Exclusive: Designing the expanded Incarnate trees for City of Heroes

It was rumored for a while and confirmed at PAX East -- Issue 20 of City of Heroes will feature four new Incarnate slots for characters to improve their abilities. That means a huge breadth of new power and ability choices for everyone, and it should lead to some very interesting gameplay once the four new slots become more common among players, especially as the Incarnate abilities aren't tied to any specific archetype or power selection.

Of course, that means there are all sorts of new issues for the Paragon Studios team to deal with as the powers go through the phases of design. In this exclusive developer diary, Tim Sweeney, system designer on City of Heroes, has given us the lowdown on how the new endgame slots were conceived and designed. Jump on past the cut to see how the four newest slots were put together for the upcoming patch, from concept to balancing issues.

Hey all, Systems Designer Tim "Black Scorpion" Sweeney here with a little look into our powers design process, specifically when it comes to the Incarnate abilities.

Here at Paragon Studios, we've always known that that one day players would be able to tap into the "lost origin of power" and transform their characters into Incarnates. When I joined the development team in 2009, one of my first projects was to work with Lead Designer Matt "Positron" Miller on what would eventually become known as the Incarnate Trials and the Incarnate Powers. We started with the idea that players would be able to increase their powers by picking up new Incarnate abilities along the cosmic path that lay ahead. As they increased in power, they could tackle tougher challenges ahead and also help their friends with gaining their own new powers. The new abilities could not be a requirement to complete the Trials (how could you prove yourself worthy of Incarnate power if you already had it?) but rather the unique and valuable reward for engaging in this tougher and more demanding content.

We knew going in that whatever reward we designed needed to augment the core strength of City of Heroes: content that doesn't require an exacting makeup of highly tuned characters to have a fun and successful time. For this reason, coming up with powers that would appeal to that diversity of archetypes and power sets in the game without any particular combination becoming the "must have" or "necessary choice" was our most challenging task. In response to that challenge, we developed the Incarnate Tree system. Instead of simply having a list of powers available, we organized them into hierarchical trees. The Common, or simplest to acquire power, would be at the base of each tree. It would serve as an easy to reach entry point in the system -- not the most powerful ability but still a tangible benefit. Each higher-level rank would require consuming lesser power to create, as opposed to simply stockpiling components until you could afford the upper ranks. Uncommons required a Common to craft and offered a branching choice that presented two paths: the Core path and the Radial path. In general, the Core path improves the fundamental Common effect, and the Radial adds more effects overall. Rares required an Uncommon, and the Very Rares required two Rares. Each step along the tree would improve the power in some way, and we would keep to the same structure throughout the Incarnate system in order to simplify both our design task and the players' task of learning the new structure.

With the slot and tree structure, we want to encourage players who might otherwise be intimidated by the system and allow all players to try out multiple types of powers. At the same time, we wanted to reward those players who exhibited significant dedication and effort. Very quickly, a player could see immediate results via the new initial abilities, but it would still be worth building on those powers if they wanted to keep going. I've never been a tremendous fan of systems that require you to delay gratification indefinitely before handing you the prize (and I tend to believe most players aren't that way either), which is one of the reasons our Incarnate reward systems are set up to make each reward incremental and immediately useful, as they are all usable stepping stones to the pinnacle.

Incarnate powers also need to be more flexible and dynamically adjustable than the standard primary and secondary Power Sets selection or even the ancillary or patron pool selection. If your league came up short on something you wanted, like a particular buff or debuff, we wanted you to be able to cover that by reslotting your Incarnate powers to adjust. If you did have everything covered, then you could reslot whatever Incarnate powers were most beneficial to your playstyle instead. We definitely didn't want people to have to respec every time they got a new reward. Thus we completely separated the acquisition of new Incarnate abilities from choosing which ones to equip in a particular battle. This gave us maximum flexibility and encouraged experimenting without requiring a lengthy respec process.

Because the Incarnate system needs to affect all archetypes and power sets with a diversity of effects, the theming can seem loose at times, but part of that makes a lot of sense in the lore because it fits the nature of the Well of Furies, the source of Incarnate Powers, and how it operates. This is why we have also been working with the writers at Paragon Studios, Mission Designer (and Lore Guru) John "Protean" Hegner, and Systems Designer Chris "Baryonyx" Behrens on making sure they go hand in hand with the lore of the Well of Furies without spoiling the story ahead of time.

Each slot itself is built around a particular theme, and each tree within that slot is a variation on that theme. For example, let's talk about the Interface slot. The high story concept behind the Interface slot was a science/technology-themed slot, but specifically affecting the contact point between you and your foes: the "Interface." Thematically speaking, this has as many forms as there are characters in the game (the relics of a Magic user, the hands of a Natural, etc.) -- but the essence was a slot that made existing powers stronger, instead of giving you brand-new powers. But we had several ideas that improved existing powers; in what cool and unique way would Interface do this? We came up with the idea that the Interface slot should be themed around adding secondary effects to your existing powers -- a way to diversify and add utility without being restricted by your Power Sets choices.

Each tree in the Interface slot starts at the Common level with a basic debuff. When you have the Interface power equipped, almost all of your damaging attacks will have a chance to trigger that debuff on your foes. For instance, the Gravitic Interface (Common) has a chance to debuff recharge rate. As you progress up the tree to the Uncommon rank, you then have a choice, which tends to be between improving the base debuff's chance or adding a new type of debuff into the mix. If your Interface can trigger multiple debuffs, each will randomly occur independently; you won't always get all or nothing. In general, you can choose which debuffs you want to have happen more reliably as you progress up the tree, until at Very Rare level your most frequent debuff will almost always trigger, essentially adding a new secondary effect to both your Power Sets.

As with Alpha, we tried to spread out the pairings and selections of debuffs in ways that would lead to fun choices, while keeping to a general theme for the tree. The idea behind Reactive Interface was chemical in nature -- explosive or corrosive energies being interfaced into the player's attacks. So in the Reactive Interface tree, you add both a damage resistance debuff and the ability to add Fire damage-over-time secondary effect. In the Diamagnetic tree, we thought of the enemy's internal regulating systems (be it biologic or technologic) being damaged, hence the appearance of the to-hit and regeneration debuffs. The Gravitic tree became the obvious home for the slows, snares, and recovery debuffs. Lastly, the Paralytic tree keeps your opponent from being able to bring his full power to bear, whether offensively via the damage debuff or defensively via the defense debuff.

As we continue toward launch, I'll provide you more information about the other Incarnate Powers you'll see in Issue 20. Keep an eye out on our website and Facebook. I can't wait for you all to get your hands on Issue 20 and start experiencing the Incarnate abilities and trials!
This article was originally published on Massively.