I'm hoping that the "splitting the anniversary column into two parts" thing doesn't become a yearly tradition, but we took a look into the future last year, and we're going to do it again. We're also once again referencing a song with no relevance to the proceedings beyond the title, because when you establish a tradition, you darn well stick with it. The future does indeed freak me out a little bit, because just like it does every year, City of Heroes is facing a bunch of challenges.

This coming year, City of Heroes is going to be facing an interesting field if for no other reason than the simple fact that not much is happening. Unlike the past few years, which saw major superheroic MMOs launching left and right, this year seems to be in the clear. DC Universe Online has launched, Champions Online is still working to fit into its free-to-play niche, and by and large it seems like the field once again belongs to the City as it always has. And that runs a bit counter to my predictions from last year, doesn't it?

Well... not entirely. As I said last year, there was every reason for the showdown between Champions Online and CoH to be legendary, but CoH came out on top in no small part due to the design team of the former game making some stunningly bad decisions. I've not played DC Universe Online, but what I've heard seems to indicate another batch of questionable choices, some of which are obvious even from the standpoint of a neutral observer (separate servers for the console and PC versions? Really?), not helped at all by the Sony security issues of late. (I don't imagine this is going to be a long-term black eye for Sony -- I hope not, even -- but it's not doing DCUO any favors.)

Technically, we still do have a couple other competitors around the corner, but I don't think Marvel's offerings are honestly in the running for major threat status. The time to strike that iron has come and gone, and for better or worse, there's a general sense now that superhero games are of lackluster quality. I don't like it, but hey, flood the industry with a few weak offerings and our long memories kick in.

So CoH has to face a different enemy, one oddly apropos of the recent Praetoria storylines. Rather than facing some grand unfamiliar threat, City of Heroes' biggest problem at the moment is City of Heroes. Players are slowly going to lose interest in the novelty of playing a superhero; new games will come out. And while the game is just on this side of being considered an institution, it's going to need some changes if it wants to stay relevant.

The first thing that pops up in my mind is that the game needs a sequel or a sweeping upgrade. Actually, I think it has to be the former, because in I think Going Rogue was meant to be a sweeping upgrade to turn the experience into a Brand New Game. As it happens, that... sort of didn't work. It did a great job of upgrading the game for existing players, but new players were not convinced to start playing. And the game does need an influx of fresh blood, which means it's time to start figuring out how to get people in.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the presentation needs a bit of an overhaul. The fact of the matter is that CoH has as rich a story as any comic book fan could want, all without the stultifying and annoying continuity elements that have driven a lot of us away. But you have to play for quite some time to see that, and as the game is presented, it's easy to misread Paragon City as Metropolis Except Not That Metropolis -- This Is An Original One We Made Up. The slow cycle of Praetorian storyline characters into the spotlight is a good start, but I'm thinking we need more.

We could always kill off the remaining members of the Freedom Phalanx in battle with their Praetorian counterparts. I'm just saying.

On a similar note, we could really use some level streamlining, especially with the Incarnate system's making the game start, for the most part, at level 50. It's sort of embarassing how long you wind up meandering from 30-50. There was a time when leveling needed to be difficult and there was a darn good reason to keep characters on the path for a damn long while, but that's not the case any longer. Leveling has turned into something of a burden, and that's the last thing the game needs right about now.

Part of what would help here is giving the tip system a bit of a second pass. The random drop system works, but it can get intensely frustrating when the RNG deities don't smile upon you. Case in point: My Arachnos Soldier has been a chore to level for a while now, not because she's unfun to play but because I've gone an entire level without a single Hero tip dropping. How many times do you think you can run radio missions before they start to get boring? Pick a number and I'm well past that.

On a related note, rogues and vigilantes need a bit more to do. I understand that the developers don't want players in a transition alignment to have full access to everything, but there's "game balance" and then there's "whee running radio missions again." If I have to stick myself knee-deep in filler content to try to get tips, and then those tips don't drop... well, actually, now I have some motivation to remain a villain. You know, so I can hurt people in retaliation.

In short, the game needs to keep things lively and interesting right up to the endgame and let players keep accessing content with some degree of autonomy. Not so much to ask, right?

As always, feel free to let me know what you think in the comments or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week will either be the next archetype discussion or quite possibly a recap of the festivities this evening. I don't know if it's exactly ironic that my primary server is the first one being invaded, but it's something.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.

This article was originally published on Massively.
Massively Speaking Episode 147