A Year in Testing Review
The Champions Online NDA was officially lifted as of today. I have been waiting a very long time for this opportunity, and I plan on writing about my experiences with Champions and the Dev team as thoroughly as possible. This will definitely be a switch-up from my usual animation-related blog posts, but I believe this is worth deviating from. So without further adieu, here is my review, experiences, and personal opinions of Champions Online!
Part I: The Gateways to Alpha
I never imagined getting into Champions Online as early as I did. I had just came back from class to my apartment, opened my Gmail account, and there lies an invitation to the Alpha preview. As excited as I was, that was how disappointed I became once I found out that my graphics card did not meet the minimum requirements. Because I'm impatient, I opted to order a graphics card from Newegg so that I could participate in the early stages of Champions' development. To make a long story short, a week after I received the invitation I was given access to the Alpha Preview forums in September of 2008, and was beyond thrilled to have made it in as early as I did.
With the game being in its early Alpha stages, we were only given access to the game twice a week for 2-4 hours a day. My earlier experiences with Champions involves being one of the designated Launcher/Patcher testers (alongside one of my favorite Beta testers: hyperone). There's no doubt that the earlier version of the Patcher was quite painful. I was always a build or two behind because I could never get it to update properly and always ran into patching errors and stability issues with my Internet. This never once bothered me because, A.) It was Alpha. Fragile patchers are to be expected, B.) It was giving vital feedback information to the Devs, and C.) By the time you worked out all of the bugs to get into the game the server would be 10 minutes away from shutting down. It wasn't until the 4th or 5th playtest that I was able to get into the game, and when I finally did, it pretty much had set the stage for the type of tester I was going to be for the remainder of the process.
Given my experience with Alpha builds (which is little), I didn't come in expecting a fully functioning working game with all of the nuts and bolts in place. A game's Alpha build typically boils down to the "bare bones" of the game. Features are missing, systems are incomplete, the UI is under construction, etc.; but what I did expect was for the "core" of the game to be in place. If the bare bones of any Alpha build game is working, then there is promise in the future of its development. Even with features and systems missing and/or incomplete, the game should still be fun at its bare minimum. With that being said, after my first full run I was not receiving that. Bugs aside, the game wasn't making sense, and I really couldn't figure out why, but I couldn't stay logged in for more than 15-20 minutes during a playtest simply because the game was a bore.
After a few more playtests, I and a couple of other players had come to a mutual conclusion: we didn't feel heroic. What exactly defines 'feeling heroic'? The question has generated a plethora of varying answers from testers across the board, but to me, feeling heroic means that I am needed for a greater cause. I have been called to action because normal people cannot get the situation under control, and they need someone mightier than the average human to handle the situation.
This wasn't happening at all. Originally, the game was suppose to launch with the Desert and Canada being the starting zones. This was one of the main issues in Alpha. We were thrown into this perpetual abyss of an open world not knowing or understanding why we were there. To the best of our knowledge, we were there because the Devs wanted us to be there. There was no lore or story supporting the reasons for it. To make matters even worse, the missions that were in these two zones made you feel even less heroic and more-so like a government errand boy for both Project Greenskin and Force Station, Steelhead. One of the earlier missions in Canada had you attacking a fallen tree so the emergency rescue crew could pass through the open road. It wasn't exactly a horrible mission, but that's more of a job for another type of crew. I'm here to stop snow beasts and spiritual entities, not break trees apart. It didn't make sense to be beating up on ice wolves and trees in the middle of a snowstorm, but it was still Alpha, and we still had a very strong voice as an Alpha community to speak up against what was in place and push for the core of the game to support the 'feeling heroic' sentiment that was being tossed around x1000 every 30 minutes.
Being as responsive and attentive as they were, Cryptic immediately rushed into to figure out what the issues and concerns were. Jack (who goes by Jackalope on the forums), asked what kind of missions we wanted to see in Champions that would help push it to become more heroic, and had also asked us what would fix immersion issues. We managed to chalk up several pages of feedback to these questions, and even though the game was painfully unplayable (disregarding bugs; I'm referring to the bare bones of it), we continued to press on and submit as much feedback and bugs as possible.
We were so adamant about Champions being a success, that a lot of our efforts made it into the game during Alpha. The lack of a tutorial zone bothered many of us because there was little to no documentation on how things worked. It took a few playtests to figure out how powers worked, how to purchase powers, how to slot advantage, how to block, learning the UI, etc. Throwing new players into the Desert and Canada without any "practice" was ridiculous, and that is how the idea of a tutorial zone came about. The Devs agreed with the community, and had started working on it immediately to deliver it for Closed Beta.
Another Alpha victory (if you want to call it that), was the idea of Emanation Points. The only original features planned for Power Customization was the freedom to cherry-pick powers and Hue Shifting. Emanation Points were not considered until another tester brought the question, "Is this it?" to life. It was either Antiproton, Solion, or Arkayne who had then asked in return, "What more do you guys want to see?" Out of all of the suggestions, Emanation Points were the most feasible at the time, and was slated to arrive sometime during the Closed Beta phase along with the Tutorial.
So it was very early on that we discovered that Cryptic listened to their Alpha/Beta testing community, and if something was drawing up major conflict with the community, it could be heard and possibly addressed to fix the issue.
Even though issues were being worked on, and as Alpha came to an end, I still couldn't help but feel as though the game had no meat and bones to it. Running around, shooting critters, and musing at pretty FX and animations doesn't classify as "high octane excitement" or "next-gen MMO," and I personally wasn't trying to listen to the usual, "Its just Alpha," rebuttals to my suggestions and complaints. Yes. It was still Alpha, and I was well aware of this, but I was also aware of the fact that the game could still be FUN in Alpha, and I was not the only one to draw this conclusion. Even so, with the game not being fun, I could still see the potential which led me to believe that Closed Beta would really turn the game around as more features were put into place and systems would be worked on for completion.
Alpha testing ended with a 9 hour playtest going into the New Year, and out of those 9 hours, I believe I had spent less than 2 over the span of the entire test. Never before have I had to force myself into playing something and "find" fun in it. Everything from chatting to teaming felt like a chore, and it was impossible (for I), to sit down and force myself into testing the game. I had figured that given a few more months, a lot of these issues would be cleared up, and hopefully we'd start seeing the core of the game finally come to life and reshape itself into something that was more than confusion and complexity thrown into a pot...
...stay tuned for Part 2: Closed Beta: Where Art Thou Champions?...