Saturday, August 15, 2009

Champions Online : is it competition to City of Heroes?

If you've read this blog at all, it's a fair bet to say I like City of Heroes, and I don't like Champions Online. I've been over several of the background elements of Champions Online development, not just here, but also on other places, such as the wthcomics forum, and blogging system used over on Nodwick where I drug out my ancient LiveJournal login.

To short short short is this:
  • Microsoft and Marvel kill Marvel Universe Online, with internal reports citing quality issues with Cryptic's development.
  • Cryptic sells of City of Heroes and the development team to NCSoft. Jack Emmert is the only City of Heroes developer on record to not make the move to NCSoft Northern California.
  • Cryptic buys the cheapest Hero Game license available, which is Champions pen and paper role playing game.
  • Cryptic's former Marvel team converts MUO to Champions Online
  • NCSoft pumps money into NCSoft Northern California, more than tripling the development team size. New developers start training on how to work the existing systems and fixing many underlying problems.
I think that's a fair assessment of how things lined up. One of the important factors to remember, and one of which gaming site Kotaku loves to just conveniently ignore, is that the Cryptic Studios that is working on Champions Online is not even remotely related to the Cryptic Studios team that worked on City of Heroes. The only designer and code contributer of note is Jack Emmert. I, for one, am incapable of describing just how badly Mr. Emmert destroyed City of Heroes. I've been over before, lots of times, the brain dead design choices made by Mr. Emmert. I will concede that he did get the formula right... once. Yet, the more I listen to CoH players who have the 60month badge (or more), the more I'm struck by just how much of the City of Heroes gameplay that I like was driven by all of the developers around Mr. Emmert. The more I learn about the game's development history, the less respect I have for Mr. Emmert.

In the same way, I have very little respect for Bill Roper. Mr. Roper has a string of good titles from his days at Blizzard, ranging across the Warcraft, Star Craft, and Diablo brands. Yet, his most recent project was Hellgate: London. Now, I played Hellgate: London, and what struck me about the game wasn't the game itself... but Tabula Rasa. I actually mentioned the events... I think on Gamenikki... but as Tabula Rasa entered open-beta and retail, I reported the presence of a large number of astroturfers. Astroturfers were game accounts that pretty much sat in the opening zone of Tabula Rasa and proclaimed the game was destined to fail, everybody was off playing Hellgate: London, and so on. Strangely, the astroturfers were right... Tabula Rasa died out of the gate as Mr. Garriot's replacements / seconds in command drove the game straight off a cliff. I wrote about that too... more than once. By the same token though, Hellgate: London was also a flop.

This relates to City of Heroes because of some... well... in-game chatter. As Champions Online drives closer to it's own public beta and release, I've noticed accounts popping up across 4 different CoH servers which proclaim CoH to be dead. CoH is finished, nobody's left to play, everybody else has gone onto Champions Online. The text from some of these accounts is exactly identical to screenshots I took of the Tabula Rasa astroturfers... with only the game name having been changed. Now, I don't have proof that Bill Roper has actually hired the same marketing agency to do this sort of thing... but I find it more than interesting that the only relationship Champions Online has with Hellgate: London is Bill Roper, and that I'm seeing the same type of well, not false, but fake advertising in NCSoft games.

As I concluded on Nodwick's blogging system, I am biased. I don't like Mr. Emmert because of what I know he's directly done. I don't like Mr. Roper because of marketing activities that are just way too similar to be a coincidence. However, just as I find the marketing for Champions Online to be a bit too close to City of Heroes, such as the box art which features rip-offs of Statesman and Lord Recluse... some people find City of Heroes to be too-close to Champions Online.

I've seen some legitimate criticism leveled that CoH's feature list, as of Issue 16, strongly resembles the feature list for Champions Online. The very big problem with Champion Online's feature list though, is that it was full of elements that fell into two categories.
  • Stuff that Jack promised would come to City of Heroes
  • Stuff that Jack said would never come to City of Heroes
Champions Online feature list really didn't extend beyond that. City of Heroes Issue 16 brings a whole host of new features, such as power custimization, a completely new side-kicking / teaming system, and a non-linear character creation system... which is all stuff Champions Online championed at it's inception. Is this a case of a rip-off? Well... I'm not inclined to think so. I say this because I'm semi-aware of exactly how much work had to be done on the back end of City of Heroes code base to enable many of the features Mr. Emmert said CoH would never have. Knowing what work had to be done, knowing what assets had to be created for the work, and knowing the training that needed to be done... I don't think it's co-incidence that City of Heroes is launching such major base gameplay / graphics changes so close to the launch of Champions Online. I actually expect, much like last years introduction of level-pacting, for the new features to still be quite buggy, even after extensive closed and open testing.

In the short term, for the gamer who shops on feature lists alone, Champions Online doesn't actually have anything to really offer over and atop City of Heroes. Then there's the massive elephant in the corner of the room with Going Rogue printed on it's side. The development road-map for where City of Heroes is going within the next year is pretty clear.

One of the big rumors about Going Rogue is that it's going to be featuring another graphics update. Actually, I'm not so sure that's a rumor. I'm fairly certain somebody in Paragon Studios confirmed it, but I can't find any confirmation. The rumors about the update suggest that City of Heroes could be one of the first PC titles to be built against OpenGL 3.0 or even the just released OpenGL 3.2. Some have also suggested that Going Rogue will switch from Nvidia PhysX support to OpenCL for physics acceleration. The timing seems right since Apple's Snow Leopard will be packing OpenCL support, and both Intel and AMD are expected to have drivers for Windows, OSX, and Linux that will support OpenCL by the time Going Rogue launches. Switching to OpenCL would make it a lot easier for Transgaming to enable physics support across the non-windows platforms.

From a technical standpoint then... Champions Online poses little competition to City of Heroes. Even if the upcoming graphics update stays within the confines of OpenGL 2.0 or OpenGL ES, there's room for CoH to continue to improve it's user presentation. From a feature standpoint, City of Heroes is already set to deliver beyond Champions Online.

So, if everything looks so rosy for CoH... why is there any concern? I think another player summed it up best. 5 years in an MMO is a relative eternity, and CoH is old. Some also say that the improvements are too late. The old argument doesn't really hold that much weight for me. Zelda: Orcarina of Time is even older, and I don't see anybody knocking that game because it's old. The too late argument holds even less weight. Too late for what? Is there some kind of time-limit on MMO's that I'm not aware of? Yeah, City of Heroes has changed a lot from when I started, and it's fixing to go through another set of changes in the coming months. Personally, it's a better, much more rounded game. It's easier to access to play... but at the same time it's deeper than it was back in Issue 8.

My case in point is a player who asked me what I do once I hit 50 on a character. Didn't I just stop playing the 50? Hadn't I finished with my enhancements? No, and No. I've rebuilt several of my avatars over the years. My Fire / Fire tank is now fully IO slotted from a Hamidon Slotted build back in Issue 8. As the developers come up with new IO's, I've come up with more tweaks for my avatars, making many of my avatars useful in more in-game situations than they would have been even a single calendar year ago.

I think the bigger issue is that so many CoH players haven't gotten used to the changes in the game. Case in point, recently I ran into a player that was whining about the invulnerability power sets and that nothing had been done with the set for year. The rest of us on the team did a collective bwuh? and pointed to the Issue 12 Invuln rework. The last time this particular player had tried invuln... was back in Issue 6. I will say there are certain power-sets that haven't been addressed or rebalanced since then (FIRE AURA: GHOST FALCON: PLEASE RE-BALANCE FIRE AURA).

So much of the previous player base that left... generally did so when Mr. Emmert was in charge of the game... and I honestly can't fault many of them for leaving. I can say though, everybody who left CoH prior to Issue 10... is in for more of the same development behavior with Champions Online.

So, for me, I question just how much Champions Online counts as competition. I don't think it is. I think SOE's DC Universe poses a larger threat to City of Heroes player base.
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