On Site at Cryptic Studios with Matt Miller
The Lead Designer for City of Heroes and City of Villains discusses Issue 10 and the staff and community that make the game franchise a lasting success.
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
July 3, 2007 - Matt "Positron" Miller, Lead Designer for City of Heroes and City of Villains, has long been a respected spokesperson for Cryptic Studios's brand of original comic book action MMORPGs published under the NCsoft banner. We first met Matt when, at Game Developer's Conference in March 2006, he was enthusiastically demoing Issue 7's many innovations, from PhysX integration and destructible objects in CoV's "mayhem missions" to what Cryptic Studios calls "dynamic environments" – the ability for player actions to trigger fundamental zone changes for all players to see. Though many features have been added since that time, a tradeskill "invention system" and auction houses to name a few, the programming innovations brought about in Issue 7 paved the way for the game's lore to come full circle in Cryptic's latest CoV / CoH project - Issue 10: Invasion.
During a recent trip to northern California, I was invited to drop by Cryptic Studios for a site visit and tour through the new facility. In February, Cryptic moved into this larger building which had the interesting distinction of formerly housing the first Netflix distribution center. As Matt and other members of the City of Heroes / City of Villains development and support teams filed into the lunch room for a quick meet and greet session, I knew something was different about this crew. This was their down time, yet everyone was talking about different aspects of the game. The NCsoft CSRs were discussing the latest rumors of Issue 10 launching on July 4th (followed by laughter about the folly of releasing a major update without backend support on a holiday, until someone mentioned another major MMO developer that had done just that some time ago), designers talking about how a certain mob was given "Tier 9" powers and the consequences on the raid game learning curve, and general chatter about the player-organized "newbie intro afternoon" with badge and influence runs.
I asked the group how much they played the game, and many admitted to playing the game every night after work. In our experience, such an active love of the game by developers is either very rare or very dangerous. Very rare in that occasionally (among other games we cover) it's hard to keep an interviewee from talking more about World of Warcraft than the game in question, or very dangerous in light of the recent flare up of the scandal involving members of CCP's development team and some shady dealings with in-game corporations. Later on, I asked Matt Miller what would stop a Cryptic Studios team member from perhaps getting caught up in his or her love of the game and acting inappropriately. "NCsoft logs all GM actions," Matt responded, referring to the on-site presence of the game's publisher who, in Matt's words, is "very hands off when it comes to design." The relationship between NCsoft and Cryptic is already as storybook as you're likely to see in this industry, but I didn't imagine that they would work together to provide checks and balances for the protection of the fans.
|Screenshots from Issue 10 (see the entire gallery)|
Matt went on to say that "GM powers are awarded on a character by character basis. Most of those guys don't even have a GM character, period." It didn't sound like many of the staff would have wanted the pressure of such an artificial role, since they thoroughly enjoyed the "character concept" of their chosen avatars. In fact, the phrase "character concept" struck me as significant, since though you may not think of the City of… games as a roleplayer's haven, it's a natural fit. The group in the lunch room spoke of the popular socializing areas of the game, the Pocket D nightclub and the Ski Chalet open only for special events ("Ski to the bottom, teleport to the top," Matt said, smiling). An artist spoke of a "nice little gazebo" put in just for the RPers in a recently developed zone, and laughingly bemoaned the difficulties of creating art for a space reserved for socialization without the benefit of game content.
Along the lines of roleplay, Matt brought up the number of in-game weddings he'd been invited to and unfortunately couldn't attend, though he envisioned about the fun of spawning Lord Recluse during the nuptials. "Obviously it'd be up to the bride and groom, it's their event," Matt chuckled, "but if you think about it, you would think that would be your ultimate thing as a superhero… supervillains crashing your wedding."
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