Is Champions Online on the ropes?

Eric@Elder Game reckons that CO has about a month to determine whether or not it will be able to survive for a couple of years or not. (It’s worth reading his post partly because he’s an insightful writer with some industry inside perspective but also because this one has a funny story about a profanity filter.)

I’m not a great fan of superheroes but even so, I had noticed that I’ve heard very little about CO in the blogosphere recently. There was an upsurge of interest when the game launched, with quite a few people picking up lifetime subscriptions and explaining what they enjoyed about the game. But I haven’t heard much recently. I’d assumed that the people who played were settling down quietly to do just that, but Eric has a different view.

We know that CO was not a huge hit. We also knew that Cryptic were planning to launch a second AAA MMO within a few months – Star Trek Online, which is a much much bigger IP. Eric wonders if this will put more pressure on the CO team within the company.

This is very bad news for Champions players. Champions has been relegated to the role of red-headed stepchild… it’s that crappy failure of a game that keeps stealing resources from Star Trek Online, which is the game that’s going to save the company.

But here’s the thing. There are certainly publishers who run several successful MMOs at once — mostly free to play type games like Aeria Games, or social games like Zynga (creators of Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc). But these are much less demanding games (in terms of artwork, music, coding support) than the lush top of the line subscription MMOs that Cryptic is producing.

Will they be able to sustain both CO and STO without one game losing out in the long run? Because if one does lose, it won’t be Star Trek. How many people who took out lifetime subs for CO are still happy with their purchase, I wonder.

Why Superhero MMOs have failed us

I’m disappointed in so called super hero MMOs.

It isn’t because I hate superheroes. I used to read X-Men religiously as a teenager and I bought all the Sandman comics as they came out. I love Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and my husband even made me read through his old copies of Luther Arkwright before we got married (I think he wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by not knowing the dialogue off by heart.) I have original copies of The Crow. And, big admission, I also collected all the Marvel Secret Wars comics.

But somehow all the superhero MMOs  model the dull and more tedious parts of the superhero experience, and not the things I loved.

See, the basic problem is that superhero comics are very squarely all about the main character. S/he is pasted up on the cover and takes front and centre of every story all of the time. Writers do use this as a way to discuss what it means to be a hero, and particularly what it means to be that specific hero. You may not get vast amounts of character development but when you do, it’s a major huge plot point. The story, the villains, the drama, the setbacks and how they are overcome — these things should be front and centre of the superhero experience.

Things you can do in a superhero MMO:

  • Design a cool costume and write a backstory that is largely irrelevant
  • fight random baddies
  • quest

Things you cannot do:

  • Have a dependent NPC who gets into trouble and needs to be saved a lot
  • Run a story where you start by fighting with another superhero and then team up with them (unless you pre-arrange it with another player and duel them to fake out the fighting)
  • Quests that tell personalised stories about what it means to be a superhero (note: fighting hellions in Perez Park does not count)
  • Soap Opera style supergroups.
  • Have a mentor who gets intro trouble and needs to be saved a lot.
  • Have a secret identity. Worry about whether it gets discovered. Need to balance the needs of the secret identity with the needs of the superhero persona.
  • Have a gearing up sequence (like in Iron Man)
  • Play out your backstory
  • Get captured by a supervillain and have to escape a deathtrap

If I can’t show what being superhuman means to my character then what is the point? If I can’t show the tension between the superhero role and the ‘real life’ role then all that is left is flying around (which is cool) and fighting bunches of mobs that might as well be the MMO standard pig for all they mean to me.

A MMO is more like a LARP – no player is particularly special. They’re all average Joe/Jane characters getting on with their lives. But it isn’t even a simulation of what it might be like to live in a city full of superheroes. The characters never clash over territory, never both jump into the same fight, suffer mistaken identities, and fight each other by mistake. They never get into trouble with the cops for acting like vigilantes. So even as a less personal simulation of a city full of supers, the games don’t work.

Maybe they work as small scale tactical fighting games. Maybe the fluff and costumes and travel powers is enough to keep people amused and they can tell their own stories in-between the gaps. But how is that really different from kill ten rats? It seems to me like such a wasted opportunity that CO didn’t try to do something just a bit different.

Poaching superheroes

I think it’s going to be a good year for MMOs. There are a fair number of different games in development. Studios are experimenting more with different charging systems (subscription vs RMT), niche markets (eg. sandbox PvP), and different genres. This could add up to a lot more choice for gamers so I’m hoping that all the games enjoy a measure of success.

But notably in the AAA field this year are two superhero offerings. Champions Online, and DC Universe Online.

Syp is taking a (possibly hopeful) guess that superheroes could be the next big thing in online gaming. After all, you’ve seen the film, now play the game. I’m as bored of fantasy as the next person but I’m not so sure about this one. For one thing, the game is going to be nothing like the films or comics. Yes you too can be a man in tights, leap tall buildings, throw cars and people, and fight people in equally daft costumes but  for me the core of superhero comicswas the character-centric stories. And that’s hard to do in an MMO.

For another thing … it may also be that the timing is wrong. Maybe people are bored of superhero films and don’t want to play superheroes at all.

DC Universe Online has several unique selling points. It features DC characters such as Wonderwoman. It looks to be more action based with a more exciting combat style than your typical MMO. It’s also intended to run on consoles (presumably PS3 since it’s Sony), and they’re employing name DC writers to write the story arcs.

Note: It’s unlikely that Rorschach and co will turn up, although they are technically DC heroes since Watchmen was published by DC. You probably aren’t allowed to play a psycho vigilante either.

Champions Online sounds to be more in the vein of City of Heroes with a few extra tweaks. Not really surprising because it’s being developed by many of the same team. Champions, while a much loved RPG for superhero gaming really doesn’t have the name recognition of DC so they have more of an uphill struggle to market.

My husband, who will still happily talk about the legendary Champions campaign that he and his mates ran while they were at university reckons that the distinguishing feature of the RPG was how well you could customise your abilities. He doesn’t rate the setting itself because like most gamers of the time, they ignored it and rolled their own.  I doubt that fans of the RPG are CO’s main target audience but if they are, then highly customisable abilities (and I don’t mean just the colour of your eyebeam) need to be on the cards.

There are plans for CO to run on the XBox360. There have also been some comments about supporting user created content, letting players create their own nemesis recurring NPCs etc.

This is all very well, but there is already a successful superhero MMO on the market. City of Heroes may be looking a bit long in the tooth these days but they’ve been pushing out new content enthusiastically. Most recently the mission architect that will allow — yes — player created content, which is now up on the CoH test server.

So the big question is: How many superhero MMO fans will abandon CoH for one of the news games? Will people want to subscribe to more than one superhero game?  And how many people want to play superhero MMOs anyway?

I’m not actually of the belief that there’s a vast untapped number of MMO players who desperately want to play superheroes. But I’d be happy to be wrong. Now give me a good steampunk setting on the other hand, film noir, a modern urban fantasy, or a space opera …

A step too far?

One thing that is very clear is that an obvious target market for CO in particular is current and ex CoH players. So imagine my lack of surprise to hear that CO developers had been actively courting this audience and trying to interest them in the Champions Online beta.

But wait. What they actually did was to PM people on NCSoft’s official CoH forums. This is naughty slap on the wrist rudeness. I wouldn’t get overly excited by the whole deal, but it does all seem vastly unnecessary.

New MMOs often try to attract entire guilds to their games via mass guild beta invites and the like. They know very well that people are more likely to stick with a game if they come in with a group and that having some well organised guilds in game does wonders for solidifying a community. Usually this is done by just announcing a guild beta and letting people apply. More targeted applications can be done by contacting the guilds via their guild sites.

Going into a competitor’s game to invite players or using their official sites is definitely one step beyond this.

Back in the good old days of MUDs/MUSHes, people often logged into one game to advertise another, or encouraged people to bring their friends over. Netiquette at the time demanding that you ask the staff at the MUSH you were advertising on if this was OK. Some were fine with it and even had special bboards devoted to adverts for other games. Others created drama the likes of which had to be seen to be believed.

And those were free games. Introducing profit making ventures into the mix is always going to make things more volatile.

In any case, after being pressed, Cryptic has apologised. Presumably they apologised to NCSoft too because I doubt any players care much either way except to find it amusing.

Sanya Weathers even wonders in her MMORPG Examiner’s column whether it’s a publicity stunt.

However, this really doesn’t change the fact that Cryptic probably do need to attract CoH players to at least try their new game. Is there really any good reason not to advertise in the places most likely to reach them; inside the games they currently play?

And as a last note

The other thing I wonder is why it’s necessary to have private messages enabled on an official game forum. If I was in charge, I’d disable those straight away. Sure it’s a convenience for players but I think that if you run official forums you do need to be able to control what goes on in them. And if you can’t moderate PMs then it’s better not to have them at all.

Our game is female friendly, we have wonderwoman!!!

This is an article I spotted on MTV Multiplayer: DC Universe Devs explain why their game is female friendly!

Even before reading this, I’m thinking that this is going to be a hard sell. Superhero comics, whilst having a strong female following, have not been traditionally ‘female friendly’. And the ones which have bucked the trend have tended to be the more soap opera types of setups, like X-Men and its various spinoffs. And books like Sandman which is damn good but not very superhero at all, when you come down to it.

Everyone in superhero comics has unrealistic physiques but the women are typically heavily sexed up, with vast boobs and teeny outfits. We know why they’re there. Don’t treat us like idiots. It’s not that there aren’t strong female characters or stories that appeal to girls, but there’s no point pretending that it’s a primary audience.

Anyway, on to the interview. I’ll sum up the more quotable points here:

We are going out of our way in ‘DC’ because we saw that women were really the largest part of the audience for ‘The Dark Knight

Great film. Were women really the largest part of the audience? Huh. We have good taste, sisters.

A lot of my friends play with their significant other or spouse, and they usually like to play the stuff that’s not so up-front combat-wise; they like to do the healing, the support, the buffing, and that sort of group management. So we made sure that we tried to make that more than just watching people’s health bars on the side of the screen. It wasn’t just playing the interface; it was actually still just playing the game. So our concepts for having the support people involved are very different from what other MMOs have.

Yeah, we all play support characters. Not that it isn’t a good thing to have some ideas to make support more interesting but nice job on the assumptions there.

And also, we don’t have death in the game; we just have knock-outs so when you do “die,” you can get right back up again and into the fight. So there’s less critical failure points for people who are more casual and aren’t necessarily as into a hardcore of an experience.

What is it you’re really trying to say here, Jen? Girls cry when they get killed? We’re all casual players? Again, this isn’t a bad idea in itself but I’m not seeing the girl friendliness.

I have an idea, how about costumes that aren’t made of two bottle caps and some floss? How about gameplay that supports proper character arcs, dependent NPCs with personalities and some soap opera style group story mechanics? How about some moody gothic shit? We love that stuff (while we’re waiting for CCP to get moving on their Vampire MMO).

Or shall we just stick Wonder Woman in?

Wonder Woman is in our game; she’s one of the most recognizable female characters in the world. So the appeal that we have as far as just female presence in the [intellectual property] is very large.

Yes! Wonder Woman has very large …. tracts of fans.