Champions Online has been on the market for three months, and during our recent trip down to Cryptic HQ in Los Gatos, CA we spoke to Design Director Bill Roper about the game's launch, and where it stands today.
Nemesis Confrontation was the game's most recent big push, which the developers hoped would make each player's created enemy a bigger part of their life. It includes a five man end-game mission where the player is captured by a Nemesis and locked in a super prison. The five man dungeon includes an encounter with a nemesis for each person in the instance as you try to break out. Finally, as you uncover who is behind it (and no, I won't toss in the spoiler!) there is an epic battle on a changing battlefield that Roper was quite excited about.
Along with that update, which dropped in late November, they did a baseline patch that included a lot of balance fixes. Archery got a lot of attention, including a new power - Snapshot - that roper said "addresses a hole."
Along with that came new free costumes. Cape mantles now let people wear capes with more chest pieces. Before, the geometry would collide on the bulkier pieces. A mantle lets the player offset the cape enough to wear it in more circumstances. They also added more glow effects, more weapon aesthetic pieces, new leg attachments and, Roper's personal favorite, an acoustic and electric guitar piece for the back. There's even a brain in a jar helmet and all of these updates were added to the game for free, not exclusively to the Champions Store as some have feared may be the case with all such items.
That doesn't mean the store was ignored, of course. Based on fan feedback, Roper said they added packages of high-end items cosmetic items for sale.
In December's event, players will get to fight the Nemesis of a well known NPC.
"There is a character in Millennium City who players know," explained Roper. He has a very nasty, iconic nemesis and players might not expect it. The NPC is the Toymaker, but no word yet on the villain. Nonetheless, it's not hard to read the holiday event overtones into that one.
Rewinding, Roper took some time to look back at launch and gave us a candid look at where he felt they went right and wrong.
"When the game came out, it was trivial, easy... broken easy," he told us. It looked terrible. They had the holes fixed during the head-start, but to those who were in early it looked like a "nerf nuke," in his words. The optics were terrible, but they had no choice but to plug the holes. Fast. One player hit the level cap in 22 hours, he mentioned.
Part of this was caused by the company's own mistakes in Beta. By Roper's own admission, they simply did not gather enough data from their players on the experience curve of the game. They also just didn't let enough people in. Both of these are lessons that they hope to remedy for Star Trek Online.
Power balance was another hole at launch that Roper specifically highlighted.
"The first initial big shifts we had to do happened on day one," he mentioned and believes they've knocked down "the really egregious ones."
The shifts in balance and depth to the game also uncovered some nasty holes. At launch there were big gaps of content, specifically in the early 30s and 18 to 21 range.
All that said, Roper was quite pleased with the effort his team has gone through to address those holes quickly. In just three months they've added a lot to the game. He told us that "the amount of stuff constantly blows me away."
He also felt the game launched well from a technological point of view. There were only two major outages.
The first was simple human error from an unfortunate new employee. One line of code in an obscure place got checked in and while it was a very simple fix, it took them eight hours to track it down and solve it. They gave everyone who lived through that outage Dr. Newbton action figures, which Roper confessed do look a bit like the person responsible for the bug.
The second big issue was in the transaction database, which caused people to lose an hour. Beyond that, though, he didn't think the game did poorly. There were not many, in a broader sense, reports of crashes and other major problems people have come to associate with MMO launches.
Looking to the future, Roper is focused on "systemic things" that will help people enjoy content they have in new ways, as well as more standard new content. An early example of this is Crossover Missions.
"It lets anybody just go on a mission with anybody," he said simply. This system scales encounters and rewards to each individual person in a group. Thus, if a low level character wants to hang out with his higher level friend, he'll be able to take part in the encounter, give a meaningful contribution and get out a meaningful reward for his efforts.
They've also been pleased with the interaction between Champions and Star Trek Online. He gave two concrete examples. In the first, Champions got positional shields for launch because they were coded for Star Trek's ship combat. It was easy for them to grab them and make them a neat part of the Champions experience. The second is sliding doors. Obviously, it's an iconic part of the Star Trek experience to hear a door woosh open but in the build of STO I played, doors served as transition points (click, then loading screen) with no wooshing. However, someone found some old code for that and soon both games should have that ability.
While Champions Online didn't shatter sales numbers, Roper believes it has done more than enough to have a very solid future.
"The biggest challenge any MMO faces is that they're not games, they're life styles," he explained. That means they need to unseat people from a lifestyle and convince them, and their friends, that this new one is better. It takes work.
To him, the best indicator is retention. Their launch retention was within the projected parameters - no matter how much I asked, he wouldn't say what those were - and has consistently improved since launch. Blood Moon, for example, had better conversion of free time to subscribers than they originally anticipated.