Comic-Con 09: Paragon Devs On Creating, Maintaining City of Heroes

Superhero MMO City of Heroes has lasted over five years; on a Comic-Con panel, four key team members reminisced on the game's history and discussed the challenges of creating and maintaining an MMO.
The superhero MMO City of Heroes has seen a lot, as far as MMOs go -- it was released over five years ago, pre-World of Warcraft, has gone through a major studio shift, and is still under active development and promotion by publisher NCsoft. Speaking on a Comic-Con San Diego 2009 panel, four key employees of Paragon Studios, the NCsoft team that was formed to take over development from creator Cryptic Studios, reminisced on the game's path over the years and discussed the challenges of maintaining a lasting MMO. The Road To Retail "This game didn't have a publisher for the longest time," recalled senior lead designer Matt Miller. "The six founders of Cyptic [were] going around saying, 'Would you like to publish City of Heroes?' and publishers were saying, 'No, superhero games are cursed.' Some big-name publishers didn't even bother showing up to the meetings." It was successful South Korean firm NCsoft that ended up taking the plunge. Brian Clayton, who originally oversaw Cryptic from the NCsoft side and now serves as general manager for Paragon itself, said the company was looking to diversify itself and break into North America. "Anyone you talk to on the street in Korea has played [NCsoft's] Lineage at one time," Clayton said, "but they wanted to come to North America. ...They started with some creators from Ultima Online, and they were tasked with finding some external opportunities. They didn't just want to make fantasy games -- they'd already done that in Korea -- they wanted to expand the genre and be innovative." "I wonder whether, if NCsoft hadn't pulled the trigger, City of Heroes would still be here today," added Clayton. A Smooth Launch Launching City of Heroes without any major technical mishaps was a key area of focus for Cryptic, according to senior tech lead Vince D'Amelio. "Very few MMOs have been able to successfully launch a game smoothly and steadily," he said. "We came up with only a 1.5MB patch, and people who play MMOs know that's ridiculously small. We met that goal. Still to this day, I think was one of the most stable launches of any MMO. The game didn't crash." Still, the compay had to improvise at times. "We had ten servers ready at launch day. They did great," said D'Amelio. "But we kept watching the trend lines, saying, 'If they keep going the way they're going, we're not going to make it through the weekend. But we don't have any other hardware, except for the training room and the test server.' So we repurposed our test server, and that was our eleventh server." The move worked - but, as Clayton said, "The downside was, we operated for six weeks without a test environment." Added D'Amelio, "Every patch we released during that period went straight to live." Shifting Studios The panelists painted the relationship between Cryptic and NCsoft as one of general harmony, but admitted that at times the two companies weren't always on the same page as to the specific direction to be taken with City of Heroes. Each company held a 50 percent stake in the game, so consensus always needed to be reached. "There were things NC wanted to do, and Cryptic didn't," Clayton said. "There was nothing ill intended, but it was a challenge." At a certain point, Cryptic wanted to move on to other projects, and the companies had to find a way to keep that desire from detracting from City of Heroes. In November 2007, NCsoft was offered the chance to buy the other half of the property. "We definitely took Cryptic up on that opportunity," Clayton said. "We agreed that was the best way to continue City of Heroes. We made an offer to all the key members of the [team]. We didn't have to do that, but much to my amazement, I was blown away that the entire team from Cryptic decided to come over and join us. It was an amazing time." Paragon now exceeds 60 developers, having grown from 15 or so on the original Cryptic team, and the studio plans to keep growing. Clayton's thankfulness for how the events played out was palpable, and his recollection of that era of development drew applause from the crowd, which was clearly made up nearly entirely of existing City of Heroes players. Expanding The Scope Miller said that when NCsoft established the new studio and brought the team over, the publisher allocated a considerable budget for the purpose of improving and expanding the game. Explained senior designer Joe Morrissey, "The idea of keeping [our] tools internal seemed very limited. In this process of really pushing the boundaries of what MMOs can do, user-generated content is the holy grail." This April, the team launched the Mission Architect, which allows users to create their own stories and quests to be played and rated by others. "We wanted to stand out and differentiate ourselves from those around us," Morrissey said. The feature has proven a success: "I've begun to see stories people are telling, and people will stump me with some of the things they've managed to do," he admitted. Still, Paragon would also like to use the architect to offer content from professional storytellers. "We've been going around the con talking to people, asking if they'd like to do a guest story," Morrissey said, referring to comic book creators. "As much as we love hearing the stories of all of you, we think it's great to bring in other people [for] stories about characters you may know."

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