Behind the Mask: Two years and two thousand miles

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|09.01.11

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Behind the Mask: Two years and two thousand miles
Champions Online screenshot
Some of you will recall what Champions Online was like at launch. I think that a lot of readers here at Massively still remember that soreness. The first year of CO was kind of a rough, rocky ride. At some point or another, I think all of us expected the game to fail. It was really only in the in the last few months of that year that Cryptic started to turn the game around.

The second year of Champions has been a lot more successful. I'm pretty sure that from a bottom-line perspective, the F2P launch helped turn the game into a profitable venture. However, that hasn't been the only major change. If Cryptic had held this kind of attitude from day one, I think things would have turned out differently.

Free-to-play and its impacts

It's been quite a while since Cryptic ushered in the Free for All expansion, and we can now objectively say whether or not it's been successful. I think that the explosive F2P launch was a good sign, but a lot of people in the free player rush have bled off and the numbers have become more stabilized. I'm happy to say that these numbers are still pretty good. At reasonable primetime hours, Monster Island (the level 30+ zone) was fairly crowded! My journeys through MI had a lot of competition for monster spawns. There was quite a bit of kill-stealing. I could have changed zones (there were multiple instances of MI), but I kind of like seeing all the people. Other zones, especially Millennium City, are packed. There are usually a couple thousand players in MC at all but the twilight hours. That feels pretty healthy to me.

The Archetype system is definitely not the best method of going about a F2P expansion, in my opinion. As I've mentioned countless times, CO thrives on customization. Having a mostly fixed power progression seems backwards. At the same time though, a more guided progression helps inexperienced players -- especially those who don't read this column.

Champions Online screenshotContent, content, content

One of the big troubles with CO has always been a lack of content. Over the past year, we've seen no less than four major content updates (five, if you count Serpent Lantern way back in June of '10), which is pretty exceptional. I realize that four content updates a year is actually less than what Cryptic planned on doing (I believe the goal was five to six), but the overall impact has been pretty good. I'm not sure how any dev team can realistically turn out quality content in a two to three month time frame, but the last year of CO has been a pretty big renaissance of fun and well-written adventures to play.

I think some people criticize Champions because the content updates are on the smallish side. It takes roughly three to four hours to play through the new adventures. It's hard to say just how much content was added in Free for All, but I'd be surprised if it was less than the content added in Demonflame. Regardless, while the adventures are short, they're quite replayable, and they comprise a fair bit of content to chew through over the year.

When a typical game developer adds new content, it has some kind of timesink to keep players from consuming all of it in a hurry. Because Champions Online is grind-light, its new content is consumed rather quickly. The three adventure packs and Aftershock (which might as well be an adventure pack), are focused more on delivering a fun, exciting story for your heroes. If you had to grind through stuff, it would probably mess up the pacing a lot. In fact, feedback from Serpent Lantern (which does have timesink objectives) told the devs that the players didn't want that kind of gameplay at all.

I think we'll continue to see similar levels of content updates over the next year. Maybe someday, you'll be able to level a character to the cap entirely on scaling team content without repeating things, but for right now they're just supplements to normal questing.

In a perfect world, we'd have even more

The sale of Cryptic Studios to Perfect World Entertainment has left everyone a bit uncertain of the future. Our guidelines and code of conduct will probably change, but what does it mean in terms of future development? It's hard to say. There's a lot of speculation by everyone; I suspect there's a lot of speculation even at Cryptic right now.

Players have expressed great happiness in trading Atari for their new foreign corporate masters. Most players did not like the handling of CO by Atari and are looking forward to getting the same treatment that Runic Games received.

Champions Online screenshot
Old issues getting looked at

Players are never happy with their toys, and they always seem to manage to find holes in the new shiny things the devs give them. The dev team has been working kind of slow on the whole process of updating old content and fixing powers, but it is getting done.

So far, a huge number of frameworks have been looked at and tweaked. While only one framework has been added (Heavy Weapons), numerous powers have been added to the previous frameworks to flesh them out. The devs have a few powersets in the works for the future, or so I've been told, but it's nice to see them taking a long look at old issues that need to be addressed. I'm hoping that Tier 4 powers get looked at soon (they're too weak), but I'm sure everything eventually will.

The old issue of EGO being too weak a stat, for instance, is far less true now. It's still got its niche, but it's a much more productive, useful niche. It will never be as valued as more hit points, but few things really are.

I'd really like to see more lair reviews, though. The two lowest-level lairs were looked at and tweaked (honestly not that much), but the next lair, Destroyer's Robot Factory, is the one in most need of work. It's currently bugged not to complete, and team wipes are frequent.

Itemization of the game is also a problem, but as was mentioned in the last State of the Game, it will probably not be fixed without a level cap raise. The fact that the devs are looking into a level cap raise is kind of exciting. We've known that the level cap of 40 was not the planned "end" for the designers. We've heard dev communication expressing ideas for a second passive slot, for instance (although I'm sure that's not going to happen). The Tier 4 powers require a number of power selections that is very consistent with a level 50 character.

The next steps

As I said last year, CO lacks intensity. Nothing in the game is particularly hard or stressful. I'm not sure that lair reviews or a level cap raise will change that; I suppose we'll see. The diversity in the game's powers have improved a lot, not really because powers have changed but because a lot of the underlying mechanics have changed for the better.

Overall, things are looking up. I'm pretty sure Champions will be around next year for me to talk about. Just this last weekend, a friend told me, "If I could go back in time and tell myself to buy a lifetime sub, I totally would." That's a good sign, I think.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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