We could be heroes.

I’ve been reading the rather interesting developer blog of Orion for Lord of the Rings Online, where they are currently describing the process of revamping the Garth Agarwen instance and also answering questions with regards to Turbine’s decision to revamp a lot of the existing content in order to streamline it. It’s a fascinating insight into how things go on a day-to-day basis, and why and how decisions are made with regard to content updates.

One of the interesting decisions that’s been made is to reduce Garth Agarwen down to an instance balanced for three players, and as such part of the change is to reduce the number of mobs present. This prompted one of those daydream moments where the mind, as though reaching the plateaux of the rollercoaster of thought, is released with a hiss of opening brakes, pauses but momentarily on the cusp of a train of thought before plummeting down into the realms of flight and fancy. Looping the loop, it then twists and turns, throwing ideas violently from side to side until eventually it comes to an abrupt halt back where it started, and the rider sits there stunned as the realisation slowly creeps in that they cannot really be sure what just happened for the last minute and a half.

Still, as my mind staggered wobbly down the steps and away, vowing never to do that again, and wishing it hadn’t consumed that huge blog post just before taking the ride, it did manage to hold on to a small snippet of the short sadistic journey. Simply put, the thing that bothers me is that many MMOs rely not only on the Holy Trinity of classes to see them through combat, but also seem to prefer a design where players will only be expected to face one or two mobs at a time in a large number of cases, especially outside of instances. As such I think I was, in part, lamenting the reduced role of crowd control in many MMOs these days, where it is often eschewed for a more classical tank and spank routine and used only to deal with unexpected additional mobs, or in special cases where the encounter is designed specifically for its use.

One exception to the general rule is City of Heroes, and I believe it does things exceptionally well (as all exceptions should), not only in terms of crowd control, but also in terms of the number of mobs that characters can face once they reach a modest level of power. If there’s one thing that City of Heroes did right, it was in making the players’ characters feel powerful. Heroic, if you will. That and the astonishing character creator.

Two! The two things it did well were making characters feel like heroes, and giving the players flexibility in character creation. And allowed players to effortlessly team across the broadest range of levels.

Three! Three things… I’ll come in again.

Traditionally in MMOs the intended style of play follows the pen and paper style: you enter the fortress or lair of an enemy force, move carefully from room to room (each essentially a micro-instance) and fight the small number of enemies present there. The only time that rule is broken is if a patrol arrives unexpectedly, a low-health runner manages to get to another room and fetch some friends, or Knifestabkilla accidentally pulls the next room in the middle of doing the “Jump around. Jump around. Jump up, jump up and get pwned” dance. Usually such things result in a wipe, unless the party is lucky, exceptionally well coordinated or hideously over-levelled/geared for the content.

In City of Heroes, if you can still see your character under the pile of mobs that you’re fighting ‘you’re undertaking the task in an incorrect fashion’, as I believe the cool kids say down on the MMO street. Not only that, City of Heroes also has an entire class dedicated to mass amounts of crowd control. Admittedly CoH isn’t alone in this regard, EQ2 has some fairly strong CC classes, and LotRO utilises them to a certain extent, WoW used to make good use of it but seems to have let that fall by the wayside recently, but I can’t recall it ever being on the grand scale that CoH allows for. Which is a shame, because I think crowd control in PvE is a viable and interesting game-play alternative to the soft “Yo mamma!” control that the average MMO tank possesses. The controller could be the enabler to huge battles in other MMOs, without having to unbalance the player characters such that they must always face an entire battalion of enemies at a time in order to feel any challenge, and where any lone mobs would therefore simply implode the moment a hero arrived in their zone. Controlling a battle can be tremendously rewarding as a player, watching the ebb and flow of the various enemy groups and locking down those that might otherwise overwhelm your party, judging when to use AoE powers that will inevitably draw massive amounts of ire from the mobs when they eventually break free, and when to simply neutralise the more potent individuals of a wave of mobs – the healers for example – and allow the rest through because they can be managed by the tank-n-spankers. It is a style of play that requires an overview of the field of battle like no other, and unlike healing it would be very hard to reduce it down to a bunch of bars that you simply play whack-a-mez on.

The benefit of the Controller is that, as I mentioned, it is an enabler for ‘crowd combat’, something that I think is sorely missing in many MMOs. That’s not to say that fights with a couple of powerful mobs should be abandoned, but crowd combat is enormous fun when the players are empowered to deal with it. The down sides to massive crowd control are enabling a class that wields it to solo without them being ridiculously overpowered, and that if there’s one thing that PvP players hate more than crowd control, it’s even more crowd control. Unless they’re the one in control, in which case it’s all a hilarious jape and everyone should stop complaining about it; which is about the time that they get stun-locked to death and go off and write a roaring inferno of a post to the forums about how crowd control is overpowered in all cases, except when they use it.

At the end of the day I just think it’s a shame that most WoW players looked at the Leeroy Jenkins video as a hilarious comedy of errors leading to drawing the aggro of a vast number of enemies that couldn’t possibly be survived; whereas City of Heroes players were probably wondering when they were going to pull the second and third rooms to make it more interesting. I think players are missing out on something special, and although there are games that allow you to explore this style of play, they are few and far between, and it is seemingly a style of play that is much out of fashion with developers these days. It’s funny how, in a genre of games where the players are supposed to play heroic characters, developers seem to shy away from many elements of play that would make the players feel exceptional.

Apologies for the somewhat waffling whimsical nature of the post, when one rides the rollercoaster of ideas after having only just dined heavily on the words of others, one tends towards vomiting verbiage thereafter.

10 thoughts on “We could be heroes.

  1. unwize

    Even the modest level of CC in LotRO was enough to cause much frustration in PvMP, although they did significantly reduce the durations and ramp up the diminishing returns a while ago.

    In PvE, CC comes in very handy in many of the 6-man instances, and is near essential for a few boss fights. I haven’t tried out the new 12-man raid yet, but in the equivalent level 50 raid, The Rift, at least 1 CC class (Lore-master, Burglar) was mandatory, preferably 2, just to deal with the regular trash pulls.

    One of the main factors that helps to maintain my interest in LotRO is the designer’s ability to find new ways to add complexity to the PvE experience. Since launch, they’ve been steadily placing more and more emphasis on curable mob debuffs, removable mob buffs (corruptions), breakable inductions, etc. When forming an instance group, you have to consider quite a bit more than ‘do we have enough tanking, healing & DPS?’

    But yeah, LotRO does tend towards smaller and more powerful mob groups as opposed to large groups of weaker mobs. From my very limited experience of CoH, taking on large groups is fun, and certainly has its own challenges, but it does seem to limit the possibilities for designing unique encounters based on the synergy between highly customised mob types.

    I’m not sure if that made any sense, but I’m just trying to give a bit of an insight into the design of the new 3-man instances added in Book 8, particularly the Hall of Mirrors, where every single trash pull has a unique ‘flavour’, and consequent challenge, due to the combination of mobs involved.

  2. Zubon

    A LotRO problem has been reducing the value of crowd control in the late game. Entire encounters, notably the boss fights, will have complete CC immunity, sometimes including immunity to fellowship maneuvers. Well that’s great, let’s make Loremasters even less desirable, while removing primary skills from the Burglar and secondary ones from the Hunter. What, this guy’s even immune to slow?

  3. pjharvey

    I think the problem is that most crowd control is reduced to immobilisations. It is never fun to play a game only to be removed from the action, by being stunned or incapacitated in some way, whether it is an MMORPG or pen’n’paper RPG, as you end up being entirely uninvolved. It doesn’t work on single-mob fights, like boss fights, because the more stuns you can bring the more the boss is ineffective and easier to defeat, so they are made immune to most crowd control too.

    What is needed is more crowd control that keeps players involved. Don’t ask me what, as I’m no game designer. I’ll give it a quick thought, though.

    Knockbacks are irritating, but at least keep a player moving and involved.

    Zones of damaging or slowing terrain work as a kind of crowd control for bosses, maybe implement this for players too.

    How about instead of taunts a squishy PC can be turned invisible, making them impossible to target.

    Maybe psychic effects that cause a PC damage if they don’t target the source of the effect, used by a tank as a taunt.

    I dunno. But I know that whenever a character of mine is immobilised I get bored really quickly. Crowd control is balanced poorly between PCs and NPCs and really could use some different thoughts.

  4. Stabs

    It all stems back to people slavishly following WoW.

    WoW reduced the role of crowd control because it wasn’t fun in pvp to be perma-sheeped or sapped while the rest of your team was whittled down.

    But that meant less cc being used in instances and so on partly because of game mechanics but more because people simply got out of the habit of not breaking it.

    Everyone else follows where WoW has lead.

  5. Stabs

    @ pjharvey

    One idea from pen and paper was the use of mind control where the player would have to literally do what he/she was told. And could subvert it.

    This led to wonderful fight scenes where the Succubus would scream “defend me!” at her charmed victim and the victim would declaim “you know demons aren’t necessarily bad you know, after all morality is always relative” while his friends chopped her to bits.

    Her last words were “that’s… not …. quite …. what … I …. meant.”

    Quite how to work that into a computer game I’m not sure but that is an example of being corwd controlled and it being fun.

  6. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Here’s the problems as I see them.

    First, I don’t think that wiping out masses of weaklings is necessarily that much more heroic. It’s like the whole “how many fifth graders could you take in a fight?” meme that was going around a while ago. It might make me feel powerful, but heroic?

    Not that the current system is any more heroic, really. It kind of sucks to think you’re this badass hero then see something wandering by that could swat you aside like a gnat.

    I kind of hestiate to go on to the next point because I know someone will take it the wrong way. But, crowd control is a problem because it takes a lot of skill to do it right. Not only does the person doing the CC need to be on the ball, other people need to understand the problem. How many times did some AoEer break the CC in your groups? More times than I care to count. The nature of CC abilities as they are in games means that other peoples’ options are limited when its in effect.

    It also forces a specific group composition. It already sucks when you have a group ready to go, only no tank or healer. Now add in that you have to find a competent controller and it’s just more painful. If you make CC “nice but not necessary” then it will get left behind as burning down mobs is always easier, especially since DPS is easier to find.

    What’s the solution here? I’m not sure. I think my personal preference for going away from class-based systems is a good one here, because you don’t have classes based around the idea. I really feel sorry for Burglars after all the stories I hear about them getting beat down in LotRO. Making enemies immune to the one thing you’re supposed to excel at just hurts. Otherwise, not sure what you can do besides chucking the whole system out and starting anew.

    BTW, my anti-spam word is “clinchpooper”. I don’t want to know….

  7. pjharvey

    If you remove the conception of ‘crowd control’ as ‘immobilisations that are broken by damage’ then you remove the problem of AoE-happy DPSers from ruining crowd control.

    If all forms of crowd control are only stuns and its variants then it is bound to be annoying in PvP and necessary to make bosses immune to it. But with some different thinking I don’t see why crowd control cannot be revamped in to something useful and interesting.

    Hmm, how about some mind control that reverse hostile and friendly targets, or making all targets appear hostile? I’m sure there are plenty of interesting effects that can be achieved as soon as developers stop thinking in ‘stuns’.

  8. Sente

    First, I don’t think that wiping out masses of weaklings is necessarily that much more heroic. It’s like the whole “how many fifth graders could you take in a fight?” meme that was going around a while ago. It might make me feel powerful, but heroic?

    That is true, however in the City of Heroes case you will not only get the weaklings as the groups of mobs grow, but also tougher ones. Large enough group and high enough difficulty setting and you will reguklarly have boss mobs in your encounters.

    Heroic is perhaps not necessarily the best description, but perhaps rather empowered – a character will be able to have greater effect as mob groups get larger and one will get more powerful mobs in the groups. Going from player solo play to team play can provide a bit of a rush in that respect.

    Crowd control can certainly be challening if it gets messed up with other powers used. Again here I think City of Heroes provide a nice approach here in that it gives the crowd control archetypes (Controller and Dominator) a multitude of crowd control-type powers, each with their advantages and disadvantages (hold, immobilize, intangible, sleep, disorient/stun, confuse, plus some ghetto CC options in form of knock-up/down/back powers)

    The player is empowered to make his own choices here on what to use, both in terms of powersets chosen and powers within the powersets.

  9. Pardoz

    My experience with CoX is that, quite contrary to enforcing specific group composition – “It already sucks when you have a group ready to go, only no tank or healer. Now add in that you have to find a competent controller and it’s just more painful.” – the availability of strong CC (of multiple types) and the emphasis on buffs/debuffs opens up group composition a lot. Tanks become another CC option, and “healers” another buffing option. The Trinity becomes buffer/debuffer/crowd-controller, rather than healer/DPS/tank.

  10. Zoso

    … how about some mind control that reverse hostile and friendly targets, or making all targets appear hostile?

    City of Heroes has some Confuse effects that, in PvE, cause mobs to fight on your side, and in PvP switch friend and foe classification, which is quite interesting, though if the confuse-ee is paying attention they just generally stop what they’re doing. Also led to great fun early on when PvP was introduced, and players found a way to get back to the starter zone of Atlas Park while confused, trigger their level 32 Blaster nuke and wipe out everybody standing around the trainer…

    Oh, and the other thing about larger groups of opponents is that while in some cases it’s just swapping quality for quantity, it can also give mobs a slightly more interesting dynamic when they’ve got tanks, support, dps etc, as some of the CoH enemy groups do (the ones some players avoid to go beat on piles of dumb stuff, usually…)

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