A Tale of Two Games

coh[City of Heroes] Buckle in, this is going to be a long one. Let us start with the digression immediately so it does not distract us later.

Many have observed that World of Warcraft is a different game at high and low levels. At low levels, things move quickly, you can solo easily, you gain new abilities all the time, and there are more quests than you can complete. It is a lot like City of Heroes. At high levels, it is Everquest. You spend a lot of time waiting/organizing large groups for instanced raids, during which several people will get to roll for a chance at a piece of improved loot.

City of Heroes faces a rather different dichotomy between high and low levels.

Some things are the same, as they are in every game: at low levels, progress is faster, powers come more quickly, etc. We all know what it is like to go through a half-dozen levels in an hour or two.

In other ways, it is the opposite. Players solo more effectively as they reach higher levels, and the pool of available missions (quests) increases. There is no loot, and the value of the end-game raid reward has been devalued even as the raid has been made more difficult.

The real divide, though, is in how you face your enemies. In most games, your basic gameplay does not change much as you level. You start by fighting one level one creature, with little 2s and 3s flying off its head; you beat it, sit down, wait for your hit points to come back, then kill another ten rats. At much higher levels, you are still doing the same thing, only the numbers are 20s and 30s. It might even look like the same monster, just with a different name, size, and/or color. When I played Dark Age of Camelot, for example, Albion players could get from level 1 to 50 almost entirely on various pigs, if they so chose; I imagine there are even more hog-slaughtering options now.

In City of Heroes, your character really does become more powerful over time. At level one, three even-level minions are a good fight; you will win, but you probably cannot take much more than that. At level forty, you walk into a group of ten level+2 minions and casually wipe them out. You start as Jubilee and end as Dark Phoenix. That is a big power shift.

There are two major factors causing this. The smaller one is your increased number of powers. Higher level powers are not supposed to be “better” than low-level ones, just more useful for certain situations. For many characters, this is true: which does your Tanker use more, Unyielding or Unstoppable? For some sets, this is obviously false: Stamina is worth more than Hurdle. For the various primary and secondary powers, it is just a matter of where your key powers are. Empathy Defenders get Heal Other at level one, and that is the healer’s bread and butter; */Regeneration Scrappers get Instant Healing at level twenty-six, and that was the set-defining power for most of the last year.

There are many set-defining or life-changing powers. Some of these are available very early, like Heal Other, Bright/Dark Nova, and Fireball/breath. These sets play largely the same for most of their levels. Some of these powers vastly improve your character but are not fully game-breaking, like Recovery Aura, Trip Mine, or Fulcrum Shift. These powers are gold, but your character is playable before then. Finally, there are the make-or-break powers that completely change your play style, like Instant Healing, Burn, area effect crowd control, or controllers’ pets.

This last category has generally been nerfed into the ground. It took three or four rounds of nerfs to work down Instant Healing and Burn. The controllers’ toys were consumed in Issue Five. Most of these came with some other offsetting change. Controllers lost some AE CC but do more damage to controlled targets; they also lost multiple pets, but those pets became permanent; */Regeneration Scrappers received better health recovery at low levels. The intent seems to be to flatten the power curve by lowering the top end, with a few gentle taps at the bottom.

The primary factor that makes heroes into gods at higher levels is enhancements. This may not be apparent as you play. If you add slots over several levels, the power increases gradually; if you add them all at once, it is as if the power was always that great, so it looks like the power is doing it, rather than the enhancements.

You get single-origin enhancements about the time you start being able to six-slot all your key powers. Your Blaster’s attacks now do 300% damage, two-shotting groups in hazard zones. Your Tanker reaches his defense or resistance cap. Your Scrapper one-shots purple minions on a critical hit. The balance of the game changes when that power you have had since level two starts taking away half the enemy’s hit points. A well-slotted Absorb Pain can fully heal a Tanker from the red.

Wasn’t the original intent for SOs to be rare drops, not something we would have in every slot of every power? I think they expected an economy to exist, where people would trade for good SOs. Now, we just look forward to level twenty-two, when we can buy SOs Your first training enhancement takes your effectiveness from 1.0 to 1.08; your sixth SO takes it to 3.0. Compared to training enhancements, you have twenty-four-slotted your powers, forty-eight if you have access to Hami-Os.

That must be hard to balance a game around. The developers want to keep the game challenging, but how do you challenge someone at the top of the power curve without blowing away the bottom? There is a big difference between one slot and forty-eight.

The trend for City of Heroes has been to reduce this divergence in the game. The effect is to create a more constant game experience, where players will not feel obligated to race through the lower levels to get to higher-level powers and better enhancements. Ideally, a game should be playable and enjoyable at all levels, with the levels serving more to spread out content than to serve as “you must be this tall to ride.” That is the point of being able to take out a group of enemies at level one: do not force me to kill ten thousand rats before I can play the real game.

Many City of Heroes players are altaholics. The low levels really are fun. You have shiny new toys, you get new ones constantly, and your friends are also re-rolling so you are not spread across twenty levels. You play for the night, you get to level six or whatever, and it has been a good time. There are grind levels, but those are usually the ones right before you get something good, like your movement power or SOs or Stamina or your set’s defining power. For now, you are just playing, and it works quite well.

Anything that improves the early game helps flatten the power curve while decreasing the incentive to powerlevel. It makes a lot of sense to nerf Stamina and decrease the endurance cost of every power; you could create exactly the same effective endurance costs while reducing early-game downtime. The same applies to Hasten and recharge times. While I am sure that some amount of downtime helps create community and increase player retention, most of us would take any change that eliminates “must have” downtime-reducing powers.

You could make the early game much more like the late game by increasing base power effectiveness and decreasing the bonuses from enhancements. This would alter scaling without decreasing overall effectiveness. This would increase the superheroic feeling at lower levels, at the expense of feeling less Silver Surfer-like at high levels, since you have been pretty strong all along. You grow from a B-list JLAer to being Batman or Superman. If you want to be Booster Gold again, you can re-roll.

If it is not clear, this is not the path the game has taken. Instead, the curve is being flattened by lowering the top end. Game-changing powers were weakened, with smaller improvements at lower levels. All defenses and area effect powers were weakened, with increased experience gain to offset it. Enhancements are going to be weakened, with changes to endurance costs. The vision of “three white minions = one hero” may eventually be true for the higher levels, too.

To my mind, this would take away much of the superheroic feel of the game and make it less worth playing. City of Heroes is not Everquest in tights.

Look, most of the gameplay is already pretty similar between levels. I am still using Ice Blast forty levels later. The enemy is now called a Behemoth rather than a Scorcher, but he is still throwing fireballs at me. I have memorized the office building and warehouse layouts, I know what to look for in Oranbega, and I can immediately identify the five-level cave that first appears in the Jewel of Hera mission. Getting put to sleep by the Freakshow is about the same as being put to sleep by the Clockwork; they even have the same Tesla Cage graphic. Making the gameplay more similar between levels will not make the game more dynamic or fun.

And yes, across certain thresholds, adjusting the number on a power really does affect the gameplay. Fiery Aura Tankers used to (still do?) classify enemies based on how many Burn patches it takes to defeat them. If you are a Blaster, how quickly you deal damage determines how long you live. If you are a Regen Scrapper, any foe who does less damage than your healing rate is trivial; anything greater is impossible. A small shift in the numbers is the difference between fighting a gang at once or fighting them one at a time.

If you are coming off another game, “three white minions” can be quite a boost. In most games, soloing two level+1 enemies can be risky. Indeed, the whole structure of other games forces you to fight a narrow band of enemies around your level, often your level and below. Habitually soloing oranges is liberating. One of the reasons that people were so upset about the “purple patch” was that they liked fighting unreasonably high-level foes. Heroes take on great foes and win; “farming greens” is not heroic.

It seems that the less City of Heroes is a tale of two cities, the more it resembles the lower-level city. The less I am able to fight many or high-level enemies, the more it resembles every other game out there. And I won’t need to respec every month in those.

Addendum

If the game had gone to level fifty at release, this might have been apparent. There are some things you just cannot do without the excessive enhancement slots available in the forties. I worry about Dungeons and Dragons Online for this reason; we all have seen D&D break down at the higher levels, when magic becomes absurdly powerful.

Addendum 2

I frequently see the accusation that the nerfs exist to slow down leveling, therefore making people play longer, therefore increasing subscription fees over time. I am not one who believes this, either in the sense that it works or that most game developers are trying to do that.

First, slow grinds do not seem like something that promotes player retention. Normally, you just say, “World of Warcraft” and move on here. More than that, players feel invested when they have a higher level character. This is why leveling can slow down at later levels: you have bought in, and you are probably staying for those last few levels. Some players are going to burn through all your content in a month or two and quit no matter how laborious you make it. You have seen these guys in every game complaining about how there is nothing to do at max level the first week the game is out. The rest of us enjoy brisk advancement and shiny new toys. We are more likely to quit a game for not rewarding us enough, rather than leveling too quickly.

Second, most game developers are really trying to make a better game. If I cannot believe that, I have to quit playing. You may not agree with a given developer about what is fun, but they are more interested in making the perfect game than making a few extra dollars. If they wanted money, there are easier ways to make it than dealing with online games. You pretty frequently see a dev response along the lines of, “Well, this game might not be for you. It can’t be all things to all people. Thanks for trying us out, and I hope you found something you liked in it!” Also, ruder variants.

At any rate, “slower leveling = more money” seems like neither a viable theory nor a fair accusation. But it might be in some cases, and you might have a more pessimistic view of developers.

: Zubon

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Games”

  1. I agree with you that developers are trying to make a better game. However I believe that Statesman is focused on the mechanics of CoH and not the flavour of CoH.

    The super hero flavour of CoH is what made it great, what made it so much fun. Starting off as a little dweeb and ending up a kick arse SUPER hero. That was fun. Fun enough that after I had done it once I went back to do it again and then again…. and then Statesman lost the plot and went on some stupid mechanics rebalance that takes away all the super from the hero and leaves CoH a very repetitive, boring Everquest with tights.

    Thats why I call him a moron, because he is taking the fun out of his game in order to balance the mechanics. He is a moron because he doesn’t realise what made CoH so great to begin with, and what is now destroying it. This despite so many people on the forums telling him so…

  2. I have to echo winter on this one. Statesman takes the short bus to work. CoH has been a sore spot with me since I2. Games are meant to be fun. Reality is not fun, thus I play games. When you move a game closer to reality, the less fun it becomes.

    I didn’t collect X-Weapon 1-8 because I thought “Gee, that Logan fellow reminds me of a guy I work with”… I bought it (when it came out) because I was like “WOW! I don’t know anyone like this!”.

    Stateman has been doing everything in his power since release to drive this game into the dirt. Nerf after fabulous nerf, in the ellusive goal to bring ‘balance’ to the game.

    Think about that a moment. Where does ‘balance’ come into comic books?

    Did Batman ‘barely’ beat the Joker b/c they were so close in ability? Did he get the upper hand on Riddler b/c he was limited to 2 enhancements in Brawling? No….!

    Batman/Superman/Spiderman/Dare Devil/Wolverine/Green Lantern/Thor all won b/c they were strong, powerful, and more of those two than their enemy. They didn’t win b/c Joker/Luther/Doc Oc/Electra/Magneto/Kang/Loki had the exact same powers they had.

    The -ONLY!!!- reason CoH held ANY interest to me was the fact I could live a dream…. the dream to be more than human. The dream to have super super powers, and use them to squash villians. Yet CoH does not want that. They would rather you be the B-list of heroes. People like The Frog. If you’re a hard-core Spiderman fan, you know what I refer to… the geek kid that pretty much sucked, but wanted to fight crime. And Spidey was constantly saving his ass even from low-level (greys?) villians. (for those unaware… The Frog was this nerdy kid with a suit… trying to rip off Toad)

    CoH held for me (and thousands others) a hope…a promise… and they just pissed all over that. Sorry for those still playing…. but I hope to see Cryptic in chapter 13 proceedings before christmas. Fuck ’em. They all deserve worse than death.

  3. Abalieno has some good comments on this topic, so I’m tossing a link out in case anyone is still following this line of thought. ‘Cause, hey, I occasionally check comments from a week-old post.
    http://www.cesspit.net/drupal/node/933
    Wow, we’re even linked in there. Does it make me a blogging newb that I still find that “pretty neat”?

Comments are closed.