A while back I was flipping through the backlog of my personal gaming blog, looking at the history of my gaming trends, particularly in regard to City of Heroes. One thing that amused the 2019 me is how excited and hopeful I was for the debut of Champions Online a decade ago. I mean, I embarrassed myself how gleefully I was proclaiming that Champions would be a far superior title to City of Heroes. Obviously, I got a tad swept away in the hype.
While I did enjoy the first couple of months in the game, it wasn’t long before I noticed that there seemed to be something… off about Champions. It didn’t prove to be as compelling or sticky as City of Heroes, and soon enough many of my friends and I drifted away from the game.
When I turn my attention to superhero MMORPGs, perhaps one of the most maddening questions to ponder is why Champions Online failed to live up to its promising potential. With everything on paper clearly going for it, what happened? Why hasn’t it done better instead of languishing in near-obscurity today?
Could inspirational lightning strike twice?
So let’s look at all of the advantages that Champions Online had going for it as it barreled into release. Cryptic, then detached from City of Heroes, had the opportunity and experience to make a spiritual successor to CoH that would take what worked and make it even better. It was a chance to start over with a rich and informative body of knowledge with developers who already had a hit superhero MMO under their belt.
And if we cast our minds back to 2009 and look through the eyes of gamers, we can see why excitement for this project started to swell. City of Heroes was already settling into its middle age and there weren’t a lot of other options in the field just yet. To have a sequel with some of the original designers felt like a winning proposition. Then Cryptic announced that unlike CoH, Champions would draw off of an established IP and benefit from years’ worth of backstory and rulesets. It was already a proven and tested product in the pen-and-paper space, and that added to consumer confidence.
With a more colorful cel-shaded art style, a faster-paced action setup, and an adoption of the then-popular public quest mechanic, Champions boasted a lot of features that set itself apart from the denizens of Paragon City. But perhaps no feature was quite as intriguing as being able to mix-and-match not just powersets but powers. You were truly free to make the exact character that you always envisioned, unconstrained by themes. That was a huge, huge draw.
Down for the count
Initially, Champions Online seemed as though it was off to a promising start. It was the third-best-selling PC title in September 2009 and had all sorts of attention and buzz around it. Yet soon, too soon, it seemed to fall off the map. Sure, some people kept on playing it, and the free-to-play transition in 2011 helped somewhat, but while Cryptic’s been pouring all sorts of development effort into Neverwinter and Star Trek Online, Champions has obviously been benched in the studio. It’s in de facto maintenance mode, and while that’s better than being canceled, it does seem like a sad state for a once-rising star.
So let’s get back to the “what the heck happened?” question because I feel that there’s no one strong answer here. It could well be a confluence of factors, both internal to the game and external. Externally, a lot of 2009-era MMOs struggled with initial strong launches and then quick fall-offs as the industry saw the World of Warcraft clone bubble burst. Many players already had a steady subscription and were less likely to jump ship, especially from a more established superhero MMO to an upstart. Cryptic also bungled a lot of the handling of the messaging and business model, especially in regard to a discounted subscription sale that soured many gamers at the time.
Yet most of those factors paled to the disappointment that many players found when they stepped into Champions itself. The graphic style — which I personally love — was more polarizing than expected, and the geographically isolated zones lent a different feel than a connected world. Players particularly stumbled over the spammy action combat that focused on builders and finishers.
Twice, Champions Online missed a key opportunity to inject population and revenue into the game. The first was when the title went free-to-play in 2011, which Cryptic bungled with a truly unfortunate model that restrained free players from the game’s best feature (the freeform character creation). As a result, this model gave the title a stingy, rather than generous, reputation and kept the real crowds at bay.
The second opportunity was when City of Heroes closed its doors in 2012, which gave Champions the best chance to pick up grieving nomads looking for a similar home. Yet for whatever reason — probably because Champions had already fallen out of Cryptic’s favor — the studio didn’t extend much of an invitation to those players. In return, CoH ex-pats avoided the MMO in favor of channeling their attention and funds into spiritual sequels.
Is there anything to be done?
It’s slightly, just slightly encouraging that Cryptic hasn’t been so hasty in shutting Champions down. The studio’s even made the (bare minimum) effort of activating events and tossing in small patches now and then to keep up the appearances of an active game. And when the game turned nine years old last year, the studio wasn’t shy about crowing that it had the longest-running superhero MMO on the market.
But we’re pretty worried about its uncertain future. As Eliot wrote at the start of this year, Champions Online is “like the end of Old Yeller, if instead of just putting the dog down the film just lingered on a shot of someone about to put the dog down for several years without ever making it clear if it was going to happen. Seriously, either make some new content or shoot the dog.”
I think that’s the answer right there. A small population or no, Champions is best served by having Cryptic inject some genuinely new content into it — and perhaps seriously retinkering the free-to-play format into something far more appealing to today’s crowd. No matter how many doubts I have as to its future, I’m still hoping that Champions can find a niche that will enable a greater level of success and prosperity in the years to come.
Looking for more Champions Online discussion? Check out the 127th episode of the Battle Bards podcast, where my co-hosts and I examined the soundtrack of this superhero title.