GenCon 2008 – The Video Games

With the “death” of E3, GenCon vowed to pick up some of the slack by courting video game publishers. While the video game contingent at GenCon hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds, there was still a strong showing of publishers, particularly of computer RPGs and online games.

One section of the dealer’s hall was set aside for the video and computer game companies, partly due to their somewhat louder than average production values. In addition to open gaming on various PCs and consoles, there were several online RPGs promoting themselves to the GenCon crowd. Two of the largest were EverQuest 2 and Champions: Online . I was able to snag an interview with Randy Mosiondz, Lead Game Designer on the Champions: Online RPG over at Cryptic Studios, which I’ll talk about later.

As a fan of boardgames, one of the biggest news announcements to me was Fantasy Flight Games’ revelation that several of their boardgame titles will be headed to Xbox Live for download and online play. Their popular card-based air combat game, Wings of War is slated to be out this winter on Xbox Live and PS3 Online. Up to eight players will be able to play the game in campaign mode. The interface and graphics looked great and the game itself is a direct translation of the excellent boardgame. Players have a deck of maneuver cards and must program in their airplane’s movement to try to get into position where they can fire on the enemy. Various planes have different decks of cards that can be used, making them better or worse at particular styles of maneuvers. Fantasy Flights’ World War 2 tactical wargame, Tide of Iron is slated to be the next boardgame to get the Xbox Live treatment. They’re hoping to have it out some time next year.

While Blizzard and their World of Warcraft property were not on the show floor, one of the more promoted games at the convention was the new World of Warcraft miniatures game by Upper Deck. The game is played with just a few miniatures on a roughly 6×7 hexagonal grid. Each player controls one or more miniatures belonging to one of three factions: Horde, Alliance, or Monsters. Taking about 20 to 30 minutes to play, the game is based around players attempting to eliminate enemy figures or controlling special Victory Point hexagons during specific times in the game. Rather than an I GO – You Go style of play, each figure can perform their special actions at a tick cost (one round of play is broken into phases of time called ticks). If a figure uses its ability, it can’t be activated again until that many ticks have passed by. Thus, miniatures that use more impressive abilities end up spending more downtime between activations. The starter game is ready to play right out of the box with two teams of two figures each. It should be available in November with additional booster packages shipping near the same time. A deluxe version of the starter set will have a nicer play map, six randomized figures, and should be available in December. The figures look very good, and Upper Deck has saved some of the expense by having generic figure bases for tracking statistics. Players simply plug their desired figure into a base of the correct faction, and it is ready to play.

One of the highlights of the convention for me was a chance to sit down with Randy Mosiondz and chat about Cryptic Studios upcoming Champions: Online MMORPG. I enjoy MMORPGs, but wish I had more time to play them. In addition, I’m a very big fan of the Champions RPG system due to its great superhero theme and extreme flexibility for creating nearly any sort of superhero. Much of that has been brought over to the online game as well. The artsy folks are very excited about customizing their heroes. In other superhero online games, players can make some pretty nifty costumes, Champions: Online goes several steps farther. Sure, there are many, many new outfits, body styles, accessories, and loads of color and lighting opportunities to apply to one’s hero, but in Champions: Online you can even design the special effects of your super powers. Don’t like the default blue lighting bolts with your power and want to shoot green stars instead? No problem. The customization doesn’t stop there, even the powers themselves are highly customizable, following in the footsteps of the Champions game system. Basic energy attack powers could be made more penetrating, cause area effects, or even be much more likely to blow your enemy into a nearby window pane. (And yes, there are lots and lots of environmental toys waiting to be picked up, moved around, and destroyed.) So you think we’re done with customizing? Think again. You even get to design your own personal nemesis. Yes, your own arch-villain who will appear now again to be a thorn in your side, cracking wise cracks about your lot in life. And he (or she) will be wearing the arch villain costume you designed. Not only that, but you get to design his (or her) minions as well. Does your personal arch villain surround himself with football players wielding bats, or maybe cowboy hat wearing submachine gun toting ghosts? It’s your game experience and if you’re willing to put the time into designing things, you’re good to go.

Rather than the Champions straight point-buy system for superpowers, Champions:Online will use a mix of levels and some upgrade slots or points to allow players to customize. A handy analysis tool will try to keep you informed if you are starting to specialize too far one way or another (too defensive, too offensive, etc…) You’re free to do whatever you like, but it is always good to know if you’re purposely giving yourself a bit of an Achilles heel. Body slot upgrades will help provide a semblance of “phat loot” to those looking to collect lots of cool toys. However, the core abilities of your character will be more important than any smaller upgrades tools in body slots can provide. Gamers who just can’t decide on what to do with their character will have some ret-con options available to make changes if a particular hero style seems to lack that special something. I particularly like how both skills and super senses have been added into the game. The few skills that are present in the game can be used during skill challenges in adventures, while special senses possessed by players will often affect the behavior of a player’s local overhead “radar”.

Playing Champions: Online should be fairly involving. Weaker attacks can be used on opponents to build endurance levels far beyond the standard setting. Then, more powerful attacks that consume large amounts of endurance can be released. If a character is completely out of endurance or even has excess levels of endurance, it will slowly reset back to its standard value. Casual play is important, so while 5 player grouping will be the standard, there should be plenty of solo play opportunities for the less hardcore players. I’m definitely in two minds about this game. On the one hand, I can’t wait to try it out, on the other I know I really don’t have the kind of time this game might soak up! Cryptic Studios has put out some fine online games, from what I can see so far, Champions: Online is set to be a major player in the MMORPG arena.

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