By Dan Grill on October 22nd, 2011 at 11:00 am.
The MMOnitor is a new series in which we ask the developers of various MMOs to explain what is going on with their game, and what that means within the wider context of the MMO. We’re kicking off with an interview with City of Heroes‘ Brian Clayton, Studio Director and Executive Producer. City of Heroes went free recently in the Freedom update.
RPS: You’ve been there since 2003. Have you ever felt the desire to move on, do something else?
Clayton: First and foremost, I love Superheroes. You can take that genre anywhere. We’ve followed pop culture at times, how Hollywood is taking things, we still have great storylines to tell, like the Signature series we’re doing. There’s just an endless amount of canvas to work with, in the superhero genre and with City of Heroes, being our own IP, we can take it anywhere we want.
RPS: How far do your stories these days satirise the DC and Marvel themes of the moment; or is that something you don’t do following that early legal kerfuffle you had with Marvel?
Clayton: That’s a great question. I would say that the comic genre as a whole presents us with a lot of opportunities and the developers are not only looking at current threads, but past threads over the decades, that really inspired them. We do have a nice mix of comedy and satire; we’re always looking for ways, not only to forward the story but also for the player to be the featured star of our story. That’s the beauty of City of Heroes, you don’t have to be the sidekick to the heroes you’ve grown up with; you can be that hero.
RPS: Do you find it funny that the comic book MMOs that have come out since City of Heroes all seem to have gone free before you did? To have admitted defeat on a paying model?
Clayton: There’s a good point to that question; going free to play isn’t admitting defeat, but it’s certainly a way to make the experience accessible. I do find it interesting that our competition did make those moves before we did. We really have been thinking about a hybrid business model for some time now. In the last year or two it hasn’t been a viable opportunity for City of Heroes, in that we believe that online content is moving in this direction, not just MMOs, but gaming as a whole, with some proven success cases out there, coupled with our desire to take what is the leading online superhero expiernce to the next realm of potentional customers. We thought the model change was the right way to go. Our commitment is to our subscribers. Therefore we really wanted to make sure that, unlike some of the other competitiors out there, we didn’t want to just flick a switch and roll a new business model out. We wanted to welcome new customers and add more value for the subscribers who’ve been with you so long.
RPS: I’ll come back to the difference between the subscribers and new customers in a moment; there’s a question about the Cambrian explosion of new business models for games from the social, streaming and mobile sides. Once you’ve turned the model around to F2P though, is it easy to look at these models and say “we can do something like that”? Or is still like turning a supertanker?
Clayton: I am a huge fan of the industry finding ways to get customers new content more quickly and make out products more accessible; I think that streaming and the push to cloud environments is exciting and a huge opportunity. I think that a good chunk of gaming moving forward will be served through those mechanisms. For City of Heroes, while we’re interested and looking at those types of opportunities, you can move much more quickly with what you know. So with what we did, which I think allows new customers a fresh installation of a game quicker than most if not all of our competitors, we have a basically a quick download client. We send you a few hundred megs to get you into one of the best parts of the game, the character creation. While you’re making your character, the tutorial’s downloading, and while you’re doing that, the entry-level zones are downloading, and the rest of the game comes while you’re playing those. It used to take 6-8 hours to get into the game, now we have customers doing that, typically, in less than five minutes. For us, streaming is great and we’re excited to get people into the game as quickly as possible; we’re doing a great service for potential new customers, instant gratification.
RPS: Your streaming model is excellent, but would an MMO with a model like yours work on something like OnLive, or would you have to rebuild the whole MMO engine?
Clayton: I think it wouldn’t work. The biggest challenge for streaming now is latency in terms of control, getting back to the cloud. With things like City of Heroes, it is action, at the end of the day, dice rolls to determine whether you’re hitting or missing, it wouldn’t play well with a streaming model. For the customer, anything we can do to lower their barrier to entry, is a huge win.
RPS: I went onto the forums and noticed that the peak number was about 12,000; when I was on there, it was about 1,000. How do you lure back in the old players who’ve dropped away from the franchise, particularly those 11,000 hardcore who’ve gone? Or are you not looking to?
Clayton: In preparation for the model, we spent a lot of time across the studio, development and business, working closely together to make sure that, again, that this is a value-add to the overall game. We spent a lot of time educating each other. A mantra of ours was to provide more to subscribers in the Freedom model than in the previous model; if we could do that, we’d call ourselves successful. We…uh, I lost track of the question.
RPS: I was asking about reacquiring the hardcore.
Clayton: For those former customers, the one thing we wanted was that we didn’t want to take anything away from them that they’d already purchased or that had earned. If they were in the veteran rewards programme, those rewards that they’d earned would carry through to the freedom launch; so if they’d unlocked character slots or powers, or if they’d played 50 characters they’ll be waiting for them. They might only be able to start with two as a minimum, but nothing was lost. Everything that they’d earned was there. Also, we took the rewards system for veterans and put new content in and rolled it into this programme called the Paragon Rewards tree. You’re able to earn those rewards more quickly; previously, it might take 5, 6, 7 years to get to some of those rewards; now you can get them on a monthly basis. If you’re spending money in the store, you can actually accelerate your way up that rewards tree in a matter of months.
RPS: I always remember that City of Heroes was the friendliest MMO to join; everyone was happy to help, to roleplay or just to chat. Are the larger numbers of new players still integrating in, or have they changed the feel of the community?
Clayton: From what I can tell, right now, veterans are still very welcoming. We did give our paid players an opportunity to join a new zero-day server and have their own VIP server, and we do have veterans who only want to play with other veterans, but also we’re seeing the majority of our veterans playing on their home servers, leading into the Freedom launch. We’ve also got a player run organisation called the Mentor programme, an ad-hoc programme that our players have set up themselves. From everything, I can tell the existing players are loving the new influx; a comment we see often in the forums is that it feels like a new game. Though a lot of its new, like the character creation, the tutorial, the revamped Atlas Park, a lot of what’s making it feel like a new game is the customers coming into checking it out for the first time. We’ve also done a lot of things to protect that subscriber experience, in that new players have to earn their way up that rewards tree, unlocking larger chat channels and participate in Mission Architect and participate in some of the other events that seemingly could be more risky if we opened them to new players right away.
RPS: Looking at the forums, one veteran user described how the villains were treated as akin to “a red-headed stepchild”. Have the villains been more closely integrated with the advent of Freedom and Going Rogue?
Clayton: Well, I think that’s a reflection of the real world. They are like the red-headed stepchildren. We have spent a lot of time revamping the tutorial, so you get a choice at the end of it. Mercy has a lot of tweaks in it as well, which is the entry-level zone for villains, to improve that experience. We don’t mind whether people play hero or villain, we just want them to have a full-fledged experience; Going Rogue introduced that transition through the alignment system. Players enjoy having heroes fall and having villains redeem themselves, it added a lot more balance to the experience. Again, much like we approached the Freedom initiative, we planned every element for the Going Rogue alignment system. I do think overall we want to equally improve both sides. We shared our data; the majority of players are heroes and I think that’s a good thing for society in general, but we certainly want players to be able to live both sides of the superhero experience.
RPS: Would you ever encourage people to be villains?
Clayton: I don’t think we want to steer the player to the experience that we want. We want to make it their game. There’s tremendous flexibility in City of Heroes to play any way you want to. In the signature stories, there’s a hero and villain experience. To really get the value of that experience, it’s great to experience it from both sides but it’s not required, but the opportunity is there to do so. They’re playing out the same story arc, so there should be continuity from both sides, but as we get further into the arc we’re working on now, you’re going to see things diverge then come back to an epic conclusion.
RPS: Who has access to the signature stories?
Clayton: Everyone has access, but the VIPs get them for free. We didn’t want to prevent free players getting involved in that so for the equivalent of… whatever’s a few hundred points… um, free players can jump in there. It’s 400 points for them to participate in whatever they choose to.
RPS: I don’t understand the payment model, I have to say. It seems kind of complicated. When you combine it with the usual Euro-Dollar exchange rate, which is perversely 1-1 in most MMOs for some reason, I get really confused… can you explain it to me?
Clayton: I wish I could. I get the question, but I don’t have the context to answer it appropriately. (We agree to talk to Ross, the VP of marketing, about payment models and exchange rates separately – Ed.) Anything you’ve paid for you keep, but there’s always a few gray areas. For example, we wouldn’t delete any of your characters, but if you’ve only unlocked a few costume slots you may only be able to access a handful of them rather than all of them. There’s a few sort of complicated things like that. If you’re VIP, you have access to most everything; if you’re an a la carte player, you have access to most everything; you may have to pay for access to the signature stories or access to the Mastermind, if you haven’t unlocked it through the Reward tree.
RPS: I was going to ask that; for example, if you’ve got a Mastermind character or a Demon Summoning character, do you have to buy it again?
Clayton: If you’re coming back as an existing customer and you already had a Demon Summoner, if you don’t have enough time in the Paragon rewards tree to unlock that as a reward, you would have to buy access to that. And, and there are a couple of reasons for that, one is that, it’s not so much for the former customers as the new players; Masterminds are pretty complicated to use and also each of those entities use up a lot of bandwidth and hardware, and if we had every new player creating a Mastermind, that would wreak havoc on our servers.
RPS: So there’s differentiation between character classes as to how much load they put on the server?
Clayton: Specifically to the Mastermind and the Controlling powers. For every entity that you have on screen, the server has to track that. On that note, we’ve spent a lot of time optimising our servers, so the concurrency we get now is five times what it was before Freedom. It was smart decisions like that which allowed us to get more people on a single server.
RPS: It’s been two years since I’ve played. With the radio and newspaper missions, and the contacts system, there was an occasional point where players’ mission options would bottleneck down and you’d end up grinding; has that gone now?
Clayton: I think the majority of that’s gone. We’ve hit it on a lot of different levels. We’ve tweaked the XP curve and the new tutorial gets you quickly through the game and into the mechanics of the game, with a few new missions that are some of our best content, because we’ve got seven years experience doing it now. As far as grouping mechanisms, we’ve got a team-up teleporter to help players quickly get to the content. The sense from our side is that we’ve done a great job of making it an enjoyable experience all the way through, without having to scratch from contact to contact. We’ve issued a cellphone to the players as well, so you don’t have to constantly go back to your contacts to get to the next step.
RPS: Wow, mobile phones! We’re living in the future. Are they iPhones or crappy old Nokias?
Clayton: We’re still open to a license; if you know anybody, let me know.
RPS: I’ll speak to Apple! Can guys on the free side chat and group?
Clayton: We’ve limited the chat options to free players to cut down on spam to keep the experience for our VIP customers. First-time players can get access to the help channel, and other necessary things for help, but we’ve also done a lot to really restrict bulk-messaging and anything that could be exploited.
RPS: Obviously, you’re the Old Man of the Industry now, even older than World of Warcraft. Looking at the whippersnappers, when do you think the MMO audience became quite so flighty? People don’t stick with one MMO; when and why did it change?
Clayton: We were April 2004, Warcraft was November. It’s a good question. Competition is a wonderful thing, and gives customers a lot of choice. To build this content takes time; one of the things that I’m really proud of, is those signature stories, where you’re guaranteed to get monthly epic content, in addition to holiday events. There’s just a constant flow of content that helps customers stay connected and emotionally involved in the game. The general gamer these days, there’s so many options out there, from poking around on Facebooks, to casual games, to free opportunities like League of Legends. There’s still a herd mentality for the major hits, but there’s a lot of big entertainment out there. Our retention rate is insane; going into the Freedom launch, there was a 95% chance that if you were playing the game 30 days ago, you’d be playing it today. Whether it’s getting them quickly into the game, or giving a polished experience, or introducing them to the largest superhero community on the internet, we just have the best offer.
RPS: Looking forwards, how do think the MMO audience is going to change and how are MMO developers going to adapt?
Clayton: Not say in the next two years, but after that When you start looking a couple of years out, you’re going to continue to see the models evolve, but you’re also going to see delivery of content evolve. What I mean by that is you’ll see a lot more examples of, for lack of a better term, people monetising their Alphas, developing their games with their communities. I love that because it gets players invested early, it helps them be a part of the development and building a game that they want to consume. I really think the way of the future is very polished AAA content, focusing on just a couple of things, building and evolving that experience with your customers in a fluid, iterative way. Within our studio, we’ve made a lot of strides to be able to do that. We’ve delivered more content in a year for Freedom than we’ve done in the last 18-24 months, because we’ve changed our process and mindset, and embraced what our customers are asking for. When we first developed our plan for freedom, we brought in 24 of the most hardcore players from the Bay Area () so we could make sure that we had the game right. Being customer-focused and getting them involved, coupled with the talent we’ve got in the studio.
RPS: The other good thing about the Alpha-release model, like Notch or social games have, is that journalists can’t review it. You get nothing but previews, which are normally optimistic.
Clayton: That’s very tricky; I think I’m going to use it for our next product!
RPS: We can’t do anything, especially if we’ve signed an NDA or something.
Clayton: There’s a huge opportunity there; I hadn’t looked at the review side of it. You look at how tight-knit the Minecraft community… I believe we’ve been able to probably accomplish the tightest community of any MMO and that focus group is just a small taste of the exercises we do to make sure that we put the customer first. If we went into Freedom, and we didn’t improve the whole value of the subscription, we’d put their enjoyment and the entire business at risk… getting them excited about about comic books again and having them going the other way… that’s the stuff that puts a smile on my face.
RPS: Thanks for your time.