A View from Atlas Park: Interview with Archon Voss

Thomas Foss is a man of many titles. Senior Staff Designer. Zone Director. Archon Voss. Commander of Giant Council Robots. Wearer of a Nosferatu costume to the Cryptic Halloween Party. Whatever you wish to call him, he’s kindly agreed to answer a few questions from CoH Warcry about the CoH/V zones and how they have been (and will be) a-changin’.

Archon Voss aka Thomas Foss - he SAYS this is just a Halloween costume, but can we really be sure?

First off – how did you get to your current role within the CoH/V dev hierarchy? What is some of your past experience / qualifications that lead you to your current position?

I have been creating either art or game designs in the computer industry since 1997, and had designed and published a number of table top games prior to that with my own company, Flagship Games. During that time frame I have worked my way up the ladder as a senior designer, and a lead on projects in other companies.

When I was hired at Cryptic a couple of years plus ago, my first role was to create more immersion into the present zones and then to design more [zones]. In a word, help tell the story better. The entry way to the Hollows was my first task; Striga Isle was my first full design and really gave me a chance to work with the mission writing team and the artists to create a new type of way of telling stories in City of Heroes. [/P]

My roles grew and during a good part of CoV I was managing/leading both the level design team and a good portion of the art team; thus the ad hoc Title of “Zone Director” given by Statesman.

How does a Senior Staff Designer and Zone Director spend their day at Cryptic Studios?

Mostly trying to get enough rent for my Super Groups base!

Days are always different – some days are all meetings, others writing designs, documentation, creating art comps and things like that. Mostly they are spent playing our upcoming updates, reviewing and working with the Design, Art and Tech teams to make zones, missions and zone events the best we can. Daily, my real job is to make sure that my team has all the support, materials and feedback they need to their work done. Mix this in with lots of brain storming, reading of boards and Wednesday comic book design lunch and you have a full day… erm, week.

What challenges do you face in re-designing an “old’ CoH zone that you don’t have when designing a new zone such as Recluse’s Victory?

We have really grown in how the first zones were built and what we are capable of now in so many ways: animations, villain groups, art styles and AI just to name a few. Naturally we want to put all of this back into each of the CoH zones, but we have to be cognizant that the minimum spec for a zone that launched with CoH is lower than the newer zones. This means being very careful with what changes can go in. It doesn’t mean we always play it conservatively; we have to pick our key spots we want to make shiny. The zone events like the Hellions arson is a perfect example of bringing in new art, technology and AI on the NPCs. In Atlas Park, Galaxy City and Kings Row we replaced a great deal of the spawns and their dialogue to make them more flavorful and up to date. The entire CoH zones [have] had a door pass, to make sure that there aren’t any bad guys waiting to jump you when you pop out of your mission doors.

Another very important challenge is the story. It’s okay to make changes in the world, indeed it is great to do so, but they have to make sense, and continue with a story that is fluid. Going to put Arenas in the world? Add in a construction site first, with construction workers talking about what they are making and how their kid is going to clean up in Arena matches.

To me the “City of…” world is real, evolving, alive, and always growing with the players. I am always learning from our players and trying to create a challenging environment that is entertaining.

Approximately (and I will reiterate to all those reading this question: approximately) how long does it take to redesign an “old” CoH zone to include the desired new zone features / functionality? What part of the redesign ends up taking the longest time to do?

It really depends on the changes done to the zone. The changes to the spawns in Atlas Park, Galaxy City and Kings Row (now in I7) took about a month each. It was really worth it as the new spawn encounters/NPCs really help make the world alive. Thanks goes to War Witch for her great work on that!

If we are redesigning an old zone from the ground up, It can take as long as it does to build a zone from scratch. As far as the longest, it depends on the situation. Sometimes art, sometimes design, in building and placing spawns [will delay a redesign from going live], but mostly the testing and tuning of what we do, and the impact that it will make on that zone and the “City of…” world as a whole [delays release].

What do you think the key lessons you have learned about zone design from CoH/V? Have there been any surprises or things that went against your previous thinking regarding zone design?

No plan survives contact with the enemy – the biggest lesson I have learned is that no matter what, the players are always smarter than you are. (UnSub’s aside: why am I sure that is the quote most people are going to take from this interview???)

Creating zones with travel powers in mind was a huge learning curve in my design philosophy, as it is hard to tell a full story to players if they can just speed, hop, teleport or fly right over it. In an MMO, as opposed to first person or even multiplayer games I have worked on, you really have to think in a 360 inclusive world. I always try to design zones such that the terrain is used for navigation points, not the map. Player input lets me know [how well I’m doing].

Another thing is player preference. I always assume as Zone Director that players want to hit the streets and sweep, but more often than not they want to go do missions. Learning this, I changed all active mission doors so that when you got one, it would be in a neighborhood that was in your Hero/Villain level- no more getting a mission at level 1 that gives you a door in the level 8 areas. This is one of the reasons that the Burke mission arc was built into Mercy Isle.

Expanding upon this, Issue 7 caters more for mission oriented players via Mayhem missions, and of course the almost 300 missions for the Villains in Grandville. We are currently looking to add more mission arcs, mission sets and other cool “missiony” type things to the “City of…” world.

Lastly, I have learned a bunch about PVP zones, and what players want to do. In first person shooter games where teams are almost always evened up, there is usually one objective like take the flag or just kill. We needed to give our players more options, both for the single player and the teams. Thus, Recluse’s Victory was born. This zone has multiple objectives and game play experiences for everyone, and really rewards active and smart game play. It is not just about gang up and bashing heads; strategy and tactics (not the power) really come into play now.

Is there a plan to eventually re-design all pre-I3 (ie Striga Isle) CoH zones to include the newer zone features?

Sure, there are always plans. As we move forward on future expansions, redesigning and “updating” zones is a key element. An example is the zone events. I can tell you that currently the city planners have decided that with the Rikti now quelled, and Arachnos identified, that it is time to rebuild. Faultline will be the first project, along with zone clean ups in Boomtown and expansions. It’s safe to start bringing War Walls down.

Approximately when should players expect to see the next completely new zone for CoH/V? I8, I9, the paid expansion or some other time?

I am not sure how to answer this without giving too much away… so I won’t. You will understand once I8 comes out. Suffice to say that the next few updates/expansions are very closely tied into one cool story. Faultline’s rebuild will be a whole new zone in its own way.

Approximately when should players expect to see the next completely new zone for CoH only? I8, I9, the paid expansion or some other time?

Hey, now you are just trying to catch me. (UnSub’s aside: absolutely.)

Finally, are there any teasers that you can release regarding any new zones heading our way? Any new themes, features or villain groups that we should begin to salivate over?

I was going to go on a rant here about Giant Council Robots attacking Paragon City, with me (Archon Voss) in the lead Bot… but I’ll stick to reality here.

Archon Voss aka Thomas Foss - loves zone design theory; hates crucifixes, garlic

Remember that Arachnos is only one of the Key Super Villain groups that have been working towards a come back. And with Lord Recluse busy trying to lock down Recluse’s Victory, it is possible that others could take the initiative to strike!

Zone wise, as we have talked about already, Paragon City is rebuilding and is a living city, so things will be changing. Like wise, the Rogue Isles will continue to evolve.

New technologies, like destructible objects in the mayhem missions, and PVP is being looked at and researched more, to create new and exciting mission and zone content.

[p]And of course, Pocket D will always be the Designs sand box, so you can expect anything and everything to happen there!

[p]A big thanks to Archon Voss for his time in completing this interview.

[p] – UnSub unsub@warcry.com 26 July 2006

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