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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The obligations to the useless

Eliot Lefebvre

I'm going to let all of you in on a secret. Actually, it might not be a secret; everyone might have figured this out by now independent of any admission on my part. But here it is, just the same.

I'm not actually a very good City of Heroes player.

I mean, I'm "good" in the sense that I play the game, enjoy it, think about it, try to improve my character appropriately... but I'm not actually very skilled at the game. My rotations look awkward, my slotting is usually sub-optimal, and my ability to recall important data is pretty paltry. I understand the mechanics just fine, but when it comes time to log into the game, somehow I wind up as the guy who just subtly makes the entire team worse. I'm not terribly skilled. And for all that I'm going to be playing the game for some time to come, I don't think that I'm ever going to reach the point that I say I'm really any good.

Actually, this guy's a pushover.  He's mostly just interested in cuddles.This does not, in fact, bother me at all. It means that I'm not going to be deriving high-end strategies for endgame content, but City of Heroes isn't really meant to be about that in the first place. After a certain point in one's life, it becomes pretty much acceptable that you're not going to be the best at everything, and I can accept that I'm never going to be in the top ranks of CoH players.

Assuming there is such a thing.

This, however, raises an interesting set of questions. In some games, being bad is, essentially, a gating mechanism. There's only so much you can ever do in World of Warcraft before you have to either learn better or stop playing. By contrast, CoH thrives on a model in which even mediocre players have a surfeit of content to go through. There are so many story arcs, contacts, and Task Forces with large enough team sizes that you can handle being lackluster. The game is not tuned to be particularly difficult.

Or at least, that's been the case for most of the game. You can argue that the Incarnate System is making things a bit more aggressive toward the less-skilled among us. I'd argue that it's more of an impediment to players who don't have a lot of time rather than to those who are poorer players than average, but that's not really what I want to talk about. I'm more interested in talking about what players with less talent (or less practice) should be able to get out of the game.

One of the awkward problems about video games is that they're tied up with two opposing concepts. Video games need to be fun, after all. But they also need to be challenging, since otherwise there's no actual substance to that fun. Games that turn up one dial or the other too high feel like they're lacking -- either you're playing through grueling challenges for minimal enjoyment or you're just being handed signs that say you're awesome no matter what you do. Neither feels satisfying.

So some stuff should remain locked off as the reward of the truly awesome. And some stuff should also be in the realm of rewards that anyone with the time and patience can work toward it. Considering that the Incarnate System is soon going to have a solo path for players, I think this is particularly apropos. If the solo content is too difficult, then you either have to be carried by a group or become better at the game.

Is that fair? Should less-skilled players be locked out of a solo progression path for Incarnate content? I'd actually argue that yes, it's pretty much fair. Not necessarily fun, but fair.

HOW DO I SHOT FLAMES?!See, I believe that players should have access to the basic toolkit for building a character right off the bat. That means that any fundamental abilities should be accessible, and they shouldn't be gated. Getting your capes and auras, for instance, requires a mission or two -- but said missions are straightforward and easy. That's perfectly fine. It's gated by a certain level, but it's not locking you out on account of skill.

On the other hand, the Incarnate System is not a core part of building your character. It's not a power pool, it's not an epic power pool, and it's not a power set; it's just a set of extra gumballs for when you reach the apex of the game. You can argue that it's become mandatory in some sense, but the game hasn't gotten harder as a whole since the system premiered. Bypassing it altogether and just running other content at 50 is a perfectly valid and acceptable choice.

More to the point, the idea is that the solo progression path for Incarnates is an option. There are already other options, and if you're working in a team, your individual performance matters less -- not that you can be completely useless, but there's more margin for error. It's also an opportunity to see what you could be doing better and correct it, which is a definite advantage if you're just not that good at the game.

CoH has long been open to players of any skill level, and for basic content, that should remain the case. But for reaching the apex of power, there should be a better gating mechanism in place than simple patience. Skill handles that pretty well.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to, like always. (I'm also bad at answering email, but not so much at reading it.) Next week, I'm going to keep talking about designer obligations while answering the not-at-all-immortal question -- what does Paragon Studios really owe free players?

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.

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