City of Heroes ... the road less travelled?
When it launched, City of Heroes (commonly called CoH) bucked a lot of long standing MMO trends. In general, these differences coalesced together to form a unique experience, which remains popular to a solid following of players today. While it doesn't boast the popularity of runaway successful MMOs such as World of Warcraft, by deciding to be different, CoH has been a pleasant deviation down a pathway into "what if ..." territory for MMO fans.
Unique Character Customization:
Players were able to access very elaborate character customization tools prior to setting foot inside the game. Characters were not asked to walk around in bare feet and tattered clothing here, they were a superhero from the very beginning, complete with masks, spandex ... the works.
Flexible Character Ability Selection:
Another deviation from the accepted norm of the MMO genre occured during character creation. CoH adopted a more flexible character creation model, allowing players to decide (within certain constraints), what specific powers their superhero would have. Not being locked into specifc progression paths such as "Warrior", "Ranger", "Necromancer" was a new experience when CoH was released. CoH originated the idea of allowing characters to decide which specific "powersets" they would have. Players opting for the "Blaster" archetype, for example, could select whether they wanted fire, electricity, energy, or ice attacks. Not only did the attacks look different, but they had different secondary benefits, for example, many of the ice attacks also slowed the enemy down. This flexible system had the side effect of enticing players to create many alternate characters, just to try out the various combinations.
Revamped "Looting" System:
Essentially, there was no loot as it existed in other MMOs. Gone were the days of clicking on fallen enemies to see what goodies they left behind. When CoH launched, there were two, and only two, valuable commodities gained by fighting. One was currency, referred to as "influence" in the game. The other was "enhancements", which were automatically given to characters following a successful battle. Since "enhancements" acquired through battled were no different from available for sale, there essentially was no need to "camp" specific enemies to acquire special gear. This departure from the typical MMO system went a long way to curb frustrations that players new to MMOs sometimes have when realizing, while playing the "typical MMO", that they need to spend and extraordinary amount of time to acquire a specific item, or kill a specific enemy to progress.
What would a superhero game be without the ability to jet around in fantastic, unbelieveable ways that have capture the imaginations of generations of children? Well, there are no "horses" or "cars" or other mundane forms of transportation, characters can truly live out their fantasies by choosing to fly, teleport, run at supersonic speeds, or jumping around like The Incredible Hulk. Although these powers aren't immediately available, by providing characters of level 14 or higher the ability to select from very different, yet all very enjoyable, methods of getting from point A to point B, CoH masked the tediousness of getting to a mission that was a common source of grumbling in other MMOs.
Levelling Up!! (Woot!):
Another departure, although somewhat less radical, from other MMOs appears when a character gains a level. As opposed to getting a pre-determined power, or simply gaining a pre-defined amount of stat increases, players are given a choice. Sometimes they can choose a new power, typically from several available to them from their primary or secodary powersets, or they can add "slots" to existing powers, which allow these powers to be enhanced by placing certain enhancements. Enhancements can include the typical "damage increase", "accuracy increase", "range increase", but can also be more esoteric, such as "increase confuse duration", "reduce endurance cost", etc ... By providing numerous ways in which a character can select powers, and then enhance those powers, the diversity of characters goes well beyond the typical MMO.
What remains the same?:
Although CoH does do quite a bit differently, underneath the different paint, a lot remains the same. Players still battle enemies and gain XP so they can eventually gain levels and choose more powerful abilities. Although there is a different "spin" on levelling up due to the ability to "slot" powers with enhancements, underneath it all, it still becomes a grind to the next level. The fundamental philosophy of rewarding time played with a more powerful character is in full effect here as with almost every other MMO.
Additionally, although there have been some significant additions to the game following release, the core fundamentals remain the same. As a superhero, you can either spend time sweeping the street of the (significant) criminal impact on normal society, or you can accept missions for instanced zones in which you can foil capers such as bank robberies, kidnappings, attempted human sacrifices, etc ... More distractions have been added with the ability to build a base for your "supergroup" (commonly called a guild in other MMOs). Additionally, rudimentary forms of crafting have been added in which different styles of enhancments can be made by the players themselves.
It seems, in fact, that many of the changes that have been added to the game have indeed swerved CoH back towards the commonly accepted standards of MMOs. There's now more "loot" (referred to as salvage), there's a crafting system, there's player created gear (enhancements), there's an auction house (black market), etc ...
Does this mean the departures that Cryptic first tried with CoH are a failure? In my opinion, no. I think it merely stands to point out that people, in whatever aspect of their life, want to feel like they are constantly being provided with something new, or different. In the original world of CoH, deciding to add in the common MMO staples later in the game's life was indeed "new" and "different" to those who had become accustomed to this "road less travelled" version of an MMO.