Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cryptic loses Marvel license but doesn't seem that broken up about it.

Cryptic Studios has been the unfortunate victim of their publisher getting cold feet at competing with World of Warcraft. Rumors had been circling around since November but it wasn't until last week that the head of Microsoft game studios announced that they didn't think it was possible to be financially successful in the current market. With Microsoft leaving they also take Marvel and the 60 years of back stories and characters that Cryptic Studios was planning on using for their game. Things don't look too grim though since Cryptic Studios quickly managed to get a hold of the Champions license.

If Champions sounds familiar then you probably experienced it at some point as the popular table top role playing game. It has a long history with paper and pencil gamers and its rule system for creating superheroes is seen as a natural fit with a MMO. While not as extensive as Marvel it does provide a large amount of lore which by its very nature was intended to be used in gaming. Recent comments from Jack Emmert and other heads at Cryptic suggest that the game is already playable and only content and polish is needed. A rough translation of that is that Cryptic just has to strip everything Marvel from the game and start replacing it with lore and characters created through the Champions license. At least they own this one and won't have to worry about a similar set back in the future.

I've said before that a MMO should use a license like a suit of clothes. It provides flash and context for the game but it shouldn't affect the underlying design. A lot of the problems I had with Lord of the Rings were caused by design decisions Turbine made strictly based on the game's lore. A fantasy game without magic seemed overly restrictive to me and indeed seemed to limit the skills and abilities of each class. If you go to the Champions-Online website which just went live a few days ago you can see that Cryptic is actually optimistic about the license change. The Marvel universe may have been a treasure trove of villains and back-story but it also would have severely limited Cryptic in what they could implement.

Already pie in the sky features are starting to be announced on their website that would have been a lot harder to do under the Marvel license. One feature is that players will apparently get to design their own arch-foe and eventually decide if they were going to permanently defeat them. The whole process reminds me of an episode of the Venture Brothers but it also has a certain appeal to it. Enhancing this appeal is the new art style being used for Champions which is a form of cell shading that is very reminiscent of comic books and games like Viewtiful Joe. This could work out for the game since we've all seen the advantages World of Warcraft gained by going with a unique art style.

The feature list from Champions reads like a wish list of everything players wanted added into City of Heroes. More customization on abilities, a more extensive loot system, and no more randomly generated mission instances. It’s actually amazing that NCSoft didn't try to force a no compete clause on Cryptic Studios when they sold City of Heroes. The odds that NCSoft can improve City of Heroes enough to compete with Champions Online is rather slim and you can probably expect a lot of subscribers to jump ship. Still Champions Online isn't scheduled to release until early next year so NCSoft has some breathing room.

Check Out the Website if you want the Overview: