Does an MMO need 400 hours of gameplay? "Frankly, we were naive and enthusiastic, and we said, 'sure.' So we calculated everything on the assumption... that you'd have to make 400 hours worth of missions," began Cryptic Studios Jack Emmert, as he explained how City of Heroes was developed to order for NCsoft.
Nor were any microtransactions planned. But the aim was to deliver original content once every three months -- it ended up not being quite so often. On its release, the game had its strengths and weaknesses like any other. As far as the former, there were character customization options and moment-to-moment gameplay. As to the latter, there was missing PvP and an absence of new loot, on which typical MMO players thrive.
By 2004, the game's subscriber base had grown to 180,000 in North America. "But on our first update, we did nothing to address the game's weaknesses," said Emmert. Focused on bug fixes and content past level 50, the team overlooked those content absences that resulted in a loss of players. "If you don't have [PvP] at launch, you can never add it," warned Emmert.
"We tried to address the weaknesses that we had, but we really did it in a way that simply re-used content that we already had," he continued. "It didn't change the fact that there were repetitive instances; it didn't change the fact that there was nothing to do besides leveling... Anybody who was turned off by those weaknesses, we were doing nothing to help them."
And six months later, WoW hit the scene. "It's conceivable that the players would have stuck around if not for the fact that WoW came out. When WoW came out, we lost about a third of our subscriber base," Emmert explained.
In 2005, City of Heroes saw its European launch, soon followed by City of Villains. But, Emmert said, "What I really delivered was a City of Heroes experience with a slightly evil twist." He neglected to connect to what players might want from being a villain. "If they didn't like City of Heroes, there was nothing here for them... I can't even tell you the disappointment I have. It hurts."
Now the team was trying to add new content to City of Heroes -- like a PvP arena -- while keeping City of Villains in mind. "It was extremely difficult; we were just giving features to people who didn't want them," Emmert said, noting that all the PvP players were off playing WoW.
"Jeremy Gaffney of NCsoft was adamant that we should add some sort of endgame," continued Emmert. But given that few people had reached a high enough level, they decided to add new content at precisely the point that the vast majority of players were. "But what I didn't think about is that players are always looking forward to tomorrow," he said, elaborating that the content lost value three months down the road.
Challenges for the team in maintaining game balance continued, Emmert recalled, pointing out the popular nickname "City of Nerfs." "I had a theory about balance... that everyone should have, or at least should feel like they have an equal role when they're in a team, that no player feels less than another. And secondly, everyone should progress through the game equally."
In 2006, a couple of big decisions were made. NCsoft decided there would be no more retail; the live team shrank by 75 percent. "We had to drastically change what our expectations are," Emmert said. "Our expectations on the amount of content we could deliver had to change." A new lead designer, Matt "Positron" Miller was appointed, and the newly-small dev team had to trend away from content-heavy features. But, says Emmert, this turned out to be a surprise boon -- instead of adding new zones, they were forced to add depth and detail to some zones that already existed that might otherwise have been bland and empty.
The team renewed its "focus on the fan" that year, too: "No more nerfs... it was driving me nuts. I just couldn't take it anymore." Despite the forum raging and conflict, however, Emmert stressed: "No nerf ever, ever caused a statistical drop in subscription base, ever. I tracked every single one, and never, in that particular day, week or month, did more people drop the game than in any other particular month. Fascinating."
Deadlands creator Shane Hensley had a theory that one should always personally get to know one's fans, and Emmert says he took a page from that philosophy. "I really want the fans to get to know me. But the downside is, because it's the internet, people twist my words so badly... I seem like the son of Satan. But what are you going to do? I think that my customers are my customers, and they deserve some level of communication."
By 2007, the team introduced an invention system to City of Heroes and City of Villains. The nerfs were gone and the old, generic zones had been refurbished. "There is one nerf that I did that we lost a couple thousand people on," he admits. "It was called enhancement diversification... and that really did make people mad."
The net effect of the updates was high retention versus a "typical" MMORPG from month one to month two -- a rate of about 90 percent, Emmert said, high above his colleagues' two thirds loss on other games. The retention month after month continued to be static, moreover. "The people who remain, you can't get rid of them... it's absolutely impossible to do it because they're so used to the pain and agony of the gameplay that they love it."
City of Heroes/Villains never brought in a large-scale migration of new players, however. Even City of Villains only added some 60 thousand people to the player base, not a good deal in the grand scheme of things. But with the update packs, Emmert said, there was a constant period of re-acquisition as new players came back to investigate the new content. "We have such a large customer base, we sent out an email whenever an update came out, and several thousand people would re-up... so you end up staying pretty static."
So what are the lessons learned? "Don't design to the max," states Emmert. "Account for new systems. If you don't have the money or the team size to be able to ship a game with, say, an elaborate guild system, make sure you plan out what you plan to have guilds do in the future. Make sure you have an understanding of how it will happen." Second, consider the player nature. "It's a strange MMO market right now, but I think because WoW is so vast and so popular, that if you launch a game and you don't have a particular feature, like endgame, people will just say, 'ah, I'll go back to playing WoW."
"Think about how easy it is to update your systems. We created a leveling system, as well as powers, that it was extremely hard to add new things on," he said. The superpower structure in particular made it difficult to expand the level cap. "WoW solved that by saying, 'you can take the same power and rank it up.' But we basically created... a self-containing system that [made it] very difficult to get up to level 50. And expect that there will be players who go nuts."
Finally, consider player nature. "People will make it as un-fun as they possibly can if they think there's something to gain by that," Emmert added, concluding, “Worry about the players you've got. Don't worry about the players you don't have. You are what you are at launch," advised Emmert.