Editor’s note: This week, in honor of the 10th anniversary of City of Heroes, I’m 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, part 2 of all the things City did right that everybody else continues to fail to do. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is also up here.
Tied into powers and the free form advancement mentioned in the last post, the enhancement system was the primary vehicle for player progression in the game. While a “standard” slotting for basic attack powers did exist, the options for players who wanted to leave said standard were vast. In addition to the standard accuracy, damage, recharge, and end cost upgrades, powers could have their range altered andnearly every secondary effect of a given power in the game could be modified. When invention origin enhancements came along, the min-maxing game opened up in ways that would make even the Elitist Jerks stand up and take notice. Hours could be spent in the player-made character creation tools that sprouted up to help players make decisions about what to build and how. An entire meta-game spurred to life as a result of this system and I’ve yet to see it duplicated either in form or in effectiveness in any game since. They tell me Star Trek Online has many options similar to how CoH was built but I’ve yet to play it. Beyond that, there’s nothing out there like it.
AoE and Buffs
While it may seem counter-intuitive to include both AoE’s and buffs in the same topic, both of them had significant power in City of Heroes. No other game on the market allowed for the degree of power, frequency, and ubiquity of AoE’s as City of Heroes did. One of the open issues on the forum threads, once you got deep enough, was the problem that our high AoE damage created for balancing the rest of the game. It was never delved into very seriously because the fun factor of being able to dish out such powerful attacks was hard to argue against, but game balance was always a struggle for the devs. This was a huge part of it.
To illustrate, another of my favorite moments from the game came when we were fighting high level zombies in an instanced mission. Our tanker had gone AFK and after a few fitful skirmishes where we barely survived, I took over as lead tank. Yes, I was playing my main, a ranged DPS class. But I was a ranged DPS class that had a boatload of AoE’s with knockback attached to them. So I would go into a spawn first and hurl a few AoE attacks at the zombies who promptly and politely flew everywhere. While they spent the next few seconds trying to pick themselves up off the ground, the rest of the team ran in and bit their ankles and kidney punched them until they fell down permanently. If any of them every got up in numbers and threatened to overwhelm us, a few more AoE ‘s and we were right back at ankle biting, kidney punching goodness. We never even missed the tank.
By the same token, no other game before or since uses buffs the way City did. By making them so potent, even one buffer on a team provided a significant advantage equal to a dedicated healer. Add a second, and you had a force multiplier far and away superior to what the standard game was balanced for. Add in the difficulty slider and you could up the challenge to deal with the level of power you were dishing out. Speed runs through Peregrine Island were a great way to gain XP for lowbies if they could find a team running with a good mix of archtypes. A task that was much easier then implied here. Again, other games would never dream of allowing this level of power and this speed of leveling but in City, leveling wasn’t everything.
Leveling wasn’t everything
It was the alts. In the game, you could level up a character from min level to max in 2 months time with just casual daily play. Faster if you tried harder. While the game lacked true end-game content for a long time, the focus on alts and the re-playability of the game with those alts, really became a driver for pushing the game along for many years. The huge variety of playstyles and power types that the game allowed for, meant that there was always at least something else to try that you hadn’t done yet. The role-playing possibilities were endless, but more on role-playing below.
From the glory that was Praetoria to even the run down desolation of Boomtown, a zone that was introduced on launch day and then basically ignored forever, Paragon City was a testament to the grit and hard work of it’s designers and artists. I still have all my old notes and references to city sections and world references for flavor when role playing. Hand crafted and beautiful from the very start, it included not only the city proper but even a complete and functioning underground sewer system that while having no practical application in reality of any kind, was the perfect place for secret bases, bad guy hide outs, and story excuses. It was the city in combination with one other major thing that made it as special as it was.
While the innovation of easy travel is something that games to this day still can’t get right (looking at you Star Wars: The Old Republic), easy travel in Paragon City wasn’t just about going from point A to point B. And while most lists like this give travel powers their own category, it was the travel powers in combination with the city that I think made it really special. You could fly, jump, race, or teleport anywhere you wanted to and it was amazing. But the moment you stopped traveling via whatever means you had, you were in the city and something was going on around you. If you were in a zone you were under-level for, you needed to look around, or else risk walking into a spawn you couldn’t walk away from. But the devs spent so much time building a living, vibrant, city. It had people on every street corner, news vendors shouting things, citizens talking about your exploits. It was always worth racing around in the city to see what was going on. Other games have done flying, jumping, and the like. Maybe it’s the genre, or the modern setting, or even how basic street interactions were handled, but traveling in Paragon City was ALWAYS fun. No other game has made getting from point A to point B anywhere near as interesting.
The Mission Architect
It was the first of it’s kind in an MMO ever. Other games have experimented with this and other games have had varying degrees of success, but City of Heroes was the first to allow it’s players to craft their own stories and play their own game. The devs, once again, checked their egos and allowed their players to play the game the way they wanted to, even granting full xp and mission rewards for playing in player-created missions. That decision was heavily criticized and for good reason, but the devs went ahead and did it anyway. Because they knew, even for the headaches and the exploits that it would create, getting the MA out was far more important then worrying ab0ut how the jerks would abuse it. Over time the exploits were fixed (mostly), and while the MA had plenty of flaws, it had some great tools as well. What does it say about a game and it’s developers when some of the best times you had playing it didn’t come from the devs themselves but from other players?
It’s an mmoRPG
From the costume creator, to power customizations, to leveling, to the type of content you wanted to play, this game never once forgot that it was an RPG. I’ve never seen a dev team so willing to allow players to just flat out ignore the content that they make for the game, in favor of letting them do whatever they wanted. In Positron’s final address to the players of CoH, there was one line from his message that I think gave away the secret. In his farewell address, he thanked the players for allowing him to be their GM for all the time the game ran. It was this mindset that I think helped to make the game special. All of the little decisions and all of the big decisions. It was all built in service to this mindset and it served the game and it’s players very well. We didn’t have a video game producer leading the development and work of a video game. We had a GM trying to give us a great experience (who also happened to be a great video game producer, let’s not short-change him here). That attitude permeated through the rest of his team. And that stark difference in approach to game design, led City of Heroes to being the quality product it was.
This particular list is hardly complete, and I could go on. But I think it’s important to remember just how good things can be when a dev team focuses on the important stuff. Thanks to Cryptic and later Paragon Studios for letting us all fly. I won’t be giving a run down on the current state of play for super hero games out there, I’ve talked about them already plenty enough. Tomorrow, we look to the future (and pick up some sweet badges).
Part 3 of this review looks at the future of City of Heroes. See it here.