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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

Superhero Smackdown: CoH/V vs DCUO vs ChampO - The Weigh-In

Posted by UnSub Tuesday July 29 2008 at 4:41AM
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With ComicCon having wrapped up, it's time to take a look at the upcoming superhero MMO battle coming our way in 2009 (and perhaps beyond, depending when some of these titles launch): you've got the established veteran in City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V), the heir to the throne in Champions Online (ChampO) and the surprise newcomer in DC Universe Online (DCUO). It's still early days, but it is worth having a look at what each competitor is bringing to the table, both in a positive and negative sense.

 

City of Heroes / Villains

CoH/V is four-and-a-half years old by this point. It's launch in April 2004 helped (along with games like Freedom Force) to dispel the dreaded superhero curse and to breath some fresh air into the MMO genre by adding superheroes alongside fantasy and sci-fi settings. Developed by Cryptic Studios, CoH was seen as an incredibly casual friendly game and a MMO that was fun out of the box - sadly, something that was seen as lacking in previous MMO launches.

Jump to now and CoH/V is still generally well regarded within MMO circles. Cryptic sold out their share of IP rights to NCsoft (the publisher) in 2007 who started a new studio (NC NorthCal) that took on board the entire CoH/V development team. While some point to the repetitiveness of combat or missions, CoH/V has managed to hold on to a reasonably sized player base (approximately 134 000 at last official count) and has released 12 free issues (i.e. content updates) and one stand alone paid expansion (City of VIllains that launched in October 2005). Recently announced was all access to both CoH and CoV sides of the game regardless of which version you purchased, so the barriers in CoH/V between heroes and villains have been reduced even further. CoH/V is also PC-only, unlike its competitors.

Pros:

  • CoH/V is the most established superhero MMO - it's had time to iron out its kinks and to add in additional content; often this content has been demanded by players
  • Gameplay is still fast and involved
  • Character customisation is still the best in the MMO genre, even after 4 years
  • CoH/V also has an incredibly community orientated development team - red name posts get made every day by the people who do the development work, not just community managers / moderators
  • On the books is a player customised mission system, allowing players to develop their own missions and let other people into them (details to be released)

Cons:

  • Although CoH/V has an active community, it is a community that is slowly dwindling... the introduction of two competitors may shake out these numbers further; efforts to date haven't seen the number of active subscriptions increase
  • Although it has had first mover advantage, CoH/V also suffers from first mover disadvantage - it's successes and failings will have been extensively scrutinised by its upcoming competition who will probably avoid some of the traps CoH/V fell into
  • A number of promised systems - the website-orientated Vault, the Cathedral of Pain trial - have been in limbo for a long, long time
  • UPDATE: One thing CoH/V doesn't have that is promised by the other superhero MMOs is full power customisation, which could be huge attractor to a lot of players

Overall

CoH/V has been a fun superhero MMO for over four years, but does it have the stamina to take on two younger faster opponents?

 

Champions Online

Cryptic had previously announced they were working on Marvel Universe Online, the Marvel Comics MMO, so perhaps it wasn't a surprise when they sold off the CoH/V IP rights to NCsoft. But then came the news that the Marvel MMO had been cancelled. What was Cryptic going to do? Iron out a deal with an established superhero IP in less than a month and get to work apparently.

ChampO has been biding its time since announcement generally releasing lore and development profiles, with two videos existing to show it in action. Reactions to the visual design have been mixed - some see the thick lines as too cartoony - but the design looks better in action than it does in a screenshot for the most part.

The reality of ChampO is that little is known about the in-game mechanics. Apart from aiming to be an action MMO on both the PC and Xbox360 as well as having full power customisation, the details as to how such things are going to function are fairly limited. To date, Cryptic is being, well, cryptic over where it is taking this title. The expected release date is 2009; some sites have claimed as early as Q2 2009.

Pros:

  • Based on an established superhero IP, Champions Online has a lot of lore to rely on; it also has been using recognised comics writer John Layman to develop mission content
  • Cryptic has the experience in developing a superhero MMO from its time at CoH/V, which should see some of CoH/V's design issues avoided
  • ChampO's strength is meant to be in its character customisation - full costume and power customisation is meant to be possible, as well as customising your characters arch-nemesis (or three); also secret identities are possible
  • Cryptic also has a somewhat responsive developer relationship with the fan base, but the community managers are the ones doing most of the talking right now

Cons:

  • The Champions IP probably isn't going to be bringing in a lot of fans; given that Cryptic isn't going to be using an exact translation of the Champions RPG ruleset anyway, these kind of fans probably aren't going to be interested in ChampO because of that
  • The Champions IP is already rather generic and cliched; the best way I can sum it up is in describing how Grond got transformed into a monster (and I wish I could find the link for it), which was by signing up to an experimental test and drinking their solution only to have an adverse reaction that caused him to run into other experiments which covered him in chemicals and set the lab on fire which caused him to run outside only to get hit by lightning and transform into Grond. Either some guy had the WORST. DAY. EVAH. or that is some lazy, lazy writing
  • ChampO is meant to be a very black-and-white, good-and-evil kind of world; as someone who likes moral ambiguity in their superheroes, this is a negative
  • More information is needed on how players are going to spend their time in-game is needed - what's going to keep me playing past the first month?

Overall

Cryptic have the experience with superhero MMOs that will give it an edge in development, but can it overcome a niche IP to take on an established opponent and another MMO with a killer IP?

 

DC Universe Online

Sony has held the rights to a DC MMO since 2005 when it bought The Matrix Online and (probably its real target) the DC MMO license off Warner Bros. For three years, there was little news - Jim Lee came aboard, it would be playable on the PC and PS3 - but for most players it was considered a vapour title.

Then DCUO showed off its first gameplay video for E3 and then let people play it at ComicCon. Jim Lee, John Blakely and Chris Cao were everywhere. DCUO was everywhere and getting mostly good reviews for its ComicCon display. After three years of nothing, DCUO was back on the map.

Beneath the flash of DCUO's information launch, not much is known about the game. It will be on the PC and PS3, the art design is by Jim Lee (well, him and his studio of artists, anyway) and you can play your own character (hero or villain) in the DC Universe alongside Batman and Superman. Other areas of this MMO haven't been fleshed out with publicly available information yet.

Pros:

  • DCUO really seems to have nailed the action side of things - although I think the combat is still a bit too choppy and lacks impact (too much animation, pause, opponent reacts to animation) with some polish it could be a fantastic experience
  • That players can play alongside the key characters of the DCUO, even get access to their powers, will be a big thing to those interested in DC's characters
  • Superspeed's ability to run up walls and over objects shouldn't be understated - it just looks fantastic
  • SOE has just shown the MMO industry how to promote a MMO title - it was vapourware until June and suddenly it is one of the hottest MMOs coming out

Cons:

  • Apart from Jim Lee and the DC IP, what else is DCUO really offering? What is going to keep players playing after the first month?
  • Some MMO players publicly refuse to buy SOE products; how strong this feeling is could determine how the MMO market reacts to this title (although I think those players offended by SWG actions probably aren't closely linked to the DCUO crowd)

Overall

DCUO has gained a lot of momentum very quickly, but can it keep up against two competitors who have more superhero MMO experience?

 

So there you go - the weigh-in for the three big superhero MMO titles that will be competing in the not-to-distant future. I plan to keep a watch on this, especially as ChampO and DCUO release more information and actually launch just to see how each one stacks up.

UPDATE: I found that link with Gromm's origin:

"They accidentally shot him with the wrong serum, a variant of a super soldier [formula] that had been in development," explained Emmert. "He broke out of his restraints and, in crazed mania, crashed into a shelf full of chemicals which all spilled on him. So he's burning and in a rage, races outside in the middle of a thunderstorm and gets struck by lightning. Now singed, Sidney then tumbles outside the gate into a drainage ditch filled with toxic chemicals. Hence, Gromn was born."

... hmmm ...

Star Trek Online: Confirmed and Cryptic

Posted by UnSub Monday July 28 2008 at 2:21AM
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So, there you go: Cryptic is doing the Star Trek Online MMO.

Not a lot info yet and the site appears to currently be hammered by people, but one of MMO-dom's worst kept rumours has been comfirmed. Interestingly enough, it is planned for both PC and console. The features list is:

"Adventure in the Final Frontier: Explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations in an expanding vast universe. Make contact with alien races, discover resources and uncover mysteries that will change the future of the Star Trek universe.

You Are the Captain: Command your own starship as a Federation Captain or a Klingon Warrior. Outfit it with the systems that you need to make your mark in the galaxy. Customize your ship as you see fit. Recruit, train and mold your crew into an elite force for exploration and combat.

Surface, Shipboard and Deep Space Adventures: Command your vessel in thrilling space battles, or beam down to planets with your away team for face-to-face confrontations. Missions will take you and your friends into space, planetside and even inside starships! "

A screenshot from the STO page

The release platforms will be both PC and console (but no one type of console?). Gameplay footage will be up in two weeks. Let's see what this looks like in action. 

DC Universe Online: An Overview

Posted by UnSub Tuesday July 22 2008 at 12:35AM
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Massively.com has put together a good overview of DCUO's E3 output. The only article that excites me is this one, which talks about in-game events, combat and other in-game systems.

I've got an article I want to write about DCUO, but I'm going to wait until after ComicCon - they will have live demos and a MySpace invite party there, so I want to see what new information comes out before I start casting some judgements around.

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Asheron's Call: Throne of Destiny

Posted by UnSub Tuesday July 22 2008 at 12:25AM
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I tried.

I really tried.

I really, really tried to get into Asheron's Call. Casting my mind back to when MMOs were new to me and having dial-up internet access at home and viable, I remember looking at Everquest (EQ) and Asheron's Call (AC) and thinking how great it would be to play them. I was never really that interested in EQ, but AC appeared to have a much more interesting set of ideas behind it. The Allegiance system. A more skill-orientated, less class-based system. Anyone could cast magic spells. And so on.

However, it was never viable to play a US-based online game via dial-up from Australia and, frankly, I didn't have the money (which conversion rates would have seen me have to pay about double the US price per month in $AUS anyway). So I never picked up AC. AC2 was a possibility... but we all remember what happened to that MMO. Given I was interested in it, trialling AC seemed like a fantastic idea to possibly pick up what I missed out on.

Unfortunately, it seems that there ain't no going back. As I said, I tried to enjoy AC. But the distance of time and experience is too great. While I can get over the graphics, the repetitive auto-attack combat left me bored and watching the screen for extended periods. Not having any idea of where to go for the quests I found was a problem (I love you, mission markers!) while entering shared dungeons saw other players sweep all opponents while I trundled along behind. Combat was such that it was either a cakewalk or I died.

So I'm not completely negative, I really enjoyed the item drops I got, especially the equipment. Finishing the tutorial and arriving in Dereth to find a chest full of magic armour was a nice touch, especially when the spells activated. Also, getting weapons that were on fire / dripped acid etc to reflect their magical ability also added a lot to the game. If I squinted, I could really see the potential of AC. but then I'd look again properly and realise I had no idea where to go or what to do. The server I was on (Verdantine) was also pretty empty, apart from silent characters who wizzed past me with the determination of someone who has done it before. 

I unsubscribed from the trial after a week. AC was just too dated - or I was too familiar with modern MMO design, take your pick - for me to want to continue. Also, I found it incredibly cheeky that Turbine is still charging $12.95 for this title and that if I hadn't actively unsubscribed, the trial would have flipped me into full-payment mode automatically. For a game as old as AC, that really isn't acceptable. AC still gets respect from me for the continued updates, but I see $13 a month as too high for a seven-year-old title - something in the range of $5 to $10 a month would seem much more appropriate.

Anyway, I tried.

Hellgate: London: A Saga of Drama

Posted by UnSub Thursday July 17 2008 at 11:39PM
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The saga of Hellgate: London (HG:L) and Flagship Studios has been a wild and crazy ride. Founded by a host of ex-Blizzard North people, it sold itself as the next great dev studio, with HG:L getting a lot of press based on what, in my opinion, was very little substance. Demons taking over London sounds fine as a concept, but I never really got what would make HG:L special. The fact that both Flagship games (the other one being Mythos) looked like variations on the Diablo theme perhaps made me a bit indifferent, but as a studio they were getting a lot of attention.

Not all of it was good attention. Potential player hackles were raised when HG:L attached a subscription-payment model to it, so that those paying the sub fee got got special account bonuses. A lot of players were used to seeing the kind of game HG:L available in full online for just the cost of buying the box, not the cost of buying the box and paying extra dollars per month. A lot of arguments were centred over whether or not HG:L was a MMO and therefore worth spending the extra money on each month. With all that said, HG:L received quite a bit of attention / hype prior to launch and had a lot of people interested in it.

HG:L launched on October 31 2007 - Halloween - into what has to be seen as one of the poorer releases of recent times. Bugs broke gameplay. Subscription fees were charged multiple times to player accounts.  Problems abounded with multiplayer games. Customer service was poor, no doubt being overrun by demand. A number of special subscription bonuses were released to all players as a form of compensation, only making those who paid the subscription fees angry at having paid for something now given away for free. In South-East Asia, the regional publisher indicated they would need to implement a patch that would delete all characters created in the two weeks post-launch - an absolute slap in the face for players in that region. Although it didn't happen, the threat of it drove players away.

Flagship Studios would later admit that it had tried too much with HG:L at launch and released too early, while the game got reasonable reviews despite all the problems. But the damage had been done in a lot of cases and HG:L was seen as a tarnished title.

Which just brings us up to the fun bits surrounding HG:L. Although recognised that Flagship probably was in trouble, it was a surprise earlier this week to see that Flagship studios laid off all their employees, was reported as being closed and that the HG:L and Mythos IP had been taken by creditors to further develop. Then Flagship got snippy since the founders were still there so Flagship definitely wasn't closed, followed by the bitchiest PR statement I've ever seen coming from HanbitSoft, a licensee / creditor for HG:L that is also looking to acquire the Mythos IP from another creditor. HanbitSoft look ready to take Flagship on to acquire everything they need to continue HG:L in their region and to develop it further.

For current players of HG:L apparently you can't subscribe any longer, but no subscription fees will be charged to current players. Both the HG:L forums and Mythos forums are down or going down today.

So. If you happened to buy the lifetime sub at launch for a cost of $149, you would have spent between 1.5x - 2x the amount on subscription fees than if you had paid $10 a month for it, since HG:L only 'lived' for 8 - 9 months. Lucky you. Yes, the game is still live, but it is being run by a studio with no staff and supported by no-one for the vast majority of regions. You fill in the blanks.

Also, I find it astonishing that Flagship apparently even put its IP up as collateral for creditors. HanbitSoft certainly appear to believe they have rights to the HG:L and is looking to get the Mythos IP from Comerica, another creditor. I can understand offering a number of things to creditors in exchange for investment, but the IP itself? That just seems a bit unsafe. Especially if (and again, since HanbitSoft is communicating, we'll listen to their side) Flagship was unwilling to sell-out in order to keep things going, instead deciding to lay off all staff but somehow concentrate on developing casual games.

There is a lesson here (and not just e-drama is fun in real life as well as in-game). It's that launch is the most important time in a MMOs lifecycle. You can come back from a bad launch - EVE and EQ2 would appear to serve as examples of this - but it is very, very hard. Flagship appear to have tried to launch a new game while developing every single in-game system from scratch. If you want to do that, fine, but its going to take a long time and require a realistic launch decision, not "Halloween this year because it would be really awesome", which is my interpretation of how such a date was decided.

Personally, I'm not a fan of the "release it when it is done" mantra. Such ideas promote feature creep and MMOs, by their very nature, are never complete. Future MMOs need to have disciplined devs who draw the line in the sand and say, "This is the feature and content set we want and we aren't going to even go into beta - heck, even talk about the game - until we are there". However, being sensible is no fun, so I expect to see quite a few more crash-at-launch, crash-the-company failure cascades such as HG:L as the MMO space sees a flood of entrants in the next few years.

UPDATE: Bill Roper has a long interview with 1up.com about what's happening with Flagship, HG:L, Mythos and what went wrong. It's an interesting read and they key lesson - do more work on less - is pertinant to a lot of games being designed today.

DC Universe Online E3 2008 Video: Batman looks Grumpy!

Posted by UnSub Wednesday July 16 2008 at 4:30AM
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Jim Lee has made a not-really-that-surprising (if you'd been following the DCUO MySpace news, that is) appearance at E3 2008 to show off the first in-game video of DCUO. General reactions have been that it looks okay, but is a bit clunky / unsynchronised in combat.

Firstly, I found the huge amount of time devoted to Jim Lee being in charge of DCUO being pure filler. Especially since he's been using his Wildstorm Studios to develop the art rather than work on most it himself. Can you really see any other developer getting the kind of love letter that Lee got in that video? Raph Koster? Brad McQuaid? Rob Pardo? No, I can't either. Especially since Jim Lee is really a limited draw card - comic book readers might recognise his name, but the general video game playing public is going to be clueless about him. It really says to me that DCUO didn't have that much to show off and padded it with some talk of what little name talent they have on board.

As for the in-game footage, some of it is very nice. Flash running up a vertical building looked great. Quite a bit of the combat looked out-of-sync though, with reactions taking place a long time after the blow was landed. Also, DCUO has been in development for 3 years and the video looks like it is still pretty early days. Good enough for alpha, sure, but ChampO looks to be in better shape in a side-by-side comparison.

Just so I'm not totally negative about it, seeing the number of objects that were picked up in the video did a lot to raise my interest in DCUO. Comic book games should be all about property destruction and it looks like DCUO have got this part right. How it plays in reality (such as, how hard it is to target the right opponent rather than the car off to the left of them) remains to be seen, but that aspect has raised my interest.

Also, it was nice to see a lot the DC characters in there, even if some were just shown in passing. Seeing Sinestro, Bane and Black Adam is more interesting to me than seeing the Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

So, I'm still a lot more interested in ChampO, but having DCUO as competition / an alternative has certainly made things more exciting.

Champions Online: 2K is to Cryptic as Vivendi was to Blizzard (Sorta)

Posted by UnSub Saturday July 12 2008 at 2:49AM
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As an update to the 2K / Cryptic publishing deal: in the big press push ChampO released today it was revealed that 2K is dealing with marketing and distribution while Cryptic offers the rest of the full MMO service.

This makes me feel better - I had wondered how Cryptic was going to ship ChampO boxes worldwide if they self-published, so in this sense the 2K deal is a great idea. No mention if 2K is investing in ChampO or if Cryptic is just paying 2K to look after this for them, but it certainly doesn't look like Cryptic is handing control for ChampO out to a third party.

Champions Online: Gameplay Video and All the Way with 2K

Posted by UnSub Friday July 11 2008 at 2:02AM
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Two bits of ChampO info:

1) Gamespot have an exclusive gameplay video and an article. Having looked at the video, I have to say it looks like a faster version of CoH/V, which isn't a bad thing, that sees you fighting more guys at once, which isn't a bad thing. So my summary of the video is: it's not a bad thing. But, apart from the combat moves that see the characters leap forward or do something fancy, I feel I've seen it before in CoH/V. This isn't a turn-off - I love CoH/V's combat - but I guess I was expecting a little more. We'll see when the E3 and GenCon play sessions are conducted how people feel about ChampO's combat.

2) Cryptic have announced that 2K will publish ChampO. Given the talk of Cryptic self-publishing ChampO, this gives their credibility a bit of a knock, even if it makes sense for them to take this step. More detail is needed as to what role 2K actually takes over by 'publishing' - it could just be physical box distribution worldwide, or it could be QA testing, customer service, forums management, accounts management, etc. The fact that the official ChampO mods have gone pretty silent - even Katalyst, who doesn't seem able to eat a meal without posting about it  (no doom is less important than the hamburger?) - can be taken as an ominous sign.

The forums see ex-SOE, now Cryptic CEO John Needham as being likely the one driving this kind of deal. On one hand, having 2K as a publisher means Cryptic reduces its risk, can leverage the experience of a distributor with worldwide experience and possibly has an easy inlet to getting ChampO on Steam. On the other hand, they said they were going to self-publish ChampO, 2K doesn't have the best reputation for customer service (should they be given that role) and this is 2K's first MMO, so their experience in that area is negligible. MMOs aren't like single-player games - the money isn't in the release, it's in the maintenance. 

Personally, I'm disappointed. Cryptic was looking like the the independent guys who could; now they look a lot weaker... especially since they haven't explained the decision. For a company that prides itself on talking to fans, the silence is deafening. 

UPDATE: I really should update this to say that Cryptic have clarified the situation: 2K is providing physical distribution services rather providing servers, CS, et al.

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Puzzle Pirates

Posted by UnSub Thursday July 10 2008 at 4:38AM
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Back before pirates got cool thanks to a certain Mr Depp, Three Ring's Puzzle Pirates launched itself onto the MMO landscape. You control a pirate avatar who can perform tasks on a ship (and elsewhere) through participating in a certain types of mini-games and thus contribute to the overall benefit of the crew you are sailing with. Carpentry is a 'use certain fixed shapes to fill in holes', sailing is 'get the right coloured circles into the right coloured markers', bilging is 'line up the right coloured icons to score', and so on. There are a large number of mini-games within Puzzle Pirates, each different enough that I didn't see the same theme repeated.

The fun-nest part of Puzzle Pirates I could experience (since the Adventures component always seemed to hang to infinity) was going on a mission with a pirate crew - you'd sail around performing tasks on board in order to help the ship move efficiently, then run into a combat situation where one ship fights another ship. Sadly, I sucked very badly at the Tetris-esque sword fighting mini-game, but was on a few ships that won and got a share of sweet pirate loot.

The biggest barrier to me getting deeper into Puzzle Pirates - and the time seemed to fly by pretty quickly when I played, let me tell you - is that the part I enjoyed most was the part I also sucked at, i.e. the sword fighting and taking other ships. But that doesn't mean I'm going to abandon the game. Puzzle Pirates was enjoyable enough for me to put it on my back-up MMO list - whenever I need a break from my main MMO, or don't have a game to play, Puzzle Pirates seems like the perfect light entertainment to spend my time in. At some point I'd have to start paying for it, I know, but until that point, I'm happy to play on one of the Doubloon oceans for free... or for the occasional micro-payment.

If you want something light and fun, give Puzzle Pirates a shot.

DC Universe Online First Pictures Out ... on MySpace???

Posted by UnSub Wednesday July 2 2008 at 10:22PM
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The first screenshots of DC Universe Online are now out. The official site appears to be a MySpace page. Yes, MySpace. I don't have an account, so I can't look at it directly.

My first impressions of the screenshots, for a game that has been under supra-sekret development for a while now is 1) looks to be close to the animated style and 2) they don't look that good. We'll see when more images get released.

UPDATE - I might not be able to see the DCUO page because I'm not in the US. Good luck to the rest of you.