John Layman Talks "Champions Online"

Cryptic Studios successfully merged the superhero genre and the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMO) with 2004's "City of Heroes." Players could create just about any super-powered being they could think of and battle evil in a fully realized online world. The game won several "Game of the Year" awards, spawned a successful sequel in "City of Villains," and has released thirteen expansions to date. In November 2007, Cryptic sold the "City of Heroes/City of Villains" property to NCSoft, and began working on what was to be the "Marvel Universe Online" MMO.

Early 2008 saw the cancellation of the Marvel MMO, but fans did not have to wait long to find out what Cryptic would be doing next, as they almost immediately announced the "Champions" roleplaying game (RPG) license would be the backbone of their next MMO. The game is slated to launch in the Spring of 2009, and a closed beta-test is already underway.

While much of the attention thus far has been on the software development side of the game, one man has been toiling away writing the story of "Champions Online," taking the rich history of the RPG and using it to create the storylines that players will experience first hand in the game. That man is John Layman, who fans will recognize from his work on "Army of Darkness vs. Marvel Zombies," "Gambit," "Puffed," and numerous other comic book projects. CBR News recently talked with the writer about what it's been like taking on the epic project of "Champions Online."

CBR: The concept of writing an MMO seems almost incomprehensible. How do you even begin to approach a project like "Champions Online" from a writing standpoint?

John Layman: It's a monstrously big task, and it's probably better I didn't know exactly how big, or it would have scared the hell out of me when I first took it on. I've been working on "Champions" for well over a year, and I couldn't even guess the page or word count of the stuff I've written by now. I turned in all the mission giver text for a single neighborhood recently, and that clocked in at 29 pages of dialogue. And that's only the smallest sliver of this very, very immense game. On the plus side, there is a great deal of variety of subject matter and tone as I write from one neighborhood and character or group to the next, so there is never time to get bored.

You bring the experience of having written successfully for comics to this project. Are you a roleplaying gamer as well?

I was a big role-playing gamer in high school and college, playing "D&D" and "Champions." Not so much these days, since video games have sort of filled that niche, and it's a lot easier for me to jump on the computer or the Xbox than get together with a group of people for marathon gaming sessions. Also, I'm very cranky and anti-social in my old age and decrepitude, so hiding being a computer is always preferable to actual human contact.

Since its creation in 1981, the Champions universe has evolved into an amazingly deep roleplaying universe. How much of the locations, iconic characters and major events in the Champions timeline can we expect to see translated into the game?

We are staying very true to the Champions universe. There is a backlist of dozens of sourcebooks, and Champions has grown over the decades to be literally just as vast a superhero universe as Marvel or DC. I've immersed myself in the books and, whenever possible, use pre-existing characters, places and things from the Champions U.

However, Cryptic bought the Champions I.P. outright, so while we strive to stay true to the universe, we do have the option to change something if we see fit. Say there is a character we want to use, but his or her costume or origin is a little bit on the boring side. If we want to spice it up, we have that option.

How closely are you currently working with Hero Games, the former owners of the Champions I.P.? Do they offer feedback around story ideas, character concepts, etc?

I'm on I.M. with Steve Long from Hero Games all day, the overseer of Champions RPG fiction. I consult him regularly, getting his feedback and ideas. He's a sounding board, and a research resource, and we bounce ideas back and forth until we come up with something we both like. Then it ends up in both the video game and Hero Games' RPG sourcebooks.

How would you characterize the overall tone of the "Champions Online" universe?

It's light, but not campy. Not grim and gritty. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it doesn't veer into outright silliness either. Even when the world is threatened by some diabolical supervillain, we don't want players to lose sight of the fact that the game is supposed to be fun.

In terms of process, do the developers give you quests or levels that you then create a story around, or is it vice versa?

It's a collaborative process. Before every new area or zone, I go into meeting with design leads and we determine parameters, what we can and cannot do, how many villains and groups we can have, themes, etc. Then I write a big-ass design document where I lay out the fiction, the character, villains, and missions.

Later on, once designers are working on that area, they may come back to me and say "we need to change this," or "we need this or that to make gameplay better," so you have to be flexible, and be prepared to change and adapt. That's something I've learned to do anyway as a freelance writer working for employers and editors. Don't ever get so attached to your story you aren't willing to change it if it can be made cooler and more fun for the players.

After the designers have implemented the missions, I go back in and put the words in everybody's mouths, the mission givers, the ambient text of critters and villains and NPCs in the area, even description of inventory items and objects.

How are adventures structured in terms of story? Do individual quests play out as episodes, or issues of a comic book?

"Champions Online" is too big for any one story. We're dealing with a vast world (and beyond!) with dozens if not hundreds of supervillains and enemy races and evil organizations, all with their own sinister plans and dark ambitions. That being said, there are some over-arching stories that play out through the course of the game, while others are smaller, and span a neighborhood or chain of quests, which often culminate in a visit to a "stronghold" instance or showdown with a particular supervillain.

Were you able to use some of the material you had started working on for the Marvel MMO when the project transitioned to "Champions Online?"

Nope. We wiped the slate clean and started anew. Of course, I had worked on Marvel for about six months when that game magically disappeared, and I learned a lot in that time, since I was new to the world of MMO writing. For me, it was a good practice run of what was and was not realistic for me to propose and to write in terms of missions and storylines.

Between late 2007 and early 2008, Cryptic went from selling "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains," to dealing with the cancellation of the "Marvel Universe" MMO, to buying the Champions I.P. What was it like as a developer going through that amount of transition in such a short time?

I came to Cryptic after "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains" launched, and never had anything to do with those games. Cryptic was looking for an actual comic book writer, preferably one with a Marvel track record, and I'd done "Gambit" and "House of M: Fantastic Four" and "Sentinel Squad O*N*E" for Marvel, and had just wrapped up "Marvel Zombies/Army of Darkness." I'd also had some other video game writing credits under my belt, including "Metroid: Hunters" for the DS, the "Marvel Trading Card Game" for the PSP, and a few others.

When Marvel went away due to circumstances beyond our control and no fault of Cryptic's or the quality of the game, I was pretty shell-shocked. I'd left freelance writing and moved for the full-time job, after all. I'm happy to say it's turned out for the better, though. I ended up playing a bigger role with "Champions" than I (and probably people at Cryptic) initially anticipated. It also gave me a lot of creative freedom, and I think people who are familiar with my work (both of you!) will see a lot of the same slightly skewed sensibilities I've brought to a lot of my comic work in "Champions," from pun-filled mission names to a lot of humorous ambient background text. I even managed to squeeze my sweet, soft, kitty-cat Reggie into one of the missions, which I think is something which would come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.

"Champions" turned out to be a much better fit with what I enjoy to be doing, thankfully.

We know that players will have tons of options when customizing their physical appearance. What mechanism will they have to create a narrative for their character?

That's something still in development, and something I can't really comment on, other than to say we want every aspect of "Champions" to be customizable, so players can have a completely unique experience with every character, and create exactly the sort of superhero they want. That even extends to the creation of each character's arch-enemy, their nemesis, which is also completely designed by the player, who will vex and challenge the player throughout their superheroic career, growing more powerful as a villain just as the player grows more powerful as a hero.

How deep will the character creation system actually be? Would I be able to create my slightly overweight, power armor-wearing octopus/minotaur hybrid?

It's incredibly vast, and I would not be surprised if it is the biggest character creator in all of video games. What's more, every time I log on to the game, which is almost daily, there are more new pieces, so the amount of choices you have in making your own unique character is staggering, spectacular, and almost infinite.

Can you explain the character creation system in terms of how archetypes and powers work together?

Actually, based on a player feedback, we've dumped the idea of archetypes. Again, we decided we want player's to have exactly the hero they want to have, so we don't want them stuck with just fire powers, or supernatural powers, or whatever. Players can mix and match powers to create a superhero precisely how they want to, no matter how crazy or unlikely the combination of powers is.

What sort of web integration will we see for the game? Will there be a community site to share characters, form groups, etc?

We've already got an active community and a regularly updated sight with screenshots and game videos and character bios and developer interviews and concept art and podcasts and forums and all sorts of good stuff. Anybody interested in the game can go to www.champions-online.com and sign up. We've got players in Beta already, and signing up to our web site is the best way to get into the Beta.

Any word on the subscription model yet?

Nope. We haven't announced it yet. And if it's been figured out yet, nobody's told me. Again: just the writer guy.

Are you working on any other comic book projects, or exclusively video games at the moment?

I have two issues finished and approved of "Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen" forthcoming, and Oni tells me these issues will be out before the end of the century. I've also been developing my first creator-owned ongoing, coming this spring. It's called "Chew," with spectacular art by a guy named Rob Guillory. We plan on doing for cannibalism what "Walking Dead" does every month for zombies.

"Champions Online" is currently scheduled for release in the Spring.

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