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E3 2009: Bill Roper on character themes and customization in Champions Online

James Egan

The superhero MMO genre has been ruled by one game and one game alone for the past five years: City of Heroes. NCsoft's title being quite literally the only game in town for superhero fans is about to change, with competitors like DC Universe Online and Champions Online on the way. We have a good idea of what to expect with DCUO given the recognizable characters the game incorporates, but what of Champions Online which is based upon the Champions pen and paper RPG?

We've wondered what Cryptic Studios will do to differentiate Champions Online from the competition; Massively had a chance to sit down with Bill Roper, the game's executive producer, to discuss that question at E3 2009.

Gallery: Champions Online Main Gallery | 207 Photos

Part of the answer for Cryptic Studios is to allow players flexibility in terms of theme with their characters, while ensuring that the game mechanics fully support those style choices that players make. Letting players create themes for their heroes and keeping the system open enough to maintain their individual style is key.

Roper points out some of the design challenges of applying thematic concepts to game mechanics, particularly with what every player will likely care about the most -- their powers. A broad topic, certainly. So Roper explained how this specifically applies to the travel powers in Champions Online.

Roper likens travel powers to driving in gears -- third gear is top speed for pure travel, getting attacked drops you down to second gear, and fighting is you in first gear. It works out well in PvP on a number of levels, not the least of which is that players can go full burn to escape combat when needed. Some travel powers like Burrowing give a stealth bonus, but remove the ability to attack. But Acrobatics is perhaps the best example.

"Players have said with acrobatics that even though you don't run as fast as super speed and you don't jump as far as super jump, it's cool, it's really thematic," says Roper. Using the driving analogy, acrobatics has the fastest first gear so players that are fighting with this style can move the fastest in combat. Players into martial arts and melee will use Acrobatics to engage and disengage, dodge, and so on. It remains thematic for ninja-style players and ties into the game mechanics well.

Acrobatics sounds fun, but what about teleportation? "Teleport breaks everything," Roper says. That is, it would if they just slapped it into the game and moved on. Fortunately, Cryptic Studios has put a lot of thought into this. For players who aren't necessarily physical types, Teleport would be the most efficient transportation power in the game, allowing them to bypass mobs and enemies and remain untargetable. If left unchecked, though, Teleport powers would be overpowered.

"It immediately breaks all the rules," Roper continues. "You have to start putting restrictions in -- you can't go through walls and so on." Cryptic Studios had a clear goal of departing from the Teleportation game mechanics of City of Heroes where you click a point to 'port over to it; they decided to create a system where players step into a nether realm and move through it (while still needing to navigate surroundings and terrain like anyone else), emerging in another location. From the perspective of onlookers, the character (not Roper's own words here) pulls a Nightcrawler sort of *bamf* to a new location.

Another aspect of the travel powers is that for explorer-types, there are many explorable areas players can potentially reach. Keeping a step or two ahead of what the gamers can think of doing, where they can end up going, has been a challenge for Cryptic Studios with Champions Online.

Continuing on the topic of themes running through the game mechanics, Roper discusses how this carries over to all aspects of the game, as many as Cryptic has been able to accommodate. For instance, Roper points out that Champions Online will have themed crafting areas that feel like an ideal environment to craft a certain type of item.

"It's amazing how thematic our players want all of this stuff in the game to be," Roper says. "We've done a lot of extra work on the item side to make sure that players who have a certain theme for a hero in mind can match that theme with the items they get in the world. You can't just drop leather armor or cloth armor. You have to be able to 'drop and upgrade', give them a defensive benefit that's not a piece of armor. A spell, a serum, nanobots..." he adds, giving just a few examples of loot.

This ties in with the ability to control how you look and how your powers manifest, a key feature of Champions Online. A player may pick up an item, a piece of armor for instance, that wouldn't fit with his or her particular style. It can still be equipped but not displayed, imparting the benefits without detracting from the character's look.

On the customizability of powers, we knew it would be possible to alter the color and style of a given power's emanation, but the system goes far beyond that with "power replaces." Roper gives the example of a melee-type character whose powers are visually linked to a particular type of blade, like katanas. But perhaps further down the road a player finds a scimitar that looks better or ties in with the character's theme nicely. The player can easily change all of the character's sword-based powers to use this new weapon and take on this new look.

So while players are given the flexibility to really customize their character's theme, they're not locked into those early choices. A character's theme can evolve and be refined over time as they progress in Champions Online.

Massively is on the ground in Los Angeles this week and covering all the latest E3 MMO news coming from the convention. Check out our breaking coverage (or all the Joystiq network E3 reporting) and keep your eye on Massively's front page for the latest developments.

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