Design Mockument: Fresh ideas for City of Heroes 2 in 2021

    
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When the lights go down in the city.

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.

R'bots

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.

You know it.

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.

Designing an MMO is hard. But writing about some top level ideas for designing one? That’s… also remarkably hard. But sometimes it’s fun to do just the same. Join Eliot Lefebvre in Design Mockument as he brainstorms elevator pitches for MMO sequels, spinoffs, and the like for games that haven’t yet happened and most likely never will!
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Magma Fist

-Destructible environments.

-Missions that are unique to powersets. Forcefields to block off a hallway, fire set to keep citizens warm as they wait for the rescue craft, the healer that keeps citizens alive until a cure is found, etc.

I don’t care about the argument that if it doesn’t benefit the entire population then it is not worth the dev time. The goal here is replayability where you get a unique experience. This would keep the devs from implementing time sinks, repetitive content and power creep because they always run out of ideas and just increase the level range.

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Monsoon

Hey, I recognize that robots/force field Mastermind! That’s Norman Nimrod, my ripo… er, homage to Norton Nimnul (the mad scientist from Rescue Rangers) that I had back on Virtue. That particular costume is a reference to the episode “A Wolf in Cheap Clothing” where Nimnul utilized a device called a Metamorphosizer to turn himself into a wolf.

Norman_Nimrod_costume_1.jpg
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Darkedone02

More and More customizations, power, gear, items, the whole entire cake, everything needs customization out the wazoo. If we crafted an amulet or discover one, allow us to wear it, change the looks of it, react towards our powers, make us stronger, etc.

City of Heroes have plenty but it’s still not enough. I had a hard time finding jewelry to wear for my character who deals with thugs and time manipulations, something that symbolizes my powers. Magical wearable artifacts exists, and should be shown (or not by our own choices) on our characters.

TheQuinch
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TheQuinch

In all honesty, at least as far as the whole gameplay aspect is concerned, the stuff City of Titans has been describing kinda fits what I’d imagine CoH^2 to be.

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MolleaFauss

Oh man.
Happy to follow on the action combat and power selection. I would allow more powers as still that was a quite distinctive trait of COH – without giving you 3 bars full of powers to use, but the game of buffs/debuffs to keep up was a great thing indeed.
Also, dodge mechanics with animations based on your travel power?
Power animations based on your origin?
I like your idea of keeping the powersets which would give a sort of main mechanic on which to build around (they’re mostly all ok, safe current blaster defiance which I’d change into a growing recharge speed buff like brute’s rage, but with a crash mechanic if overloaded like invulnerability’s rage)

Environment wise, two main things: the City should be less “flat with skyscrapers” (at least not all zones), we should have more diverse city areas with varied terrain levels, I would expand beyond the “city”, or maybe “cities”, and who knows, other planet’s cities also?

Also, I’ve had an idea for re-inventing the invention system and give more coice to the player, maybe allowing to choose the secondary effect instead of locking it into the power, allowing freedom to enhance the aspects one wanted (with caps and rules to avoid – say – all damage builds)…

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Hikari Kenzaki

Similarly, we’re actually going to take a little page from another game when it comes to powers.

So, action combat, right and left click abilities that stay the same, several other powers that you can swap out on the fly with multiple builds available, and lots of flexibility for power selection.

*cough*

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Bryan Correll

The whole “homeless people turned into psionic mutants” angle hasn’t aged great.

That’s just the surface level view of the Lost. In the real world homelessness is a bigger problem than ever and human authorities are doing an abysmal job dealing with it.
I’d just make the change that the Rikti aren’t converting anyone against their will. Then the Found (make it a positive) are disaffected humans (not just the homeless) who choose to take the Rikti up on their offer of change. It would seem like a cult to most people, but that would be inaccurate as the Rikti can and do carry through on their promises.

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Peregrine Falcon

The problem is that the Rikti are villains. Part of them being villains is that they’re converting people against their will, because that is villainous stuff.

I’m very much against changing the lore in order to satisfy an inaccurate current year hot take.

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Bryan Correll

The Rikti don’t see themselves as villains, though. After all, from their perspective we started the fight. It’s even in-game lore that if the overall population learned the truth support for the invasion would end and make them all feel pretty damn bad about the whole situation.

srmalloy
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srmalloy

Or you could take it in a somewhat different direction. The Lost are still homeless people who were drawn in by the proselytizing of, first humaniform Rikti, then more ‘advanced’ Lost, and are in various stages of conversion by the Rikti virus, but then add a third faction to the NPC Rikti; you still have the Traditionalists and the Restructurists, but then you have the ‘Found’ as a third group — humans who have been transformed into Rikti who have rejected both of the other factions and side with humanity.

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IronSalamander8 .

I could get behind this. I’ve been kind of mad at myself for not playing CoH on the rogue servers more as I missed the game immensely after it being my main game for years, and only stopped my sub right as SWTOR went into early access and just before they announced the shut down (which still feels like a bad decision, it had a healthy population at the time), but I can’t get into it like I did, and CoH is the game that kept me from committing suicide when I was laid off for months and money got scarily tight, so it feels weird not playing the heck out of it now.

The number one thing I would change is the low level experience is a slog, especially for modern players that weren’t used to that style of games back then. Having just one or maybe 2 attacks, even faster ones with short cooldowns, feels bad and they added those origin attacks and we used some of the veteran attacks like the Nemesis Staff to compensate, but I think you should start with more options to make it more engaging, fun, and smoother.

I’d say to definitely improve the graphics, but CoX has animations that are just fantastic, even if some super strength attacks are misnamed, and the sounds effects are so good! Super strength is my jam, partly thanks to those sound and visual effects.

I’d go along mostly with what ‘Dug From The Earth’ and ‘Ray O’Brien’ post earlier. I’d be fine with a more action oriented combat system though. I don’t hate tab targeting, but a more action oriented style would feel more dynamic and heroic.

Oh and more destructible environments! Let me punch Skulls through the wall, or break a car over a robot’s head! Those mayhem missions red side were an absolute blast!

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Bryan Correll

The number one thing I would change is the low level experience is a slog, especially for modern players that weren’t used to that style of games back then.

It’s true, but it’s also odd. CoH was the first MMO I played where I actually felt somewhat powerful from the start. Taking on more than one mob at a time for a newbie would have been a definite death in most games at the time, with CoH it was just the way things were done. Cause you’re a superhero dangit.

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IronSalamander8 .

Oh I agree! I came from EQ and the thought of taking on more than 1 mob without a mezzer was insane to me back then! When I found out that with a great build my SS/Invuln Tanker could handle so many mobs at once, I really embraced it!

I meant more from combat options as you didn’t have many early on. Once you hit around 10 or so, things do open up a lot, depending on how you build, but it would be nice to have more abilities to use from moment one.

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Bryan Correll

On the Homecoming server* (can’t speak for the others as I haven’t played them) you can grab the old veteran powers from the start on all characters.

* I haven’t played it nearly as much as I would if it had some sort of official recognition. I just can’t shake the feeling that as soon as I get a character really powerful NCSoft will finally decide to yeet the whole thing away and I don’t wanna go through that again.

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IronSalamander8 .

That’s where I played as well. I really should install it on the new PC and play, but FF14 is eating my time. I did get my old main back to 41 or so though, and worked on a bunch of alts, since that’s me and CoX in a nutshell!

And agreed on that rogue issue too. I haven’t heard anything about a deal being reached or a cease and desist order so no idea what NCSoft really thinks about all this. If I could get my old account back with all my badges and other stuff, I’d be extremely pleased, and would be playing more for sure.

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Dug From The Earth

The biggest mistake many “sequels” make is changing too much, and straying from the original games design (you know, the elements that made it popular and fun in the first place).

A CoH2 would need to pretty much keep nearly everything that currently exists, and just upgrade it.

Upgraded models (fingers!!), upgraded textures, upgraded rendering engine (draw distance, lighting, poly count, etc etc).

The UI could use a face lift and quality of life improvements, as could the controls to make some more modern options available.

Character creation – More costume options, with a larger color/tint/hue option. Include the async options that many of the rogue servers have added. Also included, more power customization, including colors and animation types, for ALL powers, not just some (Im looking at you archery!!)

New archetypes and powersets would be fine, as long as they are balanced

Bigger, more complex playable zones. A seemless world would be preferred, ah lah something like GTA 5.

The ONE thing that I feel should receive the biggest improvements/updates/changes would be the mission system. The current system is pretty archaic and often very limiting. Oroubos was added to help combat some of the limitations of this, but its still far from perfect. Better randomized mission layout would be nice too, so every office doesnt feel like it shares the same layout. Improve/remove/remake the mission maps that people hate purely because of the playable design (ie: blue caves).

Tons of quality of life improvements would also make the game feel like it was almost a new game as well.

Changing much more than that would make the game feel too far from what people enjoy. IE: If its not broke, dont fix it.

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Ray O'Brien

Man if I could design a superhero MMO and had a billion dollars I would have a blast. Just at the start pick from origins of Mutant, Tech, Martial Arts, Nature, Energy, etc. Then have a starting area for each and a team of established heroes that start training you and giving you starting missions, think XMen for mutants as an example. Be able to create your arch nemesis ala Champs, which was such a great idea that was never built upon. Being able to choose color and where your powers come from, such as green eye beams or pink hand beams. Man I’m just gonna stop otherwise I’ll write a book but I really wish a triple A super hero MMO was being worked on. I mean they are so hot in media right now I just don’t understand why no one is capitalizing!!