SDCC 09: City of Heroes devs on the future of player-created content

This week marked the annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con International in San Diego for the comics and gaming faithful, and a number of superhero MMO developers were there as well to whip the fanboys (and girls) into a frenzy. When you think about it, comic conventions are as big for superhero games as other events like E3 and PAX. Massively was on the ground at SDCC this year and among the games we took a look at was, not surprisingly, City of Heroes.

We caught up with City of Heroes game designers Joe Morrissey and Matt "Positron" Miller who shared with us a bit about how things have changed in the game in recent months, and gave us some info about the content and features on the way in Issue 16: Power Spectrum.%Gallery-68649%

Morrissey had a lot to tell us about the Mission Architect system that's injected copious amounts of player-created content into City of Heroes, roughly 50,000 mission arcs at last count. The system, innovative as it is, has had its fair share of troubles in a relatively short lifespan thus far. In fact, it's forced the developers to reduce farming of Rewards and XP through the outright removal of many Architect badges in City of Heroes.

That balance is an ongoing effort, and Morrissey likened their approach to these problems as going in with a scalpel rather than a hammer (although he joked that the hammer seems like it might be appropriate at times). He said, "I want to first cut away with the scalpel to see where the problems are coming from. I really think a player should be able to make a map with a bunch of guys on it, and go and fight them, without it being an issue." But there are a number of balancing issues which they'll need to watch as the game moves forward.

This shouldn't paint a negative picture though, and Morrissey commented that he's continually surprised at what the players have come up with using Mission Architect. He said, "Just the other day I Dev Choice-d another arc. The guy did something with a mission and at first I didn't know how he did it. He had a boss whose minions come out and fight you, but you can't attack the boss, he remains blue to you. I was like, 'How did he...?!' And it took me a second to figure it out. And that's why we did it right? It lets them tell stories that we wouldn't have come up with."

Miller spoke to us about the coming addition of power customization to City of Heroes. The game is often cited as a great example of offering choice with character creation, tailoring an avatar to the specific look you want, but -- as Miller put it -- until recently "every power blast looked the same." The devs felt this was something that they wouldn't be able to change, as extending the game's customization to powers would involve a major reworking of the existing systems.

That's going to change in Issue 16, however, and it's clear that NCsoft has provided a substantial amount of funding that has allowed Paragon Studios to implement this new level of customization. Once they reacquired full rights, NCsoft heavily re-invested in City of Heroes and the work on power customization actually began back when Issue 13 was in development. Miller said, "We went through and re-engineered every power to take two colors, a primary and secondary color."

In keeping with the rest of the game's character creation system, it will let you preview how the effects will look and easily let you undo any choices you make while you're fiddling around. Plus you'll be able to apply that look to individual powers or across a power set. These all seem to be welcome features added to the game, but a question they're frequently asked is, "Will existing players be able to go back and use this?" Sure, the devs stated. It'll be as simple as visiting a tailor and tweaking the look of your power emanations.

We took this a step further and asked if putting more tools in the players' hands, essentially letting players do what they want in the game setting, is the overall design direction City of Heroes is taking. According to Morrissey, "Player-created content is like the Holy Grail of MMOs. You want players to feel invested in an MMO and nothing makes you feel more invested than having your own creations seen and, in the case of the Mission Architect, played by others."