As you may be aware, the Issue 14 update to City of Heroes included the Mission Architect, which opened the game to player-created missions.
In almost any other MMO, it would be a disastrous idea. You'd be opening up your precious lore to savage abuse by the idiot public. But comic books are resilient enough to take a bit of a battering. And if there's any set of comic book characters that's used to dealing with baffling and contradictory canon, it's superheroes. After all, DC had to create and destroy an infinite number of Earths before it could even work out what was going on in its own universe. Paragon City can probably deal with a few idiots like me writing stories about some bloke getting upset in a supermarket.
Mission Architect responds to a suspicion that's flickered through every MMO player's mind. After being asked to perform so many similar missions, to kill so many creatures of a certain type, to escort so many helpless villagers and search so many chests, you begin to wonder if the endless world of imagination that you signed up to when you handed over your credit card details... you begin to wonder it isn't just a bunch of templates.
It's a dumb realisation. Of course it's templates. Rip off the UI, and MMOs are a database no more glamorous than the TV Licensing register. And when you're dealing with such huge amounts of content, it's slightly bizarre to expect the programmers not to have reusable models and frameworks. They're programmers - that's what they do.
What the Mission Architect does is expose those templates. It transposes every text field into a form, lets you choose the success conditions of the missions, and allows you to populate your levels with the game's pre-set gangs, or characters you've designed yourself. It does this in a way that might destroy the magical illusion for anyone who hasn't really thought about it. But it also does it in an elegant, sophisticated and intuitive way that makes setting up your own missions close to effortless.
Architect Entertainment buildings have appeared in towns - and it's here that you'll play other people's stories, and write your own. It's initially disappointing that your missions don't appear in the real world, but restricting them to these buildings creates a welcome division between the official canon and the fan-built lunacy. Let's make a mission.
I'm going to try and do this without reading a manual. Reasoning that the Mission Architect is aimed at the general public, and reasoning further that the general public read books called "Shopaholic Ties The Knot", I reckon I should be able to work out what's going on here.
Happily, I'm right. The interface is friendly, and everything either makes immediate sense, or has a pop-up that explains exactly what it means. So, I set up the basic story settings. What's the mission called? Who's the mission giver? Is it open to Heroes, Villains, or both? This is the shortest section of the process, and I'm keen to get into the deeper bits, so I choose a pre-defined character, call him Gareth, and move onto a basic mission.
There are eleven objectives that you can add to a map, and each one can either be essential to the successful completion of a mission, or a side-bonus. I start off with a basic objective, "kill everyone on the map". This spawns a list of options, allowing me to select one of the pre-set groups of NPCs - if you fancy keeping your story in the Paragon City canon - or creating your own groups and members.
Choosing a group with a tight level range will restrict access to your mission, so you'll have to be consistent. This is a shame: having your creativity stifled by arbitrary numbers when their powers could be scaled back or boosted to match the player level seems unnecessarily tight. But, if you're going to use Cryptic and Paragon's canon, I guess it makes some sense to stick within their level ranges. You just can't have a story arc that involves ghost pirates and tentacles, that's all.
Keeping my missions accessible to everyone, I'm limited - so I fill an office block with security guards and ask the player to kill them all. Keeping the interface clean and text-based, you don't place the guards yourself, selecting instead how an algorithm will distribute them across the level.
Without a specified reason for the attack, this is just the sort of amoral, needless murder of family men just doing their jobs that makes me glad to be alive.
If you're not happy with the numerous groups that you've seen around the game's missions, the Architect lets you populate your stories with your own custom characters and groups. Create a group, and then populate it with gang members. Add descriptions to let everyone know you've thought it through.
I called my guys the Loveless Unborn because it sounds like a subtitle to the Crow movies without actually meaning anything. I like to imagine the LU minions muttering to themselves, waiting to be killed by a hero.
"Unborn? How does being unborn make us cool? Undead, maybe. Undesirables, definitely. But Unborn? It's bullshit, man. I wish I was in the Titanium Nutsacs, those guys really know how to throw a party."
You don't have the power to model and skin your characters - keeping it simple, remember - but you do have access to the excellent character creation set. It's no Spore Creature Creator, but the ability to create such a fantastic range of convincing comic-book characters is one of the City of Heroes' great accomplishments.
It's less suited to creating minions - by its nature, you'll end up fighting people who look like superheroes - and you won't be able to create the variety of creatures you'll find in the pre-defined NPCs. But the ability to create your own gangs, gang descriptions - essentially, your own lore - is a compelling addition.
Help Is At Hand
I've got this far - a playable mission that's not unlike a Paragon City tutorial mission - simply by exploring the interface, and doing what seemed to make sense. To Paragon's credit, it's been a complete doddle. There's no scripting knowledge required at all, everything's presented in plain English (as plain as a superhero MMO mission-creator allows, anyway), and as I've already mentioned, the help fields are all detailed enough to eliminate the need for a manual.
When you do make a mistake, the error reporting is both simple, and a useful tool to fix your mistakes. Every element of the error report is a link that takes you to the box that needs work. And it doesn't just spot empty required fields - if you create a mission where every objective is dependent on the completion of another objective, then it spots game-crippling logical flaws, and won't let you test or publish it.
So, I've created four missions, given the Loveless Unborn a personality (they prefer Lily Allen to Kate Nash, and don't think much to Katy Perry) and populated the gang with three distinct units. I feel like I'm nearly finished, but I've not reached 25 per cent of the size limit. To get nearer to that 100 per cent - which I have to remind myself is a limit, not a goal - I decide to chain together some advanced objectives.
I'm happy with my second mission - a heart-breaking metaphor for love, expressed through the medium of searching seven desks for something that was in your pocket all along. So I'm ready to spruce up Mission 3, which at the minute has quest-giving text that reads: "CAN YOU GO OVER THERE AND OBEY THE DEFAULT TEXT PROMPTS PLS"
So what can you do, apart from the four basics of Kill Everyone, Search Stuff, Fight A Boss, and Free A Captive?
Add an ally: This puts a character into the level that'll fight alongside you. Useful for balancing out a harder level, and you can choose where, roughly, in the level they'll join you. By roughly, I mean beginning, middle, end. The Ally can be on her own, or surrounded by enemies of any difficulty, and you can have her fight with full aggressive AI, or hang around and be an escort-style victim. You can also make her say things at certain trigger events, allowing you 50 or so characters to build her personality.
Add an ambush: Other missions have key moments - completion, for example - and you can flag these moments as a trigger for an ambush. A drop down menu appears here, listing all your available triggers, and you can select who'll attack from the pre-set or custom groups.
Add an escort: Select the character you'll meet (using the pre-set or custom characters as usual) and then decide if you want them to betray the players. Most of this objective's details are calculated automatically - the path you'll take, when it'll finish - but it's a good stepping stone to an ambush or a battle.
Add a patrol: You can only select one group of enemies for the mission - adding a patrol gives you more flexibility to mix up the characters. It also gives you a chance to throw in some expositional dialogue, such as "I hate patrolling caves," or "The boss just texted me to say he needs two more Rubidium crystals. So inappropriate. I'm just a minion, that shit should be on a need-to-know basis."
Add a battle: You can't have anything as epic as the battles in the main game, but you can trigger battles between two sets of NPCs. You can have one set as allies, or have both turn on you. Leave them to it, though, and they'll damage and kill each other.
Add a destructible / defendable object: Make the players destroy or defend an object from the game's library of models.
Combining event triggers and placements can have your players running backwards and forwards across the map. I tinker with the idea of having a chain of escort missions about the Chinese Olympic protests, with people trying to extinguish the Human Torch, but you can't type copyrighted names, so that's a no-no.
When you get this deep in, there's a caveat: as the mission objectives grow, the interface stops being so friendly. Objectives are listed in the order you created them, not in which order they're triggered, and there's no easy visual reference to the quickly see the overall shape of the mission.
It's not a serious problem - just use a pen and paper, they still exist - but with so much effort sunk into making this feel right, it's a shame that I ended up with my head fogging over, and deciding not to mess about with too much complexity.
Most of your time in the Mission Architect will be spent writing text. Whether it's descriptions for your new gang, quest text, clues, pop-up hints, speech bubbles from key characters or information that appears in the stat window and progress bars, the Mission Architect is basically a cluster of friendly forms.
A lot of the text forms are optional, with default text dutifully papering over the cracks in your effort. But if you're doing this in the first place, I think I'm safe in assuming that you're the kind of person who writes Wikipedia entries. You're full of words, right? Words that the world - or at least, the part of the world that you've chosen to believe actually matters - needs to hear.
Either that, or you're a ridiculous child, who just wants to see what he can slip past the profanity filter. Top tip, from one oversized moron to another - Scunthorpe, Hilary Swank, and Bum all pass the profanity check. So there's no logical reason why you couldn't call your arc "Harryhausen's Super-Ballistic Fucklebus To Bumtown". There's community moderation, but you'll still have the satisfaction of knowing you've upset some thin-skinned dick for three minutes.
Sadly, you can't design maps. It's fairly obvious why - that'd eliminate the simplicity of the Mission Architect at a stroke. Paragon has struggled so hard to make it utterly approachable, and map creation is a world apart from forms and character creators. It does leave you with a fairly limited palette of locations, but at the same time, it preserves the purity of the Architect.
Once you've got a mission and a storyline, you can test your story arc. There's a very annoying problem here, though: you can only test your storyline from beginning to end. You can't pop in and just test the fourth mission, even though they're all discrete adventures. This is where you find out that your jokes and exposition in the little boxes don't work, because they disappear too quickly, or move around too much.
Nipping in and out of the test area isn't an option, for the above reason - but you'll soon get an idea for what will and won't work. And for a great example of what doesn't, play "The Affections Of Jeff Patarken", the little turd I left in the internet for you all.
I've had fun - but I lack the discipline and narrative drive to make a story that is coherent and enjoyable. As with all systems driven by user-generated content, that's the job of the talented, dedicated 1 per cent of humanity. And even with dwindling numbers, City of Heroes has more than enough of those focused creative types to keep anyone busy for a good while yet. Plus, some good news for newcomers - even the lower levels have a wide range of missions available to them, as people seem keen on using their own characters.
NCsoft and Paragon deserve kudos for the Mission Architect, even if the recession has hit hard enough to render customer support non-existent (currently at 10 days for a reply to a basic question). It's a dream for the properly creative as well as the open-mouthed show-off. Plus, it shares the key to all successful user-generated content - you can ignore it and still have a full game. Paragon City has a few more stories to tell yet.