Initial thoughts on Foundry vs Mission Architect
Yesterday I played around a bit with The Foundry in Star Trek Online to get an initial feeling for the system. I also had a look at a number of the player-made video tutorials that Cryptic had referenced on their Foundry web pages. Most (all?) of that material comes from members of Starbase UGC, a web site dedicated to Foundry usage (author or player).
A quite nice site it seems and some very good material! There were a lot of tips and tricks to do things, which may not be obvious from the in-game system.
Overall I think The Foundry holds a lot of promise and seems to be in a decent shape. Is it better than Mission Architect? Yes and no, I would say. It depends whether you are an author or player and what you want to get out of it. For story-focused authoring I do think Foundry looks that it could be the better tool overall.
My time so far with Foundry is quite limited and I may certainly have missed a few things – if you see any blatant misunderstandings in the post below do leave a comment!
First of all a few observations about mission design approach.
When looking at the overall approach towards mission design in Mission Architect and Foundry, the heritage from the games themselves will of course show. In City of Heroes many stories were initially told through a string of missions, were the contact person was often a significant character to the story itself and driving the story forward, even though he/she did not always particpate in the missions. Each mission typically had one or a few simple goals and a single map, such as “take out the Freakshow boss”, “rescue John Doe” etc and each mission involved fighting many enemies from a specific enemy group.
In Star Trek Online, the contact has often minimal involvement with the story itself – just point in the right direction for the player to go and hand out some reward afterwards. Different character and activities within the mission itself instead drives the story forward and there can be multiple scenes/maps in a mission.
These approaches fundamentally shapes the mission design tools; but also how one works with various artifacts/assets in the missions. Mission Architect has more building blocks to use which also may require less effort, but may also be a bit more rigid. The Foundry on the other hand has fewer building blocks, but also a fair amount of flexibility in using those provided a bit of work is put into it.
In Mission Architect the base mission design has a bit of a declarative approach; you specify a set of different goals, but do not really care in which order the player completes those goals. The author can give some hints to the system where to place different objectives on a map, but the system itself picks the spawn points for you. It will also do a bit of fill in the blanks in terms of enemies/encounters. Enforced order of objectives/goals are done by chaining goals through triggers – one goal/event can trigger of a new goal/objective. Many building blocks have a fair amount of functionality built into them – dialog, behaviour etc.
Command driven Foundry
In Foundry on the other hand, the mission design is at its base explicit and more command driven – the author sets the path which the player takes and does explicitly add everything that should be in the mission. The author also does have more direct control what can be done here. Multiple parallel activities are possible, but still need to fit into the overall path through the mission. Some building blocks are simple, others a bit more complex. All objects can have different state and behaviour and a fairly flexible trigger mechanic to build up more complex scenarios.
Building a story
I think Mission Architect works well in that it is easy to build missions and stories with simple to medium complexity – there are a lot of building blocks to use, which you can tweak a bit and plug in and you have a working and possibly fun mission and story arc. There would be more fighting than story progression also.
It is when authors want to put in some more story progression in a single mission, or add activities that are not predefined goals that things get a bit more complicated and time is spent on working around the automated built-in mechanics a bit to accomplish the goals.
The Foundry looks though that there might be a bit more work to put together something that may be reasonably fun and ok to play, but on the other hand may allow a bit more complex interactions and non-predefined steps to be made. That the base progression is a sequential path with extensions to more parallel and branching activities may make it a bit more simpler to build up a story – it is more similar to a story told.
I have not made any proper stories in Foundry yet, so I might change my view here later – but this is my initial impression anyway.
Editing and testing missions
In Mission Architect, editing and testing missions are just normal in-game activities – you log in to the game, go to a mission terminal in an Architect Entertainment building (unless you have the accolade power that allows you to open it from anywhere) and start editing. Testing is also triggered from the same interface. Any character on your account can edit/test any of your missions before publishing them. Hence the interface can run in fullscreen mode or just a window in the normal user interface.
All mission assets are stored in files locally on your computer; technically they can be modified directly, but not recommended. It is only published missions that are stored centrally on the City of Heroes servers. Costumes from your existing player characters can be loaded into the enemy/NPC costume creator and vice versa.
In Foundry there is a separation between playing the game and creating missions. First of all missions cannot be created/edited/tested with any of your characters in the editor – you have to create specific characters for the purpose. Also, in order to test a mission the character must be of the right alignment – a Federation character cannot test a mission made for Klingon side or vice versa.
The game interface indicated in the character creator that you should be able to change level and equipment of your character, but I did not see any of that – maybe it is not there yet or maybe I missed it. In some of the video tutorials it is said that it is recommended to level up the content creation characters a bit to get bridge offices etc, which leads me to think that the flexibility to change what the character is and can do may be limited.
Also, editing and testing missions are separate activities from playing the game. You do not have the game interface, you do not have game chat or anything else available to you. However one does get XP from testing missions, which is not something you get in Mission Architect.
All assets are also stored centrally – no local files. Sharing assets seems limited at the moment and loading costumes from player characters do not seem possible.
Overall I prefer the Mission Architect approach here – I like that I can be in touch with people in the game while I am working on missions and I like that I can test and try out missions with any character I want, regardless of level and alignment. Gameplay may work out quite different with different archetypes and levels, so it is good to be able to test it with different characters easily. Remains to be seen how much of a problem this will be with the Foundry approach. It is nice though that you get some XP when testing.
Publishing the mission will of course open up the option for other characters (your own or others) to test the missions also, but is a bit more cumbersome. Foundry also does not have the state information in Mission Architect, where a mission can be set to be Work in progress, Loooking for feedback or Finished when it is published.
Rating, finding and playing missions
Both Foundry and Mission Architect have a rating system using 1-5 stars (5 stars is top notch, 1 star is crap). In the display of missions though, Foundry provides a bit more detail – you can see the number of ratings for each star and you have finer granularity in the display of the rating. This is good, because you can spot if people have had varying opinions or if it has mostly been the same. It is also easier to spot where griefers have voted (i.e. those that will 1-star a mission because they can).
This detail is not available through the Mission Architect system – you can only see a rounded value to the nearest star integer and only the total number of ratings. This causes some trouble when finding missions, especially with the amount of missions that are in Mission Architect.
A nice thing with Foundry missions is that the interface to get missions is easy to access and available in the same way as other missions. The Mission Architect systems requires a player to go to a Architect Entertainment (AE) building to pick up a mission – also every player in the team needs to go to the same AE building. On the other hand, travelling to the mission is instant. With Foundry missions you can pick up the mission right away, but you will need to go to whatever entry point has been set up.
Mission Architect missions also locks you out from doing any other types of missions at the same time – you have to complete the whole story arc in sequence without deviations, or start over from scratch. Foundry does not yet have the multi-mission linking, but there is no indication that players would be forced to do everything in sequence once they add that; this is very good. I think this has been an obstacle fpr getting people to play Mission Architect missions.
Search features for missions is similar, although Mission Architect also has a tagging mechanic, where the author can use a few fixed tags to help indicate the type of story arc.
It remains to be seen how successful Foundry will be – right now there seem to be at most a few hundred missions, which may still be manageable with the current search and browse tools. But if the number of missions gets closer to the amounts in Mission Architect (around 73500 last time I checked), then they will definitely be inadequate.
I suspect through that a few features and “shortcomings” may be in place to make it a bit less easy to create and expose missions to the general gem populations – the review phase, the separate characters for content creation etc. This could keep the number of missions down a bit. However, there will probably be complaints if the number of missions to be reviewed grows too large – the likelyhood of your mission to get enough completed plays to be publically available will diminish quickly if the number of missions reach into thousands.
With Foundry just being released, everyone including developers seems pretty enthusiastic and there is a roadmap for new features to be added. Compared to Mission Architect where there is no clear indication what the developers will do with the system, the future at the moment looks a bit brighter for the Foundry. However, when Mission Architect was released everything looked quite bright as well.
The next few months will be interesting to see how it works out. Mission Architect was in a way too successful – too many missions and story arcs were created in a short period of time and many are still created. This has also led to that many of the intended users have difficulty getting something out of it and this the overall success is perhaps debatable today.
If Mission Architect had brought in a lot of new customers then maybe there would have been more investment to improve it. I think it certainly has helped to keep a number of old customers, but that may be more difficult to measure.
Foundry will also very likely make a number of existing customers more attached to the game. If they can bring in more new customers and it can be a commercial success remains to be seen – I imagine that it could potentially bring in more Trek fans and perhaps SciFi fans in general.