"I cannot believe how polished this event is," confided visiting City of Heroes developer Melissa 'War Witch' Bianco, during a lull in the frenzy. Nor could we. NCsoft Europe knows how to throw a party.
As we crossed from the gloomy streets of central Birmingham into the blazing techno-sanctuary of Omega Sektor, the professionalism and sheer hard graft of the NCsoft team gleamed from every splash-panel surface. Amid the sounds of hordes of happy Super Group members meeting up in the flesh for the first time, video screens showing looped footage of NCsoft games, and the wibbles and whoops of more than four hundred individual PCs, we struggled through to the admin desk.
The organizers and their blue-shirted 'sidekicks', buoyed up by who knows what inhuman energy source (they had already been doing this for two days and showed no signs of flagging) gave us the rundown. There were PvP events, task force challenges, 'death races' and sundry other in-game activities. And huge, padded, Gladiator style superhero suits for real-life PvP. Seriously.
NCsoft Europe had put in appearances at Winter Memorabilia in Birmingham in 2006 and 2007, each time to enthusiastic fan response. This new leap to an independent three-day mini-convention testifies to the benevolent insanity of the organizers and the enduring devotion of the fans. The demand was clearly there; Omega Sektor, a multiple-story venue, was packed full. Plans are already underway for a repeat event next Easter.
For a game that has been out for over four years, City of Heroes has an uncannily loyal player base. Even its developers, almost to a man, chose to stay with it rather than move on to new projects. This point came up in discussion several times, and left us equally mystified, Devs and players alike; we could only conclude that the game taps into aspirations that other games don't, and anyone who has ever run around the house wearing a towel for a cape will know what these are.
Grilling the War Witch
Melissa Bianco, known to City of Heroes players as the fiery War Witch (now only mostly dead) was the guest of honor. Her devotion to the game became increasingly apparent as her scheduled Question and Answer session first overran, then morphed into an informal chat with the players that ran for another hour. Her official presentation focused on the art of zone design, using the recently revamped Faultline as an example. Having now seen the brain-mangling Matrix-like interface the zone designers use, we have newfound respect for them. It's like the City of Heroes base designer fed through a rabid tesseract.
But what of Issue 12? Information on Midnight Hour was tantalizingly scant. Melissa laughed off the predictable questions on Powerset Proliferation and who will be getting what: 'That's not my department, I didn't work on it.' Sorry, folks. We tried, but the NCsoft vault of secrets is clearly locked up tighter than any in Paragon City.
Cimerora, we are told, will be a generically Mediterranean zone, rather than specifically Roman, and will feature some 'mind-blowing' instanced outdoor missions. Doing a zone set in the ancient past presented some unforeseen problems. If you click on an ancient Roman NPC, he shouldn't say "Dude, great cape."
"We could have done it all in Latin," muses Melissa. "That would have been way cool."
Oh, and the Easter Eggs. Not just a holiday indulgence, but a personal obsession of Melissa's. Early attempts to include them were stamped down upon hard when the people in charge discovered they hadn't been documented. This resulted in the unfortunate ripping out of a jolly little subterranean office, hidden behind a false wall in the villain zone Grandville, and featuring cubicles for the various different developers who'd worked on it. Later inclusions, such as the little details in the Universities, were done by the book and have stayed in, including Melissa's own famous cameo appearance in the hidden NCsoft lounge in Faultline. We still haven't found all the Easter Eggs yet, Melissa tells us. Interested? Look in the second mission of the Tesseract arc in Ouroboros.
The most shocking revelation was learning just how hard the City Of Heroes and City of Villains team was hit by the post-CoV reallocation of resources. By Melissa's count, the development team was pared down to just fifteen people, who still somehow managed to produce several issues' worth of quality content. Those days are now past, the NorCal studio is recruiting again and the IP is seeing some serious investment. Melissa's able to delegate again at last, instead of being landed with all the zone development work herself. When she's not playing herself in the game, that is.
The Devs have become much less shy about joining players in the game as their signature characters, and War Witch has taken the lead in this. She confirmed long-standing rumors that her NPC character, who usually stands immobile in the Pocket D nightclub drinking chai, had announced she was 'bored of this' and had gone for a dance, leaving players open-mouthed. 'I made myself invisible, deleted the NPC entity and appeared in her place,' she grins.
She's recently done it again, this time to make the day of a six year old War Witch fan, Sister Flame, who was overjoyed to be fighting crime in-game with her favorite heroine. This, by the way, was on top of receiving a pile of comic books and other cool stuff from War Witch in the mail. It's enough to make you want to be six again.
Draw The World Together
That familiar heroic feel-good spirit suffused the Draw the World Together desks, where a trio of comic artists gave up their Easter weekend time for charity. For a donation, players could have a character sketch by prolific project founder Andrew Wildman, Primeval artist Neil Edwards or City of Heroes comic cover artist David Nakayama, visiting from California for the event. The fans were insatiable and reports show this weekend was the most successful so far for the project.
Bringing in even more donations on the Saturday were Ghost Widow and Miss Liberty, making a rare personal appearance and posing with the gamers for special comic-panel styled shots. The Heroic Weekend's youngest attendant, two and a half month old Super Noob, took pride of place as Miss Liberty's newest sidekick.
What with developers who care passionately about the game, staff who went well out of their way to ensure a good time for everyone, artists working long hours for charity and professional Omega Sektor operatives on hand to help out, the level of magnanimity and sheer goodwill were enough to make a cynic shrivel up like a salted slug. Forgive me, then, all you cynics, when I tell you that NCsoft was also responsible for ordering about fifty pizzas on Saturday night to feed the hungry gamers.
Streamlined content including both Heroes and Villains will be the way forward, inevitably leaving Villains with less content based upon evildoing alone. A quick show of hands revealed hero players outnumbering villain players by eight to one, at my guess. "There you go," says the NCsoft representative. "We're writing for the heroes." (Updated to add: Please see commentary from Stephen "Rockjaw" Reid below)
Yes, we are told, there are developments in the pipeline to keep City Of Heroes competitive with Champions Online. Although nobody was willing to be specific, there was a prevailing sense of Something Big on the way.
Only Kerensky, the eccentric European forum red name who had dropped dozens of twisted 'clues' in the run-up to Issue 11, was anything like forthcoming. "Yes, we have seen the design documents," he explained, then paused. "No," he concluded, "I don't think I should talk about it. It'll cause an uproar, but it will be very good for the game."
Mischief or genuine prediction? With NCsoft on the verge of announcing what they plan to do with the City of Heroes IP in the long term, such statements can only cause even more frenzied speculation. Judging by the sheer energy of this event and the exuberant devotion of the Devs and staff, it's clear that the IP has a great many years of life left, whatever new forms it may take.
[UPDATED: Added note for commentary below by Stephen "Rockjaw" Reid in re: development for Villains.]