The Slow, Agonizing Death of AE Missions

Author’s Note: Though this post references the currently slumbering MMO City of Heroes, it’s an important historical post because it reminds us players of what we need to be careful of if/when the game returns. I’d like to see true Architect Entertainment missions enjoy a renaissance along with the game itself!

Architect Entertainment missions (also known as AE missions) enjoyed a great popularity when issue 14 of City of Heroes/Villains was released back in 2009. For the first time, City of Heroes players could write their own missions and have other players play them, instead of doing runs of the same in-game content over and over again. The week i14 released, you couldn’t even walk your character by the Architect Entertainment buildings without lagging, because there were so many heroes crammed inside waiting to take part in the new facet of gameplay.

But in 2011, just two scant years after the AE system was introduced, the AE building stood mostly deserted. If you came in to play a player-created arc, you likely had the run of the whole place to yourself. New players didn’t even know what the building was for, because nobody much played there anymore.

As a CoH player who dabbled in creating her own arcs (and as a player with an arc-crazy boyfriend), I’ve wondered why this creative outlet lost its charm, when it had been such a hopping, popular place to be for months on end after its addition. But, with a little digging, I believe I discovered at least some of the reasons why the AE mission system’s novelty wore off:

“XP Farm” missions were outlawed.

When the AE building was first unveiled, crafty and clever gamers were quick to jump on the bandwagon of making missions–but these players were making missions that focused solely on gaining XP, throwing storylines and character creation completely out the window. Some missions were created around enemies that wouldn’t fight back, so they were easy kills; others were made of thousands of copies of the same purple Elite Boss enemy, so the XP was maximized and the sheer challenge level was lifted. These and other types of missions like these were called “farms,” because you could easily gain XP from them.

Needless to say, the game developers were not happy with this–suddenly, people were leveling their characters so fast that it wasn’t even about enjoying the gameplay anymore, but about having the most level 50 characters! Thus, the devs began to put in place several “safeguards” against farm creation in the Architect Mission editor (for instance, you couldn’t pick enemy groups that don’t fight back), which lowered the power levels of these “farm” missions severely. (Not to say that all farm missions were gone–they just became less XP-crazy than before.)

More interesting in-game content was added.

The AE building predated several of the most important game updates: the Going Rogue expansion, Alignment Missions, and the Incarnate system. All 3 of these innovations drew attention away from the AE system.

Going Rogue

The Going Rogue expansion box allowed for two totally new character alignments (Vigilante and Rogue), as well as the ability to cross Heroes over to City of Villains, and vice versa. Not only that, but there was a whole new area of the game to explore, a group of three islands known collectively as Praetoria (a level 1 to 20 city).

Alignment Missions

Players suddenly got the chance to change their status from “Hero” to “Villain” (or vice versa) with what were called “Tip” missions, or spur-of-the-moment missions you could run in any zone you happened to be in. “Tip” missions aided a player’s ability to either reinforce their character’s current alignment or to start the process of changing alignment.

For instance, I had a Villain character that I wanted to change over to Hero, so I ran 10 Heroic Tip missions, then a Morality Mission that allowed me to change my alignment to Rogue. From there, I was able to run 10 more Heroic Tip missions and another Morality Mission that allowed me to finally change over to Hero. The Tip missions were fairly easy to complete and didn’t require returning to a contact, so they were much faster and easier processes, while still being good ways to gain XP, especially with a team.

The Incarnate System

Lastly, with the game update called issue 20, the game developers released the Incarnate in-game content, made specifically for level 50 characters. Pre-issue 20, City of Heroes mirrored real life in a way–your character got to level 50 (was done leveling up), and they didn’t really get to do anything more of importance except make you double money every time you defeat a bad guy. It was like a middle-aged person having worked 30 strong years only to retire, sit at home, and do nothing.

With the addition of Incarnate content, there was suddenly something to strive for on your level 50 toons. Not only were there new challenges to unlock (like the super-challenging Incarnate Trials), but a whole new system of upgrading your character’s performance, called the Incarnate slot, was unveiled. Now you could potentially choose to upgrade all your characters’ powers at once with one Enhancement, to boost Damage, Accuracy, Endurance Cost, or Recharge Time. In short, there was a reason to play your level 50 characters again, those characters that you worked so hard on. Thus, less attention was paid to AE missions.

There was very little special reward for playing AE missions, outside of getting AE Tickets and a few badges.

AE Tickets could purchase in-game Invention Salvage, Enhancement Recipes, Inspirations…and very little else. It wasn’t exactly the most enticing prize ever. Not to mention that the CoH developers began to dislike the system itself because of all the farm missions, which meant they withdrew much of their official support. While the AE system was still an occasional showcase for creative talent, it wasn’t attractive to most players, who were not willing to put that much effort into creating their own game content.

The “rating” and “searching” system for player-created missions was idiotic at best.
Picture this: when you finished playing an AE mission, you had the option to rate it and type in a comment, which was then sent as a private message to the author of the mission. But since most people don’t like giving 5-star (top) ratings to just any mission, they often just gave a mission 4 stars.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But in fact, when you rated a player-created mission 4 stars, you doomed that player to never having their mission played again. Basically, if a mission didn’t show up on the first 3 pages of the Architect Editor’s simplistic search function, nobody saw it, and so nobody would play it unless you talked it up on the CoH forums or to other players directly. There is a reason players referred to this phenomenon as “Four-Star Hell”–when your mission dropped to a 4-star rating, you could just about trust that your hard work wasn’t going to be seen by other players. (Trust me. I made a mission that got rated 4 stars, and it got maybe 5 plays over a 16 month period–and it only got that because my boyfriend suggested it to a team I was playing on.)

There was really no way to type in a “type” of mission and search for it–you either had to know the mission arc’s ID number/title, or you needed to know the author name. Again, nobody was willing to put in that kind of effort for a game, so the same old missions on pages 1-3 of the AE Machine got played over and over again.

What Could Be Done Differently This Time Around?

  1. Giving some kind of more tangible reward, such as a special costume choice, extra influence, a cool power, etc., for mission creators; maybe even extending that to players who do certain numbers of AE missions.
  2. Making it possible to search missions by keyword, custom character names, enemy groups used, etc–in essence, making the search engine more diversified.
  3. Supporting mission creators by picking a mission with very few plays and hyping it every week or every month–just knowing that someone else actually cares about player-created missions is a huge boost for shy creators like me who don’t like to holler and shout about their creations.

These are just my ideas–what do y’all think?

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