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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

CoH/V: Can You Teach an Old MMOG New Tricks (or Even Fix Their Bad Ones)?

Posted by UnSub Sunday November 16 2008 at 11:17PM
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Issue 13 (named "Power and Responsibility") for City of Heroes / Villains is on its way and will probably go live in the next two weeks. It's an interesting issue for a number of reasons - some of the new content is interesting, like Day Jobs - but mostly because I13 tries to fix a number of systems within CoH/V that weren't working particularly well - the Epic Power Pools (for both sides) and PvP.

After a ton of data mining, a new dev revealed the plans behind fixing up the Epic Power Pools powers by removing those powers few people took and replacing them with new powers that were seen as being more useful. Overpowered EPPs were nerfed (and there were some must have EPPs because they were so good, so this move was hardly unreasonable). Of course, outrage ensued, people hated having powers taken away from them or having their powers nerfed, DOOOOOOOM abounded and the devs have gone back a little bit and left in the powers that already existed in the EPPs, so that there are more options in the EPPs at I13. I haven't kept track of the nerfs, but it is unlikely that there will be too many roll backs of them.

Given that the EPPs on both sides had their under- and over-performing stars, they did need attention. Complaints about them have existed pretty much since launch. However it was interesting to see that every niche, every under-used EPP had its defenders willing to crash the boards and demand that the changes not occur because they might impact on a very small proportion of the player base even though they could benefit a much larger group.

Which, conveniently, leads us to the PvP changes. PvP in CoH has been a long running joke - the standard reply to pretty much any comment about PvP outside of the PvP forums is "lol PvP". Some Archetypes are relentlessly better in CoH/V PvP than others and the most common experiences players have on entering PvP zones is getting two-shotted by a Stalker (stealth class with massive burst damage, especially at lower levels) or getting steamrolled by a team on the other side. One of the appeals of CoH/V's PvP is its speed - travel powers make it incredibly easy to zip in and fire an attack (from range, preferably) before the target even knows you are there, or even zip off if it looks like the fight is lost. Another issue was that status effects such as stun or immobilise were binary - they were either on or they had no effect - so it was possible for some characters to avoid any lock down despite having numerous effects applied, while other characters would be locked down in seconds and have no way to respond.

I13 contains a whole raft of changes to PvP down to changing the very basics of how CoH/V combat and powers work. Status effects (even healing) are now subject to diminishing returns. Protection against negative status effects have been increased across the board. Travel power suppression has been increased, although a number of things have been implemented to try to keep characters moving at speed. And so on - the short of it is that PvP in CoH/V is an entirely separate system to PvE.

I13 certainly has been successful in starting up discussions...

I13 certainly has been successful in starting up discussions...

As would be expected, PvP players exploded at the news of these changes. Long arguments going back into closed beta have taken up a lot of Castle's (the Powers Guy, aka Floyd Grubb) time. Community manager Lighthouse (Alex von Minden) made the fairly common sense statement that the dev team had expected that "the current PvP community wasn't likely to react well to the changes as they wern't [sic] who we were making changes for" and got raked over the internal and external coals for it. (Some believe that it was this comment that led to LH announcing his resignation a week later - if he was fired, it was unusual for him to be given a farewell post; if he was resigning, he wouldn't have been allowed to give just a week's notice without a lot of internal agreement; most likely he was already going and, in the panic of trying to tie up all the loose ends he posted something that he normally wouldn't have). However, it is disingenuous to believe that the devs didn't think they would probably lose the majority of their existing dedicated PvP players due to the changes. The changes are just too big to keep them if they currently like the state of CoH/V PvP.

So, why change these systems at all? Simply because they aren't working to attract enough players to keep them viable. CoH/V wants to build up its PvP side - I'm sure NCsoft is strongly encouraging that they go and develop that aspect of the title - but it can't because PvP existed in a ghetto within CoH/V. It wouldn't be worth spending the time developing specialist PvP content when the vast majority of players wouldn't touch it. As for EPPs, players have been wanting more balance between hero and villains in this area for a long time. Both systems weren't working correctly and were only catering to a niche.

However, the reality is that every change costs players, especially at CoH/V's stage of life. It is being done at the right time - if you want another superhero MMO title to play, you'll have to wait at least a few months -  but I wonder that even if the changes made CoH/V's PvP the best of any MMO and made the EPPs both incredibly well balanced if it would attract enough new players to counter-act any player loss. People play CoH/V predominantly as PvE game, with PvP being a very optional sideline. On top of this, the PvP changes make the gameplay even further away from standard CoH/V gameplay, so you'll have to learn how to play PvP in a completely different fashion to how PvE operates. When you cross that line, your powers no longer work the same way, which means that one large barrier to engaging in PvP (i.e. fast travel powers, fights over before you know it) is replaced by another one.

In many ways I think the devs of CoH/V are trapped - they want to take the game in dramatic new directions (Castle saying that CoH/V has all the complexity of tic tac toe is a pretty dramatic kiss-off to the title he works on) but the player base wants more of what they already have, only better. The devs are more likely to grow the player base by delivering high quality more-of-the-same - what is the Architect system other than a build-your-own PvE construction kit? - rather than trying to fix mistakes that have been around for nearly 5 years. Adding new powers to EPPs rather than taking them away would have also seemed like the logical path to take (and the devs eventually got there), while doing much to PvP other than recognising it is a self-sustaining niche is probably a waste of resources that isn't going to make people happy (either PvPers or PvEers or those who straddle the points in between).

Can you teach an old MMOG new tricks, or even just fix their bad tricks with new ones? Not without upsetting all the players who like the bad tricks and opening the door to the competition who already exceed you in those areas. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but there aren't too many success stories (in fact, I can think of none) especially where direct competition for the MMO exists.

 

As a side note - I think the PvP changes are how Castle would have pretty much all combat powers function if he could go back in time and start from scratch. Diminishing returns, rather than additive benefits, would probably reduce the gap between min/maxed characters and more casual builds. However, a change that dramatic would probably only be exceeded by Star Wars Galaxies New Game Experience in terms of player outrage and unsubscription behaviour so would be extremely unlikely to ever happen. (That said, diminishing returns might be appearing on debuffs in new content, so that door is slightly open...)

Rumour: Deadlands MMO in development at Superstition Studios

Posted by UnSub Tuesday November 4 2008 at 11:58PM
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While not exactly a super-secret of the MMO industry, rumours have circled around about a Deadlands MMO for a while now. This project has really been under the radar while other more widely known secret MMO projects have been getting the spotlight, probably because so little is known about Deadlands. However, a lot of information exists that would strongly indicate that this project exists and will probably be announced in the near-ish future. Here's the relevant info:

  • In November 2006 Shane Hensley, then lead / senior writer on City of Villains (and maybe City of Heroes too) left Cryptic Studios to work "on a project VERY near and dear to his heart" that was MMO related. Hensley also is the founder and president of Great White Games / Pinnacle Entertainment Group and developed a number of pen-and-paper RPGs including Deadlands.
  • In his excitement on leaving Cryptic to start down this path, Hensley confirmed that he was going off to work on a Deadlands MMO. The context in that post is ambiguous because the original linking post has been scrubbed, but the other post made it clear that a Deadlands MMO was on the way. It seemed like a press release was due any day to formally announce DeadlandsO (hmm, DeadO? ;-)...
  • ... and then silence for almost two years. There doesn't appear to be a clear picture at this point regarding what happened during this time. The best explanation to the delays appears to be Hensley's comment that, "I've since learned not to talk about the project for fear of jinxing it, but suffice to say I'm in the desert for a reason..."
  • However, recent news shows signs of the Deadlands MMO revival. Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment (CME) - currently working on the Stargate Worlds MMO - started up a subsidiary in April 2008 named FireSky to self-publish their titles and to also publish work from other CME-related studios. One of these studios is Superstition Studios (founded in August 2007), where Hensley was appointed as head developer in May 2008.
  • The information released about Superstition Studios is vague, but talks about it's secret title as being "the Lost Dutchman's Mine [...] only without being lost", that it is an "award winning-IP" based on "an established gaming property", that it will "knock your boots off". All of that fits DeadO.
  • When asked about it, Hensley has confirmed that Superstition is "working [...] on one of my IPs". Deadlands is probably the best known IP that Hensley has, although PEG has a number of others (including extentions / variations of Deadlands in different times / genres).
  • Even Superstition's logo would seem to clearly point to a Deadlands MMO:

The logo of Superstition Studios: A dark moon and desert-style cliffs fits a dark western MMO well

So, why is Deadlands interesting as a MMO property? First off, Deadlands is a 'dark western' theme, with gunslingers fighting it out against the undead and shamans going up against alchemists to see who comes off best. It is something different, something darker, than is seen in a lot of MMOs today. Secondly, given Hensley's background, I don't think he is looking to make WoW in leather chaps. Although I'm sure he would love the subscriber numbers of WoW, it is unlikely he'd want to develop yet another diku / level grind MMO given the differences he created for the pen-and-paper game mechanic. Finally, given that Hensley owns the Deadlands IP and is leading up the development team on the MMO, you could be assured of a faithful adaption, or as faithful as is possible in converting pen-and-paper RPGs into MMOs.

However, there is a risk here in that CME is an independent studio who is in the process of launching its first major title in Stargate Worlds. The recent launch history of new MMOs isn't exactly littered with incredible successes from established MMO studios, so for a new and unproven MMO studio to try to launch a new title is always going to be a challenge. Whether or not there will be a Deadlands MMO heavily depends on the performance of Stargate Worlds. A successful Stargate Worlds launch that attracts a solid audience would smooth the path for DeadO; a rocky and ignoble start for Stargate Worlds could easily see DeadO pushed back or even put on the dreaded 'hiatus'.

Although I've got very little interest in Stargate Worlds, I certainly hope it does well because I would love to see DeadO arrive on the MMO scene. DeadO would bring a bit more weird to the current MMO genre - something that it sorely needs.

As for the announcement - looking at the information available from the Penny Arcade Expo, it doesn't look like CME is going, so I don't think we'd hear about DeadO until 2009. However, when Stargate Worlds is looking in the bag and about to launch, I wouldn't be surprised if DeadO is announced as the follow-up title to keep people interested in what CME / FireSky is up to. So I expect to see the DeadO announcement early 2009.

Here's hoping, anyway!