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GDC08: Jack Emmert on Cryptic's success (and failure)


Yesterday morning, Cryptic Studios' chief creative officer, Jack Emmert, talked to attendees at GDC about Cryptic's successes (and failures) with City of Heroes (and other games). He was surprisingly frank, starting things off with a list of CoH's strengths and weaknesses. For strengths, he cited character customization, fun moment to moment game play, Flight/Superspeed/Superjump, plenty of character slots, no loot. For weaknesses, he told the crowd about how the game had few goals outside of leveling, its lack of PvP, the repetitiveness of the instances, the lack of an end-game, the lack of guild mechanics, no loot. Whether you love Cryptic's City of... games or hate them, read on for a discussion of where they went wrong and where they went right.

CoH, as you may know, launched in April 2004. During this year, the game grew to 180,00 subscribers while, content-wise, Cryptic worked on fixing bugs and providing game play options to level 50 without any additions or changes to game play. Things might have continued swimmingly for the game in just this fashion if it weren't for World of Warcraft's launch in November, which changed the face of the MMO industry overnight.

In 2005, Cryptic pushed their first paid expansion: City of Villains. CoV added a PvP aspect to the game and gave players a chance to see just what it was like to be a supervillain. But it was too little, too late. Emmert explains, "If you don't have it at launch, then you can never have it." CoH had launched with no PvP -- so players wanting to PvP just weren't playing. By the time CoV added the feature, PvPers were already in World of Warcraft -- which may not have had a robust PvP system, but it launched with more capabilities than CoH.

Though Cryptic tried to introduce game changes (read: nerfs) gently, by including them in content patches (if people are busy enjoying the content they can't complain about the nerfs, right?), by this time, Cryptic's attempts to fix bugs and balance the game earned CoX the nickname of "City of Nerfs." By way of explanation, Emmert gives us some back-story on the game's development, which started with a team of 26 who just loved superheroes and video games. They decided to make an MMO without any serious MMO experience and honestly never considered the potential of players min/maxing or searching for every possible way to exploit the game. The Cryptic team played the game and thought it was fun without seeing the potential issues a massively multiplayer environment would present.

In 2006, Cryptic's team was downsized and assigned projects beyond the CoX franchise. They had to slow down their update schedule and do more updates that were revamps of existing content rather than entirely new content -- much easier to produce. Emmert decided it was time to stop the nerfs and focus on the fans. In two years of game play, the players should already know the game's strengths and weaknesses -- what more harm could some balance issues cause, especially when they come at the cost of community dissatisfaction? (Despite this policy, Emmert claims that nerfs never caused a statistical drop in their subscription base. CoX had about a 90% retention rate from month to month and the game's population would drop and rise fairly predictably, based on the release of patches.)

Emmert cites Star Wars' Galaxies as a foundation for the "no nerfs" strategy. After limited success, the Galaxies team decided to "reboot" the game with a major overhaul -- the New Game Enhancements. While this genuinely improved the game, it did so at the cost of alienating all of its existing players. There were those who had been in the game since launch, paying their subscription fees, and they didn't want it to change. Essentially, the game loses old players in the hope of gaining new players -- but it's harder to gain the attention of a new player, post-launch, than it is to retain an existing player. Again, you can't add to the game what's not there at launch.

So what has Cryptic learned from this crazy process? They need to consider player nature -- and launch a fully-featured game, rather than planning to add to it later; by which time their potential players will already be doing something else. They need to ensure that their systems (technology) are easy to update -- because MMOs are ever-evolving games. If they don't update their content, they'll die out. They need to experiment with min/maxing like crazy during product development -- push the game to every possible extreme, because players will. It's a lot easier to nerf something before the players get a chance to see it.

At this point, Emmert takes questions from the audience:

Q: Did you do any market research for City of Heroes?
A: No. It's really bizzare, a lot of games [Ed note: MMOs?] start and do research afterwards, not before. We should have.

Q: How did you feel about developing Marvel Universe Online when you were essentially competing against yourself -- killing your own baby?
A: Champions Online is going to be better than City of Heroes in every way, shape, and form. It's sad, but it's evolution. We're not afraid to take up the challenge.

Q: You admit that you aren't the most perfect designer... how do you get people to stick around in your games?
A: I had a vision for the game. In action/RPGs, there aren't any items with stats. Why do we need all of those numbers?

Q: What do you think you did right to get a 90% rate?
A: Constant updates and the game is just fun to play. Just compare combat in CoX to combat in WoW -- CoX is more fun!

Q: Why are you working on Champions Online instead of continuing work on CoX?
A: NCsoft didn't want to do it. They wanted to own it.

Q: What are you doing to make upcoming brands longer lasting and more expandable?
A: We're not just a superhero shop. Champions is more than that -- and it's not the only game we're working on.

Q: What about the use of IP?
A: Your IP's brand has to evoke the essence of what you want your game to be. Fun IPs should break out of games, which we tried to do with CoX.

Q: What do you think about game companies shipping games early and unfinished?
A: It's all about money. You've burned so many millions and can't simply wait to turn a profit. Waiting can also date your early content -- perhaps it was originally designed with bleeding edge technology, but if you push your launch date back a year, it won't be nearly as impressive. There's also a lot of pressure from your publisher -- they're like Uncle Scrooge. You're forced to release a game when it's "good enough" rather than "perfect."

Q: What about Blizzard?
A: Sure, if you have a $70 million development budget! But most developers just can't wait to have a perfect game -- they can't make WoW, they just have to make a fun game.

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