Design insights from the Magisterium: The most challenging City of Heroes incarnate trial
With Issue 23, the City of Heroes
design team introduces the Magisterium incarnate trial, the final fight against Tyrant at the base of his iconic citadel, Tyrant's Tower. This incarnate trial, the largest, most challenging raid we've designed, is the culmination of over two years of storylines.
In City of Heroes Going Rogue
, players discovered that Tyrant, Praetoria's ruler, planned to invade Primal Earth and take it as a new home for his people. During the last two years, Level 50 characters have walked the path of the Incarnate, earning vast new levels of power while repelling a full-scale Praetorian invasion and then taking the fight to Praetoria.
The story premise and the players
Early in the development of the Magisterium incarnate trial, we (the design team) all sat together in a meeting room to design a raid that gave players the sense that their characters were immensely powerful and that also provided a satisfying conclusion to the Praetorian war. While we discussed a number of ideas, several of us hit on one idea simultaneously: If Tyrant is famous for surviving a nuke, wouldn't it feel cool if players could have their characters survive a nuke, too?
From that point on, the Magisterium incarnate trial started to crystallize in our minds as an opportunity for players to fight a gauntlet of some of our universe's most powerful villains. Between the Arthurian knight Pendragon, master assassin Chimera, the beastmaster Shadow Hunter, living shadow Black Swan, and Emperor Cole (a.k.a. Tyrant) himself, the players would need to win the most epic battle we'd ever introduced.
Balancing difficulty vs. accessibility of play
Our goal was to create a series of encounters that were challenging, as was appropriate for a raid that embodied the climax of so many stories. We needed this to be our biggest, baddest incarnate trial. But, we also wanted to strike a balance between that difficulty and accessibility. We needed to design something that both casual and hardcore players wanted to complete and could complete, an incarnate trial that was not too complicated, but not too simple -- a "just right" Goldilocks design.
Act one: Designing to help balance team composition
Magisterium is built on three main boss fights: one against a trio of Shadowhunter, Chimera, and Pendragon; one against the Black Swan; and finally, a showdown against Tyrant. The mechanics we built in for the initial fight in this incarnate trial encourage players to come up with the right strategy for their league (raid team) composition. We wanted to let players be able to pick a strategy to suit the characters that were in their league without immediately killing those characters if the strategy they picked wasn't perfect.
In the first fight, Shadowhunter, Chimera, and Pendragon simultaneously attack the players' team. The players have to decide the order in which they fight these arch-villains, since each boss's defeat triggers an additional mechanic that persists through the rest of this stage. For example, defeating Shadow Hunter empowers the other remaining bosses with the ability to Banish anyone hit by their attacks three times, shifting that character to a different phase and taking it out of the fight for ten seconds. Chimera has also prepared for the players' assault on Nova Praetoria in this Incarnate Trial by gathering allies, and the players have to fight them, too.
Act two: Giving the players focused goals improves flow
Next, the players must face off against Black Swan, who commands the powers of an entire dark dimension. Black Swan opens up rifts to her shadow dimension that summon hordes of imps to attack the League.
This fight changed a lot in internal playtesting. Initially, it was a very fast-paced, chaotic brawl against a legion of the Black Swan's shadowy minions. Each minion was very weak on its own, but as a legion, they were potentially deadly to the player's characters. Testing showed that this ultimately wasn't very fun. It overly penalized melee-based characters, and it required very twitchy reflexes to succeed at.
We changed the focal point of the fight to one of taking down the portals allowing the imps access to this dimension, and the flow of the combat changed dramatically for the better. The lesson we learned is a not a new one, but still a fundamental one for good design: Limit complexity to situations that call for it. Don't add it to every encounter for its own sake.
Act three: Players tune the difficulty to their needs
Finally, the players fight Tyrant. This fight held some big expectations we had to live up to. We needed to sell the climactic final battle feel we wanted. Fortunately, the environment artists who worked on post-nuke Nova Praetoria did a phenomenal job of capturing the fresh nuclear explosion ambience there. Now we could set up a battle with a soul-engorged Tyrant in the crater of Nova Praetoria's central plaza!
A fight against a nigh-invulnerable modern god wouldn't be complete without giant pillars of lightning from the sky or a ground-pound capable of knocking down even the staunchest of super-powered beings. We built Tyrant's powers as numerous, flashy, and hard hitting, and his incarnate power of Tartarus gives him control of a character's soul, should one of his powers defeat that character! (What control of a character's soul means here is that a defeated character needs to fight his or her way out of an astral limbo -- otherwise Tyrant tries to use that soul as fuel.)
We had some clear goals for this fight. We wanted to make Tyrant immensely powerful right out of the gate, but we also wanted to make sure the fight could be completed by pickup Leagues as long as they all met the entry requirements. To do this, we gave him high base levels of power, but we then gave players the option to sever his connections to his power source. This flexible power baseline made for a truly epic struggle against a cosmically powered being. It also let players set the difficulty of the encounter during the fight itself!
Leave them with a feeling of accomplishment and tease the future
After the players defeat Tyrant, a league will have decimated an army of genetically enhanced soldiers, defeated all remaining Praetors, and severed Tyrant's connection to the Well of the Furies. It's a well-earned accomplishment, and it puts players right into the climax of the story.
But what does that mean for Praetoria and for City of Heroes
? With Tyrant's super-powered enforced détente out of action, a legion of Devouring Earth is likely to descend upon Praetoria -- but with the pressure of a greater threat building, will there be time to fight a war of attrition over Praetoria? For though incarnate characters grow stronger by the day, they have been forewarned of a disastrous event bearing down on Primal Earth. Be prepared for the coming storm!
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