Revisiting Champions Online

So here we go with one of my 2018 resolutions, which is to “revisit and review” one old MMO and one new one (to me) each month. I’m kicking off this series with a brief look at Champions Online, because a Massively OP Podcast listener brought it up last month and got me thinking about this game — and why we City of Heroes vets aren’t necessarily shoo-ins to play it.

Oh, I’m sure some are. But the superhero diaspora didn’t result in everyone going to the same MMO, even if the logical choice was another comic book MMO developed by Cryptic. Champions Online always struggled in the shadow of City of Heroes, and while it did develop its own identity, the core gameplay and neglected development worked against it in the long run. Champs failed to gather and sustain a healthy playerbase, instead settling somewhere on the fringe for years now.

I’ve always felt that one of the biggest mistakes that Champs made was not fully embracing free-to-play. It tried for a halfway measure, taking away one of its core strengths — allowing players to mix-and-match powers to make their own unique build, instead giving free users prebuilt templates that weren’t as personal. As such, trial players didn’t feel like they had such a strong personal investment in the game and didn’t stick around for long. Just my perspective.

That isn’t to say that the game is a wasteland. I found many wonderfully weird superheroes wandering around when I logged in with my new character, Goober. Since I had a single freeform character slot (the $50 alternative to a subscription if you wanted to make your own unique build), I spent 45 minutes or so creating a bizarre tragedy of a hero. Goober is some sort of lizard-fish thing, with fins everywhere, too-long arms, and green skin. Yet I found myself warming up to the weirdness before long, especially since I typically create as attractive and cool-looking of characters that I can in games like these.

It should be said that Champions Online’s character builder is still as robust and addicting to use as ever. Probably more so, with all of the options that have been tossed in since last I played. I’ve always been partial to Champions’ visuals over City of Heroes, and the cel-shaded style still holds up. It does look a little artificial in the faces, but the bold colors distract from that detail. I was also impressed by how many powers there are from which to choose. Travel powers alone number into the dozens, although many are locked behind store purchases and who knows what. I wouldn’t mind trying “inky ooze tunneling,” though.

In the end, Goober became a boomerang-using, chain-flinging vigilante for justice. Nothing fancy, but fun even so. I don’t often get boomerangs in MMOs or other video games.


As a Detroit resident, I always get a kick out of this futuristic revamp of the city. And the mountains in the background across the Detroit River, because I guess Canada has a landfill problem or something.

Going back to Champions for a night was worth it for superjump alone. There is no travel power that ever pleased me more in any superhero game than this. Flight might offer more freedom, but there’s something thrilling about literally jumping over buildings and slamming down to make craters in the sidewalk. It’s a plus if you’re doing this as some sort of mutant fish monster.

As much as I liked the travel and the visuals, Champions fell short in other areas that I am only all-to-familiar with from previous sessions. The controls and combat continues to feel… off. A little sluggish. It’s just not as tight as it should be, and that held me back from really getting into the quests. While I did appreciate the auto-attack for the basic builder, the whole builder/spender mechanic was just as much of a dud as it ever was. City of Heroes’ time-recharging powers were much more enjoyable to use, in comparison.

I ran through a half-dozen missions and a story instance, and it was generally pretty basic and straight-forward. I appreciated the effort of using cutscenes, but the voice acting, lip synching, and animation were all lacking. And the whole deal was just kill, kill, kill. At least the screen gave me a handy navigation arrow that always pointed to the next objective.

Oddly enough, the most fun I had was the ability to pick up and throw environmental objects, like chairs, cars, and parking meters. Kind of feel like the city would frown on me tearing up public property for an attack that didn’t do much damage, but sometimes you just have to do something simply for its own sake.

I do want to say that in this series where I look at other MMOs, I’m leaving it very open-ended as to how long I want to play and if further sessions are warranted. Revisiting Champions brought back a lot of memories but didn’t really reel me in or introduce any new fun surprises since last I played, so I think this’ll be it. At least for now.


6 major MMORPG launch days revisited

wildstar plans

One of the neat things about having a long-running blog is that it inadvertently turns into a historical document chronicling major events. In this case, Bio Break has been around since 2008, and I’ve gone through several major MMO launches since then. I thought it might be fun to look up the day one (or day two) posts talking about those experiences to reshare them with you.

Guild Wars 2 (August 2012)

“Guild Wars 2.  Is incredible.

“Playing it live feels so much different than beta, and I’m so glad I have a character to actually invest in.  But even more than that, this is just a game that exists to wow you left and right.  I’m sure that there are those who have become immune to in-game beauty and details, and only see the numbers and min-maxing, but that’s missing the point here.  It’s a game where I felt fully justified to spend the first hour just gawking around like a tourist instead of killing things, and I’m forever going off the beaten track to explore.”

WildStar (June 2014)

“As you may have heard/experienced, it was anything but a smooth beginning.  Due to a purported DDoS attack and a kajillion people trying to cram through the login servers at the same time, we simply could not log into the game.  We got to know the little running hamster, the theme music, and our account passwords very well, however.  It was 4:15 before I could log in, and by then going back to sleep wasn’t much of an option.”

RIFT (February 2011)

“All in all, I’m pretty impressed with the game performance.  No crashes for me, and everything flowed just smoothly.  I did roll a Dwarf Bard, and I’m pretty pleased with the choice.  I’m a Medieval Guitar Hero and proud of it, baby!  I splashed in a bit of Riftstalker for the teleportation spell — being able to jump ahead 25 feet every so often is a ton of fun, as well as a helpful escape button if I got over my head.”

Star Wars: The Old Republic (December 2011)

“On a lark I tried to see if I could log in at 6:30, and lo and behold I could.  Servers were up about ten minutes after that, and I began the process of reserving the eight character names I picked out.  When I finally logged in, it was to a ghost town — not a single soul in the zone, not a single voice on the chat screen, nothing.  I’m not saying I was the first in game, but it almost felt like it.”

Champions Online (September 2009)

“Framerate issues notwithstanding, I had a great time last night.  It was fun to see a lot of friends in the game (and the @name system is growing on me, for sure).  I even spent a bit of time learning the ropes of the crafting system, which is pretty useful — you can make your own inventory bags, which is certainly useful.”

Neverwinter (April 2013)

“While the character creator is really skimpy and the Foundry reportedly in shambles, the core game itself looks fantastic and is pretty fun to play.  It’s more action/arcade-like than a traditional MMO, but for some reason it works here.”

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.