Friday 21 October 2011

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded as to just how confusing and daunting MMOs can appear to a person who has never played one before. City of Heroes is good at doing this because even though I’ve played the game before, and even though I’m fairly familiar with many of the tropes and systems with which we associate MMOs, CoH has added many new systems since I last played regularly, and it often does things a little bit different to the MMO norm anyway.

City of Heroes now has Trials, a sort of dungeon run restricted to one location, rather than the multi-mission, multi-location story arcs of the Task Force group content. I guess you could see the Trials as Not-so-Public Quests, in the fact that you go to an instance with a fixed group, but the challenges of the event dynamically update as your group completes each stage. At the lower levels the main trial is Death From Below, or ‘sewer trial’ as it is often referred to among the CoX cognoscenti. You can queue for the trials through a LFD-like interface, but the CoH crowd, being the more sociable and old-school lot that they are, generally seem to prefer organising a group through global chat channels such as Global and Help, and then queuing the whole group up at once, whereupon it is instantly ported into the instance.

I say instantly, but of course it takes differing amounts of time for people’s computers to load the map, and this is where my problems began. Having been the first into the map, I decided to have a quick look around the start, where I quickly found a helpful Longbow NPC who offered to train-up my character if they required it, as well as offering a number of other services. No, not *those* kind of services, longbow is not a euphemism. Since the XP gain is so mind-bogglingly delicious in these trials, or certainly this specific trial at these low levels, the developers have helpfully added NPCs at various stages through the run who will train-up your character, so that you can gain levels and get your new skills without even having to wait to the end of the current instance run. Nifty!, as I believe the loquacious kids say.

One of the other services offered, however, was to switch to a different character build. This was new to the game since I’d last been there, and looking around and not seeing the rest of the group yet, I decided to have a quick play with swapping my build.

I’ve had better ideas.

Having switched builds, I found myself with no powers whatsoever on my hotbar. Not to panic, a quick word with the NPC about training and I could see that I was essentially a level one character, with seven-or-so levels worth of powers and slots to pick, exactly as if I’d just initiated a character respec. It makes sense: when you want to change character builds, you’re generally going to want to use a different build. Okay, admittedly in a game like CoH I can sort of picture those builds being categorised as ‘AoE Damage’, ‘More AoE Damage’, ‘The Same AoE Damage But With Different Colours’ and ‘Defensive Build With Contingency for… Nah, Just Kidding, This One Does Urethra-Loosening AoE Damage Too’, but in reality there genuinely are different ways to build most powerset combinations, mostly for damage, but control/defensive builds are a valid consideration; not to mention the fact that you use an entirely different set of enhancements (the game’s item/e-peen/advancement equivalent) for each build, which with the game’s crafting system giving a wide variety of enhancement ‘sets’ (each of those sets giving interesting bonuses and procs based on the number of enhancements of that set slotted in your character’s powers), means you can add quite a variety of customisation to a character. But if we’re honest, it’s mainly about the AoE.

It was, of course, while staring at a blank character build that the rest of the team turned up. Fair enough, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with this secondary build anyway, so I just swapped back to my origina… ‘You Must Wait Fourteen Minutes Before You Can Change Builds Again’.

Oh dear.

What followed can only be described as a frantic grab for powers as the rest of the team opened up the sewer doors and began dispensing AoE justice – the best kind of justice. It was like being late for work, where you dash around the house grabbing whatever you think may be necessary, nay, whatever immediately comes to hand, such that you turn up to work with your trousers on back-to-front, and a briefcase which contains a pair of socks, your wife’s epilator (buzzing), one slipper, a packet of sultanas (mostly emptied out into your bag), three dishwasher tablets, half of yesterday’s broadsheet, and your cat, who looks at you with the hate-filled eyes of one who has been unceremoniously dumped in a dark bag and forced to fight for its life with an aggressive epilator.

I accepted the powers that I’d frantically grabbed, and jumped into the action. We completed the instance without any trouble, probably because with eight players all blasting away, there’s not an awfully great challenge to the whole affair, even if one of those players is standing at the back and using the mutated macramé power they mistakenly picked – knotting particularly vicious looking cushions to throw at the enemy, while hoping that nobody else on the team notices.

It’s interesting how such a simple thing can cause trouble. I can’t honestly say whether it was my ‘yeah, yeah’ MMO attitude to clicking on buttons, or whether there indeed wasn’t a prominent warning to let the player know that they wouldn’t be able to change builds again for fifteen minutes, BEFORE they committed. Regardless, for anyone who doesn’t really understand ‘alternative builds’ in the context of MMOs, it might well cause a lot of confusion and frustration for the new player to find themselves locked out of their main build for fifteen minutes. Either way, it reminded me of how much I take for granted in MMOs these days with respect to my inherent knowledge, and how hard it must be for developers to truly place themselves in the shoes of the new player, to weight their tutorials, instructions and warnings so as to give those who are inexperienced the best possible chance, while at the same time not hindering the ‘yeah, yeah’ crowd of MMO regulars.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a staff meeting and I need to quickly pop a tie on Mr Tiddles and brief him on how to act like another software engineer. Mainly it involves instructing him to only purr when a particularly interesting algorithm is displayed on the projector screen, and to not lick his bum at the conference table (etiquette dictates that such activity is generally to be confined to one’s cubicle). Having his hair attacked savagely and randomly by an epilator was a good first step to a disguise, however; he will do well here.

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