do or facing off against a fun challenge. There are no "dead space" areas of the mission where players will feel slowed down or encouraged to just "speed" through it.

The last, but certainly not the least, important aspect of the Task Forces was the story and how to convey what was happening to players. This was accomplished using our caption system, which is similar to captions that will appear on the panels of comics. While running through the missions, players will see captions appearing on their screen explaining the current situation and also foreshadowing more of the story to come. These captions are short and sweet, so players won't have to stop in the midst of any action to read a wall of text.

The end results of all of this work are two Task Forces that bring a lot of unique elements to the table. Players will go through a variety of new maps, such as a destroyed Kings Row and Nerva Archipelago under attack by the Praetorians. Gameplay wise, players will find mission encounters requiring them to stay on their toes, such as the War Walkers' "Orbital Cannon" blast and Battle Maiden's "Nanite Sword" power, both of which will cause some serious damage if players are not paying attention to their surroundings!

Finally, the story in the Task Forces helps players feel epic. It's up to the teams formed in the Task Forces to save Primal Earth from the Praetorian invasion forces. The Freedom Phalanx and the Vindicators, the game's premier hero groups, have both failed. Arachnos, the game's largest villain group, is unable to properly fight off the invading Praetorians. Now it's time for Incarnate players to step up to the task, placing them at the forefront. This marks a shift in our storyline. We don't want players to be overshadowed by iconic figures like Statesman or Lord Recluse. In the Incarnate system, players will embark on the path that will end with them being seen as more powerful than the current iconic figures in the game. The Alpha Slot is the beginning of that. We're moving the story to focus on the player character being the hero or villain, and not feeling as if they're the lackey or sidekick to established characters.

It was an absolute blast designing these new Task Forces, especially being an avid player of the game myself. When everything was done, I looked at the finished Task Forces and thought, "Would I want to run these when they go live?" The answer to that was an emphatic YES! I can't wait for Issue 19 to hit the live servers so that players (and I!) can run these two new Task Forces!

We have more information about Issue 19 and the Incarnate System on the City of Heroes homepage and the City of Heroes Facebook Fan Page. Come by and learn about what it really means to be an Incarnate, and how "Issue 19 – Alpha Strike!" will take City of Heroes to the next level.
This article was originally published on Massively.