The Nerf Bat

Harmless, indoor fun. Hasbro's gift to mothers everywhere. This foamy, soft-to-the-touch, alternate-universe version of normally-painful objects is the perfect metaphor for describing what developers do to "overpowered" characters. "Poof! You're now a harmless orange fuzz." The City of Heroes developers created a little purple pill, a "Break-Free Inspiration" in City of Heroes speak, that can be taken by a player after they've come under a status effect. This, coupled with other, equally insidious "fixes" really put the fix in for Ayn's role in the PvP arena. Months of decisions and tactics, honed under a single set of rules, were now rendered useless by the whims of the development team.

Anyone who's ever read an interview with Warren Spector has come across the term, "emergent gameplay." The concept is pretty simple: gamers create their own gameplay experience as they learn the rules and environment of the game. These player-minted gameplay styles may not have even been foreseen by the developers, and wise developers such as Mr. Spector nourish this creativity in the games they produce. Micro managing control-freak developers with no respect for the countless hours invested by their customers, on the other hand, wield the nerf bat.

A creative environment in a virtual game world, or in the real world for that matter, cannot flourish unless the rules of that world are not in constant flux. Creativity (real creativity, not the kind where a hippie throws some paint on a canvas and feels the meaning) is largely a process of problem-solving, and changing the rules of the game renders a once-creative solution impotent. This sticks a pin in the joy balloon of the gamer who has mastered his own personal solution and is the primary cause of endless gnashing of teeth on message boards. Not only is much hard work lost, but so is any desire to initiate a new round of creative thinking for fear that a similar storm of whim will wipe clean what is about to be built as well.

Still, City of Heroes is not unique in this regard and, as witnessed by my Doom 3 walkthrough delay, it's a lot of fun to play. I'd be remiss if I didn't credit the developers with producing a fresh, fun and rewarding gaming experience. They just need to stop it already with the rule changes. Disappointments aside, it wasn't long before I reached the level 50 pinnacle that is the closest thing to an end-game offered by this genre, and it was now time to look for a new diversion.

Everquest 2

Well I'm really in it now. Everquest is the online RPG of online RPGs. We're talking Elves, Dark Elves, Half Elves, Wood Elves and someday likely Elven Elves.

Continue to Part Two

- Mike Mangold - 09/17/2005

My Year in Online RPGs (Part One)

So if there's one email that I get more frequently than any other, it definitely starts like this, "Hey Mike -- great site! It really helped me a lot with game xxx, but when are you going to do a walkthrough for yyy?"

Well, this past year I've gotten a lot of those emails, because I've spent the majority of my gaming time in online RPGs. Another acronym for these types of games is the ridiculously-long MMORPG, for massively multiplayer online role playing game. Only virtual-katana-wielding digit heads would allow such a massively multicharacter acronym to take hold. These games have their origins in tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons, resembling, at least physically, Monopoly and Clue more than Pong or Battlezone.

I never much felt the pull of these games, although I'm pretty much in the bull's eye of the target demographic. Male, majored in Computer Science, minored in math, not much into sports and still beholden to Captain Kirk as my Greatest American Hero. Yet, it's no surprise that the geek community is tragically splintered into two distinct factions: Science Fiction; and, Fantasy. I am squarely in the sci-fi camp, having a fascination for technology and The Future: bright, shiny acrylic-white with talking computers refusing to let me back in through the pod bay doors. Pods. Mmmm, lots of pods. Alternately, those musty, moss-covered dungeons of the fantasy faction, with their talking unicorns and penchant for mysticism just don't cut it for me. Not by a long shot.

City of Heroes

It only makes sense, then, that my first foray into online RPGs would be something completely devoid of elves and ogres. City of Heroes pulled me into its virtual world nearly five months after the April, 2004 release. My main character, "Main" for short -- other alternate, ancillary characters are called, "alts" -- was to be true to my libertarian ideals, and named Ms. Ayn Rand. A Mind Controller, she would specialize in status effects, powers that disable a foe, rendering him a worthless minion, battling his own demons rather than me and my allies. The primary appeal of RPGs over other types of gaming is the act of creating a back story, the "role" in "role playing," and here is the back story I created for Ms. Ayn Rand.

City of Heroes Screenshot

A Russian immigrant, Ayn Rand came to Paragon City with the singular purpose of defeating the dual enemies of collectivism and altruism. Her Objectivist philosophy of rational self interest and pure laissez faire capitalism will lead Paragon City to new heights of freedom, liberty, abundance, and architectural splendor.

Playing this character has been so much fun that she can single-handedly be blamed for delaying the Doom 3 walkthrough a good three months. Ayn's mind control powers allow her to give mind-splitting headaches to a large group of enemies, stopping them in their tracks. Likewise, she can put a second group of bad guys to sleep, and confuse a third group of foes into fighting each other while a fourth cower in fear. Brilliant!

The downside? Mind Controllers don't really inflict that much damage. Fighting solo as a Mind Controller has been described as "whittling," and that's exactly what it feels like as you slowly shave tiny bits of hit points off your opponent over time. A long time. "Don't worry," I was frequently told, "when PvP comes out you're going to rock."

PvP is player vs. player in online-speak. City of Heroes was initially PvE-only, or player versus environment combat, in which all the real-life human players fight cooperatively against their server-generated opponents (the "environment.") It was anticipated that when PvP was introduced to City of Heroes, Mind Controllers would be the ultimate challenge; you can't defeat an enemy when you're snoozing or in the grip of a controller-induced migraine. Ah, but it was not to be. This brings me to the biggest complaint I've come to have with online RPGs: the developers keep changing the rules!