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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: What City of Heroes needs for its ninth year

Eliot Lefebvre

The past year of City of Heroes has been in no small part defined by the free-to-play revolution moving into full swing. 2010 was the year in which it became clear that free-to-play could work; 2011 was the year in which nearly every game moved over to the new model, with only a handful of stalwarts clinging to the subscription-only model. Unfortunately, this also means that the once-present divide between business models no longer exists, and by and large there's less sense that free-to-play games are inherently worse than subscription games. The imaginary barrier simply doesn't exist as it used to.

What does that have to do with City of Heroes for its next year of development? Almost everything. I've talked about how the game has two obvious and direct competitors in the superhero genre, but now they're all competing with the same business model. They all have the same initial outlay, instead of City of Heroes being the oldest, most respected, and cheapest option. In order for a game to be successful, and it no longer has to convince players that it's worth $15 a month for a few months -- it just has to convince you that downloading it and giving it a shot is worth the effort. That means flash, fun, and a quick dose of what you're looking for.

Have I used the robot images too much?  No.  It will never be too much.  It will never even be quite enough.My experiences with Champions Online and DC Universe Online are outdated and nonexistent, respectively, but both of them are geared with the idea that you should feel like superhero right off. Within the first few minutes of logging in, you should start getting the sense that you are a superhero and can fling cars and blow up villains or whatever. (Or steal safes and kick puppies if you're playing a villain, I assume. That's only DC Universe Online, and like I said, nonexistent.) The starter experience is meant to deliver the central selling point right away.

CoH, however, is designed to be an MMO first and a superhero game second. This gives it certain advantages over its competitors, among them the fact that it's designed to give you more reasons to stick with the game over a longer stretch of time. On the flip side, though, it has a less visceral feel right from the start, and for all that the developers have put work into the opening experience, it's still fundamentally a much slower affair. This is understandable when you consider its age, but it's not dazzling the download-and-play crowd.

You can tell me that 30 levels in, I'll prefer CoH, but if I just want to log in and start kicking it like a superhuman with nothing to lose, I'm going to pick the game that lets me do that at level 1. And if it has a well-known license, so much the better.

The past year has been a matter of CoH finding its legs in the free-to-play market. That's fine; a lot of games have had to do so, and it's not as if the two main competitors have gotten a secure footing themselves. But that also means that the next year of development needs to start building on what has worked and hasn't over the past year, starting by not releasing stuff that angers a large portion of the playerbase.

I don't need to elaborate on that point at all, I think. Right? Right.

Making a character feel like a superhero right away is the obvious move for development, something that the redesigned starter zones do pretty well. However, the game is never going to be an action game, and as a result I don't think it should try to be. Instead, I think the game needs to emphasize long-term commitment early. Not in the sense of the game asking to move into your apartment on the second date but rather in the more relaxed way where it's clear that this could lead to apartment-moving without any overt pressure.

Sorry, that metaphor got away from me. What I'm talking about here is an emphasis of the idea that you can really stick it out in this game, that there are things to do and places to go when you get past Level Stupid. If players feel as if they can log in, blast things for a few minutes, and then have their only projects complete, it's not going to inspire commitment. If they feel as if they log in, blast things, and then see a whole world of things to do later on, they're going to stick it out for the longer haul.

I've decided not to get a handle on my fixation with robots.Concurrent with that, of course, is giving players more projects to complete. I think the game is missing an obvious inspiration at the moment -- the Legacy system for Star Wars: The Old Republic. I mean, really. That's a system essentially built to be played in a game with lots of alts, and most CoH players have more alts than they have red blood cells. Paragon Studios will no doubt dislike the idea of stealing something from another game when CoH usually comes out with a cool system that later gets adopted, but come on. Giving players incentive to play more alts is pure gold in this game.

A related point, however, is that the game needs to find more rewards for players. Right now, the rewards for almost everything boil down to Reward Merits or costume parts, and while both are nice, they're kind of annoying after a while. You spend your various flavors of merits for various unlocks, and you get more costume parts to throw in a pile of parts that may never get worn. Yes, I know; the game has always had issues with rewards to an extent, but you guys are clever. Put something together.

Last but not least, I'm just going to go ahead and say that I want more neat villains. Praetoria might have worn on a bit too long for some folk, but darn it, I love the mirror-universe bastards.

As ever, feedback can be left in the comments below or mailed along to I'll be here next week like always, this time sharing a horribly grim theory that might shake you to your core. Or at least depress you.

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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