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PAX East 2010: City of Heroes panel reveals many things

Eliot Lefebvre

Unpacking the City of Heroes panel at PAX East is a big deal: there were huge amounts of information being thrown around, and a lot of new pieces of information to process. For that matter, there was far more than anyone expected, with information about the full spread of new issues up to Issue 19 and the reveal of Matt "Positron" Miller's heretofore unrevealed new endgame system. The panel as a whole featured a huge breadth of information about the game from concept into the future, and was filled with people long before the official start time, with fans vocally professing their adoration for the team the whole way through.

We had the good fortune to be front and center at the theatre, and once we started taking notes we didn't really stop until the event was over. At the panel were lead designer Melissa Bianco, former lead designer and current lead system designer Matt Miller, art lead David Nakayama, and development producer Jesse Caceres. They opened off with a discussion of the game's history from launch back in 2004 to the present. The changeover from Cryptic to Paragon Studios was discussed in brief, mentioning that four of the major launch employees (Miller, Bianco, CW Bennet, and Brian Clayton) were still with Paragon even after the change.

After the history of the company, the next slide was met with bursts of laughter, as it started a long scrolling list of some of the features added to the game since launch. (It easily filled the screen and left more than a few elements off.) A few of the changes were highlighted as particularly important in the game's progress. Ancillary and Patron Power Pools were pointed at to show off just how many more options had become available to players, while Arenas got a nod as something to let players experience different gameplay from the core leveling game. Capes, Auras, and Power Customization were explained in more depth as being things the team felt were important to the roleplaying crowd and to personalizing each individual hero. Power Customization specifically earned a mention as something that due to money and management simply could not be done while Cryptic was in charge of City of Heroes.

The team also talked about the Level Pact system, which came about as a result of offhand notice from the staff about how it could be useful for players. Mission Architect, of course, was mentioned as another huge hurdle -- which was interestingly not originally designed to be a player system. As the team explained it, the content team had developed it as a tool so that other members of the staff could put together missions, since everyone had ideas that they could work on building up in their spare time. The design leads looked at it and realized that it was very close to being usable as a player tool, hence its full-fledged release as the Mission Architect system.

David Nakayama took over as they moved into a discussion of Ultra Mode, coming in Issue 17. The four major features it's adding to the game engine are realtime shadows that move with the sun, self-casting shadows so that objects impact light across themselves, planar and cubemap reflections that extend to metallic player armor, and ambient occlusion. The last one is a subtle effect that's difficult to understand except in contrast, and a slide was shown highlighting the difference, which helps to sharpen corners and improve definition with closely-located objects.

Issue 17, as we knew, contains a revamp of the dreaded Positron task force (something Miller admitted was awful with a sheepish laugh), as well as several new story arcs. Mission Architect improvements are also due, with the biggest change being an alteration of how XP is awarded for custom enemies. Several weak powers slapped together, for instance, will produce a much lower XP enemy than strong and synergized abilities. The "new" enemies being faced by players was revealed as Doppelgangers, an enemy type made possible by the groundwork laid via Mission Architect.

The designers talked with vigor about how the Doppelgangers can have powers that are a twisted reflection of the player, that they can add certain constant abilities to differentiate them, and how much they change the overall tone of the mission. Mirroring players allows the mission to change depending on the team that runs it, further broadening the experience. They also made a point of highlighting how an unconnected change led to a new shot of content, because it was only with Mission Architect that it became possible to give enemies a full set of templated powers.

Of course, everyone was anxious about Issue 18, also known as a little thing called City of Heroes: Going Rogue. One of the major goals was to take the starting area from 1-20 and modernize it by allowing players to start as a Praetorian, neither a hero nor a villain, who becomes either a Loyalist to the fascist regime of Tyrant or a Resistance member fighting against the utopia. The four major zones in Praetoria were discussed, with Nova Praetoria being an unearthly center of power and the Imperial City looking similar to a cleaner New York City. Neutropolis was described as "the heart of Emperor Cole's technology," and the underground was a long-discarded network of tunnels and passages. Miller punctuated the discussion by announcing that these zones were not walled off, eliciting surprise and praise from the crowd.

Some enemy groups were discussed -- the Praetorian Police Department, Ghouls, the Syndicate, and the Praetorian Clockwork were all mentioned as known quantities. New on the agenda were the white-clad Seers, who essentially take the role of the thought police a la 1984. (There are some obvious similarities between them and the Blood Widows of City of Villains, needless to say.) There was also a teaser shown of a muscular man with pink skin in a tank top with either tattoos or organic corruption running along his sides, something that they said they weren't quite ready to talk about yet.

The shift in allegiance was discussed, although much of the information was a rehash of known facts. Players may start changing factions at Level 20, consisting of mission chains that lead Heroes to become Vigilantes and Villains to become Rogues before finally crossing over completely. It was stressed that the process was organic and repeatable, so a hero could fall from grace and then redeem themselves later if so desired.

Dual Pistols and Demon Summoning were next on the list, naturally, with the former being well-known and the latter being hotly anticipated. The Demon Summoning trailer was shown for the first time during the panel (and you can look to see it online shortly), demonstrating a flaming whip as the non-minion portion of the powerset. It also played into some of the other abilities, with the summoner whipping her creations to spur them into more powerful attacks.

Then the first major bombshell came in the announcement of two additional powersets: Kinetic Melee and Electric Control. The former will be for Brutes, Tankers, Scrappers, and Stalkers, featuring a variety of knockdowns and knockbacks as well as a bit more range than usual for melee powers. (A rudimentary demo of the powers was shown, albeit with rough animations.) Electric Control will go to Controllers and Dominators, and should be familiar to anyone used to fighting some of the more obnoxious Clockwork. It was pointed out that these sets give each of the ten archetypes something new while moving into Going Rogue, which will enter closed beta next week.

Our next bombshell came when the next slide read "Issue 19," followed by the announcement of the Incarnate system. This system is what Matt Miller has been working on, the "endgame system" hinted at but not elaborated. Incarnates, far from being a new Epic Archetype, allow each character access to new Incarnate abilities, levels, and rewards. There are ten levels of Incarnate available to characters who hit 50, with the first coming alongside Going Rogue and the rest coming as of Issue 19.

What will the abilities be? They weren't ready to reveal them, but the entire team was clearly excited about player reactions. Going Rogue will be required, and the Incarnate system will include a number of zone events. Miller also mentioned in response to an audience question that there may be newer and bigger challenges in the system compared to what players have grown accustomed to facing.

The official panel closed out with a short discussion on various other topics. The concept for changing factions apparently was slated to come out around Issue 7, but the team wasn't happy with the design and didn't want to put the system in until they were happy with how it played out. Each of the designers also mentioned their favorite feature coming to the game or currently implemented. Nakayama was happiest with the changes coming out of Ultra Mode, while Caceres liked how the faction changing ultimately played out. Bianco was pleased at having designed Praetoria from the ground up, making it even better than her celebrated redesigned zones. Miller stepped back a bit and was happiest with the Ouroboros system, which was a big step in making old content accessible for everyone and adding a neat roleplaying aspect besides.

Finally, it was time for audience questions and answers:

  • Hamidon is "contained" in Praetoria, with the design team mentioning that at least as of the expansion he's nowhere to be seen.
  • PvP is on the list of things to look at, with base raids definitely slated for return, but there's no specific timetable.
  • Wentworth's and the Black Market won't be merged, but there will be measures put in place to try and control the two markets becoming more related.
  • Any Influence or Infamy goes into limbo if you change factions, rather than being lost. (They'd like to do a similar thing for supergroup or villain group membership, although they're not sure if it will work.)
  • Hazard zones are also on the slate to be looked into, again with no timeframe.
  • Same for additional strike forces to fill gaps, with a few being added but the team "open to suggestions" for others. (Someone mentioned Zigursky in Brickstown, and the developers explained that they'd planned something there... and then wound up using most of it for the Villain tutorial.)
  • Defenders will see a buff to Vigilance in Issue 17 to make soloing "much easier."
  • The Praetoria storyline at endgame won't change in Issue 18, but is slated for some changes in 19.
  • Hero archetypes will most likely use villainous Patron Power Pools when they change factions, and the same in reverse for villains-turned-heroic. There will be new costume parts available, to no one's great surprise.
Overall, the panel was informative, exciting, and filled to bursting with new facts for everyone to look forward to. There's a lot of neat stuff on the horizon for City of Heroes, whether you're a longtime player or just inspired to join by all of the team's work of late. The atmosphere after all of the announcements was replete with excitement, and it was well-deserved given all of the surprising and interesting new content en route.

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