Meta’s Verse: Interview with a Melissa Bianco and Matt Miller
Questions by Meticulous Meta, Umemployed Superhero
Here I am again, wearing my Meticulous Meta suit. I know I said last week would be the last time I write about City of Heroes. But you know what? I lied. Ok, I didn’t lie, I just got an offer I couldn’t refuse. Former Paragon Studios developers Matt “Positron” Miller and Melissa “War Witch” Bianco were kind enough to take time out of their busy lives to answer a few questions about the closure of Paragon Studios and City of Heroes, the future, what could have been, and of course memories from the past. It is a bit lengthy compared to usual, but I promise you this is not to be missed.
MeticulousMeta: So let’s start off with yourself. I know the community will be eager to hear how your job hunt has been going. Do you have a new job? Are you planning to stay in the MMO industry?
Melissa: I don’t have a job yet, but I’ve been in talks with various people both within and outside of the gaming industry. There are some really interesting opportunities, so I’m hoping for the best.
Matt: I’m still trying to find the right thing. MMO’s are not really a high priority for a lot of publishers, and lead positions are few and far between, but I have a few headhunters looking out for me. I am looking into opportunities outside the MMO space as well that can leverage my experience.
MeticulousMeta: Are you keeping in touch with anyone who worked at Paragon Studios?
Melissa: We still keep in touch almost every day through Facebook and email. It’s a great way to informally discuss how we’re doing, who’s eating where, or provide job help. And once in a while, we even get together for lunch or movies.
Keeping in touch is harder now that people have moved on or moved away. It’s not surprising, though, because they’re building new relationships, new friends and colleagues. Despite all that, even though I can be socially lazy, I try to make a point to hang out. (I can hear in my head right now, Matt Miller saying, “When is your next game night?”)
Matt: Absolutely. I don’t think that I’ve had a job where I’ve kept in touch with people to the degree I have with Paragonians. We get together and game (both real world and virtually in other MMOs and games like League of Legends). And of course we all rag on each other on Twitter since most of us have accounts there.
Meticulous Meta: By now I’m sure many have seen the video of the last minutes of City of Heroes that Jessie posted. I know you two were some of the developers who were chatting there. Who were you on?
Melissa: I logged in around 5 p.m. (PST) on the Virtue Server as War Witch. I’d lost my “dev access” so I was stuck in a generic costume. I had to find Hit Streak and have him change my costume for me. I wasn’t feeling particularly “super-powered” because each time I’d get disconnected, I had to log back in and have someone help me put my tights back on!
What I would have done for the final hours was travel all over the place so that I couldhang out with people in Pocket D, or AtlasPark, or Praetoria, but I didn’t have the dev access to do that anymore, so I just stayed put in AtlasPark
Matt: I was on as Positron in the zone I loved the most: Rikti War Zone. Staring at the crashed Rikti mothership.
MeticulousMeta: What were you doing when the servers went down?
Melissa: Both of us were both hanging out with players, former Paragon developers and even some really awesome friends and colleagues from Cryptic did, too (like poz and Ravenstorm). My screen was in constant motion with Tells. It felt like one minute I had hours until the clock would strike midnight, then I’d blink, and suddenly we only had thirty minutes left.
By this time, I’d moved to the Twitch.tv Channel with some of the other devs. Matt and I laughed because we were trying so hard to keep up, but it was pandemonium! We didn’t want to let anyone down or not respond in some way. It meant a lot to me, personally, to respond to everyone who took the time to talk to me.
I felt this wild energy about all of it: the server activity, the comments, the thank-you’s. Ironically, it reminded me of the original City of Heroes Beta! Everyone that had taken the time to log in was dedicated to City of Heroes in some way so it meant a lot to me that they were there.
The end was bittersweet, though. I had been there the moment Beta went live and I was there until the very end, when they shut us down. I’m not sure many can make a claim like that. I needed to be there, though. It was important in ways that I’m unable to accurately describe.
MeticulousMeta: Let’s talk a bit about the closure now. How exactly did NCSoft break the news that Paragon Studio would be closing and City of Heroes was being closed?
Matt: Several people found out the night before we were “officially” supposed to be told, so the morning of the closure, people were already cleaning out desks before any announcement was made. Brian Clayton, the studio manager, stood in front of the assembled company and broke the news officially, and at that moment the OCR team published the closure notice to the public (and I tweeted about it).
The mood of the room was incredibly sad, but soon people were regaling everyone with stories of the company, the game, the players, everything. Soon the tears of sadness were mixed in with tears of compassion as we knew we were all part of something special: City of Heroes.
MeticulousMeta: I guess the biggest question on everyone’s mind is simply, why? Why was the studio and game shut down?
Matt: There are many answers to this, but in the end, NCsoft simply no longer wanted to run Paragon Studios for reasons that may never be completely understood by any single person.
MeticulousMeta: Now let’s talk about what could have been for a moment. In 2011 I asked Nate Birkholz if there plans as far ahead as the 10th anniversary. How far out was in the planning stages? Can you give a few highlights?
Melissa: Ah, what could have been.
Actually, the Development Team had been planning for content up to Issue 28, which would have coincided with our 10-year anniversary. We had a great idea for the anniversary present for our fans. Pretty much since the game launched, players had been begging us to put a Moon Base in game. They wanted to go out into space and do cosmic superhero stuff. So we wanted to reward their patience with Mare Crisium, the long-awaited Moon Base that was going to be the center of earth’s defense against the alien Battalion (the ultimate nastiness)!
All of the content from Issue 24 and on would lead up to that reveal. We were already working on a new zone for Issue 25 called Kallisti Wharf, where we would bring in the first phase of the Battalion invaders, finally introduce many more new maps, a new Task Force and a Strike Force, the next Incarnate Slot (Genesis) and a lot more.
Each issue would have added more back-story to Mare Crisium while introducing additional Incarnate Powers, a new storyline involving the Vanguard, Battalion’s first strike against planet Earth, a tie-in to the Well of the Furies, all the way up to Issue 28, when the players would have to go out into space to take the fight to the biggest threat they had ever seen.
The fight against the Battalion was “The Coming Storm,” a storyline that had been hinted at in COH lore over the years. This was the ultimate fight that our players had been building up towards. The dev team was going no holds barred for this. We were going to see Heroes become evil, Villains fight for redemption, and the return of some old friends. There was also going to be a very unexpected change to the status quo – Tyrant, one of the greatest enemies players had faced, would take up the mantle of becoming the NEW Statesman. Issue 28 was finally going to conclude years of stories in an epic battle, and set the stage for the next chapter in City of Heroes.
Meticulous Meta: If I had asked you before we all found out City of Heroes was going to close how much of a future did you think City of Heroes had left in it?
Melissa: I was working hard with Marketing, Matt Miller, and the dev team to ensure that we had awesome MTX (Microtransaction) offerings while simultaneously allowing us to work on the content progression towards Mare Crisium. The plan was to ensure that everything we did developmentally coincided with what we would sell on the Paragon Market, so that work wasn’t wasted. Eric Johnsen, one of our producers in charge of the MTX team, proved invaluable in this regard.
Development and Marketing didn’t always see eye-to-eye, naturally. Marketing’s focus was to make money and create visibility for the brand while Development wanted to maintain creative control without compromising the integrity of the game. When I stepped into the role as Lead Development Producer one of my priorities was to find that common ground so that both sides got what they needed and the Development Team wouldn’t be crippled trying to juggle content and MTX at the same time. It wasn’t always easy. I didn’t win every battle, but I had established a good relationship with the Marketing team so when I provided a recommendation, they knew it wasn’t just because I didn’t “want to” – there was sound reasoning behind it.
In fact, not only had we identified our MTX plan for 2012, but we’d already planned it out through the end of 2013 as well. So yes, I know that we would have been around for a few more years.
Matt: CoH had plenty of life left in her. We had tons of new products gearing up for the Paragon Market, costumes, powers, super-packs, etc. We were just planning the stories and doing the art for the coming of Battalion and the Armstrong moon base. We were getting ready to close a lot of storylines we’ve had open for a long time.
MeticulousMeta: The future also held a mystery project which was in the works. I know you won’t be able to give any details on the project. But what I’m wondering is if you think it will be picked up by another studio or if it is now just stuck in limbo never to be finished?
Melissa: Since NCsoft owns every project Paragon Studios was working on, it would be up to their discretion as to what they’d do with it, so I can’t speculate. I can tell you, however, that it wasn’t just one project, it was two, and they were awesome and very different from each other and from City of Heroes.
Matt: If they did I’d be in line to buy it day 1.
Meticulous Meta: Looking back at the finances was going free to play good for City of Heroes or did the money coming in drop?
Matt: Oh my goodness was F2P the right move for us! We were making a LOT more money per month than the normal subscriptions brought in. This allowed us to leverage even more for the Paragon Market. If we were not doing well we wouldn’t have been adding as many costumes and power sets to the market over the past year and planned out as many as we had.
MeticulousMeta: What do you think of the #SaveCoH campaign? In particular the current efforts with Disney.
Melissa: The #SaveCoH campaign has been nothing short of mind-blowing, to be honest. Seeing our players unite together and fight for the game that they love was humbling to me. TonyV nailed it when he said, “We are heroes. It’s what we do.” And what better platform to utilize the steadfast resolve of a hero?
In this, the pieces just came together. The letters, gifts, cards, the social media campaigns, the videos, it was incredible. I shouldn’t say “was”, it’s still going on. These are people with lives, families, jobs and they take time out of their personal lives to support City of Heroes! How incredible is that? Their passion and dedication is awe-inspiring.
Matt: I think it’s pretty amazing what they put together in such a short time. I never saw such an outpouring of support for a game when its closure was announced as I did these past few months. When it comes to Disney, I wish them all the luck in the world.
MeticulousMeta: Matt, there had previously been rumors and discussions that if by a certain date you hadn't found a job you were considering a project of your own. Is this something that is going forward?
Matt: If I got the right partner(s) I’d definitely consider it. It’s a huge risk and a lot of money. I am watching several similar Kickstarters to see if that’s an emulatable path or if I would need to go with traditional venture capital.
MeticulousMeta: During the whole closing process was there ever anything you wanted to tell the community?
Melissa: Telling them thank you was the biggest thing. When I found out about the closure of the studio and the impending end of City of Heroes, I was frustrated because it didn’t have to be. We weren’t World of Warcraft, but we were a profitable game and we were, as a studio, working on some projects that were really exciting. It seemed like such an unnecessary waste. I wanted to tell the players my personal opinions, many of which were speculation since I wasn’t involved at the highest level of discussions with NCsoft that Brian, Ross, and Destin were. So I felt that it would be petty of me to go down that way. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been satisfying for a time to be negative about it.
But that’s not really my style, especially since it didn’t change anything. I opted to focus on the positive: how great the game was, how many memories it created, how much I valued my colleagues, the incredible game development education I’d received over the years, and the wonderful interactions with our players.
Mind you, I still really didn’t feel the weight of what was coming until later. Once the majority of the developers had left the studio and it was just me and a handful of developers watching, bit-by-bit, as they tore down the posters, took away the vending machines, and catalogued and took away hardware, that the reality of the studio shutdown really hit me. One day, we were a studio; the next, we were just a warehouse. The soul that was Paragon Studios had finally departed.
Matt: They’ve heard me say it over and over: without the players City of Heroes would have died a LONG time before now. Simply the BEST Community I have ever seen anywhere for anything. If there is anything I miss it will be them.
MeticulousMeta: There are still a lot of questions after the Lore AMA. Is there any chance of getting another?
Matt: I’ll make a deal: I’ll do AMA’s about CoH lore every April 28th until the questions stop coming in. I’ll give more details as we get closer to that date, and I can’t promise everyone who should be involved will be.
MeticulousMeta: Has it all just been a Nemesis Plot?
Matt: Battalion destroys the world in the future, and it’s Lord Nemesis who comes back in time to arm us to fight them, so in a way: Yes, but like all his plots, they never quite succeed.
MeticulousMeta: Is he maybe going to…take it to the next level?
Melissa: You said that, I didn’t! Even though I don’t work on City of Heroes anymore, I did make a promise. Besides, as I have demonstrated, the phrase is clearly overused. We need to come up with something new and overuse that instead.
MeticulousMeta: Finally, I’d like to end on a happy note. What is your best memory from working on City of Heroes?
Melissa: Oh, was that “best memories” you meant to say? After nearly eleven years on a project it’s nearly impossible to pare it down to just one memory. But I will say that opening weekend Beta of City of Heroes was one of the best.
The conventions and panels, even though I am terrified to speak in public, were (in hindsight) a lot of fun, too. That’s not because of anything I did, but because I got to meet some really awesome people and spend time with colleagues I respected and admired.
I guess the best memory for me is the collection of perfect moments that I amassed over the years – whether they were related to the game, the players, my industry knowledge, or just some silly or memorable situation that stuck in my head and refuses to leave.
(Matt’s sneezes and Destin’s laugh are legendary, though.)
Matt: One of my favourite memories was coming up with the idea that we could actually make the players go Trick or Treating on Halloween because we had so many doors in the game. The looks on the programmers and Producer’s face were priceless as they figured out exactly how they could make that happen.
MeticulousMeta: Thank you both so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I will admit that I had some difficulty knowing exactly what I should ask. If you feel like there is anything else you would like to add that hasn’t been covered in these questions please add it. Thank you for your many years of dedication to City of Heroes. You were a part of an amazing team who made what may be the most impactful game ever made. City of Heroes changed lives. And it couldn’t have done that without an amazing development team.
Melissa: I’m still trying to find a way to phrase this without sounding like we aren’t the only game that has ever shut down and players fought it, because we’re not. I do think that City of Heroes, the players, and the #SaveCoH campaign has been a significant event in the game industry, especially as the MMO landscape changes. I also think that because our shutdown was so surprising, and our players’ reactions so strong and passionate, that one day we’ll look back and think of this experience as a bit of a phenomenon.
So there you have it! I can’t thank Matt and Melissa enough for taking part in this. It was great to hear from them both again. And I imagine it won’t be the last time we hear from them either. We have something exciting to look forward to in April if nothing else! So start thinking of your questions now! We only have four months to go. As it gets closer to April I’ll be sure to have a couple of special editions of Meta’s Verse to cover the Lore AMA.
I’ll be starting my trek through the super hero MMOs quite soon. But I can’t do it alone! So if you’re in one of them and want to help give me the grand tour leave a comment below. I’ll be on the lookout for all of you.