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Some Assembly Required: City of Heroes' Mission Architect

MJ Guthrie

The few. The proud. The quest writers.

At the best of times, the fruits of their labors guide us along in our progression of a local or global story, immersing us in the world. Even the nefarious "kill 10 rats" versions can be mini stories that pull players in when done well. But how many of us have ever had a "I could do better than that" moment or have simply wanted to live out a personal story or share in a customized grand adventure with our friends? Someone wished upon the right star because with features like the Mission Architect in City of Heroes you can do just that.

I am just going to come right out and say it -- the quest builder is one of the greatest boons ever for player-generated content in MMORPGs. Besides housing, it is the feature du jour for the creative crowd; I honestly can't see how any game can actually go without one. During this latest round of Choose My Adventure, I had the opportunity to check out the system in City of Heroes and revel in the creativity of others as well as try my hand at developing missions. And I tell you, it is addicting.

Feel like trying your hand at shaping some stories for heroes (and villains) to star in? Stick with me, kid, and you'll be directing your own missions in no time.

City of Heroes screenshot
Now first of all, let me make this disclaimer: This article is not about dissing the developer-written missions already in game. Quest-wise, CoH has many engaging storylines from a plethora of contacts. But often, those who are drawn to MMORPGs like to tell stories as well as live them. That's why the Mission Architect is so great.

 Who needs it?
Admittedly, ingenious players have generated story arcs and quests even without any tools to support them. But these events usually end up as logistical nightmares. Oh trust me, I know. They also tend to be smaller in nature and dependent on the creator being present. Obviously, no one can be online all the time. And when getting people to cover certain "parts" of your scenario, you then become dependent on their availability and such. The problem is that such restrictions severely limit participation and all but prohibit longevity. That's where the Mission Architect comes in. Stories can be played out and missions run any time, at the convenience of the player. And you, the GM, can mold it just how you like at your convenience and then sit back and just enjoy people enjoying your labors. Once created, there is no pressure to maintain your work, the system does that for you.

City of Heroes screenshot
Even if you don't want to create any yourself, the missions are there to enjoy. Look at it this way -- Paragon Studios has finite resources to devote to creating content. The company has to pay people to write every new quest and design every new dungeon. By providing the Mission Architect, the studio has effectively multi-upled (yes, I just made that word up!) the amount of content in-game for players to enjoy as well as ensured continued creation of content... all at no extra cost to it. Sure it can add new goodies to toss in the system, but that's nothing compared to the creative energy and simple manpower needed to script out, design, create, and place everything. And trust me, once you get into making quests, you will definitely appreciate the time devs put into this even more!

Let's get this party started
So you've put on your +10 GM hat of creativity and you are ready to plunge into the Mission Architect system. If you have never played CoH before, don't worry -- there is a low-level questline tutorial you can use to get started. It's very simple and has some amusing dialogue to boot! I'd highly recommend completing this to avoid things like not finding the door. *looks innocent*

Get to one of the Architect Entertainment facilities (marked as a big AE on the map) spread throughout Paragon City and the Rogue Isles. To start making history, or at least missions, set yourself up at a terminal in the main room or go to Studio B. Kudos to whomever thought of Studio B -- it's a "no powers zone" meaning you can create in peace and quiet without effects going off all around you.

Your mission, should you choose to create it...
Once you click the terminal, you can browse and play through any available mission or check out your own creations. Moving to the workspace for creating missions will bring up tabs for local stories, those under construction or you want to keep private, and published stories, the ones available for all to enter.

Next, click "Create a Mission" and let the creativity begin. This part of the process is separated into three settings: story settings, mission settings, and mission details. You only fill out the story settings once, but the mission settings and details must be completed for every mission you add to the story. Whichever pane you are on, the information is entered on the left and a summary is visible on the right. Some categories are optional, so if it is your first time, you can skip these extras. If you need a hint of what is expected, just click the question mark next to each line. In all, the process is fairly self-explanatory and intuitive.

Under story settings you title your story, create your contact (warning, you actually go in and use a character creator to customize the contact so if you are anything like me, it may take a long while), and you can set story parameters.

Once you move on from story settings, you click the little book on the top labeled mission -- this represents the two parts of each mission, the settings (1) and the goals (2). Under mission settings you choose types of mobs, the map, mission parameters, time limits, and the like. Mission goals allows you to choose what the objective is, from killing a boss to finding an item. There's no need to stop at just one mission; you can click "add mission" and do it all over again for additional chapters in your story.

If there is something wrong with your mission making it unplayable, the Architect will warn you; there is an orange icon on the right hand side named "show errors" that will open a window and tell you exactly what errors need to be fixed. For detailed instructions on every single step in the process, you can refer to the guide on the main site.

City of Heroes screenshot
Now you've reached the point where you have dotted every "I" and crossed every "T" in your story -- it's time to test it. You can add up to seven more members to a team to test any of your local stories before publishing. This is also how you can run friends through private stories. However, no one gains experience or earns any rewards or tickets while testing (with the exception of testing-specific badges).

Once you are happy with your story, you can publish it for others to participate in. By running player-made missions, players gain regular experience just like missions out in the rest of the game. They'll also earn tickets that can be redeemed at the Ticket Vendor for other rewards, including enhancements, salvage, recipes, unlockable content in the Architect, invention salvage, and badges. As creator, you, too, earn rewards. And the higher participants rate your mission at the end of their run, the more rewards you earn.

Play it again Sam
Although the system itself is fairly simple and straightforward, once you look at what is involved in making a story mission -- let alone a good one -- you might find the task a bit more daunting. There are many hints and suggestions available to people who are stuck for ideas, including a special section in the official forums. But to get a feel for what is possible and how it all works, I suggest taking a trip through some already made missions. There are plenty to choose from; some missions are still published from 2009! Be sure to check out some Developer's Choice ones marked with the orange AE button. I'd love to give examples of specific missions, but there truly are so many available that I could fill enough Some Assembly Required columns to last years.

One negative to the experience is that once you have entered a player-created mission in the Architect, you are locked into completing that whole story arc; you cannot reach out to any other contact without first abandoning the player-made mission. And although you can go back and get the mission again if you abandon it, you have to start all over. For this reason, be very sure you pay attention to the time span for the mission -- very long is not a good idea if you have impending plans for another group.

City of Heroes screenshot
Overall, I liked how the Architect system itself was woven into the game lore. These missions take place in a virtual realm as opposed to the game realm; participants are uploaded into a server and receive stimuli as if the experience was real. (Anyone feel all red pill/blue pill with me?) A restoration room in the facility re-materializes you when your mission is completed or if you took on a little more than you could chew. The downside to this method of integration is that nothing is happening out in the world: For the duration of your mission experience you are sequestered away.

Also appreciated is that unlike a previously discussed quest builder, this system does not add an extra layer of grinding to be able to produce better missions. True, you can get more stuff to add in your creations, but that's possible by actually running missions yourself or creating them, not some arbitrary extra system.

In all, if you enjoy creating stories and missions for yourself, your friends, or even the public at large, the City of Heroes Mission Architect system fits the bill. Even better is you can jump in and play around with it for free! It's a great creative outlet and allows for so much additional player-generated content. It may not be a perfect system, but it is a good one. Now if only the rest of the MMO market would get on the bandwagon and realize what an asset this feature is.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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