City of Heroes as a Pastime

Last month NCSoft added Mission Architect to City of Heroes, a tool for players to build and share missions that become part of the game. Opening the doors to player-created content — especially that gives an in-game benefit — is a huge risk that I think the world of them for taking. Muds have struggled with this for years and I’ve only seen the muds without strong advancement and power mechanics (usually none at all) allowing players to build areas.

A Wired article provides some evidence that Mission Architect has been, in the opinion of the game’s lead designer Matt Miller, abused to create unfairly rewarding missions for powerlevelers. He said:

Some of you have taken the stance of “how does powerlevelling hurt the game?� and “shouldn’t I be able to play the game the way that I want?� What we want to make clear is in order to keep the game fair, balanced, and challenging, we have to maintain a risk:reward ratio. This is a ratio we’ve spent years attempting to achieve. Mission Architect is not immune to this, and we are taking swift action to see that the problems players are seeing and are being exposed to are remedied.

board post

This is an odd statement. I understand the “fair” comment, it sounds like a lot of the pushback is coming from players who are outraged that other players are able to reach the endgame content with a significantly reduced time investment. But “balanced” and “challenging” shouldn’t be affected by powerleveling, it should only mean that players arrive at the balanced and challenging endgame content faster.

Another MMORPG creator, Eric Heimburg, put it differently:

Once you reached that top of the hill, if there’s nothing left to do or see, players are likely to move on. Length of enjoyment (equals) amount of money earned, so developers have a strong incentive to keep players from gaining power and levels too quickly.

The very first thing that popped into my head after I read these two quotes was:

A multiplayer game is deep if it is still strategically interesting to play after expert players have studied and practiced it for years, decades, or centuries. Balancing Multiplayer Games

If the City of Heroes endgame is so shallow that it isn’t balanced or challenging or enjoyable, the solution is not to stop people from getting to it so quickly. Miller said:

If we say that the definition (of abuse) is ‘you gained 4 levels in under 30 minutes’, then someone will make sure that they gain 4 levels in 31 minutes, so they can claim they were within the allowed limits and not abusing.

Sirlin nailed that one, too, in startlingly similar terms (highlighted):

The thing to be banned must be able to be “completely defined.� Imagine that in a fighting game, repeating a certain sequence of five moves over and over is the best tactic in the game. Further suppose that doing so is “taboo� and that players want to ban it. There is no concrete definition of exactly what must be banned. Can players do three repetitions of the five moves? What about two reps? What about one? What about repeating the first four moves and omitting the fifth? Is that okay? The game becomes a test of who is willing to play as closely as possible to the “taboo tactic� without breaking the (arbitrary) letter of the law defining the tactic.

Or in a first-person shooter game, consider the notion of banning “camping� (sitting in one place for too long). No friendly agreement between the players is necessary for the ban, which at least means it’s enforceable. The server can monitor the positions of players, and it knows exactly who breaks the rule and can hand out penalties accordingly. The ban is enforceable, but the problem is being able to completely define camping. If camping is defined as staying within one zone for 3 minutes, and if it really is the best tactic, then sitting in that zone for 2 minutes 59 seconds becomes the best tactic. It’s a slippery slope because there will always exist camping tactics arbitrarily close to the specific kind of camping that is banned.

What Should Be Banned

A rule is not only arbitrary but secret and may cause players to be permanently banned from using the Mission Architect or playing the game at all is a really bad sign. It implies that the gameplay in City of Heroes is so broken that the game’s developers don’t know what’s wrong and can’t make a game that supports long-term, high-level play (that is, the most profitable play). Miller’s refusal to release a risk:reward ratio sounds more like City of Heroes hasn’t internally defined one and is only trying to staunch the increased exhaustion of players.

I don’t know City of Heroes, and I don’t know its creators, so I’m not going to say that this is certainly the case or that they fail at game design. That’d be obviously false, CoH has a large and probably generally quite satisfied userbase. Why are so many people playing so happily if the gameplay is broken?

The answer I can see is that Sirlin’s experience and topic choice is games that support high-level tournament play and City of Heroes isn’t trying to be that. It’s happy to be more of an unserious entertainment, a pastime, than a proving ground for people to challenge and rank their skills. Tournament games can be pastimes, but the reverse is almost never true.