Part of the problem is that the game originally launched into a strange environment. It launched not too long before Star Trek Online, which quickly pulled most of Cryptic's focus because it was a huge project that had to be completed on a very short schedule. It was designed with an eye toward appealing to console players as well as more traditional PC gamers, something dropped after an unnecessarily long period of hand-wringing. It also managed to remind everyone just how bad a launch day patch could be (and how bad it was to patch the endgame with nothing but paid content).
In other words, Champions Online was launching into unfriendly waters from the beginning. Yet almost all of those issues were ones created entirely by the studio. The issues with more active combat exist solely because the game tried to court console players for a deal that never happened, the launch day patch was a result of accelerating the launch schedule, and the whole Vibora Bay mess was just that. It doesn't explain why the game has lain so fallow for so long.
So we have to turn an eye toward Star Trek Online. And we have to note that as far as Cryptic is concerned, that game is pretty successful.
We could argue all day about whether or not Star Trek Online is the game it should have been; personally, I think that if it's not there, it's darn near. But the more important part is that the game launched and kept itself afloat, and while a free-to-play conversion was in the works before the change in ownership it seems to have been more a matter of a shifting marketplace. It's been subject to many revisions, but not nearly as many as those that Champions Online has undergone.
Champions went free-to-play well before any companies changed hands. And I think that's when one major change happened to the game's overall philosophy, insofar as the perception that old guard players were officially no longer useful.
At low levels, CO delivers quite a rush. It's not a great chore to feed those lower levels with content that keeps gameplay exciting and dynamic. Players who have been in the game for a while have all sorts of expectations and demands, but new players will happily drop some money for a pack of keys and an archetype and feel as if they're getting their money's worth.
Alerts all scale for everyone. Adventure packs and comic series scale for everyone. Almost every part of the game seems geared to getting new players to fall for the game because that's the initial rush. The dedicated players aren't going anywhere to begin with.
And a large part of this is probably just the simple fact that CO never grabbed much success in the first place. You can demonize the developers, but the fact of the matter is that it would be really dumb to toss a whole lot of resources into a game that isn't doing well instead of one that is, especially when there might not be a clear picture of what the endgame for CO is supposed to look like, a problem that Cryptic has always had with its game designs.
In other words, making the game as fun as possible for new players is what keeps the game afloat. That leads to a cycle of disenfranchisement that oddly reinforces the idea that new development, not old development, is where the money's at. So nothing gets any better.
Will this change? When I had a chance to ask a few questions of the team, I was told that the developers like the idea of keeping up with a steady series of events in the game rather than having a few big new pieces of endgame, but people who are hitting level 40 still need something to do. I can accept that some of that is just going to be problematic under the circumstances -- City of Heroes had the same issue -- but you need to give players a reason to go back before you eat through all of the goodwill players have.
The trouble is that I'm not sure the team has the funding to do any of that. Much as with Warhammer Online, this is a case in which the things that could be done to revitalize the game require money being reserved for other titles, so the team has to make do with what's available. It may be that recurring events is really the best we can hope for, and that's a sad conclusion.
I don't think it's a matter of malice. I think it's a few bad decisions and a few pieces of bad luck that just don't look to be changing.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'll be rounding up superheroic news, from the big surprise of Infinite Crisis to PvP roadmaps.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.