Sunday, October 18, 2009

Champions: The Ugly

That's right, kids, I can't do one of these without an "Ugly" post. So here it is, and it's not pretty. Look away if you must.

The Cryptic Live Team
I'm at a loss to recall a company that has fielded a live team as poor as Cryptic. I say this remembering the foibles of DAoC (some of them my own), the disaster that was Vanguard, or the tremendously disappointing Age of Conan. City of Heroes was a live team disaster and Champions follows eagerly in its footsteps.

And what precisely do I mean by "live team". Typically when an MMO ships, sometimes a number of months after, there's some shifting around. At some point you need to be thinking about the next Big Thing (TM) and that means rolling off some of your key personnel from the last Big Thing (TM). This leaves a number of designers, QA, GMs, whatevers. This is also when you get the best and most useful data about how the unwashed masses actually play your game. Typically this goes with "adjustments" which the same unwashed masses refer to as "nerfs".

Cryptic has done the worst job I have ever seen of rebalancing their games. The Cryptic I remember from CoH had Invuln tanks hiding in dumpsters because they couldn't take the alpha strikes from minions and lieutenants. Think about that. Invuln tank...hiding in trash cans...because they can't take the alpha strikes. Sure, they may have gotten it right later, but how did they miss that?

Following in their own footsteps, at one point a few weeks ago, they "accidentally" doubled the damage for all mobs in the live game. Wait! Was this an ops bug? Did someone bobble a merge? No! It was broken on their public test server for an entire week. Did no one report it there? No! It was reported pretty much as soon as people logged in there! How did that go live? Who dropped that ball?

How about some of their big nerfs?
  • Teleporters can get out of any jam through status effects and at a sliver of health in a way that you can't shoot at them. This made them unkillable in PvP. Do you think that breaks the competitiveness? Do you think that makes TP a must have for PvP? The fix? Make them not able to teleport out of status effects. Now they're only nigh unto unkillable.
  • How about mini-mines which was doing 4x too much damage. Four times too much damage? Really? How did this not get caught in beta?
  • How bout Mindful Reinforcement that is a shield that heals the target for an amount proportional to the shield remaining after some short period of time. Sounds great, right? How bout when it's broken to the point that it drops a 2500 point heal on the target even if the shield is broken? Sound good? Maybe too good to be true? It's still that way on live but will almost certainly be nerfed and nerfed hard in future patches.

    Their missteps are bad enough but would be mitigated greatly by players having the ability to easily rebuild characters broken by wide swings in rebalancing which brings us to retcons.

    Prohibitively Expensive Respecs
    Most games call the "respecs". Champions paying homage to its comic roots calls them "retcons". In Champions you pick a lot of really important things way before you really know what you're doing. It's true for me now running the tables on my third character although less so, and it's true for people starting the game for the first time. Remember that this game is a skills based system with open power selection. Remember that it is a tried and true trapping of MMOs and RPGs historically to underspecify game information. Remember that this is Cryptic that doesn't like showing numbers to players.

    The problem? You have to retcon your choices in order. This includes stat picks, advantages to powers, powers themselves, travel powers, and characteristic foci (otherwise known as super stats). The cost scales with level so the higher you are, the more expensive it is and the further back you go the more expensive it is. So when you have the least amount of information you're making the most important decisions and if you make a mistake, you probably can't afford to fix it. For me, this is less of a problem because I have the backup of (now) a pair of 40s and all the cash and experience that brings. For new players? They're probably screwed.

    So you step out of the powerhouse with your brand new powers that you've chosen with as much care as you can and you go out to fight. Maybe it works out well for a while; maybe it doesn't. Maybe it takes you a couple levels to realize that you really wanted X instead of Y. Well now you're screwed unless you have a sizable cash reserve. To paraphrase one of the guys I played with, it's like someone at the top had a thing for prohibitively expensive respecs.

    Why Hate Healers?
    I mentioned it in my last post: the game penalizes healers. Like it or not, the holy trinity (tank, healer, dps) is popular because it works. Please indulge me in a brief football analogy. You get big beefy blockers up front, you get your guys who can throw and you get your good hands guys and everything works because each player is specialized for what they do. A few special ones can do two or three things (blocking tight ends and scrambling quarterbacks for instance). MMO roles work the same way. You want your beefiest characters with their oceans of hitpoints keeping the attention of the biggest and baddest uglies and you want your guys doing damage doing as much damage as they possibly can without turning that ugly's sights on them.

    In Champions, healing aggro is broken. If you drop a big heal on a tank, you will get aggro. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You can be in the right stance, you can stack your presence so that you generate way less threat, and your tank can stack presence so they generate way more threat and it just doesn't matter. You will get aggro and unless you're also a tank, you will die.

    The devs have said that it's "working as designed" but have already adjusted it down on the public test server. This is a design decision that really shouldn't have ever seen the light of day. We do betas for a reason--it's to sort stuff like this out. You couple that with the day 1 nerf ("rebalancing") of defensive passives and exp and you get a game that's really in disarray on day 1. Bad Cryptic, no Twinkie.

    Healing is already a much maligned role. You need them, they need you, and you only really notice them when they fail--whether its your fault or not. The game already penalizes them by not giving PvP or PvE credit, why make it harder on those who choose that role to take one for the team?

    Content Holes
    I've mentioned the day 1 "rebalancing" a bunch of times already, but in an attempt to call out one of the worst live decisions I've ever witnessed, I'm going to call it out again. On that fateful day they nerfed experience as well. On paper you can get from 1 to 40 doing quests and just quests but like I mentioned before, unless you go out of your way to do every single quest or spend a lot of time in broken PvP, you end up having to grind.

    I listed this issue under "The Bad" but it really goes further than that because it's at the confluence of a number of poor decisions. You get your day 1 patch which rocks people on their heels. You get your really awful cost of retcons. Now you get people having to grind in a game that's otherwise very casual friendly. The solution? Now, more than a month and a half after release, we get a set of daily repeatable grind quests some of which are terribly broken. Some of these have stupid requirements "kill 150 X" or "gather 20 X" where the drop rate means you kill the same 150 X and takes up bag space. The kicker? Some of them are broken and don't give any XP! So you're really grinding anyway and people can see right through that. [keyshawn]C'mon, man![/keyshawn]

    Broken Content
    The table is already set for some very frustrating gameplay and a growing ennui from at least some appreciable portion of the vocal playerbase but let's kick it up that one more notch that makes it look ever so clownshoes. I will point out but two things.

    First, most of the last three 5-person instances are broken in some way. I can probably say "all" of the last three 5-person instances are broken but there's one that I've never been to that no one ever goes to. The other two, one at 38, and one at 40, are broken in pretty bad ways. The level 38 one (Viper's Lair) has bugged both times I've been there to the point that the two ending bosses did not attack me at all. That's pretty bad. The broken 40 has a broken boss that pretty much instagibs your entire team within seconds of the pull. Despite the fact that the encounter is soloable if you use some broken powers, this seems bad.

    Second, in a single shard game with multiple instances, what stops a raid group from going through and killing all the big world bosses in every instance? In other games we have raid timers which keep people from farming the same bosses multiple times a day. In Champions we have a reverse raid timer. Each big world boss will put an invisible debuff on you which cannot be seen in your interface which turns at least one of each boss's AoE attacks into an unmitigated instagib. The kicker? They stick this on a number of quest mobs. So if you're helping out to kill a big bad for a buddy, you're kind of screwed when you get the quest yourself. Brilliant! Functioning as intended or not, this qualifies from a player's point of view as "broken".
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