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Weaving the Threads: Storytelling in City Of Heroes
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Weaving the Threads: Storytelling in City Of Heroes

September 24, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next


Infernal sprinted quietly through the abandoned legal offices in the Downside neighborhood of Atlas Park. He had already defeated a number of Hellions, two-bit thugs who were successfully clawing their way up Paragon City's gang hierarchy. His contact had sent him here to find Scorch, one of the Hellions' bosses. His mission? To find out how the Hellions were expanding so fast.
He spied the door to the senior partner's office and paused. A cruel chuckle tipped him off: this was obviously where Scorch was holed up.
Infernal moved quickly through the doorway, clutching his axe before him. As he entered, the room erupted in sound and motion.
"What are we supposed to do with the mystic artifacts after they arrive?" One of the thugs asked. "I told you…" Scorch began. Then he spotted Infernal. He whipped around and yelled, "It's a hero…take him out!"
The villains leapt at Infernal. He knocked one of them unconscious with a mighty swipe of his mystical weapon. Breathing hard, he steeled himself for the battle ahead.

The night was still and silent in the Nebula District. Minx crouched on the fire escape, outside an old warehouse. She was following up on a tip from that photographer guy from the Paragon Times; apparently, some punks called the Skulls had a Superadine lab set up inside. Minx hated the foul substance. She hated the way it drove people to violence and changed their minds and bodies. It needed to be stopped, and now was as good a time as any to begin.
Her muscles uncoiled as she leapt to the ground and ran to the entrance of the warehouse. The fierce feline was looking forward to sinking her claws into the Skulls and reminding them that Paragon City had many protectors.


Telling a story in a massively multiplayer game raises different challenges than those posed by a single player game. Knowing that there would be thousands of players creating characters and beginning their journey through the game simultaneously, we at Cryptic Studios wanted to look at things in a different way when it came to creating City Of Heroes. We had to think about the world we wanted to show our players, and how to make the many facets of a distinctly different game world come across.

K'varr D'shall, known as Infernal.

In City Of Heroes, Paragon City is a city under siege, and the game's zones have been divided up accordingly. Many of its zones have been overrun by villains, and even City Zones, the safest areas in the game, have their share of threats. Hazard Zones are more treacherous, on the verge of falling prey to various villain organizations. Finally, Trial Zones are places where the heroes must make a Herculean effort to overcome a deadly challenge. We needed to craft our story to help lead the player through these areas at a proper pace, as they accumulate new powers and abilities.

Ultimately, Cryptic's goal from the very beginning was to make the players feel like true heroes. The foundation of our system was to start many story threads in the initial City Zones, and then slowly weave them all together over the course of the game. This would allow players to choose between several paths, and would help bring them together as their individual stories began to intersect. It would also allow us to create individual pieces of gameplay that would combine to form a huge tapestry of story, hopefully above and beyond some MMORPGs that use individual NPCs to perform story-independent leveling tasks.

Starting Out: Using Your 'City of Heroes' Contact

This in-game process starts with a Contact. Each new player is assigned a Contact based on his origin. As the hero performs more tasks for his Contact and proves his worth, his relationship with her improves. The Contact is part of a network that stretches throughout the game. When a player gains the full trust of his Contact, he will be offered an introduction to more Contacts within the network. This method of task completion helps carefully structure the expansion of the player's story.

As storytellers, we have a number of ways of using the Contacts' tasks to convey story. We can send the player on an errand to speak to an NPC in the world, which not only educates the player about the city's geography, but also gives him information about the characters and organizations that exist within it.


Another option is to send the City Of Heroes player on a mission. Missions are more complex than errands, and allow us more time to establish the specific goals of the city's villain organizations. Missions also let the player feel like a hero. Rescuing a helpless librarian from a terrible fate at the hands of the Circle of Thorns provides a compelling reason to keep following the game's story line, as does stopping the Freakshow from demolishing an office building with workers inside.

In the scenes above, two characters with completely different origins and archetypes begin their journey through the virtual Paragon City. They begin in different parts of the city, and their goals are different. The first character, Infernal, has decided to pursue a gang called the Hellions in the Atlas Park City Zone. City Zones are the areas of the game least overrun by villainy, because heroes have concentrated their efforts there. However, City Zones still have their dangers, and the Hellions are one of them. This gang has recently risen in power, due to an influx of mystical artifacts.

The mystery that faces a new player is the question of where those artifacts are coming from. Minx is more interested in the Skulls, the gang at the bottom of the drug hierarchy in Paragon City. Her adventures begin in the Galaxy City zone. Either hero could have chosen to focus on different groups, such as like the horrific Vahzilok zombies or the mechanical Clockwork. The Hellions and Skulls will serve to illustrate the more in-depth, intertwining story system quite well, however, since their stories will soon intersect.

As he proceeds through his missions, Infernal will discover that the Hellions have connections to many other groups - the magically oriented Circle of Thorns, for example, who want to steal the artifacts from the Hellions for their own dark purposes. After learning this, Infernal may decide to pursue the Circle and determine their threat level. He could do this on his own, by working his way to a Contact who is an expert on the Circle, or he could locate another hero who is already investigating the twisted mystics.

This is one of many decisions that players are presented with in City of Heroes, and such decisions guide them through different story experiences. By providing these different branches of the storyline, we give the players experiences that they can share with each other. We also increase their desire to create more characters and try different paths, in quite a different way to many MMOs who de-emphasize story in favor of rote item collection.

As Infernal continues to investigate the Hellions, he will learn that they are working under two of Paragon City's other gangs, the Outcasts and the Warriors. The Warriors are at the top of the food chain when it comes to the acquisition and sale of antiquities, particularly those of a magical nature. Eventually, Infernal can follow this thread all the way through the levels of the artifact smuggling operation. It will lead him into the Steel Canyon zone to fight the Outcasts at level 10 and finally to Talos Island to face the Warriors at level 20. This continuing thread of stories exposes him to new areas and introduces the new enemies that reside there.

Another thing that Infernal will discover is that the Hellions are on the front lines of the Paragon City gang war. They are in direct conflict with the Skulls over Perez Park, a huge wooded area that lies directly between Atlas Park and Galaxy City, the two starting zones. This realization will lead him to the first of our Hazard Zones, Perez Park.

Developing the Player's Story: Teaming up with Other Heroes

In City Of Heroes, Hazard Zones are much more dangerous than City Zones, and are a large challenge for solo heroes. When Infernal arrives there, he may find Minx there looking to deal with some Skulls. They can then team up and face both threats together. The might also find other heroes who are looking to fight gangs, or heroes there to do battle with the Circle of Thorns or the strange creatures known as the Hydra Men.

The Skulls duking it out with their rivals, the Hellions.

The grouping that stems from these encounters will lead to players adding one another to their friend list, or even forming Super Groups together, helping players to make friends, increase social interaction, and accomplish story goals as a team. Once again, individual story threads have come together to form complex sections of our story tapestry.

Infernal cautiously advanced through the large archway into Perez Park. The Hellions he encountered on the street were a difficult fight, and they were bound to be present with the walls of the park in even greater numbers. A flash of blue and white caused him to whirl around, his axe ready. A lithe figure was crouched on the grass, looking calm and casual, but also ready to spring.
"For a minute I thought you were one of those Circle of Thorns bozos." purred Minx with a hint of a smile.
"I am K'varr D'shall, called Infernal by my mentor, Numina."
"Well, Infernal, I am here to mop the floor with the Skulls. Feel like pitching in?"
A firm nod was his only reply. Laughing softly, Minx led the imposing tanker deeper into the woods of Perez Park.

In our example of storytelling in City Of Heroes, Minx arrived in Perez Park through a different route. As she continued her investigation into the Skulls, it would have come to her attention that they are toiling at the bottom of an organization known as the Superadine Connection.

Just above them in the hierarchy are the bestial Trolls that inhabit Skyway City, and above the Trolls are the Family from Independence Port. Like Infernal, Minx will encounter these new groups gradually, as her level increases. Knowing that they are out there will help draw her into different zones in the city. It will also draw other groups into her story, such as the Tsoo, who are trying to take over the Superadine Connection.

Although they may wind up joining forces in Perez Park, Infernal and Minx will have different missions to draw from if they decide to team up permanently. This illustrates another way we're trying to push the story envelope, allowing the players to see even more of the game, as they assist each other with missions and travel to zones that they might not have been sent to by their own Contacts.

Minx's claws blurred as she defeated the last of the Skull Gravediggers. She continued the motion of her fluid attack, spinning around to see a knife-wielding Hellion Blood Brother fall to Infernal's powerful axe strike.
"Nice moves, big guy. Obviously I was wrong about you being a Circle of Thorns mystic; the way you use that axe, you're clearly overqualified for the position." Minx grinned as she spoke.
Infernal nodded in thanks. "You are quite skilled as well."
Minx's grin turned into a laugh. "I'll take that as a big compliment coming from you." She looked around the grassy area. "We seem to have shut these guys down for the moment. Before I came here my contact mentioned something going on over in the Hollows. From what I hear, those scumbags the Trolls are trying to take over the zone. They are the next step up the ladder from these Skull idiots. I plan on finding out where that ladder goes."
"I too have heard tell of this area. Once it was a peaceful village called Eastgate, but the destructive impulses of these Trolls brought it low. There is one there called Wincott who does battle with not only your foes, but mine as well. It seems our fates are bound together, young Minx."
"Suits me. Anything that gets that many words out of you has got to be serious. Let's go see if we can un-hollow the Hollows."
The two heroes headed for the security doors that would take them back to Atlas Park and eventually to the place that was once called Eastgate but now was known only as the Hollows.


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