As I mentioned in the "Mission Architect System Overview" article, I recently had the chance to get my hands on City of Heroes' foray into the world of user generated content, the soon-to-be-released Architect System that allows players to create missions. As a result of getting to spend a day with the new system, I thought I'd share my opinions of it and offer you folks a review:
First, I simply can not say enough good things about the idea of MMOs integrating user-generated content into their games. In a world where the popularity of services like YouTube, Facebook and Myspace (services based almost entirely on user generated content), is hitting an all-time high and changing the way that we communicate and socialize, it was only a matter of time before MMOs found a way to put that user desire to build and contribute to good use.
That being said, it's important to note that it isn't enough to simply slap an interface together and open it up to the players. In order for user generated content to work, the system has to be well thought-out and put together. It has to integrate well with the game's other systems and it should add to the fun of a game, not detract from it.
So, where does the Architect System fit in to all of this? How well does it stack up for players? What about the Architects who are supposed to build the missions?
For the Player
The idea of allowing players to create missions (more commonly known as quests in the MMO world) for other players is a great one that should have any fan of the genre giddy with anticipation. Not only does it allow us a whole new way to socialize and interact with not only the game, but each other as a community, it also has the potential to create a near-endless stream of fresh and interesting content that we can enjoy.
Architect's Mission Rating system (allowing players to rank the user generated missions), and Dev Choice system (where developers can flag certain missions that they feel are well put together and enjoyable) allow players to quickly access quality content without having to be bothered with missions that others have played and not enjoyed. Mix that in with a fairly comprehensive mission search tool, and you've got a feature that can be enjoyed with a minimum of frustration.
The Architect System is also completely voluntary, meaning that if you're the type of player who likes his content dev created and dev created only, you don't have to worry; your gameplay won't be affected in the slightest. In order to access the user-made missions, you have to take your in-game avatar into one of the many buildings scattered throughout the playable world owned by Architect Entertainment. There you can interact with the new system.
Now, personally, I see good and bad to the way that the Architect System is presented to the player. Good in the fact that, as was mentioned above, the new system isn't forced on anyone. There will, of course, be players who just aren't interested in this new feature and why should it be forced upon them? Bad in the fact that the system, which can only be accessed from specific areas and can be easily missed and passed by risks becoming an unpopular sideshow feature, forgotten by or even unknown to, most of the player base.
I'm not sure that there's a right or a wrong here, but in the interest of using a review to produce some constructive criticism and not wanting to criticize without offering some kind of solution of my own that can be equally as picked apart by the masses I would suggest this to the devs to let me have my cake and eat it too:
Why not, since you already have a system in place where developers highlight exceptionally well-made user-generated missions, scatter these missions out randomly to some of the pre-existing contacts in-game?
For the Architect
Now, this is where the real meat of the Architect System is. While the missions are ultimately meant to appeal to people playing the game, the real make or break for the feature is in the way that it handles on the creation end.
Now, I should begin this part of the review by saying that I've seen and used a number of developer tools meant to allow quest designers to do their jobs and that in my limited experience as an MMO developer, this was my job as well. The tools that I have seen have varied from cumbersome to sleek, from useful to broken, from complex to simple, and I was honestly impressed by not only the overall system itself, but also by the way that it is presented.
I think that from the get-go, the developers of this system faced a number of challenges that had to be met in order for the end product to resonate with the players:
1) It would have to be a part of the game and not an external program
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with external programs per-se, but I've played with level editors and the like in the past and it's just always been a pain to have to migrate files that are created elsewhere into the game. I'm not saying it can't be done, but that kind of thing always provides a barrier to entry for people who might enjoy making missions but are intimidated by or just don't want to mess with any technical stuff.
By integrating the creation system into the game world through Architect Entertainment, this barrier to entry at least is eliminated, allowing the maximum number of people possible easy access to the tools.
2) It would have to be well laid out and accessible
Ease of access is another hurdle that the Mission Architect developers had to overcome in order to provide a service that players are going to enjoy. For the average player to enjoy making their own missions, the tools provided have to be easy to use and easy to navigate. If potential mission creators can't figure out where they go to give their NPC dialogue, or where to go to tweak that custom bad guy they created, they're going to get really frustrated, very quickly.
I found the interface that is used for Mission Architect to be quite well laid out. The tools guide you from step to step in mission creation beginning by asking you simple questions like what map type you would like to have (warehouse, bank, etc.) and leading into the mission goals, the mobs you'd like to see (either chosen from a pre-existing list or custom-built), special events you would like to see happen and the like. The categories are separated by expandable tabs meaning that you aren't bogged down with screen after screen (there are essentially two, not counting custom content screens). The options that you need are right in front of you.
3) It would have to be easy to understand
No matter how user-friendly a toolset like this is, or how many different options that you supply, it's all for naught if the end users are confused or having a difficult time in understanding all of the elements of the system.
There are a number of ways that a design team could handle this issue. They could supply a full tutorial for the system, they could supply some kind of out-of-game guide like an old-school manual, or they could provide an individual tooltip for every option in the toolset.
While the last option there seems like it would be cumbersome, that's exactly what Architect does. Every option from the most self-explanatory to the more complex, has a tooltip option. Fortunately, during my own time with the toolset, I rarely required the help, though it sure was handy when I was stuck.
4) It would have to troubleshoot itself and / or make it easy for the user to do so.
The problem with making anything to go into a game is that the possibility for annoying errors always exists. It's not anyone's fault, just sometimes you're going to forget to fill in some vital field, or you're going to make a selection that contradicts itself.
Almost all mission or quest editing software comes with something that will alert you to a problem. From my experience this usually comes at the end, when you've already finished the task and are checking for bugs. Architect does it all for you, in real time. As soon as it detects an error that will keep the mission from functioning properly, a notice will appear that not only tells you what the problem is, but that will link you directly to it.
While this might seem like a relatively unimportant feature, it sure beats trying to track the problem down yourself.
5) It would have to provide players with the greatest number of options without becoming too complex.
Building on the foundation of a reputation for customization born out of the game's character creation and costume builder, the City of Heroes development team had some pretty hefty expectations to meet if they were going to roll out a new toy for players to enjoy. The problem is, if you give people too many options, the system can get pretty easily bogged down and confusing.
This particular category is one that could prove sticky, because there are a couple of different ways that you can look at it. I should start by saying that in a lot of ways, the Architect system is simply full of options. There are, for example, somewhere around 1,000 different maps that players can choose from, the character creators provide a huge amount of diversity in NPCs and Mobs. The stories are limited, to use a cliché, only by your imagination...
So, now that we've established that there is a huge amount of customization available in most aspects of the system, let's focus on where specific customization is lacking:
Some players might be disappointed to learn that there is no map editor associated with the program. Created missions are restricted to one of the nearly 1,000 pre-existing maps. A map editor placed in alongside of the current Architect System may have been more of a curse than a blessing anyhow. Such an editor would have left the system open to exploitation (think about the problems everyone causes at least once for hapless Sims that have the misfortune of being at the whims of a map creator) and other similar undesirable elements, not to mention the fact that map building is a hassle and would fly in the face of the system's "as easy or as complex as you like" flow. Still though, because I think that there will be some of the more hardcore folks out there who would want this feature, I'm going to stick it in the cons column.
Another aspect that might disappoint some people is the lack of specific placement of items and NPCs. Instead of asking me to go in and manually place each and every mob or NPC or even quest object in the level, the toolset asks me where, in relative terms, I would like them to be.
Let's say that my mission involves accessing a computer as the end goal. When I make that choice in the editor, I will be asked whether I want the object to appear at the front, in the middle or at the back of the map. Same thing if I have a special boss mob, or an enemy patrol or other special event.
There are a number of reasons for this decision, but the main one would seem to be the fact that traditional City of Heroes missions have always had a random element to them. Each time you play through, the scenario is slightly different. Presumably, the players are being given the same options given to the developers. This keeps the system somewhat randomized.
It would be difficult to argue that this feature isn't an innovative and interesting addition to the five year old game. Overall, I found it to be easy to use, well thought out, and well implemented, pretty much all that you can ask from a major system like this. I have honestly thought for a long time that user created content is the future of MMOs. Where two of the biggest complaints that I hear about MMOs are the fact that there isn't enough content and that people don't feel that their characters contribute enough to a living world, I can't think of a better way to address both concerns than allowing characters to generate their own quests.
Mission Architect is a bold step toward future implementation of features like this in other MMOs, and while there are still some elements missing (full implementation into the game world, fully customizable maps and placeable objects and mobs, and the like), I think that the end product, even with those issues, stays true to the overall spirit of the game.
So, my final recommendation is this: If you've been looking for a reason to re-subscribe to this game, I think that this would be a perfect opportunity. If you haven't played the game before, but you've been looking for something new to try that hasn't been done to death, I would suggest you pick up a copy and if you've ever just wanted to try your hand at making something that entertains your fellow gamers, this is you chance.
In short, if the concept behind Mission Architect appeals to you, it is a well thought-out and implemented system that you really should try.