Bill Roper was a long-time director at Blizzard Entertainment, and played a role in shaping popular series like Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft before leaving to work on Hellgate: London with Flagship Studios. He is currently at Cryptic Studios as the Executive Producer of Champions Online.
WarCry: Could you please introduce yourself, for the record?
Bill Roper: I’m Bill Roper, the Executive Producer on Champions Online
WC: How much of the Champions team was involved in the development of City of Heroes?
Roper: All of the top guys … a pretty good number of the team. I wasn’t here then, but a good core of the central people – quite a few guys and gals – worked on the City Of games. We have a nice mix of people who worked on those projects and people who came in from other parts of the industry.
WC: Were there unexpected difficulties in shifting to a licensed framework from an original IP?
Roper: The big thing with an original IP is that you kind of have – compared to a licensed game – you have complete freedom. You can make it up as you go along, come up with different ideas midstream; it gives you a very broad palette to change your world.
With Champions, you have 28 years of character development and world development. I think a big plus that we had here at Cryptic, is that the team liked the world so much they bought the entire IP – they own the world. They worked very closely with the pen-and-paper developers – there was a lot of back and forth with the PNP side, making changes to the universe and characters. So we had a lot of the same freedom you have with an originally created IP, but the benefit of being able to do it with this map and framework in place. We had the best of both worlds.
WC: How much input did the developers of Champions tabletop have on the game?
Roper: Well, when we had some open spots, we could ask, “Hey, you have all these characters – are there any characters in the universe that would be good for this? They didn’t work on the MMO, we didn’t work on the PNP game – though we shared assets for the book – but they were our biggest base of knowledge for what exists in the Champions universe. We had a big library with all of the books, but it was really easy to call them up and talk with them, and sometimes they’d pull out really cool obscure stuff that would have been extremely hard to find on your own.
I think that really, the biggest benefit back and forth was this exchange of concepts and ideas in terms of what they – and we – wanted to do moving forward.
WC: How has the launch gone so far?
Roper: No matter the MMO, you’ve got difficulties. MMOs are gigantic beasts with hundreds of moving parts. Technical glitches, balance patches; things that fade into memory as time goes by, even with the biggest and best MMOs. The biggest thing I’m happiest with is that we’re incredibly responsive to the community. We talk to them, we let them know what’s going on, and we move to address stuff. We had an outage for eight hours since there was a glitch that happened with a moved file that caused all of our servers to not spin up correctly. It took us a long time to track down, but we made sure that we gave all of our players a free day of play, and made a special in-game item for them.
We want players to see that we’ve been working hard, but we’ve also got lots of stuff in the pipeline. Communication with our community is a key. When there are launch troubles, you have to be assuring the playerbase, “Yep, we’re working through this stuff.”
WC: Can you give us an estimate on how many people you’ve got in the game?
Roper: I don’t think I can give out exact playerbase numbers yet, but the game is doing really well! We have a lot of people on every night, and an awesome and active community. We keep seeing our sub numbers continue to rise. But I think PR is waiting to give out the exact numbers, so…
WC: Rather than traditional sharding, Champions is entirely instanced. What was the reasoning behind this? Were you worried it would make the playerbase feel more fractured?
Roper: It’s kind of a mix. I think that sharding is what players who are used to EQ or WoW are accustomed to, but there’s been a good number of other MMOs that use the open shard system. I think the biggest reasoning behind it was that it makes it so that you can always get together with your friends, and you won’t have a situation where you and your friend are like, “I’m level 17! I’m level 15! But we’re on different shards and can’t play together.”
It’s really easy to have a more open community with a shardless system. In order to make a friend, all you have to know is their display name. I’ve met people in-game who I’ve wanted to be friends with, send an invite to their “@name” and boom, they’re on my friend’s list no matter the character. So the single biggest reason was that the developers liked the idea that people could just get together and play.
We do a lot of very under-the-engine things in terms of trying to get people together. When there are people playing on your friends list, we’ll automatically put you in the same layer of a map as long as there are openings – I think as you go around the world and play the game and meet people, it’s a simple matter to friend them and then you’ll see them around a lot.
WC: So we’ve been watching some of the general feedback on the game, and of course there’s lots of concern about balance, particularly in PvP. Care to talk about the post-launch nerfs and/or buffs?
Roper: We had a head-start time frame of three days. During that time was when we had our single biggest concurrency numbers, so we were watching a lot of players. We found some really aberrant issues, exploits, and problems with power balances … it was dramatic enough that we HAD to do a big patch on Day One. When you’re thinking of balance as a meta concept, you want it to be fun and challenging. The game was very trivialized those first three days. People were making invulnerable characters and taking on groups of five or six enemies that were four or five levels above them. There were literally “Win Buttons.” Pushing them is fun for a while – I won, whoooo! – but there needs to be a challenge. We want players to feel like they won because they played well, because they made a good decision or used a good tactic. So we patched those defensive powers.
What we’ve tried to do since then is to find the exploitive powers and knock them down, and push the weaker ones up. Balance is a huge and difficult task, and since we don’t have character classes – we have this open power system, that compounds it. We’ll be working on the balance for months, gradually changing less and less and less, and even the changes we make now aren’t as dramatic as the first ones we had to make. It’s all emerging gameplay, where you take this balanced power and that balanced power and throw them together, and then “WOW! Look at the crazy!” We don’t want to trivialize the game.
I think that the Day One head start people had a lot of uproar over the changes, but by the end of that first day, the consensus was, “It’s not like it’s THAT much harder. Yeah, I had to change my tactics but I see why they did this.” We tried to do a lot of things, and gave out a free Retcon for the players. So if you built the character around these powers since they were way overpowered, but they don’t work anymore? Here, you can basically reroll your character.
Anytime we roll out a systemic change, where you alter characters, we don’t want to penalize players. Players were telling us, “we want to be able to Retcon our character but it’s very prohibitive pricewise.” We found that we weren’t putting enough resources into the economy, so we patched that this morning. We couldn’t just move the price down because then when we made the economy what it should be, we’d have to move it back up, and nobody likes that.
I’ve been really happy and impressed with the team. We’ve been only up for three weeks, and I think players forget that – there’s years’ worth of content in it. We’ve been out for just 21 days, and we’re trying to be very communicative, make the changes happen and communicate them to the playerbase.
Our goal is not to ruin the game for our players, but to make it exciting. The Day One patch was done to try to ensure that players would have fun in the long run. If all you ever get is candies, then you get burned out on candy and don’t want it anymore. If candy is mixed in with meat and potatoes, you feel excited about the candy.
WC: Aion is another big MMO title that launches this month. How do you feel about launching a few weeks before another anticipated game?
Roper: It’s hard to say, “Well, Aion‘s got flying!” because their flying is really limited flight. It’s only in select places; it’s not as integrated as with Champions. I think that there’s going to be some level of crossover, but Aion‘s going to draw more from a WoW playerbase since it’s fantasy. I think Aion goes against some perceptions in the MMO space, since they’ve been out for a year or so in Korea, and they’ve gone through those launch hiccups – that helps them. But even so … as with any MMO, I have friends and people we know in the industry that were playing, and they couldn’t get on the servers.
It’s almost inexplicable. A lot of us have made several MMOS, online games, I look at the glitches we’ve had with Champions, and we’ve had a really smooth launch. Yeah, we had an outage, and a couple of patches, but other than that it’s been really smooth. So even a game like Aion which has been out for a year has problems.
With the non-MMOs I’ve worked on in the past, like StarCraft and Diablo… they’re “fire and forget” games. You work, you release, you do an expansion later. There wasn’t a lot of constant iteration. With all the comparisons between Hollywood and the gaming industry … if most games are movies, MMOs are like an ongoing television show, and the launch is the pilot. “Am I on board? Do I want to be part of this world evolving?” Do you like the world, do you like the core game mechanics, are you on board to be with this development team? Do you believe in the developers, are you seeing that they’re being responsive and interacting with the community?
I don’t know the communities of other games, I don’t know how they interact with changes and things. I hope it’s a big difference-maker for us. It’s an iterative process. Players that like superheroes and MMOs, who wanted to see what we were doing, really working extremely hard to have the players know, “Yep, we hear you guys, we know what’s going on.”
WC: Now that the game is out, will any of the team be moving to development of Star Trek Online?
Roper: No, Star Trek has its own entire team. The Champs team is dedicated to Champions. Most of what we do is, now have a little breathing room to play Star Trek Online and offer interoffice feedback! There’s been a lot of crossover because we use the same toolset, and the same underlying engine. We keep track of what the other team is doing; if we come up with some system that works, we’ll share it and vice versa.
A few months ago, STO put in directional shielding for starships, and we were like “Hey, we have a power set that shielding would work great on.” So we took that and put it into the Power Armor set. It’s really nice having that crossover, but no one’s moving off of the Champions team.
Champions had to do stuff first. We had to get an UI up and running, so STO can pick what they like, add their art etc. I really like that there’s a common toolset and engine to share from, because it allows individual teams to just focus on making stuff for the team and their game as opposed to having to reinvent the wheel.
WC: Fantasy MMOs are pretty played out. Now with Champions, City Of, the DC Universe MMO, superheroes might be next. Sci-fi has EVE, Old Republic, Star Trek … are there any unexplored MMO frontiers that you think might become popular?
Roper: I haven’t seen a Western MMO yet. It’s really interesting, if you look at genres that sell well in videogames, fantasy and sci-fi are the killer apps, but Westerns? They seem to be popular amongst gamers, but have never done well in gaming. Why don’t Western-based games do well? Certainly, having a MMO based on a Western flavor could be big.
I think we’re seeing other genres starting to get looked at. Crime ones like CrimeCraft and APB are pretty new – the advent of GTA did so well, and people were asking, “How do we move that concept into the MMO space?” There have been a couple of others… I don’t think we’ve seen classic post-apocalyptic, but we tried to do something like that with Hellgate: London. A Fallout-style MMO would be incredibly popular with gamers. I think there’s a lot of fodder out there to be used and puts into a MMO game – single player style games that haven’t jumped over into MMO space.
The biggest thing is, you have to be trying to make a game and say “here’s a really interesting and fun game, that’s also played by a bunch of people online.” There needs to be less of a focus on “we have everything that you need to put into an MMO, and it also happens to be a game that’s online with a bunch of people playing it at the same time.”
It’s a very difficult challenge to enter the well-established MMO space. There are certain things that you are expected to do if you’re an MMO, and it’s a really tough situation. If you do them, you get complaints that “Oh, everybody does that.” If you don’t do them, then you get chided for not doing it. I think developers will say, “Hey, we love that there are hundreds of thousands of players that want to play together, and are going to be less concerned about the trappings of an MMO.”
The biggest bonus we have as developers is the fact that online gameplay is not only accepted but expected in a bunch of games now.
WC: So, MMOs without the trappings of an MMO?
Roper: I think there’s a lot of interest in that, but it comes down to: Is the game fun, solid, and a good game? Certainly, I think that there’s a very, very high bar if you’re making a (quote/unquote) MMO right now. Maybe an impossible bar. If you’re launching an MMO, you won’t just get compared to your genre in terms of fantasy vs. sci-fi vs. superheroes, you’ll be compared to any other games in the genre that players like. “Oh, you’re an MMO? Then I’m going to compare you to EQ and WoW and WAR – any other MMO that’s big and popular!”
This is unfortunate for developers and publishers and players. A new game will come out and get automatically compared to something that has been out for three/four/five years and had tons of development. Wrath of the Lich King came out and introduced the “phasing” concept to WoW, and we’ve had people tell us that they thought Champions “was fail” because it didn’t use phasing. But WoW has been out for almost five years now, and Champions came out twenty-one days ago!
Going back to the TV-show analogy, it’s like if you go back and watch the pilot of a show and then start complaining that it doesn’t have complicated relationships between the characters and a rich history to build on. Of course it doesn’t, because you’re just watching the second or third episode; it hasn’t been on the air for six season yet! But you can say, “Yeah, it’s really cool, I like it and I want to get on board.”
Do I like the world, do I like the feel of it? Yes, there are launch issues, and things that are just “okay,” but do I like the structure? Do I like what I do? I’m building the star of the show, so do I like what I’m able to do? If all those things fall in line for me, then I’m on board. As the playerbase matures and as MMOs mature, that’s the thought process that goes along. I think we are starting to see that.
WC: Any final thoughts on the state of the game thus far?
Roper: I think that Champions is above anything else at this point in the game. Any game that comes out, you can ALWAYS find something, “Oh, I really didn’t like that part.” But I think that the biggest thing otherwise is that Champions is really fun. It’s been really surprising to me, that the overwhelming majority of people that have gotten subscriptions play every night. Our numbers of unique logins are ridiculously close to the number of people that bought the game!
Even to see complaining in the forums is genuinely good, since we can get feedback and work towards it. But the underlying thing is that the game is fun; you can make whatever hero that you really envision, especially since it has a very open system. If you want to make an electricity based guy, you use the standard electric powerset, but you can tweak and design it, throw in some other powers – you can get in there and have fun. There’s going to be more of that.
I just really hope that players that want to be able to come in and make an iconic character in an MMO will come give Champions a try. It frustrates me that it’s just a race for equipment in most MMOs, and so when I hit level cap and I’ve built the best Warrior I can build, I look like every other Warrior in the game. I lose what I’ve put of myself into the character; I’m not an unique snowflake, I’m the exact same snowflake as everyone else. In Champions, I can come up with an unique look, and I’ve got a decent chance of being the one person I see who’s like this.
What I love most about the game? I’ll be running around Millennium City or Burning Sands and I’ll have somebody stop and say to me, “hey, that’s a cool costume.” I never get that in a fantasy MMO, since I look like everyone else. But in Champions, I can show off my creativity. That’s pretty exciting for players, to come and have an impact on the world just from making their own iconic character – something that other people will remember.