Champions Online, the superhero MMO due out this September, is being developed by Cryptic Studios, the team behind City of Heroes and City of Villains, and the upcoming Star Trek Online. Here, in the first installment of our exclusive developer diary series, Steve Long, from Hero Games, publisher of the paper-and-pencil Champions game, describes how Cryptic got involved in developing the MMO.
I first got involved professionally with Hero Games in the early Nineties, when I started writing for the company as a freelancer. I turned out half a dozen books for the company, including Dark Champions (which looked at gritty, "street-level" heroes like Batman and the Punisher) and Watchers Of The Dragon (which delved into the martial arts side of the Champions Universe). Based on the strength of that work, Hero chose me to write the Fifth Edition of the HERO System when it decided to release a new edition of gaming's greatest rules.
I finished the Fifth Edition in 1998, and did some revisions in early 1999 at the company's request. At last the project was done... but by that point Hero Games itself wasn't in good shape. The Nineties hadn't been great for roleplaying game companies in general, and by the end of the decade Hero wasn't in a position to publish a big new edition. But in 2000, it seemed as if there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. A company called Cybergames purchased Hero Games and began efforts to get the game line back on its feet. Unfortunately, more logistical and financial hurdles arose, and nothing came of it.
Now it's 2001. At the time I was working as an RPG designer for a company called Decipher, working on their licensed games for Star Trek and The Lord Of The Rings. I was at Decipher's booth at GenCon that year when I was approached by a man named Darren Watts. He told me he was heading up a company called DOJ, Inc. - a group of investors that was trying to buy the Hero Games assets from Cybergames. He asked if I'd be interested in working for them.
A chance to be in charge of my favorite roleplaying game of all time? Sign me up! Not only did I agree to work for the company, I invested in the project myself. This was my chance at my dream job, and I was determined to do whatever I could to make it work. Things were going well... and then the September 11 attacks swept the wind from the sails of the financial markets, and most of DOJ's investors had to back out.
Disappointed but undeterred, Darren and I kept plugging away. Through hard work and some lucky breaks we assembled a group of new investors, and in December 2001 we purchased the Hero Games assets from Cybergames. The HERO System and Champions were ours at last!
We published The HERO System 5th Edition in April 2002, and quickly followed it up with a new edition of Champions that was released at GenCon that year. It was one of the hits of the show, selling so well that we nearly ran out of stock the very first day of the con! Thanks to our printer we got an emergency shipment of new books and continued selling them to the eager masses. To this day Champions remains Hero's top seller, second only to the 5th Edition rulebook itself.
Over the course of the decade we published several dozen supplements for Champions that detailed the characters, events, and places of the Champions Universe, our core setting for the game. We showed fans the glittering, high-tech wonders of Millennium City, the magic-haunted streets of Vibora Bay, and the harsh, gritty world of Dark Champions in Hudson City. We created hundreds of villains, heroes, and other characters. If I do say so myself, I think we brought a level of creativity, consistency, and regular publication of new material unparalleled in the history of Champions.
Fast-forward to late 2007. The Hero partners came to my house for a week-long meeting in which we planned out the next several years of the company's development and growth, including publishing a new edition of the HERO System, the Sixth Edition, in the summer of 2009. Little did we know that our plans were soon to take a major turn for the better.
A couple months later Darren's sitting in his office doing the daily work of paying the bills, making arrangements with printers, and playing with Snap, the Hero office dog. The phone rings and he picks it up.
"Hey Darren, it's Jack Emmert from Cryptic Studios."
"Hey Jack!" Darren and I had both known Jack for years. I'd met him back in the late Nineties when he and I both worked on the Star Trek RPG line for Last Unicorn Games. We'd all kept in touch over the years as Jack went on to major success in the MMO world with City Of Heroes.
"Got a question for you. We're backing out of the MMO deal with Marvel for a whole bunch of reasons, but we still want to do a superhero MMO. Would you be interested in selling us Champions?" Just like that, a bolt out of the blue.
Now, this was an idea that had never occurred to either of us. Darren called me to relay the news and we talked about it for a long time. It was clear Cryptic wasn't interested in a licensing deal; they wanted to own Champions outright. While we were both reluctant to sell off our best-known, best-selling property (especially Dark Champions, which had made my name as an RPG designer and in effect led to my current career), the possibilities were intoxicating. The money from the sale would be great, but the real opportunity here was the chance to be linked with a major new MMO. That would expose the HERO System and our books to an audience that would otherwise never hear of them. It was a chance to "break out" and expand our profile that we'd never had before.
We soon brought our other partners into the conversation so we could make an informed decision as a team. After a lot of discussion we concluded that the offer was simply too good to pass up. Forming an alliance with Cryptic had too many "upsides" that we couldn't ignore. So we got to work with the Cryptic folks and hammered out a deal. One of the major provisions of the deal for us was that Cryptic licensed back to us, for free, the perpetual right to produce roleplaying game supplements for Champions, including the use of Cryptic's art. That was an important point for us, since we couldn't afford to lose the ongoing revenue from the Champions RPG. And access to free high-quality art would give us the opportunity to do something Hero Games had never been able to do in its nearly thirty-year history: publish full-colour books.
Everything was arranged, and we almost immediately began seeing the benefits. For example, since Cryptic considered Hero Games as part of the overall "presentation" and "marketing" for Champions Online, they arranged for our website to get a major facelift, making it look better than ever. And as Hero's Line Developer (chief writer, editor, and creative person), I began rethinking our publishing plans for the next couple years to take the MMO into account. For example, I saw how much attention Cryptic was paying to Monster Island, a part of the Champions Universe we'd mentioned in passing in one of our books but never provided much information about. Cryptic loved the idea so much they were turning Monster Island into an entire zone in the MMO! I decided that made it a great subject for a book, and with Cryptic's blessing added it to the mid-2008 schedule.
Since then our alliance with Cryptic has only proven more fruitful. We've produced several books for Champions that incorporate Cryptic's art and ideas, making them better than ever. I've consulted with the Cryptic staff every week (sometimes every day!) to answer questions about the Champions Universe and provide opinions and ideas about incorporating it into an MMO. After we publish the Sixth Edition rules this summer, we're following them up with a new edition of Champions that's going to be the best one ever, and also a stand-alone Champions Online Roleplaying Game for MMO players who want to explore the paper-and-pencil end of the gaming hobby. Looking beyond that, we plan to "re-launch" the Champions Universe with major new books that will be the perfect resource for anyone interested in the "lore" and background that's the foundation of Champions Online. This is an amazing new era for Champions, and I can't wait to see what happens... and to be a part of it!
-Steven S. Long
HERO System Line Developer and noted raconteur
Champions Online is due out for PC on September 1 2009. An Xbox 360 version is due between October and December 2009.