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Rogue architects


A fascinating situation is unfolding in the City of Heroes universe, and I'm glued to it like a rubbernecking reality show junkie. I don't play CoH anymore (I subscribed for a few months after its release in 2004), but I think what's happening there is worth our attention because it highlights the intricate relationship a game can forge between its creators and its players.

City of Heroes (and its companion City of Villains) is a superhero comic book MMORPG published by NCSoft. 14 major updates have appeared in the 5 years since its release, and the game continues to attract a loyal fanbase drawn to its deep character creation system, lore-heavy story arcs, and teamwork-based gameplay. Reliable data is hard to come by, but CoH has roughly 100-150 thousand subscribers in the US and Europe.

Last month, CoH introduced a major update featuring a new tool called Mission Architect, which allows players to create their own original adventures and share them with other players. According to NCSoft, Mission Architect makes CoH the first MMORPG to incorporate user-created content. A crucial aspect of this new system is its impact on character progression. User-generated story arcs bestow knowledge, experience, and rewards equivalent to those available in the regular game, so players can level up their characters by completing these user-created scenarios.

To a narrative nut like me, Mission Architect is exciting stuff. Within obvious game-world and game-engine limitations, Mission Architect enables players to create stories, dialogue, and original characters from scratch, as well as define mission objectives and test/iterate before publishing. Other players rate these adventures from 1-5, and devs scour user-created content and highlight the cream of the crop. Mission Architect's takeaway message is clear: Anyone can be a storyteller with an audience in City of Heroes.

Early reports on Mission Architect were enthusiastically positive. The Escapist called it "hugely impressive," and Wired's Game|Life described it as "intensely successful." NCSoft's GDC presentation on the new system was thorough, illustrating the developer's careful plan for implementing such an ambitious update to their game.

But when Mission Architect was released on April 8, things went bad quickly. Within hours, players had created hundreds of exploit missions delivering huge rewards for very little effort. Soon the rating system was undermined by the emergence of '5-star badge cartels': players banding together to assign '5' scores to the most exploitative content and lower scores to all others. Loud outcry from other players forced the devs to respond, and they acted quickly. The lead designer posted a message in the CoH forum titled "Abusing Mission Architect":

When we created Mission Architect, the goal was to have an outlet for players to craft cool stories, using our assets, that other players could play and participate in. Other players could rate those stories and the best-of-the best would rise to the top.

While we have accomplished some of those goals with the initial launch of Mission Architect, some have found ways to abuse the system we put in place. We are not blind to this happening, nor did we not expect it. However, it is time to take action regarding it, so please be aware that we are about to implement a zero-tolerance stance on the extreme abuse we are seeing in the system...

7,480 comments to this message were posted in two days. Vitriol and reason battled with no apparent winner before the thread was finally closed.

I find this situation intriguing and noteworthy for several reasons.

  • The developers appear to have been blindsided. After five years of chasing down one exploit after another, it's hard to imagine how they could have missed this oncoming freight train, but they did. At GDC they indicated they would automatically scan for violations (inappropriate language or content) before allowing user-created content to reach the live servers, but they apparently had no system in place for catching content designed solely for power-leveling.

  • Mission Architect is a reminder that players define "play" and "fun" in a variety of ways. When I first heard about the CoH update (courtesy of the Gamers With Jobs podcast) my initial reaction was "Great! I can tell stories!"; but plenty of other people clearly thought "Great! I can min-max the system!" While I'm sympathetic to the devs' desire to maintain a level playing field in their MMO, gaming the system and figuring out its loopholes is a game with a certain seductiveness all its own. Players are drawn to exploits like moths to flames.

  • Games that employ story, characters, and lore are nearly always built on the framework of a rule-based system with rewards and win/lose conditions. Mission Architect is a story-building tool, but it cannot function separately from CoH's game elements. So while the devs may see it as a tool to encourage players to be creative with narrative, many players see it as a tool to be creative with the game's underlying system. One use of the tool may be approved over the other, but the tool requires both properties to be functional.

    We might also characterize both behaviors as essentially creative. Perhaps the difference is that one is constructive, while the other may be seen as destructive...and how games both proscribe and encourage 'destructive' behavior is probably another bullet point. Or another post.

Got more bullet points? Send them my way.