Editor’s note: This week, in honor of the 10th anniversary of City of Heroes, we’re doing a brief series on the past, present, and future of the game. An interesting topic given that the game has been shut down for the past year and a half. Today, we bridge the past and the present with all the various things City did right that everybody else continues to fail to do. Part 2 is here. And part 3 on where we’re going into the future is here.
Other people have covered this topic at other times, but today we’re looking at our own reasons for why City of Heroes did as well as it did. So many of CoH’s best features were a combination of both big and little design decisions that picking each of them apart could take a book’s worth of posts. What’s so shocking about this isn’t so much that most of what they did was good, but that nobody else in the MMO genre even comes close to the same level of functionality that CoH brought to the space.
This list stops at twelve mostly because I had to pick a stopping point somewhere. Even more so, we were on the verge of a major renaissance at the game’s closing. From new pool powers that would have allowed builds to go in directions that were always off-limits before, to new development tools that would have given unprecedented power and ability for dynamic story telling on the part of the devs, to even secret projects to develop an epic archtype that would allow for a point based build outside of established norms and rules. The game was just about to hit its stride and really take off in ways it never had before. But even without those new features the game still did several amazing things. For example:
The player chat system had all the bells and whistles that most modern chat windows in MMO’s have (global, team, super group/guild channels. trade, help, etc), but it had one feature that I’ve yet to see any other MMO attempt to use that made it above and beyond the best in the business. Player-created chat channels gave players an unprecedented way to keep in contact with friends in the game. Players used them everywhere. In Urban Renewal we set up a defacto super group/guild channel with the feature. Why would we need 2 chat channels for the super group? The player created chat channels allowed you to invite either individual characters or invite by a player’s global ID. We almost never used the individual character handle and almost exclusively invited by global. What this did was allow everyone who we ever came in contact with the ability to keep in touch with us, whether or not the character they were playing at the moment was a member of our super group. It allowed players the option to keep up with us without the commitment that a regular super group or guild would require. While it would seem that this would be counter-intuitive to the super group/guild building process, it instead streamlined it for us.
Players were no longer required to put all of their alts into the group. Players no longer were forced to choose between either keeping up with the group, or hanging out with their friends (who may or may not have been in the group too). Players could come and go as they please and after a while it created a base of users so big that there was always someone guaranteed to be online when you logged in. All without forcing people to make any kind of actual commitment to the group. After all a chat channel could be ignored or hidden at any time.
One of my favorite moments ever playing City of Heroes came from this simple feature. A fellow player and I were chatting away in the channel one night, when we both discovered that we were also members of another channel that we were both listening in on at the same time. I thought it would be fun and decided to force my friend to have 2 different conversations with me in 2 different channels all at the same time. This lasted for a minute or two before my friend “accidentally” went and invited every single member of the 2nd chat channel into the Urban Renewal channel. Something amazing happened when he did this. Everyone from the second channel, joined the UR channel. It wasn’t even a question, they just jumped right on and in that moment right there, we suddenly doubled our users. And it was FANTASTIC. We chatted, we engaged, we teamed up, we answered questions. It was perfect. And nobody had to quit a group to join another. In fact I think a few of the players from the second channel pilfered an alt or two of mine over the course of the game to help out with their super group upkeep and such. But there was no downside to anyone for joining. And the upsides were only magnified with every additional person who joined.
Teaming was one of those things that City did better then everyone else and still to this day did better. You could team at any point in time, with anyone with only very rare exceptions thanks to side-kicking and mentoring. XP from mobs was always better in teams and everyone always got the mission bonus. Eventually the feature was added to allow for auto-completion of a mission that you and a teaming character had at the same time. One of the really important things that the CoH devs seemed to figure out early on was that their combat system was really fun. So they checked their egos and realized that nobody was reading the mission text anyway and let people skip content (the reading part of it at least). They let players decide what was important to them and gave them the tools to get to it as easily as they could.
Structure and Class
Early on CoH attempted a classless system in it’s pre-alpha stages, that from all accounts was terrible. People made two types of characters: tank-mages and gimps. There was no middle-ground. This system was thankfully abandoned for the archtype/class system we eventually got. While the earliest incarnations of archtypes followed the Trinity model reasonably closely, after a year of being live this model was for the most part abandoned. Afterwards, the more holistic approach of making each of the archtypes functional on their own and providing synergy in teams became the norm. This became especially true once the first expansion, City of Villains, was released. This synergy was one of the key contributions to combat being as fun as it was and by focusing on making everyone a contributor to the team’s overall success, built on top of the easy teaming such that having a body, any body, was just as good as having what you thought you might “need” at a given moment. “No tankers are on right now but a controller is free, shall we add him? Yeah, he can lock down mobs for us, add that blaster for their AOE and we should be fine.” And we were.
While your archtype dictated what power sets you could and couldn’t access as well as a few other static modifiers (hp, damage mods, etc), once you were past that choice, the options for how you chose to improve your powers or even what powers you wanted was largely up to you. Power Pool Power sets meant that a wide range of options was available to players outside of their chosen archtype, and could allow for a wide variety of builds and optimizations. Because there were no stats in the game, players were free to focus on the things they could change. By limiting our early choices, the design allowed us near complete freedom to alter what we did have in nearly any way we wanted. As you progressed in level you merely opened up new powers and new ways to enhance those powers. Every level up became an exciting mini-game of what to pick or how to enhance what you already had. While not level-less by any real definition of the term, it’s probably as close as any game could come to implementing a system that worked without some kind of point buy or learning curve that would have hamstrung casual players.
There were lots of people who saw the almost exclusive use of instances to deliver content as a flaw of the game, but instances are under-rated. In most of the other MMO’s out in the wild today, there are worlds filled with people. People all lined up next to the same contacts all the time. All out farming in the world at the same time. I’m the noble hero who’s got to save everyone, but what are all these other a–holes doing out here? Open world game play, where players perform most of their questing in the open world, is one of the most immersion breaking aspects of current gen MMO’s. How can I be the hero when everyone else is out here doing the same thing as me? You know what fixes this? Instances. Put me in an instance where I’m by myself or with the team I’ve built and suddenly, it IS MY STORY. Suddenly, I AM THE HERO. To this day only Neverwinter (developed by the same folks originally) seems to remember that doing everything in the open game world means you have to put up with everyone else at the same time too. There were also a few other benefits to being heavily instanced.
Difficulty slider and solo friendliness
Because the game was so heavily instanced, the devs were able to make functional a difficulty slider that could alter the level and number of enemy mobs in an instance at any time. Players could set their difficulty level up to war is hell or all the way down to pass the cupcakes, to anywhere in between. All on a character by character basis. This was a degree of flexibility that benefited almost every player of the game. Team settings could be adjusted on a per mission basis to compensate for low or high ability teammates. This also gave solo-players a high degree of flexibility in the content they tackled too, giving them the ability to accomplish or bypass even content built specifically for teams (with some notable exceptions of course). This gave solo players the ability to step into an instance and hide from the entire world when they wanted to. It was a feature that’s often completely overlooked and under-valued given the MMO aspects of the game. The ability to hide from friends and chat helped to round out the experience for those nights when sometimes players just wanted a low-energy gaming experience while sacrificing none of the social credibility they may have built up with their super group.