Bill Roper is a PC gaming legend. As vice president of Blizzard North, Roper played a key role in the success of Diablo and Diablo II, still considered by many to be the Blizzard's best games. Then he left, co-founded Flagship Studios and released the now defunct Hellgate: London, a game that was, essentially, Diablo in first person. Now, as design director and executive producer at Atari-owned Cryptic Studios, he's in charge of Champions Online, a superhero MMO due out on PC this spring. Here, in the first part of a mammoth interview with VideoGamer.com, Roper goes in depth on Champions, and appeals to European gamers to give the now running closed beta a try.
VideoGamer.com: Champions isn't as well known in Europe as it is in the US. What is it?
Bill Roper: Champions Online is a MMO based on the Champions paper and pencil role-playing game which released in 1981. The thing that's very cool about that for us and for our players is that we've got this universe and this world, these characters that have been developed for the last 25, 26 years and have gone through lots of iterations. The universe of Champions has grown, the characters have grown and have been played both on that actual pen and paper world side as well as the game mechanic side. So there's this very rich world that we get to explore, that our players get to explore.
VideoGamer.com: DC has Batman and Marvel has Spiderman. What does Champions have?
BR: As every superhero universe gets built there are heroes and villains across all strata of powers. In the Champions universe the leader of Champions, which is the pre-eminent super group in the world, is Defender. He represents that epitome of what superheroes are aspiring to be. And Doctor Destroyer would be the main villain on the other side. Actually he destroyed Detroit in the early 80s, and that's the site where a battle took place where most of the world's heroes had to come to try and defeat him. It's where Millennium City is built, which is one of the major cities in the game, built upon the wreckage of Detroit. The thing that's really nice about that is the fact that players know these very iconic heroes in other universes. You talked about Marvel and DC. They know the heroes there intimately because they've been reading the comics for so long. So it's a two-fold thing that's an advantage that Champions has. Because you don't know our characters as well you get to discover them through the course of the gameplay. You get to have that story unfold as you interact with them and you go through the storylines, and you learn about the characters and learn about what they can do.
Also, you have that ability to not feel overwhelmed, not have your hero feel to a degree insignificant next to those heroes. If I'm playing in a game where I am supposed to be working with Superman for example, I as a fan of comics know every last bit of lore probably about Superman, and I know what all of his powers are and I know that he's Earth's mightiest hero. So there's no exploration there for me. I don't get to find out anything. There aren't any twists that I can go through from a story standpoint or pieces of information I can find out that I'm not already going to know. As powerful as I'm going to be able to make my character in the game, I can't imagine that it will ever be as powerful as Superman because, it's Superman, right? If I'm supposed to go on a mission for him or fight next to him I'm always going to feel, how could I possibly help Superman? My little hero could never do that! It's Superman for God's sake! I think that's a big advantage we have. Players can recognise that, for example, Defender is this very pre-eminent hero in the world and has a place of importance and a lot of reputation and influence, but at the same time there isn't that instant, oh well gee I could never be Defender. You don't know. Maybe you can be Defender. His power levels are not so mentally unattainable through years and years of training, from having read comics and seen movies. While the Champions universe is nowhere near as well known as those others, that's a big advantage because it lets us have players experience that and not feel like they're insignificant, that they can have a level of prominence in that world.
VideoGamer.com: Typically when you start an MMO you're faced with character creation. What choices will be available to players with Champions Online?
BR: One of the hallmarks of the Champions pencil and paper game is the massive amount of customisation possible. I remember playing back when the game first came out, actually I was involved in a combat test that I didn't know was happening. Right before the game was published I went into my local hobby store and the guy behind the counter said, hey there are these guys in the back and they've got this game they're going to publish and they're doing some combat testing, you want to go check it out? I was in high school and I'm like, yeah that sounds awesome! So I run in the back and here's some of the creators of Champions, with type written stuff and rules. One of the things that blew me away was the power system was amazingly open ended. The whole goal was if I could think of a hero I should be able to make him. As best we possibly can we translated that with Champions Online. So the character creation is amazingly flexible. When you go in you are choosing what your character's going to look like and I think more than any other genre the look of your character is key. If you think about superheroes, they are so identified by look. Instantly they have an iconic presence. That's very important for us because we are with Champions trying to bring that full colour comic feel to life. So having impressive silhouettes, having whether you're making an armoured hero or whether you're wearing leather jackets or whether you're wearing tights and capes, whatever it is, we do our best to let you do that. So the character process, when you start with the costumes, is amazingly complex in terms of the number of pieces you have. When you're putting shoulder pads on it can go on the left or the right or both. There's literally hundreds and hundreds of pieces to choose from. You can change the height and the size of your character and the facial expressions and then go through and really custom fit and create this whole costume out of the pieces we provide. You have control over the colour of every piece that you're putting on. Logos and cape types, literally everything. We're trying to give players the ability to visualise in their head a type of hero and let them create that from a visual standpoint with the costume creator.
Even when you're choosing the powers that you want, you can have power themes that you follow. So if I want to get in and very easily make a fire guy, say I want cool fire powers, or I want darkness powers, those are just presented as thematic frameworks that I can put on my character. They're simple to get into, you can do that very quickly and just jump in the game. But if you're a nuts and bolts kind of person, if you want to get in and you're like, I want him to have darkness powers and lightning and I'm envisioning dark clouds, or whatever you're coming up with, you can open up basically every power in the game as a giant pallet from which to paint, and choose the different bits and pieces and do that as you progress through. You can always dip in and out of that. I could follow the fire theme for 20, 30 levels and then say, you know, I want to go outside of that theme now and I want to grab something else. I want to get Ego Heal or whatever it is, and go and grab that. I always have the ability to open up that whole powers menu, so the amount of customisation that gives you is incredible.
Layered then onto that is the ability to choose for a vast majority of the powers, emanation points, where that power is coming from. So if a force beam normally comes from your hands, I could instead choose to have it come from my eyes or a chest plate. So if I'm thinking my idea behind my guy is that he's a power armoured guy with this big chest cannon, I'm going to find a costume that represents that and I'm going to put that force beam that I have on that chest cannon piece. I can also choose the hue of the power. I'll stick with that force power example. With that force power, which is normally blue-ish in tint or in hue, I can go in on the power, every power individually, and very easily open up a colour bar slider. I can then make that orange or green or aqua or purple or whatever I want, and have that power themed the way I want it to be. If I'm imagining in my head it's a giant laser that's coming out I can shift it to red. And now the beam instead of blue is going to be red coming out. So I can highly tune and customise my character.
Everything that happens with your character is designed to be able to stay true to the theme of your character. When you do character creation you choose an origin for your character. It's a bundle of statistic boosts that helps shape your character from the beginning. And then you learn talents which are almost like packs of stats, to boost certain areas of your character that's important to your combat or your skills. When you are levelling you also gain Advantage Points which allow you to go in and tune your powers that you've already chosen by giving them different advantages. So even though I have a Force Bolt and you have a Force Bolt, mine can end up being different than yours, not only in look and placement but also in exactly what it does. The whole game is layered with these ways to fine-tune your character. What perks I get from the game define titles I can get for my character or costume pieces I unlock or when I'm in PvP or not, they all have some level of ramification on the customisation of your character. So we really let you not only through the choices you make in the character creator, but even what you elect to do in the game, define your character.
VideoGamer.com: What level cap will Champions Online have?
BR: Champions will launch with a level cap of 40. We wanted to try to have a much more defined polish over the game. I think most people think, oh well 50 is the level cap you always start with. Not every game does. Some even come out with much lower level caps. It's really more the play experience within that. It's certainly something that will grow and will start growing immediately, but it's nice to have that headroom. Even within that number of levels the time to play is very similar to what you would see in an MMO that had about 50. It is kind of an arbitrary number. For us it's much more about the amount of content that's put in there, the polish of that content and then the experience the players go through. I think we just did a mission count yesterday and we're just under 1000. Should keep people busy!
VideoGamer.com: One thing Age of Conan and Tabula Rasa suffered from was a lack of content for high level players. What kind of high-level content can players expect from Champions Online at launch? I imagine it won't be long after launch that players approach the level cap.
BR: It's a huge challenge because you try to create this experience for your players that is full and rich and well rounded out, and gets them to that level cap, and then what you're doing past that is always a big question. I think to a degree it is a huge challenge because normally you're going to be compared against games that already have a lot of maturity...
VideoGamer.com: Like World of Warcraft.
BR: Yeah, like World of Warcraft, for example. If people think back clearly to what was in the game when it launched, it's nowhere near, not only what it is now but what people think it was. People say, WoW always had this awesome PvP system. WoW had duelling when it came out. There was no PvP system. There were no rewards, there was no Battlegrounds. There was nothing. You could basically find a guy in the street and challenge him to a duel. I think that was good because it laid the framework. It showed players, yes we contemplated people fighting people. It will happen. But I think the challenge with that is players may look to this endgame content and have to realise that that high level endgame content is very different than the rest of the content in the game for the most part, because it usually has to have alternative types of rewards and alternative types of experiences. A lot of that main drive that you have that gets you to that level, which is levelling and items that get better and better over time, has to change.
Now all that being said, in Champions we have come up with a few things that right away you want players to be doing. We have some daily instances. So WoW players will be familiar with that concept. We have teamed instances that you can only get into once a day, that have higher level rewards that are associated with them, higher levels of rarity. So there are reasons you want to go back. We've spent a lot of time on those to make them fun and challenging and exciting for players. And those are both team and solo oriented. We do have PvP in the game. It was actually easier for us to do what you would think of traditional PvP stuff than duelling because of the way the game works. We'll have probably two to three different types of PvP available. Those will have ranking systems, there are rewards associated with that, some of them have their own special costume unlocks. And there's actually a whole fictional reason why our heroes fight each other. We have a very vocal community and many of them are very deeply into the superhero genre. So when they heard that it has PvP they were up in arms. How can you have that? Heroes don't fight each other! There was already fiction in the world as to reasons why heroes would fight each other.
Players will be able to find promoters throughout parts of the world, especially in Millennium City, that will enable them to participate in the Hero Games, which is like WWF on super serum. The heroes aren't really there fighting each other because they're trying to hurt each other. It's more a contest of skills. We've got other PvP that is designed to be what we call Apocalypse scenarios, which are heroes training for potential end of the world scenarios. The one we're working on right now to get in when we launch is, what if heroes were made criminals and thrown in jail, in a super prison? In that training mission one side is trying to break out of the prison, the other is trying to keep them in. The concept of that is that the heroes are training to be like, what if there is a huge super villain outbreak? This is what you would be training to do. On the other side of that Apocalypse scenario, heroes are training for, what if heroes became outlawed, but you had to get out to save the word? There's fictions that make sense within the superhero genre even built into the PvP.
There's something like 500 plus perks in the game. Perks for us are like Achievements on Xbox. Some of them are simple to get. Some of them are exploration. Some of them take a long time to go through, have lots of requirements. That's something I think players will do well past the level cap if they want to be that kind of collector. There's a crafting system in the game. Again I think that's something players will do well past the level cap. So we really want to put in elements that even if they aren't the end all, be all of that higher level content, are there for players to be doing right away, and then lay the groundwork for that. The Nemesis system is another one. Nemesis right now is designed to have you continue to play it even when you're level 40. The idea behind Nemesis is you're creating your arch enemy.
VideoGamer.com: What's the latest on the beta?
BR: There are applications now in the closed beta. Players can go to Champions-Online.com and sign up for the beta. We are especially eager to get more players into the beta from Europe. We have forums localised in German and French. We have specific EU times set up now for players to come in so we're not making you get up really early or stay up really late to play. Those are already happening. We're already doing EU closed beta. We are eagerly searching to have a lot more people participate in that.
VideoGamer.com: Will you do an open beta?
BR: We will eventually do an open beta. I don't have the exact time on that yet. We've been growing it both strategically and now much more organically. We started with people that we knew, friends and family, this is fairly standard. And then broaden those invitations out, everything from holding contests to previewing it on our website. We've got a good base of closed beta people in now and a lot of names that are in the queue for us to get invitations out to, which we've been doing. We've also now started approaching it very much like Gmail. So we are now starting to send our current beta players beta key invites that they can give out to their friends. So if they have got in and they have their buddies who are jealous about that, they can be a hero and they can invite their friends in to play with them. A big benefit that players in the UK and across Europe have is the fact that we're hungry for beta testers there, so the queue is much shorter and easier to get through. We've just started the beta there. If people want to check the game out and get involved in the beta they've got an excellent chance to get right in.
VideoGamer.com: I've read June and spring for the launch of the game. When will it be out?
BR: I don't have an exact date. I have spring as well. That's what we're building to. We've got our milestones we're hitting and getting the last systems put in, doing a lot of polish and final passes in tweaking and tuning. They haven't given me my exact date. I just know what my milestones are and we're working to hit them!
Champions Online is due out for PC in the spring.