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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

CoX: The Dead Zone (or Please Wake Me When I'm 21)

Posted by cmagoun Friday August 29 2008 at 8:52AM
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In CoX, a new, level 1 hero gets 2 powers, 1 from his primary powerset and 1 from his secondary set. After that, for your first 32 levels, you get a shiny new power every other level. On odd levels you get enhancement slots that are placed into powers to make them better. This advancement system, while not terribly interesting, is a pretty good conversion of the standard EQ/WoW style progression to the superhero genre.

But this is a blog, so most certainly, I am going to complain about something, right? Well ok, if you insist, I do have a tiny issue with CoX's character progression system.

See, if you are ever designing an MMO, I want you to keep in mind that your character progression system should have one major goal -- keep me interested in my character. As I am leveling up with whatever grossly repetetive grinding/questing system you devise, I occassionally transcend my miserable "kill 1000 radioactive ferrets and bring their eyeteeth to that signpost that looks just like a guy for 13 coppers and a potion of Sweet Release" existance because every so often, I will level... and hopefully be granted some new buttons upon which to click, after which those freakin' ferrets are toast... faster.

Rampant cynicism aside, keeping players interested as they level up is key. Give them new powers... and not just more powerful versions of their old attacks. Give players different powers to play with and hopefully, the ability to deal with new game situations. CoX generally does this quite well. As you level up, you get more interesting abilities and grow more powerful in relation to the game environment.

But then... you hit level 12 and enter... The Dead Zone.

To explain for those uninitiated in the vagaries of CoX, at level 14 you can take your travel power -- superspeed, flight, superleap or teleport. These travel powers are in general power pools, which are groups of 4 powers. Since the travel power is the second tier power in the pool, you have to take one of two possible prerequisites. For instance, to take Flight at 14, you have to take either Hover or Air Superiority sometime before. To take Superleap, you need to already have either Hasten, or some other power no one ever takes.

If you are like many players, and push taking your prerequisite power off until level 12, you essentially have two consecutive power picks that are non-choices -- if you want to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you are taking Combat Jumping (leap tall dumpsters in a single bound) at level 12 and Superleap at 14. Not too bad... and Superleap is worth the useful, but dull, prereq Combat Jumping.

However, there is another desirable pool power called Stamina. Stamina increases the rate at which your Endurance (equivalent to mana in a fantasy game) recovers. Since almost all powers require endurance, Stamina allows you to fight longer and move from fight to fight quicker and with less downtime. It is a very desirable power, but it is also the third tier power in its pool, meaning you can't take it until level 20 and you must have TWO other powers in that pool.

So, you just got done taking sort of mandatory powers at levels 12 and 14. Now for levels 16 and 18 you have to choose between the oh so exciting Swift (run a little faster), Hurdle (jump a little higher) and Health (heal a little faster) so you can get to Stamina by 20. This means that between levels 12 and 20, most of your power picks are almost entirely predetermined and horribly dull. Add to that the fact that your leveling is slowing a bit at this point and you have an 8 level dead zone where the character progression system fails.

Before this dead zone is fast and furious as you get used to your shiny new costume and powers. After, if you push through the dead zone, you get to see your character mature into a powerhouse which is a lot of fun...

But I have a lot of dusty level 15s and 16s on my account. The CoX team has always said they do a lot of "datamining" which guides their hand in developing the game. I wonder if anyone has done a study on what levels of characters are most often deleted. I'll bet you the majority of deleted characters fall somewhere in that 12-21 range.

As new games are created, I hope designers keep CoX's Dead Zone in mind.