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.
- 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)
- 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
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?
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.
- 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
- 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?
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.
- 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
- 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)
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 ...