Champions Online: 2 Legit 2 Quit

MMORPG got Bill Roper on the line to talk about combat, including how CoH and Champions combat differs.   I always liked CoH’s combat — it never seemed slow, nor confusing — being able to queue up attacks helped quite a bit.

Roper claims that Champions has a “fluid” combat system that’s neither twitch nor stand-still-and-fight — it sounds like they’re trying to find a sweet middle ground that many MMOs are moving in the direction of (Age of Conan, anyone?) yet not quite achieving.  He also talks a bit about how they’re handling endurance.

They do bring up a question about the fact that Champions is being launched for both PC and XBox — and PC players’ (valid) concerns about the game being dumbed down or whatnot.  We have yet to see cross-platform MMOs really take off, with only Final Fantasy XI being the exception.  Age of Conan promised it, but I haven’t heard anything about that lately.

In any case, having Champions launch for XBox too is both bad and good, in my opinion.  Bad, because there will be the temptation to dumb down the game for knuckle-headed console freaks who can’t fathom a game where you’re not winning unless you’re pressing one button very fast.  Bad, because XBox Live players aren’t well known for their maturity or sportsmanship.  Good, because XBox = more sales, and it could potentially help Champions grow massively.  Good, because we might well have the option to roll on PC-only servers, nixing my initial worries.

I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

Advertisements

World of Warcraft: The MMO Brand Name?

Scott over at Broken Toys does a neat little analysis of a pretty bizarre article concerning the author’s perceived problems with MMOs.  Scott concludes something that’s pretty obvious to anyone who reads the source article: that author is equating World of Warcraft with all MMORPGs.

Yeah, WoW is popular and pretty well-known, even outside of PC gaming circles.  It’s perhaps not the first MMO to breach the pop culture barrier (I’d hand that baton to EverQuest), but its success in general awareness is unprecedented.  But have we truly arrived at a point where most everyone will be using WoW as a synonym for MMOs?  Kind of like how Band-Aids and Kleenex are freely used in conversation for all adhesive medical strips and booger tissues?

It’s frightening to think so.  I say that not because WoW is a bad game or I’m a disgruntled ex-player with a bone to pick, but because that boils down an entire genre of games down to one title and it limits newcomers’ understanding of the genre.  It’s as if you were to tell a friend about movies only using The Godfather and nothing but.  Great movie, but it’s not the be all, end all of cinema.  And WoW is not the be all, end all of MMORPGs.

Part of this synonym connection comes from the fact that many MMOs share common features with WoW (which, in turn, “shared” its features from games before and after it), making them look somewhat similar to the uninitiated eye.   We’re going to have to accept the fact that, as MMOs develop, they’re going to have to do so within a certain framework of gameplay and a UI to make it easily accessible to players who’ve long since gotten used to these setups in other games.  I’ve heard grumbling about this, but really, it makes complete sense for me.  You don’t reinvent the car completely when you design a new one — you work with the same basic template (four wheels, steering column, engine, transmission) but come up with something unique within those parameters.  MMOs are becoming like this — we’re getting used to a chat box being in a certain place, a radar screen in our top-right, quest givers with identifying icons and soforth.  Innovation through iteration.

Still, that’s no excuse to get lazy and assume that WoW is the lead ambassador of MMOs, and that other titles haven’t addressed the issues that the original article’s author did.  I’ve often thought WoW could be a severe handicap to players who cut their teeth on that title before anything else, because there’s an assumption that goes along with that that no other game could be as good or offer as much, and therefore, you should either play WoW or nothing at all.

Again, I’m not trash-talking WoW, but the whatever-hundred-pound gorilla in the MMO room needs to be revered a little less and its contemporaries respected a little more.  It’s pretty cool the directions that other studios are going and how they haven’t let WoW deter them from their own visions.  I like that Mythic is forging a path into the wild and wooly fields of RvR, or how Turbine is telling terrific stories, or how Cryptic is juiced on superhero fun, or how NC Soft keeps tanking their titles and making their players cry.  Wait, scratch that last one.

In any case, call MMOs by their proper names and stop slinging lazy generalizations around, is all I’m saying.

Champions Online: Electric Boogaloo

There’s been a ramping up of press over Champions Online these past couple weeks, which is a promising sign for those (like myself) who are looking forward to an expanded closed beta/open beta/release.  Here’s a few of the latest articles along with my thoughts:

“Help Design Champions Online – Emotes”

Cryptic is not just mining their fans for development ideas — they’re being pretty crafty in involving potential players in the creation process.   The pre-launch waiting period can be a murderous wait, so by giving fans something to do, even something as seemingly insignificant as designing emotes or submitting their favorite superhero ideas, they can project the image that we’re all “on the team”.

“Rate My Champion”

This is a basic “Hot or Not” voting system that cleverly lets beta players show off their characters while tantalizing those of us on the outside with costume potential.  It’s kind of amusing to identify art elements that were present in City of Heroes, but at the same time gratifying to know that you could create a pseudo-clone of your favorite hero for CO.  All in all, it’s a definite step up from CoH’s graphics, stylized and all.

“Ask Cryptic – January 22”

Their “Ask Cryptic” series is a nice back-and-forth between the fans and devs, creating a potential monster FAQ for the game.   This one is a particularly good read — I like the question on power emanation points, along with the teaser that there will be dropped items in the world that can change your character’s look (different types of swords, for example) but not impact the power itself.  A bit about defensive powers (dodge, resistance, forcefields and regeneration) is covered — wouldn’t Wolverine have three of those four?

“G4’s Champions Online Preview”

“This game looked pretty boring,” was the quick-to-judge pronouncement of MMOCrunch — a statement I couldn’t disagree with more (not to mention… you’re giving up on these titles based on very early beta footage?  Seriously?)

In any case, that’s not the vibe I’m getting, especially from preview videos like this.  For one thing, you can fight raptors — Superman vs. Jurassic Park, aw YEAH baby!  This video does a good job giving you a quick-and-dirty scoop on the title.  There isn’t anything really “new” here, but I am really digging the visual look, the UI (which looks pleasantly minimal) and the fast combat.

“Champions Online Interview with Bill Roper”

After the Hellgate: London debacle, a lot of people were and are worried that Bill Roper’s addition to the Champions team would be like hiring a bad luck charm.  Then again, this guy was responsible for development of one of the best-selling PC games of all time, and you can’t dismiss that.

It’s a pretty good interview, even though Roper does dance around some of the specifics that the interviewer was trying to nail down.  Any time a dev mentions how you’ll be able to mix and match powers to create a unique character just gets me buzzed — and I found the “role” feature he mentioned interesting, in that you can switch loadouts of your character’s abilities based on a given situation’s need.

You have to admit, this quote is pretty exciting: “And within the next few weeks we’ll be pushing big things out to our beta community which we’ll also be growing as we get closer and closer to the game’s release.”  Can’t wait!

Six Botched MMOs I Survived

I wouldn’t label myself as a MMO tourist so much as a MMO sampler. I rarely just up and leave my current game of choice the second a new title comes out, but I have been known to try recently released games on the side with a healthy pinch of cynicism — and escaped a few with the scars to prove it. Here are six MMOs that I considered “botched” in some way after my brief time in game:

1. The Sims Online

A lesson that should be sorely accepted at this point in game development: a sure thing will often be anything but. Take, for example, The Sims Online. Best selling game of all time, etc, etc, and a sure shoo-in for a massively multiplayer experience. Yet they tanked this title in so many creative ways — and I should know, as I played the beta up to the day of release.

For one thing, the Sims is a single-player title and didn’t lend itself easily to a multiplayer world — where you end up controlling one character as your avatar instead of overseeing numerous peoples. For another, it used the aging Sims engine (2D), which made it look and feel archaic compared to The Sims 2, which launched shortly afterwards. But above all that was the lack of anything substantial to do. It was essentially a giant chat room where you occasionally built a house or did one of four activities that would net you money. People would sit and grind skills for obscenely long periods of time, during which they did nothing themselves, just to be able to make more money. In the end, the game dissolved into a pre-Second Life virtual whorehouse of escort services and questionable social associations. Hooray.

2. Anarchy Online

You know how games journalists talk about the Anarchy Online launch in hushed, anguished tones as if it was the online equal to the Hindenburg disaster? I didn’t just read about it — I was there, baby. Day one. Bought the box, set up my account, logged in (via dial-up, natch), and proceeded to witness one of the absolute worst MMO launches of all time. Everything was bugged and lagged to hell and back — my recollection of the two days I spent trying to do anything in the starter zones were slideshow after slideshow of me eventually dying to a critter I couldn’t fight.

A while later, when the Shadowlands expansion released and Funcom managed to salvage a decent game, I signed up once again for a four-month stint. But not without the scars. No. Not without them.

3. Final Fantasy XI

“I was just killed. By a sheep,” I whined to my girlfriend over the phone. “BY. A. SHEEP.” Yes, this was the legacy that FFXI would hand down to me: being kicked in the family jewels by a farm animal too dumb to drink out of moving water.

In many ways, I consider this the last of the old school hard-for-the-sake-of-being-hard MMOs that were as far from user friendly as could be. Nevermind that the Japanese release for FFXI happened far before the US launch (ensuring that all NA players were far behind their overseas counterparts); nevermind that Square created the most brutal, incomprehensible account creation process (that took literally hours to set up, patch and launch); nevermind that you couldn’t choose your server to play with certain friends at the start; nevermind that you could lose levels (a la EverQuest) by dying — this was a game that rewarded me for stepping a foot outside of the city gates by trouncing me with a big white fluffy ewe of doom.

I couldn’t uninstall it fast enough.

4. Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa’s demise is being kicked all over the internet, as varying commentators are giving their expert analysis of why it failed. From the perspective of a guy that tried the game for a good month in late 2007, it’s pretty obvious to me: it was a half-baked game full of good intentions, sloppy design and mind-bogglingly poor choices.

Why have a scifi game take place on a planet that looks pretty much like every fantasy setting we’ve done to death in fantasy MMOs? Why ask us to hunt down all these Logos things when each class only needs a small portion of them for their skills to work? Why use skills at all, since a bulk of the combat is just holding down the mouse button to fire, and occasionally using a healing kit? Why give me nausea with your herky-jerky FPS view?

It’s not that I can bag on it 100% — TR looked decent, had fast-paced combat that never really let up, and the “ethical parables” had great potential for storytelling. I guess that’s all moot, tho.

5. Pirates of the Burning Sea

First impressions count. Let me repeat that for all of the thousands of imaginary MMO devs who hang on my every word: first impressions count.

I don’t care how much potential your massively PvP, pirate-based title holds, the robust economy or whatnot. When I log in and get a cheesy tutorial with clumsy animations, lackluster graphics and no excitement to speak of, all the potential in the world isn’t going to keep me from throwing holy water on my computer tower, curling up in a fetal ball and wishing for simpler, halcyon days.

6. Hellgate London

I actually feel embarrassed how excited I was for Hellgate — it was another “sure thing” (makers of Diablo, post-apocalyptic setting, tons of skills, unlimited replayability) that promised the world and delivered broken dreams upon launch. I even strongly considered the lifetime subscription (thankfully, I did not spring for it), which would have burned me considerably for the lack of subscriber content and the game’s demise soon to follow.

It wasn’t a horrible game, it just wasn’t horribly interesting. Skills and skill trees needed major reworking (players had accurately predicted this severe flaw in the beta phase, which Flagship ignored), the levels didn’t have enough visual variety to justify just how often you’d be running through them, and the “personality” of the game was simultaneously off-kilter and drab (they cut down a lot of the more erratic personalities pre-launch). As a single-player action-RPG, it was passable enough, but I hardly ever felt the urge to team up, and the highly instanced world made me feel cut off from the “massively multiplayer” part of the title. About the only thing I did enjoy was gathering zombie robot parts for a little pet on the first week during their Halloween event.

Bonus: Magic the Gathering Online

Magic Online (or MTGO) isn’t a MMORPG — more of a massively multiplayer collectible card game. Yet I’ve been harboring a lot of resentment toward this title I needed to lance, so here goes.

I liked Magic, as a card game. It was a little too expensive (to put it mildly) and got far too complex (same), but this was the grand-daddy of CCGs and for a good reason. It seems that the idea of an online version of Magic where you could buy/collect/trade cards that had the same monetary worth as their paper counterparts would be an easy way for Wizards of the Coast to make a quick buck. I never wanted to haunt my local comic store to play against unbathed twitchy nerds — but the idea of being able to play online whenever I liked was quite appealing.

If you’re even half informed as to the development history of Magic Online, then you’ll back me when I say that just when you thought there’d be no more ways for this game to shoot itself in the foot, they’d go and surprise you again and again and again. It was, frankly, a mess from launch to present, with particular spikes of idiocy that included Chuck’s Virtual Party (a huge event celebrating the stability of a new version of the game, which promptly crashed the game like a toddler going at it with a ball-peen hammer) and the semi-recent version 3.0, which is actually a severe step BACK in the functionality of this title and almost universally derided by players.

Wizards has proved that they can’t get their crap together, instead providing toadies who whine publically about how hard it is to develop and code a CCG online as far more complex MMORPGs and other online CCGs made a mockery of their failure. I still have $50 worth of tickets floating around in MTGO, but I can’t foresee a future that would tempt me enough to ever log back in.

Why Is It So Hard To Play The Bad Guy?

I was rereading an old Penny Arcade comic about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and it got me thinking about how very hard it was for me to play an “evil” character in that game.  BioWare’s been championing the movement back to RPGs where your decisions have consequences instead of mere rewards, ultimately shaping your character into “good”, “bad” or something in between, and that’s something I’d love to see a lot more of in my MMORPGs (which rarely give you a choice during the quest or any varying consequences of your character’s action).

I’ve noticed that I’m not alone when it comes to a twinge of moral uncertainty when it comes to playing the bad guy in a game where I have a choice to be good or not.  Sure, a lot of those games tend to be extreme — your character’s actions are either angelic or demonic — but it really makes you think about the actions you’re performing, and you start to feel empathy for these completely fictional characters whose lives you’re impacting.

Having that good/bad choice gives a game strong replayability, and yet I’ve seen over and over again people deciding to play the “good” path first, and then kind of wimp out when it comes to replaying it through a darker character.  “It’s just a game”, to be sure, but we still bring ourselves into them when we play them, and unless you have an iron disconnect between fantasy and reality or you’re a clinical psychopath, it can make you feel squeamish to be the bad guy: selfish, murderous, vile.  We find ourselves at odds with our morality — for some, it’s kind of liberating to be a jerkwad when you’re the nicest person in real life, and for others, it’s a betrayal on a subconscious level.

It never seems to be an issue when you pick up a game that forces you to play a homicidal tool, because you’re absolved of a choice there — you’re just the messenger boy (or girl), doing whatever the puppet master asks.  But to have a game turn around and let you decide how positive or negative you want to be, then the onus is on you.  When I played through KOTOR as a dark Jedi, it was a much tougher experience.  It went against my RPG nature to constantly be helping NPCs out and making their situation better, and here I was exploiting or killing them for my own gain.  I’d actually wince when characters would plead with me for mercy or nag me afterward for being a heartless jerk.

Star Wars: The Old Republic promises to bring this feature back — giving you choices that will have long-lasting consequences for your character, consequences you can’t ignore or erase by going to an earlier save.  I really wonder how many people will find themselves repulsed by evil decisions in that environment, knowing they’ll have to live with whatever antisocial decisions that they’ve picked for as long as that character exists.

The Time Travel Test

As a weird person, I do a lot of “what if?” scenarios in my head. What if I was trapped in a bathroom for a month, with enough food to survive? What if I became crippled? What if I won the lottery? They’re just interesting mental exercises to pass the time.

One of my favorite “what if?” scenarios is “What if I was thrown back in time, knowing everything I do now?” A year… five years… ten years… whatever. Lately, I’ve wondered that same thing with MMOs. What if I was thrown back, say, six years to 2003? Would I still play MMOs, knowing what I do now and having played what I have? Would I play the same titles or try something different? How would my playstyle change?

I pick 2003 in this scenario because, for me, it was an important time for me and MMORPGs — I’d been dabbling in them (AO, FFXI) but nothing serious until City of Heroes and then, a year later, World of Warcraft. Titles I’ve never touched include Ultima Online, both EverQuests, both Asheron’s Calls, SWG and DAoC. So what would I do?

Picking up City of Heroes again would be a no-brainer. It was fun from day one, and although the updates were painfully slow to come, they were of good quality and kept the game progressing in a decent direction. Knowing how little there’d be at high levels, I wouldn’t push any one character to great heights, and probably hang back with alts until the badge system came out. I’ve never become truly burned out on that game, and I could see playing it about six to ten hours a week as a side hobby.

As for WoW… no, probably not. Especially knowing what I do now and having done it to death, and knowing how rough the first half year was on that game (server stability, bugs, lack of high level content). Instead, I might have waited until about 2005 or 2006, found a good guild and given Everquest 2 a go, knowing that that title really picked up in quality after a bit.

I probably would dip back into LOTRO — I never hated that game, and even found quite a few things to love about it, but it just never grabbed me the way I expected.  I might get in with Eve Online on the ground floor and play that pretty casually.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of many other titles I’d really play, even if I knew there wasn’t going to be good alternatives for quite a few years down the road. It would be nice to know when certain games and expansions would come out, to save myself some hair pulling. DAoC had great accolades with its initial RvR, but the Trials expansion would be a huge warning sign to stay the heck away.

So what about you? It’s 2003, and you’re looking ahead at six years of gaming, of which you already know what’s going to happen…