Heroclix Online PreviewA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Christopher Power
Heroclix is a collectible miniatures game produced by Wizkids Games, where players duke it out with teams from a collection of figures representing their favourite super-heroes! It is currently the 3rd best selling collectible game, last month de-throning Pokemon from the number 3 spot. Recently Wizkids has expanded the game to include licenses from sci-fi, fantasy and video game genres. This article discusses a special preview of the upcoming online game Heroclix Online!
Heroclix, my favourite collectible miniatures game of all time, for which I own far too many pieces, is coming to a Windows desktop near you. Wizkids, the makers of Heroclix, and Icarus Studios are positioning the Heroclix Online game to draw in those who have lapsed in their play, in particular those who have family or work constraints that keep them from playing regularly. Finding myself in such a situation, I find this premise intriguing and exciting. The question is: can an online environment deliver a satisfying game experience for both the casual and hardcore gamer? Come with me on this special preview!
The game itself loads up to a view that is similar to many of the board game sites/poker websites that are on the web. You launch the game and are presented with a set of tabbed screens that provide you with access to a game Lobby, your collection of figures, the store and support information.
Once you choose to enter a game, either in a tournament or in a public match, you are presented with a set of wizard interaction screens that lead you through initiative, map choosing and placing your figures. You have an isometric view of the game board map, which is rendered in 3D with 3D terrain built up on it. In the preview I was able to play on 2 of the 3 maps available. One was the Asgardian themed "Bifrost Bridge", which has 4 classic style castle towers, a waterway in the centre and the actual Rainbow Bridge that you can travel on during the game. The other was the Armor Wars map "The Lab", which is meant to replicate the Iron Man labs. There are several rooms and walls, 3D consoles and several suits of armor. I was very sceptical of this choice of having 3D maps, which most people play on 2D printed maps; however they worked surprisingly well and looked quite good. Most of the time you were able to see pieces clearly. The maps could be rotated and zoomed in on, so that you could see where your opponents were and how they were positioned.
In addition to the 3D maps, there are also 3D models of each Heroclix piece in play. Similarly, there are 3D models for the objects. It is always satisfying to be able to see the old broken TV set Spider-man is going to hoist to pound someone. The models have enough detail that you recognize them as the characters.
Some characters in the Heroclix game have transluscent plastic. One example is the Spider-man sculpt from Hammer of Thor where Spider-man has shown himself worthy of Mjolnir.
In the game itself, the lightning effect is actually animated with blue lighting. I'm not sure how much that adds to the game. Similarly, water effects have reflections that run constantly in the lighting effects.
The game looked quite good, even on my Mac laptop running in a virtualised environment of Windows.
The interface has improved drastically since the beginning of beta. The actual actions that players make in relation to pieces are very straight forward and there are tips you can enable/disable that explain each step of each action. Whereas when I played the early beta I was left with trial and error to move pieces around the board, this time I was able to pick up and play right from the opening move. Even with complicated power combinations I was able to understand what I had to do. In terms of the actual gameplay, the only thing I would improve is that I would include more feedback to the players regarding their actions. There were several times I hit buttons, for instance confirming a roll, where the button did not change to indicate I had committed to the roll. Given that many of these dialogues with the user involve interactions where you wait for your opponent, there were a few times I caught myself clicking the button over and over again wondering if I had done the right thing.
The interfaces for signing up for games and tournaments are equally straightforward. There are a few inconsistencies that could be tightened up. For instance, you build "Forces" in your collection, but then they are referred to as something else when you select them for games. However, many of these items are cosmetic in nature.
There were only two serious flaws in the usability of the interface that struck me while I was working with the game:
- In order to chat, I had to interact with a separate window that can be open and closed within the game interface. Gaining focus to chat in this window involves clicking with the mouse. As a skilled MMOG player this drove me a bit mad because I couldn't find a keystroke to activate the chat bar.
- There is a distinct inconsistency in how you interact with pieces in comparison to how you interact with the map. Actions relating to the characters are all through the mouse, but there were keyboard shortcuts for selecting the pieces on the board; however, I could not find one for actually performing the actions on the radial menu that appears. In comparison, most of the map interaction is only through the keyboard. There is a graphical, mouse targetable menu for moving the position of the camera to a different side of the table; however, zooming in on the map and incremental movements are all through the keyboard with no mouse equivalent. Having a radial menu of some kind, or another way to keep your interactions consistent, would remove some of this confusion.
When I logged in on Saturday I found that there were several tournaments planned, and I chose to participate in the 4-person sealed booster tournament. When you pay your ClixBux, you get a seat at the table and 2 virtual booster packs of 5 figures a piece. Each person receives 5 minutes to build their teams from the boosters and then the matchups are played once an hour. All of this was very smooth. Pairings were made, and you were given a 5 min letting you know your match would start and who you would be playing.
When the game comes up, your chat is limited with only your opponent, not everyone in the lobby. This was a bit of a surprise, but consistent with other online board game settings.
The game itself kept track of many of the niggling details of the game, such as calculating lines of fire, and let you know if you were trying to do something illegal. Further, it told you when you could particular actions, like using the power Probability Control to make your opponent reroll on their turn. It also handled action tokens, the indicator of who had acted in the last two rounds, and cleared them when appropriate. Having all of this looked after does make gameplay a bit smoother, giving the player the opportunity to focus on positioning and tactics.
I played two games, one with Overlord and one with RajunCajun. Thanks to them both if they are reading this article. After the games, I was asked whether I liked my opponents and whether or not I would like to add them to my friends list for the game. That type of support for building up communities of players was quite impressive.
In many ways, the game provided exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to play in a competitive environment, to meet new people from all over the world, and most importantly to play my favourite game. I bantered a bit with my opponents, we joked about critical hits and critical misses, we gasped when attacks were evaded and celebrated when a particularly good move was made. All in all, that made the game for me in so many ways. The only thing missing is the ability to look in on other games and see what people are doing in the tournament.
In the age of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, there are several examples of collectible online games that have done well. Magic the Gathering Online, Magic the Gathering Tactics, Shadow Era and, the closest to HCOnline, Pax Nora, all have succeeded in the marketplace where most people wrote them off as not being tenable. There are a variety of business models at play, usually selling virtual boosters at a portion of the cost of physical real-world pieces. In some cases these games are free to play, others have a subscription fee. Some charge for tournament play, others do not. Finally, some items allow you to trade in virtual pieces of real-world equivalents.
Pricing seems to be the sticking point for me with HCOnline. In considering if I would play this game, I have to consider what I would pay, and how often would I pay it. At one time I swore I would never pay over $10 per month for a MMOG, but the reality is that I played World of Warcraft for 3 years at $15 per month. So it isn't that I mind paying for my entertainment. After all, $15 is barely a movie ticket these days.
While I assume the pricing scheme is still in flux for HCOnline, right now it is punishingly high to play the game. Players buy ClixBux and then they use ClixBux to buy boosters, starter sets and enter tournaments. I was given 1000 ClixBux to play around with for this preview. I bought a couple of boosters, and entered a tournament. I was left with precious little left, which surprised me a bit. Looking at the costs for ClixBux, it is $5 for every 100 ClixBux, and you have to buy at least $10 worth each time you buy. That means that the tournament I entered, which cost 478 ClixBux actually cost close to $25. So that is $25 for 2 boosters, which equate to 1s and 0s on a server farm somewhere, and a couple of hours of play. That means I paid the MRSP of the physical boosters to play those two games. Checking the online store, the boosters and bricks of figures also go for MRSP. Sure, I get to keep my virtual pieces, but what does that even mean in the grand scheme of things?
I'm sorry, but that is far too expensive. Even if there was a chance that I could afford to pay that much for a virtual game, I would not do so. Even if there was a way to cash in the virtual pieces for physical pieces, I'm not sure I would do so. I can play 2 MMOGs for that price, and if I played each for 1 hour it would be the same value. Add to that the fact that I would rather spend that $25 on physicalpieces, and you have a pretty good case for why I wouldn't play the game priced as it is now.
Has Wizkids and Icarus Studios succeeded in what they set out to do? Well, yes and no. The game has some things to be cleaned up in it still, but hopefully the beta irons those out. Beyond that, the game is quite playable, and seems to recreate some of the things that I dearly love about the tournament environment of Heroclix. Indeed, it was really great to pull boosters, even virtually, try to build a team and then go head to head against two different opponents, neither of whom I've ever played before. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Indeed, I would love to play with all of my buddies in North America who I never see anymore and miss playing with.
However, the pricing scheme needs to be looked at before I can get into line and suggest people play it. Charging MRSP for digital replicas of packaged petroleum based superhero miniatures seems pretty inappropriate.
I commend Icarus Studios and Wizkids. When I played the beta about 8 months ago, the game was in a state where I wasn't sure what it would become. Now, it is a more polished product, and I would love to play it in the future. Here's hoping they convince me to play!