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Julian's Ranting Corner

Most mmorpg devs out there would like us to believe that it is fine to pay monthly for half-baked babies because, you know, it's all so complicated. Well, if they were to listen and learn from past experiences, they would make products worth p(l)aying.

Author: jaubourg

Oops! I did it again!

Posted by jaubourg Thursday March 4 2010 at 5:28PM
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ooopsYep, got caught renewing my subscription to a "game" I grew up hating, just because I so wanted to love it (<3 k? olol²).

So must go for a lot of gamers these days, I'm guessing, seeing how current MMORPG offerings are sadly reminiscent of the Barrens or of Nezebgrad: as dull as it can get.

Anyway, here I am, teleporting around in Millenium City, inventing stories of might and adventures in my silly head, while the geniuses behind Champions Online only deem my super-brea...heroine worthy of the most repetitive, senseless, tasteless, least immersive and most menial tasks.

Beware IRL experience: it can only grow

I think there is a blunt fact MMO devs didn't get quite right yet. Though communities like the one we have on this very site are kind of marginal when it comes to subscription numbers, it doesn't mean their views on games are marginal on their own or that they should be taken lightly as "yet other hardcore players whining" (and this fringe is not necessarily made of the most hardcore gamers, but that's another story).

It's simple logic, really, to think that the oldest, most disrespectful and most vocal MMO players will only grow in number as years pass. And there is no secret that the ones in action today became so cynical and demanding through time and bad experiences, not because of some gene that would make them impermeable to discussion.

So my advice to those about to release a MMORPG in the decade to come is to be aware they do so at the risk of seriously crippling their market-share if and when they try to pull off the kind of transparent and, let's say it, plain insulting fraud Cryptic presented us in the form of Champions Online.

In the beginning, every MMO has problems but...

Being one of the poor fellow who had to endure the release of Age of Conan, I know that a MMO has hicups when it is first released. I still think this is all due to poor testing and merchantile innuendo. When I see how smooth Allods Online closed and open beta have been going so far, I can't help but to think some studios simply have no clue what they're doing.

However, what I wanna talk about is much more dubious.

When I fired up Champions Online for the first time it all seemed very reminiscent of CoX (the umbrella acronym for City of Heroes and City of Villains for the few who wouldn't know). Reminescent to a point you had the exact same limitations and bugs.

The character creator especially comes to mind: same pre-selection of shaders, same forbidden combinations, same parts, same limitations, same everything indeed. Then, later on in the game, the exact same UI system with the exact same usability and technical issues. Then the same group of enemies, always linked by 3 (or 2 if you have a tougher one in the mix). Then a copy-pasted crafting system (and, as a consequence, as unexciting and pointless as in CoX). Then...

Hang on a second

So Cryptic advertised a lot on their new 3D engine, a slow and clunky engine by the way, that confuses cell-shading and "drawing a black line here and there" (a black line that is drawn after anti-aliasing and, thus, makes the most seamless rendering look like crap). One of these engines we've been fed for years now. On the pretense that 3D rendering in a MMO is oh so much more demanding and challenging than in a single player game, we have to accept low-grade "5 years in the past" solutions.

Anyway, we have a new 3D engine, all-right, but I slowly came to the conclusion that everything else in Champions Online is most probably a verbatim copy of the CoX source tree.

Come to think about it: isn't that an ideal solution? You re-dress an old game with new assets, put in new mechanisms with new characteristics and powers (which descriptions in-game actually gain Cryptic its very name) and release it for great dollars. After all, Microsoft did pull this kind of acrobatics before when they released Vista, a poorly re-dressed Windows 2003 server... with the success we know.

Is it a crime?

Not at all. One of the game developper I respect the most, John Carmack from id software, actually works this way quite often. But the thing is he always pushes it to a point where the next game is an entirely new (and enhanced) one. Such is not the case with Champions Online.

If I'm right, then Cryptic tried and conned us. If I'm wrong, and in any case, Cryptic decided to ignore feedback from the CoX player base and to reproduce the exact same game down to its worst (a feat on its own). If you happen to read through the Champions Online forums and if you've been a regular on the official CoX site, you'll feel strangely at home: same requests, same questions, same frustrations, nearly down to the wording.

Well, is it such a big deal?

One would expect a company like Cryptic to be smart and to share code between games to enhance productivity. But, see, that's their problem. What we do also expect as monthly subscribers and initial box buyers is enhancements from games to games. The thing is, with MMOs, that you quickly end up not paying attention to the gfx any longer (though the ceiling of Karazhan's library did have me looking up with pleasure the first few times), you rather concentrate on your actions, your health and your energy-whatever bars. So I'm talking fun-factor and gameplay-related enhancements here, not just some (not so) fancy 3D effects.

Sadly, what Cryptic added on top of CoX to concoct Champions Online is rushed, pointless or just plain wrong.

The new game is even more instanced than CoX. You have a handful of disjointed regions each managing to feel (and actually being for some of them) smaller than in CoX. You get back to the same zones over and over and over again which gets old as soon as you hit level 10. Beside, add auto-generated missions to the mix and, while the idea was to have everybody in the same big virtual world, you get one of the least community friendly and least immersive game I ever played.

Talking about the auto-generated missions, they are now served by civilians rather than you having to listen to a radio or to read a newspaper... big deal.

The "marvellous-super-extra-great-unique" feature, the Nemesis, is a sad joke. Not only do you have to wait to be level 30 to get it (a point a lot of players will never reach, out of boredom), but it's also as limited and impersonal as it can get. It's as if, back in the Burning Crusade days, Blizzard had granted you the right to edit the skin of Kael'Thas and his minions but would have fed you the exact same dungeons and quests anyway. Nothing fraking more. The few non-graphical decisions you take in the design of your nemesis have, at best, marginal effects on in-game dialogues. If you defeat your first Nemesis, you have 17 more to go... that is 17 times more of the same content. And that was the uber revolutionary feature, remember?

The free-style power system is also a let-down. Not only are there synergies within the same categories that will make most powers useless when taken alone, but you'll need a degree in "crypticness" to make sense of what specific stats or powers do exactly and under which conditions (that, in a big part, is due to the obtrusive interface from CoX). Rather than designing a real skill-based system, Cryptic thought it would be cool to actually make classes but to allow you to choose any power from any of the classes (imagine that in your favorite class-based MMO and you'll immediately see why it is completely wrong and cannot work). Still too early to know if this is fixable but I admit I have no confidence in the future of the system at this point.

Travel powers are as unbalanced as they were in CoX (take flying or, better yet, teleportation or be doomed) and the ultra-advanced power "customization" is a hue slider, period. So much for animations, sounds or anything remotely interesting for that matter.

And then... wait... that's pretty much it. Though I'd like to mention what CoX has that Champions hasn't: the Architect, the only thing that didn't make me quit CoX earlier than I did, that is before I realized how limited it was, a usual flaw of anything Cryptic it seems.

So why still play it?

Because I love super-heroes. I want to play one. I want to have fun... if only by teleporting around in a dull shell of a game. I could go back to CoX in all honesty, but that would be to toy with the Architect and be limited to 3 story arcs (unless they raised the bar, I didn't check).

See, I've been a pen-and-paper RPG player for nearly two decades now and I have played with awful game masters at times. So I know how to evade into my own little world with the faintest of support. I have backstories for all my MMO characters and, though I think MMOs are in no way a proper channel for role playing, I still add purpose and reasons to what I do in game... just like I did for this little triangle in Space Invaders back in the days.

Thing also is that I'm waiting for DC Universe Online to which Cryptic opened a boulevard by not learning and by taking its users' ignorance for granted. I also play a little Allods Online but, as technically stellar as I find it so far, it's just really more of the same. Beside, I payed for my Champions Online box, right? Good thing I didn't went the lifetime way as I was tempted to.

In the end

From what I heard, Star Trek Online is also a poor game. I'll keep as far as I can from it, though I'm a Star Trek fan. After this "let's get ripped off of fifty dollars to buy the exact same game over again" experience, I decided to never buy any product from Cryptic anymore.

They say "never say never again" but the MMO phenomenon is getting to a point where studios won't be able to trick their audience without consequences. Like I said at the beginning of this rant, the more time goes, the more aware the whole MMO population will get. Something to ponder if and when you decide to copy/paste a MMO for quick cash. writes:
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