Those of you who've followed my journal for years know that City of Heroes is the MMO that I keep going back to. In a nutshell, it's because it is hands-down, no-comparison the least aggravating Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) in the history of the industry. No grinding for loot; no grinding, period. No item loss or item decay. Temporary jetpacks get you from level 6ish to level 14, at which point you can pick your permanent travel power at any time, flying at up to 45 miles per hour, super-leaping at around 55 miles per hour, or superspeeding or teleporting at up to about 80 miles per hour, which lets them have game zones as big as or bigger than any other MMO but without the tiresome drag of traveling for half an hour each way to your mission. Almost all combat is instanced and scales automatically to your level when you take the mission, and to your team size when you enter it. All character classes, even support classes, can solo, even from low levels. And best of all, the character creation tools are nothing less than mind-blowing: you really can look like, and roleplay your character, as just about anything you can imagine. Unlike almost every other MMO on the planet, your gear doesn't dictate what you look like, you don't have to look like every other level (your level) (your class) in the entire game world. Oh, and the team-finding, team member finding features are only just barely second to Warhammer Online's.
Counting only paid time, though, I've been playing City of Heroes for 39 months. (I know, I just got my 39-month veteran reward, unlocking boxing sports uniforms as costume pieces.) There is basically no content in City of Heroes that I haven't played at least once; all but the worst content, I've played so often I have it memorized. So I go away to other MMOs from time to time, but then I put up with "sprint" costing you all of your endurance in order to "run" at City of Heroes' slowest walking speed for 30 seconds, having to fight every trash mob between here and the mission 25 minutes to 30 minutes away from the contact, then having to fight my way back through every trash mob for half an hour just to tag the contact and continue. In reward, I get a piece of armor or a weapon that I have to wear, no matter whether it fits in with the looks of the rest of the gear I've got, because I need the stats on it. And obsessively track down an item-repair NPC every 2nd or 3rd mission, or risk having my equipment evaporate on me for lack of maintenance. All this so I can solo the one or maybe two character classes per game that can be soloed, because the only way to level any other character class is to stand around for longer than I spend in any MMO on average per session yelling "LFT!" A couple of months of that, and I'm back in City of Heroes, no matter how bored I am.
It turns out that there's a really good reason why it was taking the City of Heroes development team four to six months to crank out 10 or 12 missions' worth of new story arcs, though: their internal development tools stank on ice. For the first three years of the game, they had to hand-code mission parameters into a text file and feed the text files into a compiler before they could test them, then pop out of the game and edit the text file if they'd made any syntax errors or typos in the constants. Along about two years ago, they made a "giant leap forward" when someone designed an Excel spreadsheet that would let them do 75% of the work in Excel and use macros to export the basic outline of a mission. Eventually, they hired a guy who couldn't stand that, so in his spare time he started working on a set of Visual Basic scripts that would replace that Excel spreadsheet, including pull down menus and check boxes and so forth for the things that the Excel spreadsheet couldn't do. And as soon as he showed it off, someone asked: hey, do you think we could turn this over to players and let them write content, too? Well, not in the form it was. But one of the first things they did when NCsoft started investing more money into the franchise was hire a small programming team to rewrite that VB hack from scratch and embed it into the City of Heroes in-game user interface itself. It took them a year and half to get it to where it is, and about two weeks ago, they took the servers down and new buildings magically appeared in every major zone in the game: an entertainment and superhero-training virtual reality franchise called Architect Entertainment. You walk in, walk up to a terminal, and either start editing your own missions, or browse the list of missions other players have published.
On first blush, it's a fantastic system. Over the course of eight or nine years (counting pre-release development time) of building missions, they'd extended the code to allow a dizzying variety of "plot coupons" that can be embedded in missions: patrolling enemies (or allies) with their own dialog, allies to rescue who'll fight alongside you, ambushes, boss mobs, defendable objects, destructible objects, clickable collections of objects, hostages to capture, hostages to rescue, and MA handles nearly all of it. I say "nearly" because there are bugs, not just in the MA system but in the game engine itself and quite a few of the instance maps, that make it impossible to predict entirely reliably what'll happen when you use certain types of plot coupons on certain types of instance maps. But the system is easy to learn, it's highly iterative to test, and even once you learn what its limitations are, it's amazingly flexible. When I first got my hands on it, I found that I was excited about writing (what are, in effect) game modules for other players for the first time since my famous Mage: The Ascension campaign of the mid to late 1990s. I spotted two places in the villain game where the existing content just isn't that good, and where, even more importantly, there are some great plot points and story lines over on the hero side that never get explained or wrapped up for villain-only players. So over the course of about a month (counting open beta on the issue), I knocked out two story arcs that I'm quite proud of:
- #4427: "Fish and Cut Bait in Port Oakes," villain level 10-14. Even though (by now) you've noticed that there's a civil war going on within the mafia for control over the Port Oakes smuggling operations, the lower level lieutenants still have to protect the merchandise and get it onto the boats, so they're hiring freelancers, including a mafia-connected street gang from Paragon City, and including you. Includes foreshadowing for the Coralax story arcs in the late level 20 range that's really missing, even though you see Coralax on the streets of Port Oakes, and the missing chunks of "The Bonefire Plot" level 10-14 story arc from City of Heroes. So far, other players have rated it 4 stars out of five, and it's my most-played arc. And ...
- #32801: "Sharkhead Isle and the Circle of Banished Warriors," villain level 20-29. Sure, the villain-run government of the Rogue Isles lets people smuggle contraband in and out ... as long as they pay taxes, which an artifact-smuggling street gang from Paragon City, the Warriors, aren't. What starts out as a routine tax investigation, though, gets weird fast because you show up just as all of the mystical gangs of Paragon City are going to war for control over three in-game canonical weapons, any one of which could destroy the world. Fills in the missing Circle of Thorns and Banished Pantheon plotlines in a way I'm rather proud of, it's my one consistently-rated 5-star arc.
See, here's the problem, and it's such a crippling problem that it ruins the whole feature set for me: the only way you have to tell if you're going to enjoy somebody else's arc is an average rating, from those who bothered to vote, of 1 to 5 stars. Only about 3% to 5% of the arcs are getting 5 star ratings, call it around 1000 five-star arcs so far. (Yes, there are already many thousands of player-created story arcs up on the servers.) But of those, I'd say that maybe 1 in 20 actually deserve their 5 stars. The level of game background knowledge, the level of the writing and plotting, and even more annoyingly just the low quality of the debugging of these arcs before they were published, even at the supposedly 5-star level, is just intolerable to me. Maybe 1 in 20 of the supposedly 5-star arcs is even as good as the average canonical story arc. Half of them aren't just bad, they're really, really obnoxiously bad. And that's before you even jump into the sludge pile of stuff that's not rated, or rated 1 to 4 stars.
And I'm not the only one who's noticed this.
If you stand in any open city zone, nowadays, all you hear in broadcast chat is exploiters and farmers and power-levelers recruiting for teams. It turns out that Paragon Studios also did a pretty mediocre job of balancing risk-versus-reward in Mission Architect content, too, which leaves the game masters playing cat and mouse, all day long, with the exploiters designing custom villain groups that give maximum reward for minimum effort. For the first time since the famous "Winter Lord" debacle of 2003, we once again have players who just joined the game, have a level 50 character that has no equipment and that they have no idea how to play, who figure out within the week that there is no culture of level-50 PvP or level-50 raiding like there is in other games, so they quit, having decided that there's "nothing to do" -- since they deliberately cheated to power-level their way past all of the stuff that's vaguely interesting to do in City of Heroes.
Anybody who wanted to use Mission Architect the way it was meant to be used? The vast majority of them, like me, gave up at least a week ago. (Which is why I've had so much time to fiddle around with Free Realms.)
They're rushing out another major software release soon, they say, issue 15, that will include substantial improvements to Mission Architect. Maybe then I'll go back to it. Or I may get bored or frustrated with the pace of bug fixing in Free Realms and go back anyway, and just run new characters with new combinations of powers through the same missions I can do in my sleep in City of Heroes. But I'm just plain done, after scant weeks, with what was supposed to be the biggest, most important new feature to be added to City of Heroes in the last five years, at least until they heavily revamp it. And that's just not what I was hoping for, and I'm absolutely sure it's not what they were hoping for, either.
By the way, a quick poll: of the three books I read last week, one of them was disappointingly really awfully bad, way didn't live up to its hype. The other was even better than I'd been hoping, was way better than even the widespread hype has been claiming. I could make a case for reviewing them in either order: be cranky about the one that so many people liked that I truly hated, then sing you out on a happy note the next day? or show that there are some things that I really do like, before ripping a popular author a new orifice for how absolutely repugnant his best-seller really is? Which order would you rather see the book reviews in?
Poll #1395105 Good Review and Bad Review
Open to: All, detailed results viewable to: None, participants: 75
Which one do you want to see first?
|The review of the popular book that you loved.|
|The review of the popular book that you loathed.|
|Suit yourself. (This answer will be ignored, but people complain if it isn't included.)|