Super Duper Sidekicking

City of Heroes has practically an embarrassment of riches in game design. I keep hearing design dilemmas in other games and thinking, “Oh, City of Heroes solved that problem years ago.” The solutions are usually heavily reliant on instancing, but how much of your WoW time are you spending in instances anyway?

Many games borrow the City of Heroes sidekick system, in which you can bring a teammate up (or down) to your level. City of Heroes has gone beyond that: everyone on the team is the same level, and all the instanced content is always the right level. It really is that simple. Set everyone to the same effective level. Set all the enemies to that level (or let the players dial up the difficulty). Done.

Some of this works due to a good design in ability acquisition. You do it once. City of Heroes trainers do not try to re-sell you Fire Bolt every five levels with a new number attached. You buy it once and it scales with your level. If you join a team that changes your effective level, your abilities scale up or down appropriately.

Not enough content in a level range? Every quest can work for every level range. Friends just joined, or you are joining a group of level-capped friends? Everyone can play with everyone else. And content scales to team size, so bring as many friends as you like.

Fun bonus thought: if Blizzard really wanted to, they could have the hit points and damage of every enemy in every instance scale to the gear score of the party.

: Zubon

15 thoughts on “Super Duper Sidekicking”

  1. I love the sidekick system in City of Heroes. Other games have tried to use it, but too often it runs into a wall with gated content. If I recall correctly, CoH has some gates, but not nearly as limiting as others.

    1. They removed the zone gating when they introduced super-sidekicking. There are still minimum level restrictions on strike/task forces, but that is about it.

      Champions Online introduced a similar sidekicking system to the current one in CoX and was perhaps one of the reasons that CoX changed theirs.
      But the CoX implementation works better I think, in that it is simpler to apply – it is pretty much automatic.

      1. Yeah the problem we found with Champions’ sidekicking were the gates. Given the faster rate of leveling, it was significant to segregate higher level content. I know that Cryptic was concerned about the amount of their content overall, but for myself and my friends this exacerbated the problem.

  2. If the system works so well, why is it most people only play CoX for a month or so before burning out? Why is it a great game to spend a weekend with, but not something you can pour a ‘serious’ week into and feel any sense of accomplishment?

    In other words, it does indeed solve some ‘problems’ that other MMOs face, but the solution here seem to be to make the game less of an MMO. That works for some, but certainly not for others.

    1. @Syncane
      1) City of Heroes actually experienced a lower-than-industry-norm churn rate in the early years based on some dev disclosures. Part of the trick isn’t that so many leave after 1 month, it’s getting people to try it.

      2) City of Heroes does a great job being “lite” in a great many thing. You won’t find gameplay that requires HUGE time investments or spreadsheets. Most of the game is balanced at a “loot lite” level and while you CAN do a lot of planning and building and farming for major performance enhancements, they’re not really required to complete any content. It’s there if you want to do it, but you feel a lot less COMPELLED to do it, compared to some other MMO’s.

      This leads to CoH being a “good second MMO” for many people. It isn’t their main… but they visit back, try a few things, then go off elsewhere. They know they can come back easily enough and see what’s new without significant penalty.

      3) Part of the current problem is conditioning– CoH doesn’t have much of an endgame. They focus on providing content- multiple paths you can take while leveling up. It really doesn’t have to be one of those “every character follows the same story” experiences you see in other MMO’s.

      Problem is… people used to raid-centric games have been conditioned to race to the level cap “where the real game begins.” They’re used to just a few paths for advancement… a succession of “must do” quest arcs. So… they don’t explore as much… if they alt, they do the same pattern of quests over and over again, and when they race all the way to the top and say “OK, I’m here! What do I do?” they’re rather shocked to learn that they missed most of the game while trying to race to where they expected the game to START.

    2. CoH vet here, and I guess in order to really answer that question I need some sense of perspective: if you put a “serious” week into your current MMO of choice, what would you do and what would that accomplish?

      But here’s a stab: sometime between 20 and 30, depending on your archetype and build, you get all your essential powers. From that point on, any power you select is going to give you a “panic button” or similar situationally-useful tool, or laterally expand your capabilities. Sometime between 20 and 30, you also get access to the most powerful store-bought equipment. So you don’t really appreciably grow in power as your level increases, from that point on.

      Even before that point you can often function acceptably in a higher-level group with sidekicking on, so there’s pretty much no pull to pursue higher levels from that standpoint.

  3. It does offer solutions to some problems, but I’m not sure it does for the linked one. It’s quite possible to out-level a contact, despite the autoscaling instances. And the work-arounds are sometimes odd: it kept the last mission of Kalinda’s “Gaining Arachnos’s Favor” arc for me, and when I gotten around to doing it, the final boss was still stuck at level 8 or so, even though I (and the rest of the instance) had moved on to the mid-20s.

    I think there are a few reasons.
    Compared to most current MMOs, leveling is slow. This is offset by the fact that most of the content is for leveling characters, with somewhat less for end-game characters (compared to things like WoW), but it can be frustrating for people used to WoW.

    With the automatically scaling, sometimes procedurally generated missions, it can feel samey.

    Much of the content is front-loaded. Just playing with the character creator is fun. This attracts people, but doesn’t have the same staying power.

    And I think the end-game IO advancement is more intimidating than the collection of epic items, especially when tied to the auction system. People can say to themselves “just a few more heroics, then I can do Trial of the Crusader, after a few of those I can do Icecrown and get my best in slot stuff”. Whereas in CoH, you can look at filling the dozens of enhancement slots, see best in slot enhancements can cost 100s of millions or even billions, and they can’t even imagine getting that much money.

  4. @Syncaine

    You seem to have misunderstood his point. The post had nothing to do with the popularity, success, or long-term playerbase of CoX.

    The only point he was making is that CoX has a sidekick system that works very effectively and smoothly. There is no disputing this, but it also does not equate to success by itself.

    I don’t see why you feel that the *only* factor in CoX’s success is the sidekick system, is that really the case?

    1. “City of Heroes has practically an embarrassment of riches in game design”

      That’s the first line of the post, and it’s a line I use often when talking about EVE. Know the difference between EVE and CoX? One is growing after 7 years, the other is not. If both games are so rich in game design, like the above-mentioned sidekick system, why is it that only one game is growing?

      Now maybe the sidekick system IS perfect, and it’s other critical flaws in CoX that prevent it from attracting more players, but IMO that’s not the case. Sidekicking is good for the right-now aspect, it has flaws when it comes to long-term retention, and that’s kind-of-a-big-deal in MMO land.

      1. Syncaine, you’re right. As we can tell from subscriber numbers, WoW is the best game ever, and Darkfall is clearly worse than just about every MMO out there. Please, continue argumentum ad populum and apply it indiscriminately across the whole design. We can tell that the CoX costume designer is lousy because retention is only somewhat above the industry average.

  5. The fun thing about CoH is that a lot of the things they did first, WoW gets credit for. “Wow was the first casual MMO where you could play by yourself.”

    … no.

    1. Add “… and to successfully market it to a huge range of people that would not normally play MMOs.” or something to the end of every point ;P

  6. Myself I wouldn’t go as far as to call it “an embarrassment of riches”. Just opinion. But I will say that CoX had quite a few very good design decisions which, unfortunately for me as a player who put some months into it, never coalesced into a fun experience overall.

    I did appreciate very, very much the sidekicking because it allowed me to go out and do stuff with my guildies whom were all up there. And although it’s not the sidekicking system’s fault at all, it quite quickly dawns on you that the stuff you get to do with your guildies, regardless of level, is repetitive and unsatisfying. Or at least it did to me.

    Like many other players, the 20-30 became the tipping point where my enjoyment of the game began to tank. And I don’t think it was because of how drawn out power levels and overall character power feels (although it does play a part). It’s the realization at that point that this is pretty much it, that you will continue to do what you’ve been doing so far, only with an absolute -minimum- of variety and a grind that seems insurmountable.

    In retrospective I could have put up with the grind had they at least served it in variety. But I think if you get to the 40s and there’s not a voice inside you that asks why the F you continue to do this, you’re probably a very strange human being. The lack of thematic variety is what absolutely killed my desire to play, and of course this bleeds down to your alts. In CoX you roll alts because (a) you wanna play more with the superb costume editor and (b) you’re interested in other classes. That’s it. It’s not because you want to experience different parts of the game, because I don’t think there are any, save minimum cosmetic variations which first begin not to matter and later end up grinding at you every second you spend there.

    But that’s just me and that’s the kind of player I am. I crave variety and basically being boxed into Paragon or the Isles running carbon copy door missions just doesn’t do it for me.

    1. So… I guess I’m a very strange human being.

      In this particular scenario, what’s wrong with me is that I don’t have enough ambition. I’m not driven to optimize my attack chain or to get “best in slot” gear or attain a server first. I keep playing in large part because, combat to combat, my unambitious self is having a lot of fun.

      I don’t have so many abilities that I can’t remember what half of them do, or so few that optimal combat is a solved problem.

      I can make mistakes or bad decisions or have a string of bad luck in combat and still manage to recover most of the time, but not so easily and effortlessly that I can’t appreciate the effects of smart decisions or good luck. In teams my actions aren’t essential, but they aren’t irrelevant either.

      The mobs are clustered enough that I get a little satisfaction out of positioning and timing to nail them all with area attacks, but sparse enough and powerful enough that single-target attacks aren’t just a waste of time.

      I do get a little bored with outdoor maps sometimes, when they turn into fighting a clustered group on open ground again and again and again – identical office #4915 at least still has corners and catwalks and cubicle walls to make where I stand an occasionally meaningful choice. And now that I’ve had the chance to see more or less all the content I tend to table my 50s in favor of exploring powersets on other characters at my own moderate pace (though the 50s come back out for the Mission Architect if an arc I’m going to review is pitched for one).

      But by and large I have fun at an elemental level, combat to combat, because there’s a lot of slack between optimized play and successful play.

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