City of Heroes: Secrets To Six Years Of Success

NCsoft and Paragon Studios' City of Heroes continues to attract a healthy audience, and has just launched its biggest expansion in years -- Gamasutra gets details from the team.

City of Heroes launched in 2004, but still pulls in a dedicated audience, even with a lot of competition in the marketplace. Some of it is direct, as in fellow superhero-based Champions Online, and much is indirect, as in fantasy MMO powerhouse World of Warcraft and innumerable free-to-play options.

How does the team manage to keep the game fresh while maintaining a large, fairly casual audience and still supporting dedicated hardcore fans who wouldn't dream of switching to another game?

This week NCsoft launched Going Rogue, the game's first full boxed expansion since 2005's City of Villains -- and that seemed the best the opportunity to speak to them, and find out how a six year old game reinvents itself.

Gamasutra recently sat down with two members of the team at Paragon Studios and uncovered how they've shaped the game over the course of the last few years.

Jesse Caceres, senior producer, has been with the game since shortly after its 2004 launch, and describes himself as "probably number five or six in terms of total veteran status." David Nakayama, the game's art lead, worked with Top Cow and Marvel Comics before transitioning to concept art and then lead art on the game.

City of Heroes has been running successfully for such a long time, and it's been running successfully for that time. That's hardly common for an MMO.

Jesse Caceres: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Trying to keep this game fresh has always been a challenge, especially because it's not like a traditional console game where you just ship it and you're done with it.

With MMORPGs, it's always challenging to make sure that we deliver content and gameplay and systems that are compelling and are repeatable so that players feel like they've accomplished something and get a sense of pride for doing things in games. Yeah; it's absolutely, I think, of great interest to our peers in the industry.

David Nakayama: Yeah, and artistically, I think, the way to keep things fresh is... We just released a major graphical upgrade with Ultra Mode and Issue 17, and not only does that make all the old assets look instantly better with the real-time shadows and cube map reflection and that sort of thing, but also, when we built Praetoria, that was built with Ultra Mode in mind. So we could build our first-ever skyscraper metropolis with real reflective buildings. It's unlike any City of Heroes zone that's ever existed, and it really pushes the art in the game forward and keeps it relevant.

JC: What David is referring to is that, when we originally launched City of Heroes way back in 2004, that was already with an engine that had been in development for quite some time. Ever since then, graphic cards have made leaps and bounds in improvements, and what we've done recently is try to improve our game engine to take advantage of those graphical technologies.

Do you have metrics? Can you look at your audience's specs and find out what's safe to upgrade? Because at a certain point, by upgrading a game, you might push some people with older systems out of the audience.

JC: Yeah, absolutely. We do have a way to sense what kind of operating systems, what graphic cards, what video resolutions people are running; so we can get sense of are people just using a normal 4:3 display versus widescreen displays or even if they're using multiple monitors.

Those are metrics that we track, but what we've found is, obviously, as our consumers -- casual and hardcore -- move along over the years, there's a migration of hardware and operating systems over time. So yes, we look at what can we achieve in the future and make sure to continue to raise that bar.

When we launched City of Villains, we did a graphical upgrade to the City of Heroes engine, and now, with Going Rogue, we've made another upgrade to our system. We always try to look ahead because what we did in 2005 wasn't necessarily pushing graphic cards; but when we push the current generation of graphic cards now with Ultra Mode, it actually is. So we have a number of years for the mass consumers to catch up, too, but we've certainly delivered something that takes advantage of the latest and greatest from Nvidia and ATI.

DN: Another important factor is the opt-in nature of it. If existing players don't want to upgrade, they don't have to; they can keep playing the game at exactly the same specs they've got, but they have all this room to expand into if they do decide to get that higher-end card.

Is Going Rogue a boxed expansion, or is it a downloadable expansion?

JC: It's both. Online, players can just download the expansion from or Steam, but at the brick-and-mortar level players can buy the combined expansion plus the original client, kind of like a combo pack.

Since you launched this game, the landscape has changed a lot for MMOs; how has your strategy changed in terms of expanding the game from back when things were a little bit simpler and the audience had fewer choices?

JC: Last year, we introduced Mission Architect, and a major push was for user-generated content. Players have always wanted to just play the game their way. We offered players the ability to play as heroes, and we offered them the ability to play as villains.

We found they wanted to move between those alignments, and so that's what the Going Rogue system is; but also they wanted to tell their own story, which is kind of what Mission Architect was. So players could tell their own stories, create their own enemy groups within the Mission Architect system, and now they can walk the line between good and evil with the Going Rogue expansion.

How did Mission Architect work out from launch, and now through to this point?

JC: Well, I think we handed a very powerful tool to players, and we continued to build upon that. With the Going Rogue launch, we're going to add doppelgangers.

What we've found is it's a very robust tool that players enjoy. I guess finding the gems of quality with user-generated content is always a challenge, but players can vote on their favorite stories; that will raise visibility of those missions to other players.

So, yeah, it's been quite successful in our opinion. We actually even hired a player from the Mission Architect system, and that person is now a developer. It's kind of a great thing!

Are there other tools for encouraging quality missions besides a voting system? Are there ways to, through design or through messaging, encourage players to put effort into their user-generated content, or is it just a Darwinian system?

JC: We have two systems. Players can vote for each other, and they can get into a hall of fame. Then missions are submitted to developer consideration to become Developer's Choice, and that's when our studio reads through the story arc and, if we really like it, will star it as the Developer's Choice. That indicates that that story represents the pinnacle, the paragon, of what's been created through user-generated content.

One of the big challenges with MMO development always has been and continues to be that content generation is so expensive. There's been a lot of debate about procedural content, but user-generated content is another road to beefing up your game.

JC: Yes, and players try to push that tool in so many different ways. They use the tool in ways that we didn't envision. They challenge us to keep trying to improve upon it.

When we initially launched it, we only allocated a certain file size to the missions, but based upon user feedback and just seeing how the system grew after it launched, we were able to increase that file size to allow players additional customization opportunities.

Any time that you create a villain group or a story, it takes up data space; when we doubled it, it was received very well because players could then create more complicated missions and more complicated villain groups.

As you said, the original foundation of this game was from 2004. You know you have to deliver content continuously; how have the back end tools for you and your designers developed? Is there a continuous upgrade path, or when you release new engine enhancements like this are you hamstrung in any way?

JC: Well, actually the Mission Architect system was something that was a tool proposed internally, a full way for our own mission design team to craft missions. Once we were like, "Oh, wow. This is really easy!" Then it's like, "This is something that we could deliver to our players!" Right? So yes, there's always improvements to our pipeline that we're implementing on our back end that could kind of complement some of the features that we've actually delivered to players.

When you look at a game like this, to go back to the tech question, how often can you upgrade and how fundamentally can you upgrade what you're offering both to the developers and to the players?

JC: Those are just opportunities as they come up, right. I mean, Going Rogue was a major initiative; out of that came Ultra Mode development and graphical improvement. Prior to that was Mission Architect. We are always striving to improve our back end to make sure that forward development isn't constrained by tools and systems that were created six, seven years ago.

This game fascinates me just for the basic reason that it's still around, you know? Not really that many MMOs stay around with a vibrant community for such a long time.

JC: Oh, yeah, and that's one of the things that we've absolutely leveraged. I don't know if it's just the nature of our game or what, but our community is very mature. We can have very intelligent dialogues with them, and, in our betas, we invite people who can talk intelligently to just discuss the game and discuss the features -- any changes that are upcoming.

They have a very powerful impact on how certain features are actually released. It's very cool. I think that kind of back-and-forth and that discourse that we have with our player base is one of the reasons why we have such a dedicated following.

DN: From an artistic side, we actively seek comments about what new pieces players want or how we can improve the zones. A lot of that information gets collected on the forums and put directly into the pipeline for upcoming Issues. So players can relatively quickly see their request come to life! It's a constant reward system for them.

More and more, we like to keep our players involved by actually having them create assets that go into the game. For Going Rogue, for example, we held a contest where players could submit either resistance graffiti or propaganda created by a loyalist faction.

We got surprisingly good entries and put them in almost as-is! There are at least three assets I can think of off the top of my head that we put in based on player contributions. We're following that up with a new load screen contest coming fairly shortly, where players will be able to play photographer and take new load screen photographs of our Ultra Mode-enhanced zones to make the base game look that much better as well.

David, you started out as a comic book artist. Did you ever think you would go into games, or was it just a natural evolution of how your career developed?

DN: It was sort of natural. I've always been interested in games as much as I was interested in comics, and City of Heroes obviously had instant appeal for because I'm a massive comic book fan, and this is just bringing comic books to life in the most realistic and compelling way. So when the opportunity to work on the thing and contribute art to it -- I mean, that was definitely a no-brainer. As much as I love comics, I was very excited to join the team.

At Top Cow, I did some Witchblade work and some various projects for them. When I got to Marvel, I worked on Incredible Hulk and Spiderman and a six issue miniseries with Chris Claremont, which was sort of a fanboy dream come true -- about an anime-inspired Japanese X-Men spin-off team.

Working with him was really exciting, and working on the City of Heroes comic, I got to work with Mark Waid, who's another one of my comic book heroes. Transitioning to City of Heroes was just a way to take my art that I'd been doing in a comic book format and bring it to 3D life. That's why I love it!

What's the aesthetic challenge there? A lot of people have struggled to reconcile the printed page and the screen and done better or worse in being able to bring them closer together. How do you find that that's been for you in making that happen, particularly with new tech?

DN: Yeah, the tech helps a lot. I actually feel more empowered working on a game because I can realize things in 3D, in animation, with effects, with sounds; it's so much more real and interactive than what I could generate in a comic book, and I can still bring all that great comic book sensibility, like interesting designs -- really getting to the heart of a character through the design of his outfit -- all that's the same.

I feel like I'm kind of doing the same job in many ways, just thinking the designers are very much akin to a comic book writer. They provide us with a script and a departure point, and bringing those stories to artistic life feels almost identical to me, comics to games. It's just that we can achieve so much more with the interactivity of them.

How is the design structured? Is there an overarching arc of the way the story's going to go and then individual missions that are designed within that? How is that organized from the design team's perspective?

JC: What we try to do is we define an overarching story arc or goal, so with Going Rogue it's the new universe of Praetoria. It has key players within that universe, and we try to define: "Okay, within this level band, this is the turning point of the story arc that occurs in this area." We try to think up missions to support those. We try to make sure that, as players progress through different levels, it makes sense because it's, again, a journey.

And who has ownership of that on the design team? Does someone own the overarching story, and then the individual missions are more crafted by different designers?

JC: We come up with goals. It's worked out internally by our lead designer, who works with our lead content writer. They brainstorm a bunch of different things that they want to achieve. That is roped internally through to our executive staff, and once we've plotted out the issue or several issues or the next year in advance, then those goals get broken down into our schedules.

So while we are just preparing to launch Issue 18 and Going Rogue, we are ready several issues ahead internally. We're already working on the next several expansions simultaneously. So, yeah. (Laughs) It's not ending... Like I said; MMORPGs are different from consoles. We're always thinking ahead.

How frequently do you release Issues, typically?

JC: We average between three and four Issues a year. Yeah, approximately that.

Outside of something like Going Rogue, is that free content upgrades for the user base?

JC: Well, what's going on with the expansion is there's a free component as well, so we try to make sure that people who don't choose to purchase the expansion are also taken care of; but obviously the people who invest in the expansion get a greater proportion of benefits in terms of content, story, and systems.

But, yeah, all of our Issue updates -- well, some have been system-focused; moving forward, we're trying to make sure that there's a lot of content focus as well.

Something that your game is known for, at least to me, is having a large, pretty casual audience, a little bit more so than some of the other MMOs on the market. Would you say that's a fair characterization?

JC: Yeah. I think the biggest attractions for our game are that players can create characters right off the bat without having to unlock a whole bunch of stuff -- our character creation system is so robust, once you start experiencing it your imagination just lights up. It's so easy to use and to understand, people can just spend hours and hours within the character creation system without getting into the game, and then, once they get into the game, they realize, "Oh, wow! This is even much more fun!"

DN: The great thing about the character creator is it can be as casual or involved as you want to be. You can spend weeks doing it, or you can hit a button and have a costume generated for you -- or levels in between; you can have that generated for you and only choose the colors. So it's as involved as you want it to be.

In terms of the game content, do you think there's something about your game in particular that attracts that sort of audience? Or, more to the point, you have a hardcore player base that's satisfied, and you're also satisfying a much more casual player base?

JC: Well, we draw our inspirations for a lot of our starting lines not only from comic books but from books and television and movies, and we can have some of our story lines resonate with a lot of people.

I mean, the Roman background, players get inspired to get on their gladiator outfits on, or whatever; or alien invasions where the heroes and villains have to unite to fight off these alien foes. Those are really cool concepts that exist in television, movies, comic books... It's just fun. Not a whole lot of MMOs can take advantage of that because they may not be set in a kind of comic book universe where fantasy and science fiction can meet. I think that's one of our benefits.

Does it have anything to do with the pace of the gameplay or the design also, do you think?

JC: Well, our gameplay is very different from other MMOs. The way that players can fight and move in a 3D space -- other MMOs are always ground-based, so you can't full jump or fly at super-speed and also do combat. It's much slower, I would say, in other games. It's just different. I think our game allows players to feel very powerful without being... I guess gimmicky, if that makes sense.

Your expansion deals with the concept concept of people switching alignment, and in a comic book theme there are clear "evil versus good" stories. Where these have appeared in other games -- like World of Warcraft or Fable for example --  people tend to play the "good guys". Have you found that to be the case in your game, or does the superhero theme or anything you do design-wise encourage experimentation with different alignments?

JC: Comparing City of Heroes and City of Villains, we definitely saw a lot of players favoring the heroes side, but, with Going Rogue, what we've tried to do is we've tried to turn the concept of what good and evil means -- and right and wrong and what that means -- really inside and out and upside-down.

Primarily because, with Praetoria, there's two different factions: the Loyalist and the Resistance factions. In your mind, the Resistance could be, "Oh, they're the freedom fighters, so they must be the good guys!" In the same sense, those freedom fighters can also be agents of chaos.

Somebody who's a Loyalist, who's in the opposite faction -- they're the people who provide the safety and support for the law, and that provides structure and sanctuary; but, by doing so, they may also be supporting a tyranny.

Suppose the good guys are actually bad. So what we are doing with Going Rogue and Praetoria is turning everything upside-down.

In other games, where they have good and evil, with Praetoria, we're trying to change the concept of what good and evil actually is. Players may find that being good isn't where they want to be; they may actually want to sway towards evil, if that makes sense, because we're switching it all around.

Sometimes players resist the good/evil dichotomy stuff, but with superheroes it seems to be a fit. And that's tapped into tapped into the discussion of superhero stuff more recently in pop culture -- about good vs. evil and the gray area.

DN: Yeah, actually that's exactly -- if you look at the story of comic books as a medium, it definitely started off a little on the naive side, a little bit binary good and evil; you know, boy scouts versus mustache-twisting villains.

But through The Dark Knight Returns in the '80s, we saw the medium grow up. To explore this shade of gray, very quickly the vigilante characters that occupy that middle space became the most popular characters. Batman and Wolverine came to the forefront, and Superman kind of faded back.

That's what's been popular ever since! It's the gray-area stuff, stuff that appeals to an older audience with more complicated tastes. Likewise, for the game, players want to be that vigilante and tell complicated stories like the characters they love; now they can make their own characters that fit exactly their concept of what that character's supposed to be like in the game world. That's why I think Going Rogue is so compelling as a basic idea.

When it comes to the gameplay design, I just kind of sensed that it was about shifting alignments, but you can live in that gray space; you don't really have to go binary. Is that what you're saying?

DN: You can. You certainly have rewards at every step of the way. We reinforce if you want to stay a hero or villain; you get certain rewards. If you move, you get certain rewards; if you're in that middle space, the reward you get is you can access both the hero content and the villain content, which you can't do if you're a dedicated hero or villain.

But the rewards for being a true-blue hero or a villain are special bases that you can go to with ways to power up your character. Some of the best loot in the game can be gotten there. It rewards your play style however you want to go.

That's just the thing; the whole game is about customization, letting players live out their superhero fantasies. So we gave them costume customization, then powers customization, mission content customization -- now alignment customization. It's kind of all just expanding that theme of player and empowerment.

It's been hard for a lot of games. I think they've been fairly criticized for their black-or-white morality, so it's interesting to see something that sort of pushes the gray a little bit.

DN: Yeah, I think so. I have to imagine that most superhero fans -- the people who really get something out of reading superhero fiction or creating their own characters in City of Heroes...

What's fun about storytelling is movement, right? Taking your character from point A to point B. This lets you do that. This actually creates the ability to color your own story. You're not just stuck as hero; you're not stuck as villain. You can move. It's amazingly freeing, I think.

You don't have a story arc if you're stuck in one place. You need to be able to have that forward momentum and create change in your character to have that character be alive and have a living story, and that's really why this is so massive.

So many games do good or evil polar binaries, but there's actually very little in the way of actually presenting gray to people as a viable option or even encouraging them to think that way.

JC: Oh, yeah. Like there's one certain situation where there's a drug in the game -- I don't know if David touched upon it -- it's called "enriche". It's in the water, and as part of the Resistance you want to stop the manufacture of any enriche, because you don't want everybody to be brainwashed; but, if you do, you will stop the only water supply for the entire city.

So stopping it will achieve what you want, no more brainwashing, but stopping it will also mean that there's no more water. Well, what do you do? It's a hard question, and it's not something that is good or evil. Is there a benefit to being brainwashed? Being brainwashed might actually be a good thing! There's always moral challenges that we're presenting in the game that make Going Rogue much more mature and much more interesting than just being, "Oh, hey. I'm just good and evil." Kind of awesome.

David, You mentioned working on an anime-inflected miniseries at Marvel. Did you ever think about adding in some of those elements to bring in the manga fans into the City of Heroes universe, or is it a "never the twain shall meet" kind of thing?

DN: Well, the game has a certain style, but I think the beauty of the comic book-inspired landscape is that almost anything fits into it. A cowboy wouldn't be out of place. Samurai is definitely not out of place. Giant mechas certainly would fit right in.

We always have plans: What is the next cool aesthetic thing we're going to add to the game? We're always trying to get the next thing in there that isn't represented currently. I would definitely love to do a big, Gundam-inspired anime set. That'd be awesome. I think the players would dig it, too.

Some of our upcoming costume releases are definitely going to address these solicitations we've got from the forums of what players actually want, holes they see, and concepts they couldn't create previously. So we'll just satisfy more and more of their special wishes, I'm sure.

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