A View from Atlas Park: CoH’s Launch Report Card

It’s almost a month since City of Heroes left the safety of closed beta and opened it’s arms to the public (and the money they carry in their wallets). With the first 30 days being hugely important for a mmog (given that is the first experience many players will have with the game and will dictate if they stay), launch is a critical time. Typically mmog launches have been very iffy, with some games taking years to wipe off the reputational smears caused by a poor launch. So, how does CoH stack up?

I’ll break this report down into sections that hopefully cover the major areas of launch. Given that I am still not in Paragon City (my copy of CoH appears to be lost in the depths of the Amazon.com) this review is completely unbiased by my personal experiences of launch. Everything below comes from what I’ve read on the forums or had told to me by other players. I’ve tried to reach a consensus with this report – if I’ve heard from 10 players that things are good and 2 that things are bad, the positive side will get more attention, and visa versa.

Launch Day

Launch day is critical because it is often carefully watched and widely discussed. First impressions count, and if a game is having problems on launch day, players have been known to hold off purchasing until things get “better” or even not at all. A poor launch day can hurt a game’s reputation for years.

Arguably CoH had two launch days – the 25th (for pre-orders) and 28th (for everyone else) of April. This potentially reduced the problem of servers dying under the weight of thousands of players spamming the login, character creator and tutorial all at once. Regardless, I’m sure that the CoH servers took a battering on these days.

And for the most part, they stood up to it. Reports of an hour or two delay existed on launch day for some players, but most seemed to have little problems in signing up and logging in. No servers reportedly died and the crush of players trying to get into Paragon City appears to have been able to do so.

Overall, launch day seems to be near perfect for the majority of players.

Payment Systems

Perhaps this part of the report should wait until a few months down the track, after people have received a few bills from Cryptic Studios, but I feel that some comment should be made about it at this point. How well the payment systems work is very important since it a) keeps the mmog company able to pay the bills and b) poor / incorrect billing can cause some players to leave.

At the moment I haven’t come across any problems with billing systems. Given that another mmog recently had a large number of problems with billing at launch, this is a good sign. However, we’ll wait and see if any problems arise in the future.

While on billing, it should be noted that CoH offers both credit card and subscription card payment methods, which covers players with and without credit cards. How available subscription cards are I don’t know, but it’s good to see a mmog that can support those who can’t (or don’t want to) use a credit card online.

In short, billing systems appear to be working correctly… which is exactly what it should do.

Stability

So, players were able to create an account and log in. But were the play conditions stable?

For the majority, the answer appears to be “yes”. Rubberbanding and disconnecting were reported on the forums, with some players appearing to have difficulty staying connected, but this appears to be the exception more than the rule. Servers did have to be taken down for apparent maintenance (both scheduled and otherwise), but the number of times this happened didn’t appear to be excessive.

Pointing to the source of stability problems can be difficult, since it can be caused on the client (ie player) end, server (ie game) end, with the connection or a mixture of these factors. However, it appears that most players had no problems logging in and fighting crime when they wanted to.

CoH appears to have had one of the most stable launches in mmog history. Comparisons have been made to Dark Ages of Camelot’s launch, which was previously seen to have the most stable launch. CoH perhaps betters DAoC’s launch overall, given that it reportedly launched with more content than DAoC did.

Content

This is perhaps the area where the most complaints have arisen and is also perhaps the most subjective to judge. For most players, the term “content” means “things for me to do”. What could be for one player a dull or uninteresting task could hold boundless excitement for another. This also means that players who may not be suited to CoH’s playstyle may cry “lack of content” when they don’t find (for example) tradeskills or loot awaiting them in-game.

That said, CoH at launch did not meet up with a number of players’ expectations of what it should be. Numerous comments have been made about how the fun in CoH is starting to wear off and that players are looking for something other than just fighting villains. This would be of concern to Cryptic, but perhaps not unexpected – it’s going to take a while for players to get used to what CoH offers and see if they enjoy it.

For launch, CoH provided a big city to explore, numerous powers / abilities and something that stands out in the mmog market. This is not a bad start. However, players are starting to cry out for a bit more to do with their time. Cryptic didn’t fail in terms of content at launch – lots of players have found out how immediately fun it is to beat a villain into unconsciousness – but they still have more to do to silence their critics in this area.

Which brings us to…

Updates

Although there have been some updates for CoH in the past month, the focus has been on bug fixing and tweaking powers rather than adding new content. This is to be expected at this point, since the game is only a month old and most players are still getting used to what they have available to them (and still working out ways to break it!). Cryptic have promised a major content update to be delivered in June, with new villain groups and areas, but since this falls outside of the launch month I’ll ignore it for now.

On the negative side, reports surfaced about a bad patch that had to be rolled back. Ok, Cryptic is new at this and probably shouldn’t be judged too harshly for it, but letting a bugged patch through QA and into the live environment is a bit of a dumb thing to do, especially in the first month of launch. Hopefully people have learnt what went wrong so it won’t happen again.

Launch has seen no major patches delivered. This is both positive (eg the game wasn’t launched full of bugs that required immediate patching to play ala Shadowbane) and negative (eg players want to see more content). Given that CoH has gone live for less than a month at this point, not having major patches released is more a plus than a minus, however.

Behaviour

On the player side, some complaints have been raised about certain griefing behaviours of players, notably kill-stealing or abuse of powers. Although aggravating for the players being griefed, this behaviour appears to be more annoying than game-destroying and only occuring in a minority of cases. Customer service representatives also appear to be doing a solid job of stopping the worst cases of abuse once they receive the complaint.

Unfortunately griefing appears to be a fact of life when it comes to mmogs. Certain players just love to disrupt the experience of others, and CoH is no exception. That said, CoH does appear to provide limited scope for such behaviour – at the very least, a player can get an instanced mission to escape a dedicated griefer, at most they can report them and expect some action taken.

Known Bugs

This is the one area where Cryptic deserves a little criticism. Given that CoH is mission-based, having missions that are broken really hits hard on player enjoyment. This is the case both for story arcs and task forces – both are bugged in ways that mean the player may not be able to finish them. For these problems to get into release after awareness of them were raised in beta is a bit of a disappointment.

Fixes have been promised (as they should be) but it’s not a good look for devs to tell players not to attempt to use certain game features in release as is the case with task forces. Players have been disappointed to find that they can’t experience all of CoH properly.

Comparatively to other mmog launches, CoH is nearly bug-free. It’s playable for the vast majority of players, very stable and few exploits have been announced. Given all that, it’s just a bit sad that missions, a core system of CoH, had two very visible bugs disrupt things at this early stage.

Miscellaneous

Three final things, all gripes:

  1. The announcement that cd-keys could be bought that came about the same time as launch was incredibly poorly done. People (myself included, so please note my bias here) ordered copies because it appeared the only way to guarantee being able to play quickly (or at all). For Cryptic to suddenly announce that codes could be purchased, meaning you could play without the box, would have been great to know about a month before launch, not a couple of days.
  2. The announcement that the comic wouldn’t be sent to overseas subscribers (again, please note my bias here) was also poorly done. To be honest, I expected this to be the case, but not a single comment was made about this issue until shortly after launch and even then it was a comment in the forums, not an update. Cryptic weren’t ignorant of the issue, since it had been raised a couple of times. While I appreciate that attempts were made to find a way to ship the comics overseas cheaply, the timing of the announcement was lousy and made it look like overseas subscribers were being given less for paying the same amount of money. A bonus isn’t a bonus when it comes as part of a package, which is how a lot of people viewed the comic and subscription. (On a personal note, I will still be purchasing the comic from my local comic store. You win again, Statesman!)
  3. [li]Lest we forget… the name registration process for beta testers was badly handled. First it was done one way, then it was changed to another way, confusing players no end.[/li]

The above items only impacted on small sections of the market, but are examples of poor communication between Cryptic / NCSoft and its customers. Sure, it’s hard to work out the “right” amount to tell people, but in the above cases the ommissions seem to be a bit uncaring about the customers it impacts on. Still, these are minor gripes that most players don’t / won’t care about.

Overall Grade:

[p]
A-

[p]Although the CoH launch did have a couple of areas where things could have been improved, overall it has been very successful. It has certainly set the benchmark for future mmog launches to match: a game that was released stable, playable and enjoyable from day one. At the moment the future looks bright for Paragon City – it has over 100 000 subscribers from launch and a lot of big plans for the future. Cryptic have certainly hit the ground running with a fantastic first month – let’s hope they can keep up the standards with their future releases.

[p][i] – UnSub [email protected]y.com 24 May 2004

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