Champions Online, the superhero MMO from developer Cryptic Studios launched earlier this month. Here, in the fourth instalment of our exclusive developer diary series, lead designer Randy Mosiondz discuses the game's evolution from closed beta to launch.
Champions Online went through a lot of changes since its inception. While Cryptic had done some initial work on the now-defunct Marvel Universe Online up until Fall 2007, we had to throw away all it, leaving Cryptic with a flexible but incomplete game engine and no content. Enter Champions, a much-loved RPG setting with a history dating back from 1981. We purchased the Champions IP from HERO Games, licensed it back to them, and began work on Champions Online. In less than two years we shipped Champions Online; which was an amazing accomplishment considering the timeline and resources and was a real testament to the quality of the development team.
The original design for Champions Online tried to incorporate a lot of different elements: fast-paced, reactive combat which played more like action/arcade games, a “classless” open powers system, and varied game-play environment complete with “weaponizeable”/destructible objects. It was very ambitious - there was a lot to do in a short time frame, but in the end we still wanted to get community involvement in the game development process - after all, MMORPGs belongs to the community as much as it does to the developers. Since we first opened Champions Online to our beta testers it’s undergone some dramatic revisions based on community feedback.
First there was the powers and combat system. Building an action-MMORPG hybrid system had its own challenges, but there were a lot of expectations from fans we had to work with. Any mention of making any aspect of Champions Online powers class-based was met with overwhelming disapproval from our beta players, so we had to keep that in mind. At the same time have a potpourri of different powers in a big list was visually overwhelming, so we ended up organizing powers into themed "frameworks", each with slightly different game mechanics. We ended up going with a tiered unlock system for powers within a framework, but we think that balanced well with custom builds which chose optimum powers from multiple frameworks. To add to the flexibility of different builds we added a roles system so players could alter their build types in specific ways (balanced, offense, defensive, support). This gave our players with the customization they looking for while providing enough structure so players wouldn't get lost in the myriad power choices.
Another aspect of the powers and combat system which changed over time was the concept of energy builders. Originally the idea was to have a system where you begin the fight with light attacks and work your way up to your "power move" like in traditional action/arcade fighters. In the end, while conceptually it fit the "arcade-y" elements we were looking for it didn't really suit an MMORPG. While players liked the "energy builder" mechanic in general, they didn't like the fact they always had to start at an energy deficit – as they wanted more tactical game-play options that didn't involve, "step one - aggro my enemy with light attacks". So in late beta we tried a change to increase the starting energy levels to be quite high, allowing players to start combats with heavy attacks. That made a world of difference to our beta players, so we accepted the change and adjusted combat accordingly.
Then there was the content. A lot of the alpha game content was hampered by tools limitations, so we couldn't incorporate much in the way of mission variation. Most of the missions were "click X, defeat Y, collect Z" because doing anything more complex that that simply didn't work well. This obviously wasn't acceptable, so we tried to ramp up tool development to allow more interesting content. By the time we hit Closed Beta this was better, but it was obvious players wanted more mission variation, particularly those that incorporated more genre-appropriate "heroic" elements that had an effect on environments. We started by adding in more "rescue" type scenarios where you free victims from villains or from underneath rubble in disaster scenarios. When our AI improved a bit more we started adding in "rescue and escort" situations where players could help escort victims through gauntlets of enemies.
We also started rigging more complex missions (especially in our villain Lairs) which involved puzzles, friendly AI and more complex AI behaviours, etc. Now not only could you rescue a group of citizens held hostage by Destroid robots, lead them to a safe landing zone but you could fight off waves of attacking villains while you signal a helicopter to rescue them! We also began making multi-stage open missions involving multiple heroes working towards a common goal - rescuing kidnapped hikers while putting evil spirits to rest, putting down a villain uprising and taking down their ringleaders. I think one of our most ambitious elements in Champions Online was the idea of the "Crisis Zones" where players come into a bad situation (repelling an alien invasion, helping survivors of a downed plane, attacking mutants, storming a villain base, rescuing refugees, etc.) and undertake a series of tasks to help overcome the crisis, transforming the area into a place of relative stability in a sea of comic-book chaos! We would've loved to put in a lot more content into the game for launch, but we thought the overall quality of the missions was high and look forward to adding new content post-launch.
By the time Champions Online launched we made some considerable revisions to the game based on beta feedback. We couldn't get in every change every player wanted (or every change we wanted for that matter), as that would have required MUCH more development time than our schedule and budget allowed. Personally I would have loved a much broader development window, but I think what we built is still an awful lot of fun - especially for two year's work!
Now that we've launched we've continued to read all of the feedback from our community and continue to make new powers, content, fixes, revisions, etc. to give Champions Online players a fun gaming experience. Just like in beta, we won't be able to get to everyone's suggestions right away, or respond to every request personally, but we do listen and act. Be nice to our community team, and we'll see what we can do about getting you that Outer Space zone you folks want so much!