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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The endgame oddity

Eliot Lefebvre

As long as I'm exhorting our new lead designer and hoping she brings a swift death to the warehouse map, it seems only fitting to take a look at the promised new "endgame system" that Matt "Positron" Miller is supposedly developing. I say this in quotes because, really, that's all we've been told. It is a system and it will involve the endgame, and presumably some sort of rewards in exchange for effort. For all we know it's going to be an interactive kitten-petting simulator.

Regardless, I think that Miller is exactly the right person for the job. (I'm sure Paragon Studios has been waiting for my approval.) We've seen some spectacular system launches during his tenure, but the content problem extends through to the endgame, and is an issue that City of Heroes needs to deal with. And the oddity is that the game simultaneously has the most populated endgame possible, with huge amounts of things to do... yet not nearly as many interesting things to do when you hit max level as other games.

It's a bit of design strangeness, one that serves the game well up until the last level and will take some clever work to overcome. How can the endgame be so sparse when it's so rich?

To explain my seemingly contradicting point, let's pause for just a moment and examine the endgame of a few other games, ones that are conventionally accepted as starting at max level. This isn't a comprehensive list, just other popular games that are similar in various fashions to City of Heroes. Note that we're discussing repeatable endgame activities; while finishing out storylines is a concern for many players, it's something you do once and then don't need to do again.

  • World of Warcraft: Raid, acquire badges, raise reputations, and PvP in order to acquire the most powerful equipment in the game.
  • Final Fantasy XI: Work through high-level areas with many dangerous opponents and fight rare monsters to obtain powerful equipment. Earn special "merit points" through fighting and defeat powerful monsters to earn new abilities and summons.
  • Guild Wars: Obtain more powerful skills through capture and questing. Obtain better pieces of equipment and enhancements to existing equipment. PvP for skills and standing.
  • Aion: Take part in PvPvE battles in the Abyss for standing and the most powerful equipment.
I could continue, but there's a clear theme. (And those of you wondering about Champions Online, I decided to refrain from the obvious joke about the endgame with the whole Vibora Bay issue. Make your own in the comments, if you like.) There's an expectation of an ascending order of more powerful abilities, equipment, and PvP ranking. And therein lies the major problem that CoH has when it gets to the endgame, because none of those fields are exactly compatible with the game's setup.

PvP is... well, let's be honest, it never sat very well with CoH and it isn't really a highly-valued component of the game. There's a small but dedicated group of PvP players, and we all salute you, but the vast majority of the playerbase seems to treat it as an aberration when they think about it at all. As an endgame vector, it mixes with the players roughly as well as oil mixes with granite.

Abilities have always followed an interesting path in CoH, but one of the uniform elements of the game is that higher-level abilities are not strictly more powerful. They're more useful in a given situation, but they are not inherently better. A system already exists to empower certain abilities, as a result of the whole Enhancement setup, so gaining more powerful versions isn't really an option, either.

That leaves equipment, which doesn't exist.

Okay, I joke -- we have pieces of equipment, we just call them Enhancements instead of One-Handed Swords or Plate Shoulders or Greater Electric Lizard Chargers. But thanks to the at-the-time loathed Enhancement Diversification, there's a fairly narrow cap on how useful Enhancements can ever get. This is, despite appearances, a bit of a blessing in disguise, as there's a limitation on any sort of farming for high-level drops. Especially with Inventions and set recipes, we're never going to have to sit and farm Doctor Vahzilok for his Zombie Superstrength drop. These days, we don't even really need to worry about Hamidon.

And these are all good things. Being stuck in the endgame because you can't seem to get any better at PvP, can't get the drop you need, or have to farm abilities is not exactly fun times. They make the game much more superheroic, without fail. You don't loot corpses or beat up other violent folk for no reason, you're a superhero and you defeat villains because that's what you do. (Alternately, you're a villain, and you rob banks and kick puppies and kidnap scientists because these things won't rob, kick, or kidnap themselves.) it's one of the big elements used as a selling point for the game.

It also makes endgame a real son of a female dog. Because you have to get rid of all the normal carrots used to motivate players, and instead rely upon largely intrinsic rewards. The Merit Reward system has helped, but by and large you're going to get the tickets you need to purchase the best possible enhancement set for your character, slot them in, and then you're not getting any stronger one way or the other.

Endgame systems are designed as ways to continue making your character stronger with your level no longer ticking upward. And CoH has created an effective system that means there's a point past which you just can't get better than you already are. That can really complicate designing a suitable long-term activity for most players.

Are there possibilities? Certainly. Lateral development is always an option, perhaps letting us select from additional primary or secondary powersets. It's also possible that we might see the option to unlock additional enhancement slots for our powers, although that seems like a stretch -- most crucial powers are already easy to boost up to the limit of their effectiveness. But all of these are solutions within an existing framework, and that's not what Miller is implied to be working on.

What will the "endgame system" look like? It's hard to say. But it's a hard beast to tame, and one that Paragon Studios has had to deal with for quite some time. If we can be critical about some of their choices for content -- and we can -- we can also praise them for working within a pretty difficult set of expectations.

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