Exclusive Interview with Champions Online's Bill Roper
What could be more exciting than putting on spandex and defending humanity against an impending threat? Cryptic's Champions Online hopes to bring aspiring heroes into a world that desperately needs such assistance and provide an entertaining experience in the process. Helping lead Champions into the future, Design Director Bill Roper is no stranger to glory and challenges with almost ten years at Blizzard working on Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft. As one of the founders of Flagship Studios, he also helped create Hellgate London, which despite its shortcomings still makes him one of the most experienced designers in the industry. Taking a few minutes to speak with Ten Ton Hammer, he discussed beta (including the NCsoft forum recruiting), boss fights, and much more.
It's no secret Cryptic has been pushing for beta applications over the last few weeks including press releases and even advertising. When asked how big they want beta to get, he obviously can't provide exact numbers but comments it's "definitely something we're constantly reviewing." Wanting to provide good solid live tests on servers they do use internal bots but they are no substitute for players and knowing this he realizes open beta is a necessity. "Eventually we will get to open beta and everyone will have a chance to play," he states, "but for now our invites are more viral." Using the example of Gmail invites, Bill says instead of the traditional method of beta selection, they are allowing testers to invite friends. "You have friends who are jealous that you are in beta, well now you can invite them to play with you and be the hero."
Their beta however hasn't gone without controversy, and recent posting by Cryptic's Marketing/Community Team on the City of Heroes forums stirred up drama a few weeks ago. Roper thinks things might have gotten a little out of hand, "Every game tries to get the people that will play it. When I was at Blizzard, World of Warcraft did exactly that. 'Hey EverQuest 2 and Dark Age of Camelot players, you should check out our beta test!' It's less about stealing people and more about getting feedback from experienced players. It's the kind of thing that makes a sexy and controversial story." While it did raise a number of eyebrows, he believes this is how good beta testers are found and that's all there is to it.
Beta is a tricky business and has proved disastrous for games in recent years. Some have let in too many testers who formed their final purchasing decision on an incomplete product and crushed retail sales. How is Cryptic going to avoid the pitfalls of a beta program? "We always want to make sure we are good timing wise on how many people we are letting in and which areas are open," Roper states, "We are constantly having meetings about whether to accelerate or decelerate testing and checking to see what we have and what we don't." He repeatedly refers to the program as "organic" and constantly in a state of change and evaluation, but is adamant on the necessity of an open beta.
Next I was anxious to talk about the demonstrations we had seen at the recent New York Comic Con. The UI appeared to be extremely simple compared to other games, and many assertions have been made regarding the games overall complexity. Would it be enough to satisfy the seasoned veteran and the more casual? On a scale of 1-10 (with World of Warcraft being a 5), where did he put Champions? "Well WoW is a 5, unless you go into areas that are a 9," Roper begins, "with 25 man raids which are really f'ing hard. PvP is a different type of challenge. The thing I'm hoping we build is a sliding scale that is maybe between 5 and 8. If you are kind of new, you can do the tutorial and hopefully we get people who haven't played MMO games before. We are more action based in terms of combat than something like WoW. We want you to go through a game that is fun and challenging but not be on a death train."
The death train is something we never buy tickets for, but Champions Online is attempting to tailor an unusual experience. When questioned about the boss fights we can expect, he explains how they are building them similar to the old console games. First you'll use one tactic, then the boss will change so you'll have to use another. While some might shudder to think of Castlevania style boss fights, they also plan to have environmental shifts, and have dedicated the livelihood of an entire developer to assure it's as exciting as possible.
Something we haven't seen mentioned in regards to Champions Online is voice chat. Was it going to have it? Roper pointed out a few challenges, "Part of it is the difficulty of us not knowing the what and when of the console version. If Xbox players were going to play with PC players we'd have to put in a common voice system." He also relates some of his experience from working on Hellgate: London, "With the number of things on our plate to launch the game, one of the things we don't want is to keep adding stuff in. I'll be the first to admit we tried to do way too much at Flagship on Hellgate. We tried to do everything, and while they don't look like a big deal individually, at the end they all have to be tested and checked." It appears Teamspeak and Ventrilo servers will be in full swing at launch, but will Cryptic follow suit and add voice like so many others?
Following that line of thought, I got to my last question regarding grouping and specifically their "open mission" mechanic. As I mention to him it sounds identical to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckonings Public Quest system, Roper cheerfully agrees. "It absolutely is! We did what every good developer does, saw something and went 'We should use that in our game!" He continues by explaining, "That is always the key to look at other games and say 'How do we make this work? What worked in the past?' This is perfect for the super hero theme." Warhammer's Public Quests were a core part of their mechanics, but would Champions rely on them as much? It doesn't sound like it, "I don't think it's the core of where all our stuff is focused. We have them in the zones and they are a mission type for us. We'll do more moving forward, but we wanted some everywhere." As he describes the various type of missions available, it appears this is one tiny piece of the overall pie.
As you can see, Cryptic appears to be pushing the envelope a little. A more accessible UI, tailored boss fights, and a carefully monitored beta program should generate the attention it deserves and hopefully produce a quality superhero game. What I did walk away knowing for sure, is there is never any guarantee of success, but Bill Roper wants Champions to succeed and has the experience to make it happen.