Behind the Mask: The real state of the game

Although Champions Online's most recent State of the Game has been out for a while, I sort of avoided talking about it in previous editions of Behind the Mask. The main reason was because I really wanted to cover the new powersets. However, that doesn't mean I don't have any comments on it.

If you look at the history of the State of the Game and Ask Cryptic entries, they fluctuate quite a bit between good information and annoying PR. The January SOTG was full of annoying PR, and it bothered me greatly. It felt dishonest. I saw a lot of hype on little things that no one wanted and very little on what people really wanted.

This week, I'm going to talk about the real state of the game: where CO is and where it needs to go. I'll also talk about some of the future stuff that Robobo mentioned in the SOTG. Is it good or bad? We'll see!

New content?

2011 had a lot of new stuff, but a lot of it was C-Store items and new Archetypes. While the new Archetypes did include power reworks that were needed (I'll talk about those in a bit), the amount of content released in 2011 was somewhat slim.

The largest bulk of content released was the reworked early game in January, when CO went free-to-play. This content was pretty nice, and I really think the team got a lot of bang for its development buck on it, but because it affected only the tutorial and the first 15 or so levels, it didn't have a lot of long-term impact on players. Most of us have passed level 20 on a character, and I think it's the rare veteran who doesn't have at least one character over level 30. The new early content covers 20ish gameplay hours at the most, and none of it is replayable.

The other content came in the form of three scaling adventures: the Resistance adventure pack and the two comic series, Aftershock and Whiteout. The amount of play time it takes to complete these is also about 20 hours in total. These have a lot of replay value, especially for free players. Whiteout and Aftershock are available to everyone, can be played by any level over 12, and have scaling rewards. Additionally, they drop some really good stuff to sell on the AH, which can resource cap a Silver player in just a couple of sales.

While the three adventures can be replayed over and over, solo or with friends, they are ultimately very short and don't add much life to the game. I feel like these adventures are the CO equivalent of pushing out new raid content in World of Warcraft -- not a lot of meat and a lot of replays to get the stuff you want. The stories were very fun, and I don't want to disrespect the effort that went into the writing and comic panels, but those get old when you're doing Aftershock for the third time, let alone the 20th.

In one year, we got a total of 40 or 50 (I'm being optimistic) gameplay hours of content, much of which is fixed to lower-level players. This includes the new pre-Crisis Vibora arc for mid-level characters. This amount of new content is sort of low for a year of development. By comparison, the Revelations expansion added in an endgame lair (roughly the same amount of content as an adventure pack, although much harder and only for max-level characters) and at least the same amount of gameplay (40-50 hours, probably more) plus a new zone. I think that the overall content volume has dropped since then, which is saddening. I think most players really want to see another mid-high level zone (25+). Not everyone wants to be forced to Monster Island, and a change of scenery would be very nice.

Powers, powers, and more powers

Champions Online is really the only MMO on the market that lets you truly make whatever character you want. While not every concept imaginable is creatable (that's just impossible) and you are limited by a finite number of power selections, the amount of customization is pretty staggering. The fact that it's the only game that lets us do this means that we have to put up with some flaws in the game's power mechanics.

I'm not going to go into balance because it's a dead horse and not really worth arguing; there's enough diversity for characters at the very top end that balance isn't really the problem. What is the problem is the "one power syndrome." I've talked about this before, but here it is again: There's really no reason to get more than one or two attacks.

In City of Heroes, all of your powers have cooldowns, so in order to maximize your damage output, you need enough powers to fill all of your cooldown gaps. Inevitably this means a lot of powers. Also, because each power can be slotted with sets that benefit your character as a whole, there's a real reason to take a "fun power" if it can be slotted with global recharge, health, or some other useful stat.

In Champions Online, there's no reason to get more than a couple of attacks for the most common situations. You want an AoE damage attack to deal with packs of mobs and possibly a single target attack to take down higher-ranked enemies. Even the ST attack is sort of optional, as many AoE attacks deal respectable DPS to a single foe. Having only one or two attacks that you just spam isn't as fun as hitting lots of buttons for different types of attacks.

I think this one fact contains a lot of the "fun issues" present in CO. Optimized characters have few attacks and lots of utility, while less-optimized characters have lots of useless attacks. These attacks might be more fun, but even less-skilled players probably realize that they use the same two or three attacks pretty much all the time and rarely hit their other buttons. That's really not as fun!

The other problem is also present in CoH: Having multiple strong powers incurs an opportunity cost. In CoH, the opportunity cost is enhancement slots; in CO, it's advantage points. You simply don't get enough of either to waste on having lots of attacks. CoH fixes this by making utility powers cost fewer slots than attacks and having a lot of slots in general. In CO, while utilities cost fewer advantage points on the whole, you still end up spending four points on every heal you have and four to five on every attack. Those add up really fast if you want utility powers with unique advantages, like Evasive Maneuvers' placate advantage or unbound ritual pets. It's even worse if you want ranked travel powers.

I've griped a lot about how energy building in CO isn't fun. Passive energy gain is more fun than having to wait while your character goes through an animation to build up energy. Ideally, an energy-building attack should be fun. CO energy builders are like watching Dragonball Z episodes every three seconds when I run out of energy. Heck, even a Dragonball Z "power up" mechanic would probably be more fun because running out of energy would be risky and you'd have to find a way to power up while being attacked.

No amount of minor changes to CO will fix these issues without a massive powers rework. The game isn't built to play like CoH, nor should it be. However, the combat falls short for the issues mentioned above. I'm not sure the devs realize this is an issue, but it's huge. In fact, based on the absolutely terrible power choices for Archetypes (full of wasted attacks), I'm sure they are not playing the same game the elite players are.

While I mention that CO's power system has some fundamental problems, I also don't want to create the image that those are the end of the world. No game perfectly embraces fun, and while CO has some problems, it's still the only game that gives us this much freedom. I think these flaws will keep it from ever being a huge smash among casual players, which is mandatory for any MMO to be really successful.

What the SOTG said -- and what it means

Wading through the PR-laden text of the SOTG does give me some hope for the game. The big development focus is on rewards and improving itemization in the game. The itemization in CO is a giant mess, so I'm glad some effort is being put into it. The devs realize just what a difficult undertaking it will be, and I'm looking forward to testing it. That does give me a lot of hope for the future.

Written between the lines of several SOTGs and UNTIL Field Reports is the fact that the devs may be giving us a level cap raise sometime in 2012. This isn't official information, so don't go posting it as gospel. However, itemization and T4 powers fixes suggest we'll get a level cap bump soon. I know that itemization is one of the big obstacles in the way of any level cap raises, so if it happens, I would not be surprised at all.

Other additions

Some other things were added recently, and I do want to talk about them. Hideouts were a big deal, and I think they have been a smash success among the playerbase. I think they filled a big void for players who wanted housing.

A lot of powers got reworked in 2012, and that work was not trivial. I found the Wind framework to be kind of boring, but the changes to Force, Telekinesis, Infernal, etc. took a lot of effort and did help make those powers more fun and useful. The addition of new powersets (Earth, Wind, Heavy Weapons) really was cool. I was especially pleased with Heavy Weapons and think it's one of the more creatively designed sets to date.

The real state of the game is that CO seems to be doing fairly well in terms of population (still hundreds and hundreds of people in the major zones) and will probably do all right in 2012. However, because its very hardcore elements (freeform powers) and very casual elements (easy difficulty) do not mesh well together, I think the game alienates both groups of players. We'll have to see what the year brings.

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.