Experience Points: Champions Online – Part 1: Past and Present
Looking back, I’m not really sure why I ever saw the need to start playing an MMO, but there was a time when I had decided to find one to devour my time. After an onslaught of free MMOs (Dungeon Fighter hadn’t yet been released, so shush) I started playing WoW on a private server. I found a nice guild with nice people, but, as always, some sort of MMO drama ensued and the guild fell apart. I got upset and decided to play WoW on the official servers. There were no bugs, but I got caught into a silly loop: I couldn’t join a guild until I was higher level and had better gear. I couldn’t get better gear until I did the instances. I couldn’t do instances without people. The easiest way to group with people was being in a guild. And since I found the concept of a “levelling guild” awful, I gave up around level 60 and never bothered with WoW again.
Some time later, Cryptic’s Champions Online had an open beta. I played for around 10 levels or so and then bought the game January 2010 during a Steam sale. I have continued to play it ever since and racked up more play-time than my hours in Morrowind and the Guilty Gear Series combined. At the moment of writing, my account dashboard says I’ve been subscribed for 545 days. Ouch. So what managed to keep my attention for so long? A lot of things and a lot of people. Too many for a single article, so this first part will “only” cover the game’s development during my playtime.
Champions was originally in the hands of the (in)famous Bill Roper, was eventually passed on to Shannon “Poz” Posniewski and is currently in the hands of Rob “RoBoBo” Overmayer. Each person had a distinctive approach to leading the game and as new content was released, it showed.
There are a few things that happened before I started playing the game, though (it was 5 months after all). As far as I know, there was a major “nerf” across most (if not all) powers that hit the game shortly after release. This obviously caused a major uproar and a lot of people quit the game right away. There was also a Mysticism power pass (or rebalance) and two events: Blood Moon for Halloween and Attack of the Misfit Toys for Christmas. The major problem, though, was the fact that you couldn’t reach level 40 by missions alone, as there wasn’t enough content. You had to grind at times if you wanted to level.
When I started playing, the game was a lot like any other MMO with an awesome character creator and mediocre content. You weren’t farming for 10 rat tails, but you did have to beat up 10 thugs of a faction at times. The game was also, for some reason unknown to me, a pop-culture reference golem. Be it mission names or character titles, almost all of the content was referencing something. I don’t think it was inherent in the setting of the Champions pen-and-paper game the MMO is based on.
It slowly and consciously walked away from this approach. The first major content expansion was “Revelation”, or the Vibora Bay zone. It had a much better story and much less grind than the previous content. The inclusion of various supernatural critters like vampires, werewolves and such begged for pop culture references, and there were a few, but nothing cringeworthy like vanilla CO.
After Vibora Bay and various costume-related drama (I’ll talk about that some other time), Poz took over and the game was in “fix it” mode. Mostly in focus were power passes, with melee being first, and then individual frameworks.
Now, for this to make any sense, you’d have to be familiar with CO’s power system. Disregarding the current archetypes that exists for free players, subscribers can mix and match powers almost how they wish. The only prerequisite for a power would be “Requires 3 powers from the same framework or 5 powers from any framework” and so on. This means that balancing is a major pain. Frankly, I’m not even sure how you can balance something like that, but the devs tried.
Time went by, people panicked, the ever-lingering fear of “maintenance mode” being whispered. Community managers stepped down or were reassigned, new ones appeared. The newest approach to content updates were “Adventure Packs”, repeatable story arcs, and with them came the difficulty slider for those who found the game too easy.
Serpent Lantern, focusing on the evil Hydra/Cobra-like faction VIPER was released. Set in Africa, with a small dose of Indiana Jones-styled mysticism. And with the first AP, came some obvious problems…
First off, bosses dropped gear that was assigned various bonuses based on difficulty. The problem? This worked not only for primary items as intended, it worked for secondary items as well, giving blue (rare) secondary items more potency than any purple (“unique”) secondary of the same level. It was let into the wild and noticed too late by the Devs, so the bug became a feature and a lot of endgame gear became… well… useless.
There were other issues as well. The first half of the AP was pretty samey, it was too short to complete compared to its development time (an argument I don’t agree with, but players were vocal about it) and overall most people thought it was mediocre. Not being released within the promised “one month per adventure pack” also caused panic among the community. All in all, MMO drama at its finest.
However, despite the bad reputation Cryptic gets in the gaming community (be it warranted or not), there are two traits I have witnessed on the Champions team that I indeed respect. They rarely, if ever, make the same mistakes twice and they communicate more than any Dev team I’ve seen. I’ll have to expand on the latter in a different article, because there are times of radio silence, but I’ll elaborate on the former.
Namely, the three APs released thus far (Serpent Lantern, Demonflame and Resistance) as well as the current comic series (Aftershock) all improve over the shortcomings of the previous one. Probably the most notable shift was between Serpent Lantern and Demonflame. Whereas Serpent Lantern was just another samey grindy farm mission chain, Demonflame was… very unlike an MMO mission. It was story-driven and it had unique locations for every section. The complete opposite of its predecessor. Resistance followed suit, introducing new gimmicks. I find it hard to talk over the improvements without going into spoiler territory. Basically, there are less and less standard MMO mechanics and less and less of what made CO dull for a lot of people. The current development direction seems to be trying to push the limits of what they can do with their engine, and while some solutions are crude, CO feels less like a product and more like a game now.
The ‘Free For All’ launch was, for better or worse, the game’s “real” launch. There are many depressing facts about this. Like many MMOs, CO’s reputation from launch and Metacritic score will stick. No matter the improvements, many people will disregard it. No matter the improvements, some bad design decisions from previous lead developers will always pull the game back. No matter the article, if it mentions Cryptic or CO, a rightfully disgruntled ex-player will badmouth them.
It is a shame that MMOs, which are supposed to evolve over the course of years in ways DLC and patches for single-player games can’t offer, are held back by their reception at release. It’s a shame, but it’s also reality.
The game is worth a shot though, and it’s worth giving a second chance. I doubt all the gripes of all the people are fixed, but a good deal are. Actually, I think what I mentioned previously may be the best summary of how different the game feels now from then. It used to be a product, now it’s starting to look like a game.
Experience Points is where we get to talk a bit more in-depth on games we are much more knowledgeable of through extensive playing. It’s not as much of a review as it’s our experience with the game in question