Champions Online and the Doctor Destroyer redemption

avalon-batman432As I said on my podcast, I spent my MMO budget this month on a freeform character slot in Champions Online to scratch that superhero itch that’s been driving me nuts as of late.  Yes, the slot is stupidly expensive, but it’s the only real alternative to subscribing if you want to recapture the real fun of building up a superhero from scratch.

My hero is Threshold, a Russian telepath.  I gave her a pretty cool winter outfit theme, complete with parka and fuzzy hat.  Mental powers are petty cool to mess around with, although I vaguely recall that these were the same powers I did way back when.  Champions has a terrifically rich character creator, and I must’ve spent about an hour or so crafting the perfect-looking outfit.  I had to disable all of the purchasable options, because they’re way too expensive and too tempting.  Even so, there’s a lot to choose from that’s free.

It’s been a long, long, long time since I was last in Champions past the tutorial, and it’s amazing to me how much does come back to you.  However, I did forget the colors — dang, this game is vibrant.  It’s full of so many primary and bold colors that just pop out at you, and I find it kind of cheery because of that.

It looks like they’ve reordered the beginning of the game somewhat from how it used to be.  After the tutorial (which is a lot shorter now), you get sent to the city for some footwork and THEN ordered to go to Canada or the desert.  I think that’s a good move, getting players used to the city hub of the game right off the bat.

I’ve been experimenting with my powers and doing a little bit of retconning to pick better ones.  My travel power choice was really agonizing.  The game now has a ridiculous number of travel powers, seriously, like the most bizarre things ever.  Scarab tunneling?  Okay.  The free powers are more limited, mostly superspeed, super jump, teleportation, flight, and a couple of skills that combine a lesser form of superspeed and super jump.  I keep going with flight, because it’s all-around useful.  Hopefully I can earn one of the other travel powers later on in the game.  Would very much like to try them.

There’s a lot to figure out, especially in regards to the new alerts, fusing items together, what’s the best build for my character, the new vehicles, and so on.  I don’t see me playing it more than once a week or so, but it’s a good dip-in-and-out title that has a different feel than most else out there.  I do like the combat a lot, particularly when I got re-used to the whole energy-building mechanic.  There are a lot of telepathy skills I’m looking forward to acquiring and trying out.

I know that Champions was really struggling as the smallest kid in Cryptic’s household, although scuttlebutt says that it’s blossoming somewhat now that it’s absorbed a portion of the City of Heroes refugees.  I’m still amazed by how much I see CoH in Champions.  It’s not identical, but they’re related by blood.  At least the refugees have options instead of, y’know, nothing.  I think it’s a good time to give CO a second look, and so far I’m quite pleased with what I’ve been finding.

When I run Cryptic…

Obviously, the news that Atari has dropped Cryptic like a bag of zombie snakes is not good news for the studio.  This is an understatement, and perhaps I need to add a second bag of zombie snakes to reinforce that fact.  So our favorite MMO studio punching bag is now up for sale, and considering that I have $2,000 in savings, I’m strongly considering buying it.

Why?  Because I can make changes.  And changes I will make:

  • The theme song to Star Trek Online will be replaced with “Faith of the Heart”
  • To raise additional funds, I will allow corporations to plaster ads on STO’s starship hulls and Champions Online’s superhero capes
  • Jack Emmert will be put in an office far, far away from computers and decision-making
  • Neverwinter will change its setting to Planescape and it will ROCK
  • Champions will add a feature to discharge a mild electrical shock to any player who can’t come up with a semi-original outfit but is cribbing from DC or Marvel
  • The great Vulcan conspiracy will be exposed, and everyone will finally know them as the lobotomized control freaks that they are
  • New Champions powerset: Nerdrage
  • New STO ship design: Firefly-class cargo hauler

Champions: Limits

To follow up from this morning’s post, Cryptic updated their Champions F2P FAQ with the following:

Q: Do Archetypes limit the game? As a Silver player, am I missing out on a significant portion of the game?

A: Not at all! Think of an Archetype as a class. Nearly every major Western MMO features class-based gameplay. Champions Online: Free For All just introduces interesting, powerful classes to a player’s repertoire. We also based the Archetypes on existing superhero tropes, then tweaked them based on our beta players’ feedback to make them exciting, engaging and, most importantly, well-balanced.

In the interest of fairness, I can almost, almost buy that.  Yeah, you’re not paying anything, so you don’t really get a right to complain about it.  Yeah, we’re basically making F2P Champions like other MMOs in regards to classes.

Yet the answer there is untrue — Archetypes DO, in fact, limit the game.  Champion’s mix-and-match powersets was probably the game’s single biggest, best-known selling point — and F2P simply does not have that.  It limits the content of the game, because power choices and character customization is content.  Are you missing out on a significant portion of the game?  Again, I’d have to say (and this is from someone who did play Champions) that yes, you are.  F2P Champions will not feature one of the best parts of the game, a part that makes a huge impact on one’s gameplay and interaction with the world around you.

So while Cryptic is fully within its rights to have limits to F2P (and frankly, it would be silly not to, since they don’t make money for handing over the keys to everything), this answer is disingenuous, particularly if the reader has never played Champions before.  Why not be honest?  “Yes, it is a limit on the game, but we feel that it’s a fair trade-off for free content.  You get to sample much of the game within these limitations, and we hope that we’ll convince you our game is worth a subscription.”

Clash of the Superfriends

Superhero MMOs have had it easy so far, competition-wise.  Really, when compared to the clown car-packed field of fantasy, the fewer-than-all-the-fingers-on-one-hand club of superhero MMOs doesn’t really elicit a lot of sympathy for their chances.  City of Heroes — king of the hill, has been for some time, doing just fine with a recent expansion.  Champions Online — struggling upstart, didn’t really put a dent in CoH the way some folk thought it would, is just trying to stay in the public consciousness.  Superhero Squad Online — not out yet, aimed at the kiddy demographic, could be a sleeper hit.

Then we have DC Universe Online which, as you may have heard, launched yesterday to a muted fanfare of excitement.  I guess people were happy?  Again, I’m not really in the personal know, but from what I’ve seen come across my blog feed in the past 24 hours, DCUO didn’t really cause a stampede to the launch button.  Like most everything else it’s been handling this past year, SOE could’ve done better by DCUO here.  Pushing back the launch date from last fall was bad enough, but the past few months have been lukewarm at best for this title — and the company’s marketing team seems like it’s going through the motions but there’s no spirit there.

I’m not saying DCUO is a bad game; on the contrary, from what I’ve seen it is a decent actioner with an RPG-lite overlay, and the PS3 tie-in is really going to help it more than any marketing push.  In fact, I think a lot of the MMO industry is watching this launch closely to see just how much DCUO benefits from the console market.  We’re really in mostly unexplored territory here, FFXI and EQOA notwithstanding.

What’s interested me personally is that the superhero MMO subgenre now has a three-way clash (and players have more than one or two options) for supremacy.  It appears that Cryptic and Paragon Studios have realized this as well, since – and I’m sure the timing of this was no coincidence whatsoever — Cryptic just so happened to announce Champions’ F2P launch yesterday while Paragon Studios posted a producer’s letter on Monday that culminated in a plea for players to stay: “We love you, man!”

No, seriously.

Anyway, I’m not that invested in any of these games, nor am I rooting for one to triumph and one to fall, or whatever.  I just think it’s about time that these games get shaken from complacency and forced to actually compete, which will benefit the consumer in the end.

I really do wish that Cryptic was handling Champions’ F2P version better, however.  I know — how much can you complain about something free, after all?  But when “free” means that you end up playing a version of the game that doesn’t include one of the game’s biggest selling points (the ability to choose your character’s powers), then it ends up being all kinds of sad.

If I was handed the reins to Champions and told to come up with a F2P edition, I’d certainly go another way.  Perhaps putting a level cap (say 20?) but leaving the game open otherwise.  Maybe I’d allow players to pay to unlock powersets permanently, a la carte-like.  Really, anything but the archetype templates they’re going with here.

So what do you think about all of this superhero news?  Are you rooting for one game over the other?

2010: The Year of Free-To-Play, Yo

It’s safe to say that 2010 has lacked a breakout MMO hit — although, to be fair, very little was on the table to begin with.  The industry and waiting fans were already looking to 2011 and beyond by the time April rolled around, and whatever did manage to launch this year felt a bit lackluster.

Star Trek Online?  Decent, but thin in content and still struggling to beef up.  Allods Online?  Highly anticipated, then shot itself in the foot with insane item store prices and bad PR.  Global Agenda?  Hard to justify paying this over, say, Team Fortress 2 and the like.  APB?  Canceled about ten seconds after it launched.  Final Fantasy XIV?  Decided to go the “obtuse difficulty” route and netted less-than-kind reviews because of it.  LEGO Universe has a good shot at taking home some dough, but even that’s been somewhat overshadowed by the inexplicable rise of Minecraft.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the MMO genre is dead — there’s a metric ton of games prepping for launch, and many of them look highly promising.  In fact, one of the reasons we haven’t seen as many big-name MMOs launch this year is because the companies are holding off on releasing them in order to make them as good as they can be.

So oddly enough, 2010’s becoming known for something entirely different, if not unexpected: the rise of free-to-play MMO conversions.  Last year, DDO showed that it could not only be done, but be highly popular and open an MMO up to an even greater audience.  People like “free”, even if it’s not truly free.  People also like options, which is what many of these F2P plans offer.

When you think about it, it was inevitable that sooner or later, the industry would start doing some serious experimentation with pricing structures.  The standard $15/month sub is growing long in the tooth, partially due to inflation, partially due to players becoming more MMO polygamists than monogamists, and partially due to comparisons with other subs of the same price.  Subs are great for certain types of gamers — namely, ones that pour a lot of time into a single game — but kind of work against folks who want to sample different titles and perhaps only play a night or two a week.

And throughout all of 2010, “free-to-play” has become the key buzzword.  More MMOs are launching with F2P and freemium (take your pick of lingo) than ever before, and many big-name games started the process of adopting a F2P option with their title.  LOTRO, Pirates of the Burning Sea, EverQuest 2, and now Champions Online.  It’s gotten to the point where you can see devs of subscription-based MMOs wince at the deluge of “So are you guys going to offer F2P?” queries that abound.

This type of F2P is really the new trial, or if you want to get really old-school, the new shareware version of the game.  Do you remember shareware?  In an attempt to hook players on a game, companies would release part of it (perhaps the first X levels or first episode) for free and encourage people to copy the disks and share it around.  Players could sample it as long as they’d like, and if they were really smitten, would pony up for the rest of it.  These F2P MMOs remind me a lot of that — they want the barrier of entry to be minimal and attractive, and by removing the time limit, there’s no pressure to buy at the end of a two-week period.  It’s more of a delicate seduction instead of a high-pressure sales pitch.

Looking at Champions Online, I don’t think a lot of us are surprised at this move.  I think it’s not the best way they could have done it — limiting free players to “archtypes” removes one of the best reasons to play this game, which is custom character building — but it’s hard to complain when a huge chunk of the game is going to be handed out for zero dollars.

Cryptic really backed itself into a corner by focusing so much on pumping out quick MMOs that they failed to realize that they simply could not charge big-budget MMO subscription fees at the same rate.  They really should’ve been looking at alternative pricing plans from day one instead of year two, and history could’ve perhaps been different if they had.

In any case, I’m sure it’s going to help CO out, and from what I’ve read in reviews about Neverwinter Nights, I think Cryptic’s getting leery of subscription models as it is.  The first reaction that I and many others had at the news of Champions’ F2P is wondering if STO is soon to follow.  Personally, I’d love it.  I do like that game, but I can’t justify a subscription when I would play it only once every week or two.  A F2P model, if well-planned, would draw me back in, and I think Cryptic’s certainly built a microtransaction store to handle this model.

Although STO may not be in as dire straits as CO at this point — it’s newer, it carries with it a much stronger IP, and it’s not really competing with any other similar MMOs the way CO is with City of Heroes (and, eventually, DCUO and SHSO).  If they’re making good money off it, STO could remain sub for some time to come.

So what about other games going F2P?  I don’t see this as a magic button that can instantly cure a MMO’s blues, and I think companies should really take time to consider and examine if this model even works for them.  Turbine felt like they were being patient and thoughtful as they planned out LOTRO’s conversion, whereas SOE seemed like they rushed EQ2X to press without considering a lot of the ramifications.  Both titles are still working hard to find a balance that pleases both types of customers.

I could see Warhammer as F2P, although Mythic’s stated publicly that it won’t happen and would be really hard to do.  Some of the older MMOs out there could get a boost from F2P (in much the same way that Anarchy Online has) — UO, EQ, DAoC, AC, Planetside, even SWG.  In fact, a freemium SWG could be a shrewd move on SOE’s part to counter the pull of players to TOR.

2010 is almost away from us, and I’m really buzzed about the future.  And while not everyone is crazy about F2P, it gives me more options to play, and I love that.

Bargain Bin Posts Week: Saying Bad Things

Another started thought without a finished execution.  But I still feel this is relevant — that we’re a little too sensitive about people being critical (versus mean or trollish) about something we like, and there is a fear that if you’re honest and critical of a game you support, it might drive someone away from it.

Here’s the thing: if you point out a flaw, bug, problem or general dislike for a game’s feature, it doesn’t mean you necessarily hate that game.  It just means you’re more honest than most.  I kind of get the feeling sometime that people — bloggers, forumites, armchair critics — are violently allergic to offering up any sort of negative commentary on games they are fond of, usually because of one of three fears:

  1. That saying anything bad about a game will drive potential players away, thereby hurting the game’s future.
  2. That saying anything bad about a game for some reason invalidates the fact that you like it, are enjoying it, or are a huge proponent of it.
  3. That saying anything bad about a game will incur the wrath of rabid fanboys who will not hesitate to defend their beloved title to the death or misspelling, whichever comes first.

And I think that’s kind of hooey.  I mean, I’m greatly enjoying the three MMOs I’m currently playing — DDO, Champions, Fallen Earth — but I’m certainly not blind to their faults and flaws.  I’ve tried to be up front and honest about them, even though I think they’re all worth playing (depending on your preferences, of course), because it looks stupid to turn a blind eye to these things while de facto recommending them to others.

This sort of thing gets particularly bad right around launch, and I’ve been as guilty as anyone else for getting my panties in a bunch when a voice of criticism chirps out of a crowd of Yes Men.

Why Star Trek Online NEEDS to go free-to-play (and Champions Online too)

“I could easily see STO going into a hybrid model similar to what Lotro is doing… Turbine seems to have some interesting plans and looking at how DDO has turned around, its worth taking note.”

~ STO exec producer Daniel Stahl

Man In A Skirt: My favoritist TNG character ever!

By now, it’s probably old news to you that one of the folks at Cryptic publicly mused about taking STO the same route as DDO and LOTRO — moving from a subscription-based to a microtransaction-based business model.  It’s hard to tell how serious they are, but I’m inclined to think that Cryptic is testing the waters here because they’re on borrowed time.

Without placing judgment on the games themselves (Champions and STO have a lot of gloss and fun but little depth), I think Cryptic is slowly drowning here.  In the past year, they’ve released two high-profile MMOs, both of which got so-so reviews, so-so subscribers, and way more controversy than they should’ve — not to mention the rapid shuffling and departure of key figures at the studio.  The general consensus is that Cryptic has positioned Champions and STO as AAA titles when they’re, at best, B+ games, and have hobbled them with a full $15/month sub plus the burden of beefy cash shops.

No matter how you feel about microtransactions and F2P, I think a majority of us can come together and say that studios that try to have their subscription cake and eat those microtransactions too are pushing it, and don’t garner a lot of love for doing so.  And whenever Cryptic comes out and says things like, “C’mon fellas, we’re not greedy — we’re just gamers!” it seems so out-of-touch with what they’re doing that they earn a lot of resentment in turn.

One popular conspiracy theory is that Cryptic is simply redirecting whatever profits they’re milking from these two games into a third (or fourth) title that they’re hoping will be the next big hit for the studio, the one to really put them on the map.  In this theory, STO and Champions are already as good as dead in the studio’s eyes, just on life support to get as much money as possible before whimpering into death.

I don’t know if I buy that, but I can’t quite see a glorious future for either game.  A MMO’s first year is critical to its long-term prospects, and both games have been playing catch-up ever since launch, adding tons of features in an effort to shore up numerous weak spots in the game.  Both of these titles deserved to have a solid, deep foundation to build off of, but they went the quick-and-dirty route instead.

Which brings us back to our main topic: STO (and Champions) need to go F2P to survive.  These games aren’t going to get newer or more special over time, and once 2011 hits — AKA “The year of insanely incredible MMO releases” — they won’t even be the new kids on the block any more.  Unless they have huge content expansions in the wings, they need to take drastic steps to avoid what’s happening right now to Vanguard (the prolonged death of a thousand cuts and server mergers).

In my mind, Cryptic has three options here:

  1. Get their third MMO out the gate within a year and have it be a surprise smash hit that earns them so much money that they can keep STO and Champions afloat and operating as normal — to buy them time to improve gradually, as they’re currently doing.
  2. Offer a Station Access-type multi-game subscription for a great deal — so you won’t pay $15/month for one of these games?  How about $15 for two games’ worth of subscriptions?
  3. Transition STO and Champions to a free-to-play/freemium model and hope for a repeat of DDO’s success.

I don’t think #1 is feasible from what little we’ve seen (and Cryptic’s track record lately), and while #2 would be interesting, #3 makes the most sense.  After all, they’ve been all but shoving microtransactions down our throat, particularly in STO, where a good chunk of the game’s options — races, ship designs, additional character slots — are locked away behind the not-so-innocuous C-Store.

There’s a lot of resentment toward the C-Store, mostly because a lot of the items they offer seem more necessity than nicety.  Did I purchase a whole game, after all, or a hobbled version of it that I have to pay another $50 to fully patch?  You get this backlash when you push both subscriptions and microtransactions with no other options, and I haven’t felt sorry for Cryptic because of it.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how Cryptic could flip a switch to make the entire game free-to-play and move more content into the C-Store without feeling bad for doing it.  For STO, give players one free ship of each type (science, cruiser, escort) per tier, and then offer them the option to pay to unlock the other variants — they’re sort of doing that already with the higher tiers.  Give players enough content to level fully up, but throw some of the better content into the store if they like what they’re seeing.  Really, I shouldn’t even have to map it out, it’s sort of there already.

I’m not one of those who wants Cryptic to die in a fire for its digital crimes — there’s a lot of good there to be picked out of the questionable and rotten — but I do think they need to radically alter their current stance of how they’re making, running and (most importantly) selling MMOs.