Experienced Points: Your MMO is a Joke

By Shamus
on Oct 2, 2009
Filed under:
Column

I’m really, really enjoying Champions Online, but the thing is a mess, thematically. It suffers from the same lack of seriousness that poisoned Hellgate: London. Which made me worried that this is the start of an unfortunate trend. Here is what I think of that.

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From the Archives:

  1. Rutskarn says:

    I wonder if this humor’s a carryover from the Champions RPG setting? Like, did the RPG itself encourage jokes and parody, or is this an invention of the vidjmagame writers?

  2. Facus says:

    Enjoyed the article.
    When i first played WoW, i read every quest, explored for hours without gaining exp, and in general enjoyed what the writers and artists had put together without worrying about leveling up or power gaming. One the next run through with an alt, i skip the text and get the exp, but if its the first time, it should be enjoyable to read the quest and experience the setting. Why play the game when its just graphics and sound? if there is no compelling story to go with it?

    oh, side note, it sucks that comments are made, in poor taste usually, about your articles on the escapist. So I comment here so it doesn’t get buried in the vile of adolescent trolls. I enjoyed the DRM article as well.

  3. Rutskarn says:

    Yeah, seriously. Check out Whitetiger there.

    An equivalent:

    Person A: You know, I don’t like how The Olive Garden’s bread rolls are always kind of overcooked. I guess they leave them in too long.

    Person B: That is the most godawful restaurant review I’ve ever read. If you want uncooked food, go to a friggin’ sushi bar, or eat raw chicken. Yeah, you get a real “raw” experience there, like getting SALMONELLA. Also you’re a communist.

    Why do you hate The Olive Garden?

  4. Henebry says:

    I’ve really been enjoying your series on Champions online. Keep ‘em coming!

  5. krellen says:

    City of Heroes only occasionally makes fun of itself and the genre, so maybe with Champions Online Cryptic (who made both) decided to balance the pendulum by going completely the other way.

  6. Sean Riley says:

    I think this could also be part of a general “Let’s be like WoW” attitude. World of Warcraft really drove up the Warcraft mythos’s ‘comic fantasy’ attitude, using a lot of pop culture references and funny jokes to keep the setting lively and fun. The thing is, it knew when to cut that out and go to serious mode, and the writers have generally shown an ability to transition. (Some parts of WoW have creeped me out, as the other extreme.)

    When others try to imitate, bad results can occur.

  7. Dash16 says:

    Only one page? Shamus is running out of words!

  8. karln says:

    When I tried the second WoW expansion it seemed that they were going this way, too. Way too many quests were composed of pop-culture references and poop jokes. I gather from what I’ve been hearing since I left that the game continues to move away from ‘immersive fantasy world’ and toward ‘pop culture themed playground’.

    Not that I play any MMOs at the moment, but I still prefer CoH’s immersive atmosphere to this approach of… what are they doing? Parodying themselves? Something.

  9. Kameron says:

    So, any plans to go back to CoH? I can’t remember your reasons for quitting. Can we expect a comparison post from you anytime soon?

  10. Simon says:

    In defence of Cryptic, the Champions source-material had always been a bit tongue-in-cheek. I think part of the reason is a lot of the original growth was born of the comics of the 80s, post angst comic era and around the start of the light-hearted JLI-styled stuff. It did become a bit “grittier” in the current 5th Edition era when Steve Long took over/saved HERO, but on the whole the Champions Universe had always fairly romantic in scope. And if it seems like a mashup, that’s because it is, since it is a base-line for player groups to customise.

    They do have a seperate line of material called Dark Champions – the same universe but kept seperate because it really is a different type of superhero comic. This is more the style of Batman and Punisher and the like.

    CO seemed to have adopted the ‘4-5’ scale of melodrama/humour. Like how they kept the mayor who is *terrible* at public speaking, and Defender “Look I am Flat On My Back Again” (at least I think that’s deliberate). Little cameos like Steve Short at the comics was neat.

    I’ve quite liked the balance of humour so far, but everyone draws their line differently (I hated Hellsgate, incidentally). As for locations being squished together, I overlook that as a limitation of their implementation of technology/maps to try to keep things close to each other rather than totally seperate locations (sharing the Powerhouse, trainers, etc).

  11. Stephen says:

    I believe Krellen is correct in that it’s quite likely a reaction to how serious CoH takes itself.

    In my experience, though, most game designers are geeks (almost by definition) and, on first being given any kind of game toolset, will be tempted to include some kind of reference or homage to their favorite thing that it reminds them of. On more focused games, it’s probably significantly easier to keep the desired mood in mind and keep a smaller team all on the same page. On an MMO, though, big teams are making big worlds, and eventually someone slips in an in-joke, maybe just because it’s tough to make your 12th mission of the day as creative as your first. And once one person does it, someone else is likely to think it’s okay.

    Unless the company has a strict no-joking policy, and makes sure managers enforce it, a few references are liable to sink in.

    And I sort of prefer Champions at least embracing it, compared to how groan inducing and immersion-breaking it is to find the one mission every so often that has the stupid joke.

  12. Chargone says:

    City of Heroes is apparently full of references and jokes too… they’re mostly just pretty subtle.

    then you run into such fun things as ‘unobtanium’ and mission where you have to ‘retrieve the oxygen destroyer!’ and so on.

    but they’re not plot-missions, so i suppose they don’t count.

  13. HeadHunter says:

    I’ve got to agree with Simon – don’t be too hard on Cryptic for remaining faithful to the setting of the source. Foxbat was always a fan favorite siply because he was goofy and barking mad.

    But there’s a fine line between staying true to the canon and making a world where players feel important and involved. The more I hear about CO, the more I’m glad I’ve held off on buying it.

  14. Spectralist says:

    An interesting article, though I don’t really agree. This especially:
    “Even for those who are there just for the gameplay and PvP, it’s generally a lot nicer to do those things against a dramatic backdrop than to feel like you’ve got a bit part in Meet the Spartans.”

    As someone who is just there for the gameplay, I neither knew nor cared why I was killing robot cowboys. And it would not have increased my enjoyment of the game in the slightest if it were more serious.

    And perhaps I’m misinterpreting but you seem to be implying that a ridiculous setting is inherently a bad idea? That seems off to me.

    @Fracus
    “Why play the game when its just graphics and sound? if there is no compelling story to go with it?”

    Because the game mechanics themselves can present an enjoyable experience. Because the game mechanics themselves can be an enticing work of art.

    Because the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of games fail miserably when it comes to story (Oh really, I have to save the world? Haven’t seen that before) or character (Look at all the one dimensional archetypes! And if you’re lucky enough to even have character development it’s more likely to happen as an abrupt epiphany than as a more gradual and realistic character change). And worse than that they usually don’t manage to integrate the the story well with the gameplay. Most designers don’t even seem to realize that a story should be told in an inherently different way in video games than in books or movies. So you end up with a book or movie cut into 5 or less minute chunks(if you’re lucky) interspersed with 30 minutes of gameplay.

    Sorry that turned into a bit of a rant. I guess what I’m trying to say is if I want a good story I’ll read a book. I’ve never played a game that had a story comparable with a good novel anyway so why bother.

    • Shamus says:

      “And perhaps I’m misinterpreting but you seem to be implying that a ridiculous setting is inherently a bad idea? That seems off to me.”

      Actually, a humor MMO could work, but as with a drmatic MMO, the writing would need to be good. It’s not just the tone but the complete sloppiness of the whole thing. It refuses to TRY and tell a good story, and acts like it’s just kidding. But then it fails to be funny.

  15. GABS says:

    I have to agree with Spectralist. As a rper, I usually ignore the ingame storylines anyway (except for the setting itself) and tell/take part in the stories told by other players or those I create myself. I don’t think I ever read a single line of quest description in wow, not even the quest names. I prefer the CO approach, I don’t read the texts anyway, but the quest titles are pretty funny sometimes. Questing is only means to an end (getting to max level and then rping) for me, and they’ve spiced it up quite nicely with lots and lots of wordplays and such in the quest names.

  16. Randy Johnson says:

    @GABS: As a long time MMO Roleplayer, I do not see how you can Roleplay in a Super Hero game. I would love to get into it, but all the roleplay I have seen so far has been People trying to get their Cybering on. Super Hero RP just seems inherently ridiculous and would require you to be making fun of such just to roleplay. Heroes are corny and say retarded things. Its like, a rule or something.

  17. DKellis says:

    Interestingly, in Champions Online I click through quests without reading them closely by default. I’m a very fast reader, and can usually get the gist of what I’m supposed to do at a glance, but clicking through means that I don’t pick up on all the little subtleties of speech and style.

    I’ve never done this in City of Heroes or World of Warcraft. I do it in CO because after the first dozen or so quests, I’ve realized that a lot of it is not worth reading. At least, not until they fix the spelling errors.

  18. SharpeRifle says:

    Well…I pretty much ignore the quest text after I read it the first time through because I realised much of it didn’t help establish the world at all.

    And thats a problem. I don’t expect an icredibly immersive world. I do expect some serious moments now and then.

    I don’t get these with CO. The game mechanics are just downright fun. I don’t however find myself caring about any of it. I’m one of those people who in CoX has trouble passing a mugging victim in Atlas Park at level 50. I have to tear myself away from that normally…usually by telling myself some low level needs it. But in CO its always…next quest next quest next quest.

    And I discovered something really bad.

    If you write an entire mission as an in-joke about a movie…

    The people who haven’t seen the movie will just think its bad writing. The little Foxbat Anchorman mission…yeah…I never ever have seen Anchorman.

    As a one off it might be forgivable.

    When the game world is basically just one loooong in-joke…

    Well you get CO.

    I’m sorry..I don’t expect the game to last.

  19. Spectralist says:

    Ah, I see. All I really read in the game were the quest titles which were often fairly clever puns. I didn’t quite realize that you were saying the writing was bad as well as comedic.

  20. GABS says:

    @Randy Johnson: It’s pretty easy really, just find the right people ;). What’s your @whatever-adress-thingy?

  21. Vladius says:

    This is why I hate most games that are made and played online – they just look, sound, and act retarded, and in a completely intentional way.

  22. TA says:

    Champions is just creatively bankrupt, is the problem. 80% of mission names are terrible puns. What’s left is just hamfisted references. Like the whole Westworld zone, or the two different contacts for Big Trouble In Little China, or that terrible, terrible Anchorman mission.

    You go to a local news station in Millenium City to stop Foxbat, who has taken over it. There, you find slightly-renamed versions of the entire Anchorman cast. Where among other things, a weatherman named Rock tells you “I can tell you one thing, I love lamps, but I sure don’t love this. If I had my trident, this situation would be completely under control.”

    It’s just an offensively terrible game.

  23. Pete Complete says:

    Is anyone else beginning to realize that storytelling in MMOs is an inherently doomed enterprise?

  24. Simon says:

    Storytelling in MMOs can work, but only if you (the player) is treated as you really are – one of hundreds/thousands/millions. The MM part of it pretty much derails any attempt to make the player feel unique and special. I think storytelling will only work in the form of some sort of campaign thing, where players are little cogs in a big wheel and that special feeling comes from being part of the machine.

    I cannot pin down why I like the non-game-mechanic part of CO so far. Is it nostalgia of old Champions! games? Is it a certain mindset? Am I just crazy? I have everything I can find and went in search of the signs/posters etc you can read for Perk points (not that I care for those points). But I do have to agree the proof-reading and writing quality is not the best.

    My third comment in 3 years. Maybe I am losing it?

  25. TSED says:

    I don’t mind the writing in this game.

    There, I said it. I have so much fun in the game it doesn’t distract me or detract from the experience.

    Some of the puns / etc. I’ve even laughed at.

  26. Maldeus says:

    First, I think CoX storytelling works pretty well. Sure, my level 14 scrapper is not by any means the first one to take out Frostfire, nor will he by any means be the last. But when I defeat the Big Bad in a single-player game, the victory is not dampened by the fact that just about any other human on the planet could’ve picked up the controller and done the same thing, and that many of them have. Similarly, the knowledge that there are many dozen other heroes at my level fighting Frostfire doesn’t bother me, because I’m immersed in the game world such that I can convince myself that those heroes are no doubt busy handling other C-list villains, and that the only heroes fighting Frostfire right now are me and whoever’s helping me out.

    EDIT: Forgot the second bit.

    Shamus, since you’d be the one who’d have to deal with any trolls that might wander in, do you think posting on the Escapist comments that this blog is a place for more civil discussion on your articles would be a good idea, or do you think weeding out the incoming trolls would be more trouble than the potentially insightful comments from the better elements of the Escapist community would be worth?

  27. Daimbert says:

    It sounds to me like the complaint is really that CO is going far too far in the direction of humour, and I don’t want the impression being that humour — even completely ridculous environments — in a comic book game is itself bad.

    In comics, there have always been the occasional lighter storylines. Sometimes things like funhouses and the like are simply the cover for something deeper and more evil (see Arcade from Marvel for a great example of that). And some of them are just breaks from the drama as comic relief or to reset the audience ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BreatherEpisode ) which, in this case, is the player.

    In an MMO, having a variety of utterly odd and humourous cases is more important, in case you want to move away from the hugely dramatic character and instead do a complete parody character, such as (quoting from What The? read in my misspent youth) Forbrush Man, Milk and Cookies, Wolvereena and Ivory, or any number of simple parodies. So having complete joke environments is good, especially in a superhero game.

    What has to happen, though, is that the game has to telegraph which areas are indeed that (unless there is an underlying sinister level to it) so that more serious heroes can avoid them, and give enough darker missions so that darker heroes never HAVE to do them.

    I’m not sure if anyone needs to do the ones that are talked about here. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t complain about them; just avoid them. But if you have to do them, or if all the missions are written like that, then that is indeed a problem. It sounds to me, from what I’m reading here, that the problem is indeed that they’re everywhere. But I could be wrong.

    That being said, in games like CoH and DAoC I really did like the quest text setting the missions up for me.

  28. DKellis says:

    The Champions IP already has the resident “weirdo parody supervillain” in the form of Foxbat, who believes he’s living in a comic book as the greatest supervillain ever. The sourcebook even notes that his campaign purpose is to inject some fourth-wall-breaking comedy. (In CO, Foxbat thinks he’s living in a superhero MMOG.)

    Other wacky types who aren’t in the game yet include Captain Chronos (cheesy 60s idea of a time-traveller) and maybe some of the Teen Champions. The point is that Champions can be campy and funny, but the vast majority of the setting is not supposed to be. Without even going into Dark Champions, we already have supervillains like the Slug (humanoid annelid who transforms other humans into more of himself) and Takofanes (undead Sauron, and the focus of the upcoming Blood Moon event).

    I think the primary problem is that CO can’t decide if it wants to be serious or funny. The situations can be deadly serious if you immerse yourself in the story, but it’s hard to do that when, say, the giant destructive supervillain Hulk-alike is going “You as uninteresting as competing MMO!

    The setting itself never gets a taste of the humour, except for Foxbat. All the comedy is in the incidental NPC dialogue, the item descriptions, and the mission headings, where they break the fourth wall incessantly. (I suppose you can count the critter descriptions, which seem to try emulating the campier sort of alliterative comic book writing.)

    The mission titles also recycle jokes quite often. One contact (Hank Shaw, whom I suspect was created specifically for punnage; he’s certainly not in the Stronghold Champions sourcebook) gives you “Shaw’s Shank Prevention” and “Hank Shaw’s Redemption” back-to-back. The relationship between mission title and mission content can be quite forced at times.

    So it’s not that the MMO is too silly or otherwise, but more that the writers are trying too hard to be clever.

  29. RichVR says:

    FWIW, the Champions Online Forum reacts to this article:

    http://forums.champions-online.com/showthread.php?t=78929

  30. Lise says:

    I was in Champions Online’s beta for a while and I had fun as well but the settings/missions felt slapped together, so I totally agree with the review. It’s less than the comedy was off the wall – I liked that and as mentioned it’s part of the P&P game – but that there were -so many- shifts in direction, too many villains piled on top of each other, very little story continuity, and it did feel very much WoW-ified (Canada especially, for some reason), made for the short attention span crowd (next up, new better, bigger, faster villains and new themed area! gogogo (ignore any nonsensical writing and discontinuity)). Some sort of bigger overarching plot would have helped.

  31. Stringycustard says:

    Now I understand why the backstory of characters doesn’t allow for much, just a short paragraph of bio. In a badly written world, why should any player character have a thorough backstory?

  32. Rolaran says:

    I think it’s sort of the same argument that gets discussed when it comes to D&D and other tabletop games. Which is better, an epic tale of high fantasy, or a beer-and-pretzels game where the bartender has an inexplicable pirate accent? Well, neither is “better” in the conventional sense, both can be fun, but if you’re expecting one and you get the other, it’s a jarring experience. This is the same sort of thing. From what I’ve been able to glean, the Champions tabletop game was pretty tongue-in-cheek. Batman is a little out of place, because this is more a beer-and-pretzels world.

    Admittedly, I wish the writing was a little more genuinely funny, instead of relying on pop-culture puns, but I think it’s not unreasonable to expect the world to be pretty wacky.

  33. Picador says:

    Did you sign up to prowl the city streets as a dark protector, delivering brutal justice to the criminal underbelly of the city? Or maybe you’re more of a Superman type, altruistically helping those in need? Well, I hope you left room in your schedule for fighting (and sometimes getting your ass kicked by) foam-finger wielding fanboys, singing cowboy robots, a super villain who uses ping-pong ball guns, spectral ghost cowboys, and Canadian Velociraptors…

    Batman in Gotham is an iconic figure with incredible appeal. But if you put Batman in a comedy setting he becomes himself a joke. It doesn’t matter what he says or does, if he’s hanging in the zany world of Austin Powers then he’s no longer the Dark Knight, but instead an obsessive and overly serious nutjob ranting about justice and dead parents.

    Echoing the sentiment of a few above: perhaps you and I have been exposed to different samples of Batman and Superman comic books, but frankly, I’m pretty sure each of the “zany” elements you’ve described has shown up in one or both of thse storylines.

    Yes, there have been some periods when Batman comic stories were “dark and gritty”, but for the most part they’ve been pretty zany and off-tthe-wall. Superman even more so. These are stories about men in tights.

    Actually, I think that both Batman and Superman are good examples of how it is, in fact, possible to create a character who is serious and who cares about things, but who is inhabiting an insane world that refuses to take itself seriously. I think that some of the best storylines from either of these comics have involved exactly that — indeed, the conflict beetween Batman and the Joker embodies exactly the kind of distaste and frustration you feel when the world your serious, earnest hero has to deal with refuses to take itself seriously.

    That being said, I hear you on your comment above: if the designers decide to go this route, they should work harder to make it actually funny.

  34. Some Guy says:

    I think what I love most about WoW is that everyone who talks about it always starts out “I rolled a new toon and blah blah blah”. I’m not sure that “toon” is a traditional abbreviation of “character”. But it cetainly seems to fit.

    And the strange thing is that the highest praise any media can ever receive is not anything as evil as “it’s thought provoking”. The only acceptable praise is “it doesn’t take itself seriously”.

    On the other hand, in-jokes and pop-culture references, especially if you keep to the subset of pop culture that is little more than in-jokes and Tolkien references, is relatively easy.

    That was enough to make Diablo 1 and 2 work. I hear that they actually hired a writer for Diablo 3, because apparantly the ability to string letters together is not the same as the ability to write classic literature. Unfortunately, most of the really good writers who can create unique and serious worlds for compelling stories are already busy doing just that, rather than begging game companies for a chance to be outranked by everyone including the janitors. I wonder if that’s why its hard to get a good story?

  35. Blackbird71 says:

    @Simon (25)
    “Storytelling in MMOs can work, but only if you (the player) is treated as you really are – one of hundreds/thousands/millions.”

    That’s what I missed about the original incarnation of SWG – my character there was just one more rebel soldier, trying to make his way. It was when they tried to make things more “iconic” and “Star Wars-y” (yes, they actually used that word) that things went downhill fast.

    Shamus, so far as reading the text quests, i’m right with you. When my wife and I play together, I’m always reading the full details while she skips straight to the objectives. She’s pretty good about being patient, but I think part of her does get annoyed whenever I hold her up because I’m still reading the story. Still, I have to hand it to games like WoW for working valuable details into their story descriptions. Often we’ll be in the middle of a quest, and my wife will get confused and ask something like “wait, where were we going with this again?” or “what was it we were looking for?” I then turn to her and say “what, didn’t you read the quest?” and she then sheepishly turns to her quest log to find out what details she missed in her hurry to play. Well, that was a bit long winded, but I guess my point was that it is possible to make the story important (or at least useful) to playing the game rather then just being window dressing. When it’s done right, you can usually get by without having to pay attention to the story, but if you do take the time to read it, then you’ll be rewarded with some additional clues that make the quests easier to solve.

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