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No Room For Heroes

When the alt-a-holicism reaches such a fevered pitch that I can't even get a character to level 5 without feeling bored out of my skull, it is then that I know my City of Heroes burnout has reached fruition, and it's time for a break. Account canceled.

I canceled because I had enough of the core game for now, but there was another problem: I had nothing to look forward to. I reached level 50 before, found it was pretty much the drill as level 1, and become discouraged. I level up a baby hero to the pantheon of Gods and what do I get? Early retirement. Was this some kind of terrible joke? Where was my heroic destiny? Where was the meaning?

"It's a game," you might say, "games aren't supposed to have meaning."
Well, good art has meaning, doesn't it? Games and good literature really should be able to generate the same kind of meaning. Without, it's a little wonder the participant is left feeling unsatisfied.

So, where is this artistic message in City of Heroes? I would say it's in assuming the virtual persona. You team up with fellow superheroes while working with the local legends, defeat criminals, perform rescues, and make a genuine difference in this virtual world. This experience, that of the hero making a difference, is the message a MMORPG about being a super hero should exude.

If this is the artistic message, then City of Heroes is lacking in execution in one important way: Nothing really changes. No matter how many times you defeat the bad guys, they'll just respawn a few minutes later. No matter how many time you rescue someone, they'll remain in peril. At times, the streets are lined with purse snatchers, and it's not for lack of effort on behalf of the players.

Rikti Invasion in Atlas Park.

It's not that the developers have no dynamic content at all. For example:
  • Issue 7 introduced Recluse's Victory. This is a Player versus Player zone with capturable pillboxes that players can fight over. The entire zone changes appearance depending on if the villains or heroes have the majority control over it.
  • City of Villains' release introduced Mayhem Missions which would come to City of Heroes in the form of Safeguard Missions Issue 8. These were missions which took place on copies of sections in Paragon City and had actual minor terrain destruction such as cars and parking meters.
  • Issue 10 introduced Rikti invasions, where the force walls come down and a zone is bombarded by attacking Rikti dropships and troops.
Yet, as excellent as these are, none of these events really produce a lasting change on the world. Recluse's Victory comes closest, being an actual public accessible zone that changes appearance, but Player Versus Player has never really caught on in the game with the majority of the players and so they shy away. The Hellion Arsons in Steel Canyon are perhaps the closest to the ideal that can be found anywhere. Many players (and perhaps developers) are afraid of what I want because it's easy to see how it could be potentially disastrous:
  • I want a series of ongoing disasters every bit as disruptive as Rikti Invasion sequences.
  • I want there to be lasting consequences for the city depending on the players' ability to cope with this series of world-shaking events.
And so on. In other words, I want to give the game world enough life that it even has license to disrupt and inconvenience players. For many, that's totally unacceptable. However, this is where the line is drawn: change and consequence may be inconvenient, but without, there can be no real meaning of player's actions in a virtual world. I would say that the true challenge is in stimulating meaning in this manner while still producing an enjoyable game to play. Many would say that bringing the two together is a totally impossible challenge and you shouldn't even try. I disagree - I think it's just a matter of being willing to see such a project through to true completion. I guess time will tell what will happen to City of Heroes. The developers seem pretty on-the-ball and may indeed have some plans like this coming. However, most MMORPGs have been stuck in this rut for time immortal, convinced that there really is no compromise between a high level of dynamic content and enjoyable gameplay, and are making no sign of budging. There have been exceptions, such as EvE Online and 10Six, but none could really be classified as an intimate RPG experience. The best odds an individual has to seeing this concept to fruition is to shoulder the burden in order to realize it themselves. Dwarf Fortress, anyone?

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