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PAX08: Interviewing Champion Online's writer, John Layman

Kyle Horner

Amidst the rather large -- but also surprisingly polite -- crowd surrounding the Cryptic Studios booth, we were able to talk with the writer for Champions Online, John Layman. Discussions revolved around the breadth and depth of content within the game's zones and the possibilities of space-based zones lying in wait for higher level characters. Two words to get you excited: interplanetary threats. We also learned about John's fondness for sprinkling lots of homages throughout the game. Overall, it was a fun trip into the mind of a man who really loves zombies, pajamas and nerdy in-jokes that future players of Champions Online will be able to find some humor from.

Gallery: PAX 2008 General Gallery | 41 Photos

Massively: Out of all the characters you can talk about right now, do you have any favorites?

John: Yeah, well it's bigger than that though because I scope out the zones and I'll write all the missions. So I have characters, but I also have storylines and places that the storylines spring out of and, oh man, I've written some really fun stuff recently that I unfortunately can't talk about. The cool thing is these really vast worlds. Every environment's very different and even if you wander around the desert you're going to find an amusement park where the robot cowboys have gone crazy, there's radioactive mutant pools, there's a downed spaceship, there's an Area 51, there's a secret villain prison, there's a ghost town, there's an army base and that's just the desert. We've got a lot of different environments and they've all got a ton of different things within each of them. You feel like you're a hero going all over the world and preventing threats and saving the planet and you even go beyond the world.

Massively: So that leads to our next question. Is the focus currently on fleshing out a lot of earth-bound zones and areas? How much can we expect to see space or extra-dimensional places?

John: It is primarily Earth, but by the time you are high level you are dealing with interplanetary threats.

Massively: Can we expect to see something akin to a Green Lantern corps or some kind of galaxy defending order? Will players be interacting with space-based factions and heroes?

John: When you are a highest level character dealing with galactic threats, you need to be part of a defense system to deal with those galactic threats.

Massively: So a coalition of sorts?

John: Yes.

Massively: Have you had any involvement with the Nemesis system seeing as there's going to be a story there of some kind?

John: One of the aspects of our game is total customization, so we don't wanna be the ones to say, "Oh this is the origin of your Nemesis." We don't want to inflict our view of your Nemesis on the player. We want it to be yours, so I don't do a lot of the Nemesis writing because that would take the experience away from you.

Massively: So have you helped with the brainstorming of the Nemesis system?

John: The answer's yes, especially recently. I've done some really fun Nemesis stuff.

Massively: There's a lot of technological and magical powers in the game but can you speak to anything else, like mutants or maybe cosmic powers?

John: Here's the thing, we don't have archetypes. We've got powers and if you want a lightning bolt, a fire power and force field shield they don't have to make sense.

Massively: They don't necessarily have to come from a magical source? You could say, "I'm a mutant who shoots fire" and use the fire power.

John: Yeah.

Massively: So basically, instead of picking a mutant origin like you would in City of Heroes you just design your character to look like a mutant, you write his bio up as a mutant and then select your preferred powers.

John: Yep, yeah. Your powers can be as focused as you want. You can be a fire guy and nothing but fire powers. Or you can be as crazy and all over the map. You can have the wildest powers that don't make any sense, but if you want 'em you can have 'em.

Massively: What's the move from the comic industry to working with Cryptic Studios been like for you?

John: It's a staff in-house job, which I wasn't looking for and it was sort of one of these things where the opportunity is really good but I didn't wanna do it. Then I came in and was like, "Wow, this is really cool." Everyone's really cool, everyone's really smart and it's a great environment and I was like, "Wow, I'm gonna take the job." I have no regrets. Y'know, I miss sitting around in my pajamas all day and writing comic books, but it's a really cool job.

Massively: Obviously, there's got to be zombies at some point in Champions Online. Zombies are a must, I would imagine.

John: I can neither confirm or deny, other than to say, I like zombies.

Massively: Are there going to be any homages?

John: Oh, yes! There is a character on Monster Island, who's been stranded for years called Hank Crusoe. He's been threatened by the bad guys over the years and they've been tormenting him and have stolen his three most prized possessions: a volleyball, a package and some ice skates.

Massively: So there's a little bit of a Venture Bros. vibe in there.

John: Yeah, yeah. You're gonna see things in there that are familiar and the tone is really fun. It's not campy, it's not goofy, it's not silly or stupid. It's just fun and kinda light. This is kind of paradoxical maybe, it's not grim and gritty. It's not a lot of horrible ugliness to the game.

Massively: Jack Emmert has gone on record saying it's a four-color comic feel with some other stuff thrown in too.

John: Yeah, and again you're fighting big threats and major threats that the way it's presented is fun more than gritty. Which is fine for me, because a lot of the stuff that I write has a light touch. Even the darker stuff I write has some humor.

Massively: Thanks, we appreciate your time.

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