Halfway through my time at Cryptic, we stop to gorge ourselves on takeaway Chinese. I find myself sitting alongside the worryingly silent Craig Pearson of PC Gamer, the ever-lovin' Keith Cross of MMORPG.com and the charmingly self-effacing Lead Designer of Champions, Randy Mosiondz. Since he couldn't run away as he had food in front of him, I figured it would be a good time to have a leisurely talk about the problem of flexibility in Champions, his biggest influences, the crossover between paper-games and videogames and... oh, whatever else we could yabber out before we ran out of fried vegetables.
RPS: So – from the top. What were your aims with Champions?
Randy: We wanted to do something that really hadn't been done before. Cryptic has had experience in developing City of Heroes and City of Villains, and we just didn't want to do that all over again. We wanted to innovate and introduce elements that hadn't been seen in MMOs before, and a different style of gameplay. We really hit that mark with a more expansive world, in terms of different environments. The combat gameplay is very different – very action-oriented, the reactive sort of gameplay. The amount of customisation we've done – we've been known for this, but taken it even further.
RPS: Having that amount of freedom is tricky. If someone's choosing a set fantasy archetype, they know vaguely what it does. But to have that much freedom to pick and choose powers, how are you going to avoid them being overwhelmed?
Randy: It's an interesting challenge. How do we make it so it's not confusing to certain types of players, while still trying to promote global customisation? Being able to create your own role in terms of gameplay is interesting. For example, having different power groups means they're better at certain things – however, being able to mix the power groups means you can get the best of both worlds. The question is how do you prevent players tripping themselves up? We have some guidance systems in place (but we don't want to STOP people from doing something they want to try). But a certain combination of powers may just work...
RPS: Especially if you're playing in a group. If you know your team-mate blast-o-man will deal with that stuff, you can specialise elsewhere...
Randy: Exactly. And really, we want players to experiment and play with their own versions. We have systems in mind which haven't really been done before that allow players to choose different types of build of the character. It's really interesting, and we'll be releasing more information in the future.
RPS: We'll look forward to that. How long you been at Cryptic?
Randy: Three and a half years now. I started with the design of City of Villains, and basically working on various internal systems until I became the designer for Champions Online. And it's been an interesting challenge.
RPS: And what about before then?
Randy: I worked in software development for business software, but I also wrote and edited for the Pinnacle Entertainment Group, who did games like Deadlands. I always had a love for games – it's sort of my background. Eventually a job came up at Cryptic...
RPS: That seems fairly common for Cryptic. There's a lot of ex-RPG people here.
Randy: Cryptic like to hire people who have a real love for games. That's not just videogames, but games across the board. Especially when it comes to game designers, because they can look at a game, look at what we're trying to accomplish, and break it down to the bare mechanics. There's an inherent thing from designers from roleplaying games and tabletop games - a way of thinking it develops, and we like the way those people think, and like to hire them.
Keith Cross: Have you played D&D 4th edition?
Randy: Oh yes. I played some.
Keith Cross: Do you find it's very MMO?
Randy: Oh yeah. Incredibly. But really, there's a lot of back and forth. One industry has taken from the other. We had Gold Box and SSI in the eighties... which were based on a lot of RPGs. Wargames and simulations, board games... this has been going on for thirty years. So it's not too surprising. [The 4th edition] has been received really well too – it 'specially puts the game mechanics on display. For example the per-encounter powers. [In D&D 4th edition there's some powers that are limited to one use an encounter, rather than the old system of purely 1/day or whatever - Ed]
Keith Cross: I find it much more convenient.
Randy: Yes, much more. A lot of this comes from – and I touched on this earlier – the user-interface design. Presenting information to players: it's easy to make things hard, and it's hard to make things easy, right? In our experience so far, a lot of people who've picked up and played the Champions game for the first time, they say, “This is really easy.” Well, yes – and a lot of work went into making it easy. And I think that people keep on making it more complicated when they add a feature – the trick is to work out how to add the feature and make it simple. It all goes on how you present the information – the icon you show, how to show up visual effects like Auras or Damage attacks. How do you know you've got a curse on? There's a critical threshold for visual density – for players being able to parse different things at the same time. If you're packing it with too much information, they're just going to say, “This is a confusing mess – I don't know what's going on.” Trying to condense that down is a challenge.
RPS: However, if you have to characterise PC gamers in a certain way... well, they really like their numbers. They get angry if that sort of thing is taken away.
Randy: Exactly. It's different too in terms of how much you show in combat, versus how much you show in the background. You can present things to the player on a character sheet, and you can present it as a more simple version and a more complex version. And the a lot of people will just look at the normal version – people who care about the numbers will look at the complex version and work out how all these numbers interact. And those people love all that information, and that's great. At the same time, we want the casual players who want to get in and play, we want them to be able to do so without falling down. And of course, out of combat time and in combat time, certain things are going on, especially when we have reactive gameplay happening. To present as few things as possible in the reactive environment, then out of combat create a more detailed view with more nuts and bolts, to let you look under the hood.
RPS: The bit I'm a little concerned about is the action game side. You're mainly RPG guys, after all, so it's not something you've got experience with. There seems to be a lot of intangibilities in action games...
Randy: We didn't want any twitch gaming and - as a whole – MMOs aren't about that. They're about progression over time, experiencing a vast world. We wanted to bring in action type elements which people who play a lot of console games are familiar with, without overwhelming [standard MMO players]. And in those, there's already a some degree of being able to react in certain situations with certain powers – we took those elements and made things more so. Like blocking. You'll be in certain situations where you may have a Manimal that Doctor Moreau has created, and he'll telegraph by raising an arm above his head that he's going to hit you. And if you don't block he's going to do big damage to you. In a fighting game, it'd be a split second thing. But here there's other things to worry about, like latency, and we have a lot of things going on at the same time – a lot of players, a lot of critters – so you still have that reaction, but you can see what you can react to.
RPS: I quite like the action-integrated MMO approach. I was playing Air Rivals recently. Despite being a pure-grind MMO for the most part, the simple fact the interaction with the critters was more fluid – more action based – made me more forgiving, instead of just pressing 1-2-1-2 until the monster died. I mean, I loved City of Heroes, but I was aware that mostly I was just typing a set pattern repeatedly. In fact, if I changed from that it was normally that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Randy: Largely I think there's some people who are going to play both games, because the style of gameplay is different. There are people who like the traditional MMO with the powers will stick with City of Heroes. The people who like the faster-pace will like Champions more. But I play both myself. I play both types of games. I actually prefer Champions Online and that type because I think it has a more visceral feel to it, and I find it hard sometimes to go back to traditional MMOs because I'm not saying “I'm blocking. I'm reacting. Oh no – the Gun Slinger is about to do his special move - I better move behind cover or pull my block up, otherwise I'm going to be dead.” For the most lot of MMOs, it's a case of, “My hit points are getting low. I better use a healing potion.” And back and forth like that. It's resource usage rather than building up and reacting to the situation. You'll see how the feeling is different when we play this afternoon.
RPS: Another thought – it's a dual-format game. Rather than a specialised viewing thing like a monitor, console games are played primarily on the TV. TVs tend to be shared with other inhabitants of the house, so reducing the general maximum playing time. How has this impacted the design?
Randy: One of the things we wanted to do was to appeal to the casual gamer. The thing with traditional MMOs is if you can go in and play for 15 minutes and feel as if you've accomplished something. Well, that was one of the things which appealed to me when I started playing City of Heroes. I didn't have to go and kill rats for hours on end. I'd go in, be asked to rescue a person and fifteen to thirty minutes later, I'll have done it. That's very much the philosophy we wanted to carry over. We wanted people to get in and play, have fun, be a hero and not worry about having to do a big long thing I can't stop halfway through. We have progressive storylines, but it's shorter chunks that are linked together rather than this massive thing which takes five hours to go through.
RPS: In terms of games, what are your major influences on your thinking?
Randy: In some senses some of the action gameplay in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, because I know Jack [Emmert, Cryptic's Chief Creative Officer] has mentioned this before. You can go in the game, play for a while, react to certain things... they've very consolely type games. One of the ideas was it'll be good as an MMO if you put more variety in the powers, put a little more building and character progression in, etc. That was one of the biggest influences. And of course City of Heroes had a lot as well.
RPS: What about on a more personal level... what sort of games made you as a designer?
Randy: Wow. Well, I played a lot of RPGs, board games, miniature games, videogames... well, videogames, originally I started playing the Ultima games. Ultima 1, 2 and 3. Even before that I started playing Pong. A cousin had a Pong game, and I went over and played it. One of the biggest things, especially for a lot of the massively multiplayer games, was when I was at university I spent a lot of time playing MUDS [Multi-User Dungeons. Text based MMOs, basically – Ed]. Conceptually I've always liked the idea of a virtual world and shared user experiences. Even in the early Nineties, when I wished I'd studied more - I still got through it! I still got my degree! - I spent a lot of time in these shared virtual worlds, and I thought it was fascinating. I read a lot of William Gibson and Cyberpunk genre type stuff, and I always thought the virtual world with shared user experiences was fascinating. Even tabletop games tried to get across these types of experiences. There was this game called TORG which was a RPG where there was a system involved where every player could send in their results, and it'd be resent out in a multiverse newsletter, so you could converse with other players about what was happening in their parallel universes. I was always interested in that. It was a strong influence in eventually getting into MMOs. I didn't really care for some of the early MMOs – Ultima Online and even Everquest. I couldn't get into them. They hadn't got past the point where I'd still rather be playing single player games with better graphics, but eventually it got to a point where the gameplay and graphics hit a critical point where it was fun and made me go...
RPS: Which game made you go native?
Randy: It was City of Heroes actually. I'd tried the demos for Everquest, Asheron's Call, Ultima Online – I couldn't get into it. I'd always been a fan of superheroes, and a lot of friends of mine said that I'd got to try this one. And I was, “I don't know... I've been turned off MMOs for a long time.” But Cities drew me in. And I'm not just saying that – it really was... well, it was stable. It had one of the best launches. It didn't crash my computer and the servers didn't keep going down. It has the superheroes. And, of course, it had a lot of customisation. What it comes down to is that people love playing with paper dolls. People spend hours and hours and hours making their own alter-identity.
RPS: We have something called the Girlfriend Test, which games either pass or fail. All of RPS' girlfriends had an alt they'd made on City Heroes. Not that they played much – but they liked the hats.
Randy: Exactly. I would say – you've been playing that game for hours! They'd answer: yeah. I'm still on the character creator.
RPS: The other thing about City of Heroes I loved, and found hard to go back to fields of orcs afterwards, was how people responded to you. Criminals were doing stuff. People talked about you. You know – atmosphere.
Randy: We were attempting to bring in a living world. Our design philosophy is that if we're going to take the time to put critters in a world, we wanted them to actually have a reason for being there - whether they're dangerous mutants trying to take over the area, or robot cowboys that have been programmed for evil....
Keith Cross: Are there robot cowboys programmed for evil in the game?
Randy: Well, you'll find out this afternoon.
RPS: Exclusive! Quickly!