Last week, Trembling Hand threw out an interesting and somewhat inflammatory post entitled “Why Roper Has To Go”. It was notable not just for his dismay over another (seemingly) botched patch, but for laying the blame squarely at Bill “Hellgate London” Roper’s doorstep. He begins with a direct accusation:
“With the release of last night’s patch, Bill Roper has unequivocally demonstrated himself to be incapable of managing an MMO, let alone during its critical and challenging launch period.”
Ouch. Of course, this is hardly the first time that Roper’s seen mud flung at him at Cryptic, as he seems to be the public whipping boy for any and all frustrations with Champions, to the point where some players even created him as their in-game nemesis. But it is fair to put the entire onus on him?
Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. I would heartily agree with anyone who said that Champions needed more time to bake in the beta oven, as the game is fairly content light and was still seeing massive balancing patches pushed through on the day of release — and beyond. These are not good signs. From my personal experience, I can testify that Champions certainly is a fun, vibrant game with a great potential future ahead of it, but it did not come fully to term before being born. We’re seeing patches that really belong squarely in the late beta period, but given to a post-launch crowd that is far less tolerant of whiplash-inducing changes when their subscription dollar is on the line. Cryptic has issued two full character respecs so far, as well as a couple other crowd-appeasing goodies, as a show of good faith for our patience. But in the case of Trembling Hand and others, patience is almost tapped out.
Now, to look at the upshot, not all is lost here. Cryptic has sold a ton of copies, made quite a bit of scratch from 6-month/lifetime subs, and netted a not-great-but-not-bad-at-all 74% score on GameRankings. People do like the title, and it’s not as if Cryptic is sitting on their laurels — they are pushing out a huge content patch in October, as well as working hard to right wrongs and add more content. We’ve also yet to see the expected launch of Champions on the XBox 360, as well as the expected synergy between this title and Cryptic’s other upcoming MMOs, such as Star Trek Online. In six months, I predict that this will be a solid title that will be perfect for people to return to for quick, enjoyable combat and entertainment. Even if the road appears to be rocky between now and then.
But we must return to the boogeyman of the hour, Mr. Roper, whose existence proves that one’s failures will always be remembered by an unforgiving gaming public more than one’s successes (also, see John Romero). Is all this entirely his fault and responsibility, as the Design Director/Executive Producer and de facto spokesperson of Champions Online? I’d be hesitant to take such an extreme. First of all, as much as we like putting one human face at the forefront of representing any MMO, these games are the result of an entire team of developers, and subject to the ruling of a gang of executives, of which Roper is just one — an influential one, to be sure. These things are always more complex and subtle than we make them out to be, but disgruntled gamers are not liable to extend the benefit of the doubt when a guy who had a spectacular and very public pseudo-MMO failure light up the news a couple years ago happens to be at the helm of their game.
Nevermind that Roper has a more impressive string of successes under his belt, y’know, like WarCraft and StarCraft and Diablo. Or that IGN named him as one of the top game creators of all time. Hellgate bombed, Champions seems rocky, and Bill Roper must pay, right?
Let’s let Roper have a moment to defend himself following the day one patch debacle:
“Jack [Cryptic's Lead Designer and CEO] did indeed hand the reigns of the game over to me when I started at Cryptic in November of 2008. The game has undergone a great many changes since then. All of you won’t like all of them – that’s impossible – but based on our beta feedback, the majority of you liked the majority of those changes. Moving forward, we’re going to keep working with you to make the game better and better. And yes, that means all of us here – but for those of you looking at where the buck stops with the game, I have the final call.
The Day 1 balance change patch was my call to make, and while we should have been much better about messaging it, it was something that had to be done. We had characters soloing 5-man content. This was never the intent, and sometimes when the game is just that broken, you have to do something drastic to address it. As we continue, we’ll not only be much better at messaging changes, but our mission is to not have them be so drastic. We want to smooth out problem areas such as difficulty curves, but with a surgical scalpel and not a hammer.
Also, we got out a full retcon for every player last night. We had to wait until the technology was there to do it, and the programmers did a great job of busting their asses to make it happen. I’m always blown away by how quickly the team responds to issues and how hard they work to get changes in fast.
All in all, I think that while Champions isn’t perfect – it’s really fun. I play every night and pass along both what I like and don’t like in the live game environment. We’re going through the forums, having dev chats, and constantly looking on how to make the game better. As with any MMO, it isn’t spot on perfect at the start. But with your continued feedback and support, we’ll get as close as we can.”
While I won’t be absolving him or Cryptic here of what’s become a tumultuous (but salvageable) launch for Champions, I do admire Roper for not ducking the issue, or trying to absolve himself of responsibility. I’ve found that Cryptic has been very open with the community as to what’s happening and what they have planned, even when they know that the news won’t be what everyone wants. But when it comes to Roper, Cryptic saw what so many closely-invested players cannot: a man with a wealth of game design experience, who has repeatedly (and humbly) shared about what he’s learned from the mistakes of Hellgate, as a person who would be a great resource for their game. Champions is not a “failure”, nor is it “dying”, as hysterical voices have proclaimed — with a bit of time, this too shall pass, and even Bill Roper might win folks back to his corner.
P.S. – As a wandering thought, can you imagine if game developers were as prone to hysterics as their playerbase? They really do not get enough credit for being steady, calm voices in the midst of the nerdstorm.