A Mild-Mannered Reporter Extra: Interviews with Champions Online and The Phoenix Project

Still sad?  Still sad.
I promised you that we would be doing interviews next time, but astute readers would note that I did not say "next week." So welcome to our special extra installment of the column looking at two different sides following the City of Heroes shutdown.

We've already seen two projects coming from the ashes of CoH; The Phoenix Project and Heroes and Villains are both currently being assembled by passionate fans of the now-departed game. But we'd be remiss if we failed to note the impact that the game's closure has had on existing games like Champions Online and DC Universe Online. Rather than just speculating on any of this, we decided to just ask.

So today you've got two interviews. One is with Brad Stokan, Executive Producer at Cryptic Studios, about how the City of Heroes shutdown has affected Champions Online and the studio that helped bring the game to life in the first place. The other is with the lead staff at Missing Worlds Media, the team behind The Phoenix Project. So let's take a look behind the scenes, yes?

I don't mean to be rude, but I don't feel super.Massively: What was the reaction around Cryptic when everyone heard that City of Heroes was shutting down?

Brad Stokan, Champions Online Executive Producer: We weren't really sure what to make of it at first. It was kind of surreal -- a few of us brought it up during lunch, but it hadn't really sunk in. Once the City of Heroes community started mobilizing, though, it really hit us.

For me, what did it was one of the tag lines for the rescue campaign: "We are heroes. This is what we do." It doesn't matter whether you were with Cryptic when City of Heroes launched or only know it from the posters and cardboard standups: Seeing a community that passionate, active and organized is inspiring. Losing a game that can inspire that... it's a loss for the entire genre.

Does the shutdown appear to have impacted your subscriber numbers? How so?

We saw an increase in players both around the shutdown and in the weeks leading up to it, and it seems that a lot of former City of Heroes players are coming to Champions Online.

The CO community has been very welcoming to CoH players, and the former CoH players themselves are helping others learn the systems and meet people. There's one particularly good chat channel mostly made up of former CoH players, and anyone with a question on that channel gets some of the most polite, helpful answers around.

Are there any plans for something in-game to serve as a memorial, considering the shared history of the game and Cryptic Studios?

There aren't currently any plans for that, but it's something we've talked about.

Is there anything from CoH you'd like to or plan to incorporate into CO (i.e., mission architect, playable villain faction, etc.)?

We'd love to include just about all of those. User-generated content is something we love here, and we've kicked around the idea of Dark Champions –- that was a pen 'n' paper sourcebook for antiheroes and dark vigilantes. But both of those are large projects, and we've already got our major releases blocked out for the near future. A number of players are asking the same question, though, so it's something that's on our radar.

A MildMannered Reporter Extra Edition Interviews with Champions Online and The Phoenix Project
What's the overall goal of The Phoenix Project -- to recreate CoH or create something new in its spirit?

Missing Worlds Media: Our goal is to create a new game in the spirit of CoH. As much as we love City of Heroes, it would be virtually impossible to recreate the game itself without access to the source product's code. It would also be a violation of NCsoft's intellectual property rights over City of Heroes. Our goal is to carefully examine everything that people loved about CoH -- everything that made it the catalyst for the community we wish to continue fostering -- and extract the qualities that made it work. We want to improve upon them by focusing on the community while making a game that feels like home for them. It won't be the original home, with all the beloved creaky floorboards and quirky nooks and crannies. It will be recognizably in the same style, though, with those things that everybody loved and took advantage of built in bigger, sturdier, and better.

For us, a large goal is to continue what City of Heroes so often did: break the mold and strike new ground. We want to create new functionality and offer more flexible gameplay but not provide an entirely alien experience to new players. We constantly look back at CoH to not only find what those elements were that worked so wonderfully but why they worked and how that resonated with the players. The challenge for us is how to create something new that still fulfills players in the same way.

Phoenix as in the mystical bird that rises from the ashes, not as in the character who dies and comes back to life over and over even though there's no longer a reason to care.What about more immediate goals in terms of development?

Because we're a small company with a budget that would make shoestrings feel positively extravagant, we're going to focus on individual "modules" of the whole game that were attractive features, first. Two of our early products will be the chat program and an avatar-builder. These were two of the most popular components of CoH. The avatar-builder and costume creator are almost a game unto itself; they make up a powerful tool that many people should be able to enjoy both online and offline.

We intend to enable people to do that. The avatar builder will have increasingly useful features and an expanding list of costume parts, and when the full MMO is ready for release, the avatars people build in it will be loadable directly into the game to become full-fledged characters.

We are also working on producing a monthly webcomic to keep people engaged with the project but also share the backstory of the game and the characters in it. We have very talented 2-D artists working on our webcomics, and we feel that digital media is quickly becoming a stellar medium for comics.

What sort of staff are you working with right now?

We have a surprisingly large and dedicated volunteer force, nearly a hundred people, but the group members have real lives and real jobs that consume a fair portion of their time. There is a core of eight "team leads" who head up the various areas of development that we'll need, from lore bible to story planning to art to technical stuff to gameplay mechanics as well as various administrative and PR tasks. The Lore and Story teams have the most volunteers, with Art a close second. All departments are making progress in line with our scheduled goals.

Are you worried that enthusiasm for the project will fade as time passes from the initial CoH shutdown?

Not particularly. If it does, it's because we've failed to do our job of keeping excitement for our project high. We've released a promotional video to show some of the art and the 3-D environment in a simpler client than we will ultimately be using, and as previously mentioned, we have several modular components to the final game that we intend to release as standalone products along the way to completing the whole thing. We're hoping, by the end of 2013, to have buzz and excitement on our project in its own right, starting with the core of the community we are building this project to serve and expanding with new fans who love our products.

What would you do if against all reasonably expectations CoH came back from the dead?

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. A lot will depend on when that announcement is made, how, and by whom. There are many people who are still fighting to bring City of Heroes back. We hope that their efforts are ultimately successful, but we must proceed as if CoH will not return. Doing otherwise would only slow us down in the long-term, and this is a very long-term project.

Working on creating a new game versus moving on is a lot of extra work, obviously. What made you choose that route?

Since our early prototypes for combustible lemons were an epic fail, we moved to the next idea on our list: "Why not create a new superhero MMO?" The internet can be a place where you can easily be a passive witness to what is created for you -- or you can choose to be an aggressive creator. We can choose to sit around and wait for CoH to be revived or wait for the day when a different MMO catches our eyes, or we can be proactive and join with others in creating a new world for our fellow CoH players.

The ideals of most heroes seem universal human instinct, and we've seen first hand how City of Heroes improved the quality of life for a number of its players as a result of reinforcing those ideals. Humans are great at building communities and forging new connections with people, so it was only natural for a small number of us to try to keep the community as intact as possible. Many of us have previous experience in game creation and development and want to put those skills to use. Some of us have seen first-hand the therapeutic benefits of CoH's easy playstyle and friendly community for those with disabilities; we hope to see this game provide an avenue for others to similarly benefit. We also hope to use the final MMO as a test bed for some (hopefully) ground-breaking developments in communications technology.

We'd like to thank both Brad Stokan and the staff at Missing Worlds for their time and responses.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.
This article was originally published on Massively.