Behind the Mask: The separation of newbie and expert

Champions Online screenshot
Last week on Behind the Mask, we got into a little discussion about why Champions Online's Elite difficulty needs to be buffed (and possibly also the very hard difficulty as well). This led to a discussion of whom Elite would be tailored for. I'm sure this is a big issue over at Cryptic right now. If Elite is increased in difficulty, whom should it be designed to suit?

I was asked this burning question a few times, and I've made my opinion clear: that Elite should be for the top tier, the tip of the iceberg of player ability. Don't take that to mean Gold players only. There is a sharp divide between an expert Silver player and a poor Gold player. In fact, the poor Gold player is likely to be worse than a bad Silver player. How good is good enough? This week, we'll find out.

Archetypes are bad, but they're also good

Any discussion of Elite difficulty is ultimately a PvE discussion, and in PvE, Archetypes are somewhat lacking. Most of them lack defense (specifically healing), and most of them have many powers wasted on trash picks. However, with those failings aside, most Archetypes aren't unplayably bad. With the exception of the Specialist (who is garbage), all Archetypes have strengths that make them useful.

The Inventor, for instance, has my least favorite passive in the entire game: Medical Nanites. I will continue to complain about this passive until it is fixed. This passive is so bad that it is actually better if the Inventor unslots his passive and plays without it. However, there is a silver lining. The Inventor has Energy Shield, with the highest overall block resistance in the game. Most of his utility is passive and comes in the form of pets. If the Inventor simply survives, he contributes to his team, so he can contribute quite a bit by just blocking with Energy Shield and letting his pets (and Medical Nanites) do the job. He has other tools, sure, but this weird synergy lets him actually function well. I've teamed with good Inventors (who know this trick) and bad Inventors (who don't) and the difference is night and day.

In a team, there's not much functional difference between a good Archetype player and a decent freeform player. The freeform player will generally be more durable or put out more DPS, but that doesn't really matter. The exception, of course, is tanking; Archetypes suck at it, and there's no real way to make them better at it without breaking their themes. The other team elements -- healing, DPS, offtanking, and support -- are all available for an Archetype without spending any money in the C-Store. Most of these roles can be filled better by an Archetype than by the average Gold player.

In fact, I'll even say this: Freeform character selection only benefits around 15-20% of CO's playerbase. Most of the people on my friends list would be better off rolling their favorite characters as Archetypes; more of them are coming out every month, making it easy to fit any theme. A lot of themes require money, but that's all it really is -- theme. Mechanically, you can fit any of the roles just fine with what's available for free.

Champions Online screenshotThe expert knows it all

The main separation of expert and novice in any game is knowledge. One of my friends watched me play CO in a duel and was blown away by how much my hands moved. I commented to him that I wasn't really moving that fast; it's just that I instinctively had a lot of knowledge on what to do when, and the reactions of my hands were natural and took almost no effort. It's much the same way for professional gamers. It's not some extraordinary talent that makes pro-gamer hands move at lightning speed; it's practice and knowledge of what to do when. If you know what you are supposed to be doing, your body responds naturally and you hardly even think about what you're doing.

In CO, knowledge of exactly what powers do and exactly which enemies do what attacks is pretty darn important. For instance, VIPER Tartrappers snare and root you, while Squad Leaders summon drones and throw energy-draining grenades. In PvP, this is a critical skill, especially for freeform players. It's important to look at a small number of powers and be able to see the big picture -- what the enemy's build is supposed to be and how it works -- without knowing everything about the build and certainly without experiencing it before.

PvE is not as demanding because you don't have to be adaptable. Knowing that you need to fight Draconis by having a wall to your back (rather than a generator) is very important, but it's not like Draconis is a different fight every time. Making Elite harder wouldn't change the fact that enemy patterns can be memorized, and even if they get annoying or "unfair" attacks like the Serpent Mage disable, experts can plan for that. It doesn't take a Gold account to know you have to spike the Serpent Mages, and there are plenty of Archetypes capable of doing so with brutal efficiency.

Champions Online screenshotThe tank problem

Archetypes are limited in one area: Tanks must be freeform characters, and there's no way around it. While there's not a lot of difference between a freeform Fire and an Inferno in terms of DPS, there's a massive difference between Behemoth and an Invul/dodge or LR tank build in terms of survivability and an even bigger difference in threat generated.

Behemoth has to generate his threat in melee range, while a freeform can grab Assault Rifle and spam threat from 100 feet. Behemoth can't joust with Challenging Strikes, and his main CS attacks all have cooldowns. Freeform heroes can spam Ego Sprites or Lead Tempest and get a roomful of aggro off their teammates in just a second or two. Behemoth has to rely on Defiance alone (and Unbreakable, later) in order to stay alive. Invul/dodge has over a half-dozen powers related to survival all working in tandem and multiplying on each other, plus he can also take Masterful Dodge and Unbreakable and have an active defense in every fight.

When I suggest that the Elite of my dreams can be done with a team of Archetypes and one freeform, that one freeform is either a tank (doesn't have to be as exploitative as Invul/dodge) or an exceptionally gifted healer. With multiple freeform characters who are all very survivable, the tank would less needed. However, Archetypes fit specific niches, and in a team of them, a tank is pretty mandatory. Sadly, even in the current game, Behemoth doesn't cut it in a team of five in TT Elite.

What about soloing?

Personally, I think Elite should not be soloable for all but the most absurd, abusive defensive builds like Invul/dodge. I don't think this because I feel that only these unique snowflakes should get to solo; I think that because Elite shouldn't be balanced around the existence of tanks that break the rules and essentially have multiple passives.

I don't necessarily think that builds like Invul/dodge should be nerfed either, but the truth of it is that CO is a ridiculously complex game and the extreme top end of PvE builds can take Teliosaurus radiation breath to the face without dying. I don't think it's fair to balance the game around the tiny percentage of players who have ridiculous godly builds.

That being said, I just don't think Elite should be soloable, but because you can stack resists, healing, dodge, and -dmg all in the same build, those kinds of builds should be able to solo Elite reasonably well. Otherwise, everyone else would need mass IDF or Radiant aura stacking, and that would restrict Elite unnecessarily. Elite should be for the top 15%, not the top 0.1%.

Champions Online screenshotA word again on casual play

As always, I believe that people who don't want to memorize enemy patterns and want to just relax and play a video game should be allowed to do so. Elite is only one difficulty setting of many, and at most I would want Elite and VH to be changed. The other three (Normal, difficult, hard) should remain as they are, more or less.

A game needs to fit all of its audience, and the casual audience is catered to pretty well in Champions Online. The expert audience is not; we're hunting for a challenge and we can't really find it, except in PvP. The casual players have their fun, and they should be entitled to it. I simply feel that experts also deserve something they can pursue and strive for, even if the only rewards are bragging rights.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
This article was originally published on Massively.