As updates to fading MMOs go, a feature that rewards you for not playing stands as one of the odder ones. City of Heroes' European servers are already the wrong side of desolate - so exactly how is encouraging players to stay offline going to help? Cuts down on server costs, maybe.
Day Jobs are the headline feature of the 13th major update, or Issue, for City of Heroes, subtitled Power and Responsibility. Thematically, they're a splendid idea - the perfectly comic-book concept of a secret identity for your beefcake powerhouse, and the idea that he/she/heshe/it is doing something useful with all the time you're offline, other than wilfully ignoring his sworn duty to Paragon City. Call it Clark Kent mode.
Pick the location where you log off carefully. If it's one of several hotspots - for instance, a hospital or metro station - you'll be deemed to have adopted a career. As you spend time offline in that location, you'll build up a bonus of some sort. For instance, ducking out at a metro station adds every hour until you next log on to your Commuter job - which rewards you with a movement speed boost. Presumably the more accurate 'gradual loss of will to live' wasn't considered the cheeriest reflection of commuting. Essentially, it's like WOW's rest system, but far more playful and a lot more use to people who aren't chasing XP any more.
Clock up enough offline hours in a Career and you earn one of the many badges that have made City of Heroes a faintly absurd achievement-fest for the last couple of years. As well as granting you yet another option for the tiny title floating above your gloriously garish character, this further increases the buff earned by those offline hours.
Given City of Heroes' need for an influx of new players, Day Jobs end up being a particularly odd feature, reflective of both City of Heroes' continuing shift towards the statistical over the fantastical, and of NCsoft's apparent unwillingness to make sweeping changes to the structure of an MMO that's never managed to break out of its combat-only mould. Day Jobs are something that fits neatly and easily into a pop-up textbox and a glowing icon; there's nothing more to them than that. It was an opportunity to insert new personality into the game - whether that was by designing a specific secret identity outfit (though there are some new civilian costume pieces in the character creator if you want to manually go with the fiction), animations of offline heroes wandering around their logout areas in unconvincing disguises, some sort of odd mini-game... Instead, it's just an icon.
That's characteristic of this update. It's not like it's filler, but it's tidying up the old house rather than redecorating it. The next one, Issue 14, promises to be far more profound - its major shtick is a mission-building tool, which will hopefully reinforce City of Heroes' status as the king of self-expression in MMOs. For now, the other big change is dual-speccing.
As City of Heroes players will know, every character chooses a core class with its own abilities, which they can optionally augment with Pool Powers, which are available to everyone. The powers most useful in groups and in PVP are the least interesting, so only the most steely-jawed team player opts for them. With the new dual builds system, a visit to any trainer can immediately switch your guy over to a secondary set of powers and enhancements.
If you're a solo player, it's simply an opportunity to play with the powers you didn't pick when you specced your guy up. If you're in a supergroup, you'd be doing your superchums a major disservice if you didn't pick Leadership, Medicine or Fitness. Creating a group- or PVP-focused build isn't just a matter of swapping to other pools, either - the less spectacular core abilities also become that much more desirable when you're not stuck with them during solo play.
My energy/electrical Blaster, for instance, usually spends his time spamming enemies with blue beams: very much a blunt instrument of pure damage. In his second build, he's all about crowd control and minor healing. He looks the same and some of his powers carry over from the other build, but to use, he's almost a completely different character. Again, it's the sort of feature that answers the pleas of forum-posters, and not one to lure new players in. It sure beats having a dedicated team-play alt, though.
There's a raft of other new additions, including a new set of missions, some new costume options, easier base item recipes, and Shield powers for melee classes. It's a substantial update even if it's not a headline-making one. But the one change that really stands out is the Levelling Pact.
City of Heroes has always been uniquely sympathetic to the fact that players like to play with their friends. Where some MMOs punish this - if you're at a different level to your comrades, all playing together gets you is a lot less experience points and a lot more hassle - City of Heroes' sidekicking system enables anyone to play with anyone on a pretty much equal footing. Even so, there few things quite so disheartening to see your mate's spent three days off work with man-flu, but remained well enough to race 10 levels ahead of you.
Levelling Pact fixes that, so long as you can find someone you trust enough to sign up to one with. The idea is that 50 per cent of any XP you earn goes to your partner, and vice-versa. When you're both online, you'll be earning an equal amount of XP that should add up to pretty much the normal rate. When only one player is online, that player's levelling rate will be halved because 50 per cent of XP is still being shovelled over to the other guy. It's artificial, but it's as fair as it gets - and more importantly should mean there's always someone of your level to play with.
The downside is that it requires the pair of you to start new characters at the same time - level 5 is the last chance to set up a Pact. If you can't find a partner before then, it's of no use. It's a truly great system for real-life friends, but its success depends entirely on the influx of new players or alts being steady enough. It would have been fantastic in City of Heroes' early days - and like Sidekicking and costume creation, it's one of those innovations that prove it still has the foresight and playfulness so many other MMOs lack.
All in all, it's not an update that's likely to have many folk resubscribing. Hopefully its real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the more enticing Issue 14, which promises a vast influx of new mission content and - perhaps - players. With Issue 13 putting these bland but thoughtful new systems in place to make day-to-day life in Paragon City a bit less of a grind, Issue 14 is even better poised to give City of Heroes the kick up the bum it so urgently needs.