By day, City of Heroes/Villains (aka CoX) player Joseph A. Schweinzer is a photographer and IT professional. By night, he’s Dr. Turgenev, a magic-origin illusion/storm controller and, thanks to CoX‘s Mission Architect system, author of the Developer’s Choice-winning “Ghost in the Machine” (No. 1013) arc. He’s one of 39,000 authors currently taking advantage of the new system, introduced in April 2009, that lets players directly shape the world they inhabit.

“Architect is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to the player base,” Schweinzer says. “It truly allows for player expression to be taken to the ultimate extent: inventing worlds and encouraging the comic book writers in all of us to shine.”

Instantly popular and widely praised, CoX‘s Mission Architect spotlights a growing trend in online gaming: easy-to-use developer-created tools to facilitate user-generated content. Once players were handed those tools on live servers, they immediately went crazy with their creations.

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According to CoX Lead Designer Matt “Positron” Miller, “In just one day our users did more than we could in almost five years.”

This system isn’t just for diehard CoX fans; players of all kinds are creating their own stories to share with one another. When I get together with my favorite supergroup for a couple of hours on the weekend, we often try out a mission that one of us has written during the week. Our weekend arcs are filled with shout-outs and in-jokes for a group that has gamed together for years – a specially costumed NPC here, a catchphrase there and fun just about everywhere. It’s a common use of the system and a definite part of its appeal: The ability to create more personalized content illustrates a value-added way to enjoy a game with old friends, one that has kept us playing (and paying) when regular content has become stale. The temptations are great; you can even play God and refashion the world with you and your friends as the main heroes.

“It’s a lot like having a (very limited) ability to create your own MMO with all the hard parts already taken care of,” says Dustin “Witch Engine” Stroud, best known for his arc “Blight” (No. 140423). “I write for my friends and supergroup mates, not for the public at large. I try to make everything I add to a story have a point or purpose for being there, and love to sneak in tons of references to all sorts of things – game canon, other videogames, whatever I can.”

The Mission Architect tools are both robust and user-friendly, with the ability to add customized heroes as NPCs, choose from different settings like office buildings or caves and even instruct NPCs to call people out by name. For a storyteller/roleplayer who started out having to juggle playing multiple parts in a single evening and recruiting friends when she couldn’t be in two places at once, this sort of automation is refreshing. Even better, once you publish a mission, it’s available 24/7 all around the world, flatly resolving the common complaint of missed events due to time zone differences.

Authors not only use the Mission Architect to tell isolated stories, but flesh out and advance the backgrounds of characters or supergroups. Eric “Arch Mage” Recla, for example, creates weekly stories for his super group but still manages to sneak a bit of personal storytelling into his busy schedule.

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“I have a villain that I try to tailor my missions around to make him seem larger than he actually is,” says Recla. “It’s hard to take over the world in this game, but it’s easier to at least give the impression you’re trying.”

Some, like popular mission author Ascendant, use the Mission Architect as a vehicle for humor. In “Saul Rubenstien’s Discount Task Force” (No. 1012), he introduces players to Saul Rubenstien, “the very incompetent agent/manager of my main character,” he says. “In the arc, he sends you and your team on a series of misadventures. Saul’s a long running joke with me; back in the early days of CoX, I had set up a series of keyboard binds that simulated Ascendant talking on the phone to various people in his life. Saul, with his horrible, awful judgment, was the breakout hit of the phone scripts, so it seemed only natural that the first mission I wrote would be centered around him.”

Other authors, such as Michael “Redbone” Cannon, take a distinctly different approach to writing. His arc, “Sabrina’s Tale” (No. 1237), was named “Arc of the Year” in the 2009 Architect Awards. “‘Sabrina’s Tale’ came from a script I wrote 15 years ago,” Cannon explains. “When the MA was announced, I revisited the idea in a highly streamlined form. I didn’t have to worry about keeping the action moving, just keeping the story moving.” Cannon also uses the system to play with the form itself. “My goal with a tool like the Mission Architect is to do things that haven’t been seen yet or in a way that hasn’t been explored in the game. I like to experiment with the system, either in mission construction, the ‘hook’ or the style.”

Similar to the selection at your local video store, this experimentation leads to a lot of diversity – and a lot of junk to sift through to get to the good stuff. Catchy titles such as “test” and “My Farm” sit next to “Naughty Cat-Girls of the Third Reich” (No. 41119) and “Space Erotica 5” (No. 150402), and beside masterpieces such as Shadow-Rush’s “The Missing” (No. 37636) and Minimalist’s “One Million Eyes” (No. 71933). While some cite the large number of junk missions as ironclad proof of why players can’t be trusted to make their own fun, the axiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” also certainly applies.

In addition to offering tools such as ratings and a reporting system, the developers have also directly addressed worries about the ever-present penis and other problems with objectionable content. But for all the concern voiced by others, it’s surprising to discover the issue has generally been blown out of proportion. “As a whole, the Architect community has been really good at reporting inappropriate content,” says Associate Designer Sean “Dr. Aeon” McCann, “though to be honest, there hasn’t been too much of it posted.”

The system could use some improvement, though. Many of the authors I spoke with cited the need for improved map utilities, as well as the ability to create branching missions. Thankfully, the developers are listening. “I am always looking at ways we can make life easier for players in the Architect,” says McCann. A former player himself, he’s committed to making sure the most dedicated authors get the attention they deserve. “I want to give any player who receives a Dev Choice award their own day in the spotlight. I want to take the time to give each player that receives Dev Choice their moment – and to also show other authors quality content that can be used to help themselves out.” And with 62,000 arcs currently live in the system and more added each month, there’s no shortage of quality examples to choose from.

Why would players take on a role that traditionally has been held by paid writers? When you ask them directly, there’s a refreshing amount of honesty.

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A few admit they wouldn’t mind getting paid to write stories in games eventually, and there’s plenty of ego present. Most players are content to just run a few missions, hang out with their buddies and log out, but these players sincerely enjoy being part of the creative process.

As Schweinzer puts it, “Stories beg to be told. It’s in the telling of stories that we impart a message; an emotion, a residue of greatness or horror. That’s the art of it: when someone sends you a feedback message of ‘OMG, you pulled my heart out,’ then you know you did more than just give words to someone. You helped them live the story in their minds and hearts.”

Thanks to the hard-working little gods of City of Heroes/Villains and the ease of the Mission Architect system, these days the big heroes (and even some villains) clearly have a lot to strive for. Inspired by these authors, I have an epic adventure in mind that I can’t wait to try out with a group of superheroes. They may even encounter a NPC reporter following them in search of her next big story.

Research Manager Nova Barlow joined CoX specifically because of the MA system but, like many storytellers, often finds it hard to actually make time to tell stories.

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