The strange case of Professor Myers and the Curious City may cause an observer unfamiliar with City of Heroes to initially exclaim, quite naturally, “Oh the horror, forcing people to PvP in a PvP zone! Whatever next?” Why did people get so cross with Twixt doing nothing more than playing the game properly?

PvP has always been problematic in City of Heroes. Though the developers doubtless had plans for eventually adding villains, and thus naturally PvP, City of Heroes launched in 2004 as a purely PvE game, with the mechanics very much geared in that direction. For the first year or so there was no PvP whatsoever until arenas were added in Issue 4, areas for hero vs hero PvP that you had to very specifically sign up for, and the problems became rather apparent.

You know how one of the most frustrating things for a close-combat character in PvP can be having to get into melee range, especially against opponents who can kite you with superior speed, or powers that slow and entangle you? Imagine how much more fun it is as a melee character when your opponent can *fly*, or leap tall buildings in a single stride, or teleport. Then there’s control; one archetype, the Controller, is largely based around… well, controlling, the clue’s in the name there. Their primary powersets are focused on freezing opponents in blocks of ice, or trapping them within burning rings of flame, or the very earth itself, or using the crushing force of massively increased gravity, or putting opponents to sleep; generally “mezzing” in MMO parlance. In PvP, if these powers work effectively there are howls of protest from the people who end up frozen in the block of ice totally unable to do anything, whereas if they don’t work effectively the Controller is equally frustrated that their primary powerset is rendered useless. Those were just two facets of the combat system, and thus began the Sisyphean task for the developers of trying to achieve “balance” (OK, so as with all MMOs the quest for balance had been going on from the beginning, but chucking PvP into the mix made the boulder a whole lot heavier). Combine MMO players love of change, where every minor tweak to any power is greeted with excitement and shrieks of joy, with the friendship and bonhomie that always exists between PvE and PvP focused players with their jocular cries of “griefer!” and “carebear!”, and you get a forum full of fun.

The arenas were a precursor, a way for the developers to try and get their PvP house in order for the main event: the late 2005 release of City of Villains that brought with it the villain “faction”, and several PvP zones for less structured fighting between heroes and villains. I think it’s pretty clear the developers wanted to get faction-based PvP going, but, from my perspective at least, it never really got traction (no faction action traction), for several reasons.

Despite tweaks since the introduction of the arena, tweaks that would go on for several years (and are probably still ongoing), PvP was never very balanced; some archetypes, powersets and builds worked very well, others really didn’t, and though a significant minority of players dedicated themselves to PvP and got incredibly good at it, that just exacerbated the problem when random casual players bounced into them and got annihilated.

Knowing that PvP zones wouldn’t be much good without players in them, and that many players are reward driven, City of Villains brought incentives to go into the PvP zones. Temporary powers could be acquired in them, and missions in the zones offered an XP bonus; players tended to hop into the zones, grab the missions or powers, and hop out again, offering at best fleeting targets of opportunity for actual PvPers. Then there were badges to be had in the PvP zones.

Badges are City of Heroes achievements, awarded for defeating 50 enemies of a certain type, visiting a certain location, completing a certain mission, that sort of thing, and CoH has many dedicated badge hunters, set on collecting as many as possible (especially as it’s one of the few things to do at the level cap). Some badge hunters are keen PvPers, but it’s a pretty small intersection on the Venn diagram, and many’s the forum thread started after somebody goes into a PvP zone, announces in broadcast chat “hey, I’m just after the badges, don’t attack me please!”, and utterly unpredictable events follow, like someone attacking them. Badge hunters condemn “griefers” who prevent them getting badges, PvPers condemn “griefers” who prevent, or don’t participate in, PvP in a zone designed for it, hilarity ensues.

PvP also works best when players consider themselves part of a “team”, and there’s a clear enemy to fight. City of Heroes never had much in the way of a specific “end game”, especially in its original incarnation; no PvP, no raiding (Hamidon excepted, a deliberately absurdly powerful blob-monster-thing for players to throw themselves against), no gear grind. After hitting the level cap people would often roll alts; indeed people would often roll alts well before the level cap. Even players like me, who in other MMOs tend to focus on developing a single character, would have a bunch of alts, and alt-o-holics like Melmoth could fill all the available character slots on a server in the blink of an eye, then re-roll the lot of them with new powersets and costumes before breakfast. If, at launch, players had the option of rolling a hero or villain there might have been more of a sense of two opposing sides, but with the release of CoV the overwhelming majority of supergroups (CoH guilds) just pitched up a villain version of the group on the other side of the game. The primary sense of identification remained with server, supergroup or player, rather than faction, with villains simply being another set of alts for a player. That’s not to say that nobody played either heroes or villains exclusively, for a variety of reasons, but it wasn’t a situation like Horde vs Alliance in WoW or Order vs Destruction in WAR. A few groups tried to make a real go of it; I recall one guild in particular who turned up on the Victory server after City of Villains with a “proper” PvP approach. They played villains and villains only, no hero alts on pain of being kicked, and they were out to win. They issued proclamations and challenges, all heroes would fear their name! They got bored, and faded away, the most brutal encounters as far as I could make out being restricted to the forums; when the most terrifying fate you can inflict on the other side is that they might not be able to get a temporary ability quite so easily if you happen to be in the same zone, it’s not a very heady sense of absolute power. Of course factions don’t have to be defined by the developers, they could be formed by players if the mechanics are there to support it, and there was the possibility of supergroup vs supergroup conflict. A group could build themselves a base, and with a sufficiently powerful base mount a PvE raid to claim an Item of Power. Any group with an Item of Power could then be raided by another supergroup, but though the system was tested, and even (I believe) went live for a short time, it proved too troublesome. Bases remain, but no items of power, and raiding can only be done for fun by mutual agreement. There’s rampant forum speculation as to just why that might be, but the lack of appetite for serious PvP must play a part.

Without a strong sense of antipathy between the sides, with such an entrenched PvE playerbase, PvP has remained a sideshow, underlined by the further development of the game. A single additional PvP zone was added after the release of City of Villains (and that was really only because the Villain level cap was raised from 40 to 50, in line with Heroes, at the same time), while further issues actually introduced co-operative content that allowed Heroes and Villains to work together in PvE against alien invaders or ancient Romans.

Thus where Twixt’s issues (being denounced for a “win at all costs” attitude and dedication to fighting the enemy faction that seems to be in line with the developers intentions) have echoes in similar debates in any number of other games (compare, for example, with players who’d insist on actually fighting the enemy in Alterac Valley when the vogue was to rush straight for the enemy general, and the opprobrium they’d draw), his almost universal vilification isn’t quite so surprising considering the heavily PvE focused nature of the majority of the player base and lack of faction identification, in spite of any developer attempts to nudge them towards hero vs villain PvP.

Posted by Zoso at 2:31 pm