Into the Super-verse: Why didn’t Champions Online do better?

    
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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?

MERRY ANYTHING

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.

aw jeez

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.

yeah this isn't going to happen

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.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.
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Ken from Chicago

The tragic irony that is CHAMPIONS ONLINE: Its strengths they turned into their weaknesses–despite being made by the same studio that created the much, and still beloved CITY OF HEROES:

Character Creator

One of COH’s many claims to fame was its innovative character creator. CO came along and added more costume options, more sets, more subsets, asymmetry, and more pieces of clothing to wear. That would seem to be an advantage over COH. But CO failed to do one simple thing that turned its strength into a weakness.

Where COH players spent hours just in the character creator tweaking their custom, CO *had* to spend hours because a tiny but huge oversight in its creator. In COH, you might have 100 shirts to try on with 100 pants so you try shirt 31 with pants 52, pants 55, pants 60 then shirt 32 with pants 55 and pants 52 then shirt 33 with pants 55 and pants 60. In CO you might have 200 shirts to try with 100 vests and 200 pants and 50 leg bands. You might try shirt 31 with pants 52 then try pants 55 but instead of going from pants 52 to 55 like in COH, CO made you scroll from pants 1 all the way to 55, and to try pants 60 , again you couldn’t just scroll from pants 55 to 60, nope, you have to scroll from pants 1 to 60. Want to change shirts? You can’t scroll from 31 to 32, you have to scroll from shirt 1 to shirt 32. And because there were more options, it took that much long to try out various combinations–not to mention COH had material options for cloth, leather and metallic. At least switching materials was instant and easy to do for each item.

Also, while CO had great costume sets like COH, CO’s pieces didn’t often mix with others. An individual item was great as part of a set but often wouldn’t look well with other items outside of a set where COH had items that did mix and match in and out of sets.

While COH let you customize even the colors of the auras of your powers, CO did so also–except for Black and White. Those were locked in a cash shop or as part of a quest–which required a team. About a third of the way into the quest, if you can trick an mid-level boss to attack you solo you could get the ability to color your auras black. Because you were part of a team, it was a random chance you could trigger the atttack and even then odds were against you getting the prize. Many players quit the mission if they didn’t get the prize so you had to quite too even though it took 20-3o minutes to get to that point.

Power Sets

One of CO’s claims to fame was be freeform power selection. You could pick any power from any set for your character ala carte. You were not limited by archetypes like you were in COH. The problem was freeform characters were limited to subscribers only. They played keep away with from F2P until years later they let you buy a freeform character for $50, which was the price paid for a whole game. Even so, with freeform power selection, came nerfing yourself. Not all powers played well together. The archetypes COH had guided players to powers that did play well together.

While COH had 4 major types of travel powers, Flight, Super Leap, Teleport and Super Speed. Each had specific benefits and fun gameplay, CO had more travel powers but the benefits of many was at best cosmetic and at worst, useless. Some travel powers required you to constantly spam (press) the spacebar to use which made them tiresome.

Graphics

CO had comic books superheroes without mitten hands–but actual individual fingers. In yo face, COH! More it had a graphic style of outline characters so they looked like you were seeing a comic book page. Cool! Except it wasn’t. First thing I did when I played CO was turn off that asinine outliner feature. It broke immersion for me. Many players didn’t know you could and simply left the game.

Missions

Okay, this was not a CO strength or advantage over COH. COH got you into Atlas Park and you could play in Sewer Trial to powerlevel up rather quickly or gradually level up through a variety of missions. CO had the exact same missions for starting characters over and over and over again. And it had three separate zones, Millennium City, Canada and an irradiated western desert with robot cowboys or cowboy robots. Yawn..

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Crowe

Champions just wasn’t a good game. I couldn’t have cared less about the lore and in-game stories… it was just the gameplay itself that wasn’t good. Uninspired at best.

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Baemir

Maybe the game just didn’t have the wide appeal it needed. I never even gave it a chance simply because I wasn’t interested. The screenshots looked silly, bad.

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Shahin Kordasti

I loved CoX but did not like Champions Online much. And the main reason for that is that CoX had a much easier way to find people to team up with and finish missions where as Champions Online felt more of a linear themepark solo game and that is what killed it for me.

Ririrawr
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Ririrawr

CoX shutdown

the champs community was very welcoming to the refugees, and cryptic as usual didn’t bother to advertize their games (as far as i can tell, only recently have they started to push publicity for trek, and am inclined to think due to nudges from cbs, even tho they have been pretty hands-off in their oversight… except for a flat no to many ships being easily available through the store… and cryptic still managing to get them in game… via the hated lockboxes, but i feel like both sides win. ships aren’t everywhere, and those who /really/ want them still have a way to get them, even sans cash; they do have a very healthy exchange in-game.., still, gambling-addiction issues tho, anyway, i digress… i know, i know… but YOU know i ramble, so we are even)

and a lot of the refugees (mainly a whole bunch of nice folk who were understandably and literally suffering from a loss) did spend a good deal of time on champs, however, keep in mind, this was very shortly after the cox shutdown, aka: the time period where far too many gamers were confusing a lot of details, like mistakenly attributing the shutdown on cryptic in order to promote champs (champs and cox were never actual rivals aside from in-game jokes/shoutouts aka grond); confusing pwe for ncsoft because both are “asian companies” so close enough i guess; and lastly, wishing death and destruction on champs for still daring to exist after the cox shutdown (including server attacks, guys). i was unfortunate enough to witness some of those outbursts and it was not pretty, but emotions were all over the place, still whatever, things happened, weirdly, moving on. champs is no where near perfect, but the vilified reputation it has is completely undeserved (in general and not from those few bad apples alone, i mean).

and i agree, they ‘should’ have used this opportunity to make champs more robust but the abrupt shutdown (hey, cryptic and cox guys were very familiar with each other, you know? so it isn’t a stretch to assume that cryptic did a wtf take. and some ex-cox folk are now w/ cryptic across their titles btw), the bajillion mistaken complaints and outrage to cryptic and other not-so-nice incidents on an already shrunken team … i did not have much expectation. but the complete lack of any action/acknowledgement was still annoying.

future

so, essentially, new ‘actual’ content won’t magically bring champs into the limelight. not unless they do so very regularly (which cryptic can’t, they aren’t a giant studio, but they do seem to have a set rotation of ‘currently’ working on content that still has 6-8 months to launch, usually, at least for trek and nw), because it will only attract the curious for a while, for the most part; like the constant events do. it is what it is, a hammy, over the top, old school, spandex clad capers in a comic-book-in-a-video-game. if that holds an appeal to you… you are likely a player already :P i so wish that were not the case, but it is what it is. i definitely want to see more players and general fair attention to champs, but not if it means that the gameplay gets steered away to something… else. (as noted, the raid focus of late, has me a leeeeeetle concerned)

BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT allowing better access to freeform slots and streamlining the UI, and most importantly, highlighting activities outside alerts would have a more immediate and meaningful impact for them to better assess future possibilities, because right now, newbies are just smacked in the face with alert popups (which are NOTHING like the easy peasy solo content). also, they really need to allow an easier revive option, at the very least one time free from an ally, regardless if they have the ability to resurrect or not, like a ‘HEROIC SAVE’ something something; nw finally got that message at least, huff.

there IS a sorta dim light at the end of the tunnel. nw recently introduced sorta-randomized dungeons. hee. now that they finally have the tech in their engine, trek will definitely be getting a taste of that and it might finally get champs some ‘content’… that and both nw and trek teams have been very excited about their engine updates but grrr they don’t talk about the details (because cryptic) aside from ‘changing the face’…. so there should be some hope now if there wasn’t any before, yay~

oh i promised to talk about the pulled dev team:

where did they get pulled? to help out on trek (not a spoiler for… almost anyone)
and regardless of how anyone feels about it, the mangled mess they were handed and what they turned it into, within a miraculous (likely hell for them) year alone, and then for it to become what it is now? yeah, i don’t tend to judge trek that harshly. did champs suffer? YES, GRR. buuuut, hindsight, if they had stuck to champs alone at the time and failed (they obviously are not drawing to champs now, but thats not the point)… do not want a world without champs nor trek, tyvm, huff

and oh yes, they have been shuffling devs to their new title: magic :3 it is ANNOYING buuuut understandable. companies with multiple teams under their roof tend to shuffle people around often (by choice, mostly) before hiring new folk

also, my head-cannon for cryptic is that every new dev has to learn their engine on champs before getting booted up into another ‘main’ team, because champs, even if it ever manages to become a big hitter will still be treated by the players as the ‘step child’ of cryptic over its history, even tho i like to think it is still their baby… they just don’t know what to do with it that will actually work (in a proven manner for them, not our speculation/comparisons as gamers), so they are letting it go around as it pleases… for now :P besides, it is still cryptic… they do NOT like to announce stuff in advance till it is almost ready to go live. they would rather sit on it for years (magic title) if they have to, grrr.

AAAAAAAAAAALSO, 10th year anniversary coming up for champs… they better do something awesome and surprisingly great (hence the spars epatch notes of late, i understand; like i said, dunno about other studios, but cryptic tends to be working on many-many-months-from-now content at any given moment) or i will be very cross with them (more than usual, because i tend to be a blunt, and like to think, fair; critic of their games… for those that overlook/skim my ramblings and only see my “yay cryptic” and mistake that for fangasming alone. fangasms are just part of the package, cough)

end. thank your deities it is over :3

Ririrawr
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Ririrawr

ohai guys~ you called, am here :3

warning: loads and loads of rambling and then more rambling

not to be confused for a counter argument

ready? (last chance to run) …letsago!

past

champions has had two major player exodus incidents

day 1 patch, followed by the subsequent patches that most summarize as major nerfs. fun got replaced by generic slog. it did get better. much later. then much better. and currently at a precarious position with the whole slew of rebalancing and powerset updates that have been slinking in oft regularly. power balancing is a great thing, however when i can’t wipe away a room full of mooks with a simple uncalculated move, i don’t feel like a superhero :P don’t make me build stacks of this and trigger that and then fire this blah blah blah, but thats a wholly personal opinion thing, but it is what initially appealed to me about champs where i felt completely overpowered compared to most enemies :3 (p.s. pro players can do exactly that and more but i do not care enough to have a super synergized build and blah blah blah, am a filthy filthy casual, ok)

not to mention the pulling of the dev team (more on that later) and the f2p transition annoyed both vets and newbies, holee kaka

the second exodus i am missing a lot of details on, came shortly after the “on alert” + vehicle introduction (i was on an unplanned hiatus)

cryptic pretty much always gets mostly negative public-facing feedback anyway, even when they are on a phenominaly good moves roll (hi trek, love ya) or trying to completely redesign something that has been causing a lot of contention (hi neverwinter, yep, still annoyed, but we cool) or worse, doing regular updates and getting a “lol no update/content” (hi champs, my poor misdiagnosed baby)

some things of note till the present

anyway, back to champs, and lets be clear here, this is from observation and being a very long time player annnnd by now, having a good idea of how cryptic works (do not confuse that with having inside information aside from dev reveals on forums/streams, i don’t). also not justifying anything for nor against them, but making sure these points are known:

– champs does not cost cryptic a single thing. the common joke is that all cryptic titles are on the same server/engine; which is soooooorta true. same network/server farm structure, yes but the game engine (their own in-house one) versions are all vastly different (but with ported over functionality, since that kinda stuff gets introduced on the base line iirc), for example: maps on neverwinter and trek would have to be redesigned completely to allow flight mechanics (trek team clearly said they would have to redo every single map to allow the use of fliers – rocket packs/jets, outside of risa, which was specifically made for it; also neverwinter and those ‘TUPID DUM INVISIWALLS THAT KEEP ME FROM EXPLORING THE MAPS GRR.. ahem… anyway…)

– cryptic holds the champs ip, they have to have some ip-related thing constantly up and out there, ya know? so the chance of it getting shut down in exchange for what… promoting the p&p champs rpg (which they have licenced back to the original creators at a pittance) is next to zero. maybe if they sell the ip? dunno, would be rather awkward to have to explain why they don’t have their own ip-held title online (no matter the public perception) whenever they try to licence another ip to make a game on. (yes, magic is still in the works, and i even got a sneak peek at their launcher art by accident, hee)

– their last big attempt at monetizing for the title was WAY back when vibora bay was introduced; they wanted to launch new zones as buyable DLC. the sheer amount of negative feedback and raw vitriol over that, made them completely give up on investing that much dev cost and time on further zones (also, dev team got pulled)

– the last zone that was added (Qlipablahblah War Zone) was for high level and very tactically inclined players, that only gets populated when that crowd is online, otherwise it is barren, and not in the “lol champs has no players” kind of empty, but genuine maybe-one-other-player-only-there kind. also, is full of neverwinter like mechanics that annoy me

– speaking of population, only a fraction is seen around the zones. the majority is either in alerts or in rp hangouts (social maps or player hideouts). regardless, champs does not have a huge playerbase but it is far from ‘a hundred or two’ unless one only checks in at off-hours (i.e. US prime time zones are when the activity is high). and i should note, club caprice (prominent social map) can get icky (like all main/famed rp hangouts, what else is new) but it is far from a vile den of filth and villainy. *bows*

– further attempts at generating revenue have mostly been experiments, example: vehicles. more recently followed by variations in lockboxes (thanks pwe… i think). the main difference between champs back then and champs now, is that they finally seem to have accepted that the playerbase will only ever wake up if costumes are involved somehow (and emotes. and cats). and yeah, they are still keeping freeform builds behind the store (long before the subscription model got axed on all titles), which to me seems a lot less annoying now, since the free Archetypes have been (and continue to be) improved upon considerably from back when (the somewhat recent cost reduction for the freeform slots since their introduction, also helps a little).

– speaking of costumes, they have been getting the most focus, naturally, since that is the only thing that causes near universal activity among the playerbase… and the sheer options and combinations and the ability to customize everything are boggling… not that a new player will truly notice, because when you first create an account, sure you have hundreds of mix-match options, but the full free wardrobe doesn’t get unlocked till your first character on a new account has actually gotten in-game past the character creation. now, i can understand they might have limited the number of initial options to sorta try and reduce an “overwhelmed” response by first-timers. still, something that can be easily missed if one is just poking in for a look alone. (unless that got changed very recently)

– currently the game has started to take heavy inspiration from neverwinter and has been introducing a lot of raid type content. i am not happy. the game is big enough to not force people to do that in order to unlock costume pieces. unfortunately that means, if there was another way to get it, the few vocal players who value tactics and build will not have as much company in those big battles. so i can live with the focus on raids like that, for now. but there is a limit and i am feeling pushed. boo

– nearly the entire playerbase is rp-centric and vast majority swings in the heavy-rp/casual side. game mechanic changes are not that much anticipated, for that reason. vanity stuff gets way more attention instead, obviously.

– almost all of the fun and neat things to do aren’t advertised (even in game) as usual (hi cryptic)

– no one character can ever finish all the quests. you will miss out on the patrol type help-a-citizen missions based on level. in each zone. grr. wish it had trek’s replay feature. yeah, yeah, generic fledgeling dated mmo quests, yes, but still. want. and yes, each zone has a long weaving story. a hammy one, because champs. but can be hard to follow/tolerate for those that get put off by the campy stuff, etc.

– the awful, awful, awful campy humor and the horrible, terrible over the top voice acting, etc.? it is intentional. i love it :3 in fact, the only game where i tend to keep the audio on because it makes me laugh. might be a deal breaker for some. sadly, most games seem to have either serious or cutesy at best audio stuff of late.

– the cartoony graphics are also intentional, not a sign of an ‘old engine’ (their base engine keeps getting new functionality and stuff added, enabling things that were not possible years ago, blah blah blah). to get slicker visuals, need to navigate the cumbersome graphics options menu. easier for those familiar with the other cryptic titles. “comic book outlining” seems to be the biggest issue/complaint of first timers, and half (percentage taken out of hammerspace but seen enough vocalization of it) of them turn it back on if they stick around :P but no, champs is still not at the same engine level as trek and nw, despite getting new functionality additions. i.e. no 64-bit only client… yet.

will continue in a reply to this comment and hope i don’t… break anything

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Skoryy

CO tried to improve on City’s character creation – then crammed the whole thing into a broken attempt at WoW-clone gameplay with zero endgame. Three months of CO after City closed, and I wound up bored and looking for somewhere else. A Foundry might have helped, but ultimately there just wasn’t much catching in the gameplay to begin with.

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traja

For me it was mainly the freeform class system. I have to min/max to some degree. It is a personal issue that I can’t make myself enjoy a character that I know is clearly much less than optimal. So with the freeform system I would be stuck making very similar character builds because those were the best ones. It was a case of more options leading to fewer alternatives.

Rift had the same problem for me. If you can combine classes then a handful of combinations will be clearly better than the rest, and that handful will be less than the classes would have been individually.

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Jack Pipsam

I remember they were developing an Xbox 360 version of the game for a while.
I think if they had released it (provided it was a good port), that could have done wonders for the game.

Few MMOs on console then, especially the 360, which was a hot-hot-hot system at the time.

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Hikari Kenzaki

Three words: Jack. Jack. Jack.

I actually enjoyed the game in Beta. It was fun. It had huge content gaps, but it was fun.

Then it launched and almost every day for the first two weeks we logged into a patch. But, bug fixes are normal for a new game. Problem was, it wasn’t bug fixes. It was nerfs. And more nerfs. And still more nerfs.

I canceled and stopped playing before my box time ran out. My best friend at the time got a refund on his lifetime CO/STO subs. It was just that big of a shift and really showed that the better parts of Cryptic had stayed with Paragon Studios and the element we loved to hate, hadn’t learned a thing.

Fool me once, shame on you…