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MMO Character Permanence: Respec or Retcon?

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When talking about Champions, a friend linked me to a well constructed, if obviously fanboy-outrage slanted, piece about the current respec (or – for those who go outside, respecification) policy for Champions. It’s worth reading, if only because it feeds into quite a few trends about game design. In short, it argues the inability to redesign your character from scratch will kill Champions stone dead. Which got me thinking on the subject…

For people who aren’t following it closely, Champions uses a relatively unusual character design model. Rather than actually having defined classes you’re able to construct your own character by picking powers as you will. Powers are divided into classes – like fire-powers, or force-powers or hugging-powers – and more specialised abilities require prequisites (which are normally multiple abilities in the same class – so, for example, my force-blaster character only opened up her area-effect blast by having a load of abilities in force). But generally speaking, you’re able to pull yourself in whatever direction you want.

There’s more to it than just the powers picking though. Rather than City of Heroes – which kept your power selection much more within a specific framework – you’re also playing with advantages (which allows you to improve and personalise individual abilities. For example, my active block channels energy into me whenever I block… but with the advantage pick, the effect hangs around even after I drop my block, meaning I protect myself for the first few seconds when unleashing attacks) and statistics (i.e. certain ability scores boost certain abilities). The latter brings in more equipment fiddling – which is something aside from what we’re talking about – but also the ability to pick these talents which boost your ability scores. For example, choosing one which gives you +8 dexterity – or one which gives you +5 Strength and Dexterity – or even one which gives +3 to three separate stats.

Which is all very well, but when you start playing, you haven’t got a the proverbial fucking clue what you’re doing.

I think that’s actually at the core of why people have been so divided on the tutorial. On the one hand, you have the developers trying to start the MMO in a full-on semi-scripted battle fashion: Call of Duty with Superheroes. On the other hand, you’re thrown by with massive screens of text explaining mechanics. If you try to follow both, you have no fun whatsoever. If you ignore the text – I totally did – you have a bit of a biff-fest, but you don’t actually come out knowing much.

Point being, you’re going to make mistakes. And point two being, at the moment, it costs a lot to actually fix mistakes. The in-game currency allows you to undo a previously chosen ability, at increasing expense since the first decisions you’ve made. To give you an idea of the expense, not having spent any serious cash, as a level 16 character, I couldn’t afford to swap an ability I gained around level 6 or so. As the essayist puts it, it makes actually picking abilities a time of fear.

Well, I dunno on that. In practice, playing casually, I’m fine with it. If you choose within a framework, you have a guidance for your choices. If you go off choosing random stuff… well, you do know you’re doing random stuff. People who aren’t planning on being competitive in PvP or similar don’t automatically chase the min-maxing.

Which, as an aside, leads to another point point about Champions. There’s been much talk about how little PvP is balanced. I literally have no idea what that means. The thing the Champions Pen and paper RPG system it was based… well, it’s not balanced either. They try, but when a game gives you total freedom to choose stuff from a shopping list, some combos are better than others. As such, the game becomes, at least in part, gaming that system. Some combos are better than others? Fine. So the game becomes about choosing those abilities, and balancing becomes about creating an interesting matrix of choices.

Which of course, feeds back into respecing. You have one good idea about how a character should be and, well, maybe it is for a while. Then someone works out the counter-build, and you’re stuck with last season’s black.

So, at the core I agree with the original essay: it’s a game about experimentation and freedom. To punish the experimentation does seem somewhat perverse.

You have to ask why.

The MMO which most determinedly took the build-competition-is-the-game approach would be Guild Wars, where slotting in and out abilities was a core function. Even they loosened up their ability to respec them from the original, extremely liberal for the time, abilities. While not doing that, City of Heroes also was generous with the respecs. At the time I played, knowing you got a respec at certain points in your characters development was another reward to push towards. The respecs which arrived as seasonal gifts were something which engendered fondness with the developers. Do Cryptic consider that approach a side-effect of the system of City of Heroes which wouldn’t work with Champions?

(i.e. In City Of Heroes you respec, and you’re still fundamentally the same sort of character. In Champions, you may not be. I don’t think that holds up generally either: I’ve stayed within a single framework with my main alt, so am basically the same as City of Heroes’ Warwych, just without the ability to rechoose my powers.)

The conspiracy theory going around is that respecs are going to be part of the Microtransaction system, where you can buy non-essential abilities to enhance your experience. Frankly, if it does go that way, Cryptic are operating at the very boundary of the phrase “non-essential”.

A couple of final notes:

1) It’s interesting how, in single player RPGs, people argue particularly in favour of no-way-back persistence – arguing Bioshock wasn’t even slightly an RPG due to the ability to switch choices around.

2) It’s questionable how much the limitations on respecs actually affects anyone other than those who obsess over the numbers to get the best results. The game, at least what I’ve played, leans on easy rather than hard. It’s as if Cryptic knew there’s more room to make your character work in sub-optimum ways, so designed with that in mind. I’d be interested in any experienced Beta players take on this, if they wish to chip-in in the comments. Yes, we can complain about the character being hurt… but how much does it actually hurt?

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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