Best MMO takes a nose-dive
I used to think that pen and paper game designers were the only pool of game designers to pull from. Oops!
I've been into City of Heroes for a while now. When I began playing, it was beta (though only the last couple days of it--since I preordered it). The game was a fresh kind of experience, as far as an MMO was concerned, since it had player/enemy collision, good movement rates, a more engaging way to handle combat (meaning I had to be involved; not that I was more explicitly, thereby, interested in it), excellent art (particularly the animations), and a tremendously engrossing character generating system, including great flexibility and variety in costumes and powers. So customizable that playstyle could vary widely.
In addition, few powers carried the typical video-game design routine of being castrated by drawbacks. In most cases, in games, if you can fly, rather than simply allow it to happen, the designers must make it narrowly focused or nearly impossible to achieve. Mario 64 has a great example of this. Mario could fly, assuming he found a brick with a winged hat in it. In most cases there was one such brick located in a difficult to reach location which yeilded a hat for precisely long enough to collect coins in a challenging configuration (meaning that repetition would be required, and sight seeing or leisure were not a part of the equation). Through what is possibly oversight on the part of a designer, one map had hats in enough easily accessible locations, and enough areas to launch from safely, that the player could enjoy the mechanic, though the level's active play area was small, and the terrain fairly flat (and fraught with chances to get dropped in quicksand--which would kill you). In other games, abilities like siphoning power or health from enemies must be done while they're alive, or using a special, fairly ineffective weapon or technique. Tranformations that make new kinds of gameplay open up are achieved late in the game, frequently used only for on-rails gameplay, and severely restricted. Opportunities to play in vehicles and so forth are sharply limited to specific sections--arbitrarily limited whenever possible (tank in halo, anyone? I mean, it's not as if you went in doors... you were blocked by an arbitrary structure of pillars outdoors for chrissake).
In Coh, this kind of restriction, while present was not so burdensome that it ruined the ability of the player to enjoy the experience. In fact, merely by going out of one's way to bend the behavior of the game, one could enjoy it! To drill down on this specifically, flight was slow and expensive to use (it drained the endurance of a hero quickly, and when a hero no longer has endurance, he cannot use his powers--it was possible to fly for a good stretch at the basic level with fly before falling, and by merely selecting 3 other powers, the endurance drain would become manageable enough that you would be able to fly forever without falling), and penalized the player's accuracy, so that while flying he hit far less. This was not forbidding to some of the mixed or support classes, but made the power impractical for the fully-offensive classes. In addition, the slow speed of flight made it unattractive, along with its other characteristics, to players who were not particularly enthralled with the idea of flight. Bear in mind that even by enhancing this power to its maximum possible level, a flier could never be as fast as a runner of equal level could. Speed restrictions on the ground were less than in the air. For engineers this may seem counterintuitive. But who really cares; for most purposes, a flier could go fast enough. In addition, despite the mindless penalties (and I do mean mindless, try defending the concept, all I've ever heard are appeals to authority and unsubstantiated comments about complete freedom being better in a generic way) a prerequisite to flight was a power called hover, which, while slower, allowed the player to sit in the air forever at a cheap endurance cost, and receive no penalty to accuracy. In fact, this power gave a slight bonus to defense while active. Flight, though faster, gave no such bonus, though both powers gave the player immunity to being knocked down or back (except against special attacks designed to knock down fliers).
Super speeders initially had a good defense boost from their power to compensate for its inherently dangerous use. After all, running fast in a game doesn't give you good reactions; so frequently you'd bump into badguys, or run too close to them, and the devs countered this vulnerability by adding a totally understandable defensive bonus. You're moving fast... you're hard to hit. Makes sense to me! This, however, allowed people, especially playing the ranged-offensive class to attack very powerful enemies and kill them quickly without being killed. Rather than make the defense boost speed-dependent (not hard to do, In Dawn of war, I can use speed to determine what animation plays, I imagine they can figure out something similar--lag wouldn't be an issue there anymore than it is for any other power), they changed the power to make a character partially invisible. This made some sense (moving fast...hard to see? Except I'm glowing orange), but resulted in more strange behavior. A player could stand next to enemies without being detected; not moving quickly, just standing still. When combined with other forms of partial invisibility, the player could move with impunity through nearly any environment, and could leverage this behavior, in combination with attacks which prevented enemies from retaliating. No accuracy penalty, and the power never cost even half as much as fly did.
Superjump was never touched, as far as I know, it was as cheap as superspeed, could leap well enough to scale nearly any vertical object, and was nearly as fast as superspeed--more importantly it could be as fast as superspeed with enough enhancement, whereas flight would always be slower. Finally there was teleport, which was far more costly, but the fastest means of travel available, and, before several changes to prevent teleporting past walls or through buildings, the best power in terms of dealing with terrain.
These powers made the experience in many ways, since freedom of movement is one of the most visible power fantasies one can communicate, not to mention game-balance friendly. After all, to be Superman and invulnerable is difficult to balance from a developer point of view, but if you want to balance a flier, you can just make enemies better at dealing with his special power (or capable of flight themselves). OF course, the devs never did any of that to fix flight, but I'll get to that in a moment.
MMO gaming design should have rules, but it doesn't. I'm not in the position to make absolute axioms, but I have several suggestions in this vein. 1) A MMO should never reduce gameplay to nodal interactions. This is a temptation by developers, since discreet interactions between abstract nodes in formulaic ways are the most resilient to lag. If player node is x distance away, allow it to apply formula to monster y's hitpoints. In Dark Age of Camelot, this is the totality of interaction. Facing and positioning have nothing to do with the interactions which occur, it is merely enough to set yourself into combat mode, use your handful of straight-forward abilities until it appears you will lose (a determination which must be made early) or until you have won. At which point you assess your resources (abstract data stored on the node). Instead nodes should exist in a system. Ideally, when a player uses a power or ability, it should create a physics-based movement or projectile in the game which the server then tracks through its lifespan until it fades out, is used up, or impacts some valid target or surface. Usually people will say this is impossible, but at the very least Coh used player and enemy collision, essentially making this true half the time, and putting some control in the players hands by allowing them to physically bar movement, and affect enemies with power which were centered on the player in a systems-based way. Furthermore, enemies could trap a player, offering the player interesting choices as to how to avoid such a fate or escape from one when in it. In practice it made the gameplay far more exicitng. Couple this with generous jumping and movement abilities at a basic level, which helped the player feel superhuman, and the game was fundamentally more interesting than others in the genre. 2) Disengagement penalties are bad. The player should not be penalized from trying to avoid combat. While they are in range of a foe, they are vulnerable, and escaping that range should not be tedious or overly difficult, and it should be speedy enough so that the player moves beyond pursuit range in a short amount of time. This allows a player to avoid a feeling of helplessness when being defeated, helps keep the gameworld seemless, and allows the player to utilize more tactics and strategy when fighting enemies; since the main player-controleld metric ina n automated combat system is distance, control over this metric makes more interesting choices. The best way to do this is to make no arbitrary distinction whatsoever about combat. The game should not know what combat is, only about attacks, defense, and defeat. 3) If the players are enjoying something, they're the best determinants of whether it is fun, not you. If you wish to change player behavior, use positive reinforcement only. Negative reinforcement is for education. This is entertainment.
So that said, recently the game changed when the devs institued a 4 second mandatory deactivation of any of the 'travel' (super-human movement) powers when the player was active in combat. This included attacks, and any powers which affected an enemy in any way. The travel power would stay active, but grant no mobility benefit for 4 seconds (or in the case of enemy-affecting powers which did not deactivate until the player chose to deactivate them, or left range; the entire period that such a power was active). This reduces mobility within a fight, hampers mobility during incidental movement while some powers are active (some not strictly offensive in nature), and prevents some playful non-gamegoal oriented behavior with powers. IT prevents utilization of emergent factors in play such as using powers to herd mobs (either by pushing them around, or by irritating large groups and having them chase you somewhere where you intend to ambush them), takes control out of player's hands when attempting to travel from place to place, and adds a disengagement penalty to combat, which was formerly pretty seamless.
This is in addition to previous changes which made it more difficult to collect experience from separated teammates (to prevent a higher level from giving a lower level free experience), and nullified the xp-reward for defeating demons which spawned endlessly from special portals in certain levels, show an increasing hostility toward creative uses of game mechanics in order for players to enjoy themselves. Bear in mind the following: the fastest leveler in the game made it to level 40 after 2 weeks when the game was released, using powerful ability combinations which have since been cut down and rendered less useful to prevent replication. In general it's fair to say that a month of pretty dedicated play time is required to get a player to level 50. In my personal experience, it would likely take me 2 and a half months playing at my level of engagement to get to that level. I mention this because it is a serious time committment for something which is essentially supposed to be fun, and because as level increases, so does the selection of powers and abilities, which in turn makes gameplay more interesting. The most interesting possibilities for play (and costume selection, to a certain extent) are available at higher levels, where a variety of situational powers, and more capable enemies make the combat more than the application of a straightforward formula. The individually instanced Missions, while sometimes visually interesting, and occasionally challenging and fun, are filled out with undifferentiable kill-all-enemies missions which vary only in text descriptions of the alleged task you are to perform. Engaging at first, they are fundamentally only as much fun as you are willing ot make them using your imagination, and so don't provide a superior game experience in and of themselves. For these 3 reasons, variations on standard play, such as accelerated techniques for leveling (or allowing people to level each other's secondary characters in shift--to reduce the burden of boredom in general), self-challenging activities such as herding large groups of enemies into traps/facing endless waves of ever-more-difficult enemies, or use of power interactions, such as flying while using a hurricane and so forth have been vital in my, and other's enjoyment of the game; preventing it from becoming a meaningless grind, and preserving the open-ended nature of play behavior which makes it useful and desireable in entertainment.
Additionally, when players sought out proportionally increased difficulty on their own, by hunting 'purples' (highest grade of difficulty encompassing all enemies which are beyond a certain threshold more powerful than your character), the devs instituted prohibitive accuracy penalties for attacking enemies in this class. Despite the fact that good teams assembled in-line with dev expecations could hunt enemies this difficult with what I would assume was a reasonable risk and reward, the fact that some builds could do so alone, or in small groups was the deciding factor to limit this gameplay. Later, an effort to institute similar challenge in missions by offering the player 5 difficulty classifications (represented in-game as a reputation for ability that ranged from rugged to invicible), the devs did not address the fundamental problem; good gaming (for some players) is finding ways to be effective with available selections, and for these players, the increased difficulty was not enough. For everyone else, it did not provide a substantial 'challenge', since it merely populated levels with higher level enemies. Harder to hit, take longer to kill; otherwise vanilla. Nothing about the situations or the AI of the enemies changed. Enemies did not respond with any kind of tactics, or even brutally simple aggression.
Throughout the life of the game, two powers have dominated the way the playerbase makes decisions (while they are not mandatory, they are nearly always a consideration). One power can be used to give a player more frequent access to their powers across the board (it used to be very cheap as well, except for the cost in enhancing it, but now drains endurance when it expires--though with correct enhancement, it immediately reactivates), the other boost endurance regeneration. In both cases, the across-the-board improvement to efficiency and effectiveness far outweighs the drawbacks of said powers. Devs have repeatedly mentioned that no power int he game is necessary. What is the line where highly desireable and nearly-ubiquitous becomes necessary? If I formulate a series of priorities in my head, and must take some particular powers to fulfill these priorities (priorities that include 'feeling heroic and useful'), then isn't that necessary for me to accomplish my goals?
The drawback of this system is the slow start (especially with the necessities involved in prerequisites) in accumulating interesting choices, and the low number of nodes controlled by the player in the end game.
Look at it this way: the Warcraft III design implementation of avatar-centric gameplay has a 3 node endgame scenario, meaning you have 3 pieces with various abilities and subarmies which you control. As the game has no tactical advantage for height--only using terrain as a means of funneling or obstructing the movements of nodes in the system, this means that the subset of possibilities is limited to movement with respect to the 3 nodes--attempting to find, isolate, and destroy a single or double node of the enemies while avoiding that fate yourself. In that game gameplay hardly ever exists at the one-unit-one-node level, and is correspondingly simple. Tactics revolve around building your hero and his army, and then some additional base-defense tactics, which are more or less moot, since the best defense in a limited-resource game (such as WCIII with depeleting gold mines, and most RTSes, since actual physical realestate for laying out defenses is limited as well) is a good offense. The units have the maximum flexilbility to do what a turret does, except with the flexbility of movement, and in Coh, the possibility of easier upkeep and additional upgrades.
In Coh the node-set is usually something like 10 powers and 1-4 pets or generated effects against the enemys' similar numbers. Creating an attack class reduces the number of tracked nodes under powers from 10 to usually (and be lenient with me here, I'm not sure) 4-6. In the case of a defender, there is no initial reduction, and with the controller there is a corresponding increase on the pets/effects side. The tanker class represents not only a conversion of raw balance resource to the hardier more useful pets and effects class(not that they count as a pets class but that a tank is usually more than a match for a for any given group of pets and effects, and that pets and effects have a higher upper end on their performance level than straight powers--that's just multiplication), but also a reduction of management overhead for the player. An blaster or scrapper can be left to its own devices for precious moments while you order pizza, or think about the weather (this is in a team environment--and I don't mean you stop moving, I mean you fall back on doing your job--hitting things until they fall over). This makes it a supplement to the end game, allowing a player to better control the node set he's in charge of.
If you make these types of straight-forward nodes the focus, by enhancing their performance to the degree that they're meant to combat each other, or in the absence of their opposite, simply allow you to win, then you will be reducing the game to a 1 node game. You will be using your brain to utilize your 1 or 2 primary nodes, and the situational abilities that surround them will be equipment.
As it is, it's quite enjoyable to have a 10 v 10 node battle (or in PvE 10 v 50). Sure, alot of times it devolves into all-target-one mentality, but that's the nature of the game, and at least the balance of each node allows it to remain valuable in the battle size usually seen in Coh.
IF you reduce this game to a 1-3 node level, then you are simply going for the lowest common denominator. 3 is the smallest set that human beings can easily memorize and work with beyond 1--the utter unstreamlined sideeffect of raw cognitive function.
As it stands the game strives for the 2 level in some cases, and the 9 in other, which is on the outside of human ability. Social security numbers have this many digits precisely because it is the recognized limit. Phone numbers reside at a more comfortable 7 digits (these are all United States, figures, obviously, but there are analogs in any society--for instance I believe license plates in England have 7 or 9 digits? Am I wrong? Possbly Europe then? Whichever is the long thin one). 9 is probably too taxing for consistent play. We purposesly amalgamate those nodes ourselves into sub groups (the same way you parse a credit card number into 4 sets of 4 or some other configuration), which we can manage. The sweet spot of task management seems to be (another blizzard game) Diablo II's 6 cardinal functions with an additional 4 other tasks which switch in and out.
It's possible here to go further up the scale and manage 15 nodes at once, its possible that the best players do this very thing, but even if people don't do it, the fact that it's there makes for an interesting problem for the rest of us mere mortals: at any moment we can shake loose the tactical problem by temporarily reorganizing or expanding the number of nodes we're using to participate in the game. Assuming there is a substantial penalty to basic mobility in force, there is less incitement to do so.
now THAT'S what gaming is about. When you reduce it to 3 nodes, it's like tictactoe or a simple organizational puzzle. You take x powers for some time period until you meet a different class of enemy and then take y powers and slots after that until you can select x power (or respec), and then, if the game's not over, you do a little more y and mix in some z and you're done. You can literally watch someone's recorded respec to learn power and enhancement orders. So that task does not make the gameplay in itself.
Learning a set method is not gaming. That's auto-eroticism. Which is to say you stimulate yourself (with pretty pictures and sounds) until satisfied. The learning centers of your brain engage in a limited way, and you do 0 cognitive construction.
The leeway is in the tactical problem after management (although it's possible to have a managemetn structure sophosticated enough to entail gaming--Total Annihilation did that, and there was an element of it in Homeworld, since your factories were big ships that blew stuff up like totally rad omg awesome), and in coh we get a good taste of that.
So please be aware, if you push effectiveness of single, double, or even triple-node powers (the ones that are totally uber and make focal points out of play) you're reducing the quality of the game experience to younger age level (like, and I don't mean this as an insult--8 years or so when I think the brain finishes developing the ability to work with abstract thought... herm. I can't remember exactly what it is... let me consult a book... ah! It's conservation. The idea that an amount of water is the same regardless of what object its poured into--a concept involving the ability to collapse and expand subsets and realize connections between disparately featured environmental stimulus--so we're talking about the process by which you reduce 15 nodes to a manageable 7 or expand them and reorganize them at need--rather than just managing 3 which is the active mind-limitation in most people. Well to be fair, 4. 3 is lowest common denominator. 4 is average.)
So keep that in mind with your design. If you want these things to be focal points but not overpowering you'll need to develop anti-dominator powers that have a skewed effect. That will make it a sports-style game where, rather than direct confrontation, you confront around mobile objectives in an attempt to move one to the goal (the enemy base where damage gets done).
But, in general, given this advice, the track record doesn't support it's adoption. Rather than embrace and assist the creation of unintended behavior, the devs attempt to stop it and bring it in line with their expectations. In doing so they make the statement that they are more capable of determining what is fun for someone else than the person themselves.
I didn't sign up to be told what is fun. My in-game attitude has been 'if you do not provide compelling content, I will make the best use of the content you do provide as I can...'. Now, like someone who is sick of interesting shows being canceled while mindless sitcoms last forever, I am turning off the television. Which in this case is two accounts with dozens of characters.
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