City of Heroes Freedom Interview with Matt "Positron" Miller at SDCC 2011

At SDCC 2011 we caught up with City of Heroes lead designer Matt "Positron" Miller to talk about the upcoming release of Freedom and Issue 21: Convergence.

Freedom. It’s a word that evokes many different reactions based on the context in which it's used, as well as the personal life experiences of the person hearing it, even though it has a pretty clearly defined meaning. For some, it might resurrect embarrassing memories of early 90s high school dances courtesy of George Michael. Others might associate it with the patriotic rhetoric drilled into our young, impressionable minds each day in grade school as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

When applied to City of Heroes, it takes on yet another possible interpretation. It speaks volumes to me that Paragon chose that word rather than announcing City of Heroes: Free-to-Play, neatly avoiding some of the negative connotations associated with that particular business model, even if they have thankfully been on the downswing for the past couple of years.

No, Paragon chose to use the word Freedom, but in many ways you could consider it to be synonymous with Choice, because that’s exactly what the new hybrid business model brings to the table. Putting the choice of how to pay for a service directly into the hands of players is one of the best things Paragon could have chosen to do.

Announcements of this shift in philosophical and marketing approaches typically go one of two ways with fans, and it all boils down to how much you respect your existing fan base. In the case of Paragon, it’s abundantly evident in the following interview with lead designer Matt “Positron” Miller that respect is king.

I caught up with Matt just as the show floor at San Diego Comic-Con 2011 was nearing a critical mass of culture-hounds, and it was great to see that City of Heroes was receiving as much attention as its monolithic NCsoft booth partner, Guild Wars 2.

CoH Freedom Celestial Armor 1 CoH Freedom Celestial Armor 2

Ten Ton Hammer: It seems like a very smart decision on the part of Paragon to make the CoH Freedom release a la carte based on some of the other free-to-play conversions we’ve seen for existing MMOs so far. What inspired you to go in the direction of giving players choices in terms of how they invest in different gameplay options?

Matt “Positron” Miller: We love our subscribers, and our subscribers love us. We have an excellent relationship with them, and we did not want to damage that in any way, shape, or form in going to this business model. We wanted to make sure that we were catering to them, and their needs, and their concerns, and make sure that they felt special – that we didn’t forget about them and were just concerned about the free players.

So really that became the genesis for all our design decisions going forward. What could VIP players get? How could we make this more attractive for the VIP player? It really has just been that relationship we’ve had with those players, and we didn’t want to damage it at all.

In fact, we had a focus group about three months ago where we brought in some of our biggest board posters from all over the country, and went over everything with them so that they knew what we were doing and we could get their initial reaction. It started off with some hesitation – kind of, oh my gosh, what are you doing – and by the end of the day they were like OK, I’m on board with this.

That was really validating for us that our veteran players got on board with this within the span of eight hours of doing that focus group.

Ten Ton Hammer: Has the inclusion of additional perks for subscribers, such as the points they’ll receive each month, helped in terms of letting the veteran players know you’re trying to keep subscriptions an attractive option? In essence, they’re getting more for their subscription dollar moving forward than they had been previously.

Positron: Absolutely. We at Paragon like to innovate, and find where things can be improved upon. Our veteran rewards system wasn’t going to work with the new business model, so we needed to figure out something we were going to do with that. But at the same time we wanted to make sure that free players, or those just paying a la carte, were also getting benefits. So that’s where the Paragon Rewards Program came from.

It’s basically a reward tree kind of like a skill tree that you find in other games where, as you’re subscribed or as you’re purchasing points, you’re earning points on this tree, and you’re purchasing all of the things that used to be veteran rewards in addition to more stuff that we’ve specifically added for this tree.

What’s great about this is, if you are a former subscriber and say you’ve played for three years and stopped playing, you’ll come in and already have a bunch of points based on your former subscription level. So you don’t have to start over from scratch, so again, this is catering to our former players.

So say you were a former subscriber, paid for the game; those players were not forgotten. We remember them and here’s a bonus for your time and effort.

The Paragon Rewards Program

The Paragon Rewards Program takes the original CoH veteran rewards system in an all new direction

Ten Ton Hammer: So that transition will basically take you up to the equivalent level that you were already at in terms of the veteran rewards system?

Positron: Absolutely. You’ll have a number of points based on your veteran reward badges.

Ten Ton Hammer: We’ve talked a bit about how you’re catering Freedom to veteran players, but what other things will you be attempting in terms of bringing new players into the game? Will new servers be added at all to help account for an influx of new players, or is the current idea to get fresh blood onto the existing servers first?

Positron: We’ve vastly improved our sever capacities in order to handle the new influx of players. We have the ability to bring new servers online should we need to, but we really want new players to become part of the communities that we’ve already built. Our veteran players are anxious to get new players on their servers.

We’ve also made a brand new tutorial for the game, we’ve put voice overs into the tutorial, and we made it a lot shorter so that players can just get immediately into the game, start fighting stuff, and learn the basics. Then we took some of the nitty gritty stuff that we used to have in the tutorial and we spread that over the first 20 levels with what we call Ongoing Training Missions.

Basically there’s a supergroup that wants you to join and have you as a new member, and during those missions you’re going to learn how to use the auction house, what the badge system is all about, or how to use enhancements. So all the stuff we used to cram into the tutorial is now spread out and has a better pace.

Ten Ton Hammer: Was some of that inspired by the process of creating the new starting experience in Going Rogue in terms of learning what worked, and what didn’t work in terms of pacing?

Positron: Going Rogue was kind of our beta test for this. We didn’t quite succeed at it in Going Rogue at the level that we wanted, but with City of Heroes Freedom I think we just nailed it. We’ve got very fast, get-into-the game fighting stuff, and then just spread out over those first 20 levels you’ll be learning more of the game as you play.

Ten Ton Hammer: A concern that many players vocalize when free-to-play conversions of existing MMOs are announced, is the fear of how intrusive a paid item shop or services are going to be on the in-game experience. With some games it’s kept very minimal with perhaps one button – you know it’s there so there’s no need to force it on players every time they interact with another NPC or world object - though some titles have definitely strayed too far in the latter direction for many gamers. Along that spectrum, how will that aspect of Freedom factor into the player experience?

Positron: We’re more towards the former on that, so when you’re in the game you do have just the one button for the store that’s always there.

[At this point Matt opens the costume creator on a nearby demo station to help illustrate how the store will factor into the in-game experience]

So here’s our costume creator and it includes some of the parts that we used to sell in the booster packs and that kind of thing. When you get into the costume creator you’ll notice that some of the parts like the ones from the Magic Pack, you’ll see that it’s locked here, so this account does not actually have those pieces unlocked. So we have the store button added here to allow the player to unlock that.

We allow you to use all of the costume pieces we’ve ever created in the character created here, and if it’s locked, players just can’t exit and go onto the next screen until they purchase everything that’s currently locked. From there, if you go to the store it will all be in your cart, so you can just hit purchase and be taken directly to the checkout.

CoH Freedom Celestial Armor 3 CoH Freedom Celestial Armor 4

Ten Ton Hammer: Just the ability to see the costume pieces on your character in advance to make a more informed decision about whether or not you want to make the purchase seems like a nice improvement over what we’ve seen previously. I know that in the past I’d get the email updates saying new packs were available, but it can be a tough sell for some people based on just a screenshot or video footage.

Positron: When we worked on the free-to-play stuff, one of the very first things we did was sit down and take a look at how we could improve the costume creator to take advantage of this. So out of that it was like, you have to be able see all the costume pieces on your character, you have to be able to go straight to the store and buy them right then and there.

Ten Ton Hammer: With that system then, can players pick and choose which of the individual pieces they want to purchase as opposed to keeping them tied to a larger, themed pack that they have to buy all in one go?

Positron: Absolutely. So if I just wanted the witch’s hat I could buy that for a certain amount of points.

Ten Ton Hammer: What if I ended up deciding I wanted the full set but didn’t necessarily have it all equipped as part of my costume when entering the store – would I have the option to pick the full set up at that point as well?

Positron: I believe you will have the option to still pick up the full set as well, yes.

Ten Ton Hammer: Moving on to the power sets then, some of those will be available for all players, but some will be unlocked through subscription or direct purchase only. How did you decide which of the power sets made the most sense to include on either side of that split?

Positron: It really is a matter of how much time and money we put into the set. Like the ones where we kind of went a little bit overboard on, in terms of animations and effects and tech to make the set work at all, those are going to be the premium sets that everyone is going to need to buy.

But things like Time Manipulation that we had the tech for, and we didn’t need new tech, and the effects weren’t crazy, the animations weren’t crazy, but the end result is awesome. You’ll be able to manipulate time on your enemies and friends – so those are going to be for VIP players, but a free player can purchase those as well.

But all the old power sets will be available for all of our players.

Ten Ton Hammer: We talked a bit about catering Freedom to your veteran players. Will there be other additional perks made just for subscribers that you maybe can’t simply unlock through the store?

Positron: Yes we do. For example, some of them are found on our Paragon Rewards Tree. You’ll see that VIP subscribers get increased salvage inventory and other things like that as you work your way up. And then along the top tier you’ll see that there’s a whole costume set that’s only for VIP players on the reward tree.

Ten Ton Hammer: Could you talk a little bit about Issue 21 and how that piece fits into the overall puzzle of the Freedom release?

Positron: All of our major releases have had an Issue attached to them, as seen with City of Villains and Going Rogue. The idea of those releases was that even if you don’t immediately upgrade, there’s still something else that’s new for you.

With City of Heroes Freedom, Issue 21 was always planned. So we’ve got a brand new zone, a brand new power set called Time Manipulation.

We’ve actually changed the way our teams work so that we had a team just working on Issue 21, a team working just on the early game stuff like the ongoing training missions, and then a team working just on the hybrid business model. As lead designer I was kind of coordinating between all three of these teams, making sure they weren’t stepping on each other’s toes, but making sure that everything was going to mesh together at the end. I think we did a really good job with that.

CoH Freedom - Intro Comic Page 4

The new tutorial and ongoing training missions will help ease players into learning the game better than ever before

Ten Ton Hammer: With every new Issue, you’ve usually gone beyond simply adding a new zone to the game and calling it a day by adding some other cool new thing to the game along with that release. Freedom is obviously a huge part of that release this time around, but what other things can players expect to see added to the game with Issue 21?

Positron: We launched the Incarnate System last year with a couple of our in-game raids, called Trials. Issue 21 will have an all new trial called The Underground. It continues the story from Praetoria in Going Rogue. You learn a deep, dark secret that kind of changes your whole perspective on everything you did in Going Rogue when you learn more of the backstory of exactly what’s going on in this world. So we’re very anxious to get that out there for the players.

Ten Ton Hammer: So say you’re a brand new player coming into the game with Freedom, what is Issue 21 to those players as opposed to veterans?

Positron: Issue 21 to them is really that brand new starting experience, that brand new tutorial, and the ongoing training stuff. We’ve redesigned Atlas Park by adding a whole bunch of new geometry to kind of up the graphics level there. We added all new missions there, so you’ll have all new contacts there, and there’s a whole new mission chain for Mercy Island as well for the villains.

That helps bring them up to the current state of the game in terms of Praetoria invading, the coming storm approaching. It kind of takes all the things we’ve been doing over the past seven years to give them that fast-forward primer so that they’ll be ready to go right when they log into the game.

Ten Ton Hammer: In the new starting experience, are you going to keep the pacing kind of the same as far as when you introduce players to things like the Mission Architect system, or other level-based milestone unlocks associated with player progression?

Positron: Absolutely. We wanted to make sure that Mission Architect gets introduced at level 5, and the invention system is introduced at level 10, so things like that. One of the things we are doing is that the travel powers are being lowered down to level 4 so you’ll be able to pick a travel power very, very early.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will costume slots unlock at the current levels as well?

Positron: I’m not 100% sure what we’ll be doing with that, but I believe that we are adding additional costume slots, so instead of 5 you’ll be able to have up to 10. We’ve added so may new costume pieces that adding more costume slots is just logical.

Ten Ton Hammer: Are there any other things you’d like to talk about for those gamers who maybe know of City of Heroes but have never played it, or are former players, in terms of why they should give Freedom a closer look?

Positron: We improved the graphics of the game last year with Going Rogue, and we’ve redesigned the areas of the game to really fit the business model, as opposed to just slapping the business model onto things and calling it a day.

We’ve been working on this for over a year just making sure we look at what a free player is going to get and what their experience is going to be like. For example, how easy is it going to be for them to make an account and start playing the game?

They’ll be able to make and account and five minutes later be making a character. We have an incremental downloader that will get the character creation stuff on your computer first, and then while they’re spending like that half-hour making that awesome character we’re downloading the tutorial. And then while the tutorial is playing we’re downloading most of the rest of the game as well.

So players will be able to get into the game faster than they have before. That’s a big problem all games have now days if they have a demo or something. You’ll go to start the demo and it’s like, oh, this will be done in three hours. Then it’s like, I’m going to go do something else, but then you forget you even downloaded it for days and days.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you have a release date for City of Heroes Freedom that you’re ready to announce yet?

Positron: We do have a release date locked in, but we’re not announcing it yet. Later this year is all we’re saying for now, but we are very excited about it. I think this is the most content of any single release we have ever put into this game.

We’re bordering on City of Villains and Going Rogue in terms of how much work people have done on this. It’s really kind of a reimagining of the franchise for this business model. That’s what I love about it. It’s basically new life breathed into this game – a game that thousands of players still love, and they’re still going to find what they love in that game.

Ten Ton Hammer: What does the future hold for those fans once Freedom and Issue 21 are live? Are you planning on doing more releases similar to Going Rogue in terms of size and scope as a full expansion release?

Positron: What we really want to do is more Issues in a year than we’ve ever done before, and on a more regular release schedule, and just have a certain consistency. With the launch of Freedom, consistency is going to be key. We want that store to have something new on it every week, or be running specials on something.

We’ve got monthly updates called signature stories that we’ll be able to add, so every month there’s going to be a new signature story available. And just cool updates, but remaining consistent with it is really our goal. VIP players will get the signature stories for free, and free players will be able to get them in the store.

CoH Freedom - Galaxy's End

Ten Ton Hammer: Will new Issues continue to be free content that’s added to the game for all players, or will those work the same as the signature story releases?

Positron: For Issue 21, the zone itself is going to be available for everyone. The contacts and the missions are going to be for VIP players only, but free players can purchase the contacts. So free players can still get in the zone and experience some of the content of the Issue, and that’s kind of the model we want going forward.

Again, it’s catered towards our VIP subscribers so that they’re getting everything they were getting before, and more. That was our goal: don’t take something away from our VIP subscribers just because we’re changing our business model.

Ten Ton Hammer: Any final words for our readers before we wrap things up?

Positron: We’re very excited about Freedom, and all of the new players it’s going to bring into the game, as well as our veteran players being rewarded for their time. We love the things like the Paragon Rewards Program. It’s rewarding our veteran players, it’s rewarding our returning players and even if they don’t want to pick their subscription back up, they’re going to find that their previous time is still going to count as credit in the game.

I think in those areas alone we really tried to understand this market, and really wanted to make sure that we are a leader in this market of a hybrid business model.

We’d like to thank Matt “Positron” Miller for the excellent interview and for taking the time to speak with us, as well as the fine folks from NCsoft!

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