A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Architectural concerns

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|04.14.10

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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Architectural concerns
The big news for City of Heroes over the past week (at least at the time of writing) was the rather borked Mission Architect fix that went live. Well-intentioned, sure, but still borked beyond all comprehension. There's nothing like losing out on experience gained because of rescuing hostages to make players feel like they're welcomed to try out player-created content.

But let's not kid ourselves: this is not exactly a unique occurrence. We've been having problems involving some combination of Mission Architect and farming more or less since it launched, and that was back on Issue 14. A year out, you would kind of expect that they'd fix the basic problem of people trying to get something for nothing... but here we are, and the team is still rocking back and forth on the feature. If you're one of the players who prefer the farming style, nowadays it likely feels like more trouble than it's worth.

So naturally, I decided to take a look at Mission Architect and what it means for City of Heroes today. Specifically, both why it's important that the team does their best to keep it balanced, and why said balancing is pointless and a waste of time. (I love arguing self-defeating premises.)
Balancing Mission Architect is totally necessary and important
There's only one part of Mission Architect that can really be broken, and that's the reward end. Even if your mission is a sea of bad prompts, poor dialogue, and annoying enemy choice... as long as players get a reward equal to the effort that they put forth, it's essentially balanced, and it certainly meets the official standards for balance. This is why pretty much every balance tweak has been focused around what you get after the dust clears.

Yes, there are a number of tricks people have found to cut down on the difficulty of the experience, but the whole point of altering the reward is that a simplified run won't be fruitful any longer. The edge in efficiency is lost.

And let's face it -- farming stuff is a really boring way to play the game. It works if your goal is to get to max level, in much the same way that adding a full bag of sugar to your gas tank works insofar as getting your car to stop working... but you're racing to the end to take part in an endgame that, well, doesn't exist. Half the fun of the game is wrapped up in leveling, and skipping to the end as fast as possible is missing the point.

"Then don't do it," cries the other side. "You play your way, and we'll play ours."

Right, but doing that creates a really bad disjoint in the game. For starters, it discourages people who haven't seen the leveling content from bothering with it. The rewards are worse and the leveling is much slower, right? That creates an uncomfortable arms race between the will and the will-nots, and a moral stand against lightning-fast leveling gets pretty shaky when faced with an army of people who partake. It dulls the game down, encourages inviting boring content designed for machine-like efficiency, and generally harms the community and the service as a whole.

When people set out to break the system, the developers need to go after them. Not just for their own egos or some arbitrary hatred of high-speed leveling, but for everything good in the game. And so they hunt these exploits down, they work on keeping things balanced, and that's important.

Balancing Mission Architect is pointless and you shouldn't be trying
It's also really, really futile.

The problem of trying to fix something that's imbalanced is that it isn't going to actually deter the people who are looking for the most broken thing possible. All it's going to do is drive them to the next step down the line. If having allies who attack with you gets nerfed beyond utility, well, then they'll move on to allies who buff you. If that gets nerfed -- and it has -- then we move on down to the next area. Because there will always be something that's more efficient, even if it's just by a marginal amount.

And there are people who will find that margin and milk it for everything it's worth. No matter how much time you put into quashing exploits, the breaks will be found. Trying to kill farming missions is like trying to kill cockroaches, except the roaches are smart and patient and are doing this half the time because looking for the holes is what they find fun.

More to the point, this is a game where playing multiple characters isn't just encouraged, but almost mandatory. There's not much in the way of an endgame, so you play new combinations of powers or costumes or origins or whatever. Yet the low levels -- up until about 20 -- are really awkward for most characters. You don't have your full range of attacks or defenses, it takes forever to get access to any kind of useful enhancements, and you often find yourself standing around waiting for your only two attacks to recharge. (Or you find yourself dying under focused fire because you've got no defenses.)

Early tedium is more capable of killing a character than an unfun concept. People will go much further to try and make the former work. Almost no one has gone through the scut levels and wants to do them again -- and when you've done them a dozen times, you really don't want to bother any more. So why prevent people from playing as they like?

Balancing Mission Architect is worth trying, but it can't work
We actually have an entire family of games that are balanced entirely around the way you like to play them. When you and your friends get together, not only can you do anything and go anywhere, you can even cherry-pick the rules you don't like and throw them out. Sound ridiculous? Go play some Dungeons and Dragons.

No, not Dungeons and Dragons Online. (Well, okay, play that if you want to, but I didn't mean that.)

Having been gaming for many years, the number of times I've ever used actual in-depth rules for things like precise visibility distance or labyrinthine combat modifiers can be narrowed down to a single incident. (I had just read the book and mistakenly thought that more rules were automatically good.) Most pen-and-paper game books both know and expect their audience to helpfully discard chunks of unwanted suggestions, generally skewing the game toward being either more realistic or more dramatic. Speaking for myself, I usually ignore any rule that would prevent something really cool from happening, especially if there's an explosion involved.

And herein we come to the center of the problem. Complaining because people use Mission Architect to break the rules of the rest of the game is like complaining that I don't really know or care about the Encumbrance rules. The way I like to play involves them not being there, and the way people building farming missions like to play involves grinding nameless enemies beneath their heels in conga-line sequence.

Is there anything wrong with that? No. Is it how everyone wants to play? Definitely not. And do there need to be some safeguards in there to avoid the whole thing breaking under the strain of relentless farming? Without a doubt.

Remember: for most gamers, if there's a choice between Option A, a slightly more efficient Option B, and a crazily powerful Option C, there are very few of us that wouldn't choose C. Option A and Option B create at least some choice. There's no way to eliminate farming missions, but there are ways to at least keep those of us who aren't interested from being hopelessly outclassed.

It's an arms race, and one that the side against farming can't ultimately win, but one they can keep pushing against. If you're the only cop in gangland, you don't expect to stop crime, but you expect to at least stop the most egregious examples of it. Farming isn't going anywhere, but they can still make it as balanced against not farming as is numerically possible. (The usual counter is that they could just make non-architect missions more rewarding... but then we quickly get to a point where rewards from player-created content are too low to be worthwhile.)

So, like I said at the beginning, it's both pointless and necessary. Ain't it funny how that works?

As always, you can tell me just how wrong I am at Eliot at Massively dot com. Next week will feature more of our daring and dashing community threads, so feel free to pass along any interesting ones you've noticed.
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