Bill Roper On Champions Online


We took the opportunity earlier this week to grill Bill Roper, the eminent gaming figurehead who has worked on Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft and is now design director and executive producer on the forthcoming Champions Online, on a variety of topics. This first part of the interview focuses on Champions Online.First of all, other than the action-based gameplay which we’ve heard a lot about, is there anything really special that stands out about Champions Online to make it different from the rest of the games out there?

There are a couple of pretty big ones off the top of my head. One is the customisation. A bit of a hallmark of the actual pencil and paper game – that’s where the IP comes from, and all the background and world and history and gameplay mechanics – is this concept of being able to build any hero you can think of, and we worked extremely hard to translate that into an MMO.

What you can do is customise the look of your characters, much along the lines of the City Of games, but to a much greater extent. There are tons of different costume options, and you can choose what the colours are with those options, and how they all go together. When you choose powers, you can then go through a custom process for that. The big thing with the powers is that you can go into a thematic tree, so for example you can have these power sets. If you want to, it’s very simple to make a fire hero, or an ice hero, or a lightning hero or a darkness hero, and there are different martial arts schools and things like that. All of these are all laid out so that players who just want to get into the game and make a hero can do so, and it’s really simple.

But, for other players who really want to delve into the customisation you can open up the whole power system. It’s pick and choose, and every time that you’re choosing a power for your hero, you can go in and do it in a very custom way. There are also different Advantages that you can put on powers, and for example, my lightning would be different to your lightning because of the Advantages I’ve chosen.

On top of that, you can choose “emanation points,” which is where your power’s coming from and what the emitter is. So basically, I might have a force bolt which would normally come out of my character’s hand, but if I want to, I can change it so it’s coming out of my character’s eyes, or coming out of his chest. I could maybe put in a chest cannon costume piece and make him a big powered armour guy, as opposed to a mutant character who’d shoot it out of his hands.

Does this actually change the power at all, or is it purely cosmetic?

No, this is just a flavour option – it doesn’t actually change the power. All of the mechanics that change the powers are through the Advantages, any items that you get that alter your powers, and the powers that you’re selecting. The emanation points for the emitters are all just to help you build the hero that you have in your head.

Can you tell us a little about the Nemesis system?

The Nemesis system is the other big thing. It’s actually a way for players to create their arch-enemy. You go through using, to a good extent, the system you use in creating your hero, to make an enemy. You also choose his minions, what type of powers they have, and his personality. Then he goes into the world, and you then have a separate storyline that focuses on your Nemesis and his interaction with you. His personality comes into play, you’ll be fighting his minions, and you’ll get ambushed by them, so even when you’re out in the general gameplay world, people are seeing elements of this content that you created. And then of course you can always take other people with you when you go on your actual Nemesis missions. It’s a very unique element, especially for an MMO, where you’re creating one of the main plotline villains – if you choose to do a Nemesis – that you’re fighting against, and then you can later share them. So it’s kind of that initial step for us into user-created content.

We’ve heard previously that you can choose weaknesses and vulnerabilities for your hero, to gain increased powers. Can you do this for the Nemesis? Would it be possible to, say, make your Nemesis fights easier or harder, by making, say, a fire hero, and then making the Nemesis weak to fire attacks, or vice versa?

In the paper and pencil version there are definitely weaknesses, but it doesn’t actually exist in the online version. It may have used to. You’re creating your Nemesis from different thematic power sets, and, well, your fire-based hero would probably be better against an ice guy, but there’s actual rewards in the game for fighting all the different types of Nemesis that are available. We have a whole Perks system which is very similar to Achievements on the Xbox 360, and there’s a whole series of Perks that you get, structured for defeating numerous Nemeses. It lays a lot of groundwork for us to do really fun things in the future with this.

How have you gone out of your way to make them interesting, so that it’s not just a drawn out slugging match?

The Nemesis has the most advanced AI and powers interaction of any of the enemies you face. They’re designed to use the same powers that the players use, and they take advantage of all the synergies between powers. They don’t do things like a lot of AIs that you see that are on timers or other shticks, but they actually use powers, use cooldown, and react just like a player does in terms of how they use their powers and what you’re doing. We want them to be more like a really exciting PvP style fight, so you’re fighting kind of a computer-controlled equivalent of another hero.

The Showdown missions themselves are inside particular indoor instances – hideouts that you go through – and a lot of them have puzzle elements or tricks and traps, so the environment that you’re in is really interesting, the fights that you have are really interesting, and usually your Nemesis will have some kind of lieutenants working under them that are designed to work well with Nemesis or provide support for Nemesis, so it’s really a complete system. We have one designer that’s dedicated to all these things and work on all the really fun, cool things that you can do. It’s designed to be a very different style of gameplay from what you’re facing in most MMOs.{PAGE TITLE=Bill Roper On Champions Online Page 2}
How are the instances being handled? Are they going to be randomised, like in the City Of games, or hand-designed, like in World of Warcraft?

Both, actually. There are very specifically designed five-player instances, for example, that are level appropriate. They’re tied into the storyline, and they’ll definitely have lots of fun elements – puzzles in them, and little tricks: things that require co-operation between players. There are also some solo versions of these big instances that are very hand-crafted. But, if they don’t want to do a mission chain, we also want players to be able to just do a randomly generated instance.

There are a fair few non-combat skills – lockpicking, science knowledge, and the like. Are these going to be essential to a team going through an instance?

They’re not required, but you get a lot more out of the instance. We make sure that for anything that is an ancillary skill – like a lockpicking or crafting skill – there are things that you can find that you gain benefits from, or areas that you can get into if you have one of those. It can help you maybe get different players than you might normally run around with. Once you find what those are, it’s fun to go through the instance again, and realise “We’ve gotta make sure we bring an arms-crafter with us, because if we can have him operate that table we can then open that door, and that’s a whole area we haven’t been in yet.”

How are the grouping mechanics going to work, on that note? Do the heroes tend to fall into the usual tank/DPS/healer roles, or have you changed that up a bit?

It’s changed a bit. There aren’t classes per se, so you’re not building a tank or a healer or a ranged DPS guy. All the skills are there to build those types of characters but that’s where that customisation comes in. It’s not like, for example, in fantasy where only the warrior can tank. You can build a custom guy that can do that, and have different mechanics for surviving damage. We got a lot of feedback on this from our beta players, who didn’t like the idea of being forced into making a certain type of hero. They wanted to have the ability to really make the hero they want and put them in the kind of role they want to put them in. If you look at it and say that you’re going to make a Might-based guy, he could easily be a tank. He’s going to have high defences, he’ll be a melee guy.  I could take that guy and naturally drop into a tank role if I don’t want get into those nuts and bolts. But those players who really want to tinker around can make a tank character that you wouldn’t normally think of as the type of character that can do that. We really just wanted to provide the tool for players to build the hero that they want to build.

What about players who prefer to play solo, as opposed to those who prefer to play in groups? Can the game actually be “completed” solo?

We’ve definitely made sure that you can get to max level soloing. There is content that is specifically designed for groups, but we’ve made sure that the ones that are big parts of story arcs are five player missions, so you don’t have to go out and find 10, or 20, or 30 people – you can get four friends together, or a pick-up group, and finish that.

There are also what we call open missions which you actually find in the world. Sometimes they play as events, so things will be happening that you’ll just come across. Some of those are even what we determine as “Cosmic-level” enemies, which take 15 or 20 people to take down, but even a solo player can get involved in that because it’s an organic grouping – it just happens. So the game is very solo friendly, but there’s also a lot of content that is very fun to do in groups, and some things that we’ve designed specifically for groups.

We’ve heard that the 360 version of Champions will be released after the PC version, now, and we thought they were originally intended to be a simultaneous release. Is there a reason as to the hold-up?

I think the hold-up is on the business side so it’s out of my realm, but I think they’re still in the process of working out details as to bringing the game to the console. We’ve continued to develop the game knowing that we want it to be on console eventually, so we make sure that the gameplay decisions and the mechanics will work on console as well as PC. I think it’s just a great opportunity to reach out to console players and to bring them a really cool MMO.

We spotted a job advert on the recruitment page that mentions a PS3 programmer, along with Champions. Is Champions something we’re going to see on PS3?

Well, since the acquisition by Atari, we’re definitely trying to gear up to potentially bring the product onto any of the platforms – PC and consoles. I think they want to start by getting some in-house talent on the different consoles that’ll then be ready to do whatever it is we have the opportunity to do. So I don’t know; we’re not actually doing any PS3 development in-house but I think they want to start going out and finding people who have experience doing that, to give us the potential to do that in the future.{PAGE TITLE=Bill Roper On Champions Online Page 3}
You just mentioned Atari. Cryptic was picked up by Atari late last year, I believe – have there been any big changes in the game since Atari came along?

Not really, other than a strong sense of security. (Laughs) Knowing that we’ve got a great publisher that’s very excited about what we’re doing, spending a lot of time coming out and looking at the game and playing it, and is really very excited about what we’re doing with Champions specifically. We always like feedback about the game from people who’re knowledgeable, and we’ve certainly got a lot of feedback from Atari, it’s really been less them coming in and making changes, and more them coming in and giving us lots of observations that are pretty much in line with what we’re looking at anyway.

You’ve talked a bit in the past that launches can be quite problematic for MMOs. Has there been anything taken out as you push towards launch? Have you got plans for early expansions or patches?

Well I think you have to be planning your ongoing content and expansions before you ever launch. We want to keep building the game after it comes out – it’s one of the beauties of MMOs – so having that plan put together and knowing where we’re going after launch is pretty essential. There are always things you look at and realise you’re going to come up a little short time-wise, so you have to make that decision to put it on hold. It’s sometimes a question of two weeks – if you just had two more weeks you’d get the feature in. I think that for us it’s been less cutting out whole cloth and more scaling back to make sure we’ve got a great foundation there, and have it be very obvious how it’s going to be extensible.

In terms of launches being rough, it’s always bumpy when you put out products of this size. With online components there are usually some hiccups, but you try to minimise them through a lot of testing to make sure that you’re getting the best possible experience for your players. est challenge tH whecbestepoeSibat faces developers, publishers, and players is just the level of expectation that is out there for MMOs. Everybody plays World of Warcraft – it’s got 11 million players – which is fantastic in that it’s really opened up the MMO market in the West. The downside is that everyone starts to look at that as being the expected norm as opposed to being the aberration, so developers look at it and go “We’ve got to get everything in, we’ve got to try and compete with that,” and they overextend. Publishers look at it and they go “We’ve got to get a taste, we’ve got to get those WoW numbers. If we can even get twenty percent of WoW that’d be great!” They’re trying to plan for having two and a half million players, which nobody else really does, and so they start putting unrealistic pressures and expectations on the developers.

Then you’ve got players, who’ve experienced the game for five years now and forget what the game was like when it launched, and they hold up any new MMO that comes out as a direct comparison. It’s a real shame, because there have been MMOs that have come out full-featured – especially considering they’re just launching – and they get looked down on because they don’t have five years of unlimited team size and funding behind them. People forget that when World of Warcraft, as an example, came out it didn’t have a PvP system – it had duelling. But people look at the PvP system they have now which is very full and very fun, and they say “Pfft, you don’t have PvP like WoW.” Well, when WoW launched, WoW didn’t have PvP like WoW! There’s a ton of things like that, so I always try to encourage gamers to look at the game. Do you like the core game? Do you like the mechanics? Do you like the world that’s there? Can you look at it and just say “Wow, this is going to get cooler and cooler?” If so, then you’re in earlier, and you’re getting heard, because every MMO developer listens hard to his community.

What do you think is going to happen to the City Of games when Champions Online launches? They’re both superhero games – are you expecting a lot of people to move over to Champions?

We hope so. Cryptic was the company that did the City Of games before it was sold off to NCSoft, and when they started Champions Online – I’ve been talking to Jack Emmert and everyone else about it – they said it wasn’t “How can we do more of what we did there,” but “We never even thought to do this with City Of, and this is a a much cooler idea,” and everything that’s been thought about is really centred around trying to bring that four-colour comics feeling to life. I really hope that at the very least the City Of players will come over and give us a look, and I think that if they do they’re going want to stay.

Are you confident that there’s going to be plenty of content for high-end players at launch? Something that Age of Conan suffered with was that players ran out of content quickly.

There’s never enough content for high-end players! (Laughs) We’re doing our best to get in as much as we can before we launch, and we have a lot of plans for how that expands out. We have systems in place that, again, are things that I think players now expect in the games. I’ve never launched an MMO with this, but we have daily missions to do, a full perks system that has specific rewards for doing high-level content, world-level bosses… I think that we have different types of PvP gameplay, on launch, so if you want to just bash on each other we’ve got different actual PvP styles of play in. I think the biggest thing that we’re doing is making sure that players can understand the types of things we have in the game, and then ththose”are the tythpee gf hiegs pes of things we can build on.

How much of Champions is built on Cryptic’s old project, Marvel Universe?

Not a lot. I think that they’d started on the engine. I wasn’t here at the time, but everybody stepped up to the challenge of going from a lot of the ideas they had that were really Marvel specific, cutting that out, and then working with the new IP.

So how do you feel about the news that Marvel Universe is actually in development again? Do you think that there’s room for another superhero MMO along with Champions, and DC Universe, and City Of?

Actually, we were all talking about that this morning! The good games will stick around and the ones that aren’t will fall from the skies. I think that MMOs are a much, much bigger market than they’ve ever been, and I think the superhero genre is much more popular than it’s ever been – so I think that there’s a lot of opportunity out there for superhero based MMOs.

Paul Younger
About The Author
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.