Back in 2008 (sheeh, that long ago?) I wrote a piece on City of Heroes / Villains versus Champions Online versus DC Universe Online. It’s time for a review of how these direct competitors are travelling, plus the new challengers in this space.
City of Heroes / Villains (Paragon Studios / NCsoft)
The self-proclaimed “world’s most popular superpowered MMO” is definitely the most established of these titles, but also the one that appears the most tired. Recent updates – Going Rogue, a purchasable expansion especially – were meant to grab a heap of new and exited players and bring them into the game. Past the initial box bounce at GoRo’s launch, I don’t believe CoH/V is doing that well in attracting and keeping new players while seeing a slow but steady drain of existing ones.
The simplest evidence of this lack of new players coming to CoH/V is the forums. There’s a rule of thumb that says about 1 in 10 active players involve themselves on the forums (there was a report that suggested the range went from 4% to 10% depending on the title, but I can’t find a link for that) so the growth of new players should also show up in the growth of the forums, right? Going back to approximately when CoH/V launched its new forums, there were 161 432 players registered on 6 August 2009. This covers all the players on CoH/V’s forum database, active and inactive. Cut to post-GoRo’s launch, when all those new players should have been rushing to the forums, plus 12 months or so of additional growth – looking at the figures as of typing, CoH/V has 169 602 registered players on its forums. In more than a year, in a game constantly cited for its engaged community, CoH/V has seen less than 10k new registrations. Sure, all those new players may have not signed up to the forum and perhaps GoRo did a great job of reactivating exited players for a look, but I doubt that CoH/V is going to see much player population growth moving forward.
Summary: The old champ has a steady base, but has lost its edge. Arguably its glory days are behind it.
Champions Online (Cryptic Studios / Atari)
As a contender ChampO came out with plenty of swagger, but arguably tripped on its cape and stumbled at launch. Arguably Cryptic had tried to improve over all the problem areas they’d seen with CoH/V, only to create a host of new issues. At twelve months since launch, Cryptic has worked hard to deal with complaints about the game, but the fumble out of the gate is going to be exceptionally hard to recover from… under a subscription payment model, at least.
That said: ChampO’s budget would have been relatively modest for a MMO. Cryptic spent in the realm of US$8m – $12m to develop CoH and then another US$6m or so on CoV, and I’ve heard rumours that Star Trek Online was in the $15m – $20m range, so I’d believe that ChampO would have been in a similar space (although probably a bit more all up, given that the project was rebooted to Champions when Marvel pulled out). As such, it can probably afford to run at lower player levels – not that Cryptic wants that, but… – for longer without collapsing under its development debt.
Ultimately the biggest issue with ChampO is that it is quite complex for a casual MMO, but too shallow to be considered a ‘deep’ title. It has improvements over CoH/V, but it also has some bigger flaws.
Summary: Told everyone it was going to be the superhero MMO to watch, only to stumble early on. Still in the fight, but definitely the underdog.
DC Universe Online (Sony Online Entertainment)
DCUO is going to be an interesting experiment. Will it be the first next gen MMO to show that you can successfully build the same title for the PC and a console? Will console players see enough value to pay a subscription fee? Will PC players want to put a sub fee into a console-style action game? I could keep going, but won’t – lots of questions float around DCUO.
SOE doesn’t really help its case in trying to be both communicative with the potential player base and also keeping tight-lipped, leading to such face-palmingly stupid things such as the announcement that hypothetically secret identities may be in DCUO, but they can’t say for sure, but hypothetically yes. (Also: by making an announcement that they may be announcing secret identities later on, the DCUO devs have started to build expectation that secret identities will be something special. If all it turns out to be is a costume change animation into civilian clothes, a number of players will be very disappointed.)
And this from a title that was originally going to be launching November 2 2010 despite existing in pretty much a marketing blackout.
Early reports I’ve heard around DCUO is that it is fun, but whether it is fun in the longer term and fun enough to pay $15 a month for is another story. That said, it is trying something a bit different in focusing heavily on a physics-based engine and more beat’em up-style gameplay which may help it grab an audience. Launching (at this point, anyway) during Q1 2011, DCUO could go in numerous directions, grabbing a large PC / PS3 audience, doing well on one platform and not on the other or even potentially sinking like a stone.
Summary: Been doing a lot of press saying how strong it is going to be as a competitor, but chooses to hide itself away rather than show its full form. Could be writing hype cheques it can’t cash.
Super Hero Squad Online (The Amazing Society / Gazillion)
Some people may discount SHSO as only for kids and therefore outside of being serious competition for other superhero MMOs, but it offers enough differences that could make it a surprising success. Being a free-to-play browser-based MMO lowers the barriers to entry significantly and opens the door up for millions of triallists (something that is less likely to happen when you have to pay US$50 to even start a game). If SHSO has any legs it could easily attract enough players to pay for real money transaction (RMT) aspects (which outside of buying costumes, buying cards for the card game element and probably items for the customisable player bases haven’t been outlined yet) and be more profitable than some of its larger competitors.
What stands out to me that in a genre where game developers are very clear in keeping the lore-based / IP-based characters out of player hands for the most part, SHSO makes being able to play existing Marvel characters (and having access to an entire team of them) the core feature. The card game for PvP purposes (a nod to Wizard101′s success there, methinks) allows a different type of play and one that could certainly complement the power-based fighting seen in videos released to date.
Due out in 2011, SHSO could easily have a winning combination of Marvel characters mixed with broadly appealing gameplay plus low barriers to getting started. I’m still not sure that Gazillion isn’t taking on too much too quickly or juggling too much, but SHSO certainly fills a corner of the market neglected by other superhero-based titles.
Summary: The youngster in the mix who could surprise the rest. Or at least hold its own.
Marvel Universe Online (Gargantuan / Gazillion)
Things we know about this version of the Marvel MMO:
- It will have Marvel characters in it.
- It will be a massively multiplayer title.
- Not only is this the fourth run at a Marvel MMO, it’s the second one called Marvel Universe Online.
That’s it. It’ll be interested to see what Gargantuan / Gazillion take as their approach. I’m sure they are watching CoH/V, ChampO and DCUO very closely. Let’s hope they learn the right lessons and can apply them.
Summary: In training, but no idea if what will appear is going to be world-class heavyweight quality or closer to local gym bantam weight.