Champions Online Alpha / Beta: A Retrospective (And Some Fallen Earth Too)

It’s funny how quickly things can change.

Beta - once only good for letters.

Beta - not just a greek letter anymore.

If you’d asked me how Champion Online (ChampO) had been in its alpha / beta phases and how well Cryptic had run it, I would have told you that it was the best alpha / beta I’d been in. The devs were open to feedback, made a lot of changes based on player requests, posted a lot on the forums and were regularly putting out information about upcoming changes or about current system designs. Compared to Fallen Earth, where the devs rarely said a word on the forums and were all but invisible (customer service staff don’t count as devs) regarding design rationale, it was night and day.

But that was in beta, and beta is an entirely different country to launch for a MMOG. I can’t say that Fallen Earth has improved dev / player communication at all – apparently they might contact you if you submit a bug – it does appear that at the very least FE has remained a consistent title from beta to launch. This isn’t the case with ChampO.

The launch day patch which changed a lot of powers in quite dramatic ways, together with ongoing patching, has seen ChampO shift a long way from where it was. This has the net effect of throwing out the majority of learning / feedback that came from beta, because the new ‘system’ makes that data outdated. It also completely changes the play experience, which is a highly risky thing to do in launch. I completely agree that a lot of changes (particularly to defensive powers) needed to be made. But launch isn’t the time to do them – beta is.

It has been the dramatic set of changes to ChampO that has made me review its alpha / beta in a light that makes them appear incredibly insufficient for anything other than content feedback and load testing. Only running two test sessions a week is great for load testing, but it means a lot of other factors – how fun is the game to play on your own time? how does the economy fall out? – aren’t able to be checked. And yes, late-beta zones were a huge improvement over early-alpha zones as learnings were taken on board. But power balance was never sorted out to be within a reasonable range (especially the vital nature of defensive powers) and recent patches have had to deal with the cost of retcons vs the insufficient nature of the in-game economy.

The pity of it all is that ChampO is a fun-if-shallow game that is being buried by its own flaws. Cryptic is working hard at fixing things, but arguably launch isn’t the time to do it.

Unless…

Unless the true market for ChampO isn’t the PC, but the Xbox 360. If that is the case, doing heavy trials on PC players to fix things up for Xbox 360 players so they have a smoother run makes perfect sense (and before anyone’s OUTRAGE-odemeter goes off, NCsoft did exactly the same thing for Aion, if you replace ‘PC’ with ‘Korean’ and ‘Xbox 360’ with ‘Western’; I haven’t seen any nerdrage over that issue).

Personally I can’t play ChampO for more than about 40 minutes without my PC crashing due to (probably) a ChampO / Nvidia conflict. But even ignoring this personal bug experience, overall ChampO’s alpha / beta was not sufficient to prepare the title for launch. The onslaught of massive re-balancing patches is proof of this. As was indicated by others, the only reason that ChampO launched when it did must have been due to immense pressure from somewhere to either launch or die.

That’s a pity, because ChampO does manage to nail the fun factor, but beta wasn’t long enough to nail the ‘keep players for the long-term’ factor. To do that, Cryptic is going to need to produce content like demons, or (as I think they probably will) launch the PC-tested ChampO onto the Xbox 360 stage in order to attract a whole new audience.

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