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PAX East 2010: Our interview with Melissa Bianco of City of Heroes

Eliot Lefebvre

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Melissa "War Witch" Bianco is without a doubt one of the leading ladies of the MMO world, a title she said she could definitely get used to. But as she says it, that hasn't made an impact on her in some ways, because she never felt there was a bias to overcome at either Cryptic or the current Paragon Studios. "I don't know if I just happened to be in a company that wasn't like that," she says, "or if I'm just so awesome it didn't matter."

We would certainly believe either. Bianco is riding fairly high on success at the moment in the eyes of many players, having a solid track record of revamped and improved zones coupled with a highly-anticipated expansion on the way. We had a chance to speak with her after the City of Heroes panel to talk about more future plans for the game, aiming for several of the more outlying areas in the game's development. Read on past the cut for her answers ranging from the immortal warehouse map to the possibility of new epic archetypes.

For players entirely disgruntled with the basic mission structure of City of Heroes, there's not going to be an instant reprieve, but there are improvements being rolled out. We were informed that the maps in Going Rogue will use a different spawn structure and hopefully be more enjoyable to play through, with hints of new spawn patterns and enemy arrangements. But it's not going to be coupled with a massive overhaul of what's in the game now -- "the warehouse map is the warehouse map, and that's not changing."

It's not for lack of trying. As we asked about revamps of starter zones or more zone-wide makeovers, she thinks both are things that would be wonderful to do but more complex than they seem at first glance. If it was possible to do them with no extra resources from the art team, it would be less of an issue... but as she made it clear, once you start making changes to the mission arcs and gameplay in an area, you start running up against walls where you really need art team work. And that takes a great deal of money and time, with the redesigned Faultline "...probably [taking] more time to design than the original zone."

Put more simply, there are things the team wants to work on, but nothing they want to work on piecemeal. They don't want to do half the job of revamping older zones. When and if it comes, it will be an event for the game as a whole.

Obviously, Praetoria and its new starter experience is meant to alleviate some of the new character woes. Praetoria won't just be an improved starter experience over the traditional hero and villain areas, but an improved approach to quest flow and structure. Characters can of course move toward the Loyalist or Resistance side, but there will be some differences in how each character chooses to approach the missions in front of them. While the path for two Loyalist characters, for instance, will be largely the same, there will be different options and choices to be made depending on the character.

Of course, post-20, players are in either Paragon City or the Rogue Isles. (You can certainly stay in the Praetoria zones, but things will stop giving you experience just like any zone you outlevel.) The storyline with that arc goes into "pause" when you move into the classic areas, with promises that it will pick up again. It will not, however, be an immediate element of the Incarnate system, which will have more to do with whether the character is a hero or villain at the time in all likelihood.

When asked about Lord Recluse in Praetoria, Bianco grinned and replied that he was "not an issue." She refused to clarify beyond that, which tends to imply that there's more to it than him simply being dead or vanished. Similarly, when asked about new maps for the Incarnate system, she said that we have not seen them yet.

More is going on in the game than simply the expansion, though, and we had to ask about at least one of the obvious elements that effects everyone: power pools. It's not exactly a secret that the four travel power pools are a bit limiting, and that at the same time there are pools with massive utility ("everyone takes Fitness, we know") and pools without ("no one takes Leadership unless it fits a very specific role-playing character idea"). Again, the issue comes down to the team not wanting to do something halfway. If they can revise the pools, they want to do so in an encompassing and cool fashion.

Travel powers are one of the obvious targets for more options, but they're also one of the more technically challenging -- a new power has to fit within the four-power structure, and there are some transport methods that they either can't stretch that far or that fit better into a whole powerset. It's not something forgotten, just not a primary focus under the circumstances.

We also asked about having a more gadget-oriented hero a la, well, Batman. It's another idea that the team has played around with for quite some time without finding an implementation that they're fully satisfied with -- though she did hint that if they did something similar, it would likely be tied in some way to the Invention system.

Epic archetypes were another question we had, and she made it clear that the team isn't opposed to doing more, but they currently don't have any plans for them. The current EATs will not be able to start as Praetorians, given that they already have a specialized introduction. Regarding the switch to level 20 for an unlock, she acknowledged there had been mixed reactions, but the choice wasn't ultimately tied to the Praetorian leveling path. Jesse Caceres had pushed for it on the basis that the content had been there for quite some time, and there were no shortage of players who preferred alts to high-level characters.

Our last major question was an obvious one that even came up in responses to the panel: what Paragon Studios thought about Champions Online. Far from being a matter of pointing and laughing, Bianco confessed that she herself didn't play, but there were people on the team who did. The team as a whole keeps a close eye on it, as it's their primary competition, but there's no ill will from the studio toward their former officemates. "We still have friends in Cryptic," she said, "and obviously we want them to have some measure of success."

Talking with Ms. Bianco made it clear just how much passion and energy the staff has for the game, and for all the different playstyles it encompasses -- from people with several dozen roleplaying alts to hardcore endgame grinders. While not everything the players can think of will be in the game, we are getting a wide breadth of new content, and the City of Heroes team is dedicated to the game and the fans.

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