Everyone wants to be a superhero. We'd be Meerkat Man, a furiously furry crime fighter with adamantium claws and the power to stand very still staring at stuff, then melting it with the lasers in our eyes.
And that's why we love NCSoft's City of Heroes. Developed by San Jose based Cryptic Studios, this clever spin on the traditional MMORPG puts you in the sparkly boots and pants-on-the-outside leotards of a superhero and lets you loose on an assortment of street scum and criminal masterminds.
You can design your superhero in whatever way you want and choose precisely what kind of super powers they will wield - which has attracted some unwanted attention from Marvel Comics, as we reported last week. The idea is to give you the powers to create exactly the kind of hero you want, and Cryptic have nailed it.
It's connected so well with gamers both in Europe and the US (The European launch isn't officially until early next year, but savvy European PC players are already fighting crime on the US servers) that City of Heroes has become one of the most popular MMOs out there, even though it doesn't deal with the usual orcs and elves subject matter.
With this in mind we incapacitated Jack Emmert, the game's creator and lead designer, with a fat chunk of Kryptonite and fired our questions at his superhuman mind.
And a little note - we carried out this interview before the whole Marvel lawsuit reared its ugly head, so unfortunately we didn't get a chance to speak to Jack about it. We did speak to a spokesperson for NCSoft today and they declined to comment on the situation.
How brave a decision was it to design an MMO that in many ways eschews the mythical/fantasy elements that seem to be so beloved of the genre?
Jack Emmert: For us it was really easy. It didn't make any sense to produce another fantasy title when there are already so many great products out there. It's so important that you ensure that you distinguish yourself and you produce something that stands out on the shelves. Fantasy has a strong draw if you're a publisher, because it's a known quality, it's comfortable for consumers. But lately, at least in the MMO scene, there have been a few poorly received fantasy games so in hindsight it was a brilliant decision. Still, at the time it wasn't that risky because we needed to stand out as a new developer anyway, and a fantasy MMO wouldn't have given us that opportunity.
Does using superheroes as avatars actually change the gameplay significantly from fantasy MMO titles?
Jack Emmert: At every level we wanted to create a different experience from every other MMO. Our goal was not to steal customers from other MMOs but to create new customers for City of Heroes straight away. Because it's a superhero game we don't have items like shields and so on that improve your stats. Your inventory, such as it is, entirely revolves around boosting a player's previous powers, as opposed to a game that demands you get the latest magic sword or whatever so that you can continue to progress. Also, the mechanics of City of Heroes ensure that the player is fighting many opponents at once rather than a solitary enemy. We had to balance the AI totally differently to the kind of game where you've got 3 or 4 players battling a unicorn or a deer or whatever.
The whole superhero thing really seems to have tapped into a rich vein of feeling among gamers. What is it about superheroes that appeals so much?
Jack Emmert: We consciously created the universe of City of Heroes to be a gestalt of ideas and influences from across the board. It's not an environment that's so dreadfully different from the comic book universes that fans know and love, but at the same time as you play through the game you're unravelling a pretty deep and rich mythology. That's the real appeal of the game itself. People can get in and be whatever they want and we're not restricting them as they go about discovering that mythology. I think we've also come into a superhero renaissance. The real flowering of the comic book industry occurred in the 80s when comic book stores popped up and comic book companies began aiming their products at a slightly more sophisticated audience. These guys who bought comics back then are now in their twenties and thirties and remember comics fondly, so they're now more predisposed to comic book superheroes. That's why you see films like X-Men and Spider-Man doing so well, and games like City of Heroes being successful. Plus, it's guys in costumes with superpowers: everybody gets it. I don't think you need a license to make a superhero game successful.
Is there something about today's society that's bringing the ideal of the superhero back to the fore?
Jack Emmert: Maybe. There's a big climate of fear after 9/11 and perhaps because City of Heroes is set in the modern day and lets you save the city, maybe there's a sense of wish fulfilment there. When you turn on the TV and what you see is downright depressing, who doesn't want to feel like they've got the power to stop that?
How important is the customisation aspect of City of Heroes?
Jack Emmert: It's huge. From the very start we wanted to make sure that people could really realise the idea they had in their head of the superhero they would be. We felt that there was no-one else that hadn't dreamed of being a superhero. You can jump right into City of Heroes and we give you everything: your origin is wide open and you can design your costume from the very start rather than us holding that off. Now that we have that we want to start introducing features like new archetypes that are far more specific to the game universe so that we begin filling out the game's character. Here's an example: if there was a DC game I imagine everyone would eventually want to be a Kryptonian. Not necessarily Superman, but a superhero with his powerset and weaknesses. I love the idea that an archetype like that could become so much part of the fabric of the game universe.
Players can write the history and origins of their superhero and you're planning to update the game with the ability to create a website for your character. Could you tell us some more about this?
Jack Emmert: We're sticking in personalised websites for players in the next update. In terms of player's history and origins, right now players are writing them up and putting them on the forums and other places. In fact, in our next big expansion City of Villains you'll be able to play out your origins.
How will that work?
Jack Emmert: One particular way it could work is that you're a thug working for a criminal organisation, trying to get noticed. If you do make a name for yourself the organisation may endow you with powers. There are other strains too. It's one of the most exciting things we're working on for City of Villains.
How refreshing is it to be working on City of Villains, given that you can really let your imagination run wild on a totally different tone?
Jack Emmert: Sure. It's fun to have those limitless possibilities in front of you while you're still working on it. I personally took charge of the villain archetypes and they're all very different from City of Heroes, and I'm very excited about that. We've had the opportunity to do many unique things.
Where do you think the City of Heroes universe can go? Can you see spin-offs down the line or characters becoming so recognisable that storylines spring up around them?
Jack Emmert: That would be really nice. The great thing about superheroes is that you can do almost anything with them. Like with City of Villains we can go down the road of massive robots, or horror-based characters, or dip into history. All these things are open game for superheroes. We'll see, although I do hope that at some point I move onto a new project.
Have you had any feedback from hardcore MMO players who can't relate to the City of Heroes universe?
Jack Emmert: Not at all. I've never had anyone say that kind of thing to me. Right now the thing that turns people away from City of Heroes is the lack of certain features they like in other MMOs. They might like to make armour or whatever and they ask when we're going to put that in City of Heroes. The short answer is never. It doesn't make sense in our game. The longer answer is that we have certain skills and abilities that offer the same kind of experience that you'll find in other MMOs, but make much more sense in the superhero world.
Who do you see as the ideal City of Hero player?
Jack Emmert: In my mind's eye he's mid-twenties to mid-thirties, has a full time job, married, kids, has job responsibilities, probably played an MMO before but not got into it because of the time commitment, but when they see City of Heroes they think 'oh cool, here's a game I can get into.'
How do you view The Matrix Online? It seems to be offering some of the same features as City of Heroes.
Jack Emmert: I'm never worried about another game until it's released so I can't really comment. I wish them all the luck in the world. They've got a great license but it'll be a challenge to bring it to life. I do think it'll be a very different kind of game and attract very different players to City of Heroes.
What kind of heroes do you think British and European gamers will create?
Jack Emmert: I don't know. Lots of people have told me what they think will happen, but we've noticed that it is really hard to categorise people by nationality but it'll be interesting to see how the skillsets and costumes vary from the US to Europe. I'd like to say that there'll be lots of silly names and stuff, but I'll just have to wait and see.
We'll be back with more information on City of Heroes before it flies like a speeding bullet onto UK and European shelves in February 2005.