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What We Learned: CoV

Editorials By Nathan Knaack on April 17, 2006

What We Learned: CoV
What Did We Learn: City of Villains?

From time to time, Outside the Box is going to focus on one MMORPG, but this isn’t what you’d call a typical review. Instead of trying to quantify the entire product on a 1-10 scale or giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down, we’re going to dig into the nuts and bolts of the game, dissecting each of the design features to find out what was done right, what didn’t matter, and what was done wrong. Seeing as every incarnation of the “next big” MMORPG is adding to the gene pool of design features, let’s call this segment “What did we learn?”

I’ve spent the last week doing what a lot of subscribers have been doing - playing City of Villains. Having spent a brief amount of time on the first title in this series, City of Heroes, I was already familiar with much of what I saw happening in the sequel/expansion. For starters, they kept the exact same art style and layout. Actually, if you take any of the imagery from CoH, throw it into Photoshop, then swap out all of the blue for red, you get CoV art. Delicate, subtle changes like that walk the fine line between brilliant correlations to the original product and lazy, half-assed shortcuts in production values. The jury is still out on whether or not CoV has properly added to, yet still distinguished itself from CoH.

For anyone that’s spent some time in an MMORPG studio, especially as a designer, there’s one annoying little tidbit of industry buzz-philosophy that tends to stick under your fingernails. People who are familiar with the industry, but not at all familiar with game design, like to throw around the “law” that goes something like this: “A player must be able to go from loading the game to having fun inside of five minutes.” To these people, World of Warcraft and Planetside are shining examples of a speedy transition from the welcome screen to the first battle, but Eve Online and City of Heroes/Villains are miserable failures, simply because it takes fifteen minutes just to build a character.

Something they forget about, having not grown up on RPGs like some of us did, is that quite often players find character creation to be one of the best parts of an RPG. As such, I’m still having fun five minutes into the game, but I’ve only gotten far enough into CoV where I’m deciding what size skulls to put on my villain’s shoulder pads. Do some people want to just click “next” half a dozen times so they can get into their first battle faster? Sure. But they’d miss one of the best features of CoV in doing so.

And that’s not just visual customization, either. City of Villains has just as robust of a statistical character creation system as CoH did, with the ability to select from a wide array of powers, where they come from, and what they can do. One of the most important factors in what makes a successful MMORPG is immersion and how connected players feel to their characters. Character customization is something CoV has in spades. In a market filled with fantasy clones, where the extent of character customization is picking a race, class, and then one of four head models, it’s refreshing to be able to modify every little piece of my character, from height and weight to choosing from a plethora of features that includes not one, not two, but three different Mohawk hairstyles. I’d put CoV’s character creation up there with the original Star Wars Galaxies and Eve Online.

Upon entering the second area of CoV (the first area, a “prison break” scene, isn’t terribly impressive), I was immediately struck by the level of detail. Trash is piled up, NPCs are wandering around and fighting with each other, birds flock near the shore, etc. Just as I was starting to grudgingly accept the fact that most MMORPGs assume that slapping a stone well in the center of a medieval village qualifies as “ambiance,” here comes CoV with NPCs that shout at you as you run by, cars that roll down the freeway, and numerous other things going on that really makes you feel like you’re in a buzzing metropolis. Take notes, people; CoV has immersion.

I haven’t yet reached the point in the game yet where I could own, schedule, or participate in a base raid, but just reading the help files makes it sound like it’s a blast. Basically, you can set up a “super group,” which is CoV-speak for “guild,” you’re not just a gang that shares a nametag, you get to setup a base of operations. In turn, that base isn’t just a social gathering place, it’s a fortress that can be defended from intruders in scheduled base raids. While I think this is a noble attempt to capture the feel of the superhero genre, I’ve got a hunch that it’s going to end up just like most other arena-style PvP: Just a big lag-fest battle where 99% of the combatants have figured out the single best damage-per-second character build, with little or no reason, rewards, or consequences. Highest level and lowest ping wins. Then again, I have yet to fight in one of these base raids, but everything I’ve learned from other MMORPGs suggests that type of situation.

City of Villains isn’t without flaws, and the major concern here is redundancy. After a week of playing, I have yet to encounter a mission that isn’t 100% killing things. Actually, most of the instances I’ve entered to pursue those missions don’t even have choices of which direction you can travel; it’s just one long tunnel filled with goons and a boss at the end. I’m starting to fear that this “quick, easy, meaningless” design philosophy is going to infect more and more of the MMORPG industry. Am I the only person in this world that has a credit card but not ADD (attention deficit disorder)? You’d think that was the case judging by the substance of the MMORPGs out there right now.

Something I find hilarious is that the useless NPCs wandering the streets have more personality than all of the main character NPCs. All of the “contacts” I’ve made in the game, the NPCs that hand out missions and generally attempt to perpetuate the storyline, just stand there in one place all day and night waiting for you to speak to them. They have canned phrases, static missions, and unchanging rewards to hand out. On the other hand, your average street person might be sitting against a building with a bottle of booze and ask you for spare change as you run (or fly) past him. NPC cops have criminals up against the wall during an arrest, mobsters battle each other in alleys, and nameless goons mutter things about your character as you walk by, like “I heard Super Nate took out a whole lair of those snake things…” I find myself slowing down as I pass mobs just to hear what they’re talking about, yet hurriedly clicking through a major NPC’s dialogue just to get to whatever his next static quest will force me to repeat. Does that strike anyone else as being a little odd? What kind of game is CoV when the homeless people outside the building are more interesting than the boss handing out missions inside?

I understand that CoV really might not be the kind of game that would benefit much from an economy, but the lack of one has really made an impact on it. Being modeled after comic books, and having never seen Superman open up his backpack or barter for goods, CoV’s only real economy has to do with enhancements (things you “slot” into powers to upgrade them in different ways) and inspirations (temporary “buffs” for various statistics), but I think there’s room for so much more. You might not think of Superman as the kind of guy who would worry about how much money he had in the bank or where he’s going to buy his next cape, but there are plenty of superheroes who would definitely benefit from some form of monetary economy. For example, a guy like Batman (that’s three references in three articles, if anyone’s still counting), with “powers” largely based on what he’s got in his inventory, might love to see an in-game economy involving those items. I’d love to see henchmen that could be hired, equipped, and sent on missions for varying amounts of cash, too. How about a faction of assassins that could be hired to take out a hero (or even another villain)? What about Lex Luthor/Kingpin villains that have no real super powers, as their villainy is largely based on evil deeds related to economics, politics, real estate, funding other villains, paying for doomsday weapons, etc?

Okay, so what did we learn from City of Villains? Perhaps the greatest lesson CoV has to offer the rest of the industry is how to properly do immersion, from the detail of the physical game world and the personality quirks of even the lowliest mob to the amazing potential of the character creation system. As I sit here at work, I’m thinking more about the powers and appearance of my next character, not the future missions or alterations of my current character. Now THAT is a good character creation system. We also learned that, no matter how odd it might seem to the genre, an MMORPG that hopes to keep customers for more than a few months has got to have some kind of economy. The important part isn’t that money is traded for goods, but rather that there’s something to do besides combat. It’s important to have meaningful, long-term activities for people who might not want to spend 100% of their time watching auto attacks and occasionally hitting special power buttons.

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