City of Heroes “Ask a Dev”: Melissa Bianco Answers Your Questions

In the latest community driven “Ask a Dev” Q&A with a member of the City of Heroes team we talk to Melissa “War Witch” Bianco, the CoH World Designer. She answers a slew of questions in amazing detail, all of them from the community.

Remember, for our next installment, you get to ask the questions of Senior Programmer Vince D’Amelio. Check out the intro here.

City of Heroes “Ask a Dev”
Answers by Melissa “War Witch” Bianco, World Designer
Questions from the community

Marcian_Tobay: there were some drastic variations between map design for Heroes and Villains, both in the artistic style (colors used, decorations, attitude of environment)and the practical aspect (the size of the maps, the linear design of the Villains versus the more varied and open ended Heroes, etc.). Would you care to discuss the differences, and what inspired the change of approach for Villains?

War Witch: Well, we didn’t want Villains to be Paragon City DARK.

Paragon City has a really unique style to it. The palette is brighter; the streets are more linear. The ‘City’, in general, has an organized and clean feel, despite being overrun by Skulls and Council and a whole host of other Villain Groups that constantly attack its citizens every day. But we’re talking in generalities so, yes, I’m going there. Again, we didn’t want to simply ‘copy’ our Heroes assets. We wanted a completely different feel so there would be no comparisons. So a lot LOT LOT of time and effort went into creating completely new assets for the game. You’ll notice they’re pretty swank. Your computer probably notices, too. The Rogue Isles are grittier, more ‘chaotic’. The whole feel of Villains is that THIS is what happens when evil squeezes out good, when a tyrant like Recluse takes over.

What started with Striga became the key model for all zones in CoV. There was a lot of effort made creating an overall story for each zone. Paragon City zones had more of a ‘general flavour’ at launch than Villains did. This is why when you see us go back and ‘makeover’ a Heroes’ zone, oh it changes. We’re not just trying to make it more ‘fun’, we’re trying to give it a purpose, especially if we add missions to the zone.

Sir Quixotic: Building up new zone from the ground up must be quite intensive. So my question is, what is the process that goes into making a new zone and can you also give us a bit of what you guys did in creating the new Ritki War Zone for I10?

War Witch: It sure is a lot more work than it used to be!

So basically, once we have the concrete list of items we’re working on for the Issue we go back to documentation. This is where everything starts. NCSoft signs off on the idea, but we need to give them more information so they know where we’re going with things so that they can begin thinking about marketing and promotion for the issue. The zone concept will be short and concise, but when it comes to implementation, we need to be specific so that testers can go in and do their jobs. So I’ll give the list of what I do and then expand on each one.

  1. Documentation (blurb)
  2. Review
  3. Fleshed out documentation
  4. Presentation
  5. Asset Documentation
  6. Revisions
  7. Scheduling
  8. Create Zone ‘Core’
  9. Build Spawns
  10. Write dialogue
  11. Place spawns (piggy back with Art)
  12. Incidentals (doors, contacts, etc.)
  13. Mission Support
  14. Touch-Up / Bug-fixing
  15. Easter Eggs (if time)
  16. Playtesting
  17. Update Documentation
  18. Submission for approval

Most of this is pretty obvious. We come up with an ‘idea’ based on player requests, bang for the buck, cool factor, story advancement, and plausibility given time/tech/scheduling constraints. You’ve heard it all before. We say it like rote, but it’s true. We have a set amount of resources so we need to make them stretch as farrrrrr as they’ll go.

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The ‘blurb’ is anything from a paragraph to a page that outlines the basic idea for the zone, plus anything new or signature we want to do. The document is then reviewed by key players and adjustments are made (usually something like time, tech, or scheduling has created a hiccup and the design needs to be revised).

Now the document is seriously fleshed out. This would be the place where we decide what level range it will be, what type of zone, which zones it connects to, what kind of Villains will flesh it out, what the back story is, and how it is going to be laid out. This is needs to be clear enough that Art, Programming, and the rest of Design knows exactly what’s going on so they’re not signing up for something they can’t do. Once the documentation is updated it is presented ‘officially’ to the team for a ‘Kick Off’. Each point is gone over and – once again – team-members provide feedback. If their suggestions is good, it’s noted and the design changes. These meetings usually go for a while because everyone has to think about how this new zone is going to affect them.

With respect to the Rikti War Zone for Issue 10, I had to make a hard decision. Do I nitpick on the zone and we lose out on a new tray set (i.e. new Rikti mission set) or do I give up some of my wish list so that – in the greater picture – players get more? So I had to give up going insane on the zone and simply making it more functional with some nice signature pieces rather than a complete overhaul that Faultline received. The massive crevices were removed, parts of the zone were made more unique, I got the Vanguard Base, and enough flavour that I felt satisfied that it was enough of an upgrade to call it a ‘makeover’. It wasn’t as much as I wanted, but the mission set was worth it. It just seemed silly to see Rikti running around in Offices, especially since this is an INVASION.

Once everyone has signed off on the design of the new zone, we break it down into individual pieces that people need to work on. New gameplay? Code needs to write it. New Villain Group? Design needs to design it, then Art and Powers needs to build it. New geometry in the zone? Art needs to build them. So we break it all down and start scheduling. Everyone on the team has a schedule that is broken down into blocks, which is then weaved with other members’ schedules so that people are never waiting on someone else. Ultimately, because Design is the last cog in the wheel, things get a bit tight because if ever there’s slippage, we’re the ones who have to make up the time somewhere.

After that, we send people out into the world with their new schedules and let them…create!

I immediately begin building the ‘core’ of the zone which is essentially a glorified way of playing with text files to hook it up. From there I spend oodles of time building spawns, testing them, and building more. (Because it never really ends.) You have your more ‘core’ spawns that are good for ‘filling up a zone’ but then, if there’s time, it’s always nice to spend that extra time creating the ‘cool’ ones. Those take longer because they’re very specific. Since they’re specific, you can’t blanket a map with them. You have to use them where they fit. We learned this with purse snatchings that were on every single street corner. How can that many women have their purses stolen simultaneously? It just seemed like overkill, which is why now you see guys actually getting the purse.

Once I’ve done the first-pass of spawns, we go and spend many hours inside text files again writing dialogue. Spawns have two kinds of dialogue: what they say BEFORE they see you and what they say AFTER they see you. This is for every spawn of every villain group. It is always fun writing for villain groups, since they speak so different from group to group.

Obviously Circle of Thorns does not say, “Yo, man, you want some of this??? Let’s go, punk! I’ll waste you five ways till Sunday!” And Freakshow doesn’t yell, “Oh I say, chap, that was bad form. You’ll soon regret this transgression, I assure you!” So I get to play a bit. I try to do a few things when writing dialogue, make it generic enough that anyone can appreciate it, add some hints of story to it so players get an idea of what the back-story of the zone is about, and – finally – I hope – add a bit of humour, given the appropriateness of the situation.

I usually start off strong and by the end of the day, I’m creatively bankrupt. I tend to have to walk away, do something mindless (like placing spawns, moving actors around, etc.) and come back to it. As the assets from Mission Writing comes online, we work to figure out where the mission doors will go, how they will be tagged, and where contacts need to be placed. Plus all the other stuff like plaques, tourism badges, etc. This all comes about on an ‘as finished’ basis because Mission Writing is far trickier. If one piece is missing, the mission doesn’t work right. For zones, if one piece is missing, we can usually work around it. Once the majority of my work is done, the zone is hooked up, and most of the incidentals are placed, I can switch my focus to helping with mission writing.

This means things like populating maps, hooking them up, adding special doors in the zone, and building any special or unique spawns the writer needs for his mission. There’s a lot of back-and-forth going on here because nothing is ever really done. (I think I said that before.) Things are coming ‘online’ at different times and so I’ll have to drop one thing to implement another then come back to it. Having great communication skills and a helpful attitude goes a long way here.

Around this point, we’ve done some internal playtests, raked each other over the coals with our feedback, and now we’re fixing stuff internally, mostly the big glaring problems. I’m still doing the core zone work, assisting with mission writing, and fixing any bugs that are cropping up (and there are always bugs cropping up). At the same time, I’m trying to squeeze in fixes for older bugs or stuff that has come to my attention. By this time, we’re coming up on deadline and things get a bit tight as we try and fit everything in before we have to submit our candidate to the publisher. At this point, we’re already thinking about the next Issue.

If I have had time (and approval) I have documented the easter eggs I want to put in the game and now is the time to put them in. Rarely is there time, but I MAKE time. Once everything is pretty much nailed down, documentation has to be updated. What we wanted when we started has invariably changed a great deal since the final implementation pass and so the publisher needs updated info so that they can appropriately test our content. If not, we’re getting wacky bugs that were ‘so three weeks ago’.

Once all is done, we submit for approval. After that, time is spent on bug fixing and tweaks based on feedback from the Test Server.

And then we do the whole thing over again!

Master0: How long does it normally take you to create one zone?

War Witch: Zones in general take several weeks, from start to finish. If you have already read my exceptionally long reply to the previous question, you’ll see why. So while Art is building any new art objects or cobbling library pieces together, I’m usually building the spawns and working with the mission writer to make sure everything is in place. It’s kind of a piggy-back system, so Art will finish one neighborhood to a point where I can go in and ‘populate’ it (i.e. lay down spawns, beacons, mission door beacons, etc.) and we continue along until it’s complete.

However, a zone like the Shadow Shard took a lot longer to build because it had issues like:

“Well what if I fall off?”
“What if I don’t have flight?”
“How can we make it look ‘otherworldly’?”

City zones are simpler because they follow a simple structure of lines – roads, buildings, parks, etc. When you deviate from that, you’re building new assets from scratch and it’s not quite so easy to pop it together like Duplo blocks.

When we decided to redo Faultline, we assumed it would be quick and easy because we weren’t starting from scratch, we were just ‘moving a few things around’. Yeah, we were wrong. We eliminated 1/3 of the zone and added access to the ‘hazard’ area. We raised it up and flattened it out. Yes, many elements stayed the same, but it was so much work to incorporate the new geometry that it was far from simple because every single neighborhood had a fundamental layout change to it. Live and learn!

Rikti War Zone was easier because the changes were more subtle. Well, except for a few places where I chose massive changes (i.e. the path leading to the Rikti ship and the Vanguard Base), but even the Base was a piece that I could do “underneath” the world so it didn’t affect the zone ‘topside’ too much (except for the compound), even that was added on to the existing zone by adding a cubby hole.

Master0: Also will you ever introduce weather to create a more realistic environment?

War Witch: Ah weather. Yes, that’s been brought up a few times.

So the short answer is ‘no’. At the end of the day, we try to implement a system that has a lot of impact in terms of content and playability. Weather, for all intents and purposes, is an aesthetic that doesn’t (ultimately) give the player anything to ‘do’. (Well, except maybe slip and slide and not see well when it’s snowing or hailing. I’m not knocking slipping and sliding. I love our chalet!!)

So this is my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary.

So while it gives a type of ‘realism’ to a game, sometimes ‘realism’ just plain sucks. I’m not naming names, but I was playing a game a few years back and I was in this zone and it started to rain. The sky grew dark and it really started to come down. When I first experienced this, I was like, “Wow! That’s so cool! It’s raining!” So I sat there and enjoyed the rain. Then it went away, the sun came out, and I went about my business. A few hours later, it rained again. I was trying to find a particular NPC and all I could see was dark skies and there was little visibility. Since I had no overhead map, I wandered around aimlessly, unable to find a thing.

So then it felt real, all right. I basically had to stop playing and wait for it to end, the visibility was so low. Yes, it was immersive. Yes, it was realistic. I didn’t like it at all. After that, any time it would rain, I’d go rummage through the fridge or surf the web because I knew that it was pretty much a waste of my time to try and find anything until I could ‘see’ again. Even weather modifiers would drive me nuts (like, it’s raining – therefore your accuracy goes down; earthquake – you’re stuck! etc.) Unless I build a game called Weather Pattern, it’s not really going to be high on my list to fight for in terms of implementation.

KittyMan33: While exploring Port Oakes I’ve notice a bridge being built that leads off into the ocean and I got curious so I looked at a map of the Isles and saw a island with a rocket drawn on it now this island was too small to be Warburg so I wondered if this bridge was going to lead to it. also seeing some previous questions, a Malta themed zone would be awesome (If there is and I’m missing it, just ignore this part.) and as a last question for those of use who would like to work on the CoH/CoV team what options would there be for us and how could we earn the right?

War Witch: Sometimes we put in ‘reveals’ that tease a player as to what is coming in the future. So, for instance, an issue before Faultline came, I started hinting at it. Newspaper holders were standing around yelling about it. There was construction around the entrance. We also did this for the Arena. You’d see a construction site where a building used to be and then, we’d swap it out with the finished product when the new feature went live. (Or we’d just plunk a building down on top of that building you used to log out on and forget construction sites completely.) Sometimes, we’ll plan on something, have some extra time to build some assets for it, and not use it because we go in a different direction. Maybe we’ll use it at a later date, maybe we won’t.

Or maybe it’s just an easter egg or a red herring.

As for working on the CoH/CoV team, this one’s a no-brainer. Apply!!

Cryptic hires talent, even talent in the rough. However, just loving to play games is not enough.

Admittedly, I was the luckiest of the lucky. I came in with NO design experience back when Cryptic was a very small start-up company. It was through sheer need that I got a crack at design. My first job was working in the editor placing beacons. Place, move, paste. Place, move, paste. Hours and hours a day. It wasn’t glamorous. Not even an iddy biddy bit. BUT, guess who got REALLY good at using the in-game editor? Me.

Through opportunity and massively hard work, I moved on to bigger and better assignments. I happened to have a knack with certain things that no one could have predicted. Playing a lot of MMOs helped, of course, but when it came down to me actually designing something, (initially) my perspective was way off. I designed as a player, not as a designer. You may ask, but isn’t that the same thing? No. Not even close.

If I implemented every feature I ever wanted as a player I’d:

a) never have to use my computer because it would do the work for me;
b) make my game spit out hundred dollar bills; and
c) my game would be so completely unbalanced that there would be virtually NO RISK in the game – only reward

[And after I’d finished the entire game in less than a week, I’d never play it again.]

What I have learned is that the game developer community is not as large as I would have thought. So you’re competing with a lot of other people just as excited to get into the industry as you are. If you have skills (in some fashion or other) outside of the industry, it can’t hurt you.

For example, writing experience, art degree, film industry – all these things in one way or another give you a foundation of knowledge to pull from when you form concepts and ideas. It also gives you something unique to draw on. Jack Emmert, our Creative Director, has a masterful knowledge of Latin and Greek and History. Do you think City of Heroes or Villains has ANY of that kind of feel to it? Someplace? Anywhere?

Wrigleys: Have you ever pitched a concept for a new zone that WASN’T pursued past the initial idea? If so, can you tell us about your proposed zone? (Or, what would be a “dream zone” for you, if you could personally pitch a new zone concept today?)

War Witch: Ah, my own crazy idea-land. I wrote up a list of ideas when I first came on board, having little experience in level design. I feel so confident that ONE DAY someone will realize my brilliance, that I am going to paste a snippet of suggestions for your enjoyment. (That is, when you stop laughing.)

So welcome to November 14th, 2002:

Ex-Superhero Zone

Ex-superheroes retired/injured community. Almost everyone you talk to has seen “some” kind of action and has a story to tell — maybe could even help players with their more lengthy quests. Plus you could do kind of an “irony” twist on some well-known superheroes — but not, of course.

[This is more of a ‘theme’ than a zone. A whole zone dedicated to old geezers sitting on their front porches talking about the glory days? What do I fight?! Boredom?]

Hollywood Zone

Everyone’s got a cell phone, every car is a BMW, every street has a tourist taking pictures of particular spots that look eerily familiar (but not, of course, exact). Maybe a few NPCs walking down Rondeno Drive (as opposed to Rodeo Drive) look or dress suspiciously familiar. Plus shopkeepers could be especially rude as they look the superhero up and down (kind of like the Pretty Woman thing with Julia Roberts). Villains? Everyone could be an Agent, Lawyer, or Publicist.

[Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! *cough* I stand by this one.]

So there you have it. Notice I never thought a moment of how we’d populate these zones with some sort of reasonable ‘villain’ group, what – design-wise – it would be to implement, how it was just an idea that would be better suited to a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME?

Wrigleys: Looking beyond Issue 10: Invasion, do you think the emphasis will continue to be revamped zones versus “new” zones, a la Issues 8 and 9? Do you foresee any “new” zones being introduced to City of Villains, a la Issue 7? Do you see foresee “co-op” zones being the new model of bringing increased parity between CoH and CoV? Or do you foresee the PvP game being allowed to evolve with a FIFTH PvP zone eventually being introduced into the game?

War Witch: With Faultline, we took one of the LEAST played zones, which had kind of a cool idea behind it, and breathed new life into it, trying to fix things that made it un-fun. Rikti War Zone was updated because we wanted to expand on a storyline (the Second Invasion), missions, the World Event, the zone event, etc. As much as I like revamping zones, yes, I – too – would like work on NEW ones. I’d also like to put a new zone or twelve in CoV. What that will be or how it will take shape, well, time will tell.

I quite like the idea of Co-Op zones. Finally, you can play with your friends, who are Villains, against a greater enemy. Then again, how many ‘greater threats’ could there be? But I never say never when it comes to building new zones.

The end.

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