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Dev Diary - Dr. Aeon’s Strike Force: Mission Science, Concept to Content!


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Hello Homecoming!

It’s so exciting to see that in 2022, City of Heroes is thriving and there are still so many passionate players invested in the game that’s so beloved to us all!

 

Now that the Dr. Aeon Strike Force (ASF) has been out a little while and I'm guessing that most people who were interested have given it a spin, it's time for a little look into the cogs that spin to turn ideas and stories into playable content for you guys!

 

This dev diary will be a bit of an insight into the development and thought processes behind why we did what we did. Obviously, if you haven’t played the ASF, this post may contain spoilers! You’ve been warned! 😱
 



New Dev, Who This?:
For those who are unfamiliar with me, I’ll introduce myself:
I’m Cobalt Arachne, I was the primary designer behind the Dr. Aeon Strike Force!

Before that, I was authoring a City of Heroes fan webcomic and became a writing contributor in late 2019 when I wrote the Tour Guide tip missions that were added with Issue 27, Page 2. Afterwards, I formally joined the developer team in early 2020 to help design and create new content.

My previous experience working on video games is mostly comprised of unofficial mod work… Extensive map editor work for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, texture work for Unreal Tournament 2004, and scripting mods for Starbound.

 

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Random Fun Fact: I was working on a (now shelved) City of Heroes-themed Starbound mod when Homecoming launched!

City of Heroes has served as a crucial creative catalyst for me in my life. It is truly humbling to have the opportunity to help give back to the game that has given me so much since I first played it nearly 17 (Wowza!) years ago!

But enough about me, let’s talk about the primary topic at hand… Dr. Aeon’s Strike Force!

 



Concepting the Content:

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"There's got to be some narrative intrigue hiding around here somewhere!"


Around November in 2019, @Piecemeal asked me to pitch some ideas about a new villain-side Strike Force, as there was a noticeable gap there and Homecoming had been wanting to fill.

 

City of Villains has more than a few potential unresolved threads, but what immediately jumped out to me was the opportunity to finally bring King Midas into the game.

 

He maintained a heavy presence throughout the mission arcs in Cap Au Diable, and the Gold Brickers are a fun but underutilized villain group. As an adolescent, I often wondered about why we never got to face King Midas and what he’d be like if we did. I can say it’s quite surreal to be the one answering that question myself over 15 years later!


I spent time studying the existing lore/details surrounding King Midas and his Gold Brickers, which elements were outstanding and made sense to utilize in the narrative, and then crafted my pitch. It went through a few revisions and rewrites with input from some of the other developers and then sat until after Issue 27, Page 2 was live.

 

Around March, I was brought officially onto the team and was tasked with creating the ASF as my first project. Building on the pioneering work @Piecemeal did on suffering through unraveling the mission code and his mentorship/tutelage, I set off on learning the tools and building the content!

 



Assembling the ASF:

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"You want to do WHAT now?! Well, I guess if AeonCorp is footing the bill..."

 

One of the primary goals I had for the Dr. Aeon Strike Force was to subvert expectations/conventions while being a piece of group content that would cast a wide net on allowing you to choose how you played it… This included the creation of the Advanced Difficulty Settings (more on those later!).

 

The first mission was built together with @Piecemeal’s oversight. It was the starting point of the ASF, but also his training me on the nuances of the City of Heroes map editor and scripting missions. His guidance, mentorship, and tutelage were pivotal in my getting up to speed as a developer.

 

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"The wisdom of Piecemeal-sensei's guidance."

 

Things like fan-favorite Becky, the contestants at the Smelting Cauldron entrance, the Crey laser tripwires, or the alternative objectives in the Golden Roller ripples, etc.
These types of mechanics were aimed at letting a team have some control over how they tackled objectives, allowing them to move faster or face an increased challenge depending on their preferences. We wanted to craft an experience where teams speeding through (and thus are often more experienced players) could face a challenge better suited to their level more organically within the mission itself by the style they played.

 

This design philosophy influenced much of the decision-making, but we also looked at other elements found in popular content to see what it was that players enjoyed about them to attempt to craft something that hits those same high notes while maintaining its own identity and flavor. Things like: Lots of AVs to fight, big groups of enemies, or grand stages upon which to do combat... We gave thoughts to each of these, given the time and effort to create a truly worthwhile experience, we wanted it to be something everyone could find enjoyment in.


In those regards, I like to believe we managed to create something that, while imperfect (no content is or can be), does deliver the experience it was designed to be. More grand and complex, worthy of the moniker of Strike Force.

 



Making the Maps:

Personally, one of the best experiences in City of Heroes is entering a brand-new mission map, and not knowing what to expect and the joy of discovery in seeing new sights. Due to this, it was a personal goal of mine that excluding the first mission, every other mission map on the ASF had to be hand-crafted and avoid the use of any stock maps.

 

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Random Fun Fact: The entirety of the Smelting Cauldron arena encounter found in Mission 2 was originally inside Princess Zoe's cargo ship in Mission 4!

This was not without its costs, however, as quality map making takes a lot of time, and a good portion of the ASF’s development was spent on creating the new locations that players visit during its runtime. Mission 5's ripple dimension sub-missions expanded in scope rapidly during development, causing the time investment to explode as well.


The first map created was the Gold Bricker cargo ship map featured in the Homecoming anniversary teaser post. Most of my learning/experimenting with map creation was done on that mission's map, and where I quickly realized the freedom of the City of Heroes map tools included the freedom to make costly mistakes that could undo hours of work! Save often!

 

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"I swear if this map editor eats my work ONE more time... Grr..."


The map tools include a real-time triangle count performance evaluator, which is utilized to ensure all mission maps can perform without issues on any machine that run the game. The initial version of the cargo ship had to have its detail work scaled back as we must ensure that City of Heroes remains a game that is as accessible as possible in terms of performance.

 

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"It has to run on EVERYTHING? Even the toaster?!"


Aside from performance, I wanted to bake as much detail and love into these maps as I could. This includes things like the in-mission zone names/music, various clickable objects with flavor text on every map, and little things that players might not notice on their first run. As repeat content that would be run more than once, I wanted there to be things players could discover even after their first experience with the ASF.

 

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"Lots of hidden clickables throughout the ASF to be found for bonus flavor!"

 

Each map was created by starting with the question ‘what kind of atmosphere should this environment convey?’ and built towards that goal. Later maps aimed to be chaotic and unstable as the dimensional craziness escalated and reached its climax.

I've always been a believer that the identity of a villain group is just as much tied to their lairs as it is their members and so it was crucial to imbue soul and identity into the maps that these foes were faced on.

 

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"The 5th Column claim the moon zone landing was faked... Seems kind of suspicious to me..."

 

As development progressed, we also implemented some advanced tech onto the later maps such as dynamic geometry phasing and collision (Big credit here to @Number Six and @Faultline!). This really helped sell the ‘unstable dimension’ vibes we wanted and are most noticeable on the finale map. If you haven’t seen them yet, go check it out!

 

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"What madness hide behind the curtains?"


Everything was also designed to be as future-proofed as possible (this is a philosophy we apply to everything we do) so that the quality and capabilities of future content will be able to take full advantage of the efforts the ASF pioneered.

 



Building the Brickers:
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"Stay in line bub! Who was up next for their powerset design?"


As the content would range from level 35-50, it also meant that the Gold Brickers would need expanding, both visually and functionally to become a group worthy of max level and appropriately threatening.

The approach taken for this was to evaluate what the Gold Brickers did well (stacking -resistance debuffs), what was their primary obstacle to doing this (high defense from players), and adding conditional assistance (-defense grenades and Smelter +tohit support) that the players would need to manage in order to maximize their odds against these flying foes. The goal was that the best way to foil these new foes would be via active counterplay, either by moving out of debuff fields or focus firing the dangerous bosses.

 

The group was also lacking in damage type diversity, so the teleporting AU-Bricker enemy subtype was implemented with inverse energy attacks that inflicted Negative Energy damage. Designing these new units, they were given cues to visually connect the high-tech thieves back to Dr. Aeon, such as the Brickernaut elite bosses using jury-rigged versions of Aeon's own power suit.

Princess Zoe:

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Early in development, I also knew I wanted to incorporate a female member of the group, and so I designed and added Princess Zoe.

The Gold Bricker's princess is based on the historical daughter of King Midas that was turned to gold from the myth/legend. She became the technological elbow that justified the group’s advancement in technology, a prodigy to rival Dr. Aeon himself in the engineering space.
 

King Midas:

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King Midas’s design goal was to capture ‘regal’ while maintaining ‘sleek and modern’; Drawing some cues from Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, he was given a large stature and ornate coat, but would shed it when he entered battle with the players.

Early versions had him enter a unique golden Granite Armor form when he was invincible but this was dropped early on as it was less visually interesting than his final look during the finale battle.


Mr. Rodney:
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Mr. Rodney also got an updated look for the ASF! He was one of the few notable Gold Brickers prior to the ASF.

He was previously using a generic lieutenant model, so his new look was built using the unique pieces from his enemy group.
 

Boss Encounter Mechanics:

It was important to ensure that our first new endgame group content had exciting encounters with ways to stand out, especially compared to the quality of content the game saw later in its life. Arch-villains that stand in place until they’re defeated was too low a bar, and so we set out to create memorable battles against the major confrontations in the ASF with unique twists and advanced mechanics.

 

This was made possible with the support of our team's lua/code developers, giving another round of props to @Faultline and @Number Six who were consistently lending their expertise in coding solutions to make every crazy idea I had possible, rather than ever insisting we rein in the scope of the mechanics. 

 



Crafting a Challenge:
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"Yowch! I'll remember to focus-fire those Shimmering Effusions next time..."

 

The other major goal I had with the ASF was to deliver a new system of difficulty that could be widely applicable to other existing content later, as one of the most common complaints about the game in its current state was that no content was tailor-made to push a group of maxed out Incarnates using IO enhancements. It needed to be more engaging however than simply throwing stats around or reducing the players in any manner…

One of Homecoming’s greatest strengths is its accessibility. For those who did not play the retail version of City of Heroes, the time and resource cost to build a character in the game was magnitudes higher than it is now (as is not uncommon for retail MMOs), and the game’s overall difficulty was generally tailored to the median power level that was achievable by most characters without extreme investment.

With a different environmental context to design for, we needed to deliver an answer for the stagnant endgame that was unable to provide the desired degree of engagement for veteran players using characters built to their absolute strongest.

The answer for this was the Advanced Difficulty Settings, which beyond just increasing the strength of the enemies, also gave them new powers and behaviors to truly make the mode more than just a stat race. It was a pioneering effort and one that we’ll be continuing to improve and tweak as we move forward into the future.

 

I’m sure by now many of you have experienced the terror of the exploding Brickernauts! 😛

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"I suppose I deserved this."

 

The crux of the design for the ASF's challenge mode was to ensure that the experience changed enough that it felt distinct from the standard mode, and that players who chose the higher difficulty were sufficiently rewarded for the increased challenge. I believe that for a first new voyage into a post-shutdown endgame, the results we have achieved are a great first step into the future for the game.

 

Originally, the advanced difficulty modes were triggered by spawning the enemies at level 52 or higher, but thanks to @Number Six’s rewrite of the entire challenge settings code, we were able to deliver a highly customizable experience that allows players to choose much of the nuance in how they play the ASF at max level.

If you think the game is too easy, go toe-to-toe with some Relentless Gold Brickers and see if they’re more engaging for you! 😉

For those who have enjoyed the ASF in its higher-difficulty incarnations and want to see options like it on other content, stay tuned!

 



Facing the Future:

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"What new exciting things lie in store I wonder?"


I am truly humbled by the positive reception and excitement surrounding the Dr. Aeon Strike Force; It has exceeded my every expectation. Hearing the kind words of players who’ve enjoyed the content has been truly uplifting and I want to thank everyone who’s played, tested, and provided feedback to help us make this project the best it could be!

 

Now that Issue 27, Page 3 is behind us, we’ll be looking towards the future, striving to do our best to continue delivering the best content we can for you, the players! Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to adjust/fix the ASF as needed to ensure it’s as great an experience as possible.

Here’s to another great year of City of Heroes!

 

-Cobalt Arachne

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This is awesome! All the new features and mechanics, as well as the custom maps and enemy types make everything about Aeon SF so memorable. It's so fun leading teams for this SF, because the people who never played it before are always amazed, especially when they get to the 5th Column ripple or the upside down Aeon City. Loved everything about it and I'm really excited to see what you guys can do in the future! /e praise

 

 

Edited by Drakwatch
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"All thoughts of retreat are discarded as counterproductive, there is no other course of action but to press on. You've been caught in an unseen orbit, around a power you cannot possibly fathom."

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The Dr. Aeon Strike Force is honestly exactly what I was hoping we'd see from Homecoming the moment we discovered the team would be continuing with building new content for the game. More Villain-focused content is always very welcome in a Hero-centric world, and I think Task Forces and Strike Forces are the lifeblood of this game's replayability and content depth. The amount of effort that went into this is so so impressive and encouraging, with all the exciting new boss mechanics pushing what we thought was possible from the game, new unique environments that rival some of the best on offer in previous missions, a whole new difficulty system that will have compound effects in the future of the game in what I think is a very positive way, and a distinct enrichment of the writing, enemy diversity and lore of one of the less well-explored factions in the game.

 

Thank you, Cobalt and Crew, for all of the amazing work on this project, and I'm so excited to see what new content and retroactive changes to legacy content this amazing first step will lead to in future ❤️

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Bring back Hazard Zones

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A very good writeup!  The Dr. Aeon Strike Force is easily one of my favorite task forces to run both casually and to tryhard on.  Presenting a complex story in a task force instead of a story arc can be difficult to say the least, but I think you did a great job at working past CoH's limitations.  I appreciate that you stuck so closely to the lore of the Goldbrickers (and others) and that you were receptive to feedback regarding balance during early testing, especially with inspirations and the new difficulty settings.  Relentless difficulty feels great to play without leaning into the MMO trinity and I am still very impressed by the attention to detail with the maps.  Even if one takes some sort of issue with the strike force, they cannot deny that serious effort was put into making its new features fully functional and honestly quite polished!

 

Well done, Cobalt and Dev Team!  I'm absolutely looking forward to any new content that Homecoming releases if Dr. Aeon Strike Force is indeed the Gold Standard!

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@Veracor - Veracor, Bio/TW Tanker on Everlasting - 1591 badges, vet level 17000 or something I don't even know anymore.

 

Everlasting raid leader, Hamidon main tank, iTrial main tank -- hit me up if you have questions!

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Thanks for this SF! I really liked the writing in this. It is hilarious. The maps are very cool and the fights are mechanically interesting in the challenge settings. It's the only tf/sf I have soloed (did it twice to have time to read and find little details). The dimensional ripple missions are incredibly epic.  

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25 minutes ago, SeraphimKensai said:

It's a fun strike force. Dare I say, Praetoria needs some taskforce type content for both Loyalists and Resistance?

Only snag with that is it would punt you beyond your contact levels.  Perhaps in the Wards.

AE SFMA Arcs: The Meteors (Arc id 42079) Dark Deeds in Galaxy City: Part One. (Arc id 26756) X | Dark Deeds in Galaxy City: Part Two. (Arc id 26952) | Dark Deeds in Galaxy City: Part Three. (Arc id 27233) Darker Deeds: Part One (Arc id 28374) | Darker Deeds: Part Two. (Arc id 28536) | Darker Deeds: Part Three. (Arc id 29252) | Darkest Before Dawn: Part One (Arc id 29891) |

Darkest Before Dawn: Part Two (Arc id 30210) | Darkest Before Dawn: Part Three (Arc id 30560) |

 Bridge of Forever ( Arc id 36642) | The Cassini Division (Arc id 37104) X | The House of Gaunt Saints (Arc id 37489) X | The Spark of the Blind (Arc id 40403) | Damnatio Memoriae (Arc id 41140) X  The Eve of War (Arc id 41583) X

I Sing of Arms and the Man (Arc id 42617) | Three Sisters (Arc id 43013)

(Pre War Praetorian Loyalist.  Pre War Praetorian Resistance..  Pre ITF Cimerora.  Post ITF Cimerora. X = Dev Choice/Hall of Fame )

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3 minutes ago, Darmian said:

Only snag with that is it would punt you beyond your contact levels.  Perhaps in the Wards.

That may make more sense anyway, since the most logical enemy to unite resistance and loyalist is Hami, and secretly, Cole's government still has truce. The tf would have to be offered by a non-Cole administration person. Plus, primals have no particular reason to be in Praetoria proper, but are notified to go to First Ward at level 20 or whatever. 

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@Cobalt Arachne was Becky the tarantula receptionist from an AE mission on LIVE?

 

Please give some task force love to Synapse- it feels old and a chore. 

Edited by starro

 


"She who lives by the cybernetic monstrosity powered by living coral, all too often dies by the cybernetic monstrosity powered by living coral."  -Doc Buzzsaw


 

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8 minutes ago, starro said:

@Cobalt Arachne was Becky the tarantula receptionist from an AE mission on LIVE?

Becky was originally found in Vernon von Grun's Von Grun's Redemption arc in Grandville, specifically the 'Investigate Devouring Earth attack on Arachnos base' mission. She was a very memorable character and I thought she was a fun choice for inclusion in the ASF.

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Is there any thought/consideration to making a "SSA-style" version of the TF? The story seems interesting but too much of it is hard to get when playing with a team, particularly a TF team where the leader can quickly change/advance objectives without context.  It would be nice to solo it and see what all the nice setpieces are actually about.

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I was able to solo it on lowest settings on a tank with the help of some pets and temp powers.  I know Linea has soloed it as well and was working his way up the different difficulty levels until he hit a hard wall.

 

So it's doable and you can take your time.  I found it was a great way to farm some of the new defeat badges by resetting and repeating the ripples.

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@Cobalt Arachne I know the joy of seeing your work in game, I too created and imported models into Unreal Tournament, and edited mods from Skyrim. Nothing fancy just personal hobbies. But finding someone who has the knack of storytelling and willing you learn the programming/technical side to implement it in-game is rare. I've been through the strike force many times and enjoy it, feels like original developer work. Kudos to you; know all the hard work and long hours are really appreciated by the Homecoming community.

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1 hour ago, Cobalt Arachne said:

Becky was originally found in Vernon von Grun's Von Grun's Redemption arc in Grandville, specifically the 'Investigate Devouring Earth attack on Arachnos base' mission. She was a very memorable character and I thought she was a fun choice for inclusion in the ASF.

I'll admit I practically squealed with joy when I saw Becky at the front desk.   I think I did say "OMG! Becky!"  which is probably what my character said

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38 minutes ago, lemming said:

I'll admit I practically squealed with joy when I saw Becky at the front desk.   I think I did say "OMG! Becky!"  which is probably what my character said

me too!  now i want to level a villain and play that content again.

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"She who lives by the cybernetic monstrosity powered by living coral, all too often dies by the cybernetic monstrosity powered by living coral."  -Doc Buzzsaw


 

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Big kudos to @Piecemeal and @Cobalt Arachne for their work on the ASF, as well to any other devs, GMs, and play testers who worked on it, troubleshooted, or contributed in any other way to make it awesome. It really is the gold standard for content 😉 

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It's nice to get a little behind the scenes on new content. I am so happy to see this game is still being innovative despite the age. Awesome.

 

I will admit, I don't enjoy the ASF due to the info dump, unclear messaging and length. I feel it is a bit of a step back in those areas. I still haven't been able to read all of the material while playing the SF due fast moving teams. 

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On 1/12/2022 at 6:40 AM, Cobalt Arachne said:

Hello Homecoming!

[snip]

 

-Cobalt Arachne

 

Thanks for these notes! I'm absolutely stunned that this project was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience; I feel deep personal and/or professional jealousy that you were able to put together such a polished, engaging, and challenging piece of work while also teaching yourself the tools necessary to do so. Aeon is a great SF with enormous replay value, capturing exactly the feel and detail that characterize City of Heroes at its most glorious. I hope you will find the time and desire to produce more in the same vein -- dare I even hope, he says, qua player primarily of heroside characters, a blueside TF to these standards? --  in the near future.

 

There are a lot of City of Heroes missions that I've played that are fun, but that sort of fall into the memory hole. On the other hand, there are a few that go into my personal headcanon as things my character absolutely did, part of his or her history; those are the best stories, the ones that are so good I want to make them part of my own. Dr. Aeon is definitely one of the latter.

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6 hours ago, BurtHutt said:

It's nice to get a little behind the scenes on new content. I am so happy to see this game is still being innovative despite the age. Awesome.

 

I will admit, I don't enjoy the ASF due to the info dump, unclear messaging and length. I feel it is a bit of a step back in those areas. I still haven't been able to read all of the material while playing the SF due fast moving teams. 

Totally okay! 🙂 There's no single piece of content that can hit all the notes, so always about options and variety.

 

There are more shorter/simpler TFs currently and fewer longer/elaborate ones, so we opted for what would help diversify the available content offerings.

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I thought this was a very appropriate step to adding more endgame content.  We got a very quality villain SF that just about fills out some of what they were lacking in terms of content.  I understand where some people are coming from in that they feel its a bit too long of a story and too wordy.  I won't begrudge the over indulgence in story telling and content building seeing how this is the first real step for more challenging stuff for my favorite characters to do and you're likely doing some future setup.  I also liked how it kept you all in Cap Au Diable which is one of my favorite villain zones along with St. Martial, there's no need for those mundane Numina style hunts.  

 

Most of all I liked the variety in difficulty selections, it feels like it makes you play real intuitive.  I'm hopeful this kind of thing gets proliferated to any new endgame content that gets added.  With villains getting something new I'd love to see a new SF for Praetoria or two to entice people to venture over to those pretty zones every so often.  It doesn't need to be something long or Apex short, just something that makes it feel like a quality story making use of everything you all identified as desirable traits of fun play.  

 

You all did a great job with this!  Its unreal to see such quality content being added on like a lot of people were hoping was a start when they bought Going Rogue.  I'm really looking forward to what's all cooking.  

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1 hour ago, Mezmera said:

it feels like it makes you play real intuitive. 

Is "intuitive" the word you were going for there?

"Not hard to figure out"? "Easy to guess what you're doing"...? 'cause that's not a word I'd use to describe the ASF.

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3 hours ago, Cobalt Arachne said:

Totally okay! 🙂 There's no single piece of content that can hit all the notes, so always about options and variety.

 

There are more shorter/simpler TFs currently and fewer longer/elaborate ones, so we opted for what would help diversify the available content offerings.

 

Yes, agreed. It won't be for everyone. I will add that the game seemed to move more towards the short-ish TFs/SFs etc as the content grew. The old run arounds and lengthy TFs were poor game design IMO and there as a time sink so you'd play longer and keep paying for a sub. 

 

I feel these long arcs aren't really for me but I don't know what others think. I can speak for me only.

 

It is odd that the HC Dev team is adding these longer missions etc while adding more shortcuts to other parts of the game (a Pocket D entrance in Atlas, not having to wait until lvl 14 for an Ouros portal and a few other things). Count me in as a player who does not want everything handed to you or an easy mode or stuff like that - and, yes, I do want shorter missions that the ASF or that last story arc. 

 

I would also suggest maybe not having such a huge info dump of text in these missions and TFs/SFs. The leader usually gets all of the direct access and other players are challenged to get a chance at reading all of the material. This happened in that last new arc of missions and again in the ASF. Again, just my opinion. 

 

Finally, thank you and the rest of the Devs for adding stuff to game. I love how you're making new maps and trying some new wrinkles. 

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IMO, the Dr. Aeon SF is a nice counter-balance to Paragon Studios’ trend at the end of making short TFs/SFs.  IMO, Apex TF, Tin Mage TF, Mortimer Kal SF, and especially Penelope Yin TF are too short.  Penelope Yin TF feels like it’s missing a mission, and you can spend nearly as much time forming those TFs/SFs as you do running them.

 

Now does that mean that I want to see every new TF/SF be as long and entailed as the ASF?  Heck no.  Balance.  IMO, the perfect TF/SF in length and content is the Admiral Sutter TF.  That’s the sweet spot.

 

In regards to Praetoria, I think the best bet would be a level 25 - 30 co-op TF in First Ward for Loyalists, Resistance, Heroes, and Villains.  Perhaps something regarding the Shepherds and/or The Awakened.

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