City of Heroes launched in 2004, but still pulls in a dedicated audience, even with a lot of competition in the marketplace. Some of it is direct, as in fellow superhero-based Champions Online, and much is indirect, as in fantasy MMO powerhouse World of Warcraft and innumerable free-to-play options.
How does the team manage to keep the game fresh while maintaining a large, fairly casual audience and still supporting dedicated hardcore fans who wouldn't dream of switching to another game?
This week NCsoft launched Going Rogue, the game's first full boxed expansion since 2005's City of Villains -- and that seemed the best the opportunity to speak to them, and find out how a six year old game reinvents itself.
Gamasutra recently sat down with two members of the team at Paragon Studios and uncovered how they've shaped the game over the course of the last few years.
Jesse Caceres, senior producer, has been with the game since shortly after its 2004 launch, and describes himself as "probably number five or six in terms of total veteran status." David Nakayama, the game's art lead, worked with Top Cow and Marvel Comics before transitioning to concept art and then lead art on the game.
City of Heroes has been running successfully for such a long time, and it's been running successfully for that time. That's hardly common for an MMO.
Jesse Caceres: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Trying to keep this game fresh has always been a challenge, especially because it's not like a traditional console game where you just ship it and you're done with it.
With MMORPGs, it's always challenging to make sure that we deliver content and gameplay and systems that are compelling and are repeatable so that players feel like they've accomplished something and get a sense of pride for doing things in games. Yeah; it's absolutely, I think, of great interest to our peers in the industry.
David Nakayama: Yeah, and artistically, I think, the way to keep things fresh is... We just released a major graphical upgrade with Ultra Mode and Issue 17, and not only does that make all the old assets look instantly better with the real-time shadows and cube map reflection and that sort of thing, but also, when we built Praetoria, that was built with Ultra Mode in mind. So we could build our first-ever skyscraper metropolis with real reflective buildings. It's unlike any City of Heroes zone that's ever existed, and it really pushes the art in the game forward and keeps it relevant.
JC: What David is referring to is that, when we originally launched City of Heroes way back in 2004, that was already with an engine that had been in development for quite some time. Ever since then, graphic cards have made leaps and bounds in improvements, and what we've done recently is try to improve our game engine to take advantage of those graphical technologies.
Do you have metrics? Can you look at your audience's specs and find out what's safe to upgrade? Because at a certain point, by upgrading a game, you might push some people with older systems out of the audience.
JC: Yeah, absolutely. We do have a way to sense what kind of operating systems, what graphic cards, what video resolutions people are running; so we can get sense of are people just using a normal 4:3 display versus widescreen displays or even if they're using multiple monitors.
Those are metrics that we track, but what we've found is, obviously, as our consumers -- casual and hardcore -- move along over the years, there's a migration of hardware and operating systems over time. So yes, we look at what can we achieve in the future and make sure to continue to raise that bar.
When we launched City of Villains, we did a graphical upgrade to the City of Heroes engine, and now, with Going Rogue, we've made another upgrade to our system. We always try to look ahead because what we did in 2005 wasn't necessarily pushing graphic cards; but when we push the current generation of graphic cards now with Ultra Mode, it actually is. So we have a number of years for the mass consumers to catch up, too, but we've certainly delivered something that takes advantage of the latest and greatest from Nvidia and ATI.
DN: Another important factor is the opt-in nature of it. If existing players don't want to upgrade, they don't have to; they can keep playing the game at exactly the same specs they've got, but they have all this room to expand into if they do decide to get that higher-end card.
Is Going Rogue a boxed expansion, or is it a downloadable expansion?
JC: It's both. Online, players can just download the expansion from NCSoft.com or Steam, but at the brick-and-mortar level players can buy the combined expansion plus the original client, kind of like a combo pack.
Since you launched this game, the landscape has changed a lot for MMOs; how has your strategy changed in terms of expanding the game from back when things were a little bit simpler and the audience had fewer choices?
JC: Last year, we introduced Mission Architect, and a major push was for user-generated content. Players have always wanted to just play the game their way. We offered players the ability to play as heroes, and we offered them the ability to play as villains.
We found they wanted to move between those alignments, and so that's what the Going Rogue system is; but also they wanted to tell their own story, which is kind of what Mission Architect was. So players could tell their own stories, create their own enemy groups within the Mission Architect system, and now they can walk the line between good and evil with the Going Rogue expansion.
How did Mission Architect work out from launch, and now through to this point?
JC: Well, I think we handed a very powerful tool to players, and we continued to build upon that. With the Going Rogue launch, we're going to add doppelgangers.
What we've found is it's a very robust tool that players enjoy. I guess finding the gems of quality with user-generated content is always a challenge, but players can vote on their favorite stories; that will raise visibility of those missions to other players.
So, yeah, it's been quite successful in our opinion. We actually even hired a player from the Mission Architect system, and that person is now a developer. It's kind of a great thing!