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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The growing, creeping power

Eliot Lefebvre

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City of Heroes is a rarity. It's a well-established game that hasn't yet raised the level cap even once. Oh, sure, the Incarnate system is cheating a couple of extra level-like improvements out, but you hit the cap at 50 now just like you did when the game first launched. Compared to World of Warcraft, which ups its top level biannually, the game provides a real sense of security that the cap hasn't changed. Level 50 content is still relevant because the top end of power has remained stable.

Of course, there's a downside to that as well. While having a forever-rising level cap has its own issues, a firm cap has left us with an endgame that's grown bloated as only games with entrenched caps can. We're not constantly having to relearn the entire endgame so much as we're getting new widgets added on, and we're finding ourselves stuck with a growing problem of old-fashioned power creep.

Back in the early days, shaking your fist was pretty powerful.At first, it wasn't so bad. The height of power was the Hamidon enhancements, and the game made hitting the cap such an incidental task that it was easy to almost ignore when it finally happened. Plus, actually picking up HOs was such a time-consuming process that it was almost a given that no one would actually have all of them. The apex was only a little bit above the baseline.

The Invention system wasn't the first change to that status quo, but it certainly set the tone. A level 50 character with a full set of IOs is a lot stronger than a level 50 still in SOs, and one in full sets is going to be worlds stronger.

That led to, well, the same problem that this sort of power creep always has. Designing your new content to challenge fresh level 50s is going to leave fully powered level 50s to just mash their faces on their keyboards. Designing it to challenge the people at the apex, meanwhile, leaves new characters with the impression that new content is just too hard. It also does unpleasant things like forcing you to create explicit "tiers" of content, each of which needs to...

OK, you know how that works. I don't need to reiterate it.

This period of time had one saving grace, however: the fact that there was no real City of Heroes endgame progression to start with. Chasing better stats was something you did more or less for your own reasons. The developers basically set the power level at "fresh 50 with SOs," and all content just got easier if you felt the need to grind billions of Influence first. But there was still a sizable rift between characters based on enhancements.

Needless to say, as soon as the Incarnate system dropped, it got much worse. Suddenly, the difference between characters wasn't just measured in slight advantages or disadvantages; it was measured in a huge ascending set of special character enhancements. Plus, there was content being developed specifically for the people who had hit the apex of ability, which left players without Incarnate abilities pretty notably underpowered.

And the people who already had those really powerful IO sets were now in a very convenient spot. They had a double dose of overpowered -- what's not to love?

So this story ends with you fighting an enormous supercharged version of a dead incarnate deity.  Kind of a downer, really.All of this is pretty cool, but it ensures that the players at the top end of power don't compare to those at the bottom end. The players with all their Incarnate slots are dynamos of destruction with plenty of crazy area skills and huge team buffs, not to mention a special every-player pet and big boosts to vital stats. Meanwhile, at the bottom end, players are just happy to have a Hasten that doesn't take a week to recharge.

Is this a bad thing? It's a thing, definitely. For some players, part of the appeal is knowing that you have a ladder to climb. There's nothing wrong with wanting to keep improving a character even when there isn't another level to chase. At the same time, this also create a much bigger disconnect between the players who get the cool toys and cool content and the players who have to do a bunch of work to get to all the cool/fun stuff.

There's also the matter of keeping challenges interesting. When you keep players within a relatively close band of power, you can focus more on making challenging content by adjusting skill requirements. Once you're focusing on content that has to challenge someone at Power Level X, it becomes more a matter of tweaking numbers and redoing the same fight with higher damage. Depending on taste, that can be considered better or worse than a gimmick fight where everyone dances around a battlefield.

Power creep, once started, is hard to reverse without wiping the slate. There's a reason most climbing level caps kick things off with a reset of powers back to a specific baseline: It gives players an even footing, at least temporarily.

So are we dealing with some serious power creep in CoH? I don't know that it's a major issue just yet, but the next Incarnate slot is going to create a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, and that's not really a good thing. One of the things I have always liked about the game is that it makes the climb to max level a choice instead of a requirement, but making the climb longer and gating content means it plays much more like a standard MMO. That... well, it's not a horrible thing, but it's kind of reductive for such a unique game.

But I might be in the minority here. Everyone else might love the power creep -- and if you do, by all means, let me know in the comments or via mail to Next week, I want to take a look at the game's most overused villain group.

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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