Back in 2019, I had the idea to make Design Mockument semi-regular column because I like doing this sort of thing. I put out one installment of it out talking about a hypothetical sequel to The Matrix Online, and then, uh… 2020 happened, and then most of 2021 happened, and I actually totally forgot this was even a thing until we all started talking about The Matrix again and Bree reminded me that I had written an article about it that I had no recollection of whatsoever.
Where did all of that backstory lead you? Straight back to me.
Today, I want to touch on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: the idea of a sequel to City of Heroes. Unlike the aforementioned project, this is the sort of thing that I don’t think is an inherently bad idea, although I freely admit that the budget involved and the requirements might make this prohibitively expensive just the same. But hey, this is a thought experiment rather than an actual design pitch. So what would I put into a CoH 2 given the opportunity?
First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I am not really going to be drawing on the document that was circulating around purporting to be a layout for the hypothetical sequel that never happened. Why? Well, for one thing that’d make this kind of trivial; for another, we’re talking about launching the project now rather than several years ago. That means design choices have changed, ideas have changed, and what people expect has changed. So let’s start from scratch.
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy with this franchise to start from scratch in at least one respect. You don’t need to explain why the game is taking place in the future or what happened since the last one; this is a superhero story. There was a big cosmic event that rewrote the fabric of reality and now everyone is dealing with a slightly different Paragon City. That’s right, someone rebooted the universe.
So what does Paragon City look like now? Well, it’s bigger, for one thing. And it’s a city of two parts. In some areas, the city is at least ostensibly still controlled by the forces of law and order; in others, the malicious anarchy of Lord Recluse and Arachnos is the closest thing that exists to any kind of law. That’s right, we’re starting with heroes and villains playable from the word go, with both factions in the same cityscape.
We’re also starting with the ability to go rogue and change sides right from the get-go. A lot of what we want here are the things that very definitely worked and were fun in the original just as a baseline. That means yes, the game is also going to retain the ad-hoc grouping and radio missions from the original game, because one of the best parts of the original was just forming groups and spamming missions for funsies.
So what’s different? Well, for one thing, this isn’t going to be a tab-targeting game but an action combat title.
Look, I’m not going to say that the original CoH had bad combat; it didn’t. But it came out in a time when tab-targeting and slower combat were kind of de rigueur for MMOs for a variety of reasons, and that’s not where we’re living in 2021. A superhero game almost demands a more kinetic and frantic style, and we can actually do that now. So that’d be a notable change.
We’d also want to play with how the game handled powers and archetypes, with the caveat being that I don’t think the game should do away with archetypes altogether. Rather, I think what the game should offer is a twist on how power types and development is handled, and archetypes should be selected between a few choices… which primarily differ in terms of innate powers, not in terms of available powers. You choose your archetype, then you choose your primary powerset between an array of options (defensive, melee, ranged, control, support, or minions), then your secondary powerset. And then that’s it.
In other words, rather than choosing Blaster (ranged damage/melee damage), you would choose an innate power and then decide if you want ranged/melee, or ranged/defensive, or even ranged/ranged if you wanted to really go nuts. Or heck, melee/control if that’s how you want to run.
Moreover, power selection is more flexible now as well. Players don’t choose between narrow sets like Fire Melee or Electric Melee or Staff Fighting; they choose between broad categories like Energy Melee, Martial Arts, Weapon Fighting, and so forth. They they choose a specific application within that field which has additional mechanical effects. This makes it easier to switch between sets if necessary; if you have the Ranged Weapon set, for example, you’ll get different benefits from Archery, Dual Pistols, or Rifles, but all three are going to play broadly the same.
Similarly, we’re actually going to take a little page from another game when it comes to powers. Unlike in the original, since this is a more action-oriented game, players will have access to a limited set of their powers at any given time; let’s say that you have eight available at a glance, not counting your attacks on left-click and right-click. This even will give the opportunity for an innate power allowing you to swap between two different sets for certain archetypes, so that can factor into your choice. (Do you build a character who can swap between ranged and melee powers with that archetype, or a character who swaps between offense and support powers as needed?)
Story-wise, the game benefits a lot from the original CoH setting down a lot of backstory and environment, coupled with the innate idea of swapping to a rebooted reality. You can start players dealing with the same low-level threats like Hellions, the Circle of Thorns, and the Skulls (who you should go hunt and kill), moving into dealing with higher-level groups like the Freakshow and Nemesis… while also dealing with the fallout of what the universal reboot might mean.
Maybe in this universe the Clockwork really are little vicious mechanical creatures like they appear to be at a glance. Maybe they’re still psychic puppets. Players will expect one thing, but there’s the opportunity to throw as many curveballs as you want to players familiar with the story while still delighting people who’ve never played the first game.
Above all else, though, the game should be embracing the fun, sort of oddball, definitely spectacle-driven atmosphere of a superhero game from the word go. This has always been how CoH has operated, and CoH 2 could do a great job of bringing back its interesting feel of modern comics aping the Silver Age at the same time. Big threats, big escalation, and a whole toolbox of opportunities to tell stories both silly and dramatic, sometimes both in turns. And yes, I’d like to see more emphasis on these stories, more episodic storytelling, more chances to get invested in this world and these characters. Mix it up, do weird things, and revel in all of the oddities available to a superhero universe.
And maybe find a version of the Lost that doesn’t feel kind of ableist now? The whole “homeless people turned into psionic mutants” angle hasn’t aged great.