Paragon City is the setting for one of the most highly anticipated massive multiplayer online computer games of 2004, Cryptic Studio’s City of Heroes. Published by Korean gaming company NCsoft, City of Heroes allows players to create and assume the identities of their own superheroes to protect the city from everything from street gangs to the most powerful of supervillians.
Since its launch in early April, City of Heroes has surpassed all expectations, holding the No. 1 spot on retail sales lists for four consecutive months, and continues to draw new fans faster than a speeding bullet.
At the forefront of Paragon City’s vigilante community is Statesman, the city’s most powerful hero. The man behind the mask is Jack Emmert, Cryptic’s creative director, resident mythology expert and self-proclaimed comic book guy.
I recently got the chance to conduct an interview with Statesman (or Emmert … I’m not sure which … the voices sound the same on the phone) from Cryptic’s secret headquarters in San Diego, Calif. Here’s what I learned:
Sabrehawk: All good superheroes have an origin. Tell us a little about Jack, the man behind the mask.
Statesman: I started reading comics when I was about 8 years old and I’ve been collecting seriously since I was about 10. It’s been a big part of my life. In my teens and early 20s, I worked in a comic book store off and on for about 10 years. I was invited into Cryptic by one of the original founders. They had an idea for an MMORPG with superheroes. One of them started a 3D chip company, sold it and gave the money to start Cryptic. I was a grad student at the time, working on Greek and Latin at the University of Pennsylvania. I had a bachelor’s in ancient history from the University of Chicago.
Sabrehawk: Ancient history? Greek and Latin? Is there a correlation between superheroes and ancient mythology?
Statesman: They’re a little different. The very definition of a myth has a beginning, a middle and an end. A superhero is defined by his origin and that’s about it. The writers don’t want to kill off their characters, but when they do, those become some of the most celebrated stories.
Sabrehawk: City of Heroes is showing no signs of suffering such a grisly fate. What’s behind the success of the game?
Statesman: The obvious answer is genre because it’s superheroes. The dominant force is fantasy. We appeal to people that the other games might
not, because we want people to get in and have fun. It’s got to be fun. Instead of making game mechanics require people to be online for a long time, we just want people to get in the game and have fun. Our game is simply easy to play. City of Heroes invites a wide variety of people who normally wouldn’t be attracted to fantasy games. Fantasy is a niche. Superheroes is a much wider niche.
Sabrehawk: A superhero’s look is pretty important. CoH’s character creation process makes it pretty easy to put together a good-looking costume. Just exactly how many different costume designs are possible?
Statesman: I did the math one time. There’s something like 10 to the 27th power different costume combinations available. To give you an idea, there’s only something like 10 to 24th power atoms in the universe.
Statesman: Actually, we have a tremendous amount of female players.
Sabrehawk: How important was it to design a fun character creation system, especially one with so many options?
Statesman: We realized from the beginning how important it would be. It wasn’t a hard decision, but we hadn’t imagined it would become the factor it is.
Sabrehawk: CoH offers a slightly different take on character classes, using a unique origin/archetype system in which players select an origin and then an archetype, which more or less determines which set of powers you can choose from. What’s the idea behind that?
Statesman: Variety. In other MMOs, if you’re a wizard, you’re pretty much the same the same as every other wizard. Class carries with it a very rigid sense of abilities.
Sabrehawk: Moving around the city can be a problem for anyone, and especially when you’re wearing 100 pounds of body armor, yet “travel powers” are considered secondary powers and aren’t available until level 14. What’s the reasoning there?
Statesman: That’s really a quality of life issue. We wanted to keep people from gimping themselves early. Level 3 players who use one of their valuable power selections for a travel power were sacrificing combat powers that they needed.
Sabrehawk: How soon will we see vehicles or other interesting travel powers?
Statesman: We’d love to get it in before City of Villains.
Sabrehawk: CoH is featured in its own comic mailed to game subscribers, and will soon appear in novels. What’s next? Will Statesman, make a big screen debut?
Sabrehawk: CoH is set in Paragon City after a devastating alien attack. Parts of the city are still in ruins. What impact can players make on the game world?
Statesman: Something we’re working on. That makes for a truly interesting game where every zone bears the mark of players’ activities.
Sabrehawk: So are we talking about new construction, or some sort of reclamation work?
Statesman: Ideally, both. One of the ideas we had were construction sites in some of the ruined zones, where if players don’t defend them, they disappear.
Sabrehawk: How soon will we see heroes receiving a fifth pool power?
Statesman: It could be with expansion 3. We’ll see. We’re calling it an epic pool power. We’re holding off talking to much about it until we get expansion 2 finished.
Sabrehawk: When/if new powers are added to the primary/secondary/pools, will there be an opportunity to re-spec outside of the Terra Volta Trial?
Statesman: Generally, no. We aren’t going to be expanding the number of powers right now.
Sabrehawk: Is there any chance of adding a feature that will allow us to tone down visual effects of powers or turn the effect off? Will “clear” or “transparent” be a color option?
Statesman: Yes. We’re still toying with different options and sliders.
Sabrehawk: How important is feedback from the players in making decisions?
Statesman: It’s important, but you have to remember that those who post on the forums are the most hardcore players. The vast majority don’t care about the damage modifiers. They want to get in the game and have fun. Forum posts are always something to keep in mind, but you need to remember the silent majority.
Sabrehawk: Will martial arts see new animation changes by Christmas?
Statesman: The martial arts animation will change by expansion 3. It might be expansion 2.
Sabrehawk: Every superhero needs a place to kick back, rinse out his tights and hang his trophies. Will superhero bases and headquarters be limited to super groups or can any hero have a place to call his own? Will players be able to customize the exterior of their headquarters?
Statesman: At first, the bases are going to be all about groups. We’re toying around with it. We’re working on it. Outdoor customizability will definitely be an option.
Sabrehawk: Can you reveal more on the badge system?
Statesman: Tweakability is always good. The badge system will be a reward for exploration of the city and learning its history. Players will be able to increase their hit points and increase their endurance through badges.
Sabrehawk: Are there any plans to make missions a more desirable choice to patrolling?
Statesman: We’re boosting experience by a factor of about 5 for missions and making some other tweaks.
Sabrehawk: Are there future plans for increasing experience given for missions, and increasing the experience modifier for grouping?
Statesman: There’s already an enormous modifier. The reason it sucks when you go around the city zone is because the spawns are so small. They’re intended for groups of about 3 players. If you’re in a group of 6 or 8 and you’re not in a trial zone, there’s something wrong.
Sabrehawk: Will there ever be an ability to increase the difficulty of missions given, such as an option to select “hard mission” when speaking with a contact?
Statesman: Definitely. We’re doing that in expansion 3.
Sabrehawk: Are there plans to continue to update the Tanker, Defender and Controller archetypes in the future, either via new powers, a more group-friendly update, some experience system that doesn’t just reward damage done to enemies, or through some other means?
Statesman: No. It would ruin the fabric of the game. People who play defenders or controllers are satisfied helping people. If there was experience for that, then I would be able to leech experience just by running by and healing you. A couple of people can ruin an entire zone.
Sabrehawk: At Wizard World, it was reported that you said there are plans to add a “prestige” archetype after a character reaches level 50. What details can you provide on this new archetype system?
Statesman: Expansion 3. Definitely be level 50. Players will get a brand-new character slot and start all over again. Extremely interested in expanding creation so you can create characters
Sabrehawk: What’s the schedule like for more content that is geared for groups of superheroes? Are there plans to put in place more trial zones for low/mid-level superheroes?
Statesman: We’re adding two more trials in expansion 2. We’ll probably be continuing that through every expansion. I want playing our game to be like reading a comic book. That’s my goal. In expansion 3, we’ll start moving the storyline ahead every two or three months.
Sabrehawk: What can you tell us about the non-combat system that will be featured in expansion 3?
Statesman: It’s what heroes do when they’re not fighting.
Sabrehawk: Does this mean Human Zippo will have to get a job as a fry cook?
Statesman: Not at all. I can’t even begin to imagine what would be enjoyable about being a normal person. We’re that every day. If the heart of a hero is his powers, and the soul of a hero is his costume, then this will be his mind.
Sabrehawk: That’s very “cryptic,” but it doesn’t do much for random street crime. Are the muggers and burglars just stupid, committing crimes in the open – in broad daylight – when every other person that passes might be a superhero out for justice?
Statesman: They evidently must be. It’s kind of disappointing, but it’s something I’m going to have to deal with.
Sabrehawk: Spoken like a true superhero.
Statesman: Maybe we’ll have back alley spawns instead of street corners.
Sabrehawk: Spoken like a game designer. Oh, well … as long as it’s fun.