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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?

Stress Test: Being the Healer

Players of MMOs, like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, know the value of a “healer”–the character who heals damage in a team, so that the team’s big bruisers and snipers stay alive long enough to do their job. Healers are always in demand, whether a group is advertising for a priest or for an Empath; they know they will need someone backing them up with supportive, team-oriented powers.

But not everyone is cut out to play a Healer. If you like to deal lots of damage and kick a bunch of butt, the Healer class is not for you. If you don’t like playing with other people, and prefer to go your own way, the Healer class is also not for you. Creating and playing a Healer is about being defensive and supportive, being team-oriented, and most of all, maintaining that team as long as you can. It can be a lot of hard work, but I like to think of it as a “stress test.” If you can handle being a Healer, you can handle just about anything the game throws at you.

Throughout this article, I’ve used actual screenshots from a session of playing Lyssadia, my Empathy/Energy Blast Defender. Empath Defenders are one of the most common builds for Healers in City of Heroes, and Energy Blast typically knocks enemies back so that they are stunned for a few seconds, so her attacks still work to support the team.

Healers have to care. A LOT.

No longer can you just run ahead of your team, heedless of everything the other players are doing, and shoot or slash the living daylights out of everything. If you’re a healer, you need to care about what your team is doing, because without you to back them up, they can easily get wiped out in the middle of a big enemy spawn.

You also need to care about the welfare of each of your teammates mid-battle. Your particular MMORPG, like City of Heroes, may allow you to have a sort of “Team Window” where you can monitor each member’s health and other vital stats.

This little window is a godsend for healers. Out to the side, you can see all the little icons representing many of the buffs each character has on them–this helps me figure out who needs which buff, who needs healing, etc. I just look for the bright green icons to know whether I’ve buffed somebody recently, and I can easily watch their red Health and blue Endurance bars, too.

Believe me, as a person who’s played just about every Archetype available in City of Heroes/Villains, damage-dealing characters do depend on their healer teammates to be the “net,” to catch them if they fall! Caring healer players can literally be the saviors of their teams during huge battles.

Healers have to be responsible.

Caring also entails responsibility. You have to be paying attention to where the team is going, not wandering off randomly by yourself because you accidentally closed your Map (*raises hand* Guilty). You also need to scan the battlefield at all times, not just focus on the particular enemy or ally in front of you. This helps you stay alert to rapidly-changing battle events.

For example, here’s what happens when you focus too long on one particular thing as a Healer:

I’ve selected one of my teammates’ names in the Team Window at left, denoted by the white box around the name, and have just healed him close to full health. My own health bar isn’t looking so great, though, because in healing my teammate, I’ve come a little too close to the battle front.
See all those red numbers above Lyssadia’s golden halo? That means somebody’s damaging her. The red and blue bars just above the halo show her health and endurance–her blue endurance bar is nearly full, but her red health bar is almost half gone. I have to get her out of the line of fire fast!

Healers have to be careful not to make themselves targets; that’s one reason I say to keep moving and keep watching your screen. Otherwise, you can end up with one very dead Healer…

(This is what happens when I’ve gotten a little overzealous shooting stuff and forgotten to heal myself. Poor Lyssadia. Learn from my fail.)

Healers have to FOLLOW the team, not lead.

Healers actually work best at bringing up the rear–many healers have secondary attacks that they can fire off to prevent a few straggling baddies from stabbing the group in the back, and you can also monitor your teammates more carefully if you are behind them rather than in front of them. As the healer, don’t be the first to fling an attack or explore ahead of your group, because this is a good way to get your Empath character killed.

(Through the confusion of colors, you can see the two names in green in this screenshot–those are my two teammates up ahead of me. Since I’m behind them, I can visually monitor what is going on, and I can click-and-heal them if I need to.)

Several of my healers can fly, so usually I will hover above the fracas, healing, buffing, and offering a bit of cover fire when needed. This elevated position helps a Healer see more of the battlefield, and it can keep you in range of allies who would otherwise be out of range of targeted heals and buffs. Whether you choose to fight from the air or ground, however, it’s important to stay in a central position in the team–if you’re too far forward or too far back, you might not be close enough to a teammate to help them.

Here’s Lyssadia in flight, going “pewpewpew” at the Auto Turret in her sights. My teammates were still in sight in the larger version of this screenshot, so I could take a few shots, then heal or buff if necessary.

Healers have to heal/buff first and fight second.

Even though most healers on City of Heroes are ranged attackers as well, they really work best if you focus on buffing everyone and healing everyone first, and only attacking if absolutely necessary. It can be very tempting to start fighting along with your teammates if you start taking damage yourself, but stay the course–if you can keep your teammates alive by a few well-timed heals and buffs thrown their way, then you won’t have to worry very much about taking damage!

(In this shot, I’ve targeted onto one of my teammates, marked by the green box around his character, and am sending an application of Fortitude his way, which will increase his Damage Resistance to just about every type of damage for 1 minute.)

Healers have to focus.

Eating, watching TV, or doing anything else while trying to play a healer will not work. Even if you can type quickly, sometimes even chatting with your teammates takes too much attention away from the job at hand. Since much of the team depends on you to keep them in fighting shape, you have to maintain a focus that you don’t necessarily have to have when you’re playing a damage-dealing character.

It can be a bit stressful, especially if you’re trying to keep up with a team whose members don’t talk about what they’re going to do before they do it. But if you’ve got a good team going, with lots of communication, it’s relatively easy to stay focused.

(I’m staying a bit further back from the fray in this shot, because there are still several high-level enemies alive, but my teammates are generally mopping ’em up okay. I just need to be alert in case a teammate gets caught unawares by an enemy shot. This time, I’m not making Lyssadia fly into the fight just to get shot!)


Playing a healer does require a bit more work, but it is a very rewarding type of character to play if you enjoy being needed. It’s a team-oriented mindset that can make battle less boring and more involved…for certain, it is a VERY different kind of challenge. If you’ve never played a Healer before, give it a shot!