The Game Archaeologist: City of Villains, enhancement diversification, and Going Rogue

    
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It’s always easy to look back at the making of City of Heroes and its first year with a memory tinted toward the good and away from the bad. Like most MMOs, City of Heroes exuded a mixed bag of quality — and its passionate fans certainly did not hold back on letting Cryptic know what they felt about the current state of the game and the choices that the studio made.

Every MMO, as part of its rite of passage, seems like it has to trigger at least one major controversy that sparks major nerdrage and gives fans a reason to grouse about it years later. It’s your New Game Enhancements, your Trammels, your Monoclegates, and your Real IDs.

So naturally City of Heroes was due for at least one of these bad calls to come along, and that it surely did. A little over a year after the game launched, a decision was made to course-correct what the devs saw as a problem and the players saw as an essential part of their happy fun time. You know where I’m going with this. Oh yes, you do.

Enhancement diversification

One point of contention between the players and the developers in those early years is that the community felt that Cryptic continued to nerf things that everyone loved or wanted to get better, such as Issue 5’s Global Defense Reduction. This wasn’t just in their minds; Cryptic (read: Jack Emmert) was fanatical about character balance and making sure that everyone was progressing more or less the same through the game. This led to a lot of nerfs until 2006, when the team downsized by 75% and was forced to focus on improving its current content and pleasing its existing playerbase.

Before City of Heroes came to that, however, it had to go through its darkest hour ever with October 2005’s Issue 6. Coming alongside the launch of City of Villains (see below), Issue 6 introduced a major balance feature that instantly became one of the most despised the game ever saw. It was called “Enhancement Diversification.”

To understand what ED was, you have to have a passing familiarity with how City of Heroes’ gear worked. Instead of sporting different armor pieces with stats attached, superheroes equipped “enhancements” to modify specific powers. Some of these would reduce the cooldown, lower the stamina cost, or increase the damage and intensity (among other things). The problem, in the developers’ eyes, was that players had quickly learned that by stacking the same type of strong enhancements to the same power, they would create “broken” powers that were too strong or imbalanced in some respect.

So with Issue 6, Cryptic introduced diminishing returns under the Enhancement Diversification umbrella. After the third enhancement of a particular type, it was no longer statistically profitable to keep doing the same, so the player would be strongly encouraged to diversify into other enhancement types.

If this was in the game on Day One, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but after a year and a half of operation, players had grown used to customizing their powers the way they wanted. And they did not want this to change.

People really, really loved their perma-hasten and other tweaked abilities. There wasn’t a full-scale riot or anything, but players were quite miffed and unwilling to drop this particular grudge against Cryptic even years later.

Cryptic did admit that ED hurt the game, at least in the short term. “There is one nerf that I did that we lost a couple thousand people on,” Jack Emmert told Gamasutra in 2008. “It was called Enhancement Diversification… and that really did make people mad.”

City of Villains

While superheroes struggled with the changes to their power setups, a whole new group was moving into the neighborhood.

Until Issue 6, City of Heroes focused on, well, heroes. You were on the side of Good and Right, unless you roleplayed against type, and there was nothing to be done about it. Then came October 2005’s City of Villains, and the dark yang to the light yin fell into place.

City of Villains was, in effect, both a standalone MMO (it didn’t require the base City of Heroes game to play) and a de facto expansion. In any case, it finally allowed players to roll up the bad guys, gals, zombies, and robots and unleash a little mayhem and terror on the new zones of the Rogue Isles. The idea wasn’t that you were a homicidal maniac but rather that you were a villain who recently broke out of a high-security jail and was trying to build up a criminal empire for yourself.

The expansion added five new archetypes which were made out of new and recycled powersets. One of the most notable was the Mastermind, a pet master who commanded a rampaging horde of various minions. PvP also took shape, with heroes and villains duking it out in special zones.

Players got to meet and work with the villainous organization of Arachnos and its various signature baddies over the course of their adventures. Issue 6 and City of Villains also contained a graphic engine update to improve the game’s visuals.

Cryptic later reported that while City of Villains was well-received and -reviewed, it only brought in about 60,000 or so new people to the game. In fact, the MMO saw a better return on developer investment through regular updates, which always saw “several thousand people re-up” when they came out.

Going Rogue

In the interest of covering both of the expansions in this space, we’re going to skip over some major studio developments that we’ll get into next time. So let’s jump ahead five years to City of Heroes’ second and final expansion, Going Rogue.

Released in August 2010, Going Rogue added the final piece of the puzzle for the MMO’s meta-structure. With the original game, heroes were made, and with the first expansion, villains were introduced. Now, the second expansion allowed player characters to switch sides and even become a vigilante or rogue. This was done through a rather elaborate alignment meter and optional quests that could start villains to redemption or heroes to corruption.

The dev team defended the decision to release this as an expansion pack rather than a free content update by saying, “Going Rogue is well beyond what we could normally do in the scope of a free update. We will continue to provide our players value in the form of future Issues, but Going Rogue is going to feature a breadth of new game content that warrants expansion pack-style treatment.”

This expansion came out with Issue 18 and added the neutral Paetorian faction, several additional zones, and four more powersets (demon summoning, dual pistols, electric control, and kinetic melee). It also gave the game yet another graphical overhaul, allowing players to jack up the settings to Ultra for the first time.

Going Rogue wasn’t as groundbreaking a development as City of Villains, but the choice of character development did intrigue some in the community. “You can now walk the razor’s edge between light and dark by taking missions on the other side to see if the villainous life is truly what calls to you,” said Lead Designer Melissa Bianco in a 2010 interview. “If you find the life of a nefarious villain is up your alley, you can ultimately choose to take the plunge! Now, having said that, there’s no law that says once you’re a Villain you’ll never have the opportunity to do right by society. And for that shiny new Fallen Hero, well, old habits tend to die hard…”

For some that look back upon City of Heroes’ development, Going Rogue marks the point where the game felt “complete.” It certainly brought the game to a good place that could have continued for years to come.

Next time on the Game Archaeologist

In our fourth installment of this series, we’ll go through the journey of City of Heroes from 2006 through 2011, including the formation of Paragon Studios and the free-to-play “Freedom” era of the game.

Here’s the whole saga to date!

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MagmaFist
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MagmaFist

Look at all those particle effects. So colorful. Damn, I miss the chaos on the screen when in a group of 4 or more. Battles were epic looking. I still think no one has matched that look.

On a side note, it would be really neat if MoP was timing the end of this series with City of Titans announcement of the release of their character creator or a playable alpha. Some last articles mentioning the end of the era timed with the beginning of a new one would be very apropos.

packagegrope
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packagegrope

or mop buys the rights to cox and the world becomes a better place.

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Scarlet_Shocker

Don’t forget the new server that came with GR. It was for premium members only if memory serves, and never quite lived up to the hype but it did allow a whole swathe of players to “reboot” and start from scratch.

I never experienced ED, I joined just after Issue 6 launched so to me it was “normal” but with many things, ED was a great idea poorly managed and a lot of people felt aggrieved with the way it was handled, not the effect.

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Sray

That premium server was with free to play, which came out a couple years later, not the Going Rogue expansion.

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Scarlet_Shocker

Thanks for the correction.

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Magnus Itland

ED was a good thing badly done at a bad time. As you say, it would have been OK from the start, but it would also have been fine if they had introduced it at the same time as Invention (crafting). Invention actually gave people a positive reason to diversify. The Invention system increased the diversity of abilities in the game far more than ED did.

Specks
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Specks

reading this article is bittersweet for me. on one hand, I absolutely love learning about MMOs I never had the chance to play. gaming archaeology is exciting! on the other hand, however…this game sounds absolutely wonderful…and I can’t play it. the side switching I had at least seen mentioned in other comments in other forums. the rogue “faction” though? I had never heard of that, and now I’m even sadder about the fact I missed out on playing this franchise. playing the middle sounds like so much fun. could each “side” chat with the others?

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Duane_Does_not_check_email

the coh community (including myself) was fanatical about the game and could talk about it for hours.

It was the only MMO I ever played 2004-2012 and I assumed we were the small kid on the block catching up to all the big-boys with features.

No, it was an MMO with features and concepts that existed no where else.

Heroes could be in the hero zones and few common battle zones. Villains could be in the villain zones and few common battle zones. The Praetorians had their zones…. want to go evil? Run about 10 special missions to make you notorious. Want to go good? Run about 10 special missions to become redeemed.

The villains had their archtypes and the heroes had theres…. and then at Freedom you could from the start make a hero with a villain archtype build that was running villain content shortly, flip sides….. or be a rogue and do both. Travel the hero and villain zones…. then take a portal to the Praetorian dimension and be evil/do good there too.

Celestia
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Celestia

Huge fan of ED here. ED along with the addition of IO’s made a good game great.

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Roger Christie

Contrary to your opinion, ED was absolutely the best thing they could have done. Before ED, there were cookie cutter builds and everyone had to have the same ones or they were disadvantaged. ED opened up the variety of build possibilities enormously. Especially when enhancement sets came along.

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MolleaFauss

I started playing after ED came in and I always felt that the system had sense.
You will probably have to round a further powerset rework which came out I think in issue 12 or 13 (where I stopped playing). They ended up adding some sort of further ED to the stacking of the same power casted on same people. It was true that three /fire corruptors would make everyone literally unbeatable, but they ended up instead removing completely the difference in playing the various powersets…

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TheDonDude

Enhancement Diversification was great. The game was absurdly unbalanced with it, and it paved the way for IO’s.

Not an easy call to nerf every player, but ultimately a positive.

abyssalstar
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abyssalstar

Yeah, I never minded ED. It was a perfectly logical fix for wildly unbalanced builds. The crybabies just didn’t like being told their cheesy OP builds were breaking the game. CoH was better without them.

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Tee Parsley

Sorry, but the ED broohaha was pretty dang whiny. The minimaxers had coalesced down to just a couple of superhero power sets, and regularly would round up huge masses of villains and destroy them, with no risk whatsoever. I recall folks try to round up the entire zone’s worth of foes.

The game was unbalanced, and need reworking.

Now, Jack Emmert’s poor handling of the game deployments did become apparent with ED. (I think the game’s design team got better once he was off it). Emmert had publicly said there were going to be no new big changes during a previous cycle of development. Then ED hit, and he tried to pass it off as just a rebalancing. Super tone deaf.

Personally, I felt the game got better with the ED. Suddenly, powersets other than Invincibility or Fire Tank, Rifle/Devices Blaster, or Fire Controller became viable.

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Crowe

Every game’s design team got better with Emmert off of it.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Agreed. It was objectively better for the game all around. And it was rolled out very poorly, so I understand all the anger surrounding it.

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Tee Parsley

Seems like there were players who really loved the gathering and nuking of 30-50 foes. Which I guess was an experiance in MMOs not commonly available at the time. Going back to taking on a mere 8 or 10 felt wimpy.

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NeoWolf

City of Rogues was a wierd one for me.

Having been a comic book fan since day dot… (i’m now 46) I have always found it really odd when people find the idea of playing the villain appealing. Comic books for me was always that ideal of being the hero, being the icon, good triumphing over evil… so when COH were like were bringing out the ability to play villains I was like..huh where is the fun in that???? *head scratch*, being bad is not cool, doing bad is not cool its douchey.. i don’t get it..

Odd thing is I found the answer… and it wasn’t being diabolical, or comitting crimes, or beating down the heroes… nope for me it was the Mastermind class… I LOVED!!!! that class. omg.. I can’t even. If you were a fan of pet classes that class was hitting all the buttons I miss my masterminds lol.