2004's City of Heroes from Calfornia-based developer Cryptic Studios and publisher NCsoft made a number of bold changes to what has become a formula for massively multiplayer games. Rather than taking place in a high-fantasy world where players played as struggling adventurers grinding away at an in-game economy, scraping together virtual coins to purchase a rusty broadsword, City of Heroes took place in a comic-book metropolis where players played as superheroes with special powers who, rather than joining in-game "guilds," instead formed "supergroups," complete with a base of operation.
The game also had no real inventory items or item crafting to speak of beyond "enhancement" items, which improved players' superhuman abilities. City of Heroes then expanded with the 2005 sequel, City of Villains, which added superpowered villain characters. Both games focused on combat and character development.
Both games are now set to expand with an all-new "invention" system in the upcoming "issue 9" update that introduces item crafting to the game, as well as a new in-game sales house. Lead designer Matt Miller (also known in the City of Heroes community as "Positron") gave GameSpot the details in this exclusive interview.
GameSpot: Could you give us a brief overview of the invention system in City of Heroes/Villains? How does it work, and what can players make?
Matt Miller: We designed the invention system to create a whole new level of activities for players who are looking to do things like collect, craft, buy, and sell. But we didn't want to require our existing players to change the way that they play City of Heroes or City of Villains. Many of our players love the uncomplicated and straightforward systems of the current game. We wanted to add to that, expanding what people can do. We feel that the invention system satisfies both of these needs.
So, players will be able to craft enhancements, as well as costume pieces and temporary powers. Players collect the "salvage" needed to make these items through normal gameplay. Then, they use the salvage as ingredients to make these items. This invention process is done by players at the tool centers in the "universities" in the game, or by setting up the tools necessary for inventing in their supergroup's base.
Of course, not everything that can be made is readily apparent. A wide array of things can be invented from the knowledge available at universities. But there are also recipes that can only be found by defeating enemies or accomplishing missions. These recipes are used to make powerful enhancements that can improve your character in ways beyond just the norm.
GS: How will the invention system be different than other crafting systems that have appeared in other online games? How will it be better?
MM: For one, our system concentrates on the collecting aspect of the game; most everything about it is a collectable of one sort or another. We already have a very popular collection system in the game with "badges." We don't restrict crafting to certain skills or professions either. Everyone can craft if they want to invest the time into it. We also don't force players to "skill up" their inventing skill to make specific enhancements they might want. You can just make it as long as you have all the ingredients.
We feel that this is better than trying to retrofit other games' crafting systems into our game. For one, adding the system in after initial product launch means that everyone starts off on an equal footing. The fact that nothing is level restricted or skill restricted means that no one should feel that they should have been "skilling up" their entire career.
GS: The invention system seems like a fundamental shift in focus for City of Heroes--a game that took the bold step of getting rid of inventory management for characters by basically getting rid of inventories for characters beyond "enhancement" items for special powers. Why the change? What does it mean for the game longer-term?
MM: We wanted to provide additional ways for players to grow and develop their characters. The game's current system of adding enhancements to a character's powers is a fairly basic way to improve character performance. "Power gamers" or "min-maxers" might end up slotting their characters in one "ideal" way, and that would be that. We wanted a system that truly diversified how players slotted their enhancements. This meant coming up with a slew of new enhancements that added things other than what the basic enhancements could offer. This is the promise that enhancements crafted through the invention system hold.
We feel that this change will make players more excited about developing their characters and making them more powerful. For the long term, we want to make it so that the more time you invest in your character, the better rewarded you are in terms of out-of-the-ordinary bonuses.
But, in all of this, please keep in mind one of our other design decisions. If you completely ignore the system, you can continue to play the game just as you always have. While the new invented enhancements are nice, they are not so much more powerful over existing enhancements that players without them cannot compete. Sure, if you don't care for inventions, you'll be getting rewards like recipes and salvage that you have no intention of using, but they can always be sold to a store, or to other players via the auction house for influence or infamy.
GS: We understand that the new update will also usher in an auction house feature that will let players buy and sell items automatically? How will it compare against auction systems we've seen in other online games? What distinguishing features will it have?
MM: Well, it's more of a consignment house really. Players will be able to pick a selling price of how much they are willing to take for whatever they are selling. Buyers and sellers have a sell history of each item to help them gauge the market value of what they want to buy or sell. Buyers don't get to see the price the seller is wanting for the item, though. They simply locate what they want to buy, and make an offer. If what they offer is equal to or greater than what the seller wants for it, then the transaction goes through and the seller receives what the buyer offered (minus the appropriate fees, of course). This means that sellers who don't know the value of what they have have a greater chance of getting what they deserve for the item, no matter how low they personally value it.
In addition, we have a feature called a "buy order." This is simply a request to buy something that no one is currently selling. You put in the price you want to pay, and if a seller ever posts that item for that price or less, you immediately buy it, even if you are offline.
Oh, and the consignment houses are all cross-server. This means that someone on the Virtue server could be selling recipes and salvage to someone on the Justice server. This will result in a wealth of items to buy, and a wealth of buyers to sell to.
GS: Are there any other features from other online games that might find their way into City of Heroes/Villains? How do you strike a balance between having a distinctive game with unusual options and having the kind of full-featured game that online game veterans would demand?
MM: We are constantly looking at other MMOs and seeing what they are doing. If there is a great idea out there, we always ask if it would work in the "City of" games. More often than not, the answer is "no," simply because our players have come to expect certain things out of our titles.
Striking that balance between catering to what our players have come to expect and being "full-featured" isn't easy. We very carefully add new systems to the game, while still trying to maintain the same game that our players have come to know and love. The badges system that I mentioned earlier is an excellent example of something we did really well. Other games had "badges," but we went ahead and made a full-featured system out of them. It continues to be a point of pride for our players when they achieve a new badge in game.
GS: Are there any other updates, or broader goals, in the future for City of Heroes/Villains that you'd care to discuss with us at this time?
MM: Well, I don't want to give away too much. The marketing people always get mad at me when I do that. The planning and development for the issue 10 update is moving right along, as is our work on what we will be doing further out. I would like to point out that the tech and effort put into the invention system is going to pay off for us over the long haul. We are very excited about the power of the invention system, and have many plans to use it from this point forward. It will be something we will be adding to for a while.