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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Cryptic Bucks Vaguely Detailed; CoH/V Puts on the (Coloured) Gloves Against ChampO

Posted by UnSub Saturday July 18 2009 at 11:10AM
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In answer to the question "What is a Cryptic Buck?" Bill Roper has come out with some more official information on the topic: 

Champions Online will support micro-transactions, but contrary to the concerns of some people, the game is not ‘based’ on them. There are the basic tenets for our micro-transactions:

* The vast majority are aesthetic items, such as costume pieces, action figures, emblems, etc.
* A very few are account-level management tools, such as being able to rename a character
* Micro-transactions should never limit your ability to enjoy the game or reach the level cap
* Any micro-transaction that has a game effect can also be earned in the game through play

Also, it’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of micro-transactions are account-wide. This means if you buy a costume piece or an action figure, every character on your account gets it.

Finally, many of the pre-order programs that we’re finalizing now have cryptic points associated with them. This is a way for us to allow our players to choose their own pre-order reward(s) which falls into our whole customization concept for Champions Online.

So, it's likely to be for cosmetic items in-game, Cryptic doesn't want it to be a 'pay-to-win' system and it has a broader value to Cryptic operations, such as Star Trek Online. However, there still seems to be the "we're not quite sure yet" vibe about Cryptic Bucks from Cryptic - they know they want them, but exactly how they fit hasn't been finalised (or at least that's my perception).

On the topic of superhero MMOs, City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) announced the pending release of Issue 16: Power Spectrum. This is the issue that finally, finally, finally introduces powerset customisation (well, a greater degree, anyway) with new animations available for lots of powers and the ability to change the colour of powers. More existing powersets are getting opened up for more Archetypes, so more powerset combinations are possible. And, finally, more mission difficulty options will be made available, so if you wanted your hero / villain to be able to solo a mission but fight opponents scaled for a team of 8, you can.

I've looked at I16 and, although it finally (did I say finally?) meets a long time request of the player base, it just doesn't impress me. Obviously it is coming in to compete with one of Champions Online's key offerings, but however complex it may have been on the back-end (i.e. programming and development) to do, on the front-end (i.e. what the players see) it isn't that much. There will be excitement about finally being able to make that hot pink Dark / Dark Scrapper you always wanted (Emo Revenge Barbie, now with extra pink) it's not something that is really going to pull in new players. If you left CoH/V for any reason other than "I can't make a yellow Ice Tanker", it's not the issue to bring you back. And CoH/V needs to be attracting new players, not just pandering to the base. 

Sure, locking in the base against ChampO is a good move. But they can't duplicate one of its key offerings - customisable power frameworks - and it isn't going to grow the base, only cause it to shrink slightly slower that it would otherwise.

Also, I can't believe that after Paragon Studio's mishandling of I14's Mission Architect system and the banning of players for abusing it and excessive powerleveling, they are going to introduce difficulty settings that will allow for potential abuse and excessive powerleveling, topped off by more efficient mission farming. I'd hope that Paragon Studios wouldn't fall into the same trap again, but I've learned it doesn't pay to be optimistic about such things.

Internet Rumour: GOA sheds staff, WAR's US subs now less than 100k, Mythic on new MMO

Posted by UnSub Wednesday July 15 2009 at 2:24AM
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It's an internet rumour, so take it with a truckload of salt.

From a source that has been reliable, it appears that GOA (who look after Warhammer Online in Europe) is going to be shedding about 50% of its staff by September, while player numbers for WAR in the US set at about 97000 and for Europe (minus Russia) at about 83000. Which leaves WAR with 180000 or so subscribed accounts in its launch markets, which once contained over 800000 accounts (at launch).

WAR has been expanding, however - into Russia and Taiwan. This is likely how it appeared that WAR's player numbers didn't shift from the 300000 announced for the previous two quarters - growth into new markets hid the erosion of existing markets.

All of this fits into the latest round of free character transfers, aimed to pull characters off empty servers and onto more populated ones. And the exit of Mark Jacobs from Mythic, of course. WAR is failing badly in retaining subscribers and it probably isn't unforeseeable that EA will decide to cut its losses at some point if the game can't be made profitable.

So then, why the rumour of Mythic working on a new MMO (on top of people being syphoned off of WAR and onto DAOC)? To stop more people being fired, that's why. Start a new MMO, get the staff you want to keep working on it and then sell the hell out of it to the money men that this time they're on a winner. Move staff to the profitable MMO, just in case the unprofitable one gets cut.

But anyway: it's a rumour.

How Not To Announce A Micro-Trans Pricing Model: Cryptic-ly

Posted by UnSub Wednesday July 1 2009 at 11:38PM
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With the build up to the launch of Champions Online, there was always going to be some sort of pre-order goodies to encourage people to sign up at launch. And lo and behold: both Gamestop and Amazon came out with their pre-order bonuses. Ignoring the fact that the Gamestop goodies (flight travel power at lvl 0, special insect wings) is better than the vaguely DC-esque costume items Amazon gets (Grenade Chest Strap aside, the Harlequin Headpiece and Black Knight Helmet are a little Batman related, don't you think?) what really grabbed peoples' attention was the other bonus offered for pre-ordering:

5 Cryptic Bucks which can be used to purchase a variety of premium in-game goods.

This immediately raised the question "what are Cryptic Bucks?" and at about one day cycle or so from the announcement, we still don't know. It's fairly obviously some kind of microtransaction mechanism for Champions Online linked to "premium in-game goods", but that's about it. Going out with something as contentious as a paid box plus subscription fees plus microtransactions for a single title was always going to be a controversial issue, but not having info about Cryptic Bucks lined up for the launch of this information was stupidly negligent.

Nature abhors a vaccuum. With no official word on what Cryptic Bucks are good for, people are free to make their own assumptions; these assumptions are usually on the negative end of the scale. For some MMO players any kind of microtransactions is a turn-off, especially since it raises the issue of being able to pay-to-win rather than grind-to-win put time in-game to achieve items and character progression.

My personal view on RMT is that I'll judge them as a I see them. If Cryptic Bucks turn out that I can unlock something cosmetic I want quicker than having to grind it out, that's fine with me. If it means that Cryptic puts out extra content more regularly to keep those RMT revenues coming in, that seems like a good deal. But if having to buy Cryptic Bucks is the only way to advance through a title, or I'm no longer enjoying the game, then that makes microtransactions less attractive. There are certainly issues with having sub-fees and microtransactions in the one title if you have to spend both to keep playing in a reasonable manner.

Looking at titles like Fury, Hellgate: London and the bankrupting Chronicles of Spellborn, a major reason they failed is that they didn't have a business revenue model that could support the game. Confusing players about what they need to pay is never a good idea while it is commercial suicide for a studio to launch a game without considering how they are going to get paid for it in detail. 

Something like Champions Online launching with microtransactions should have been news Cryptic's PR people had answers ready and prepared for. Some people would be automatically be turned off by the idea, but if the offer is suitable then there are a large number of fence-sitters who would at least consider it. However, no information at all leaves it to the imagination about what role Cryptic Bucks are meant to serve and can be a turn off. That's not a good move for a title trying to build momentum two months from launch.

Goodbye, Mr Anderson; Hello, Superman! How SOE Ended Up With Both the Matrix and DC MMOs

Posted by UnSub Tuesday June 23 2009 at 2:35AM
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News that Sony is shutting down the Matrix Online (MxO) on July 31 shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone - MxO had reputedly been whittled down to a development staff of 1 full-time programmer (although SOE has 'pooled' resources that they can lend out within its title range to some extent) following the exit of Ben Chamberlain aka Rarebit, the most recognised face within the MxO team. For quite a while now this title had been listing with only a small (but dedicated) number of active players and surviving only thanks to the life support of SOE's Station Access Pass. But no more. MxO's time has come and it has served its purpose: to get the DC MMO licence.

Going back to 2005, SOE bought MxO off of Warner Brothers Interactive (WBI) following a series of mistakes and issues that MxO from a sure fire hit into a luke-warm fizzer. Arguably at the time of its launch the heat of the Matrix franchise had cooled dramatically, but WoW also launched prior to MxO and changed the face of the MMO industry completely. On top of this a number of development issues left the title feeling unpolished. Within four months of launching, WBI got MxO off its books and into the hands of SOE. Jason Hall was heading up WBI at the time and a movie studio directly developing a video game - and a MMO, no less - was seen as very risky.

I typed Neo vs Superman into Google and this was the best image I found. You've disappointed me yet again, internet.

I typed Neo vs Superman into Google and this was the best image I found. You've disappointed me yet again, internet.

So it was really nice of SOE to take MxO off of WBI's hands and make Hall's job a bit easier. Why did they do that? Because SOE wanted to develop a MMO based on DC Comics, who are owned by Warner Brothers. So the deal became MMO equivalent of dating the ugly girl in order to get to her beautiful sister - SOE took over MxO and stopped it looking like a total failure and in return they get to develop the DC MMO (now-titled DC Universe Online). At the time Marvel and Microsoft had just teamed up to create a MMO, which might not have been publicly announced but probably was known privately to SOE and WBI. A DC Comic-based MMO was bound to be popular, but following MxO's "success" I doubt there was much enthusiasm for trying to develop it in-house. Having SOE develop the DC MMO made the project less risky, plus the deal could be done for them to also take MxO and stop WBI looking so bad.

So SOE buys MxO, tries a little bit to see if it will grow, finds out that it doesn't and sticks it on life support until they can get DCUO well and truly off the ground. With development on DCUO in full swing and a lot of heat developing for that project, it is pretty unlikely that Warner Brothers is going to kill the contract at this point. Plus MxO closing now isn't anywhere near as embarrassing as it shutting down in the first 12 months of launch. Finally, Jason Hall is no longer with WBI and I'm sure everyone there would be quite happy if we forgot that MxO had ever existed.

So now is a good time for MxO to die, at least in the eyes of SOE (and probably WBI, who I'm sure were consulted just in case). I wouldn't be surprised if more struggling MMOs on the Station Pass also experience the kiss of death over the next twelve months, only to be replaced by newer (and hopefully better) MMOs.

Ferraro, Recruiters Hate WoW Players, Tattooed Double-D Breasts and a Question of Naive Trust

Posted by UnSub Thursday June 18 2009 at 3:07AM
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The MMO community is an odd group. We're cynical, dismissive, opinionated and incredibly demanding. At the same time we are also incredibly naive, lazy and a bunch of drama-loving gossips. It's a weird mix, and one that sees a lot of discussion created without ever bothering to go back to checking the facts.

For example, their was a minor scandal recently when it was revealed that Ferraro, a cute blonde woman running a Paladin information blog, was actually stealing pictures from another site, so probably wasn't a cute blonde woman after all. Then she said she was seven people, which was quickly questioned as being a highly suspicious claim and it being likely s/he was lying again. That it took 5 years for someone to uncover this wasn't a case of "no-one really car[ing]", but a case of taking things at face value. If no-one cared about identity (and gender), then this wouldn't have been the drama that it was. (Looking today, Ferraro's blog is back up with its Paladin guides.)

Remember back to last year and the news that recruiters weren't hiring WoW players? Perhaps you even saw it in the New York Times. That all came from one discussion between one person and his recruiter friend in Australia. Apparently some unnamed employers in the online media field have had some bad experiences with WoW players and don't want them hired... especially if they are so enamoured in WoW / online gaming that they include it in their resume and / or on their work clothes. It was a minor point of interest that the original poster thought worth commenting on when on their usual MMO forum, then Raph Koster picked it up and before common sense could catch up with the 'Create Entry' button MMO players on forums all over were commenting widely how stupid it was they might possibly not be employed for playing WoW. Which was never an issue, unless you were going for a job in the online media industry in Australia through this recruiter (and didn't know well enough that the correct answer to, "So, what are your hobbies?" doesn't include, "I dress up as a sexy Night Elf Hunter and pwn n00bs hard in Barrens' chat.").

Most recently there was the story that a Russian porn star was going to have an RMT site's URL tattooed across her large breasts for $500 000. It was posted across forums all over - particularly tinged with a 'is there anything RMT sites won't stoop to?' vibe, until a bit of common sense revealed that it was all a publicity stunt. And one that worked very well too, with MMO-related forums doing a lot of free advertising for the RMT company.

I mentioned DD breasts in the title, but this is the only picture in the article. Hmmm.

I mentioned DD breasts in the title, but this is the only picture in the article. Hmmm.

There have been other cases and I'm sure they will continue in the future. For all the commentary that the internet generation (such as it is) is savvy and digital natives - which should mean that they see through these kind of things easily - I don't see it happening. It doesn't take much - a cute face, a news story with sex or money involved, whatever - for someone to throw a link up on a forum and go, "What do you think about this?" that leads to obviously weak (if not outright wrong) information being flung all over the web.

People rarely click back to the original link - to check the context of the quote or story, to ensure that what they are being told is actually on target - but are instead quite content to take things at face value. And that's face value on an internet forum / blog site, which most normal people would admit should be considered to have as much informational integrity as the Iraqi Information Minister.

At this point, here's a question: did any of the links I included above actually link to the things I said they did? Did you check? Or did you take it at face value? I think I linked to the right articles, but perhaps I didn't. However, simply having the links there make what I say look a lot more authoritative.

MMO players trust text. It's a core part of both the internet and gameplay. However, just because it is written down, it doesn't mean we should take it at face value. And we should always, always check back to the original link before commenting on something.

CoH/V: Positron Gets It Right, Then Wrong. Again.

Posted by UnSub Thursday June 4 2009 at 12:07AM
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Hmm, I seem to be doing a lot of City of Heroes / Villains blogging recently - I'll change that in the near future.

However, as a final look at how Paragon Studios are managing to do the right and the wrong thing at the same time, it is definitely worth seeing how things ended up recently.

In the "doing the right thing" column, Matt Miller (aka Positron, lead developer of CoH/V) popped up again about the changes to the I14 badges and gave the reasons why they were changed. It is an interesting look at how designers work, with the key part being:

So I re-looked at badges, the system as a whole, for really the first time since they were implemented. While implementing them, I've always been focused on the Issue at hand, not at the system as a whole. With Synapse now in charge of the actual implementation I had a chance to look back and see the big picture.

In short, Positron reconsidered exactly what badges should be doing on the whole, rather than just following what had come before. He decided he didn't want badges to encourage farming or poor play, so those new badges that did came out. Positron admits it isn't ideal, but it was the fairest way for him to achieve his design goals.

Agree with him or not, it is always good for a developer to explain things to their player base.

Now, in the "doing the wrong thing" column, Paragon Studios did indeed follow up their threat of banning players who 'exploited' (in their eyes) the Mission Architect system. To do so they executed a ban script that banned accounts that contained offending characters. Unfortunately the ban script didn't have enough testing because it also resulted in players who never set foot in an MA mission being banned and their character deleted if they had a character level pacted with an offending character. There are also rumours of players who teamed with an MA-offending character in the same session but not doing MA missions being banned, but it is hard to verify because the CoH/V forum mods have been very quick to delete threads on the topic. If your account was wrongly banned and your character wrongly deleted appeals can be made to customer service staff, but obviously it is much better not to make such a huge blunder in the first place. 

So: CoH/V Issue 14 was meant to be the issue that provided an exciting new system (Mission Architect and its player created missions) and a big PR boost prior to Champions Online launching in September. The end result was a bit different: multiple post-launch changes to MA, poorly handled announcements and incorrect player bannings has seen this issue be more of a 'two steps forward, three steps back' for CoH/V.

CoH/V: How You Can Be Right And Wrong At The Same Time

Posted by UnSub Monday May 25 2009 at 3:48AM
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The Mission Architect (MA) system - where players could create their own missions and story arcs for in-game rewards - was always meant to get people talking about City of Heroes / Villains. What a pity that the things being said generally aren't that positive.

Fresh off the back of threatening to ban players for abusing the MA system, then banning them (but threads about bannings get deleted, making players unsure about what's happening), then framed by the excitement only a vague-defined expansion pack can bring, comes the news that 90-odd in-game badges introduced in I14 (April 2009) are going to be removed whenever I15 launches (I'm guessing August 31, 2009). Badges in CoH/V work in a similar fashion to Xbox Live Achievements - you unlock them for performing (mostly) in-game tasks, but in CoH/V certain combinations give your character extra buffs / powers / abilities. Badges have been part of CoH/V since Issue 2, which came out in September 2004.

The Halloween-related badges. Still in-game, but only really available during Halloween.

The Halloween-related badges. Still in-game, but only really available during Halloween when you farm doors for the right enemy types.

This is the first time such a large number of badges that have gone live are just being removed by the devs. Some badges have been changed over time - artwork, badge text, badge requirements etc have changed for particular badges - and some have been removed - Passport for instance, which was attached to a system that was never implemented but some people got anyway. Badges have also been removed in cases where heroes have achieved 'villain only' badges and vice versa. But never have badges been removed on such a scale before.

The dev's reason for taking out the badges boils down to not wanting MA to turn into a place to grind out badges - badges should instead reward during 'normal' play. Given that the Virtual Slayer badge requires you to defeat 50 000 enemies during MA test mode, it really seems that this wasn't always the idea. And yes, the Virtual Slayer badge is going to be disappearing. As are the Hall of Fame and Dev's Choice badges that were going to reward the best MA missions with a form of immortality, but apparently didn't survive the deluge of MA missions.

My view on this is that it was completely the right thing to do but incredibly wrong for the devs to do it. The short of it is that the badges that are coming out should never have gone live in the first place if, literally two months after introduction, they are coming out for what amounts to ideological design reasons. It is right for them to come out of CoH/V for what they encourage in-game, but it is wrong for them to be taken away from players who have earned them.

They aren't broken or bugged badges, or badges that allow for in-game exploits (even if they encourage in-game exploits to achieve them, but then so do the epic heal badges that are still in-game). So how did these badges launch only to be taken out again? Did the devs working on badges not talk to the devs working on MA, or even to the lead developer who has to sign off on everything? Is it a sign that the design philosophies of one developer group has been replaced by those of another post I14? 

Positron's badge list. I wonder how many he'll lose in I15?

Positron's badge list. I wonder how many he'll lose in I15?

I don't know. It could be that Champions Online has the Paragon Studio people under so much pressure that decisions aren't being made as well as they should be. Could also be as simple as one developer not checking with another about what kind of badges should be available through the MA system and going overboard with them (130 badges is a huge increase for an issue). I definitely agree with InfamousBrad that this kind of announcement - and the commentary that defeat X badges won't be the norm going forward - is a huge shift in design philosophy for CoH/V.

However, at the end of the day it is simple to work out: people are more annoyed if you give them something then take it away than if they'd never had that thing to start with. Although it is something I agree with for a number of reasons, pulling 90 or so badges from CoH/V players is yet another PR black eye for the highly touted MA system.

Playboy MMO Announced; No-One Cares

Posted by UnSub Thursday May 21 2009 at 3:25AM
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About two weeks ago, Jolt Online Gaming announced a browser-based MMO with a large, well known IP behind it: Playboy Manager. News sites dutifully carried the press release, then it sank without trace. It received less serious attention than the latest regionalised version of a Korean F2P title. No-one really cared.

There are a number of reasons for no-one caring about this title. Firstly, it is a pretty obvious attempt from Playboy to try and remain relevant in the Internet Age. The original success of Playboy as a brand wasn't the naked women - though they helped - nor the articles - which helped people pretend they were buying the magazine for something other than the naked women - but the lifestyle it portrayed. In short, Playboy stood for classy sleaze - you could be as debauched as you liked, but provided you finished off with caviar and champagne, you would still have style.

Cut to 2009, where the Playboy is in financial trouble, being primarily part of the print media category that could potentially face "unending losses". Online media delivers more than print media can, faster and in a (generally) more convenient and private format. This leaves Playboy, which used to trade on being a little bit naughty to drive its subscriptions, left out in the cold as people can now get things that are a lot (and again: A LOT) naughty very easily. And for free. The only real thing Playboy has left that has any real value is the brand - I'm sure that Playboy logo shifts a lot of mechandise - but they are desperately looking for another way to survive. A MMO is one attempt to grasp at another revenue channel and I'm sure "World of Warcraft" and "rolling in money" was said more than once during discussions between Jolt and Playboy.

It is, however, a grasp that is bound to fail. Sure, browser based titles with mini-games are increasingly popular, but the very name 'Playboy' is going to work against it - your IT manager might let Free Realms through, or your mother might not know what that is, but both will know exactly what a Playboy game will have in it. Now, your particular IT manager / mother might not care, but there are a lot who will. Plus there is the basic fact that the internet provides a lot more than even the extensive Playboy back catalogue to go and see without having to play through any mini-games.

Also, the game itself has you as a "crack talent agent" managing the careers of Playboy models. So, basically, you get to play as Eric Roberts circa "Star 80". Hmmm.

Eric Roberts as Paul Snider in "Star 80". Classy.

Eric Roberts as Paul Snider in "Star 80". Classy.

A Playboy MMO is a wild gambit for once great media brand and one that will probably work in Jolt's favour as Playboy picks up development costs (but might not survive long enough to collect any revenue from them). Also, it is interesting that Playboy have even made this grab, as ill-fated as it is bound to be. But I can't see it working. What Playboy was - a lifestyle magazine - has been superseded over time by others who do it better and by technology that undermines both its core appeal and entire media channel. All that is left is a brand desperately trying to find relevance - something, anything - in today's market place.

From FireSky to Gazillion: A Case of Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan?

Posted by UnSub Friday May 15 2009 at 4:26AM
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The funny thing about the internet is that when you post things, you can never be sure who is reading. Obscurity is no protection, because all it takes is one person to link it to a position of prominence and then everyone knows. This is especially the case for those people working in online games - people can dev stalk very quietly for years, sometimes for quite benign reasons (hey, I like to know what Positron might be up to!) and sometimes for not-quite-so-happy reasons (Sporkfire has a story where a player once posted up his real address on an online forums, which wouldn't be a good feeling at all).

This lesson popped up this week when then CME Studio Head Dan Elggren's wife posted up info on their blog that he was leaving CME / FireSky and going to Gazillion. Also part of the message was the mass exodus of staff that had occurred in recent times and that he wasn't getting paid for going to work. All in all it paints a sad picture of where CME / FireSky is right now and that Stargate Worlds only really "has a chance" to ship. It was another peek under the hood at a title and studio that held a lot of promise but now seems on a sure ride to oblivion.

However, I can't help but see Elggren's move is from one untested umbrella dev brand with a lot of unpublished MMOs heavily based on IPs to another untested umbrella dev brand with lots of unpublished MMOs heavily based on IPs. He's just switching Stargate for Marvel. And, not to throw any negative light on Mr Elggren's ability, but I can't see Gazillion's future as being much brighter than FireSky's.

 

City of Heroes / Villains: Going Rogue Expansion Announced

Posted by UnSub Tuesday May 12 2009 at 3:17AM
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Apparently it was announced by accident after the emails got sent out too soon, but CoH/V's first expansion since 2005 has been announced: Going Rogue.

This isn't a new issue, but a whole new expansion which would seem to indicate an entirely new city to explore and a new box copy on shelves. Also, from the email that went out:

City of Heroes Going Rogue officially opens the "mirror universe" of Praetoria and an all-new alignment system that explores the shades of gray that lie between Heroes and Villains. For the first time, Hero characters can become Villains and vice versa, enabling Heroes to cross over to the Rogue Isles™ and Villains to experience Paragon City™.

So, side switching in CoH/V will finally be implemented. Also discussed by the devs previously have been two new powersets: demon summoning and dual pistols.

Without doubt this is the major substance that Paragon Studios is going to be using to try to blunt the impact of its new competitors... but this is dependent on when the Going Rogue expansion actually launches. My initial thought was "Wow, a direct move against Champions Online!" which launches in July 2009, but that can't be right. Paragon Studios is already late with one issue - I15: Anniversary, which had obviously been planned to launch sometime in April 2009 when it actually was CoH's fifth anniversary - and a major new expansion isn't going to get beta tested, finalised and on shelves in just six weeks. It's more likely that Going Rogue is (at the earliest) a Q4 2009 release, if not maybe something for 2010 as a competitor for DCUO.

So, good news for CoH/V - more new content, more powersets, the highly requested side switching - but it is going to be a good while before players will get their hands on it.