As we near the big launch of F2P, I can't help but be stuck on the idea of Archetypes. Having a hero fixed into a particular power build seems contrary to the nature of CO, and when those builds are inferior to Custom characters built for the exact same things, well... let's just say a lot of people, including many of you readers here at Massively, don't see eye-to-eye with the Archetype design decision.
Naturally, I have my own ideas. Restricting F2P players in some way to encourage premium subscriptions is definitely something Cryptic should do, but there are quite a number of reasons why the existing path is... just a bad idea.
My secret peeves of game design
The major issue with the Archetype system is something I like to call Final Fantasy syndrome. One of the hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series is that characters start out terrible and weak, and the best classes and upgrades only unlock after many long hours of epic gameplay. The Final Fantasy games stay popular through inventive system design and engaging plotlines, but players generally have to "suffer" through a slow-moving early game. It's also generally more acceptable for a slower-paced game to have power creep of the levels present in Final Fantasy titles.
In the other corner, we have the ideal for fast-paced, action-oriented games: God of War syndrome. In God of War, Kratos begins the game with the majority of his essential systems, including all of his basic evasive moves and the lion's share of his useful combos and grabs. He also begins the game with the most useful magic; while there are other fun spells, the game can be completed without ever really using any of them except when needed to solve puzzles.
Why is the God of War method superior? If you're a novice player, nothing feels worse than playing a handicapped character for a number of levels before getting to the meat of the game. Those first few hours of gameplay are absolutely critical for customer retention, so first impressions are vital, especially for MMORPGs. A boring early experience can't be solved by an interesting late game; if a player doesn't like the first 5-10 hours, he will probably choose another F2P gaming experience.
Archetypes follow the Final Fantasy method. They have a slow creep of power towards an eventual peak, generally in the very late levels. Unfortunately, CO's power system doesn't agree well with this method. Top-level builds generally have a minimum of attacks, filling the middle levels with useful utility powers and a mainstay attack or two until the critical mega-attack unlocks. Some builds even get these critical "fun attacks" at ridiculously low levels. Ice and Infernal builds can get their power AoEs as soon as they exit the tutorial, for instance.
In either case, the top-level Tier 3 attacks are generally selected at level 14 or level 23 when they first become available, and the powerful Tier 1 and Tier 2 attacks are selected even earlier. While the power difference between Archetypes and Custom heroes is significant at level 40, it is insurmountably large at level 15. Low-level heroes can be very powerful and exciting at these low levels, which makes the desire to keep playing and possibly buying that much greater. The level 40 potential isn't as important as the level 8 or the level 15; it's absolutely vital to the survival of Champions F2P that heroes feel powerful at those critical low levels.
The first fix: Top-tier build choices
I think one possible solution is to keep the current design (fixed power selection with a few customization choices) but streamline the Archetype frameworks to fit proven, effective hero builds. Instead of hamstringing people with the developer idea of how the game should be played, the builds should deeply conform with player ideas of what is powerful and squeeze the maximum potential out of those early levels.
For a great example in the current F2P Archetypes, I'll use the old version of the Glacier (this element was sadly nerfed), who gained the Frost Breath power extremely early at level 6. Frost Breath is an extremely useful AoE power, dealing strong damage and stacking Chill movement slows to keep the enemy in its wide cone. Instead of migrating the other Archetypes to this standard of power, the Glacier was nerfed, pushing Frost Breath back while Ice Cage was moved to take its place. I feel a better move would have been to grab those critical high-damage AoE attacks and key powers such as Thermal Reverberation earlier, ideally as early as possible. Forcing players to wait for key powers like Shockwave isn't a good thing in any sense of the term, and forcing players into bad block powers (such as Retaliation in an archery build) is just not a good idea. Builds shouldn't follow a developer-driven idea of build flow; they should fit as much effective stuff as possible into one solid concept.
Focusing builds toward the highest level of player builds (especially in the early low levels) also means focusing more on utility powers. This is especially true of critical defensive skills like active defenses, self-heals, and energy-form clicks. Giving Archetype heroes these powerful options reduces their reliance on crafted or purchased consumable heals and makes them feel more like complete characters.
Currently, Archetype heroes are missing three of the power selections available to Custom heroes. The developers claim that Archetypes don't need those power picks, and that's definitely true, for free-form heroes. Generally, a custom hero is complete by the mid-20s, both in terms of attacks, heals, and utilities. The difference is that Archetype heroes have worthless or redundant power selections all over the place. Top-tier builds are lean and effective, so those extra powers matter less.
My idea is to give Archetypes those three power choices back. This would give Archetypes all their current powers at level 29, which is a huge improvement without changing anything in their builds, since level 30+ features much slower leveling than 1-30.
The other trick is that those powers could be relatively open. Rather than just add fixed powers, Archetypes could add a pool of key utilities, such as Bionic Shielding and Masterful Dodge, and allow Silver players free choice with those three powers. In addition, the previously skipped powers (such as Frost Breath/Snow Storm for Glacier) could also be included in this pool of three.
This is a less extreme fix than completely rebuilding the Archetypes, and it would have a lot of the same benefits. I feel that Archetypes are still a little weak in the early levels, but compressing the endgame powers to come earlier (just before the late game starts) would be a big improvement.
The final fix: Limited open power selection
Rather than force players into a fixed set of options, why not give them a limited power selection? I feel this is the strongest choice, and most fitting of Champions Online's customization system. Instead of getting a fixed power tree, players could select from a pool of Archetype-appropriate powers at each level. I would definitely approve of keeping the fixed passive power at an early level but having all the other powers level-gated with the same Tier system used for Custom characters.
In addition, as I mentioned above, I'd love to see utility powers that are valuable in all builds (like Conviction and Resurgence) be worked in. They could be worked in a "final three" manner or just plopped into the main pool, but I feel that regardless of what solution ends up being used, players need utility powers. Those powers aren't there to "flesh out" builds; they're essential powers critical to any hero.
Ultimately, I feel that while I've spent the fewest words on it, this is the best choice because it truly captures the flavor of the game. Silver players can see what the game is like with a limited power selection (ideally with a "Recommended" choice selected from a top-level build) rather than play a completely different, strange version of the game that has little to do with what one gets with a subscription. Although one might argue that the gameplay and content give a good enough "taste," I feel that actually getting to mess with a power build is one of the greatest joys in CO and is the best way to improve retention.
Hopefully, Archetypes get some sweet loving before the big F2P launch on the 25th; I really want those early levels in particular to be on par. Player retention is based largely on new user experience, and the best way to improve the new user experience in a superhero game is to make heroes feel powerful at the outset.
When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.