Sunday, October 08, 2006

CoH, and Achievement vs Exploration

Thanks to Chas, I've been playing City of Heroes / City of Villains the past couple days using the free trial offer. This is my second time to try the game (I played City of Villains before as well). The first time around, I think I played for a month or two. I'm not going to touch on everything; just a handful. With so many things I enjoy with this game, the deal-breaker (achievement-oriented) is especially unfortunate.

Here are two of my old heroes, Stillblood and Dreamfast:

Here are my new characters, Revenot (villain) and Volcus (hero):

The visual character customization is obviously one of the greatest selling points of the game. I chose to create two dark characters, but the player can go light just as well. The visual style of the game is distinctive, easy on my 2-3 years-old computer, and probably able to continue into the next 5 years, at least, without any dire want of an upgrade.

One other visual plus is the ability to move the camera easily, take screenshots, then reset with a hotkey: But it could be improved by allowing players to hotkey other angles than the default view. I really enjoy the view used in this screenshot, behind and just to the side of the enemy. Obviously, it's not viable in every combat situation, but can make my gameplay a more cinematic experience. If I was able to switch between several camera angles quickly and easily with hotkeys, then I'd be able to enjoy that cinematic experience more frequently and fluidly (i.e., my overall game experience would be more enjoyable).

Another great aspect of the game is tactics. I'm soloing only (I grouped the first time I played CoH, but it's been too long to remember my impression). The three aspects of combat that make it tactically more impressive than other MMOs are grouped enemies, movement and inspirations.

Grouped enemies often, though not always, encourage the player to think creatively. Depending on hit/misses, the mix of enemy styles (melee, missiles, healer, etc) and a number of other factors, I'm encouraged to judge spontaneously which enemy to focus on first, which to avoid, how I can mix up my DoTs, nukes and melee between them to best manage my limited energy, etc.

I'm encouraged to move, which makes combat infinitely more interesting than just standing in one spot and hitting hotkeys. My enemies charge me, or find ideal missile positions, or run away. Chasing an enemy can be, though isn't always, a lot of fun; particularly when he's jumping fences, climbing railings, using cover, etc. And CoH allows the player to use the terrain strategically and tactically.

Inspirations are consumable buffs, and they add an interesting dynamic to combat. When it comes to game buffs (often seen in games as healing and mana potions), I'm a hoarder; the sort of player who goes to great lengths to preserve my consumables for bosses and emergencies. But whether I use them often or sparsely, they add to my enjoyment of the game either way. It's having dynamics of advantages and disadvantages from fight to fight.

CoH proves that scripting can work as well as, or better than, real A.I. sometimes. I see cultists chanting and waving as magic works on their victim floating above in an eerie green light. I see a thug standing on a box and preaching, while his cronies sit fascinated in front of him. I see an NPC tugging on a lady's purse as she refuses to let go. And saved NPCs run back to thank me. It's all very immersive, despite its repetition.

This is another area where CoH shines. Not only can I choose between a variety of skill choices that make my blaster different than other blasters of the same general focus (fire, ice, sonic, etc), but they also give me a way to make my blaster significantly different from another blaster with all of the same skills (which is rare anyway): skill enhancements. As I level, I get to choose which skills I want to add more enhancement slots to. Then I get to choose what enchancements to put in the enhancement slots.

Do I want to enhance one skill with two slots or two skills with one? Do I want to increase accuracy, damage, distance, energy efficiency, etc? This method allows for balanced and unbalanced characters, to the player's preference. My tank, the first time I played CoH, was an exception in that he didn't have a taunt skill. In bypassing that skill, I was able to put choose a further damage skill instead.

This is where CoH/CoV loses me. It's made for the old gaming crowd, who are always focused on where they're going, never where they are. I'm not an achievement-oriented gamer; I'm exploration-oriented (mostly, of course; few gamers are pure one way or another). Already, after two days, I'm feeling the boredom that's typical of MMOs to me these days. I'm bored because I'm really just doing the same thing over and over again (killing NPCs), plus one more skill or set of enhancement slots, aimed at the next skill or enhancement slots.


Maxis has had a long history of phenomenal success with the Sim City series and The Sims series, and there's obviously a lot of interest in the upcoming Spore. Blizzard had tremendous success with the Diablo series, and Flagship's Hellgate: London looks not far behind Spore's popularity. Now, maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that those games owe a large measure of their success, perhaps even the majority, to exploration-oriented gamers.

When I played the Sim City games, sure, I had the vague goal of a large and smoothly-run city. But I don't recall any point at which I was actually able to solve a problem completely (traffic went away, crime stopped, etc), and I didn't mind. In fact, I usually ended up calling in the tornado or Godzilla at some point. Mostly, I was just being creative in city design, interested more in explorative possibilities than conquest.

When I played The Sims 2, my enjoyment was in designing the buildings, furnishing them and watching the interesting twists of character interactions (ultimately, the game was too much like watching a soap opera or the WE channel for my tastes). Again, achievers' goals were there, but not the focus.

And then there's Diablo 2, one of my favorite games of all time. It was an action game...surely, it was achievement-oriented, right? Not really; or, at least, not exclusively. There were lots of goals for achievement-gamers, but the ultimate draw for me and thousands of other gamers was the dynamics that fed a sense of exploration. Again, the goals were often vague. I wasn't aiming for a particular weapon or armor. I was aiming for something cool I hadn't seen before. I knew the name of where I was going, but the map changed each game, so I didn't know which way to turn. The many dynamics made the game, which is why Roper and the other Flagship guys cite the dynamics as Hellgate's primary selling point.

City of Heroes is a good game. Cryptic did a lot with that game that deserves respect. It doesn't have to cater to gamers of my style to be a good game.

That said, I wish the MMO industry offered more combat-laden games that were not so lopsided toward achievement-oriented gaming. America is a culture heavy on achievement and competition, so I don't doubt that the majority of Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general, are most attracted to such games. But exploration-focused MMOs can do well too, without having to be peaceful or domestic (like The Sims Online or Second Life...from what I've read of them).

Star Wars: Galaxies came closest to this end. I spent a lot of my time fighting, but an equally great amount of time exploring the wilderness and taming strange creatures, or trying to creatively bioengineer animals to my personal preferences. But my hunger for exploration ran out of sustenance in that game after 6 months. The world was compelling, but not dynamic enough. In my opinion, dynamics is a key area of growth opportunity for MMOs.

It's difficult for me to pin down what exactly I'm trying to get at here. I hope that's clear.

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