A four day weekend spent largely in the new City of Heroes Mission Architect suite has been something of a startling eye opener for me. Like a great many people, I was always of the opinion that when it comes to User Generated Content, there was basically nothing an MMO could do wrong; the more options the better! Liberate the means of production! We can ALL be game designers, if only we have the tools!
I certainly thought it would be well-received, but less than a week since launch there are at time of writing, a staggering 18,000 new story arcs in the game, and Sente at A Ding World has some fascinating breakdown of the figures so far. I have no idea how many missions were actually in the game prior to Issue 14 but it is a fair bet that the players have created more content in five days than NCSoft have in the last five years. And yet far from feeling liberated by the new system, I'm increasingly finding it confusing and not a bit daunting.
The tools themselves are well done from a technical perspective, so it isn't that. They're not easy to use per se; no system that allows so much customisation could be described as 'easy', but everything is explained well, laid out in a relatively friendly manner, and extensively documented with tooltips, allowing the user to see what needs to go where well enough.
The sheer number of details that can be configured per mission is perhaps one cause for wannabe designer alarm and angst, and after about ten hours of twiddling, I've still not got a story arc that I'm entirely happy with. Making a decent enough five mission narrative is a surprisingly time consuming process, even with the tools provided.
Clearly many players are finding the process a lot easier than I am though, either having previously made up arcs during the beta and re-uploading to live now, or simply being more fluent with the system than me. With three published arcs per player, at least 6,000 players have already got the hang of things in a remarkably short time, with many more to follow soon.
Of course not every story arc will be a stellar romp or life changing experience, and many of those 18,000 arcs will be rudimentary to say the least, simple adventures with hastily thrown together basics, as much to see how the system works than to create something enduring. For many, myself included, simply playing with the new tools and the act of making the missions becomes a new kind of gameplay and having someone else actually play the thing is a bonus. And some will simply be rubbish.
So it is important to have a mission that stands out a bit, that people will like and enjoy, but against such a vast amount of competition, how do you even be seen, let alone played and ranked. For the prospective comic adventure writer, this must be another source of anxiety – to spend that time and effort, only to have the result immediately sink without a trace into a vast ocean of similarly unreviewed arcs. With that many missions on offer, getting a single player to give it a go becomes a statistical uncertainly, and other mechanisms than the simple five star rank and sort-by-rating column will be needed; exterior review sites, community recommendations, simple requests to friends. At present, there is little to distinguish one mission from the next in the ever growing collective body of work on offer.
Going at it as a humble Player is quite intimidating too. Entering with a spirit of 'giving everyone a fair go' is a route to madness. Assuming that a typical three to five mission story arc will take about an hour, I am already playing catch up somewhat; there is approximately two years of continuous play-time in the Architect Entertainment Centre already! Again, the existing systems for picking an arc to have a go at will need to be supplemented with alternatives.
All in all, the Architect System seems to have been a initial success, and a rather mind-boggling one at that. Possibly even too successful, creating a whole new feature set for an MMO which is orders of magnitude larger than the basic game it is meant to enhance.
Will the future of City of Heroes now alter forever, becoming hundreds of thousands of players all lost in the Architect, busily ignoring old-fashioned group requests and forever eschewing the basic, old-school original content in favour of the endless new avenues of fan-made imagination? Will actual players become the minority, or a commodity; a rare breed feverishly sought out and enticed by the new class of empowered amateur game designers? Or will the initial interest fade, and life return to normal, with the Architect settling down to become a tool for role-players and back-story aficionados only? As I see the unstoppable roll-out of a whole new way of life in City of Heroes, I wonder if I ever really thought through just what user-generated content in an MMO would actually mean, beyond vague notions of 'Wouldn't if be cool to be a Game Designer!' or 'I bet I could do a better job than...'
Now NCsoft have turned round and called my bluff with a hearty 'Well, here you go; let's see you try!', and I wonder if my armchair heckling was ever more than just that; well-intentioned rumblings, with no real conception of the actual work involved.
Not everyone has it in them to make a truly special gaming experience, (myself included, I suspect,) and in most cases the new Architect system is simply going to create a vast heap of arcs which are indifferent at best. It is likely to confuse, intimidate and even enrage in some cases, and will certainly divide the current population, absorbing otherwise ready and helpful potential group mates into the mission making screens for extended periods.
But despite all that, the system is a winner for me, because out of all those dozens of players who can't design a game or level or encounter for toffee, there will be the odd one or two who can, and who would otherwise never have had the chance, which makes all the mediocrity worth while. Just assuming we can find their arcs, that is!