File-N-Forget Podcast: Champions Online Special
A few weeks back (June 23rd to be exact) I had the pleasure of taking a quick trip out to sunny San Jose, California to visit the offices of MMO Developer Cryptic Studios. While there I got an update on the studio’s plans and their upcoming release Champions Online. Through fortuitous events I was lucky enough to get interview time with the company’s Chief Creative Officer Jack Emmert.
Champions Online is Cryptic’s latest MMO. Once again the topic de jeur is Super Heroes but this time the platform is a bit different since the game is being developed for both the PC and Xbox 360 platforms and is adopting and expanding the world setting and characters originally developed for the popular and long-published Champions Pen-and-paper RPG.
Mr. Emmert was kind enough to agree to allow the interview to be recorded and I’ve turned the entire 12 minutes into the first Special Edition of the File-N-Forget Podcast.
The podcast interview can be downloaded here and found on the File-N-Forget podcast page along with the other 30+ weekly episodes.
For those who prefer their interviews typed you can read a transcript of the conversation after the jump.
Keep an eye out in the coming weeks as the embargo lifts and I can share the details of my Champions Online Gamer’s Day experience more completely.
<Gaming Today:> Welcome to this special edition of the File-N-Forget Podcast, I’m Shawn Sines. Recently I had an opportunity to travel out and visit with the folks at Cryptic Studios to discuss their upcoming console and PC massively multiplayer RPG — Champions Online. While there I cornered Cryptic’s Chief Creative Officer, Jack Emmert, to talk about the game and the studio’s choice of yet another super hero oriented title, this one based on the long running pen-and-paper RPG Champions. Here’s that interview.
<Sound Effect Intro>
<GT:>What made Champions an attractive property for you?
<Jack Emmert:> Well first because I loved it, that was the most important because it was an <intellectual property> that I knew and its just as dear to me as Marvel, or DC <comics>. I had started playing Champions and buying Champions within years of starting buying comic books. So, I must have taken that first edition everywhere with me and made characters, photocopy and fill in the costume and stuff like that and it was certainly one of the inspirations I had with City of Heroes. So being able to go back and actually get that IP was great.
Now from a business point of view, Champions is a recognizable name among a very core demographic, namely role playing gamers and all though people are like ‘Isn’t that really small and niche?’ Well first of all, its certainly smaller than it used to be but back in the 80′s and early 90′s roleplaying game products sold hundreds of thousands of units and there is a vast amount of people out there that have either played Champions… once upon a time, regularly or played it once or twice, or at least recognized it when they went into the store and those people have name recognition. Great! They know the product, they know what we’re about.
Lastly, Champions is just a great name to put on a box about super heroes. So for all those reasons added up it became a no-brainer for us. Because of my connection with Hero Games and Steve Long and Darren Watts, who owned the property, it was easy enough for me to pick up the phone and say “Hey, what can we do?”
<GT:> So this is effectively the third super hero game that you’ve developed. Why another super hero game when you had an opportunity to move on and do something else after you finished City of Heroes and City of Villains and you decided what your next project was? You had another project that came up and kinda went away..
<Jack Emmert:> Yep. Marvel Universe Online
<GT:> What made you move on to Champions?
<Jack Emmert:> Because there were so many things that I had done, and that our team had done in City of Heroes well and things that we didn’t do well and I wanted an opportunity to do a new type of super hero game that went in directions that we chose not too in City of Heroes for any variety of reasons.
There were various game mechanics that we learned from and things we might have done differently and also some things I wish we had done in the first place in a different way. I just wanted a different game you know, this is very different visually. Its a very theme. Its a very different product.
Its like comparing Lord of the Rings Online with Conan Online right? The two are so different in terms of what they’re aiming at and I think that was really a main driver for me, so I’m quite happy to do it. I really enjoyed stretching myself as a designer because I had to do things that I had never done before. I had to learn about console development and console style gameplay as you, yourself, experienced and I hope this is true that we’ve developed a console style action gameplay in an MMO. In doing that, it doesn’t just translate.. you don’t just design a PC game and throw it into a console, so all those were challenges that I really wanted to tackle. I really wanted to grow so in sum total that’s why I still wanted to go forward with a super hero property.
<GT:> Well a tougher question. Do you think that the market as a whole for MMOs is going to recognize that difference or that change from the two current offerings? Are they just going to see it as another name? or an expansion? How are you going to combat that?
<Jack Emmert:> Well, I think that for the vast majority of people, they won’t associate the two because it isn’t called City of Heroes 2, number one. Number two, the style of gameplay is so different. I think anybody who played City of Heroes and didn’t care for it, I think Champions will be a game that offers something completely new and also look, this is going to be on the 360.This will be the first natively developed <MMORPG> game for the 360 and I think all these things combine mean this is a brand new offering, its a different type of game.
After all, Rock Band, right… its the same thing with Rock Band… it is a sequel in a sense to Guitar Hero but I’m not sure anybody really perceives that or cares about that. People still buy Guitar Hero II but Rock Band was something new, something different.
<GT:> So, lets backtrack and talk about the <Champions> property itself a little bit. Like you mentioned, this is a game, or an intellectual property that has 30 years of living, evolving history. Its been through 5 editions. Various creative hands have touched it and adapted it over the years. What impact do you think you’re going to have on that?
<Jack Emmert:> Well considering we own the IP, probably a lot. <Laughs> I know that we’ve been guiding things or are at least in discussion with Steve <Long> and Darren about the future of the IP universe. Now its a lot more cooperative and I think we are certainly bringing and refining the identity of Champions so as a universe it does stand up as its own unique creature in as much as you look at the Wild Cards universe, you look at Top Cow universe, you look DC, you look at Marvel. Each of these have signature themes. Champions is going to have that too. I think that’s something that currently we’re really refining as we work together.
<GT:> This is for the uber geek, small percentage, like you and I, who actually played the game before its digital version but how are you changing the timeline? What kind of impact are you going to have on that? Is there going to be a chronological from what people are expecting? And are you syncing up your changes with the print product?
<Jack Emmert:> Yeah, all the changes are synced up with the print product. Certainly we are focusing on 2008. We are focusing on the events that are taking place probably post just about all the launch products. Those are all in the past at the moment. From the next supplement forward I think we are pretty much going to be in sync with the game and the game time.
<GT:> Can you summarize a little bit about the iconic characters that people can expect to see. I mean obviously Champions is recognizable for a group of people but its not as immediately recognizable as say.. Batman, Superman, Spider-man.
<Jack Emmert:> Yeah, I would say <laugh>
<GT:> There are obviously those types of personages in this universe. Which ones come to mind as the key movers and shakers in your game?
<Jack Emmert:> Well the two primary: on the good side is Defender, James Harmon, a man who developed powered armor in the wake of the destruction of Detroit wanting to do good. On the evil side its Dr. Destroyer, a mysterious figure long thought dead, now reappeared. Although nobody’s really quite sure of his true identity.
All the Champions fans will be happy to see everybody from Grond, Foxbat, Justicar, to Witchcraft, Iron Clad… We are going deep into the rogues gallery when you start stomping around Stronghold Prison and you’ll be running into some big bads that you recognize and we’ll be seeing them all throughout the game.
<GT:> When you were doing the media briefing earlier today, you were discussing that your design goal was to let players experience what it is to play a comic book.
<Jack Emmert:> Yes.
<GT:> How do you crystallize that? How do you classify that?
<Jack Emmert:> Well I think first there is a visual style that we have in the game thatr communicates comic book. Second I think its also the types of missions, quests, locations that you’re on. I think that you feel like you’re in a comic book more because you’re traveling to exotic locations and you’re fighting evil on a grand scale. Last, but not least, it’s how we convey to the player the story. We’ve got some kinda unique things that we wanna do there so people really feel like ‘Hey! I’m putting together a storyline with my character in a comic book.’ Really Living it.
<GT:> Now, this is probably going to sound like a funny question, but why co-develop across the 360 and the PC when MMOs have traditionally been PC oriented?
<Jack Emmert:> Because somebody’s got to do it. <Laughs> We developed the technology and somebody has to break through that barrier. Eventually it was going to be somebody else and not us and its a perfect genre to give a shot on the console game. Super hero games sell quite well on the console. I myself, I’m looking quite forward to playing the Incredible Hulk game, the movie game, and that’s just one example. Iron Man, not so good, but the Spider-man titles and Ultimate Alliance are great.
<GT:> So it’s kind of a situation where you’re striking while the iron is hot?
<Jack Emmert:> We might as well, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got an appropriate genre, lets do it.
<GT:> Theoretically, if there was any genre and any game in the world you could make, that you haven’t already, what would it be?
<Jack Emmert:> Giant Monsters.
<GT:> So, Godzilla the fighting game?
<Jack Emmert:> Not a fighting game but I’d do some sort of MMO that related to giant monsters.
<GT:> Aren’t you doing some of that with your super hero game?
<Jack Emmert:> Yeah, I mean you already saw, today, a demonstration.
<GT:> Monster Island?
<Jack Emmert:> Yeah, but making something cool like that. Making an MMO based on one of the miniatures properties that I love like WarMachine or Hordes would be awesome. I’ve got a whole host, I mean there’s a sort of pulp game. A horror survivalist/apocalypse game. A super-science, supernatural World War II game. There’s a ton of them I don’t lack for ideas. I’ve got 4 or 5 high concepts that I’d love to do. Who knows when I’ll have the time or the ability.
<GT:> Your games to date have been in the MMO space. Any thoughts about moving outside of MMOs?
<Jack Emmert:> Never. Its what I know how to do. I don’t think that I have much of an interest in going into a tradition 10-20 hour console game right now, a platform jumper or something. I might try to develop non-traditional MMOs as time goes by, as I get more and more intrigued by the nature of trying to reach new audiences. I’m pretty much, you know, a hard core gamer type and I think I’ll make games that fit what I do best.
<GT:> What games are you enjoying <playing> right now?
<Jack Emmert:> Well aside from playing lots of Champions, I’ve been working a lot with the Gaia Online people. They’ve got some cool stuff underway to really expand their outreach. I’ve really been enjoying that alot. On PSP I’m playing the God of War game. My last 360 game that I got was the Conan action game, which I thought was actually kinda underrated. The reviews weren’t terrific but I actually thought it was better than what they were giving it credence for, in my opinion. I am going to go out and buy the Hulk game next paycheck. <Laughs>