Steve Long has a reputation in the pen-and-paper RPG business. When I first met him, I was told he was a writing machine. Maybe it’s more apt to say that Steve Long, the mild-mannered game designer, is the secret identity for a super-powered writer capable of producing a book’s worth of text in a single bound.
Today, he’s the creative shot-caller behind the dice-powered superhero RPG, Champions, which Cryptic Studios is currently adapting into an MMORPG. Champions is the flagship title of Hero Games, whose many flavors of games all run on the detailed and highly adaptable HERO System rules. Long has been living with the game for close to 30 years now, and is helping to guide it from its tabletop roots into a new era where the RPG and the MMORPG can (hopefully) live side by side.
He’s a fan-turned-pro who started playing Champions in 1982 and began writing for the game when he answered a call for articles in the Hero Games house magazine, Adventurer’s Club, back in 1992. “I discovered I had a natural talent for writing,” says Long, “and soon transitioned from magazine articles and contributions to compilation books, and then to full books with Dark Champions in 1993.” For the rest of that decade, Long says, “I think I can fairly say I was Hero Games’ most productive writer; I did six full books for them, as well as plenty more magazine articles and other bits and pieces.”
Around 1997, when Long was dedicating himself to full-time writing and design, Hero Games went into hibernation. Except for an active fan community that never stopped playing, Champions and its sister games had stagnated. “One of the projects that never saw the light of day because the company went moribund was the Fifth Edition of [Champions], which I’d written.”
Long moved on but didn’t forget. He worked on Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games for Last Unicorn Games and Decipher to critical acclaim, without forgetting his first love. “When the Lord of the Rings RPG won the Origins Award for Best RPG, during my acceptance speech I mentioned that I wish Christian Moore had let me do the game in the HERO System the way I’d originally suggested,” says Long. “I still wish that.”
In 2001, Hero Games returned. Long tells it: “I was approached by my now business partner Darren Watts, who was working with a group that was putting together an offer to buy the Hero Games assets. He was just interested in getting the Fifth Edition manuscript from me under some terms, but I expressed interest in working for the company and even becoming an investor. Things were moving along smoothly when 9/11 took the wind out of our sales, leaving me and him as the only two remaining investors. After a lot of hard work and a bit of good luck, we brought in some other partners and bought the Hero Games assets in December, 2001.”
The HERO System – the game rules on which Champions runs – is one of the early engines of the RPG hobby, known for its incredible nuance and complexity. “First and foremost, while it’s often mocked in some circles as being too complicated or math-intensive, the HERO System offers matchless flexibility for designing characters, spells, settings, vehicles – anything you’d want in a game – and for actually running an RPG. Even in today’s era of ‘rules-light’ games, that’s a powerful attraction for a major subset of RPG players. For some of them, the creation process is as much fun as playing. If you ‘grok’ the HERO System, it will free up your creativity in ways no other RPG can even approach,” Long explains. It’s that flexibility and control over the details that gave Champions a reputation for crazy creativity in superhero design 20 years before City of Heroes came along. “I can definitely see its influences in other RPGs, which have adopted and adapted the concepts of buying things with points, disadvantages and other elements that largely came to the gaming public’s attention via Champions (even if they weren’t necessarily ‘invented’ by Champions).”
“Second,” says Long, “many competing superhero RPGs have been based on a license from DC, Marvel, or whomever. That’s cool in its own way, but I think ultimately most gamers, and certainly most HERO System gamers, want to create their own settings, characters, histories and events. They don’t want a pre-packaged world or characters, they want to create their own.” It’s a sentiment familiar to all those MMORPG players with hosts of hardly-played characters populating their rosters. Sometimes, you want to design characters as much as you want to actually play them.
As for videogame titles, Long says, “I think the influence of Champions can be seen in games like Freedom Force and City Of Heroes, though, of course, neither derives directly from it. Many of today’s computer RPG designers have played Champions, and I think you can see traces of that in their work. After the Cryptic deal was announced, I got a bunch of e-mails from Cryptic employees saying basically, ‘I’ve loved Champions for years and am really looking forward to working with you guys,’ which was very gratifying.”
The game certainly had the attention of MMO producers. “Jack Emmert called us up one day in December and said, ‘Hey, would you guys be willing to sell me Champions for an MMO?’ That was it – it came right out of the blue, and they approached us rather than the reverse. The whole deal was basically done inside of a month.”
This isn’t Champions first foray into computer gaming, however. “The one attempt to create a Champions computer game, by Hero Software back in the mid-Nineties, was ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in what I’m told is considered one of the great all-time pieces of vaporware.”
Long has found the process of adapting a paper RPG into MMOG play to be fascinating. “[A]side from D&D Online, which seems to me to be horribly done and the classic definition of a missed opportunity, this is the first time that a paper RPG has been so directly adapted for an MMO. Of course it’s more of an IP adaptation than a rules thing, but I hope it heralds a new era in which other media look to paper RPGs for ideas and material. The paper RPG industry is amazingly creative and fruitful, and compared to any other form of media I know about, it can generate huge amounts of quality material very cheaply.”
Cryptic’s Champions Online won’t use the famously complicated and flexible HERO System, however. “They bought the Champions IP from us lock, stock and energy pistols,” Long says, “then licensed back to us the right to create paper RPG books for the game, subject to their approval. The guys at Cryptic are big Champions fans and eager to see both what ideas we have for Champions going forward, and how we embody their ideas in paper RPG form.”
With Champions continuing in the tabletop arena and Champions Online debuting in the MMORPG sector, how will both games manage to coexist?
“Roughly speaking, the plan is to launch the Sixth Edition and a new, [Sixth Edition]-compatible Champions at Gen Con 2009. After that, we’ll publish some books describing the Champions Universe as Cryptic sees it. Right now we’ve got two Dr. Destroyers – the one you see in our books, and the one they’ve drawn and described for the MMO. After [Sixth Edition], there will only be one: theirs. It’s their IP, so what they want is how it will be.”
This shift in creative origin is sure to rankle fans who have been following the HERO System-driven Champions for decades. What does Long say to fans who feel the new game will overshadow the old one? What does he say to fans who think the MMORPG will be a shadow of the HERO System game?
“I don’t think those fans are correct, and more importantly I don’t think their concerns are going to hurt either game. I think that Hero’s being able to work with Cryptic will ultimately improve both games. As much as I’d like to see an MMO based entirely on the HERO System (an immense programming task, to be sure), in many ways paper RPGs and MMOs, despite their common roots, aren’t the same thing. What works for one won’t always work for the other, and vice versa. What you should expect is that Cryptic’s ideas and work will help Hero as we produce Champions books, and that our Champions books will not only give Cryptic more material to work with, they’ll give MMO players information about and insight on the MMO game world that’s not available anywhere else. At the risk of throwing out a business school buzzword, it’s a synergy.”
Long, who seems fearless in the face of this new age for Champions – and paper-RPG adaptations in general – is sure that both MMORPGs and traditional RPGs can appeal to players at the same time. “There are countless aspects to a superhero setting that an MMO can’t or doesn’t cover that a paper RPG needs to, so there’ll still be plenty of room for me to exercise my creative muscles and provide Cryptic with ideas.”
The influences between game types go both ways, though: “I think with the release of D&D 4th Edition this summer we’re going to see just how much MMOs have influenced RPG design. I suspect D&D is going to try hard to emulate a more MMO sort of feel and play style, and to attract players introduced to the concept of ‘RPGs’ by World of Warcraft and other MMOs. I’d expect to see more pre-built, drag-and-drop kind of stuff so that you can easily create and ‘advance’ a character by picking and choosing from a menu. Obviously that’s sort of what D&D has been all along, but you’ll see more of it, done in a more modern style. And even the HERO System, the quintessential ‘build your own’ RPG rules set, isn’t entirely immune; as I mentioned above, I’ll do pre-built Champions Online power packages for the next edition.”
As the game properties reinvent themselves for the next generation, so will the whole concept of what an RPG is and does. “In MMO terms, going forward I think technological and programming developments are going to make MMOs more and more like paper RPGs. You’re going to see more character customization and options (Champions Online is really going to push the envelope here, I think, and set new standards), more freedom to interact with the environment and NPCs, and so on. That will just keep growing and growing until we reach the point where the computer can virtually function as a GM, and where other tools allow for greater social interaction among players. There will always be a small niche market of people who want to play traditional paper RPGs, but that’s all it will be – a small niche.”
Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and game designer, as well as the co-founder of Gameplaywright.net. Do not talk to him about zeppelins or we will be here all day.