Experience Points: Champions Online – Part 8: PvP

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Experience Points

So far, most of this “Experience Points” series was based on just that: an overview from player experience. It’s a bit harder to offer my opinion on PvP when I haven’t dabbled in it much myself. As it seems to be a habit of mine, I’ll try and put in a few disclaimers before delving deeper.

First off, I don’t PvP much in Champions Online. My competitive play boils down to fighting games and (a long time ago) trading card games. Sure, I play FPS, but I’d hardly call myself a competitive player of the genre.

That said, this article is based on a few things: playing an archetype character in PvP when the F2P relaunched happened, as well as playing Tier 1 and Tier 2 freeform PvP the past two weeks. I’ve also talked to some players from the PvP community and generally tried to inform myself before forming a real opinion. In case that isn’t enough, the end of the article contains an interview with two experienced members of the PvP community, so you’ll actually get the opinions of people who really know what they’re talking about.

If you’ve read the previous articles, you’ll know that there are freeform and archetype characters. Freeform, where you can mix and match powers, being exclusive to Gold players and archetype, the premade “classes” of CO, being available to both Gold and Silver players. It is important to note that while archetype characters can enter both archetype and freeform queues, freeform players can only play in their own.

The Hero Games (CO’s name for the PvP mode) are divided into four tiers. Tier 1 is for characters from level 5 to 10, Tier 2 is from level 11 to 20, Tier 3 from 21 to 30 and Tier 4 from 31 to 40. If your character is a lower level, they will automatically be sidekicked to the max tier level. So, if you enter in tier 2 with your level 16 character, he will play at level 20. This only affects things like attributes and health. It will not give you new powers or advantage points, so the higher level you are, the more versatility you have in your tier.

However, you gain experience in each match based on winning, frags, defeats and so on. Meaning that if you decide to PvP only at the top level for your tier, you won’t be there too long.

There are mutliple modes, some exclusive to certain tiers. UTC or Ultimate Tournament of Champions is a team-based 5v5 mode where the first team to reach 15 frags wins. It is available in all Tiers, with UTC Cage Match being T1 and T2, High Tech Arena being T3, and T4 rotating between the two and Lava Temple.

Zombie Apocalypse starts with one player taking the role of the zombie and all the other heroes needing to protect the cabin from the incoming zombie horde. The Zombie side has support in the form of mobs, and whenever a hero dies, he joins the zombie team. The game ends after 20 minutes or when all heroes have fallen. It is available in all tiers and being a zombie only affects you visually, not power-wise.

B.A.S.H. is a free-for-all deathmatch, played until a character scores 10 frags. Other than that, there are no rules, so it’s a nice change of pace.

Stronghold is a more objective based 5v5 mode. One team plays as villains trying to escape the prison and the second as heroes trying to stop them. That is, however, the fluff explanation. In gameplay terms, both teams have the same objective: defeat the two NPC leaders of the opposing team. Aside from this, there are two consoles each team can hack. The more consoles you control, the more Super NPCs arrive to your aid when summoned. The map is mirrored and each side has things like lower level NPCs and turrets to help them. It is only available in Tier 4.

As you can see, each mode is a bit different, letting you play with your character in at least one. Whether they are healers, squishies or self-sufficient PvP builds, you’ll find somewhere you can contribute. The most I’ve seen “PvE builds” frequent are Stronghold and Zombie Apocalypse.

However, PvP is a completely different beast and, thus, requires an entirely different approach. The first thing being “You will die a lot”. I cannot explain how bad you will get curbstomped. The later the level at which you get into PvP, the worse you’ll end up. You can try and solo a giant flaming monkey, you will get destroyed by another player. Sure, I may be over-emphasizing your inevitable poor performance, but that’s one of the main problems. You play PvE for most part. You think your character is amazing and indestructible. No mob can pin you down. You are your own hero. Then you try PvP and that illusion shatters. Mobs don’t have block breakers, relevant travel power removers, or a sense of self-preservation. You start asking yourself “How can someone one-shot me? It’s not fair!” You blame the system, the imbalance, the players who just pick the best powers without regard to their character’s personality. You blame everything you can, because you love your character.

And then we are subjected to so many misconceptions, so many unnecessary stigma and arguments within the community.

So what’s the problem? There are plenty of them, actually. Some I wasn’t that aware of until I actually played against other players. The powers are… a bit of a mess, to put it lightly. Freeform inevitably means that you’ll have some sick combinations, hold spams, loops, whatever. Resistances are are all but what they say and the “offense versus defense” scale favors defense in strange ways. Your typical offensive build will never be able to chip away a typical defensive build. It’s like trying to blow up a tank with a handgun. On the other hand, a power called Dragon’s Wrath will be able to two-shot Mt. Everest by ignoring all defenses.

This is when talking about typical builds. When you go hardcore, it’s all about picking counters for counters for counters for counters. Having something for almost every situation. Does this mean you have to cherry pick the best powers? Yes and no. It’s a bit of a stretch.

Yes, because if you are competitive, you pick the best at your disposal. If you aren’t picking the best, you are handicapping yourself and are a scrub.

No, because it’s more important to play smart and because you can stick with a “theme” while doing it.

During my Tier 2 sessions of PvP, I remade my build quite a few times, always sticking within my martial arts gadget super sentai build. Here’s how the process went:

-get a block, realize block is useless. Dump block;

-get a heal, realize it’s irrelevant for your build. Dump heal;

-get shurikens. They saved your butt. Keep shurikens.

And so on and so forth. I hardly made a perfect build and there were two things in UTC that were destroying me: electric maintains and people roleplaying bomberman with explosive sigil AoEs. What was the solution to these? Well, it wasn’t a power, to be honest. Identify the risky encounters and keep your eyes open. Know who has electric maintains? Let your teammates distract him while you chip away with your ranged attack. Know who teleports in and sets AoE sigils at your feet? Run like hell when you see them, then chase them down after their attack has failed. Or, if you can’t chase him down, just avoid him while you handle stuff you can defeat. Both of these scenarios were my biggest problems, and I managed to minimize my death ratio when encountering them while still winning with my team.

Even with all the imbalances in PvP, and cleaning up Cryptic needs to do, it is insanely fun. As I mentioned early on, I love fighting games and trading card games. CO’s PvP combines my love of the two, in a way. Sitting and thinking your build over is akin to deck-building. “Do I really need this? How many people use that to warrant a counter move? What should I do when I encounter my obvious weakness? Invest here or there?” It rewards your smart choices and punishes your bad ones. As someone who has never bothered to PvP in Champions Online and being primarily a PvE player, I am more than impressed and more than frustrated with it. I am impressed because it is an extremely good basis and could amount to something utterly amazing. I am frustrated because of the state it’s in. There is an upcoming new mode for Hero Games called “King of the Hill” and after the last two weeks, I cannot help but feel that Cryptic is throwing a bone with this mode and that the whole community, not just PvP players, would benefit much, much more from resources being directed to a dedicated PvP Dev team, cleaning up and fixing things. I could be wrong, but this is just how it strikes me.

Another issue is that while you aren’t required to dump your character concept to play PvP, you have to make some compromises. It’s the nature of the game and it’s why a lot of PvE players will feel underpowered when trying to play PvP casually. A suggestion I’ve seen thrown around quite often was the idea of dual builds. Letting one character have a PvE build and a PvP build, so people can switch between the two depending on whether they are playing Hero games, dueling or running a lair. This would surely encourage more people to try PvP. As it currently stands, if you want to play it, your best bet is a dedicated character for that purpose. Or playing Stronghold and Zombie Apocalypse, which are more PvE-friendly.

So, my final verdict on this whole topic? It is fun and a mess. I can see myself playing more on my new PvP character in the future, without a doubt. If the thought of PvPing was appalling for various reasons, but you like competitive play in other games, it is worth rethinking your attitude. The moment you accept that the only way to get better is to lose, you’ll have much more fun. Make a dedicated PvP character if your current ones are not compatible. Start from Tier 1 instead of playing with level 40s right at the start. There’s something beautiful here under the whole mess. The powers and resistances are a mess. The matchmaking is a mess. Maybe if more people stick through the negative stigma associated with PvPing in this game, Cryptic will divert resources towards fixing it. In an ideal world, it would be the other way around and Cryptic would fix it to get more people into it.

I will say one thing though: the PvP community is most often the first to test new powers on the Public Test Server (PTS), to comment on them and to offer suggestions. PvE and PvP are not mutually exclusive power-wise. If it is broken in PvP, it is most likely overperforming in PvE as well.

The following interview is with two players of the PvP community, @Xavori and @Kamokami. Please note that @Xavori has covered some of the latter questions in his previous answers, hence the lack of reply in every question.

Could you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us how long you’ve been playing Champions Online?

@Xavori: I’m Xavori. Believe it or not, the character is well over 20 years old (and sadly, the player is older) since he was born as a rogue in the old AD&D 2nd ed. He became sorta famous in the days of UO when I started writing stories about his heists and cons in Ultima Online. Since then, he’s appeared in Dark Age of Camelot, Planetside, City of Heroes and Villains, World of Warcraft, Warhammer, Global Agenda, and now Champions. He’s always remained a roguish-mercenary type. As for Champions Online specifically, he was the first character I made when I got my closed beta invite, and he’s the first character I made the first day of early release when the game went live.

@Kamokami: I’m Vixy. Vixy has been playing Champions since its launch in September of 2009. Mudkipz are the best!

What’s the appeal in CO’s PvP?

@Xavori: For starters, I’ve always been a PvP type player. I find human interactions fascinating and conflict tends to bring out some of the most interesting behavior of all. The gamer in me prefers the challenge represented by enemies who are usually not predictable and are almost always more difficult than AI.

In Champs, the appeal is that the strategy involved in PvP happens on multiple levels. First, there is player skill. This comes from experience. It’s why the first bit of advice I ever give people is to just play and get killed. In fact, you need to get killed a lot. And I say “get killed” rather than “play” because you are going to get killed and trying to not get killed is just going to be frustrating. However, if you don’t take losing personally, and you learn from the experience, it won’t be long before you’re not dying as much (although you will still die…everyone does).

The next level happens at builds. How well can you design a character that can succeed fighting other players? Here you look for things like synergy and counters and such. This is where the freeform building system of Champs really sets it apart from other games. Sure, you can PvP in games like WoW, but you could never have 60 different alts with 60 different builds and have every single one of them be successful like you can in Champs. And yes, I really do have 60 alts that all fight in PvP in Champs.

@Kamokami: Haha, the full list is rather long but the most important ones to Vixy are:

1. The pace of the gameplay. It’s got the speed of an FPS shooter without the monotony.

2. The variety of powers and characters. The ability to really customize your character and the diversity of encounters that result from your opponent’s ability to do the same. Each fight has the potential to surprise, challenge, and intrigue Vixy.

3. The community of players in pvp. Most of the people who test out new PTS builds that Cryptic rolls out are PVPers. If not for them, then both PVP and PVE would be pretty much unplayable.

What modes do you frequent the most and why?

@Xavori: I play Stronghold the most, but I play all of them. They all provide different types of challenges, and so depending on my mood, I’ll jump into any of them. Stronghold gets most of my attention because on top of being different from the others, it’s also the game with the most variety in strategies for success. You can get into DPS races. You can have a team completely stymied by a great healer. You can fight for console control and NPC reinforcement use. The only strategy that is almost guaranteed not to work is camping in your own boss room and playing defense.

Stronghold also makes the most different builds useful. First, since death doesn’t really matter, you can get away with the ultra-squishy builds that don’t work as well in other games. And like I said before, a great healer can completely change the balance of power between two teams. Heck, even telepathy which is far and away the weakest set in the game because so many of the powers don’t work in so much of the content (ie. Confuse on players, holds on boss NPC’s) can be used to very good effect in Stronghold.

@Kamokami: UTC and Stronghold. Because in those modes teamwork is the most important aspect of gameplay, which introduces another layer of diversity and challenge to the game. It becomes crucial to adapt and learn to play with your teammates and not just against your opponents.

Another big reason is that those are the modes which usually have the most number of players. Zombie Apocalypse and BASH can be great fun when lots of players join in, but when there’s just a few players then parts #1 and #2 in Vixy’s answer to “What’s the appeal in CO’s PVP” become marginalized.

What seems to be the reason most people are put off by PvP in this game?

@Xavori: There is no one answer to that question because people are different. Some people cannot stand losing, and like I said in the beginning, you are going to lose, and prolly lose badly when first starting out. If you cannot handle losing, you’ll never get past that. There are people who play games to relax, and since PvP is competitive, it doesn’t readily lend itself to relaxation. There are the social types who dislike conflict, and since PvP is conflict, it holds no appeal to them. Of course, you also have the poor sports who starting screaming about cheats, exploits, and hacks when they lose and how other people are noobs or suxxorz when they win. In my case, those last ones actually increase my enjoyment of PvP because the snarky part of me absolutely loves trolling people who whine.

@Kamokami: There are quite a few issues in PvP and most of them are a result of it not being a priority for Cryptic.

The players who PvP regularly are put off by the issues that have plagued the game for months. The concerns have been voiced and many suggestions for fixes have been made. Many of the regulars have lost hope of recieving any attention from Cryptic that is specific to PVP. Though perhaps the new King of the Hill map will rekindle that hope for some :-)

Vixy cannot really speak for players who are new to pvp, but from her interactions with them she can say that many of them are put off by many of the same things as the regulars.

What are PvP’s main issues at the moment?

@Xavori: The fact my toons look like neon idiots because of the new circles =D

Okay, seriously the two issues I’d say would do the most to improve PvP are resist mechanics and the queuing system.

In the case of resist mechanics, it’s every bit as big of problem in PvE as it is in PvP. The requirement for three stacks of resistance before immunity means that players spend a lot of time not playing their toons when fighting against opponents (player or NPC) that use knockbacks and holds. Since nobody likes being a punching bag all the time, this is a huge NotFun. I’m morally opposed to NotFun in games, and once the NotFun is greater than the Fun, I tend to move on to new games.

In the case of resists, it’s actually possible to “juggle” people between knockbacks and holds almost indefinitely, and certainly long enough to kill them without their being able to do anything in response. For example, in the Vibora Bay Sapphire wedding mission line, when you fight Sapphire she could easily juggle players forever. She has massive knockback and a long hold. If she wasn’t a brain-dead AI and actually timed her power use, she’d be 100% unbeatable because no one would ever get to fight back.

On the subject of the queue, the problem is that the queue is also brain dead. It will set up uneven matches. It doesn’t care about premade teams. It does nothing at all to try to balance teams. If instead the queue would only ever add players in a way that kept teams even, if it kept premades matched up against other premades, and if would take even a tiny look at player levels and AT players in freeform matches, it could at least make the teams statistically even although there would still be skill level and build-type disparities.

Oh, and give all players a “Exit Instance” option in the portrait menu. A lot of PvE players have started using PvP queues to escape from instances and this messes things up because it guarantees unequal teams. Since I definitely understand why people want the escape hatch, I’m not really keen on taking that functionality away from them. I just want them to have a way to do it that doesn’t interfere with other people’s fun.

@Kamokami: Another long list ;-) Vixy will focus on the problems which cause grief to both regular players and new ones.

1. Uneven queues for the PVP modes. Many Stronghold and UTC matches end up being 2 players vs 1. Or 4v3 and sometimes even 5v2, etc. The team with more players then utterly destroys the opposition. That gets old for both sides pretty fast….

2. Lack of decent explicit rewards. Both aspirational ones that take a very long time to claim and practical ones which enable character progression. Players need tangible and desirable goals to work towards.

3. Targeting. This is a basic function of the game. It should be seamless, but often ends up being an exercise in frustration. Also a problem in pve, though to a lesser extent.

A decent UI experience is not just important, it’s critical. It’s like your health…if you’re healthy then you don’t notice it, but when you’re really sick then everything sucks.

There are many other issues that can be easily found by browsing the Hero Games forum, but in Vixy’s mind, the three above are by far the most important.

What direction would you like Cryptic to take the game’s PvP?

@Xavori: More.

More options, more rewards, more events, etc.

PvE players mention all the time that PvP is nothing but a niche, and that’s true…in Champions. In the rest of the gaming world, it’s PvP that gives games longevity. While Starcraft had a fun single player campaign, it’s the PvP that made it the top selling RTS game of all time. In games like Call of Duty or even Halo, there are players who never bother with the single player stuff at all. Team Fortress has been around forever and doesn’t even have true single player content.

Cryptic has the potential to expand their customer base to those players who’ve made PvP-centric games some of the biggest hits and longest lasting titles in the game market. But to do that, they have to provide incentives to play the game, and most importantly, they’ve got to make sure they maximize the Fun in PvP while minimizing the NotFun.

@Kamokami: Well just about any direction would be awesome really. Addressing the issues mentioned above and further empowering players to effectively use a variety of powers and characters would go a long way.

It would also be great if Cryptic was able to get some of its staff to PVP daily, not as staff members, but as regular players. That way they can really be in touch with their own game and interpret the feedback on the forums in the right context.

Are you looking forward to the King of the Hill map?

@Kamokami: Yes. It’s an awesome map that makes use of the amazing environment in Vibora Bay. Vixy is somewhat concerned about the depth of gameplay that could be attained in this map. Really hoping that a secondary objective will added in to make the experience a bit more dynamic.

The most frequent arguments against PvP are “you can’t play as a themed character” and “it’s too imbalanced.” What is your take on these statements?

@Kamokami: Vixy generally disagrees with people who make such statements because they usually refer to the maximum potential of certain builds or powers and most people do not do nearly enough testing to be able to evaluate powers at their maximum potential. However she does agree that these complaints are important to consider in the context of them being symptoms of the lack of attention that PVP gets from the devs.

The main issue here is that some combinations of powers are much easier to use than others. This hurts the diversity of encounters and for many new players gives the impression that *only* the easy to use combinations are viable. When those complaints are about ease of use then Vixy fully agrees and the best way for them to be addressed is for the devs to PVP and really integrate with the community as regular players.

What’s more important: build or skill?

@Kamokami: For this question, Vixy would define what’s more important as the area of focus that would provide a player the most amount of improvement in terms of effectiveness in pvp.

For brand new players, it’s skill. Learning the maps, timing travel removal, using crowd control, damage spikes, active defenses, icons of the different powers, etc.

For those who have played enough so that those things are now second nature, it’s their build. How can they optimize their build to make each of those aspects more effective?

For the veterans who have been around for a long long time, it’s more about staying on the cutting edge. This means optimizing your build but also adapting your playstyle.

The vets have been around for long enough that any bit of advantage helps a great deal, whether that’s better timing and use of the environment or just higher damage output. So more of an even split between build and skill.

Any tips for newcomers or those who have played the game but refused to dabble in PvP?

@Kamokami: A very long time ago, Vixy refused to PVP, but enough of her friends did it that eventually she tried it and had lots of fun. The community is really great.

So Vixy’s advice to newcomers is to join the copvp channel (type in: /channel_join copvp) even if you plan to just PVE. It’s a good way to make friends and learn about builds and powers.

As long as you’re playing with friends PVP is lots of fun, despite the current issues.

Thank you for your time.

Part 1: Past and Present

Part 2: Gold and Silver

Part 3: C-Store

Part 4: Costume Creator

Part 5: Nemesis System

Part 6: Adventure Packs

Part 7: Endgame

Part 8: PvP

Part 9: Community and Communication

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

By Miodrag Kovačević

Hailing from the strange land of Serbia, often confused with Siberia, Miodrag has been playing video games, watching cartoons and soaking up trivia his whole life. His first (and to date only) console was a Sega Master System II.