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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

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: The Matrix Online

Posted by UnSub Wednesday April 30 2008 at 8:21AM
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For some reason this Twelve Trials thing has started with me trying out the greatest hits out of the MMO genre's recent flops. It wasn't intentional; it just happened.

Anyway, The Matrix Online (MxO). Go back a couple of years and you'd think a MMO based on a hugely popular property set in a virtual world and full of gun wielding kung fu superheroes would have been a sure thing, right? It seemed obvious and a lot of money was poured into MxO to make it something different - heck, it even had (has) an ongoing storyline and regular in-game events, something allegedly wanted by MMO players everywhere. But it flopped, Warner Bros. palmed it off to SOE where 1) third party MMOs go to die, and 2) it was rumoured that it meant SOE got the DC Online license in trade.

But why did MxO flop? In my 14 day trial of it (which you can get by downloading the Station Launcher and signing up) it became abundantly clear: combat was boring.

MxO has probably the best auto-attack sequences I've seen with the interlock system (where you and an opponent go hand-to-hand and exchange martial arts combos). It is a great system and looks good ... the first 50 times or so. After that point, you pretty much have seen everything that your character can do at the basic level and just wait for your powers to recharge to get the fight over and done with quicker, so you can go and fight the next guy. It might be better up the skill tree, but if the fun doesn't start early on, you don't bother persisting.

My character took the Operative path, which is the physical martial-arts-and-guns 'class' within MxO. Unfortunately this led to combat after combat after combat where you watch your guy dance around fighting opponents you know you're going to defeat but still have to wade through. This combat made me appreciate CoH/V's combat system all the more - at least you can switch between melee and range and can drop an even con enemy in 2 or 3 attacks in CoH/V. Within MxO, you rarely get that opportunity and it's a matter of waiting through another interlock sequence.

Yeah, perhaps if I'd gone the Hacker or Coder route I'd have had more fun. But arguably the Operative is what we see in the films - at no time do I remember someone summoning a daemon (read: pet) or healing someone within the Matrix in those movies. The Operative path should have been fun, but it ended up slow and tedious.

Which is a real pity, because MxO has some of the best 'other' systems I've seen in a MMO. The skill system was excellent - you buy skills and classes from particular merchants and, if you have the prerequisite skills and enough 'memory' space to slot them in the skill trees, you can use them. Upgrading skills just requires enough Information (in-game currency) which is pretty easy to earn. Switching skills and abilities is just a matter of a few clicks and drops - arguably even a max level Operative could (assuming they'd bought all the skills) fully re-skill themselves as Hacker or Coder in just a minute or two. While not a 'classless' MMO, it was a MMO with no penalty to respec your character as little or as much as you like. More MMOs should take note of this system.

Another good system was in place for exploration - the MxO world rewarded you with experience for finding new Hardlines (telephone booths where you can access your skills, teleport to other Hardlines and a host of other systems) and was full of other little features to find, like contacts who gave you missions or dance clubs where ... well, nothing much happened, but it was still fun to find them. The world was big and pretty seamless, with instancing for missions, but you definitely had the feeling of being in a mega-city (or at least that is what Richland, the newb area, felt like).

The story line of MxO has evolved the lore of the Matrix past the films, which I really liked. Had I ever been able to find an archivist, I would have played the critical mission for each story 'episode'. But then I probably would have been bored by the combat again, so perhaps it was just more fun watching the MxO cinematics on YouTube (even if at times they made no sense out of context and when they moved to storyboards they just looked awful compared to the in-game scenes from back when the MxO was having resources pumped into it).

There weren't a lot of other low-level characters around (on Vector) - most other characters I saw were lvl 50s PvPing each other, which looked pretty enough but ultimately left the game feeling empty.

I could go on, but I'll sum up by saying that MxO almost caught me. It was almost fun enough to sign up for, to see what the critical missions were. But then I thought of the next hundred battles of interlock and that was enough to put me off. If interlock battles were sped up by a factor of 4 times so that the low end minions fell like nine pins, that might have been enough to keep me engaged, but that isn't the case. If combat is all your action MMO has to offer the trial player, the last thing you want is for that combat to be dull.

The FREEM! Phalanx: CoH/V's 15 Dev Staff

Posted by UnSub Thursday April 10 2008 at 8:27AM
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As an update to my last entry, I posted a thread about how CoH/V only had 15 dev staff on the official forum and it got quite a good response. Matt Miller aka Positron, Lead Developer of CoH/V, actually posted the full list of those 15 people. I've pasted it below, complete with a bit more on names and roles.

"1. Positron (Matt Miller - Lead Dev)
2. BAB (Back Alley Brawler aka Christopher Bruce - Animator/Visual Effects Artist)
3. Castle (Floyd Grubb - Powers Systems)
4. Ghost Widow (??? - Programmer)
5. War Witch (Melissa Bianco - Zone / Environment Design
6. Constellation replaced by Hero 1 (story bible)
7. JLove
(Costume Design)
8. Ken Morse (Art Lead)
9. Nick replaced by Don Pham (environmental/3D artist)
10. Brett replaced by Graham
11. Blue Steel (design support)
12. Serdar replaced by Mynx (Producer)
13. Richard (AP/Build Engineer)
14. Aaron (Lead programmer)
15. Garth (who moved over to Core Tech before the acquistion)"

I don't know everyone's name, but it at least provides some insight into how many developers it took to keep CoH/V going as well as the roles they took. Of course, CoH/V was still being supported by NCsoft so they received the benefit of that, as well as people from other Cryptic projects coming on line as required, but I find it really interesting that the core team was so small. Not Matrix Online small, but still small.


Sometimes Divorce is Best for the Kids: Cryptic, NCsoft and City of Heroes / Villains

Posted by UnSub Tuesday April 8 2008 at 4:17AM
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A little while ago Jack Emmert, Chief Creative Officer and Favourite Fan Pinata of Cryptic Studios, made some comments about what he learned from his experiences on City of Heroes / Villains development (and how Champions Online will be better in every way, but that's outside of my focus for this entry). Recently, Melissa Bianco aka War Witch, long-time CoH dev and Fan Favourite Zone Builder, made some comments from the other side of the fence regarding what happened over about the last two years of CoH/v's life.

Put together and thrown in with some assumptions educated guesses, it paints an interesting picture of the relationship that Cryptic and NCsoft had over CoH/V. Please note I have no internal sources for the material below and am simply pulling together existing public material to paint the picture I see.

To start off with, it's important to know that what Cryptic and NCsoft did in their relationship. In short, Cryptic developed CoH and NCsoft delivered the back-end infrastructure that let people play CoH (e.g. payment systems, servers, customer service, marketing, etc). It is highly likely that under their developer / publisher contract, NCsoft collected all the money from CoH subs and paid Cryptic a development budget / return out of it. CoH launched in April 2004.

Up to late 2005, it seems that Cryptic and NCsoft had a pretty good relationship going - CoH had launched strongly and had between 150 000 and 160 000 active subs for most of the year, down slightly from the 180 000 subs record that occurred closer to launch, but still pretty good in the wake of WoW's unprecendented launch. City of Villains (CoV) was moving closer and closer to release while free additional content releases - not an industry standard at that time - kept adding material to the game that was generally received in a positive light. CoH had done better than expected and CoV was seen as being the next step up.

CoV was a slight step up, sure, but it didn't deliver the numbers Cryptic or NCsoft expected to see. According to Emmert, only 60 000 new players signed on CoV. I'm sure the box sales were a lot higher, as a lot of existing CoH players also bought the 'stand alone expansion', but because you could play both games for free under one sub fee, it was new player growth that Cryptic / NCsoft really wanted. Profit on a box sale is typically not what MMOs want - they rely on sub fees to keep the lights on.

There are a number of theories why CoV didn't sell as well - Enhancement Diversification received a vocal outcry, the system requirements on CoV weren't as friendly to low-end systems, fewer people may have wanted to play a villain than a hero, and so on - but regardless, it looks like the business relationship between NCsoft and Cryptic changed at that point. In early 2006, the CoH/V dev team was downsized by 75% (or to 15 people, according to War Witch). Matt "Positron" Miller took over from Emmert as lead dev on CoH/V while the former lead dev of CoV, David "Zeb / Lord Recluse" Cook ended up out of Cryptic and as lead dev on Stargate: Worlds. A paid expansion was announced, then cancelled.

On a personal note, I don't think it was Cryptic who initiated this change to the development budget. It seemed to me that they planned to develop CoH and CoV side-by-side, with a lead dev looking after each under Emmert's overwatch. It looks like NCsoft - seeing Auto Assualt tank, watching Tabula Rasa's development budget continuing to rise, among other things - thought it wasn't worth putting major reinvestment back into CoH/V after CoV didn't bump the player base by at least 100 000 new players (NB: this target player number is my assumption, but it seems round and big enough to be a fair target).

At this point it looks like Cryptic set about finding other development tasks for the developers newly 'freed' from CoH/V (they've got some unannounced projects and I've probably covered this ground enough before) while a skeleton crew worked on developing content for CoH/V. It looks like one person covered the major systems on their own (War Witch did all zone design from 2006 to early 2008 by herself) and older content was refreshed rather than entirely new content added (which actually worked in CoH/V's favour, with redesigned zones attracting players back to take a look rather than new zones spreading the player base thinner). A quote linked to War Witch about this period of time working on CoH/V was that it seemed that the game was on a deathwatch.

Jump to late 2007 and NCsoft buys CoH/V from Cryptic, sets up a new studio and promises major reinvestment back into the franchise. Why the change of heart? Firstly, I'm certain that Cryptic's Marvel Universe Online was part of the decision - it's not unfeasible to think that NCsoft wanted it's share of a superhero MMO under a greater amount of control than seated underneath another competitor. But that can't be the whole story. The other side has to be that NCsoft saw that CoH/V was still profitable and perhaps an untapped opportunity. If CoH/V has player retention of 90% and is ticking along pretty well with minor investment, surely the opportunity exists to increase investment that will grow the player base to in turn increase profits? At the very least, reinvestment into an existing product has a lower cost and lower risk compared to starting a new MMO from scratch.

As for Cryptic, selling off CoH/V saw them collect the cash they wanted that in turn has seen them step towards independence. I can't say for sure who would be driving such a move, but Cryptic CEO Michael Lewis seems a safe bet. After their experience on CoH/V, Cryptic doesn't want to be subservient to a publisher again in future as far as I can see. Champions Online will be self-published and (assuming that is a success) I'm sure that future releases from Cryptic will be as well.

The winner of this 'divorce' thus far has been CoH/V. NC NorthCal has been set up to house the CoH/V staff (and PS3 development... hmmm), new server hardware has been implemented, new staff are being hired and so on. New revenue streams have been sought to fund this development (including a $10 Valentine's Day pack and the newly announced optional in-game advertising) but it is a step forward for MMO that has apparently been living on life support for a while now. Regardless of how they do it, CoH/V has about 12 months to prepare for the launch of its closest competitor in ChampO, but being under a sole guardian in NCsoft gives CoH/V the best chance of meeting any challenge.

UPDATE: It would seem that Emmert has confirmed that NCsoft slashed the CoH/V development team:

"But our team size got cut by the publisher, and we simply didn't have the manpower to do it."