By my reckoning, Champions may have been the second tabletop RPG I ever played. Near as I can figure this was probably back in 1983 or so. The game has an ancient pedigree, and an honored one in the tabletop hobby.
The original character mechanics tradition of tabletop RPGs was the one established by D&D. You made a character by picking a race and class and buying equipment. Together, the race and class pretty much determined what the character could do. You’d start at first level and gradually work your way up, and as you gained new levels new abilities would become available to you, determined again by your class.
Champions, along with GDW’s Traveller, was one of the games that shook that up. Your character wasn’t necessarily a raw noob straight out of wizard’s apprenticeship or city guard training or whatever. The process of character creation determined what your character could do piece by piece, instead of in a class-shaped bundle that would then sequester some of the neater stuff in it until later. In Champions, if you wanted the ability to travel between dimensions, you spent some points on that. The system let you determine what package of abilities were logical for your character, and further, how those abilities grew over time. Experience points in Champions were the same points that you spent in character creation, and as you got them you could hoard them for new powers or slowly make your existing powers more powerful.
What we might call the “class-based” approach has some appeal, however. Among other things, it makes character creation much faster, and much easier for the utter newbie to swallow. The same player, after much experience, might prefer to have more control over character abilities, but the class-based approach doesn’t typically allow for much of that.
The debate over the two approaches, along with various hybrids, is an old one in tabletop circles, and one that’s even playing out in a parallel way, after a fashion. The old stalwart of EQ and the new bruiser of WoW follow the old class-based model very closely. And again, it’s the superhero and sci-fi titles, this time in the form of City of Heroes and EVE Online, that are the smaller but scrappy challengers.
No sci-fi MMO looks realistically poised to overwhelm EVE in the sci-fi corner of the market, at least until Star Wars: The Old Republic arrives on the scene, and even then I am fully preapred to agrue that Star Wars is more fantasy with blasters and spaceships than it is science fiction – and I would bet that even if SW:TOR borrows very little from the EQ/WoW paradigm (which would surprise a lot of people,) that it will play even less like EVE Online. This is a point I’d love to be proven wrong on, however.
But with CoH starting to show some age in terms of both graphics and gameplay, I think there’s room for, say, Champions Onlne or DC Universe Online to come in and take over that market segment. Not to the point of drving CoH out of business, although with NCSoft in charge you never know.
It looks to me, though, like Champions Online is going to be very much a next generation City of Heroes, which isn’t very surprising considering that both are from the same development house. A quest-driven class and level based superhero game just isn’t as cool as one where you can design your own powers, and CO will only let you play with the cosmetic aspect of that – which will in truth be very neat in its own right.
DC Universe has somewhat more potential in this regard, I think, and in fact, with it and the Agency in the pipeline and an already successful Free Realms, the next couple of years may turn out to be moderately humungous for SOE. DCUO promises to make the environment much more interactive, so that you can, for example, pick up trucks and throw them at your enemies, and maybe even rip up the pavement to trap your foes as they await pickup by the authorities. I’m not sure yet just how much you’ll be able to interact with the world, but even just the stuff I’ve seen in gameplay videos looks like it’s a major advance in this kind of MMO. On the downside, the character creator will almost certainly not be as flexible as the one in Champions Online, and the character models in general don’t look very good to me, although it’s probably too early to say.
I probably want to like Champions Online more – I hold the IP in high regard, whereas I was always more of a Marvel guy in my comics-buying days of yore, when rocks were soft and when Wolverine was just another X-Man. I hope that both are successes, however… even if neither one really turns out to be the true successor of the Champions of my youth.