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Matt Miller: Alt-ism

Column By Matthew Miller on August 13, 2013

City of Heroes had a “unique” problem. A confluence of events led the game to be far more friendly to a certain playstyle than what was deemed the “typical” one (or should I say, became the typical one after World of Warcraft’s success.) That problem was that the game was very alt-friendly leading a lot of players to create tons of alternate characters to the point where for a lot of players the concept of a “main” didn’t exist. Life was simply “which of these twleve/twenty-four/fourty-eight characters am I going to play for this session?”

How did this happen? Well, like I said, it was a confluence of events and design decisions that made this occur. First and foremost I would say that the Character Creator is a big culprit. With it’s billions and billions of possible character costume combinations, everyone could make a “unique” character. One of the biggest things CoH brought to the genre was character creation and being able to establish your character’s look before you even entered the game. Next would be the extremely wide variety of power sets we made available to new characters; even with only five archetypes (classes) there were dozens and dozens of combinations of primary and secondary power sets, and then throwing in Pool powers into the mix, the combinations got even deeper.

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Then we launched with an unheard of 8 character slots. With City of Villains launch, this actually increased to 12 (if you owned both games). There always seemed to be an empty slot to try out a new combination of powers or to see what a new costume idea might look like, at least at first. Finally there was the biggest flaw of City of Heroes (in my opinion) that contributed to Altoholism; the lack of a real end-game meant there became a time where it was counter-productive to log in your “main” if you wanted to get some superhero gaming done that evening.

Lack of endgame contributed to the problem, but aforementioned reasons are the true culprits in the rampant alting that happened in City of Heroes. It got to a point where our players began to beg us for more character slots, something we were happy to sell them (once we could figure out how the UI would work for it, that is). But this also presented a problem: Altoholism was so bad that any attempt to add an endgame to City of Heroes was going to be met with great resistance. Heck, we got resistance ANY time we EVER added ANYTHING additional you could do on your character. If we added a badge for completing a holiday event, the forums would fill with complaints of “I have to get that on all X of my characters before the event is over!” You can imagine the dread I felt when it finally came time with Going Rogue to add a good and proper end-game of things to do with your max-level character.

These are lessons I think other MMOs have learned and are subtly acting upon in a way you might not notice. Does your favorite game have a seeming lack of customization options or character slots? You are probably being subliminally urged to create a single character to play through the game with, freeing those developers from the problem of players having too many alts. RIFT took this one step further, your single character could have and earn additional specializations so they could fill any role needed in groups. In RIFT I never saw even the NEED to roll up an alt. Everything I did in the game made my character better, and my character could fill any role, so why make a new character? Or at the very least, why have multiple characters?

One thing that alts do let us accomplish is having a variety of level characters to play with. This means that playing with friends becomes a lot easier, because you have options of what characters to pull out and team with. (Of course, City of Heroes had sidekicking which made that point moot. You could play any character with any other one and the levels were scaled appropriately.)

Sometimes we make Alts because we are bored. That is a terrible reason because our focus gets split among two characters. Even if you go back to your main, that level 10 rogue will always be looking at you from the character select screen, reminding you of that Saturday night where all your friends were busy and you had nothing better to do than roll an alt. If you decide to level that character to max, you should have a reason in mind. Good reasons are things like “My raid needs a tank or healer,” “I have a lot more fun in PVP with this guy than my main,” “This play style fits me better, and will be my new main character.” Bad reasons are things like “I want to see how this top-tier talent actually works,” “This class is what everyone is playing, so I might as well too,” and of course, “I’m bored but still want to play, perhaps a new class will shake off the doledrums.”

Alting is fun for a lot of people, and for those who don’t care at all about endgame content, alting can BE the game for those people. To that I applaud you. Many of you are what kept City of Heroes alive as long as it was. I’d love to hear your rationales and reasons behind creating alts in other MMOs. Do you get them to the level cap? What then? Do they become a burden when events or new content occurs? How do you remedy that?

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner. He also co-hosts the Danger Huddle podcast on general gaming, available on iTunes.


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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