A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Gonna be the future soon

This week's listening, if you by some chance didn't catch it, will be from the inimitable Mr. Jonathan Coulton. Not because the song is all that thematically appropriate (I did not leave a note on War Witch's desk, for starters), but because it's Jonathan Coulton. And it offsets the tone of this article, which is going to be... well... kind of negative.

Not negative in the sense that City of Heroes is dying, because it's not. The game is full of life, flush with energy and diverse ideas. Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated for well on a year or so now, and I personally couldn't be happier about the state of affairs. For every problem it has, it has five or six great points, and every time I'm cresting a hill on my enjoyment there's another hill of sliced, buttered awesome in front of me.

But City of Heroes is going to need to start taking steps to ensure its long-term sustainability. It needs to start realizing that their good fortune is not going to last. And so today will be a bit negative, as the long-forgotten second part of the anniversary column... where we look to the future, and see what needs to happen.

Before we go any further, though, let's get something out of the way that I didn't mention in my anniversary column. An event significant enough that any player should remember it... September 1st, 2009. Who can tell me why that was a really, really significant day for City of Heroes?

Yeah, you know it. Champions Online. The game that, at the time, we thought might very well demolish Paragon City far more effectively than Arachnos, Nemesis, or the Fifth Column ever could.

Here's the thing: it didn't. Paragon Studios pretty much got lucky in the biggest way possible -- not only did their game have a lot more content and a lot of strengths to draw on, but Champions Online didn't pull in the sort of audience that anyone expected. It's not dying, either, but there are not editorials being written about how it came out of the gate with guns blazing. The launch sort of turned into a disaster, and the first real competitor to the superheroic MMO field did not actually pose the sort of competition that anyone expected.

That's a good thing, on many levels. But it also means that far from facing off against its first direct opponent and emerging the better for it, the game hasn't quite faced the selection pressure that other games have. There are things that are going to need to change, parts that haven't held up as well over the years, even beyond the upcoming expansion.

For starters, hero side needs some revamping. It's not hard to think of interesting things that happen within the first twenty levels as a villain, but the blue-side play is a bit more... stilted. There are too many contacts focusing on too many different more-or-less random villainous groups, and it's really hard to make an argument to bother exploring the actual content anywhere shy of Faultline. Having a more concentrated and narrow progression would be a good thing. I really think that the early design was convinced that people would target one or two groups that they especially liked fighting, hence why there are so many different contacts... but times have changed.

Hand in hand with that, however, is the fact that we do need meaningful choice. The fact that Going Rogue is built upon the idea that your choice of heroism or villainy is important gives me hope. I'd like to think that as time goes by, things like your choice of starter zone will be more meaningful on hero side. (If it were up to me, I'd stick everyone in Atlas Park and rework Galaxy City to be alongside King's Row... but now we're going totally off the end here.) Choices about where to go and what to do help us identify with a character, and they create an incentive for doing something other than running Mission Architect farms until our eyes bleed out yet again.

Playing through the villainous EATs has also made me realize something: our characters need more sense of place. Origin stories are hard to manage, hard to integrate into gameplay, and some might argue that they're already there in strict terms. I would disagree. Technically, Spider-man, Hulk, the Flash, Wildfire, Wasp, and Captain America all have the Science origin. However, in that mix only two-thirds of the group could be construed as scientists, and that's assuming that you count Peter Parker as being on the fast track to science. You've also got two heroes who make strong use of technology, one who makes strong use of natural training (to the point where you could almost argue Cap's origin), and one whose powerset can't even be modeled by the game at present.

I understand the technical limitations here. But if you think that DC Universe Online won't feature some sort of origin story system... well, I'd be very surprised if a franchise whose strength is in no small part built on origin stories doesn't support this. One of the big elements that DC makes use of is the idea that everything exists in a larger universe. It contributes a lot if you're not a Defender with Force Fields and Energy Blast, but a member of a galactic police force dedicated to hunting down threats to sentient life.

We need an update pass on old costume parts. The stuff that Paragon has been coming out with of late has been stellar, no one can argue that. But it makes the older pieces really show their age, and the fact that we're still working with gloves that usually don't have individual fingers is not good. (Especially in light of Ultra Mode's new shinies.) People will kvetch, but it's worth it for the overall effect.

We need new powersets, and the sort that really doesn't mirror existing sets. Speedsters still don't have any way of being modeled in the game -- maybe a Scrapper or Stalker, but you're still mostly fighting via punching rather than being really dang fast. Techno-armor a la Iron Man is still lacking, and gadgets in general are in absentia. Some of these might work better as pools rather than full-on primaries or secondaries, and that's fine -- but that means we need power pools that are strong and broad enough that we can get away with just cherry-picking a few powers from our "main" sets. As it currently stands, that isn't possible.

Sets in general are a powerful thematic concept, but the result is often that you pick more or less everything from your Primary and Secondary with a few omissions, Swift, Health, Stamina, travel prerequisite, travel power, and Hasten. Hasten in particular is a power I would single out as being almost worth killing outright without any remorse -- it's too darn good, too deforming, and it gives too much invective to take it.

And while we're at it, our old powersets could use some revamping. As it stands, a lot of sets are pretty, well, standard. There are a few slots where you get something different, and then for the most part they're the same powers with different visuals. I'm not saying those powers should be removed -- what I'm after is adding a few more powers in there, powers that are unique to a given set. The sort of stuff that really feels out there and unique, that's useful but not essential. Stuff that you could clearly get away with not taking in favor of the usual arsenal, but you could make an argument for taking.

In general, if there's an overarching theme here, it's the fact that while the game is solid -- remarkably so for something that's been running for six years -- there are still some parts of the foundation that could use some gussying up. There are fundamentals that could stand to be better integrated, some pieces underneath that could stand to some cleaning. And they're lower-level things... because that's what the game is going to be facing.

City of Heroes needs to prove to players fresh out of the gate that it's a better choice for their time and money than, say, Champions Online or DC Universe Online -- or even the Marvel MMO, if it ever gets made. (I'm not holding my breath.) In order to do that, one of the things they have to do is convince people that they can both model their favorite superhero and create something uniquely their own -- and that means working at the basics.

I have faith in this team, and I know that they want to be on this game for a long time to come. And with City of Heroes 2 still nothing more than rumors, smoke, and mirrors, there are things that will need to be improved.

Naysaying aside, that's all we have time for this week. Those of you who would like to send off comments, questions, interesting threads, or another argument about how you're sick of me referring to various superheroes can do so via Eliot at Massively dot com. Next week is another spotlight on our community, followed by... spiders. Yes, spiders. You can also feel free to leave your own ideas about where to upgrade the game in the comments. (Or tell me I'm full of it.)