The Phoenix Project Interview – Saving a City of Heroes

18 Jan 2013  by   Paul Younger
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It’s been a couple of months since NCSoft closed the doors on their popular superhero MMO City of Heroes much to the annoyance of the CoH community. When the closures was announced by NCSoft last August, the CoH community decided they wanted to do something about it and a petition was put together to save City of Heroes.

While the petition gathered pace, the community were frustrated with the closure and discussed the idea of creating a new superhero MMO, and so “Plan Z” was born on the Titan Network. There may be some confusion about what “Plan Z” actually is, but it was the codename used by the CoH community to discuss the development of a new superhero MMO, this has subsequently split off into two separate projects, the Phoenix Project which have been working together as a group since last year, and Heroes and Villains.

Last week the Phoenix Project was formalised into a new development studio called Missing Worlds Media so we wanted to find out more about their plans for their MMO and what the community can expect from the development team who have exciting and ambitious plans.

First of all congratulations on formalising the Phoenix Project. How hard has it been to get to this stage?

Cameron Johnson: Thank you. We’ve been blessed with numerous volunteers with various essential skills, and our team of leads has been very dedicated. Each new step seems daunting at first, but is manageable by the time we’re in the middle of it. The hardest step is always the next one, because it’s always new ground to tread. But that’s also part of what makes it exciting: realizing that we’re getting there, step by step.

V.D.G, art lead: When you have a group of people unified by the same tragedy, it really accelerates the formation and development process. It has seemed quite seamless and we sometimes are staggered by how far we’ve already come in such a short time.

IncGamers: This is the second project to be announced from the Plan Z group. Do you think there is room for two new superhero MMOs in the current market?

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead: Technically it is the first project, – the other one actually started after we had, but announced their project first. The MMO market is a large one and there is potential for both games to thrive. They will be very different games at the end of the day, which means we each will have our own fans. Look at how games such as Vanguard, Warcraft, and Aion all cater to the Fantasy MMO market in their own way.

V.D.G, art lead: Superhero MMOs are like dessert; there’s always room for more. The two titles announced so far have different ideologies in regards to what is to be offered to the players and it is entirely possible that players may find both palatable.

IncGamers: What are your thoughts on the recent comments from NCSoft stating City of Heroes was not profitable. There seems to be mixed feedback coming from inside sources and NCSoft themselves.

Nate Downes, technical lead : “That is between NCSoft and their stockholders. The revenue charts from NCSoft does demonstrate that the profit is there for one willing to grab it.”

Cameron Johnson, creative director: “That is why we’re putting time and money into a project and company that is building a new home for the customer base that would have, I believe, made CoH profitable for years to come.”

Kaylan Lyndell-Lees, lore lead: “Unfortunately, none of us have access to the internal books for either Paragon Studios or NCSoft themselves. All that we have to go by is publicly released information, though that information seems to contradict NCSoft’s claim. There certainly are mixed reports, but I feel that it would be best for financial professionals to evaluate the available data rather than to speculate on what might have been occurring between the two companies.

IncGamers: The Plan Z and the Phoenix Project has really been up and running for quite a few months now. Do you think you have the talent pool in place now to really drive this project?

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead: “Plan Z” is a loose name for a collection of similar projects. Two of those are in active development; the third still in a proposal stage. Initial, hesitant planning began in September. It started as forum posts on the Titan Network, and active development began close to October. I cannot speak for any project other than the one I am with. As for that one (the Phoenix Project), the talent pool includes PhDs, professional game designers, corporate project and process managers, network engineers, writers, and artists. The age of the more senior management staff peaks around 45,  with experience tending to at least 30 years in our respective fields.

Ian Hawkins, project manager: We also have a lot of community support and are continuing to acquire talented people. We don’t yet have the talent required to produce a whole game, but we do have enough to launch our first two products.

V.D.G, art lead: Just as important as the talent, we have the drive. We have people are so driven they are learning tools they had never touched before at a breakneck speed. What is fascinating is how the internet can be such a rich source of knowledge and learning. There have been a few tools we’ve brought up that people haven’t heard of and in a few weeks they were able to dive in and really begin to flourish at. We have people with the drive, the passion, and the gumption to learn things they hadn’t even remotely thought of learning before.”

IncGamers: The Phoenix Project is going to be powered by CryEngine 3 which is without a doubt an impressive game engine. Why did you choose this particular engine?

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead:  “We went through a testing and selection process. We first began by asking players, and each other, what they and we wanted, what things they wanted to keep, and wanted to change. We then took that list, added weights to how often an element was made, and then began testing, and comparing, against possible engines. We compared them each against these things people wanted, and whittled down the list. CryENGINE 3 was decided upon simply because it gave us the most freedom to develop the exact game people told us they wanted.”

V.D.G, art lead: “Early on we knew that we would want to go with a Cinematic Comic Style and after looking a plethora of game engines and developments kits we knew in our hearts that CryEngine was going to be the one to really deliver on that vision.”

Ian Hawkins, project manager: “It is unlikely to age the way other some of the options available to us, and had licensing models that didn’t require much up-front investment.”

IncGamers:  Right now it’s still very early days but what are your thoughts for funding the project? Kickstarter perhaps? You now have a short video created so it’s a good place to start.

Richard Robertson, User-interface lead:  Crowdsource funding is being closely examined and planned for. Of course we are also looking for any other legitimate sources of funding that do not impair our mission goals.

David MacKay, business and marketing lead:  We will definitely be looking at crowd funding, but we’re waiting to have a bit more than just a video to show for it. One of our first products will be the avatar-builder as a stand-alone module. It was one of the most popular aspects of City of Heroes, and is something that we believe our fans will be eager to have on its own merits. That will, however, require extensive art assets and non-trivial coding, not to mention all the other myriad tasks that go into producing anything.

Our crowd-funding efforts will likely kick off to support that, so our fans will have to wait less time to see the fruits of their donations. There are a few other such “mini-game” products that contribute to the final experience that our target community remembers, and we will build them as stand-alone modules that eventually feed into the final MMO in order to serve our goal of providing a gathering point for that community as quickly as we can without sacrificing quality.

IncGamers: It appears that City of Heroes is pretty much dead for good now and NCSoft have said they couldn’t sell it. Has the Save CoH campaign pretty much given up on trying to bring the game back through another publisher? We know a petition was sent through to Disney? Was there any response to that?

Cameron Johnson, creative director: The Save CoH campaign is still going strong. I cannot speak for them, being at best an enthusiastic supporter, but I know that efforts to get NCSoft to sell CoH and all its associated components to a responsible publisher who will restore and continue to produce the game are ongoing.

IncGamers: When you were planning the Phoenix Project, was there any discussion on moving away from the CoH style and universe, in other words creating something new completely?

Ian Hawkins, project manager: Yes, but we came back to wanting a game that had strong social features that was attractive to casual players and families and that was set in a super-powered universe.

Cameron Johnson: If you mean, “Did you consider scrapping superheroes and just making a wholly different genre of MMO,” then no, not at all. That would rather defeat the purpose of creating a spiritual successor. If you mean, “Are you cloning CoH?” then no, we’re not. There would be legal issues galore involved with that, and we would not pretend to have the intimacy with the hidden lore of the setting that Paragon Studios’ writers did. The Phoenix Project is its own setting with no IP nor technical ties to its spiritual inspiration.

It’s a constant balancing act to make sure that we analyze every design decision we make to see if it plays to the strengths that made CoH the phenomenon that it was, while not replicating the less-than-popular aspects that made it show its age. To that end, we’re carefully examining everything people name as something good from the game to see why it was good, and trying to bake that in. Sometimes, it means taking inspiration directly; others, it means innovating something new that enables the desirable aspects without slavishly following a model that also came with attendant problems.

V.D.G, art lead:  We could never bring City of Heroes back or come close to being exactly that thing. We recognized early on that we had to evolve if we wanted to succeed. It’s been important for us to look at what made City of Heroes and success and have such an incredibly high retention rate and what we could do to bring that same sense. Paragon Studios always took such bold and original steps and that is something we carry in our hearts too. We can’t bring back that universe but we will create a new modern world that we feel our CoH community will feel instantly at home in.

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead: “The Phoenix Project is a unique, new universe and design. While it will share common comic and super powered cinema themes, the foundation is unique to itself. There is a strong demand for a comic themed game without ties to decades old material, as popularity for titles such as InFamous and Prototype demonstrate.”

IncGamers: For fans of CoH, what are you adding to and improving on in the new game? Is there anything you want to share with the fans with regards to planned features at this stage?

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead:  “More player customization comes immediately to mind. More features with regards to communication within the game and without.”

Kaylan Lyndell-Lees, lore lead:  We want to help our world feel like it’s more populated with players rather than feeling that the world is just scenery on the way to another instanced mission. We also want to give our players a chance to feel like they’re really involved with the core canon NPCs and the groups that those NPCs run – Part of feeling like a hero or villain in a world of supers is personal interaction with other heroes and villains, whether they’re PCs or NPCs.

Cameron Johnson, creative director: We’ll be releasing the avatar-builder, with expanding costume options over time, as a stand-alone module. We’ve discussed even implementing something of it for mobile devices. We’ve got an alignment system for determining your heroic or villainous (or vigilante or mercenary) leanings that is designed to offer more meaningful and legitimate choices and to help you feel like your character is truly seeking redemption or slipping into corruption. We’re looking at the base-builder, as well; it is likely to utilize the same core tools as the player-accessible mission-builder and the world-builder that the devs use. They will differ by what features are available, but the power of the world-building tools will be available to the player for both base building and personal player housing. We will, therefore, be seeking to make them intuitive from the inside-out.

V.D.G, art lead: City of Heroes always had a very passionate and very creative community and we have discussed the possibility of creating a community artist program. Essentially it would be a roster of approved artists with the ability to create and submit costumes, base pieces, artwork, skins, textures, mods, etc for the game, to be sold in the marketplace with a commission system set in place. It’s something we hope to implement but we can’t firmly promise it as this point.

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead: We are seeking to refine the experience, not just duplicate it. There were a lot of annoyances in the old game – dark/dark scrappers, I know your pain – and we mean to address those where we can. One of the areas we have been aiming to improve is in the character concept field, what in CoH was called the Archetype but other MMOs call the class. City of Heroes had ten base archetypes and 4 epic archetypes. We took a look at the old Archetype system and created a different method of generating them. Instead of limiting players to an Archetype to select, which then determines your powers, our model was to have players pick their powers using a guided system, which then determines your archetype based on those choices.

IncGamers: The project is obviously going to evolve in the months ahead but have you got goals planned now for Alpha, Beta and a release?

David MacKay, business and marketing lead: “We have a full five year development cycle already planned out, although many of its aspects will be subject to change. I believe the direction our world is evolving towards is one that will be greeted with great surprise.

IncGamers: Will this be self published title or will you be looking to the likes of Steam to get the game released?

Richard Robertson, user-interface lead:  “I suspect a mix of options will be examined. We have intermediate product releases that we have planned out already and those are likely to be self-published at the moment. But these options have not yet been fully discussed at this early stage.”

IncGamers: Are you still looking for more people to join the team? And if so, what skills are you looking for and how can they contact you if they are interested?

V.D.G art lead: At this stage we are definitely still open to new members who carry a fire in their heart for being a part of something audacious, bold, and at times insane. We are definitely still open to people who have skills in 3D modeling, texturing, animation, and world building – or people who want to learn those skills – to complement our current talent pool.

 For more information on the Phoenix Project, check the Missing Worlds Media website.

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