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PAX08: Talking with Champions Online's content lead, Zeke Sparkes

Kyle Horner

After speaking with John Layman at PAX08, our second Champions Online interview was with content lead Zeke Sparkes. We talked sound effects, travel powers, character creation, controls and zone creation among other things. In fact, we actually got a short period of hands-on time with the game prior to the interview.

So far, Champions Online had only been playable with the Xbox 360 controller, but we were able to finally try the keyboard and mouse controls at PAX. Instead of hitting a face button on the Xbox controller to do your basic attack, you tap an assigned number-key on your keyboard. As you do this, you build up energy and can move through the rest of the powers, which for us were set to the rest of the numbered keys. Overall, the keyboard and mouse controls feel tight and responsive for a game scheduled to launch in Spring of 2009.

Massively: Is this the same build of Champions Online from GenCon?

Zeke: Yeah, these machines only actually stayed at the office for one day between GenCon and now. So there is very little that is different on these machines today than there was at GenCon.

Massively: We noticed some familiar sound effects in the game, are those placeholder assets or did you guys want to keep them in the game? Can we expect new stuff?

Zeke: Are sound is actually constantly adding new stuff into the game. His department comes in after everything is done and winds up updating. They're also like art and user interface, where they're constantly iterating.

Massively: In regards to the open power system, will travel powers take players a while to reach or are players going to be able to have them at very early levels?

Zeke: I think you're asking a lot of questions about stuff that we just actually haven't released publicly yet. A lot of it is, we don't like to say things until we actually have something that we know works and that we like. Instead of doing some speculation and getting it out there, a lot of times we like to wait until we know exactly what the answer is going to be. Travel powers are something that we iterate on, a lot. It's hard to make them feel right and to make 'em work in the game. They're kind of the same as the UI, constant tweaks here and there to see what we like. The powers guys are really good at trying different things to see what we can do.

Massively: Can you tell us what we're going to be looking at in as far as body parts during character creation? Is that going to be something you do differently this time around?

Zeke: So we've actually opened up the character creation system even more than what we've done in the past. You have more places of customization, more things that you can do. So it's actually even a step further than what we've done before.

Massively: When you start up a character, are you going to be looking at something familiar to City of, or is it going to be a new approach?

Zeke: We're certainly trying to make it as intuitive as possible. So I think that the way we've done it before is fairly intuitive. I can't imagine we'll vary drastically from the previous systems where you're kind of pickings what areas to go through and seeing all your different options. I think it'll look familiar to you.

Massively: It looks like you've got both Xbox 360 and PC controls available on the show floor here today.

Zeke: Yeah, we have both sets of controls for people depending on what they want to see and how it feels like. So if they want to play on keyboard, they can play on that. If they want to see how it'll feel on the Xbox, they can play on the controller as well. The game functions equally well on both, so it's here for personal preference of the player.

Massively: What's the process of creating a zone? What are the steps you guys typically take towards finishing a zone?

Zeke: The first thing we do is we figure out what we want in the game and a lot of that is based on making sure players have a varied experience. You can see we're in the desert. Even in the desert they're in the area of Snake Gulch, which is evil, hay-wired robot cowboys in an amusement park. Even inside the desert you can see we've got Stronghold prison in the distance. We've got atomic wasteland with atomic pools and downed spacecraft. So even inside of an area like the desert, which is one of our smaller zones, we vary it up from spot to spot.

We also want to make sure that on a macro level we send you to different spots. So we've got the Canadian wilderness that we send you to and Monster Island, with a giant volcano. Once we've kind of figured out which places we want the player to experience and what would be fun and cool I'll sit down with the lead environment artist and with our writer, John Layman and we'll go over kind of what we want the generic feel of the zone to be like. Then we'll figure out what different environments we want to deliver within that zone. Then after that, we'll break it down into zone flow, what segments of the game it needs to fulfill. Then we'll work with John to come up with what cool stories we're going to overlay in these areas and what enemies we're going to use. We get the character guys involved to make sure we're not going over budget on you know, "There's going to be twenty different types of people!" Making sure that they can actually produce the amount of stuff that we want to put in the zone. Then my team takes John's storylines and figures how to turn it into really cool gameplay and actually starts implementing it into the zones. Telling those stories through the environment.

Massively: On the machines running Snake Gulch here today, players can see the downed spaceship and prison in the distance. Is that going to be a reoccurring theme throughout the game?

Zeke: Absolutely. We're trying to make sure that wherever you are there are major elements you can orient yourself by and most of the content flows around the areas. So you can kind of tell where you should be going and what's cool. We have different sized landmarks. We have really big ones, so you always know where you are in a zone. Then inside of an area we have different themes and landmarks so that you where you are on a smaller scale.

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