"What dost thou enjoy in an MMO, then?"
This probably isn't news to anybody any more, but one of the longest-running MMOs around was recently announced - with entirely unexpected brutality - to be closing its doors. It's City of Heroes, not quite my first MMO, but my favourite by a near-immeasurable margin. As a seven-year veteran, I obviously had a vested interest in the game, but there's more to it than that; there really are things in City that, to the best of my my knowledge, no other MMO has done - and more that no other MMO has done well.
Today I was asked what I actually enjoyed in an MMO, and it seemed as good a time as any to discuss what it is about this game that makes me love it, especially in the face of newer, prettier, and more popular games.
Caveat: Before we begin, let's just assume that basically nothing I say here applies to Eve Online. I don't care for Eve at all - it seems entirely too much like work, plus from what I can gather the only way to get optimal results from it is to simply be the biggest PVP cockbag you can be - not my idea of fun. But regardless of that, it is absolutely an original take on MMOs, and I laud its individuality even as I ignore it entirely.
Now, in no particular order, here's what I want in an MMO:
No Built-In Races
This is kind of controversial I guess, but I really have no taste for pre-defined fantasy/alien races. It's not that I always hate them, but more that I'd much, much rather design my own, which there is essentially never an option to do if the game has baked-in races. Compare WoW's eleven races, all but one of which are tied to a specific faction and appearance, with very little variation, to City's "make your own" approach, which lets me play an angel, a satyr, a cyborg, a demon, an elf, a vampire, an interdimensional alien, two shapeshifters, an anthropomorphic ferret, a mutant alligator, and anything else I want as long as it was mostly human-shaped. And I can put them in whatever faction I want, besides!
No Mechanical Gender Differences
This should be a fucking no-brainer by now, but some dickbags still insist that the best caster class should be female-only and the best warrior class should be male-only, or somesuch bullshit. I have zero tolerance for this concept. Mechanical equality or GTFO.
High-level Visual Customisation
There's nothing I resent like a "role-playing" game where my buff warrior woman is forced to have exactly the same height and body shape as the elegant sorceress, the bookish alchemist, the wizened crone and the giggly town whore, just because they all have tits. Well, unless it's a game where I can't even make a buff warrior woman because some cock decided that my gender should also be determined by my class.
I must have a decently customisable appearance before I consider a role-playing game "good". At the very least I demand face, colours, height and build, though what I really want is exquisitely detailed sliders like Aion offers - if only the gameplay was good enough to support them.
Stylised Art That's Not Goofy
I hate WoW's character art. Oh, sure, there are occasional smatterings of goodness like male worgen and the women of Burning Crusade, but overall they have a simple aesthetic: women are dumpy and harmless, men look like movie monsters hastily constructed from blocks of ham.
Problem is, people interpret this to mean that I have a problem with WoW's cartooniness, which I do not. I love stylised character art. In fact, I think realism is pretty much the biggest bane of modern-era gaming; you couldn't pay me to choose Modern Warfare graphics over those of, for example, Muramasa. My only issue with WoW is that its obsession with huge muscular steroid bunnies, and the unfortunate implication of instituting (and mandating) such heavy gender dimorphism, makes it look like it was concepted by ten-year-old boys.
(Mind you, most of its users probably enjoy that idea. Let's not forget that not only did many of these insecure man-children slam Blizzard because the original slim male blood elves were "too gay", but also they found Blizzard's response - not to remove any of the belf dude's camp fabulosity, but just to add big meaty arms and huge dimpled chins - to be acceptably "hetero".)
Anyway, there are a lot of art styles I enjoy, and all I really want is something that isn't trying to be so realistic that it falls into the Uncanny Valley, but is also not so cartoonish as to seem genuinely juvenile. There's a huge amount of middle ground in there.
No Baked-In Character Origin
This list wasn't supposed to be one big slam on WoW, but goddamnit WoW. Don't tell me that I'm one of a tiny, outcast group of stragglers when you know there are going to be so many characters in my starting zone that I can't spit without hitting one of the proud/the few. Don't spoon-feed me your prescribed backstory for my character when you know you're going to give the same exact story to every other damned member of my race.
You too Aion - I know you're trying to sell yourself as a strong character-focused story, but that's just not what MMOs are good for. Instead, what about crafting a story that draws a player into explaining their own character? Let them decide where they are going, let them decide where they came from.
Lore Loose Enough That I Can Tell My Own Story
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the writing in most MMOs is shit. Sure, plenty of them try hard and a few succeed, and I'm not without sympathy for the difficulty of crafting decent plots when they are to be shared between myriad characters in a persistent world where making major changes regularly is simply not an option. But let's face it, regardless of the reason, the result is usually that plots in MMOs are bland, generic XP-delivery vehicles offered by forgettable NPCs who might as well be fire hydrants, for all you actually care about them.
(Unlike most of my criteria for a good MMO, City also fails to live up to this one a lot of the time, too. Aside from a smattering of hilarious red-side contacts, the only place CoX's writing lived up to its potential was in the arcs that launched with Going Rogue. There we were introduced to likeable contacts with distinct character voice, branching options that seriously changed the plot, genuinely tricky moral choices, and even cosmetic dialogue that had no effect other than the deeply satisfying ability to express your character a little. But it was not to last - by the next issue, it seemed the devs had already forgotten how to use these wonderful new tools, and we barely saw them again.)
In any case, the point I'm steering around to is that, since odds are writers for your game have delivered stinky garbage, I want to be able to make my own stories. City delivered on this in a unique way amongst MMOs, by embracing the come-one-come-all attitude of multi-franchise, multi-genre comic book universes that gave a home to everything from Tarzan to Transformers. Paragon City certainly had its own lore, but it was unobtrusive - it was simply a foundation upon which to build your own ideas. In City of Heroes, the game's lore was never so big as to crowd out what I wanted to do, and to me that's a critical element of a good MMO.
Okay seriously, how the fuck have other MMOs not grasped this by now? Have the devs just never experienced a situation where they can't play the content they want because their friend hasn't levelled into it yet, and they'd feel like an ass for ditching them? Screw that. I want to be able to play whichever character I want, with whomever I want. Level scaling should be expected from all modern MMOs, not be the legacy of a bygone champion.
(I hear tell that Guild Wars 2 has implemented this, so good for them - just don't let me hear them saying it was their idea!)
This is an area where City is still unique amongst MMOs I have seen or played - that your archetype, power source and individual powers are all separate and distinct choices. Most MMOs don't even begin to care about this, happy to lump you into a class like "wizard", which gives you prescribed arcane power source, a variety of predetermined spells, and the role of "squishy person who deals ranged magic damage". Some of them reach a little further, like WoW's talent trees letting you at least choose between "squishy person who deals ranged magic FIRE damage", "squishy person who deals ranged magic ICE damage", and so forth.
City, on the other hand, treats your archetype only as your baseline. You're a big tough tanky character? Okay cool. Now take that and snap on the kind of defensive set you'd like, then add in the kind of attack set you'd like, which can be totally different if you want. Then decide how you got your powers - we even gave you this special place to write about it if it's complicated. Oh, and did we mention you can use the costume customisation system to turn fire powers into steam, or ice powers into gems, or rock powers into delicious honeycomb candy? All part of the service.
The division of these elements into discreet layers allows for a kind of mix-and-match character creation that, to the best of my knowledge, no other MMO has ever delivered. As a lover of tabletop games and both mechanical and aesthetic character design, it's one of the things I will miss most about my game.
Why is City the only MMO where non-tanks can pick up three or four enemies at once without dying horribly? Why are they apparently the only ones who realised how outrageously fun it was to take on huge packs of monsters just as a matter of course? It makes you feel like a god damned hero, which is ostensibly what you're supposed to be in all these games.
No Holy Trinity
I don't hate WoW's tank/heals/dps model; it aids balance and it fuels some really interesting encounter design. What I do hate is that it was so successful everybody else forgot how design an original group combat system. It seems that other developers still do not grasp the simple fact that YOU WILL NEVER BEAT WOW AT BEING WOW. So try a new fucking idea once in a while.
More importantly, the lack of a holy trinity adds to City's encouragement to simply play what you want to play. Wanna play with those three guys? Go ahead! No pissing about trying to rope in members of appropriate levels, classes or roles. Sometimes you need enough of a certain component - debuffs, enhancements, whatever - but as to where you get it from, City does not care. Game on!
There is nothing more boring, in a video game, than waiting for your auto-attack to fire because you have nothing better to do.
Fuck gear. Fuck encounter farming, fuck drop rates, fuck Skinner-box incentives to do bland content over and over again, fuck manual looting, and seriously fuck rolling for loot. Once again, I didn't really hate these things to begin with, I just hate that they worked in WoW and then everybody else gave up on coming up with a better plan.
I want my character to develop as a combatant, not just get new shiny toys every few levels. And, for that matter, I want to be able to choose whether I want to use a sword or an axe or a whatever, rather than being forced to take the latest and greatest boss drop if I don't want to handicap myself. It's all just another shovel in the shitpile of things that stop me from making a distinct and interesting character.
Oh, and "you can get new gear" is the worst excuse ever for not letting me choose my own costume. CHARACTER DESIGN, ferchrissakes. Indulge it. Encourage it! Let people actually be creative!
City took a fair while to get an auction house system, in relation to its age. But when it did, it made one crucial to change to the "everybody wants to be WoW" formula: it used a consignment market. As far as I'm concerned, a player sales system where you can't place an order for something not currently available, and where you can't leave your items/bids up for as long as you like, is a tedious waste of my time.
No Need For Heals
You are a "tank", but the game is designed so you need to be on a constant healer drip to survive a serious fight? You don't even get your own mez protection? What a gyp. Except when low-balling content they know they can handle, Tanks in other MMOs have simply never felt very tough to me, and I believe that's because they are all designed to necessitate the Healer role. Which is all well and good if you want Healers around, but I have always loved City of Heroes' "heals are optional" approach.
FAST Player Movement
Seriously, why must all MMOs have their characters move like shit sliding off a shovel? I have stuff to do, and little patience for your stretching out content and subscription time by making me waste hours just waddling from one quest to another. Little-known fact - pre-Mists Azeroth seems big because it's a contiguous map and you move so slowly, but in actuality you could fit all of it inside one decently-sized City of Heroes zone. Geography lol!
Fast, Free Zone Travel
Because scripted flight is a shitty shitty waste of time and I hate it. Any time I have to leave my desk to get a snack because I can't do anything for five or ten minutes, you have failed as a game.
Fuck I love instances. Apparently every single other gamer in the world disagrees with me, but I love instances. I love feeling like I am the only person around who can deal with a thing. I love not having to compete with other characters for an objective. I love handling my version of an event my way. I love not lagging because a zone is overpopulated. And I really love not having to see goofy-looking characters with stupid names when I'm trying to get my roleplay on. Long live instances, and screw this idea that open-world MMOs are something to strive for!
A Good Roleplay Community
I have never met a game with anything like the RP community City has. I don't mean huge plots and mega-continuities, gigantic monolithic player cliques with bitchy histrionic leaders - I just mean a place where I can log on and be in-character without every second fantasy warrior having a name like WorgenFreeman or WulfyJacob37 or whatthefuckever. I respect another player's right to not RP, but I really hate being in an environment which is to RP what a toddler drumming on saucepans is to a relaxing hot bath.
Really I just want someplace where roleplayers and non-roleplayers treat each other with mutual respect, but are also able to avoid coming into contact as much as possible.
No Open-World PVP
Offering a choice between open-PVP and zone-PVP servers is acceptable, but if I have no option to prevent myself from being punished because somebody else is a cunt who thinks it's funny to kill lowbies, then fuck your MMO, I'm out.
Cooperative play between factions
If you MUST put factions in your game - and apparently you must, I guess because WoW and shit - then for crying out loud, let them interact like actual people! I hate seeing a setting where two factions doggedly adhere to the status quo of hating each for no apparent reason, especially when they are inevitably threatened by far greater forces than either of them. I'm not saying all people should cooperate - far from it! All I want is the option for some individuals within those factions to cooperate. My suspension of disbelief can only be strained so far before I must simply decide that the people in charge of said factions must be fucking morons.
Oh yeah, and this goes double for any bullshit excuse for characters of different factions to not be able to communicate, especially if the excuse is "language" and there are a bunch of neutral NPCs who can speak perfectly fluently to both. Way to fuck roleplay in the ass guys! What, would action films would be better without all that witty banter? Yeah, it's probably just a waste of time. Somebody should tell Joss Whedon.
What it comes down to
City of Heroes, you did not deserve this. You were a champion of individuality and creativity, one bright light in a sea of interminably dull Wowclones. You were my game, and quite possibly my one true MMO love. I shall never forget you.