A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Countless marvelous powers

A Mild-Mannered Reporter header by A. Fienemann
There were a lot of reasons I decided to stop collecting Transformers a couple of years back, but chief among those reasons was the fact that it was increasingly a hunt for novelty over permanence. A new wave of toys was released, and fans were expected to buy the lot of them, admire the novelty, and then almost immediately move on to the next wave. The idea of new releases playing into past toys was increasingly left out in the cold, meaning that you could essentially just keep grabbing a new set of toys every two or three months rather than enjoying the ones you had.

Of course, Transformers are meant to be toys for children, so the marketing strategy is pretty defensible. But I'm beginning to wonder whether City of Heroes isn't adopting a similar attitude with the steady onslaught of new powersets. Since Freedom hit, we've seen an absolute explosion of new sets with new mechanics and new ways to play... but we've also seen a real dearth of anything tying players to a given powerset. It's novelty on a steady basis, but we might not have appreciated the slow pace of new sets before.

Go forth, wild creatures, and do my bidding!  Whatever that might be!Now, to be fair, the game has always had a steady accumulation of new powersets. Archery and Sonic sets weren't in the game at launch, for instance, and Dual Blades was added between expansions. Considering how alt-heavy the game has always been, I think it's inevitable that one of the game's most steady additions will be new powers to slap on a character because really: people. New powers are what we want; new powers are what we get.

On the other hand, the pace has always been much slower. Time was that a new powerset might get added to the game once or twice per year, not counting the new sets that launched with expansions. Now there's at least one new set released every month, apparently, and often it's more than that besides. We've gotten more new powers since the launch of Freedom than we've ever had through patches, and depending on how you want to count sets, you could argue we've seen more additions since Freedom than in the whole prior history of the game.

This is not, on its face, a bad thing. One of the great qualities of Freedom is that it frees up development on systems that don't float an entire expansion but do make a nice addition to the game on their own merits. The costume sets in particular have been great little bundles of joy for a reasonable price, and that's loosened up the somewhat restrictive format of the previous Super Boosters to give us small groupings of new outfits rather than big packages.

No, the problem comes about when the new sets aren't really being tested. One of the things that we've been told consistently is that new powersets take time to balance, which is why we didn't see them on a steady basis. Now that we are seeing them on a steady basis, it's entirely possible that the development is being handled differently... but it's also entirely possible that the development is being rushed in an effort to put out more Freedom options at a faster clip.

Beast Mastery, for example, springs to mind instantly. Obviously, this is the sort of set that would be really hard to see developed in any other environment. It's an odd set that doesn't really mesh with the superheroic milieu, and it applies only to a single archetype. So there's something to be said for adding to the game here, and there's certainly reason to be glad that the game is in a state where this sort of new set can exist.

But at the same time... is it balanced? Is it actually a good addition to the game? Or is it a mishmash of powers from elsewhere that fit together well enough that you can drop some cash for it? I've heard horror stories from the regular test realm occupants that the new sets are tested, bugs or deficiencies are reported, and the developers claim a fix is coming... but nothing else is done. The set just goes out without any further consideration because it's not transparently broken and works well enough to sell to the people who'd buy it.

New costumes, by contrast, are pretty easy to balance.In a way, under the free-to-play model, this is kind of encouraged. Paragon Studios doesn't necessarily want you to just pick a power and be done with it; it wants you to keep buying new stuff and more character slots. So there's some incentive to urging you to jump to the next set and the next group of abilities; that way you keep dropping another five dollars in the Paragon Store. Or you keep your subscription running, which is just as good in the long run.

But as with so many other things, what works to keep you buying in the short term is not necessarily the healthiest option for the long term. Each set that gets added in without adequate testing is damaging to the long-term health of the game, and more to the point, if the emphasis is on releasing new sets instead of fixing old ones, the studio is building an increasingly large base of broken material. In the worst-case scenario, you wind up with dozens of sets but only a handful that are actually balanced against one another.

This isn't a forecast of doom waiting just around the corner; as it stands, the sets we've been getting have generally been all right. (Street Justice arguably had no reason to exist, and Beast Mastery seems kind of out of left field, but that's about it.) But there's definitely the potential for things to turn into a real mess down the line when we consider recent trends. It doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence in twirling a staff around, either.

Did you guess that my next line would be about leaving feedback in the comments below or mailing it to eliot@massively.com? Yeah, I'm predictable like that, but there it is just the same. Next week, I'm hoping to have something tasty to chew on in the wake of PAX East. Failing that, I'll start in on my usual anniversary trilogy a bit early.

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.