Q&A: Cryptic on Heroes, Villains, MMOGs

California developer drops details about its next game updates, as well as discussing the MMOG space and some new products.

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In 2004, California-based developer Cryptic Studios and publisher NCsoft released the massively multiplayer online role-playing game City of Heroes. The game took place in Paragon City, a comic-book-style metropolis of superheroes fighting crime, rather than in the kind of high-fantasy setting favored by most MMORPGs.

In 2005, the studio released City of Villains, which was both a sequel and a pseudosister product, since the company made both games available to subscribers for the same monthly cost as the original game.

Since then, the studio has continually worked on updating both game products with new content, including the upcoming content update "Issue 8." The new issue adds new mission types, competitive player-versus-player options, enhanced areas, and wings for player-character models. For more details, GameSpot sat down with Cryptic lead designer Matthew Miller.

GS: Give us an overview of the additions and enhancements that will be included in the upcoming Issue 8 update for City of Heroes and City of Villains.

Matthew Miller: Well, first off, we did a major overhaul to the City of Heroes zone Faultline. It includes new contacts and missions, as well as a better street-hunting experience. We also have brought the randomly generated missions that we had in City of Villains (which villain characters got from the newspapers and brokers) to hero characters. The City of Heroes version is called "police band missions," and these can lead players into safeguard missions where they must protect Paragon City from vandals and stop major crimes in progress.

Next, we have the "veteran rewards" program, which gives perks and thank-you gifts to players for their characters based on how long they've been playing the game. There is a new set of rewards every three months. Finally, we added arena kiosks to the Pocket D area, so heroes and villains can more easily challenge one another in the arenas.

GS: Is the general goal of the two games to eventually make hero and villain experiences more or less symmetrical, or at least, to make sure that one set of players isn't missing out on other players' content?

MM: Symmetrical yes, identical no. We added a lot of cool stuff with Villains that we just didn't have the technology for when we made Heroes, so we are happy to have a chance to add that sort of stuff to the "good" side of the game. Safeguard missions are not mayhem missions, and we never tried to make them that. Heroes don't go around destroying property, but rather, their job is to protect it and to stop crime. Villains are proactive, and Heroes are reactive. In the end, they both have something similar to do (accomplish an objective while on a very tight clock), but the games play differently, which we like.

GS: We understand that the issue will also include a new option for arena-based player-versus-player battles between heroes and villains. How healthy and popular is PVP in the two products these days, and in what direction is it going? Is the idea to encourage as many players as possible or to keep it focused on a smaller portion of elite, hardcore fans?

MM: PVP is a part of the game, and there are a good many players who take it very seriously. We want to encourage more people to try PVP, and we have found that many naysayers come around once they get their first taste of it. Adding the arena kiosks to Pocket D, our club/rave gathering area where heroes and villains can hang out together, was the next logical step in that direction.

GS: Tell us about the Faultline zone. What kind of new content will the zone add to the game beyond new areas to explore and new monsters to fight?

MM: We have a bunch of new missions for the zone, as well as a couple of surprises. For one, the construction in the zone has uncovered a lot of the old hero bases from before the Rikti War. These bases were home to the supergroups of old, and it's where they housed dangerous technology. After the Rikti war, these bases were simply forgotten about, but Lord Recluse has sent Arachnos troops into Paragon City to scavenge these bases for hidden treasures. The rebuilding of Faultline has kind of kicked over the anthill...there have been Arachnos forces in Paragon City for a while now, but only now can the Heroes do something about them.

GS: Tell us about the veteran-rewards program. How well do you expect this promotion, along with City of Heroes' and City of Villains' other unusual pricing initiatives--such as making both games playable with a single monthly subscription fee--to do in terms of retaining current subscribers or bringing back previous customers?

MM: Of course, I would love it if no one ever quit the game again and everyone who had quit reactivated their accounts, but that's not our main intention with the veteran-rewards program. The program is simply Cryptic and NCsoft's way of saying "thanks" to all the players who have stuck with us from the beginning and for long periods of time. A lot of the options in the program are things our most diehard players have been asking for since the beginning. So, we wanted to make sure that our most diehard players would get the good stuff first and that eventually anyone could have the good stuff simply by playing the game long enough.

GS: How crucial is it to bring in new customers to the games? Is it a viable business model to focus primarily on the existing core user base, or should online games of these sort constantly be performing outreach for new users?

MM: I think that new customers never hurt a game, and we are constantly doing free trials and the like to do just that. Converting a new customer to a loyal one is the real magic. I love it when players find a "home" in Paragon City or the Rogue Isles, make new friends, join a supergroup, and make a ton of alternate characters.

But our highest priority is retaining our existing players. These guys and girls are our bread and butter, so making them happy is critical. Our mantra going forward now is "give the players what they want," within reason of course. In-demand things like trenchcoats and wing costume pieces, readdressing old City of Heroes zones, newspaper-style missions for City of Heroes--all these came directly from the players asking for them.

GS: Give us your thoughts on the ins and outs of maintaining and updating a massively multiplayer game after launch. What has helped Cryptic's games continue to keep plugging away, even after the launches (and in some cases, the enduring success) of competing products?

MM: We have continued to create quality content for City of Heroes and City of Villains, and other than the City of Villains game itself, we have done it all for free for our players. I think that our players really appreciate that fact, given that other games charge $30 for the same type of content. Of course I am referring to the "Issue" updates like the upcoming Issue 8 release. Issue 7 had a ton of stuff and could have easily been a paid expansion to City of Villains, but we don't want to do that to our users. We even canceled next year's paid expansion in order to focus more on the free updates.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about City of Heroes or City of Villains, or about maintaining massively multiplayer online games in general?

MM: I love MMOs and I play a bunch of them, but the ones I keep migrating back to are City of Heroes and City of Villains. There is simply something magical about logging into a game, seeing your friends online, and cooperatively competing against the game to achieve better and better status and loot.

Back in my youth, when I played text-based MUDs, I always thought that the experience I was getting there could be amplified a thousand-fold if it had the right graphics. Kids today are lucky to be growing up in an era where such graphics are not only possible, they are status quo.

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