City of Heroes Issue 14: NCSoft's New Blueprint for Success
Dubbed “Architect Academy,” NCSoft revealed City of Heroes: Architect Edition (FAQ) to the press in fine fashion. In the posh and secure confines of Bentley Reserve, the former site of the Federal Bank of San Francisco, we sat in a Neo-American styled boardroom in the upper of two “banking temples,” which no doubt saw vast amounts of Pacific Rim assets changing hands once upon a time.
NCSoft likewise has something of value to impart to its players, but the best part: it’s all free with your catchall City of Heroes / City of Villains subscription. In less than a month Issue 14 will herald the release of a companion system to the CoH / CoV games which will allow players to create their own surprisingly intricate missions, and a new retail “Architect Edition” box will follow in April containing (for the first time) the PC and newly released Mac client for the first time.
Customizability and accessibility are the hallmarks of the City of Heroes franchise, with seemingly limitless options to create a unique character at the outset and add such superheroic abilities as flight and superspeed within the first few hours of gameplay. Neither the character creator or the City of Villains lair designer had a tutorial or needed a tutorial, so it was no surprise, then, that Architect Edition (AE) its ease-of-use will never have you wishing for the tutorial it lacks, and is absolutely replete with options to craft just the sort of mission you have in mind. Helpful tooltips at every turn will aid you on the pertinence of particularly confusing settings, such as what setting “Mission Pacing” to flat actually does or when “Mission Send-Off Text” appears.
Creating your own five mission story arc is just a matter of navigating a wizard and filling in the blanks. Being creative is the most challenging - and most fun - part.
Senior Designer Joe Morrissey stated that you could have yourself a playable mission that basically follows the sort of story you’re going for in as little as fifteen minutes, but that polish and creativity could take half a day or more. I found this to be absolutely true; my post-WWII Patton-inspired “Be All You Can Be” mission gave players fifteen minutes to bust into the evil Stallin’s (get it?) lair before he could initiate an insidious T-34 attack against Paragon City took all of 10 minutes to craft before my first test run. The first playthrough was predictably short of substance - Stallin’s cries of “For the motherland!” at the battle’s start and “Vodka!” when he reached 25% health failed to stir even a cheese-factor head laugh - but it was a bona fide starting point.
If you’ve tried your hand at modding Neverwinter Nights or even planned out a mission in the early Rainbow Six games, you know that an hour minutes of design for at least 30 minutes of repeatable gameplay is an excellent trade, and I give all the credit to AE’s wizard-driven, which takes you through mission planning step-by-step, forcing you to fill out only the barest essentials, then generating a thoroughly playable scenario (if not exactly Emmy-winning material) in very little time. The bulk of your design time won’t be spent in AE, but in the shower or on the morning commute, dreaming up the setting, characters, and plot of the story you’ll turn into a mission. Never before has an MMORPG so tempted player creativity, nor sought to richly reward the effort.
No placing, pathing, or scripting is involved; whether you choose pre-fab bosses and enemies, mix and match from the available enemy groups, or create your own re-usable bosses and enemy groups from scratch, they’ll be placed and patrols will be pathed as the professionally-made maps dictate (you can specify whether a boss appears at the front, middle, or back of the map) and make the best use of their built-in capabilities as per the difficulty you set. As with all CoH missions, also scale to the player’s level as well as how many (2 to 8) are in the player’s group). Also, you never even have to leave the game to create or play missions - everything is done within the game client. There’s even a little backstory to accompany this player-generated content system featuring a joint venture between Crey Industries and Dr. Aeon to study heroes in a holodeck-esque testbed called Architect Entertainment, in time creating a supergroup for hire from what they learn.
Unlike previous efforts toward player-created scenarios (e.g. Ryzom Ring), Architect Edition will amply reward players for creating and playing missions. Full experience and influence is rewarded (unless powerful NPC allies such as freed captives accompany you through part of the mission, then you’ll split the proceeds evenly), and items are awarded as per what Matt Miller described as a “skee-ball” ticket system (tickets are awarded both to the publisher and player of a mission as they go through with a big bonus if they complete the mission, and items cost x tickets at the ticket vendor).
Issue 14 by the numbers...
*Hall of fame and Dev’s Choice missions don’t count towards the arc cap.
By removing the tedious aspects of game design and concentrating on the sheer storytelling possibilities of the interactive experience, NCSoft has sacrificed a little flexibility for a lot of speed and accessibility. Because you can’t create maps, place objects and characters, specify a boss’s reaction to a certain attack, etc., you simply have to concentrate on the “who”, “what”, and “why” rather than the “how” and “when.” The onus falls squarely on the creator to tie together the experience with an excellent storyline, well-suited bosses and enemies with accompanying dialogue and animations, and the perfect blend of gameplay conditions to match.
Players find your content, play it, give it a 1-5 star rating and comment via a nifty browser that sorts to your preferences? Looking for a short, villainous mission, or a lengthy high difficulty heroic one for your group? Oh, and there’s not enough time in the day for bad content - of course you’ll only want to play a four or five star mission. A few clicks and you’re there. The Dev’s Choice and Hall of Fame designations make for no-miss content, and getting such a designation frees up a slot of your three-published-missions-per-character limit (you can have infinite missions stored locally and swap them out at will, perhaps making for some fun seasonally-themed missions too).
Rather than bewailing the lack of a map editor, I’d sooner wish for a cutscene creator, some DM tools, and perhaps a way of creating a PvP mission something like a small-scale Recluse’s Victory from Issue 7. Given that City of Heroes not only has evolved into the most customizable MMO this side of the sandbox category, the latter two are ambitious, but the framework is clearly in place. CoH even has a built-in demo recorder to create cutscenes, and Lead Designer Matt Miller hinted that this might be the first additional AE feature NCSoft will tackle.
Inevitable wishlist aside, NCSoft has crafted perhaps the most revolutionary free expansion to-date, rivalling the WoW battleground / arena free updates and the ten free expansions (Cold War in particular) that created the PvP sandbox symphony that we know as EVE Onlinetoday. While free expansions generally expand only the endgame and even that mostly through PvP, Architect Edition provides something incredible for even a level one hero or villain: the power to see your imagination play out on your monitor screen and even share the experience with the every other CoH / CoV player.
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