Champions Online: Embracing the Future of MMOGs

There has been an interesting evolutionary process at work behind the MMOG industry’s rising success stretching all the way back to the late 1990s when  the first few titles that pioneered the concept sprang forth from the primordial MUD soup. As with most dominant genres in gaming, current MMOGs continue to fall back on the foundations created by these early success stories, but for a newer title to be truly successful on its own terms, something new must be added to the magical brew of gameplay mechanics and beyond. With the launch of Cryptic Studios’ newest offering, Reuben “Sardu” Waters takes a look at both the core gameplay elements in Champions Online that have built upon the foundation of the title’s predecessors as well as the dynamic approach to content design that could very well lead the industry as a whole into interesting new directions. The Nemesis System – Nemesis is perhaps Champions Online’s biggest leap forward on a scale that rivals WAR’s public quests. By combining player created content, random spawning and a self-contained reward structure this system shatters the mold of linear gameplay. Add in the fact that the entire thing is wrapped in a story-driven mission arc and you have the makings of a new way of playing MMOGs that’s never been experienced before.

Stronghold

There has been an interesting evolutionary process at work behind the MMOG industry’s rising success stretching all the way back to the late 1990s when  the first few titles that pioneered the concept sprang forth from the primordial MUD soup. As with most dominant genres in gaming, current MMOGs continue to fall back on the foundations created by these early success stories, but for a newer title to be truly successful on its own terms, something new must be added to the magical brew of gameplay mechanics and beyond. Relying too heavily on someone else’s recipe for success may on occasion prove to yield positive results, but looking at the broader picture this ultimately leads to stagnation on a much grander scale.

This is most apparent in the “WoW clone” syndrome; a label that fairly often gets slapped on the surface of any newly announced MMOG that doesn’t claim to innovate in some way or another, especially when the setting is essentially a new iteration on Tolkien’s elves and orcs. A number of deeper questions arise from these basic design decisions, but even many surface elements can be called into question. For example why do healers always have to wield a mace, and why can’t elemental spellcasters blast their targets wearing a full set of plate armor?

One possible answer here is that we culturally have an easier time accepting something new when it contains just enough familiar elements for us to feel grounded, so that taking those first few steps into the unknown feels somehow safer. When you throw a shaky economy into the mix this can hold all the more true as many gamers tend to be hesitant to try something as of yet unproven as a solid source of entertainment. The trick to weaving these familiar elements into the fabric of core MMOG design is to keep what works, and throw the rest to the wolves – you know, the ones that give you +1 to your skinning skill provided they’re not a grey-con for your profession.

If it isn’t Broken, Iterate Upon it

Looking at the greater tapestry woven by the industry over the past 11 years, there is indeed a direct progression from each major launch to the next. Newer titles will neatly pick up the threads of successful gameplay implementation though only a few will eventually add bold new elements that go on to become the basis for a new generation of developers to weave their own particular brand of magic on.

For all intents and purposes the original EverQuest gave us the MMOG template that Blizzard later polished and improved upon with World of Warcraft. Funcom’s Anarchy Online contributed instancing, while Dark Age of Camelot gave us factional warfare on a massive realm vs. realm scale. Cryptic Studios  threw caution to the wind with the release of City of Heroes which altered our belief that MMOGs were synonymous with fantasy or sci-fi, while the Guild Wars franchise proved that fantasy can still be successful without the tired clichés of elves and orcs and that subscriptions weren’t the only business model on the block. Each of these established titles has resonated with a broader spectrum of players over the years yet has also carved a unique identity along the path to success.

We’re currently standing on the verge of what I’d like to call MMO 3.0. A number of in-development titles claim evolutionary elements on their bullet point list of features, and considering the caliber of the studios involved it’s not all that difficult to see these claims as genuine. Leading the pack and boldly taking us into the unknown is none other than Cryptic Studios, a company that has made a name for itself by bucking trends and forging ahead in unexpected directions.

Before I dive directly into the key elements of Champions Online that I believe will help shape a brighter future for the industry as a whole, I think it’s equally important to take two steps back and see which of the strongest MMOG tapestry threads Cryptic has picked up and ran with.


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Picking up the Threads

The super hero genre was pioneered by Cryptic back in 2005 with the launch of City of Heroes and later expanded upon with that title’s evil twin, City of Villains. While it would be easy to assume that Champions is simply a bigger, better version of the studio’s previous efforts, you might be surprised to hear that perhaps the most significant link between the projects comes in the form of Perks. Character customization has obviously taken the spotlight in the media, but the transition of the CoH Badges into a more robust, reward-based achievement system in Champions ala Perks is a meaningful step forward not just for MMOGs, but for gaming as a whole. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a massive ‘gamer score’ on a service like XBox Live if the points do nothing more than earn you bragging rights? Amassing a gleaming pile of points may be cool, but getting to spend them is cooler by far.

Next up would be an unexpected twist on the concept of the dreaded death penalty. Earlier this year The Chronicles of Spellborn introduced an interesting take on the death mechanic in MMOGs by granting players a bonus for staying alive rather than a penalty for being defeated. This system, called Personal Experience Points, has been neatly packaged into the superhero setting of Champions in the form of Hero Stars. Not only does this serve to reinforce the more heroic aspects of the game, but it also eliminates one of the more cumbersome gameplay mechanics of yesteryear. Expect to see this system iterated upon many, many times in the years to come.

Last but not least we have the first meaningful implementation of the Public Quest system from Warhammer Online. When that game was released late last year, this was the one key element that not only turned the heads of media outlets and developers alike, but also scored the “most likely to be used in all new MMOGs” award across the board. If the Open Mission system in Champions Online is any indication, it looks as though those claims did indeed have legs. While the basic elements remain largely unchanged, Cryptic’s take on the concept has shown what’s possible when you use it more sparingly, or as a means of enhancing the PvE experience rather than being its main focal point.

While the inclusion of open missions in Champions is definitely something worth being excited about, Cryptic has taken that core design philosophy to a whole new level by introducing a more dynamic MMOG experience across the board.  

Dynamic Content as Core Design

Champions Online will no doubt go down in MMOG history books as much for the introduction of a more dynamic gaming experience as it does for raising the bar for character customization. I’ve included a number of examples here that, when taken as a whole, help illustrate how Champions is leading the MMOG pack boldly into the future.

The Nemesis System – Nemesis is perhaps Champions Online’s biggest leap forward on a scale that rivals WAR’s public quests. By combining player created content, random spawning and a self-contained reward structure this system shatters the mold of linear gameplay. Add in the fact that the entire thing is wrapped in a story-driven mission arc and you have the makings of a new way of playing MMOGs that’s never been experienced before.

UNITY Missions – This system has taken both the concept of ‘end-game’ content and the faction grind of daily quests and turned them on their ears to create something wholly unique to the Champions universe. By offering a rotating series of missions on a daily basis which culminate in a massive confrontation, UNITY missions will surely change the way we look at the level cap from this point forward.

Instance Scaling – One of my biggest pet peeves in MMOGs is that if you want to solo you’re typically forced to stick to overland zones, with only the occasional soloable dungeon or instance thrown into the mix. For the most part, Champions has done away with all of that thanks to a system that will scale the difficulty of a given instance based on how many players are currently in your team. This lets soloers experience a much broader spectrum of content while still providing full groups a meaningful challenge and potential rewards. This is how you do dungeons and instances folks.

Reinforcements – The same design philosophy behind instances applies to overland zones as well thanks to the reinforcement system. The same critters that you can handle while solo will attempt to run and get additional help if you approach them with a larger team, once again providing a scaling challenge that caters to both solo and social gamers all in one neat package. While ‘social’ mobs have been around for quite a while now, Cryptic’s taken that core design idea to a whole new level.

Patrol Missions – What if interesting quests or missions could come to you instead of the other way around? That’s exactly what Cryptic has done with patrol missions. While the missions themselves tend to be somewhat quick and easy distractions from your normal quest chains and story arcs, they add a whole new layer of immersion by giving the world a much greater sense of interactivity and depth.

All told, the above examples barely scratch the surface of the various types of dynamic content available in Champions. The game certainly offers plenty of familiar elements for most players to feel comfortable, but once you move beyond the crisis zones and into uncharted territory Champions truly pushes our current understanding of how MMOGs can be experience to new limits. Cryptic Studios has given us an unexpected glimpse of industry’s future, and this writer certainly likes what he sees.

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