A Better City of Villains

With the release of the Going Rogue expansion in 2010, City of Heroes and City of Villains became effectively the same game. One subscription fee had always covered both of them and there were always some zones where they could interact, but now they would be sold as a combined set for the price of one game, you’d be able to create heroes with classes that had originally been villain-exclusive and vice-versa, and it was even possible to switch your character’s alignment to run a fall to darkness or redemption arc. City of Villains has always had considerably better writing, balance, and pace, just because it was released after the team had a year of experience working with the limitations of the medium and engine and knowing what players wanted from and would do with their content. But City of Villains consistently had (and, on private servers, still has) like 1/5 of the population as City of Heroes at any given time. WoW doesn’t have a divide that harsh. Horde players are about as common as Alliance. Even if we assume that PvP players – who are more likely to pick a villainous faction, given the option – just never played CoX at all, they’re still outnumbered by 2:1 on non-RP, non-PvP servers (RP servers are 3:2 in favor of Alliance and non-RP PvP servers favor Horde), not nearly as bad as CoX’s 4:1.

Villains Need Proactive Content

What’s up with that? I mean, the section title kind of gives the game away a bit, but I need to introduce the premise. Here in this post, we’re going to pretend that it’s 2004, City of Heroes has been out for a couple weeks or months or however long it was before production on City of Villains has started, and the higher-ups have just given the project the green light. Sudden, Jack Emmert is struck down by an evil witch, brings me there through a time tunnel from 2020, and proclaims that a terrible curse shall be laid upon the studio and all its employees if they do not give me absolute control over the project. Also, she says she’ll blow up the world if I don’t play along, so I can’t just tell them good luck with that curse thing, walk out on them completely, and try to use the next ten years to try and avert the darkest timeline and/or become personally wealthy enough to not be affected by it.

Let’s start by figuring out what the problem here is. Maybe people just don’t like playing bad guys? The Horde aren’t meant to be the villains of WoW. Horde and Alliance are supposed to be a grey vs. grey thing. Sure, the writers are terrible at remembering this and regularly pretend that WarCraft 3 never happened and we’re still in good humans vs. evil orcs mode, but at least nominally, Horde isn’t the evil faction, they’re just the spikey faction. So, y’know, maybe I’m just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, here.

But I think a lot of it also comes down to City of Villains being bad at making you feel like a villain. The standard theme park MMO mechanics are good for heroes who uphold the status quo, not for villains who are destroying it.

Dr Horrible
Because the status is not quo!

In a standard theme park MMO, you go to a place, you find a number of people who need help, and you punch their problems until they go away, receiving treasure and XP until you are high enough level to go to a new place and punch new problems. This is perfect for heroes and very bad for villains. City of Villains’ writing is generally much better, its characters are interesting and the tasks they want you to do are much more directly informed by their motivations. In City of Heroes, a reporter, a beat cop, and a small business owner would all ask you to beat up the Skulls because the Skulls are bad guys doing bad things in the neighborhood, but in City of Villains, a sentient talking radio would send you a transmission telling you that you were on a short list of villains to be brought down by Federal Bureau of Superpowered Affairs and also where you could find that list so you can destroy it and force the government to reprioritize from scratch, which will buy you some time and hopefully even get them to pivot to other villains completely. Who knows how those guys decide who goes on these lists, right?

But better writing or not, it’s not villainous. Someone gives you a tip, and you do the thing. And it’s the same when other supervillains hire you as a mercenary, or recruit you to a bank robbery because they need your talents, or even when some of your villainous allies help you in a scheme to go to an alternate timeline where supervillain supreme Lord Recluse has taken over the world, assassinate him, and come back with the severed head as a “don’t fuck with me” statement, which is about as close to actually killing and replacing the supervillain supreme as an MMO could get.

Fair enough, but regardless of the fact that the penultimate villain plotline was hemmed in the game being an MMO at all, the major problem here is that these are all reactive. Your quest leads put emphasis on the XP and treasure you’ll be getting at the end, but you still fundamentally go to a place, find people with problems, and punch their problems until they go away. But given that an MMO is a place that you go and not a map that you alter, how can you even have villain content, besides painting hero content red and hoping no one notices?

I’ll tell you how: Maniacal schemes is how. A maniacal scheme is something like “kidnap and ransom the mayor” or “build a death ray.” I don’t know how much slack the team had for developing new interfaces, but worst case scenario, these options can be presented by a level 7-50 contact (the maniacal schemes system doesn’t come online ’till level 7, I’ll get to why in a bit) who is always considered active. In fact, having them be presented by a contact is the best way to go even if we could have a new interface for maniacal schemes, because it allows you to have a sycophant. The sycophant is the guy who asks your villain “so, Brain, what’re we gonna do tonight?” Then you select which maniacal scheme you want, and this initiates a dialogue (written, like many dialogues in CoX, with a structure that implies many of your responses without the game having to assign you any exact words) in which the sycophant lays out what materials will be required, by saying things like “but how’re we gonna transport all that gold? Oh, I suppose that is what the truck’s for.” Like the newspapers and the radio, they’re always at the top of your contacts list.

Newspaper Missions and Maniacal Resources

In fact, let’s talk about the newspaper. Firstly, I’m gonna tell the team to make it a news website. I know that here in 2004 getting your news from the internet seems like a thing that only nerdy early adopters who can’t wait for the future are doing, but trust me, this will make the game age much more gracefully. Just ride out the weird looks for a couple years, it’s not a big enough detail for anyone to unsubscribe over it and by 2010 it’ll seem dated not to use the internet for news.

But more importantly, newspaper missions are an endless, randomly generated set of missions for villains (heroes get police radio missions, which work the same way). You might need to kidnap a guy, beat up a rival super villain or a super hero who’s on your case, steal a thing, whatever. Newspaper missions were implemented in an update soon(-ish) following City of Villains’ release, but issue 7 is also when the last ten levels of villain content was released, so integrating newspaper missions into City of Villains still falls within the bounds of the exercise, here. Worst case scenario, we ship the first thirty levels of the game with newspaper missions, instead of shipping the first forty levels without like we did in the alpha timeline. Even here in the alpha timeline, newspaper missions were backwards-integrated (I guess? I wasn’t playing at the time) into the regular contact missions with the issue 7 release, so I’m reasonably certain asking the team to add them in advance is less a matter of wishing myself more time and resources than the real CoV team had and more using the fifteen years of extra knowledge I have by virtue of the evil witch’s time travel powers. By which I mean, they would’ve added in newspaper missions from the start, but they just didn’t think of that idea until after CoV launched (or until it was too close to launch to build the primary mission chains around it).

Each maniacal scheme requires certain resources. It might be a literal resource like a quantum flux capacitor for your death ray, or it might be something abstract like “friends in low places” so you can hire some goons to help you kidnap the mayor. Whatever it is, newspaper missions may offer it as a reward. And you know what rewards are for which missions in advance, so you’ll never find yourself just pulling the lever on a slot machine and hoping that the goddamn plastic explosives you’re looking for finally spit out. You just pop open the newspaper, find the mission promising plastic explosives, and do that one. We could even rig the newspaper so that specific, non-random missions offering the specific resources you need pop up when you need them. Like, in the existing Angelo Vendetti mission chain, you have a mission where you raid a boat and then there’s a mission where you beat up a science vampire, and if we wanted to translate that to maniacal schemes-land, we’d have a maniacal scheme where you want to beat up and kidnap a science vampire, and if we really want that boat-raiding mission to be a part of it, we could have the newspaper always spawn a “rob a boat” mission that drops the unobtainium restraints you need to capture the science vampire.

And this Angelo Vendetti example serves as a good example of how this is mainly just a change in presentation on what is very similar content. In the original Angelo Vendetti mission chain, you do a bunch of newspaper missions, and after you’ve built up a bit of a rep, you unlock Angelo Vendetti, who then tells you he wants revenge on the Council and will pay you to help him out. In the new version, you see a list of potential schemes (presumably maniacal scheme-ified versions of Billie Heck’s and Mr. Bocor’s mission chains are also on that list, filling out the content for the Port Oakes region), decide you want a new science vampire, and go about gathering up the materials needed to kidnap one. You meet Angelo Vendetti along the way because he hates the Council and it’s the Council’s science vampire you’re kidnapping, so he gives you a lead on one of the things you need for your scheme (a unique resource that isn’t offered as a reward from normal newspaper missions), thus introducing his character (no point in wasting perfectly good characters, and the CoV contacts often have fun dialogue). After a few newspaper missions of buildup, you unlock the unique mission to go after the vampyr.

After the boss fight with the vampyr, you can decide to sell the vampyr on the black market, dissect it FOR SCIENCE, or just kill it (maybe you hate the Council too, maybe you’re also a vampire and don’t want the competition, whatever – the “kill the vampyr” option isn’t going to get a whole lot of fluff attached to it, precisely so that the villain’s motivations can be kept vague). If we have the time to spare to code it, we could also make a special limited-use power that allows you to summon a mind-controlled vampyr as a pet, and have a fourth option be to brainwash the vampyr to your side. This one probably requires some additional materials as compared to the other three, which just have regular infamy (read: treasure) and XP payouts (and the “just kill it” option might be easier and pay out less).

Fun With Origins

You could also have some materials be origin-specific. In City of Heroes/Villains, every super has one of five very broad origins: Science, Technology, Mutation, Magic, and Natural. Originally, these origins were going to be like race selections in other MMOs, where they affect your stats and tend to synergize with certain classes, but by release, that was pared down to basically just being fluff and affecting what your starting missions are. This was a good idea. Letting people decide whether they have fire powers because they have blasting gauntlets made with super science or because they are a fire wizard is a good idea, but telling people that psychic powers are only allowed for mutants and your wizard can’t have them is bad, and declaring that backhandedly by allowing non-mutants to use the psychic powerset but making them worse with it is just being petty. You want origins to matter enough to make people feel like they’ve made a real choice for picking one but without hemming in people’s creativity by forcibly saying that this origin gets to do X and that origin gets to do Y and if that doesn’t fit your specific character concept then fuck you.

And we can further that in the maniacal schemes system by, for example, the “mind control it to be my pet” option require a magic origin to steal some spell scrolls, the science origin to steal some science data, the natural origin to steal some big stacks of cash, the technology origin to steal some gadget blueprints, and the mutation origin to steal some science juice. We won’t say what’s written on the spell scrolls, or what the science data is about, or what the money is for, or any of that. We’re just going to say you need some of it, and you will have to complete an origin-themed mission to get some. We don’t even have to lock people out of the newspaper missions for other origins. Every single mission can have an origin associated with it, and the origin-specific material is just a bonus for whatever origin you happen to be. In fact, since each origin is already associated with two other origins through the enhancement system (it would be a whole other paragraph to explain why, so if you don’t play CoX, or if you do but you sleepwalk through the mid-levels and you’ve never noticed how dual-origin enhancements are paired, you’ll just have to trust me on this one), you can have dual-origin enhancements that give you one each of two different origin-specific resources, or single-origin enhancements that give two (maybe even three?) of just one type. And you can allow converting between them, so you can turn two science data into one tech blueprint, and two tech blueprints into one natural money stack, and two natural money stacks into one magic scroll, and two magic scrolls into one mutation science juice, and two mutation science juices into one science data.

Now, the origin system has weaknesses, and tying the maniacal schemes system to it imports those weaknesses. Remember that the exercise here is that I have been given total control over the studio starting when development on City of Villains began, which is post-launch for City of Heroes, which means I can’t rewrite the origin system completely, which means I can’t fix the problem that the Natural origin covers everyone whose powers occur as a natural result of their biology but not because of mutation, which means Superman and the Punisher both count. The reason why “big stacks of cash” is the Natural origin resource is because it seems like something that literally any villainous scheme could hopefully benefit from, and the Natural origin is so broad that it’s impossible to really nail it down to any theme at all. If I could, I’d rewrite origins so “you have naturally occurring superpowers” was one origin that covered both X-Men and Superman and “you’re really good at kung fu” was another origin that covered only guys like Batman and the Punisher. That’s beyond the scope of the exercise, though, so we’re going with what we’ve got. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Sure, needing some magic scrolls to kidnap/dominate the science vampire might not be exactly what you had in mind for your magic character (maybe your magic character is a magical creature and doesn’t personally know any magic at all), but kidnapping a science vampire at all is probably not exactly what you had in mind for your character’s villainous scheme. I’m sure you can figure out an explanation.

I definitely think it’d be a good idea to have the sycophant say something like “with the right scrolls, we could cast a mind control spell on him. I know a wizard who can do the casting if you don’t know that kind of magic.” And then the player can just fill in for themselves whether their character asks the sycophant to get in touch with that wizard or tells them there’s no need. In fact, you could dodge the origin problem by having the choice of sycophant affect what special resources you get instead of the choice of origin, that way you can have Mutation, Alien, and Just Throw Money At It all be separate, although this does mean we have to rework how our conversion wheel operates, rather than piggybacking off of the existing origin wheel. I favor the origins option personally, but it’s not really critical to the design either way.

This post ended up being split into four, so next time we’re going to talk about the adjustments I’d make to Mercy Island. They’re mostly minor writing tweaks that set up the maniacal schemes system without actually using it directly at all. The good news is that all these posts should surely keep the blog updated until Conan the Hunter arrives.

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