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The Phoenix Project interview – Part One: Creating a crowdfunded superhero MMO

5 Aug 2013  by   Paul Younger

missing worlds media

We last talked to the Phoenix Project (Missing Worlds Media) team back in January, so with another seven months now behind them, a full website and talk of the Kickstarter, it was time for another chat.

The Phoenix Project, in case you missed our previous interview, is a group of volunteers from the City of Heroes community that have come together to create a new superhero MMORPG which some say could become the spiritual successor to CoH.

To talk us through the latest developments are creative director Jim Bishop, studio director Cameron Johnson, and head of research Michele Alexander-Sichelle.

When City of Heroes shut down, the community was left in limbo and disappointed with the way NCSoft handled it. What are your thoughts on that now? It’s been quite a few months since this happened.

Cameron: City of Heroes was and still is their property so it was their legal right to do whatever they wanted with it. The reason we are doing what we are doing is because when they pulled it off the market there was a huge hole there. So we’re seeking to fill that space so the community that now wants to dwell in that now-empty niche will have place to go back to.

How do you think the community is taking it as far as wanting to see a new project is concerned? Do you think people are really sticking around and wanting to see the Phoenix Project happen?

Cameron: Generally speaking, yes. We are seeing a lot of people who have tried other things and keep coming back to see what we’re doing, saying they are really looking forward to something that will fill that void in their lives.

Jim: You hit the nail on the head. You have to look at the whole thing that we are dealing with here; the stages of death, grief and acceptance. We’ve moved pretty far through that process as a community. I think everyone has finally accepted it. However, there is the gap of what is still needed and everyone’s going to find a game they want to play to fill the meantime. Yes, we do have quite a community that keeps checking back, there’s still enthusiasm and you know, I think we’re all pretty grateful for that.

I know from our point of view, when all this kicked off I think there was some confusion. When you guys decided to get together to form the Plan Z group and it was a little confusing about what it was, who was involved, who was trying to resurrect and get this project of the ground.

It seemed to be a collaborative effort initially but that seems to have split and fragmented into different projects now. How has this whole process been for you guys?

Cameron: Chaotic. [Laughs] You’re correct. It really still is a collaborative effort. The first division I suppose just came about because there were some creative differences over exactly what the spiritual successor was and what the methods used to preserve it should be.

What were the things valued by one group of the other? There’s no necessarily right answer to that question. It’s really about what it is you are looking for and what you liked in that game. Obviously we can only speak for the Phoenix Project as to what it is that we’re doing. The other ones… well, you’ll have to talk to them about that.

Has it been a hard transition for you to move from what was effectively part of a community website into a more professional out fit?

Michele: In some ways it still is an ongoing transition and it’s something that will be for a while because we are a community, but we’re a business. It’s a leap that in some ways you can make rapidly and in some ways it does take time. But I feel we can do it.

Jim: She’s absolutely correct, there’s nothing stopping us from doing it. The big hurdle is actually making that business leap because it comes with a reality check. When you’re a community-based effort the way we were, there’s a lot of people that come to the table that have the energy, the passion and the fire that last throughout those stages I mentioned before. After a while your cream is going to rise to the top – all the people who can dedicate the time and do have the talent and ability to bring it forward.

Even with all that and even with a pending Kickstarter, videogames of this magnitude… to be taken seriously, to have an advertising reach that’s proper and a market impact, they need serious money. You can keep doing Kickstarters and bootstrap that way but you’re only prolonging the development cycle and we realise that there’s a window that we want to hit. We don’t want this to be, like, 10 years later we’ve all got beards and then we get to see this new game.

Michele: I’m not going to have a beard! [Laughs]

Cameron: So you claim right now! [Laughs]

Jim: We know we need the kind of funding that only a serious business with a plan can accomplish. So there has been significant growing pains making that transition.

Cameron: Ultimately, for this to succeed – as they’ve both said – it has to be a business and that’s something that we have acknowledged from the beginning, really, because we knew that it was really the only way for a game to be sustainable.

As we’ve moved forward, though… we are a community project, we always will be, but as we go through these growing pains and develop and transition past the Kickstarter and try to actually turn that initial investment from our community into something that becomes a product we can sell and use that product to more than just bootstrap, but actually push forward this endeavour…

Right now we are a volunteer effort, and as they’ve said we have jobs and we are putting lots of time into it in our free time. As we go forward we’d like to start being able to do what businesses do and hire people to work on it so that we’re not burning candles at both ends and we don’t burn out our best talent.

How are you going to approach the Kickstarter? We’ve seen so often games that you thought would be funded easily fall flat by either not having the support or they are just not explained very well.

Cameron: We’ve done a lot of research and we’re still doing more as to what makes a Kickstarter succeed versus what the less successful ones have perhaps failed to do or maybe did wrong.

My own background is in computational intelligence – biologically inspired design – but the interesting thing from that, and what I am getting at here, is swarm intelligence is something where you have an overall goal and a lot of intelligent agents trying to get together to make it happen. That’s sort of what we’re doing here with this project. We have overall goal, we have leadership that comes up with goals and how to achieve it. Our people then go out there and figure out the best ways to get it done. So that’s what we’ve been working on with Kickstarter.

Jim: To build on that a little bit, to be specific to the answer you’re looking for… we’re not only looking at other Kickstarters to see how they’ve done it, but to see what the formula is. When you promise the rewards of the Kickstarter, how you structure those rewards is vitally important. There’s a great deal of research right there. Knowing what kind of price point you’re looking at for what sort of an exchange, what your market was looking for and what they can afford. Whether that reward would even be appropriate. What would be the cost benefit of it? You can promise a $5000 reward but if it takes $5000 to deliver it, why have it?

On the side of it, how best to build that Kickstarter site to contain the best information possible to convey all those questions that you might have. It’s been a slow and meticulous process. We want to have the best guns pointing at the best enemy, you know what I’m saying?

Outside of the Kickstarter, have you received any interest from traditional publishing avenues?

Cameron: We have not been contacted by any large publishing houses, no. We suspect that if that’s going to happen it won’t happen until after the Kickstarter is successful just because the Kickstarter is kind of a proving ground for a number of things. That we can put together a professional Kickstarter that knows what it is, that knows what its goals are, and can maintain interest.

A successful Kickstarter will show that not only we can raise our money to meet our goals but it will show just how broad our audience is and how dedicated our audience is. These are two different points of information that we can get from it because breadth is the sheer number of backers and dedication is how many backers donated at what level.

We’ve not really spoken with any large publishing firms. We are going to maintain control of this project, at least to a point we’re certain that we won’t end up where we were last August in three years.

Jim: Part of the definite goal of it, no matter what… Through the Kickstarter, if we were approached by a large publisher – even with the best reputation possible, if it was EA, if it was Blizzard – before considering whether we could get that alliance going, the first consideration is, at the end of the day, if the game fails and turns off there has to be a guarantee it can stand by itself in maintenance mode and be played for all time for anyone that purchased into it. NCSoft didn’t give us that.

Michele: That is our promise to this community, they have to be left with something that somehow and some way there is an exit strategy.

If the Kickstarter goal isn’t reached, would you feel that you would shelve the project?

Michele: No, we’d just reevaluate our Kickstarter.

Cameron: Ultimately, if something happens and we don’t make our goal… and we’re not planning that we’re not going to make our goal; actually, looking at the excitement from our community, we think we have every chance of doing so.

Michele: And from outside the community, we hope!

Cameron: Yes! Michele had some good experience this past weekend with some people who had not really been that interested in City of Heroes before things were going on. She got some people saying they were interested in donating to the Kickstarter. So that’s promising. Obviously it’s just word of mouth at this point, but we’ll see on September 8th how things really go.

If for some reason the Kickstarter does not make its goals we’ll still have a great deal of information about how many people signed up and what levels people were willing to donate, and we will reevaluate. Maybe we’ll try again, maybe we’ll try some other avenue of getting funding. I don’t think there’s any chance that this is just going to get shelved just because a Kickstarter doesn’t make its funding, not least because I honestly think we’ll make it.

Michele: I actually attended a panel on Kickstarters and one of the things that was said – other than some of the risks like watching your fulfilment costs – was thatiof your Kickstarter fails, it doesn’t mean that your project is bad, it means you didn’t communicate well enough or you didn’t put together a good enough Kickstarter. So, you try again, you come up with another method, and – unless you’ve lost your heart in the project – you go forward.

Moving on from Kickstarter, there’s been a lot of talk about the game maybe being the spiritual successor of City of Heroes. How close is this going to be to the original game for CoH players?

Cameron: I will preface this by saying we’re not making a clone, so there will be notable differences. Our goal is to make it so that the final product has that feel, so that when people come in and look at it they’ll say “Oh, this feel familiar!”

We’re doing a lot of examination of anything people say they liked about the previous game. We’re looking at it and not just saying “OK, we’ll throw that in” – we’re instead taking it apart and trying to figure out what was it that they really liked about it, and how that fit together with other aspects that other people liked. So when we put it all back together, we know exactly why we included the things we include, and they will strengthen each other and build up those aspects that really helped build the community into what it was, helped give people that sense of control over the customisation of their character, and even expand on that so that their whole game experience is really their own.

Jim: Yeah, and expanding on that, we also have a nine-year forum history from City of Heroes that culminated with people in this community expressing a wishlist of all the things they wish had been in the game that would have been great features which would’ve been nice to have.

We’re examining those and seeing if some of those are feasible and can work. We’re already out to make the game more customisable along those lines. It’s a work in progress. We are looking at trying to make it feel a lot like that old game but it’s a whole new game and we want to show people an even more beautiful game that makes them feel at home.

Cameron: City of Heroes came out before World of Warcraft and that probably served it very well because it kind of broke new ground. It did make mistakes, but those were its mistakes from its experiments and its trials.

Jim: And its technology.

Cameron: There was a limitation of technology at the time. As they went forward they learned from their own mistakes and some of them they had to work around because they were baked into the technology; others they were able to correct or innovate new things for.

We’re hoping to learn from the successes and mistakes from City of Heroes‘ creation and at the same time break some new ground that is – again, in the spirit of being a spiritual successor – also learning from their efforts to be something new and different that isn’t just like everything that came before it.

You guys work more on the creative side of the project so I won’t go too technical on you, but as far as your personnel are concerned… the people you have working on a technical level, what sort of backgrounds are they coming from to help with this project?

Cameron: Most of them are relatively experienced coders who have some experience in professional coding design. We have also some younger people who are coming in with amateur experience or with college experience, so it kind of runs the gamut. We definitely have some experienced people who are familiar with or have familiarised themselves with where the industry is and where the standards are right now.

Once you’ve finished both pages of part 1, read part 2. It’s now available

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