May 13, 2004

Welcome to Paragon City

I’m supposed to write an assessment of Star Wars: Galaxies and I’ve been putting it off because I feel I need to go in and play the game again just to challenge my established prejudices. The conventional wisdom is that a massively-multiplayer online game needs a year to be judged. But I’m dreading it: I follow news about the game and it seems to me that there may just be things about it that can’t be fixed.

SWG left a bad taste in my mouth about MMOGs. All that expertise, all that prior experience, all that money, and a franchise that you’d think was a can’t-miss proposition, and the result was a worse-than-average experience in a genre of games that is already very unsatisfactory.

As a consequence, I have been looking at every other MMOG coming down the pike with equal presumptive hostility. In particular, I was sure that City of Heroes, a MMOG with a superhero theme, would be a disaster. When the committed cynics at Waterthread started saying nice things about the late beta, I began to wonder.

Now I’ve been playing it for a couple of weeks, mostly on the Protector server, with a martial artist character named "Faust", and I have to admit it: I was wrong.

City of Heroes still has the basic problems of all MMOGs, but as far as the genre goes, it is one of the best. It’s actually fun to play, and even more amazingly, fun to play as a “casual” player—I can drop in for 30 minutes and still find something pleasurable to do. Even the feature that I was certain would suck, which was building your character around “archetypes” that made more sense in terms of MMOG conventions than the comic book narratives the game borrows from, works pretty well without seriously violating the sense that one is a superhero in a universe of superheroes. Basically, it’s one of the few MMOGs that has kept a clear head about fun being the number one objective.

Maybe the most astonishing thing about the game is just that the first day of play went without major technical gliches, and that so far, there are very few disastrous bugs or technical problems. The major issue at the moment is that one type of mission doesn’t work correctly, but it’s easy to avoid doing them. There’s a lesson here that’s crucial. The only other game of this kind to launch well was Dark Age of Camelot. It shares with City of Heroes a basic simplicity and cleanness of design. It’s clear: don’t try to do too much by your launch, and keep your design as minimalist as you can. I’m also hugely impressed by the communication from the developers: they tend to be very forthright, very out in front of problems.

Many small features in City of Heroes are well-implemented. For example, I really like that when I get missions from my “contacts”, after a certain point, I can just “call” them remotely to tell them the mission is completed—I don’t have to run all over creation to tell them. There are a few classic MMOG issues that are in some ways worse in City of Heroes than any other game: what people call “kill stealing” is for some reason uniquely aggravated in the evolving culture of its gameplay. The game also has a treadmill just like any other MMOG, and I still maintain that’s unnecessary, that designers are not thinking properly about how to scale challenges over time, and insist on making “hard” mean “time-consuming”. And finally, as is de rigeur for MMOGs, there are some really dumb and unoriginal names and designs for characters out there. I’ve seen huge numbers of Wolverine and Punisher clones. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single “Legolas” yet.

There’s also some things I’ll be looking for the designers to do in the months to come that will help the game be more evocative of comic books. For one, I’m getting very tired of fighting cookie-cutter enemies: there should be colorfully indvidual supervillains at every level of experience. That’s the essence of the genre, and it’s sadly missing from the lower-level gameplay and even from the mid-game. In fact, how about every character created getting an “archenemy”, a supervillain who pops up from time to time to attack your character?

There are other elements of superhero narratives that need implementation in some way eventually. Secret identities and all that comes with them are completely absent. The mission storylines are pretty decent—I saved a mechanic and his family from some robots and now civilians remember that I did so—but there need to be more plot types, more content that evokes classic superhero tales. There need to be major public events—say each city zone being attacked by giant robots, with everyone pitching in to repel the menace.

I’m still going to play SWG later this month to be a responsible critic, but when I want to have fun, I’m going to be battling evil in Paragon City as the mysterious and inscrutable Faust.