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How Fans Will Resurrect City of Heroes

Michael Bitton Posted:
Interviews 0

Editor's Note: Except for the first piece of concept art, all screenshots are taken from the original City of Heroes game as developed by Paragon Studios and published by NCSoft.

MMORPG: How will The Phoenix Project serve as the spiritual successor to City of Heroes? 

Jacob Bazzrea: We are attempting to accomplish a similar feel for the gameplay, and with a similar method for systems and other parts of the user experience. There were a lot of things CoH did well, we want to try and build upon those things. At the same time, there were some short comings that CoH had, and we would like to enhance those areas of the game.

MMORPG: What is the lore and setting of the game? Which era of comics does The Phoenix Project take its inspiration from most?

Nate Downes: When we began, we sat down and listed inspirational comics. It struck us that we were slanted heavily to he latter silver age to bronze age for inspirational material.

Our initial setting is a city called Titan City. One of the common things we found when researching comic book game lore was something we referred to as "the event," some grand singular occurrence to create the ball rolling and spawn superheroes. 

Look no further than DC Universe Online, with Exobytes. We purposefully chose not to have "the event" in our world. Instead, we looked no further than human prejudice, and modern communications.

Throughout our own real-world history, we have tall tales, of Pecos Bill, John Henry, the Pied Piper, people who could do amazing things yet written off as fable. 

But even proven history, we have people such as Teddy Roosevelt, who not only survived a point blank shot by a would be assassin, he brushed it off and delivered the speech he had prepared as if it were nothing. It is a far more subtle change to history to imagine that these events were based on real people, real super powered people. 

But the lack of communication, and the pre-modern era reality that anyone different was likely to be persecuted, if not executed (recall the Vampire scare in New England during the 1880's, only 130 years ago), would keep such people hidden away. 

But, the mobilization to war, the push by some during the 1930's to create the super man, combined with widespread telecommunications, these people would find themselves not only visible, but welcome, even called heroes upon the end of World War II. One can just imagine from there the changes which would happen. 

Still the same general course, but with powered beings involved - Pay of Pigs invasion backed up by super powered people able to control the weather; Vietnamese duels between American and Communist supers; the civil rights movement alone would have been both more drastic and yet more dramatic.

MMORPG: What are some of the most important things you intend to preserve from City of Heroes with The Phoenix Project? And in what ways does a brand-new game offer you an opportunity to make up for whatever shortcomings you feel City of Heroes had?

Jacob Bazzrea: Predominantly the gameplay and customization options, we intend to get the user the most customization options as we can possibly fit in. 

Also, CoH was "statless" in the traditional RPG sense, and was not set up to operate toward a "gear grind" like in most other MMORPGs. Instead of top notch gear, you could focus on maximizing your defense, damage, and recharge, among many other things. However, it was not an essential thing for the average user to grind in order to enjoy the game itself. I think this was a crucial area that they really succeeded in accomplishing.

Nate Downes: The main shortcomings from City of Heroes stems from its age and design history. 

When they began developing City, they had no inclination for customized powers, character respecs, even Villains had no place in their vision. We have the years of development on City of Heroes to see their issues and avoid them. They had to work for years to bring power customization, we can have it integrated in the design stage, bringing more flexibility to the way your powers will work. They wound up with unique powersets which did not translate to other archetypes well. They wound up with Archetypes which were effectively duplicates of each other, in order to cover different demands. We can expand upon this system, and prevent these duplicates while retaining the roles. What we have done is looked at what CoH, DCUO and CO are right-now, what works, and built it backwards to get a more efficient starting point.

MMORPG: Can you talk about the talent behind the project? What sort of experience does your team have in making games?

Nate Downes: Honestly, most of us have been on the fringes. Myself, for instance, I helped out the Quakeforge project for awhile.

Most of us who were involved in games, we were involved in mods, and some of those got to the point they rival full scale AAA titles. But there are several who have worked on titles ranging from A.P.B., to recently taking on a volunteer who helped develop Crackdown - a huge range of diversity from AAA titles, mods, private servers, computer and pen and paper role-playing games. The number of volunteers who have worked on White Wolf based products alone is in the double digits.

In more practical experience, we are made up primarily those who played at making games in their youth, but turned to what our parents would call "the sensible route." Making corporate databases, developing low-latency servers for health insurance underwriting, managing supercomputer clusters, journalists, business management, the range of talent is filled with fortune 500 alongside mavericks. While this may sound unorthodox, as one of our volunteers put it to me, the challenges of an MMORPG database server pales against the database demands of a commodity trading system.

Heck, my friend Kevin and I used to make ourselves video games on our Commodore 64's as kids, but we both were convinced that there was no future for video game development. Now he and I both are here, him turning his artistic talents to good use while I'm managing the coding, just like when we were 8. Only this game is going to be a bit better than what we made in computer camp.

MMORPG: Putting together a successor to an AAA MMO like City of Heroes is no small task. Do you plan on employing full-time staff for this project? Or will the entire project be completed with volunteers/part-time employees alone?

Jacob Bazzrea: It is a really large scale ambitious project. 

Ideally, we would like to be able to form up a studio and employee our entire staff full time, as opposed to telecommuting constantly. A great deal of how much integration we get into a studio format and full time employment depends heavily on the sequences of events in the next few months. Obviously, if we can do this full time, we will; if not, then we intend to see it all the way to completion, whether that's as volunteers or not depends entirely on the response we get from our user base.

MMORPG: What is the status of the project now? How far along would you say you are?

Jacob Bazzrea: We are making excellent progress in most departments. There have been some setbacks here and there we've had to accommodate for, though nothing that is a show stopper. Of course, and project of this scale is going to encounter it's share of minor issues along the way.

MMORPG: What are the goals of the Kickstarter? What would additional funding allow you to do that you cannot do now?

Nate Downes: It is not about what can be done, but what can be done on schedule. 

The Kickstarter is to get better tools, which can deliver more, faster. While yes, Blender can do similar work to Maya, it is not as refined, does not have the plugins, not as quick to work with. A trained artist can produce more with the right tools than without. In addition, it is to purchase licenses which will save us development time. It is many times faster to purchase a ready made library for a task than to build it yourself.

Jacob Bazzrea: Yeah, he basically said it all. To recap: the more funding we get, the more content we can deliver at launch.

MMORPG: Do you plan on launching with playable villains? If so, how will heroes and villains interact? Can we expect something along the lines of City of Heroes, where both sides were mostly isolated? Or do you intend to take a parallel approach the way DC Universe Online does?

Jacob Bazzrea: Some of those systems are still being looked at as to the best way to do things. Ideally, we want heroes and villains to be able to interact somewhat like City of Heroes where both sides can do their own things, and you can change alignment. However, we are also exploring the idea of offering the player that type of gameplay, or choosing an open world where heroes and villains can literally PVP in the streets of the city.

MMORPG: Along the same lines – do you have plans for Player vs. Player activities? If so, what can you share with us at the moment?

Jacob Bazzrea: We certainly intend to do instanced PVP, arena type things, and objective based combat matches. We would like to get open world PVP into the gameplay through a separate instance as well, that option is still being explored.

MMORPG: How can CoH fans get involved with the project?

Jacob Bazzrea: Come to the forums and talk with us in the threads, we would love to hear ideas and feedback about key things you loved about City of Heroes, and some of the things you think we could do better in the spiritual successor we are working on.

Nate Downes: Even moral support is huge. We are not in this for ourselves, we would not be doing this if it were not for the community.

MMORPG: Is there else anything you’d like to share with fans of City of Heroes who may have not heard of The Phoenix Project yet?

Jacob Bazzrea: This is a project we want the entire community to have some input into, I would like to hear from anyone who isn't aware of us in the forums and see their feedback in the many discussion topics that we get a chance to read and respond to.

Nate Downes: We are heroes. This is what we do.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB