Mission Architect & unwilling villains

2009-04-08 23:19:56

“The Bridge to Your Imagination” says the in-game sign on the Mission Architect building. More important, it is a bridge to a thousand other imaginations as well.

As the City of Heroes servers come to life this evening after hours of downtime, something new emerges into online gaming that has never existed before. Something that catapults the five year old superhero game far ahead of its competition, at least in one particular aspect of the game. Over the next hours and days, thousands of missions (quests) will be brought over from the test servers, and user-generated content will dwarf the original contents of the game several times over.

With “Mission Architect”, NCSoft has given the users nearly the same tools their own designers have, and some that were never before used, to create new story arcs, new opponents and allies, whole new organizations and even species!
Yes, this is the game I was beta-testing a few weeks ago. Unfortunately my creativity is not up to such a standard in this area, so I merely tested other players’ creations. But even so, there were already thousands of missions by the time the beta ended. It is a safe bet that new are being made even as I write this.

This is the unstoppable rise of user-created content, as I have written about quite a few times before. I noted it with Animal Crossing for the Nintendo DS, everyone noted it with Spore. In offline games, Donald Tipton’s quest tools for Daggerfall in the previous century were the beginning, to be followed by official tools for the next two Elder Scrolls games, leading to an ongoing bloom of user-made locations, quests and even a project to recreate the whole fantasy world of Tamriel in lifelike detail, Tamriel Rebuilt. Giving the players the same tools as the developers has greatly expanded the popularity and extended the lifetime of these games, and I expect the same to happen with City of Heroes and its unfortunate evil twin, City of Villains.

Actually, City of Villains (which now comes free with every City of Heroes and the other way around) is my main reason for looking forward to this expansion. (In so far as I do at all – my recent invasion into the territories of brainwave entrainment has left me with both less time and less interest for gaming, so that mainly The Sims 2 has remained and little else. (Civilization III went back in hibernation after four days or so, due to the wrist pain it causes me. I knew it was something.))

I am not much of a villain, for which I am grateful. Of course, this stems in no small part from the American way of thinking, in which setting bullies on fire is a Good Thing. In the real world, and most assuredly in Scandinavia, setting fire to even the most intransigent evildoers will get you branded as the villain. What’s up with all that sympathy for the evil? They already get the chicks, which is the most important thing in a man’s life. Being set on fire seems a reasonable counterbalance. A long list of acclaimed medieval theologians also share this view. Anyway! Back to City of Morally Ambiguous Characters.

City of Villains was released as an attempt to add Player vs. Player combat to the game. An earlier attempt, the Arena, had failed thoroughly. Heroes just did not much like fighting heroes, despite this being a mainstay of Marvel Comics at the time. But PvP was considered the sine qua non of MMORPGs, after the explosive success of World of Warcraft, which came just as City of Heroes was at its peak. WoW, as any half-awake gamer knows, quickly dwarfed not only City of Heroes but every other massive online game in the western world. (Things are a bit different in Asia.) And the fight between the “good” Alliance and the “evil” Horde was the core of this new success game. So, we got City of Villains. It did indeed attract a decent number of players. The PvP was however never to become an important part of the games. The players preferred to stay on their own side, and the few PvP zones were thinly populated at best, sometimes empty, and often used only for each side to perform their own quests as furtively as possible.

In modern superhero comics, it is more the rule than the exception that villains have a heroic streak and the other way around. Seemingly random events and outright misunderstandings may decide which side of the law a character ends up on, and some of the most interesting characters change sides either permanently or for a while. Unfortunately, there is no way to do this in City of Villains. However, there did eventually emerge cooperative zones in which Heroes and Villains may band together against a greater threat. There are only two major zones of this sort, but they are quite popular.

With Mission Architect, ALL player-made content is equally available to heroes and villains.

I trust you see my interest in it now. In particular, the Mastermind class has a unique play style different from any of the hero classes. While some controllers and defenders get “pets” a ways into their career, these are barely sentient energy forms with limited control and mostly fixed abilities. In contrast, the Mastermind commands robots, zombies or various human underlings from the first few minutes of the game, and many of his powers are strictly related to improving the abilities of these assistants. Over time, they become more and more competent and also increase in number, doing most of the fighting while the Mastermind directs the tactics and supports them in various ways.

Being able to play a uniquely villain-side class while doing exclusively heroic missions would expand the game greatly for me and others like me who have no desire to identify with evil.

That said, for most players the appeal will lie in playing an endless stream of new, unique missions, each one different from all the others, and some of them quite unlike anything the player has seen before. It is possible to play all the way from level 1 to 50 solely on Mission Architect content, according to the developers. I can certainly see the appeal in doing just that: Not only would new missions become available faster than you could play through them, but it would also save a lot on travel time. In the game itself, there are different zones with different difficulty level. In Mission Architect, you can access all the missions through the same portal, no matter what the level. It is all right there at your fingertips. Online gaming has never been better than this.

Now if I had time to actually play it…

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