A View from Atlas Park: Positron Said a Mouthful

Positron had a recent interview with W00t Radio (key points summarised here and you can also see a link to the interview in this thread) that revealed quite a bit about the direction of CoH/V over the next 18 months. The forums have already gone over his comments with a fine tooth comb, so I won’t bother recapping all the changes (which that linked thread does anyway). Instead, I’m going to take a look at the three things that interested me the most.

The first is probably the most surprising thing to come out of the interview – that the recently announced paid expansion is not going ahead, with content instead going out in free Issues to players. The announcement touched off some concerns on whether or not Cryptic had given up on getting new players, with a box on the shelf being perceived as the best way of recruiting fresh blood into Paragon City / the Rogue Isles. While I don’t believe players will complain when the new stuff comes free, a lot of players also see not going the paid expansion route as a retreat from the games market by Cryptic for CoH/V.

Only Cryptic (and maybe NCsoft) knows what the cost / benefit analysis of paid boxed expansion versus free content to subscribers told them. The end result obviously came down on the side of not having people pay for content (unless Positron manages by spinning a chocolate wheel and “Cancel paid expansion” came up over “Fix sound looping bug” and “Create Troy Hickman Giant Monster”). Obviously putting out a paid expansion requires players to purchase it and the finances may be questionable when you work out required programming time plus hard copy material costs plus distribution costs plus free month costs plus any other costs that would be incurred. Cryptic knows the percentage of players who own both CoH and CoV and how many new “pure” CoV customers last year’s launch brought in. Perhaps they saw that in general they receive more financial benefit from keeping their current player base paying per month than trying to recruit new players and getting a minimal return per box sold. I don’t know for sure, but I do find it very interesting that the paid expansion has been dumped so soon after it was announced.

However, dropping such an expansion isn’t such a bad move and certainly doesn’t show that Cryptic is giving up on CoH/V in favour of their unannounced new projects. First off, the paid expansion was going to be released (announced for 2007) during a bumper MMOG year. A whole crop of new MMOGs are scheduled for release in 2007 – Warhammer and Conan are two I’m keeping an eye on, but there are others – which put up serious competition towards existing MMOGs. These new games are bound (pending reviews of those who have played them, of course) to attract a lot of player interest in a way that an expansion box probably isn’t. The sheer novelty of them are probably going to sway MMOG players to pick them up before getting a CoH/V expansion. By not investing in a paid expansion, Cryptic isn’t taking the risk of being buried by new games at your local games supplier (with said games supplier being probably more interested in stocking console games in prime store locations anyway).

Which doesn’t mean they’ve given up – it just means they’ve made a tactical decision and one that is going to make it more attractive for existing players to stay. For me it would have been a greater sign that they’d given up if they hadn’t announced anything past I8, which Positron did talk on and past.

One item that is meant to start with I8 that I am hugely interested in is the concept of an overarching story which is meant to continue for about the next 12 months. When the devs (notably Archon Voss in our recent interview) stated that “the Rikti [are] now quelled”, I thought “when did that happen?”. It’s not like the Heroes of Paragon City have done anything different recently in their battling the Rikti, so why are they now no longer a threat? This has been one of the weaknesses of CoH for me – a lack of narrative progression for characters. While Villains can look forward to being a Destined One, Heroes tend not to have an in-game metastory to motivate them forward (unless they create one themselves).

So it’s nice to see an announcement that CoH/V will be getting an overarching storyline and one that Positron has promised will have a definite, world-changing conclusion. Many people (including myself) see this storyline to be linked to the return of the Fifth Column, so perhaps we already know the punchline, but how things will be set up will be the key thing. It is likely to be a series of missions provided by new contacts, with perhaps some events spilling out into the streets. I’d also suspect the redevelopment of Faultline will be part of the story, given that it’s meant to occur sometime during I8 or I9 and would basically be a “new” zone for the devs to populate with new contacts.

Will the story be good? Well, that’s the rub and we won’t know til things get done. I suspect that any new content will be blitzed through incredibly quickly and that most info will get spilled to the community through the Test server if things stay true to form. What will be interesting (yeah, I know I’m using that word a lot) is if the story line contains some branching paths depending on the decisions you make or if the final event in the story will actually depend on players to be involved or if everything is pre-determined from the get go. Personally I’d love it if the players had to decisively win the final battle to achieve the best result and that if a server failed in that final task, they’d receive a worse result (eg perhaps certain zones would appear different and have different enemies in them).

The final thing I’ll comment on is that a lot of the new announcements made by Positron tended towards rewarding CoH/V players rather than offering up big new shiney things. In general, it’s only the players of CoH/V who would care about Veteran Rewards offering, new costume items (including trenchcoats and wings), the return of a banished villain group, et al – none of these things are really going to make players who aren’t already playing sign up. There might be other plans to attract these current non-players which weren’t discussed purely due to the constraints of the w00t interview; however for the most part Cryptic seems focused on rewarding those players who keep subscribing to CoH/V.

Which I think is a winning strategy for Cryptic. CoH/V has an excellent community who (I believe – Cryptic’s market research, if they do any, would tell them for sure) have a strong core of committed players. Rewarding those players helps keep them involved long after they’ve finished the level 1 to 50 path, which in turn keeps the money coming in. Such actions also help to build word of mouth about CoH/V, which is a much better investment than spending it on advertising in magazines. It would be certainly cheaper to retain player business / reduce player churn than to constantly chase after the guy or gal who has never heard of CoH/V before.

The other thing this interview marked was the first long discussion with Matt Miller aka Positron since he took over as Lead Developer for CoH/V – he’s done some interviews, but not like this. The sheer volume of information that the interview contained showed that Positron has some definite plans for the “City of…” games and is a worthy successor to Statesman. I have seen some comments that attribute all negative things to Statesman and all postive things to Positron, which I find to be a bit simplistic – after all Statesman was the Lead Dev for about 4 years and was supported by Positron for much (most? all?) of this time; Positron has been Lead Dev for about 4 months and is yet to have to announce widescale rebalancing / changes for the game – but it can be said that Positron has to date shown a clear vision regarding the direction of CoH/V for the next 12 months. Which is a good sign for the future of CoH/V and I can’t wait for the stuff I’ve called interesting above to be turned into in-game fact.

– UnSub [@UnknownSubject] unsub@warcry.com 17 August 2006

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