Friday, September 4, 2009

A Year of Testing in Review: Part II

Part II: Champions, Where Art Thou?

Through the months of January-March, I couldn't help but to feel concerned about the state and future of the game. Alpha testing hadn't proved to me that this was the "next-gen MMO", nor did it prove or show the slightest signs of Cryptic pulling through with another hit. I personally began to think that their 'City of...' titles were a one-hit wonder, and what I was seeing through the early stages of Closed Beta wasn't at all reminiscent of what I had seen during City of Heroes Closed Beta (which were fun).

There were fundamental features and elements still out of place that should had been taken into account from the initial start of development: Instanced/Open World mission content, Champions Lore, Supergroup/Teaming systems and UI, the overall scope of UI, PvE and PvP content and balance. As I had said many times during this process, the game at that current stage felt as though the development team took all of the meeting and design notes, put them into a stack, threw them up in the air, and had a free-for-all grab, and whatever 'page' or 'pages' one of the developers got, he or she worked on. It felt as if there was no communication between the varying departments, and each department was its own entity and working on the game how they wanted to work on it.

With the limited playtesting times (Wednesdays and Fridays; 5 PM PST - 9 PM PST), it was apparent that not enough testing was occurring, because reoccurring issues failed to be proved upon or were swept under a rug because something "new" and "shiny" was released. That tactic seemed to be the Cryptic thing to do. Instead of fixing what was broken, they felt the need to "pile on the pretty" and add several more broken systems on top of the old in hopes to correct the issue. What that essentially did was create a muddy, unpleasant mess. For example: The issues with teaming. I was truly devoted to pushing the Dev team to focus on teaming/grouping and all of its issues. From what we had in Alpha and Closed Beta honestly isn't all that different from launch. I and others were consistent on the fact that teaming in Champions was an outright chore, and took extra patience to set out and lead one. The UI never lent itself to being intuitive or resourceful: it was clunky, completely shy of its intended purpose, and discouraged teaming more than encouraged it.

Even though I and several others had submitted weekly feedback and had given a plethora of suggestions and ideas, instead of taking those ideas and expanding on them, Cryptic thought it would be best to lump forced teaming into the system to "fix the problem." If I remember the 'State of the Game' message correctly, they were going to design missions that required an X amount of players to complete, and could not be done solo. This was largely rejected for a number of varying reasons: A.) The game promoted solo-able content from 1-40, B.) Forced teaming was too 'traditional' for a 'next-gen' MMO, and C.) It presented possible time sinks in level progression, especially if there was no "work around" to the missions in order to progress in the game. I am no game developer, but I just could not understand what purpose forced teaming had in the game when all that needed to be fixed was the UI and mission sharing. There had even been a special forum for supergroup leaders to give feedback on grouping, and as I recall, we all had the same perspective on it, and expressed and shared those views with the Devs on a constant basis.

Issues like these lumped with the fact that the core of the game was still broken, and the game felt as though it had no purpose or soul, and it was difficult to not become jaded and pessimistic from time to time, but I still managed to stay optimistic and not get too wordy with the Devs because I understood that the changes we wanted to see took time. The Devs weren't Supermen and Wonder Women--they were people, too, and had been putting in an insane amount of time and hard-work in the development of the game.

It wasn't until Millennium City was released that the game had changed direction for me. With the constant grind of the Desert and Canada with Lemuria and Monster Island added into the mix, the game painfully felt like World of Championscraft as I had deemed it. Between fighting snow wolves, bears, sharks, and other mangled-tangled creatures, I found it really hard to believe that I was playing a superhero game. City of Heroes was brilliantly written and supported with rich, deep lore. But Champions? Not so much, and I believe that part of that was due to the environments surrounding us. It just didn't feel heroic to me. Fighting snow men and radiation-mutates in the middle of no where went against my 'superhero grain', and appeared completely far-fetched in terms of what superheroes should be doing. But all of that vanished once I finally got to Millennium City. The game made the transition from 'fail' to 'epic win' in the span of the loading time it took to get from the Desert to Millennium City.

From escorting police officers on patrols, to rounding up prison jailbreaks, to capturing West Side's 'Most Wanted', the game felt completely different post-Desert/Canada. Epic was the only word that I could describe my experience in Millennium City. It was a brilliantly designed zone with its own unique personality, villain groups, and a very good assortment of public open missions that capitalized on what it meant to be and feel heroic. Add all of this in with power customization, character customization, the action-RPG style combat, and what we were given was a pretty decent gaming experience, and I had thoroughly started to enjoy myself. I was beginning to get eager and look forward to playtests, but after awhile, something presented a problem, and I had found myself right back where I had started...

Next: Part III: This Can't Be It (A Look at the End of Closed Beta and the Beginning of Open Beta)