You can almost see it: the big countdown clock on Cryptic’s wall, almost on the verge of tipping to the “One Month And Counting” point. As they turn into the final four weeks before Champions Online is released, for better or for worse, I can’t help but wonder if they’re sweating bullets over there, and how much.
This is the “new” Cryptic’s sophomore effort, and one that will invariably be compared to City of Heroes (with people poised to be disastisfied on both sides: those who are upset that it’s not enough like CoH, and those angry that it’s too similar). It’s the first of their trilogy of developing MMOs, along with Star Trek Online and an unnamed third project (D&D, or so the rumor goes). Nobody expects Champions to blow to the top of the charts in terms of subscribers, but it is entering a sub-genre of MMOs that before had no competition — and now Cryptic is facing a fiesty older CoH that is quickly adding Champions-like features (such as power colors) and preparing for their Going Rogue expansion, and the upcoming DC Universe Online, which arguably has a stronger IP and the added attraction of playing villains. Is Champions putting itself into a pincer trap where it will hobble out of the gate instead of fly?
Who knows, really. I’m pulling for it — I don’t predict that Champions will be a flaw-free product at launch, and I’m aware of the major concerns that some players have, but we also know that Cryptic isn’t exactly twiddling their thumbs either. Like all studios in the final month before launch, Cryptic has four jobs to do:
Job #1 – Get The Message Out
When you’re this near to launch, there’s almost no such thing as “over-hyping” your product — it’s absolutely essential to get out there, get out everywhere and spread the word of your game over and over and over again. On one hand, this is an informational campaign, introducing Champions to those who might not have heard of it and filling them in as to its premise and features. On the other hand, it’s a PR struggle to claim and re-claim the “message of the day”.
When it comes to journalism and bloggers and players, we have such limited attention spans these days that we’re constantly shifting and moving toward whatever pretty shiny topic is dangled in front of us at any given moment. Major issues are brought up and discussed in a firestorm of introspection one week, and then dropped like a hot potato the next. What Cryptic has to do is pretty much impossible: to get Champions to the forefront of any given day’s message, and keep it there. This means they need to have a few major hole cards that will immediately suck in the interest of the media — the recent pre-order perks from different retailers was one such card. Releasing more details power sets information is another. They announce it, gaming sites regurgitate the info, and bloggers and forumites discuss it.
Job #2 – Close The Sale
There’s two major approaches to MMO launches these days, which usually depends on what kind of MMO you’re releasing. Small MMOs tend to launch small, garner word of mouth, and grow from there; big, multi-million dollar MMOs absolutely have to launch big and stay big or get bigger. For Cryptic, this means accumulating a critical mass of locked-in players for that first month of box sales and the second month of subscriptions.
Cryptic knows that they have a lot of folks already in their pocket, so they’re going to try to woo the “on the fence” folks who aren’t quite sure if they’re going to play or not, or if they’re looking to wait and see for a while. They don’t want that — they want solid “yes” gamers. So they have to make the sale by offering incentives, dropping the NDA and hoping the buzz is good enough to entice, and to let the crowds into the open beta (aka “demo”) to put their product where their mouth is. Speaking of which…
Job #3 – Open Beta
Champions Online’s open beta begins in about a week, on August 5th. At this point, there’s no hiding behind the veil of the NDA any longer. Cryptic may claim that they still have a month to work on the game before launch, but in almost everyone’s eyes, once they’re in the beta, they’re judging it as if they’re playing the final product.
Unless the game is so horrid as to drive folks away unsatisfied, the open beta does a lot of good for the company. It helps with stress testing the servers, for one thing, although the sheer influx of players not really caring to bug test whatsoever means that they’re not going to get the kind of quality bug reports they might’ve in closed beta.
It also has the potential to be a major PR coup. Gaming sites and blogs absolutely go nuts over open betas, because people who for some reason don’t want to play the beta often like to read other people’s thoughts about playing it, and to live through that experience vicariously. It will push Champions’ message to the top of the heap on various days, and help to combat other open betas that are also taking place (Aion, for example).
Job #4 – Extermination
The final job is the sheer cliff wall of pre-launch bug extermination. Cryptic only gets one chance to launch the game, and it not only needs to launch smoothly on servers, but players encountering the game will be turned off if they encounter major coding issues from the start. This is the proverbial “crunch time” for the Cryptic crew, a frenzied effort to eliminate as many bugs as possible, tidy up any unfinished launch features, and get their house in order for the thousands of visitors that are about to come tramping through it.