Champions Online and the Second System Effect

Having played Champions Online to a middish-level point and based off my 6 odd years of experience in playing City of Heroes / Villains, I’m starting to get a very clear idea of how much the second systems effect burdens ChampO. It’s obvious that when Cryptic tried to improve on CoH/V and add in numerous long-requested features to ChampO, they ended up with a growing problem of getting things working.

Definition Time!

Briefly, the second-system effect is a term that describes how developers try to jam all the desired features they cut / didn’t develop in their first version into the second version. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I think Mythic’s Warhammer Online ended up as it has in part due to the second-system effect as well.

Criticism, Response, Outcome

Let’s look at a few examples of the second-system effect in ChampO by looking at the criticism about CoH/V and how Cryptic tried to build on it.

  • Criticism: CoH/V relies too heavily on instances!
  • Response: ChampO has most of its action in a more ‘open world’ setting, with instances being used more sparingly.
  • Outcome: ChampO runs straight into the open world issue of players kill stealing and objective stealing. Players complain it isn’t very heroic for superheroes to kill-steal, right after clicking on the mission objective after someone else has drawn off the mobs. Let’s be clear: in MMO circles, there is a battle of open world versus instancing ideologies that can never be reconciled. Both systems have strengths and weaknesses. However, the reality behind this criticism was that when most players said, “CoH/V relies to heavily on instances!”, they often also meant, “… and the missions are incredibly repetitive!”. I don’t think ChampO managed to get away from repetitive missions, open world or not, although ChampO does offer more unique missions than seen in CoH/V.

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  • Criticism: Superheroes don’t fit into classes or roles.
  • Response: ChampO has a fairly open powers system, which allows for much broader choice in character type.
  • Outcome: Flexibility creates a much wider range of options, which range from ‘Super Gimp‘ to ‘Power Cosmic‘. It has seen players build characters that don’t really require teams because they are Slaughter Incarnate and has also seen players give up in disgust on concept characters who’s powers just don’t work together. Although arguably true to the pen-and-paper source – the Champions RPG system allowed for the development of some just plain broken characters – in a PnP game the Game Master can look the player in the eye and say, “No, are you insane?”. In a MMO, players are only locked out of options by hardcoded rules. ChampO didn’t do enough work on hardcoding out / balancing those overly powerful power combinations, leading to some problems in this area.
  • Criticism: CoH/V’s zones are too small! They are only limited to city locations too!
  • Response: ChampO’s zones are much bigger, with a lot more variety in location (i.e. city, desert, snow / alpine, underwater, jungle).
  • Outcome: ChampO had bigger zones, but only five zones on launch. Numbers count and ‘only 5 launch zones’ doesn’t create a good talking point. The other major complaint is that superheroes belong in cities, so having a level progression that forced players through deserts and snow-covered areas was seen as driving players outside where they wanted to go. On top of that some players complained that the zones were too crowded with wacky things – a desert packed full of mutants, ghosts, aggressive robot cowboys, hostile paramilitary groups, escaped prisoners and whatever else seemed to be a bit too full of insane things happening. In filling these large areas with things to do, Cryptic hadn’t really left much room for players to breathe.
  • Criticism: CoH/V doesn’t have any crafting, in-game economy or PvP at launch.
  • Response: ChampO has crafting and PvP in place at launch. Systems are put in to accommodate an in-game economy.
  • Outcome: On the subject of in-game economies… many MMOs put the systems in place that serve to develop an economy without ever putting the tools in place to actually manage an economy. End result is mudflation and a whole host of things that require a whole lot of time to fix, so the devs ignore it. But that takes a bit of time. As for crafting and PvP – crafting is the traditional collect-and-merge MMO format and just a sideline to the game; PvP is disrupted by the lack of power balancing within ChampO. Both are sidelines to the main PvE event as well.
  • Criticism: CoH/V has a very flexible costume creation system and its power selections are pretty flexible too, for a MMO launched in 2004. But it still can’t do <insert personal clothing preference here>.
  • Response: ChampO releases a costume creation system with more options than CoH/V and powers can be coloured, even replaced!
  • Outcome: The costume creator is very flexible, but that flexibility creates confusion about how to use it. Some players use that flexibility to make sheerly hideous characters, but also to make a wide range of pretty good looking ones too. Most people rate ChampO’s costume creation system as one of its successes. However, colouring powers falls flat, not the least because powers can’t be coloured either black or white due to the system being used. Power replacement – where items can ‘replace’ a power and turn a mini-gun into a flamethrower, for instance – turned out to be a massive bust, given that it was impossible to have more than one power replace item on one character, or that power replace items can be outlevelled. Players want wanted to have cosmetic control over their powers, but the power replace system didn’t allow for it. In trying to add more flexibility, ChampO only added an unnecessary layer of complexity.  Which leads us to…
  • Criticism: CoH/V has no real gear and no stats!
  • Response: ChampO adds gear and stats.
  • Outcome: This is my personal bugbear. Superpowered being are about their powers – in some cases those powers might come from weapons, gadgets, or even codpieces, but they are still ‘powers’ in terms of comics. In adding gear, ChampO added an additional thing that players could get as rewards (a good thing) and acted on characters in ways that were difficult to understand (a bad thing). On top of that, adding in character statistics – and super stats and talents – just made things more confusing. Learning how gear, stats and powers all interact is something that requires a bit of time and some leaps of faith, which isn’t something players really want to do when it comes to playing a casual action MMO. In order for powers to be balanced, not only did powers have to work out against each other, they also needed to work when stats and gear effects were added in.

There are others, but my wall of text attack has already struck your brain for 803 points of crushing damage.

You Didn’t Mention Content!

ChampO having level gaps and a lack of repeatable content was a function of the second systems effect. Adding more systems takes away focus from developing content that players will experience, especially if the planned content requires a new system / new technology to be developed  so that it can be completed.

Lack of content is an issue that is going to challenge ChampO for quite a while to come.

The Other, Other Second Systems

One thing that is sometimes missed is that Cryptic made the leap from MMO developer to full MMO studio with the launch of ChampO. NCsoft looked after things like server infrastructure, financial systems and customer service functions with CoH/V; Cryptic took these functions on board when it came to ChampO (and beyond). This is a big step forward in terms of required resources for Cryptic. Organising these other systems required by players no doubt took focus off ChampO’s development, but without these external systems there would have been no possibility of all of ChampO launching.

In this respect, the Cryptic who launched ChampO was almost entirely different from the one who launched CoH/V. There are some people who appear to believe that Cryptic left all of its experienced staff behind at CoH/V – which isn’t true, given that many names who worked on CoH/V pop up at ChampO and Star Trek Online – but launching ChampO and being fully responsible for all of the front- and back-end systems would have been an entirely new experience for Cryptic.

Ultimately, juggling all those balls and tasked with trying to make ChampO better in every way than CoH/V, Cryptic worked itself into a position that would have been very difficult to pull off. In trying to be better in every way, Cryptic arguably spread itself too thin, with the state of ChampO at launch being the end result.

3 thoughts on “Champions Online and the Second System Effect

  1. Thanks for the link. I’m basically retired from Champs now – the fun only lasted a month or two and several characters into their 20s, one into the 30s. I think my sub is still active (I got a 6month at launch), but it should be running out any day now…

    Every time I convince myself to log in, I generally log right back out. I find your criticisms pretty on-target, and good examples of why it’s not much fun for me (and why I still enjoy CoH more).

  2. Pingback: Battle Royale: CoH/V vs ChampO vs DCUO vs SHSO vs Marvel MMO « Vicarious Existence

  3. Pingback: Neverwinter: Lessons Learned | Vicarious Existence

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