Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 28, 2009
In lieu of a Champions Online review

As I feared, my reentry into the World of Warcraft resulted in me not spending enough time in the Champions Online beta, so I can't really write a review. I spent 3 or 4 hours only with the game, of which 2 hours and 22 minutes on my "main", who got up to level 7, adventuring in the crisis zone of Canada. Turns out that wasn't even the main world yet, just a second part of the tutorial, so I really didn't see all that much. I stand by my initial impression, that it feels very much like a console MMORPG (which it is supposed to become), that as long as you see it as that it is not a bad game, but that with the more arcade-like combat and MMORPG-lite features of a console MMORPG this isn't the game for me.

Fortunately some other people had more staying power. Bright Hub has a preview of Champions Online, which covers all the basics, and is very balanced. If you prefer the more personal blog style of game reviews, you can read one at the Church of Pangoria.

What is most confusing about Champions Online is it's business model. Not just the stories that they "ran out of" lifetime and 6-month subscriptions, and then "generously" created more of them. Not just the fact that Champions Online will have both a monthly fee, and a microtransaction shop. But the much bigger question of whether Champions Online will still have a monthly fee in the console version. Console games are generally more expensive than PC games, so it would be completely possible that the console version of Champions Online costs 20 bucks more than the PC version, but has no monthly fee, only the microtransactions. Which, in my opinion, would be a lot fairer, as it is really hard to argue that CO is "as much" game as a classic PC MMORPG for the same price. A "Guild Wars plus microtransactions" business model would suit the game a lot better than a monthly fee plus microtransactions model. I actually have problems believing that Champions Online can hold a large number of subscribers at $15 a month, while without a fee on a console the game would probably do quite well. But I can imagine the uproar of the PC players if the console version has no monthly fee, and the early buyers basically feel they got scammed. So either way it is going to be difficult.
Tobold, every console MMO that I know of has had a monthly fee, except for the champions of norrath games (like diablo.) FFXI costs 12.95 base, with $1 per additional character on the same account ("mules.") EQOA cost i think 10 bucks a month, the original Phantasy Star Online was $15? I forget.

Phantasy star Universe seemed to flirt with the idea of sub fees and microtransactions, using something called Guardian Cash to upgrade weapons. I don't play, and not sure if it ever made it over from Japan. PSOWorld forums don't seem to mention it much.

Considering though quite a few FFXI players maxed out their mules, paying 25 bucks a month or even more dualboxing pc and ps2, it may not be as big of a hurdle as you think.
Once again, thanks for the link to my preview. I intend to write a more detailed review a few weeks into the game. I try to wait a bit before writing a "review." In lieu of that, I try to at least give my readers a detailed preview.

The business model decisions of CO are vexing in the extreme. You noted a number of the irregularities.

I had not thought about the console factor, but that will indeed be interesting to see. I imagine they'll make it not that interesting by just charging $50 for the console version (when the game is older) and the same subscription + microtransactions.

That assumes they actually get it on the console. I have played it on the PC with my XBOX 360 controller, and it works pretty well (I explain that more in the preview). But you still need SOME keyboard interaction. So who knows how close they really are.

There have been a host of vexing decisions by the CO development team. There are the business model things you mentioned, but some gameplay ones as well. The big issue right now that really has the community in an uproar is full respecs.

The game has enormous customization, which is great. It also means you can EASILY gimp your character up really hard.

Right now, you can only respec your last 10 "points" of training. Some powers cost 1 point, but some power boosts cost 2 or 3 points. This generally means your last 5 levels or so of training.

I wrote a specific article about the respec issue where I, admittedly, start off with a strong stance to get discussion going: Champions Online Will Fail Without a Full Respec Option .

A game with heavy customization really can't last without a full respec feature. If they don't add this in, they'll either go out of business or be super niche (sub 50k).

I detect the negative influence of Bill Roper (Hellgate: London, Flagship CEO) on all this. He's the Exec Producer and "Design Director" of CO now.

He stubbornly resisted respecs, LAN play, and other really vital features in Hellgate: London. We all know how that turned out.
None of the game you mentioned were ever as popular on console in NA or Europe as comparing to Asian market.

Unlike Champions Online, FFXI had a massive support in Japan before it ever came out here on PC. Also FFXI gameplay was based completely on grouping while CO allows you to solo almost everything like a single player game.

Would you pay $15 monthly to play a single player game on a console?

I am not blindly bashing the game, I actually like a lot about it, I just agree with Tobold that its viablity as an MMO is in question.

We do that already, its called "downloadable content from Xbox Live." Not much difference between a sub fee and charging for content updates, except that most single player games are designed to have a shorter lifespan.

I think Tobold sees console mmorpg as a negative, but to a lot of us it is a positive, and we wouldn't have the stigma he has against paying for what he sees as less of an experience. I'd pay for it I think. I endured enough FFXI group content not to mind a more solo-friendly game.
You really have to wonder, why they don't just come out and state precisely and officially how the game will be priced. And I mean this without any sarcasm or "this is suspicious" connotation, I'm just honestly doubting their business decision. Everyone is guessing, whispering and speculating, and they're earning lots of bad (or questionable) press.

Sure, there is no such thing as a bad publicity, and this whole "mystery" keeps CO on the front pages if for nothing else than the newest subscription model rumour. But in a market where the word of mouth is what often decides between "great success" and "I better go back to Warcraft", it's a risky move.
What will these games do once the AAA MMO titles come out without subscription fees? TOR, APB, DCUO, Agency, and more are all taking the smart route and dropping subscription in favour of RMT.

Blizzard will be able to get away with it for a while with WoW, because of popularity, but you know they have plans in place to change WoW from subscription to RMT. They are setting up Battle.Net for just that, but for Starcraft II and Diablo III.

Releasing an MMO game today with a subscription model makes no sense. It was fine when there were a handful of MMO's on the market, but that market has become very saturated, often now with more than one MMO within a certain genre, let alone all the other MMO's in other genres.

The subscription model just doesn't support gamers playing multiple MMO's very well. And as EA has shown with their free Battlefield Heroes game, they had 1.5 million players pay and average of $20 each for RMT items. That's $30 million from the FPS gamers, who are notoriously cheap, in a free to download game. Sony is doing so well with RMT that they won't even release numbers, just that their future games won't have subscription but will be RMT. The money is there.

So Cryptic has made a huge blunder with the subscription model, and an even bigger one with the life-time subscription that they need to use artificial scarcity to sell more of. Doing EXACTLY what happened with Hellgate: London, to a tee, Bill Roper's previous mess. We remember how that worked out.
Champions Online will bomb. The game is very sub par considering it is being marketed as an MMO. It isn't going to make more then a year. If Champions Online decided to go "no monthly fee - micro transaction" model, it might work. It would most certainly work on a console as there really aren't a lot of MMO's on consoles. Mark my words this game will probably go under unless they change their model.
I have a very different impression of CO. It brings a few improvements to the MMO genre, for example, the open character customization, at least mostly classless, (you could build strictly a tank or healer I suppose but you are not restricted in any way later if you wanted to pick up additional powers from different frameworks), different character builds that can be setup beforehand and then later changed on the fly, making it much easier to have 3-4 different specs setup for different play styles, skills that charge or maintain charge, the latter is not new but it is implemented very well and certainly adds another lvl of play beyond simple button mashing, namely energy management. Also, character customization extends beyond looks and frameworks with stat management. there is a myriad different ways you can improve your character through stats via things you pick up through questing or things you craft and from what I can tell so far, stats do make a difference in how your char plays.

I'm not sure why there is a question about whether this is a true MMO or not - I've done plenty of grouping in the game, the content is much more difficult after you get out of the tutorial area, done a few instances with friends etc. We plan on creating a Super-Group, sounds like an MMO to me.

Also, it's true that in the first part of the game you only have two skills to play around with, this is not true for the whole of the game. By time you hit lvl 16 you have 3-4 more skill slots to fill and you can choose from a wide variety of frameworks which way you want to go with the build. By time you get to later lvls you have over 14 skills at your disposal, that's basically close to the amount of skills I've ever used at any one time in other MMO's, and you do the same thing here, you want to try other stuff out, you go respec and try them.

Eek reading this over sounds pretty fan-girl like, but I just wanted to make clear that this game does indeed have some depth to it beyond simple button mashing.
Bill Roper's involvement, along with the lifetime subscription strategy, really concerns me. I played in open beta and got a character up to level 17 (then ranked up to 40) and had a very mixed reaction to the game.

I had some fun flying around as a superhero, but didn't really find that aspect much different than City of Heroes. The color/location customization for many of the powers is pretty cool but that's the only "new" thing I really felt over playing CoH/CoV.

I hate to use the phrase, but I think the game lacks polish. Many of the power descriptions are barely english and much of the game just isn't explained anywhere (check out all of the questions about "how do I use this "slotted passive" power??").

I played in the Hellgate: London beta and found a LOT of the same feeling there - weird mixed business model (subscription, free play, lifetime, etc. etc.), complete lack of any class balance, poor support for respecs, etc.

I remember arguing with people that a lifetime subscription was a REALLY bad idea on almost every level and I would argue the same here, yet the same thing is happening.

I expect the game will hold me for a month or two while I try out different powers, but it needs serious work.
Thanks for the link Tobold. Accounts for 1/3 of my traffic yesterday :D
Re Battlefield Heroes: EA felt compelled to twitter: "We were misquoted in the @IGNcom report yesterday. The average Heroes BUYER spends $20, not the average PLAYER. Not all players spend money". That should be well known to people who want to point out the superiority of f2p games.
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