A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The crafts of heroes

I need to be better with headers.
I want to give major props to Cryptic Studios for Champions Online at launch because the studio did something that most superhero MMOs don't even try to do: Crafting was in the game at launch, and while you can say that it was absolutely terrible, it wins respect for existing no matter what else happened afterward. I didn't play around with the crafting at launch, but I can still respect that it was there.

Of course, even if I had liked it, it clearly was disliked enough for the game to completely redo its crafting system later. And from what I saw, it was not well loved. But the crafting systems for DC Universe Online and City of Heroes are both not received with open arms either. Don't get me started on the half-hearted effort Marvel Heroes has for a crafting system, which makes The Secret World look downright deep. (Although that could be revamped for release.)

So what's the deal here? Superhero MMOs are often ahead of the curve in a lot of areas, so why can't we get a superhero game with a proper crafting system?

Let's not forget the villains who craft elaborate devices and deathtraps despite being much scarier just hovering next to you while you try to read your email.You can try to claim that heroes don't really craft stuff in comics, but that's just not true. Heroes are crafting things all the time. Even if you disregard characters like Batman and Iron Man putting together new suits or gadgets with narrow applications, you've still got tons of characters assembling new devices or tools depending on circumstances. Spider-Man made his first suit and his web-shooters, and he made a few more suits over the years. Superman once tried to craft a cure to Kryptonite poisoning, and his Silver Age incarnation could craft all sorts of crazy bits. Mister Fantastic basically exists to craft things, when he's not belittling his wife or remembering that he has some stretching-related powers or something.

Sure, most of these are one-off solutions to specific issues, but there's no reason that has to be the case all the time. You can easily have a hero who crafts compounds to improve resistance, or even one who crafts in a more meta sense -- a reporter "crafts" a story to produce more favorable public perception of the hero, mechanically resulting in an experience boost or something similar.

Most heroic games do run afoul of one central challenge: Heroes, by and large, don't use much equipment. The problem of balancing equipment against the lack thereof has cropped up many times in the genre, and unfortunately that also has an effect on crafting. Fantasy and science fiction can have characters making ever-greater armor and weaponry, but heroes don't usually get away with this particular conceit. Except in, you know, DC Universe Online.

This ties into a larger issue with superheroes in MMOs insofar as you don't get any real down time. Games focus on modeling the most intense moments of any superhero story rather than the mundane portions, something I've mentioned before, which means that having a hero run around gathering herbs just feels somehow wrong. When gathering mechanics are hard to work into a game, it's equally hard to make crafting feel appropriate.

So you have a lack of potential crafted output, a minority of heroes who should reasonably be crafting things, and a lack of spaces for the characters to plausibly do the legwork required of crafting.

The fact you can't just build one of these is depressing.Is this a problem? I would say yes, it's a pretty big oversight, and not just because I like crafting. (Veteran readers will know that the opposite is more often the case.) There are heroes whose entire schtick is crafting things. Iron Man isn't quite right if he can't whip up another specialized suit of armor as the situation demands it. Forge might be a one-note character most of the time, but his whole power is literally to fix everything. Some characters have "building things" right in their concept, and a loose powerset of various gadgets doesn't capture the same feeling.

But at the same time, I recognize that it's an awkward fit in many games. Crafting has to be optional and yet desirable, a trick that has been pulled off by few games in existence; it's either mandatory or irrelevant. It feels just plain wrong to have your character in a superhero game spend a whole lot of time crafting Tights of Agility +6. And you run the risk of breaking the game as a whole if it's done wrong, as when Inventions altered the face of City of Heroes and ensured characters were more or less required to use them.

Right now we've got games on the horizon that might bring crafting back into vogue, but we don't know yet whether they will. Marvel Heroes does include a crafting system at launch, although how robust it will be is yet to be seen. We have yet to hear one way or another whether the CoH spiritual successors will feature crafting in any meaningful way, although as both of them are still early in the concept stage, that's not entirely surprising.

The fact of the matter is that superhero games pose a lot of problems for ornate crafting systems, so it's unlikely we'll ever see something as in-depth as, say, Final Fantasy XIV. But it would be very nice if we had a game with crafting that didn't feel like an afterthought, especially considering how many other elements the genre fleshes out.

Feedback is welcome as always in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. It's rote, but it's also true. The next time I sit in this chair, I'm going to be recovering from an exhausting trip, but I still want to talk about Heroes and Villains and The Phoenix Project -- why I'm hopeful for both and what pitfalls the games have to overcome.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.
This article was originally published on Massively.