I know how easy it is for a game to die early in its life. Asheron’s Call 2 had a promising career as a small but profitable MMO, but that was dashed very early because the game’s chat system broke for nearly three months(!), and due to political concerns with our publisher, Turbine’s engineers were not allowed to fix it. (And, for the record, when we finally were allowed to fix it, Turbine rewrote the entire chat system in a few days, because chat systems are easy, and Microsoft Game’s engineers were dumb as dirt. But I’m digressing…)
Anyway, it is very easy for an early-launch fiasco to turn one of these small-to-medium games, like Champions is destined to be, into a tiny speck of a game. Right now Champions is in grave peril of this happening, and I really hope they fix it.
Champions is not a polished game. It’s got the heart of a really fun game, but it is so glitchy that it can be hard to see that. The only reason any sane team would launch the game in this state is because they have too much pressure not to (from their funders, publishers, or just their bank accounts). So they knew it wasn’t perfect. The game’s dense and confusing GUI doesn’t do it any favors; boss monsters pendulum between trivial and instant death; oh, and half of the game’s abilities are broken or buggy, often to the point of uselessness.
They got the client and server stable, the graphics pretty, and then they launched it, ignoring all those “little content bugs” that are actually huge issues. Been there, done that. It sucks, but you can salvage the game and get a nice medium sized, 300k subscriber base out of it. That’s what you should be striving for now, guys.
I want to love this game. It is an ambitious, Warcraft-meets-City of Heroes, directed game with lots of variety and options and possibilities. It’s a wonderful playground, but with plenty of goals, too. At the same time, it’s also stupidly punitive. As I said, nearly half the game’s powers don’t work, or are so underpowered that they effectively don’t work. But others are so powerful that they simply must be purchased… and the game is clearly balanced around you owning one or more of these potent powers. However, you’re left on your own to discover what works and what doesn’t. So far, so … good! This won’t appeal to the part of the WoW audience who wants more direction and simplicity, but it will appeal to a different audience, one that will explore their little hearts out. But then Champions ruins this by charging an arm and a leg to alter your character later.
My first character is actually ruined. “Telepoet” can teleport, and he can spout poetry, but he does not own a defensive power and so he cannot solo. Alas, I picked his options in the wrong order and I can never afford to undo these changes. Right now, to get him back to a usable point, I’d have to spend 6 times more money than I’ve ever owned. As a final cruel jab, the cost actually scales up with level, so I can’t even save up money to buy it: if I just farm low-level monsters for money, I earn XP which levels me up, and the goal actually gets further away. The character is truly stuck.
My next character is usable, but gimpy. He picked a power that worked great at level 5, but stopped being useful by level 10. When I tried to reset him at level 12, it cost the rough equivalent of Fort Knox’s vault. I can play him, for now, but there’s always a nagging feeling that he’s not as good as he could be. And he seems to be getting weaker. It gnaws at me. Do I really want to keep going with this guy, if he’s going to get ruined soon too? Maybe I should just go back to EQ2.
Cryptic can trivially stop the gushing loss of players: Make it cost next to nothing to reset your character. Call it an Early Player Advantage that wears off in three months (presumably when you have vaguely-working powers, if not balanced ones). Don’t worry, Cryptic, you can take this away again. You’ll get bitching, but not nearly as many people will quit as are quitting now. Talk amongst your team until you figure out the compromise that works best, but here’s the thing: my level 13 guy has 50 silver, and I need to completely reset him. Make it happen. Your post-free-month concurrency numbers are going to make you very sad. Take steps now to buttress them.
Despite this, I have really enjoyed myself in the game. Yes, the game systems are hilariously buggy, and every patch seems to fix two bugs and add two more. And did I mention that half the powers are buggy? But it’s still fun. Really fun. However, I need some insurance against the miserably bad game balance. Cryptic needs to throw players a lifeline here. And fast. If I was producing this game, I’d make this a hotfix patch going out tomorrow.
Other initial thoughts:
After about 20 hours of play time, here are some thoughts that stuck out:
- I sure hope the designers don’t expect me to read that quest text. It’s too small and the font is too hard to read for more than a sentence or two at a time. Clearly nobody spent hours reading this stuff in game. Headaches!
- On the other hand, the big green map indicator that shows exactly where I should go? Awesome.
- The flavor text from NPC’s is great. It’s short enough that I actually read it, too.
- Here’s an example of the subtle bugginess of the game: The “Speed Boots” travel ability is described as one that is slow to build up speed, but has a higher top speed. The (nigh-indecipherable) “advanced description” of the skill seems to verify that this is so. But Sandra and I raced this power against every other, and it is never faster. (This is what the folks on the forums say, too, but we figured they were wrong. Turns out nope, they were right.) I’m guessing that the data for the ability is set right. But it’s still broken. This particular ability is at least usable anyway. (That’s not the case for most of the buggy powers.)
- I was going to show you the stats on Speed Boots, but it turns out to be surprisingly hard to take screenshots of this game’s GUI, and I gave up trying.
- The game works pretty well with a wired XBox 360 joystick plugged into the PC. I could see this being a console success. You know… after another year of bug fixes.
- When I started, everybody said, “Watch the stats! They’re important!” But stats aren’t really that important, in general. Just TWO stats are important: the ones your particular character template is based on. Most abilities seem to do damage that scales with your level regardless of your stats.
- This game has tons of visceral appeal. Bowling badguys over with machine gun fire, hitting them on the head with lampposts, leaping away from danger… it’s a FUN play vibe. When your character isn’t gimp, I mean.
- I don’t think the Public Quests are working like the designers hoped. There’s never more than one other person helping me… the game fails to rally people around these quests.
- Making your own nemesis villain that then shows up in the game to fight you? That’s awesome.
- Why did they bother with an auction house when they don’t have time to make it usable? Sorting is by done some internal ID number (as opposed to, say, price); there’s no way to transfer money between characters (even in the bank); and it’s difficult to even find the auction house anyway. I wouldn’t have even known it existed, except some forum trolls were telling people to stop whining about the cost of repairing your character… “Go and make money on the AH, noob!”
- You can’t make significant money on the AH prior to level 20, or at least I haven’t been able to.
- This game is a lot of fun to duo with. Sandra and I quite enjoyed duoing (until our characters’ gimpiness did us in and we were unable to fix them.)
- At this point, I haven’t seen much reason to group up as more than a trio, though. I’d love to get a Sunday afternoon game going with friends, but I’d need fun things to do for at least five people at once…
- I can’t make macros. That means Telepoet can’t spout battle poetry!
- This game doesn’t need a punitive death penalty. It starts out negligible but it slowly becomes pretty significant. This is a mistake. The game is hard, complex, and twitchy. Success is its own reward here. I thought the designers really “got it” … until I died a few times at level 15 and realized I could no longer kill the quest boss because I’d gotten too weak. I had to go farm low-level minions until I got my power back. Fail.
Champions: Better than City of Heroes? Yes. Or at least, it will be eventually. The question is, will anybody be left to see it?