City of Heroes Q&A with Matt Miller – Looking Back and Forging Ahead

city of heroes positron
City of Heroes has been going strong since its launch almost seven years ago. To get the lowdown on the game’s past, present, and future, Ten Ton Hammer ventured to the mighty headquarters of NCsoft. In the historic Hall of Heroes, we talked to Matt “Positron” Miller about City of Heroes and what lies ahead for the fabled franchise.

Ten Ton Hammer: Matt, you’ve been with the City of Heroes team since the game’s inception more than seven years ago. Why do you think it is that we’ve seen relatively few super-powered MMOGs in comparison to fantasy or sci-fi MMOGs? Can you point to anything?

Matt Miller: Yeah. I’d love to point and say that City of Heroes did it best so why would anyone want to compete with that! (laughs) In reality, I can’t see that being the sole reason. It’s weird. Even movies like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Dark Knight, they elevated superheroes in the consciousness of America, but it didn’t really grab on everywhere. Superhero videogames still have the stigma of not being very good. Just trying to get past all that stuff is a big hurdle and aren’t worth taking the risk on doing games like that when fantasy is kind of a proven genre. It also has an international appeal, so you can see Asian companies doing fantasy games, whereas superheroes in Asia are a dramatically different thing than they are in North America and Europe.

city of heroes

Ten Ton Hammer: When you came to work with Paragon Studios with NCsoft as a publisher, who are a Korean-based publisher, was that a challenge to sell the idea or did they immediately see the potential still left?

Matt Miller: It definitely was a challenge, especially when we launched in Korea. We made sure that we tried to appeal to the Korean marketplace with a bunch of Korean-style staples of their gameplay for their characters and types of games including Asian themed costume pieces. We tried to overcome that hurdle, but in the end superheroes are a very Anglo sort of thing. A superhero in Asia is considered either a really tough street person or like the Power Rangers five-colors sort of thing or a mecha suit. Spider-man and Superman, they don’t have the same sort of appeal as they do over here.

Top 5 Praetorian Archetypes
Mastermind 17%
Brute 16%
Dominator 12%
Blaster 11%
Scrapper 11%
Source: NCsoft
Ten Ton Hammer: Other competitors that have cropped up to City of Heroes have a pre-existing lore canon and IP. Have you ever wished that City of Heroes had that? Has creating an unknown and unproven storyline felt more like a burden than an opportunity?

Matt Miller: There was a moment of roughly five minutes very early in the production of City of Heroes where that wish existed. Wow, if only we had an IP that we could put all of this on, it would be just so much easier. But then, we realized that not having an IP didn’t restrict us in any way. We could do whatever we wanted. We weren’t beholden to any license holder. We didn’t have to worry about whatever storyline they were coming up with, whatever characters they were killing off or anything like that. It was our world and we could make it exactly the way we wanted.

Once that realization went through the writers and the design team, then it was just a matter of inspiration. What stories did we want to tell? What enemies do you want? What heroes do you guys want to have? We weren’t forced to use any specific heroes, and we could make up our own heroes. We could also really spotlight the players here. The player’s character becomes the most important part of the story, because we didn’t have a signature character that needed to be the one that was constantly overshadowing the player.

Top 3 Villain AT's That Have Switched Sides Top 3 Hero AT's That Have Switched Sides
Mastermind Scrapper
Brute Blaster
Stalker Controller
Source: NCsoft
Ten Ton Hammer: Some critics have said that City of Heroes gives the players too much too early in the experience. You get travel powers like flight relatively early, for instance, while in most MMORPGs the best travel abilities are reserved for the endgame. Have you ever felt like, whoa, maybe we’re giving players too much too soon?

Matt Miller: We try to feed a couple of carrots throughout the leveling experience. We don’t want to make it something that is not in character. The Flash, if he couldn’t run fast, or Statesman, if he couldn’t fly, that sort of stuff. We wanted to make sure that if the player wanted to play a speedster, he would get access to a really fast punch or the ability to speed up his attacks as soon as possible. Letting him get a speed travel power early on in the game allows him to feel like a speedster superhero.

We wanted to make sure that if that is your character, then that is what you’re going to play. Characters that fly, they fly very early on in their careers. Very few comic book characters learn to fly when they’re fully matured in their roles! It’s not part of the character. We hold a few things back for later on in your career, such as getting aura costume pieces until you’re level 30. With the Incarnate system at level 50, that’s where the truly almost god-like powers are going to end up. That’s where your character can surpass the limits in the game. The player has that to look forward to.

city of heroes

Ten Ton Hammer: You once told me that City of Heroes is the most serious superhero MMOG on the market. That’s in keeping with the state of comic books, which are becoming darker, or maybe you can say morally ambivalent, in recent years. Would you like to see that go to the next level? Do you want to see an M rated comic book MMOG or do you think City of Heroes is the right balance to strike on darkness and grittiness?

Matt Miller: I think City of Heroes kind of nails it with the level of seriousness and maturity that we have. We still have in-jokes and joking missions here and there to put some levity into some situations. We also have some emotional missions. Especially for Going Rogue, we put in all the moral choice stuff where you decide things like whether to stop the water poisoning, brain-washing stuff that is happening and free the minds of the citizens, but if you do so, there’ll be no drinkable water and people are going to be sick for months. Making choices like that, I think, is about as serious as you can get with a comic book game. To go really dark and gritty, you’re going to start losing a large chunk of your audience. You don’t want to lose a large part of your audience just to say that you’re the M rated MMOG game.

Ten Ton Hammer: You have things like the Pocket D and the Ski Chalet that are just very fun-filled sort of escapes. Are those as integral to the experience as a tension breaker?

Matt Miller: We definitely wanted to give the players kind of a break the fourth wall relaxation area, and that’s where Pocket D came in. The Ski Chalet was a fun thing to do at the holiday time. There’s some semi-serious missions wrapped up in that holiday stuff. The Winter Lord is coming and trying to steal winter away from Paragon City every year. We do try to have some fun with stuff, but at the same time, still trying to give your character the motivation we feel that they would want to have.

One of the stories I always remember is one of the friends of the president of the company came up to him about four months he started playing, and he’s like, “I was wondering if you change my character’s name for me?” This was long before we had character rename in the game. Well, the president asked him why, and his answer was, “When I made my character, I thought it was going to be a really campy sort of game, but it turns out it’s really more serious than I thought it would be. I feel kind of weird running around with the campy sort of name that I have and I want to change it to something more serious.” That was real vindication for all the work that the writers had done to make a serious comic book MMOG.

city of heroes

Ten Ton Hammer: Matt, you’ve been around since the beginning of City of Heroes and have seen the ups and the downs with the game. Is there one thing that you can point to as your biggest success? And also one thing that was your biggest failure or challenge in that time?

Matt Miller: We’ve had a lot of things that I would point to as our biggest successes. Every success that we have seems to trump the last one that we had just done. From the launch of City of Villains and doing a completely different, other half of the game type thing. Mission Architect was wildly successful, giving players control over their own content.

Going Rogue Stats
# of Preatorians created since launch: 175,000
# of new characters created since launch: 200,00
65% of players have taken part in the Alignment System
Over 70% of all new characters are Preatorians
49.5% of Preatorians are Loyalists
50.5% of Preatorians are Resistance
Source: NCsoft
I think the thing that I’m most proud of now is the Incarnate system that we just put in. It’s an end-game system for City of Heroes. The game has been around for quite some time and though there is stuff for level 50 characters to do, it didn’t really escalate the power and abilities that they had until this past issue, Number 19, where we up the ante and told the players that they call pull their level 50 out and now there’s some stuff for them to do to make their character more powerful. We saw a lot of players busting out their old characters, dusting them off, and saying, “I thought I’d never go back to this character, but this end-game stuff is really fun and it adds to the characters.” I’m very proud of that and how it’s been received by the players.

As for our biggest failure…if I have to point at anything, it’s ages and ages old: the Gladiator system, where you could earn gladiators and go to the arena and fight NPC characters like Fifth Column guys or Cray guys that you earned through the badge system. It was a system that never took off, and the players liked it more for the badges than the actual gameplay behind the gladiator stuff. We kind of let that one die a quiet death.

Ten Ton Hammer: Would you say that a large percentage of your player base has end-game characters that they’ll dust off to check out the Incarnate system?

Matt Miller: Our established player base has a sizable number of max level characters amongst them. We’ve never tried to make the leveling be too grindy. It’s more about the journey of getting to level 50. We have so much content that you can’t see it all with one character without manipulating things such as turning off xp or going back and doing flashback stuff with the Ouroboros.

city of heroes

Ten Ton Hammer: City of Heroes practically created the superheroic MMOG genre with the extensive costuming system, badges and achievements, user generated content tools, and things like day jobs which is a cool concept that I always forget to mention. Where do these ideas come from and do you have any left in the tank?

Matt Miller: We get inspired from everywhere. We see what works well in other games. If it’s working well there, we’ll see if we can work into our game. If we’re going to work it into our game, we’re definitely going to innovate on it. We’re going to put our twist on it. The mission architect system lent itself back to the old adventure construction set days where you would sit down and make adventures on your old Commodore 64 using the Bard’s Tale engine.

Mission Architect Info
Over 375,000 Mission Architect arcs have been created since launch
 It would take you over 12 years to play every MA arc that was ever created
Source: NCsoft
Ten Ton Hammer: Have there been ideas that you’ve seen in other superpowered or MMO games that you wanted to do, but realized wouldn’t make a good fit into City of Heroes?

Matt Miller: There’s been a couple of things that we’ve looked at in other games and said that’s good for that type of game, but it doesn’t fit into the City of Heroes universe. I’m wracking my brains over this. The Nemesis System [from Champions Online] was something we looked at, but it was something that would be very limiting in the end. We decided against it. I think that was what pushed us even more into the mission architect system because then it wasn’t pre-canned missions that your nemesis was going to show up in. You could create your own nemesis in the mission architect, and you could craft the story of you fighting your nemesis in the mission architect. Then you could go into that mission and execute that story. That was kind of where our version ended up.

Breakdown of Alignments
51% Hero
26% Villain
10% Vigilante
13% Rogue
Source: NCsoft
Ten Ton Hammer: We’re on the eve on another big comic book MMOG launch. Is there anything you want to get out there about why they should check out City of Heroes?

Matt Miller: I think that City of Heroes definitely is the forerunner out there. We’ve got almost seven years of content for this game. When it comes to MMOG, every MMOG player knows that content is king. You never want to be bored; you always want something to do. The more mature your MMOG is, the more stuff there is going to there to do. We’ve been working on this game over seven years counting development time, and we’ve been constantly reinventing the game. With Going Rogue, we reinvented the game. With City of Villains, we reinvented the game. With the mission architect, we reinvented the game. And now with the incarnate system, we’re reinventing the game once more.

We want to stay fresh and innovative. We’re going to continue to do so. We’re going to have the best character customization out there in any superhero MMOG or any MMOG that’s out there right now. We want to maintain that lead and that lead is something we’re not going to give up lightly.

Our thanks to Matt Miller for this interview.

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