Champions Online: Free for All Launch Day Q&A with Shannon Posniewski
Ten Ton Hammer: Champions Online is the only comic book MMORPG that has gone free-to-play. Is this an attempt to differentiate CO based on price, a convenient way to relaunch the game, or do you genuinely believe that this is the best possible model for where you want to take Champions Online?
Shannon Posniewski: I think it’s the best model. Back when we first designed Champions Online, which is years ago now, the market was a lot different. At least in North America, people weren’t into being “nickeled and dimed” through microtransactions. Since then, there’s been a sea change maybe driven by Zynga or other online games that have microtransactions. Given that, plus the fact that these games existed in Asia for a long while, it allowed people to say, ‘Hey, I’d just prefer to play for free, and pay for the cool things as they come up.’
That’s been the change in the perceptions of players, so I think it’s the right way for us to go. I think it’s a good way for MMOs to go, because a good part of the value of MMOs comes from the social interaction; the massively multiplayer side of the game. Free-to-play brings lots of people into the game and makes for richer gameplay.
Ten Ton Hammer: In the last year or so, other free-to-play ports around the MMOG market have met with mixed success. What have you learned from other free-to-play efforts, and what sets Champions Online: Free For All apart?
Shannon Posniewski: Yea, we’ve looked at the various offerings that are out there, but we had some of our own ideas as well. One major thing that we weren’t planning on doing – and other games confirmed this for us, which was great because otherwise we’re out on a limb – is gated content. We don’t make you pay $5 or $15 to get past level 15.
Ten Ton Hammer: Archetypes are a new and attractive choice for players who may not be comfortable with freeform leveling. Along with players’ increased comfort with microtransactions, do you view archetypes as another way to meet mainstream players where they’re at?
Shannon Posniewski: There’s a couple things in play here – there’s not just one reason why we went to archetypes. For one, it’s easier – when there’s a class – for players to get a hold on… “ohhh, this guy’s supposed to be a tank” or “ahhh, this guy’s supposed to be a damage dealer.” Players of other MMORPGs understand those classes and us providing those classes, so us providing archetypes makes it easier for new players coming to Champions Online.
At the same time, we know that freeform leveling can be daunting, and this works out well because we know all these archetypes are balanced pretty well and are going to be fun to play. Another reason is that, on the microtransaction side, we didn’t want to hold up any kind of content for silver members, but we needed to hold back something. That’s why we decided to monetize these, basically, so we’re going to be selling new archetypes as time goes on. A bunch of these reasons work together, so it felt like the right way to go.
Ten Ton Hammer: Could you talk about the differences between “core” and “special” archetypes?
Shannon Posniewski: Sure. A special archetype is one that you pay for. In League of Legends, you pay for champions. The difference between the basic and the special is that, as time goes on, the core archetypes will become really obvious about what they are. We even specifically say that they’re things like tanks, DPS, and so on. The special archetypes might not fit in those slots quite as well and there might be a little bit more nuance in playing them. On the other hand, we might put out a new framework and put out a special archetype that will allow Free for All players to play it.
"We are currently working on our next adventure pack. It’s called Resistance. Players have really enjoyed the Adventure Packs so far, so we’ve taken what we’ve learned so far to make our next one even more interesting. One lesson we have learned is that, in the past, we had players do some things that were perhaps not fun, but took some time. We’re basically removing that."
Shannon Posniewski: In MMOs, you can say that there’s only three or four classes : a tank, Melee DPS, Ranged DPS, and Support / Healer. We already have more than that in our core set. Why? Because we have one that’s a melee DPS, one that’s a tank / support role, and likewise you might see a special archetype be a blend of even more roles.
That’s really what you get in the freeform characters too, except that you have these extra power points that you want to use to pick up abilities that your friends don’t have, like “Teleport Team.” Archetypes won’t have these wildcards, they’ll be fairly thematic.
Ten Ton Hammer: Player skill and all other things being equal, will archetype characters be on-par with freeform characters, or will freeform characters always have an edge?
Shannon Posniewski: For someone that’s min-maxing, a freeform character almost definitely will do better than an archetype because you can really tweak and tune what powers you get. Your freeform character will most likely be more powerful than any arbitrary archetype, if you’re min-maxing. If you’re just playing the game, or maybe a role-player that’s playing something themed, you’re probably not going to end up being much better than an archetype, because you’re sticking to your theme.
Ten Ton Hammer: Could you tell us a little bit about how the downgrade (from Gold to Silver) or upgrade process works for existing characters?
Shannon Posniewski: If you’re currently a subscriber (which means you’re a Gold Member), and you decide to stop subscribing and still play, your account becomes silver. Your characters are left unchanged until you go into the game and opt to convert this gold character to a silver character. When you do that, we’ll remove everything from the character that you’re no longer entitled to. That might include costume parts, inventory slots, all sorts of stuff. Then we force you – because you’re no longer a gold character and a freeform character – to choose an archetype.
So you keep all your experience points and items – they’re sent to you in email, basically – and you keep all of your resources. Right after you login, you go to the trainer and train up to whatever level you are at. That’s when you downgrade.
Upgrading works in basically the same way. If you upgrade, you have the option of converting your character to a freeform character or an archetype, and you get whatever entitlements you don’t have from before you upgraded.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is the downgrade and upgrade process free?
Shannon Posniewski: We’ll let you convert a particular character one way for free. If you’re swapping back and forth in one character more than once, you’re doing something a little weird anyway and we’ll charge you for that.
Ten Ton Hammer: Will that charge occur through account services, or will it be a C-Store item?
Shannon Posniewski: It’ll be a C-Store thing. It’ll look like a respec token.
Ten Ton Hammer: Some players have voiced concerns over the types of items available in the C-Store and item prices. Could you tell us how you went through the process of selecting which items to make available, and how you arrived at their various price points?
Shannon Posniewski: We actually looked at what other games did. Obviously the archetypes system is a new idea for our game, but it’s not really a new idea. But things like health potions, xp increases, inventory slots - those items are pretty standard across the board for microtransaction-based games. We started with those things, and as for price – we did market analysis, and obviously there’s a lot of bunching that goes into it because not every game is the same so, for example, the relative merit of a bag slot isn’t the same between games. But we did our best to normalize them, then we set our price – to be honest – a little below that.
"So you keep all your experience points and items – they’re sent to you in email, basically – and you keep all of your resources. Right after you login, you go to the trainer and train up to whatever level you are at. That’s when you downgrade."
In addition, this is the first microtransaction game that Cryptic has done. We tried to spread out across the spectrum in terms of the kinds of things that we would sell. As players respond to that and vote with their wallets, we’ll start making more of one and less of another, or maybe they’ll come up with some cool new idea and we’ll start making those.
Ten Ton Hammer: Will Gold Members have to purchase C-Store items to have a reasonable chance to complete content. Is this what the monthly stipend of 400 Cryptic points is for?
Shannon Posniewski: There’s a couple reasons to give out the stipend. The balance of the game isn’t shifting radically, so there’s no need to go in and buy power boosts or health potions, whether you’re a subscriber or a non-subscriber – it’s a convenience thing. But even before we went free-to-play, we had stuff available in the store. With the advent of a few items in the store that can make it easier for you to play, we wanted to make sure that subscribers had the luxury of getting those if they wanted to. It’s a thank you, and on the marketing side, it’s a little bit extra back so you can go look through the store, maybe you’ll find something you’ll want to buy and buy it. Those points accrue, too.
Ten Ton Hammer: Silver Members can purchase Adventure Packs such as the Demonflame and the Serpent Lantern. Are more adventure packs planned? Will they be slated on a regular basis?
Shannon Posniewski: We are currently working on our next adventure pack. It’s called Resistance. Players have really enjoyed the Adventure Packs so far, so we’ve taken what we’ve learned so far to make our next one even more interesting. One lesson we have learned is that, in the past, we had players do some things that were perhaps not fun, but took some time. We’re basically removing that. Players more or less shouted loudly and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how long it is, just make it a blast.’ So that’s what we’re doing now.
Resistance will be a little bit shorter than the previous ones in terms of getting it done, but it’s going to be a lot more fun.
Ten Ton Hammer: Are there any details you can share about Resistance or perhaps a timetable?
Shannon Posniewski: We’re not far enough along that we can guarantee my schedule is good, so I’m not going to say anything yet.
Ten Ton Hammer: Last question. We’re on the eve of launch as this article goes to print. What’s the atmosphere like at the studio?
Shannon Posniewski: It’s subdued – kind of the calm before the storm – but upbeat. But our downtime starts at 9pm Pacific tonight, and we’re just all waiting for it. We’re still logging into our beta shard, it’s been very stable. But we’re all on pins and needles – things have gone so smoothly that we’re waiting for something terrible to show up. (laughter) Of course we don’t expect anything to. We’re really excited to turn it on and see what happens after that. When we opened up the original beta shard, we had an enormous number of people come in and play. That was incredibly gratifying, so we’re hoping to see the same thing tomorrow morning.
Ten Ton Hammer: Good luck with launch, Shannon, and thanks so much for taking time out to talk with us.
Shannon Posniewski: It’s been my pleasure!