Champions Online: Embracing the Future of MMOGs
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.
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.
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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/38"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">EverQuest
gave us the MMOG template that Blizzard later polished and improved
upon with href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow" target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft.
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">Anarchy Online
contributed instancing, while href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/39"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/140"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">City of Heroes
which altered our belief that MMOGs were synonymous with fantasy or
sci-fi, while the href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/47"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">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
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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/co" target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">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.
style="margin: 2px; width: 210px; float: right;">
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, style="font-style: italic;">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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/116"
target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">The Chronicles of
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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/67139" target="_blank">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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/war" target="_blank"> style="font-style: italic;">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.
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.
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
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.
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. style="font-style: italic;">This
is how you do dungeons and instances folks.
– 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.
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.