Tuesday, February 28, 2012

City of Heroes Peculiar Leveling

So surprisingly enough, lately I've found myself back in City of Heroes quite a bit.  I blame my in-laws.  They came up for a weekend recently, and we had all played City of Heroes back in the day.  Now that the game is free-to-play, it didn't take long for them to re-activate their accounts, and after an hour or so patching up my computers, we had a nice six-man group running around completing missions and task forces - all of us playing in the same room, which makes for tons of hilarity and hijinks.

So I found myself logging in to play some more this past weekend.  The game is fairly bustling with activity - the zones feel alive with people in them, the help channel is constantly busy with chatter, and after spending so much time in the vast emptiness of the upper level SWTOR zones (Voss and Correlia I'm looking at you), it felt good to play with people again.  The only real caveats, of course, is that it is City of Heroes.  You have to like the fundamental gameplay, which for many people feels staid and dated.  And you have to be okay with, or at least be aware of, some of this game's own peculiar design quirks.  And it's one of those that I wanted to talk about.

City of Heroes has a bit of a peculiarity.  And that is - its own design encourages you to skip their own content.  To me, it feels a bit bizarre, but there it is.  In most traditional MMO's these days, your leveling activity goes something like this:  You create your character.  You are given things to do that tell a story, and help people.  You go and do those things (quests, missions, whatever), the vast majority of which entail you performing a great amount of combat using your particular abilities.  You complete those objects, you get some experience, and you repeat.  Occasionally, you're given content that requires a group, or you're given the opportunity to group up to do something epic with a group of people, in the form of an instance, dungeon, flashpoint, whatever.  And these things do give, typically, better rewards, but not so much that if you skip them and just continue leveling through quests, you're not terribly handicapped.  Now in some MMO's, people can somewhat eschew altogether the typical leveling path, and only do grouped instances, but those typically entail running the same instance over and over again, many many times, and I wouldn't say it's the typical path of leveling.

But in City of Heroes, the use of groups to level with is so powerful, that is actually discourages you from doing almost any of their story content.  And their own progression mechanics exacerbate this even further!

And no where is this more true than when you first create your character.  City of Heroes has a queueable instance that you can queue up for at level 1 - called Death From Below, commonly referred to as DFB.  Upon creating your character, you can queue up for DFB, and almost be assured of dropping into a group and being ready to go within minutes.  The run will take about 25 to 30 minutes, tops.  Upon exiting the instance, you will have gained six to seven levels.  The leveling is so fast they actually provide trainers along the path of the instance so you can level up and pick your abilities as you go through the instance!  Do the instance one more time, and you'll be level 11 to 12.  Once more, and you'll most likely be 16 to 17.  And the thing is, due to CoH's scaling technology, you don't out-level the instance!  I don't know how much the diminishing return is on gaining experience levels, but I've seen level 28 and 30 characters queueing up for it.

Now directly in front of you, when you plop into Atlas Park with your newly created character, there is also a contact, in the parlance of the game - a traditional quest giver.  And he has a lovely little story arc for you, with that has you uncovering a plot by the Arachnos to undermine the recovery efforts of Atlas Park.  If you do this story arc, it will take you about an hour or so to go all the way through it, running here and there about Atlas Park.  And the end, you'll be right around level 5.

So your choices are - do a story arc, which takes about an hour or so, and be level 5 when you come out of it.  Oh and to actually gain any of the actual story in the story-arc you do have to read the mission bits.  Of which there are quite frankly a lot.  Or in that same hour's time you can probably complete three runs of DFB, not do any reading - just non-stop attacking -- and be level 15.  The only requirement of which is that you have to join a group, the mechanics of which are easily handled for you.  And keep in mind you quite likely will not have to interact with said group in any way except to run where they are running and attack what they are attacking.

Now - which are you going to choose.  Which would any person choose once they knew what their options are?  And yet there are some great story-arcs - some genuinely interesting quest lines out there - that are by far and large completely ignored by most of the people coming through the zone.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not necessarily even saying that this particular paradigm is bad.  In fact far from it.  In fact, if you do know how the system works, ultimately you can work it to give you the best of both worlds.  Case in point.  I've created probably a half dozen characters since CoH went free to play, and they overhauled the starting level content - introducing all the new low level content, and the DFB instance.  There is an interesting low level story arc from an NPC named Twinshot, that serves a great double role of giving you an interesting story in which you join a small supergroup of NPC's, and teaches you about many of the game's mechanics.  But with every character I'd created, I'd always run the DFB run a few times, and so always outleveled that story-arc.  And in CoH, once you out level a story-arc, that contact will no longer give it to you - you have to go to a special zone in which you are allowed to repeat old story arcs.

So Saturday I decided I wanted to actually see all of that story arc, and so I created.. yes.. yet another character.  I stayed strictly away from DFB, turning down numerous group requests. Twinshot's story arc is given in three segments, and you can start each segment at levels 5, 10, and 15, respectively.  I did the first segment, and found that I was about level 8 when I finished.  I wanted to do the next segment, but I couldn't start until I was level 10!  What do do?  Run around doing quests until I got to level 10 some 2 to 3 hours later?  Nah.  Just one run of DFB.  Boom, 30 minutes later, I'm level 11.  Do the next part of the story arc, and I'm level 12 when I finish.  Again, what to do?  Well I could have run another DFB run, but instead I saw a Positron task force was starting up, so I joined that.  Boom! Forty-five minutes later, I'm level 16.  Finish the story arc!

So, in the end, if you know how to work the system, you can solo when you want, and group when you want (or need to), and ultimately, isn't that really all any of us want out of an MMO?  But I find it odd, I guess, that you have to be someone like me - someone whom has to set out to delibirately do the story - to experience that content at all.  If you take the path of least resistance, all of that content is completely skipped.

And for me at least, it just seems like Twinshot deserves better!