Champions Online. Depending on who you talk to about this game, it's either passably fun or quite possibly one of the most reviled MMO franchises currently walking the street. The latter is mainly due to its association with City of Heroes. When Jack Emmert walked away from CoH with the publishing rights in hand, he alienated a large chunk of his established user base; essentially telling everybody involved in City of Heroes to suck it as he took the intellectual property and set up Champions.
The decision was undoubtedly a calculated one, since there could only be one goal in directly competing with his old associates by launching a newer, fresher looking product in the exact same style and genre. It was also goal that ironically never came to fruition. Fan resentment and betrayal over his defection kept the City of Heroes user base loyal and intact, denying Emmert of not only new users jumping ship from CoH, but the critical mass necessary to starve out his competition. Even worse, City of Heroes has thrived against all odds; at least enough to warrant an expansion and continued operation under a subscription model.
If that wasn't salt in the proverbial wound, Champion's problems are about to get a lot worse.
DC Universe Online is about to roll, and even at its worst (See the Hater's Guide) it still does enough right to turn the hero genre on its ear. The audio is a ten. The visuals, ten. Story? Ten. Sure, its game play is little more than arcade button mashing, but even that has an audience; an audience that is going to cut directly into Champion's user base in a big way. If a gamer has to decide which hero MMO their subscription dollar is going to go to, my bet is that Champions is going to have to bend over and pass the KY, please.
I’ll go out on a limb at this point and say that the only reason a lot of us have been playing these current games is in waiting for somebody else to do it right. DCUO is the next step in that evolution, and everybody knows it. You know it. I know it. Apparently, Cryptic knows it, too.
Most of us just received an email the other day confirming the rumblings: Champions Online is gearing up for free to play, though that’s literally only half the story. The other half is that they’re also retaining the subscription model as well, effectively creating a hybrid payment model. Both sides function exactly as you would expect them to: Champions Complete and Champions Crippled, enticing you to either buy into the micro transactional payment model or pony up for the subscription. On the surface, it would appear to be a smart move-- let the player decide what they want and let demand take it from there. If you happen to pick up a few extra dollars along the way, score.
Peel back the surface and you may smell desperation.
There is one universal constant in MMO gaming everybody needs to realize: You only go F2P unless you have no other choice. As a corollary, people will pay monthly subscriptions if you have a product worth paying for.
To point, if a company has a choice between subscriptions and micro transactions, which do you think they would choose? Guaranteed income, or ‘maybe you’ll stop in this month and buy something’ income? The answer should be obvious, which should also prompt the question: Why is Cryptic even bothering? Sure, they could be looking to rake in the money stream, but I’m thinking Champions is working the marketing angles overtime.
As noted above, they still have active, thriving competition in the City of Heroes franchise that hasn’t been reduced to F2P (hint). Now there’s a new threat and it isn’t just a two ton gorilla, it’s a goddamn Boeing 747 with its engines on fire looking for a place to land, and that place is going to be squarely in the lap of any hero MMO that gets in its way.
Traditionally, I’ve always seen the move to F2P as a last, desperate gambit to stay alive, even if in a diminished capacity. This particular tactic is a new one. It still reeks of disease, but it’s also supremely devious from a marketing standpoint. Not only can they claim user choice as a reason, but when things do go south in the subscription department (and mark my words, they will), you’ll never know it. They don’t have to report their numbers. They don’t have to tell you how many subs died off over the last six months because DCUO just took huge ass bite out of their market share. Subscriptions will quietly fade off into the night and if they acknowledge it at all, they can claim it was all according to plan or that it was gamer demand. Champions now has complete deniability that they're suffering finacially and automatically bypasses any stigma attatched to dropping subscriptions cold turkey.
Cryptic, you’ve officially earned my Evil Genius in Marketing Award for 2011, and it’s only January.
**Correction: Bill Roper incorrectedly cited, as noted by LordDraekon. Jack Emmert was intended.