Meta’s Verse: CoH Anniversary Interview Melissa “War Witch” Bianco
Questions by: Meticulous Meta, OnRPG’s Paragon Reporter
Answers by: Melissa “War Witch” Bianco, Lead Development Producer
To finish off our three part Anniversary interview series I had the opportunity to interview Melissa “War Witch” Bianco. We talked about everything from herding cats to the inspiration behind Night Ward, the new zone that will be released in the upcoming issue. In between we discuss the anniversary and Melessa’s own personal anniversary with City of Heroes.
A little about yourself
Please state your name, position and responsibilities in Paragon Studios.
My name is Melissa “War Witch” Bianco and I’m the Lead Development Producer on City of Heroes. The official job function is making sure that we release awesome content-rich issues with plenty of MTX offerings in a timely manner. We have a very high development standard for quality and excellence at the studio and we constantly challenge ourselves to run as efficiently and productively as possible. It’s my job to ensure that we’re doing all of these things on a regular basis.
Unofficially, I herd cats. Kidding! A lot of my job is communication, planning, meeting deadlines, and making sure we’re all working together as a cohesive unit. There are a lot of moving parts in MMO development from Publishing, to Biz-Dev, to external partners, to the various development departments so I make sure that we’re all on the same page.
What experience do you have with the gaming industry? Both working in and playing games.
I’ve been working in the game industry, as of this last week, for over ten years now. I started at Cryptic Studios on City of Heroes as an Office Manager and then wormed my way into Design as an Associate World Designer. Cryptic seemed to like what I had to offer because I slowly worked my way up the ranks over the years to Staff World Designer.
When NCsoft purchased the City of Heroes IP in 2007, we formed NC NorCal (not very original, I know, but we were waiting on the perfect name – Paragon Studios!), I was promoted to Senior World Designer. A year or so later I was promoted to Lead Game Designer to get our next paid expansion, City of Heroes Going Rogue out the door and allow Matt “Positron” Miller the ability to focus his energy on designing the very cool Incarnate System for our most experienced players
I’d accomplished more than I ever imagined in the Design field and I really wanted to try production, so when we began development on City of Heroes Freedom, I got my shot. I began by leading the Early Gameplay strike team and then, eventually took on the responsibility for the Live/End-Game strike team. In January, I got called to the bigs when Nate “Second Measure” Birkholz moved on to another project within the studio. Finally, a creative use for my retentiveness and obsessive borderline compulsive organizational skills. Looking back, it’s really quite surreal when I think about it.
As a gamer, I started on the Super Nintendo and never looked back. I moved out of console and into PC with a little game called Noctropolis, and then MMOs in general with Meridian 59. I played every big name MMO you can think of. The Realm, to EverQuest (1 and 2), Anarchy Online, Star Wars (Galaxies and Old Republic), World of Warcraft, RIFT, Age of Conan, you name it.
I fell back in love with console games with Oblivion and have been steadily working my way through heavy hitters like Fallout 3, Deus Ex, Mass Effect, BioShock, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, and so on.
If my bottom simply cannot take a PC game, and I can’t get access to the TV, then I’m usually lounging in my office chair messing around on my iPad with games like Azada, Mystery Case Files, or about three more pages of apps with other hidden object, adventure, or puzzle games. I love Diner Dash, but I suck at it.
Which item released on the market has been your favorite so far? Why that one?
Oh man, well, that has to be Super Packs considering how many I’ve already opened up. I don’t know if I have a penchant for card clicking, a salivatory reflex for sweet goodies or what, but – for me – that is the most satisfying MTX offering. Second on the list (since it’s not yet released, I didn’t want to mention it) are Amplifiers. These are cool because you can get a buff for hour(s) rather than minutes. I’m surprisingly impatient and, honestly, too tunnel-visioned mashing powers attacks, so I much prefer long-duration buffs; otherwise, I simply forget to use my inspirations. And then I’m not as “best spec” as I could be, so this works well for someone like me who may not be able to play as long as I like and who loves to play solo.
What is your favorite Task Force/Trial in City of Heroes?
Well, considering they still have yet to do the War Witch Task Force, I’d have to say my current favourite is the Imperious Task Force. I love the fact that it’s held in Cimerora’s ancient Mediterranean landscape, so different from anything else we’d put out before it, and there are some really amazing “moments” and reveals, which I’m not going to give away even though it’s been out for a while. Suffice to say, it’s just epic and visually appealing.
What is your favorite location in CoX?
Well, the kernel of Praetoria came from Matt “Positron” Miller and fleshed out between Joe “Hero 1” Morrissey and me, so that is something I got to sink my teeth into from the beginning. Needless to say, there will always be a soft spot for it in my heart. All of the zones of Praetoria were built from the ground up with new assets, but I’d have to say that my favourite of all of them (and in comparison to Paragon City and the Rogue Isles) is The Magisterium. When you leave the dark Resistance Tunnels of the tutorial and come up for air to this “perfect” civilization (and those new assets), it’s quite something to behold. That is a great moment.
City of Heroes is celebrating eight years of being live. How long have you been with Paragon Studios?
I began working on City of Heroes in 2002 so, to be honest, I’ve been on this project longer than anyone else in the studio and that includes Brian “Crosscheck” Clayton, Vince “Dark Watcher” D’Amelio, and Matt “Positron” Miller, all of whom have been on this project quite some time. Ten years, baby!
I’m pretty proud of that, to be honest, mostly because I look back on where I started to where I am now and I think, “NEVER thought I’d be here. Never. Ever. Ever.” So I just pinch myself once in a while to make sure it’s really happening.
It actually helps in the job because I have some insight into past decisions as they pertain to development features, why we did or did not do them. Plus, it’s fun to look back on how the project and development teams have grown and changed over the years.
Any eighth anniversary plans have been kept under tight wraps. Is there anything you can tell us about this super secret event?
Sure! For the 8th Anniversary we gave away the Statesman Salute rewards to pay homage to a great hero, there will also be a new invasion involving the Nemesis (it’s a Nemesis Plot!) who will take over Paragon City and the Rogue Isles. In the Paragon Market, the Hecatomb Rare IO set, and – get this – you will be able to create a new VIP account for 99 cents. (This is pretty sales-y coming from me, ironic considering I hate to be sold to, but the VIP thing is pretty cool and everyone can appreciate IOs on sale.)
The death of Statesman and Sister Psyche are still very fresh in everyone’s thoughts. How did you feel about the decision to remove them from the game?
It’s a bit of a dichotomy for me, actually: bittersweet in that they’re such iconic figures in the lore and history of this game, but also opportunity for new heroes to emerge and take on the mantle of responsibility.
We were sensitive to the fact that this would be a challenging initiative since Statesman, especially, is such an integral character who has graced much of our promotional materials and even had his own Task Force in-game. Such interconnectedness presented some work to change or remove so, where possible, we opted to change. Sister Psyche’s Task Force evolved into the Penelope Yin Task Force. Statesman was replaced by Positron as leader of the Freedom Phalanx, and we looked at how to best tie up the loose ends in the mission content.
Sister Psyche’s death also created some great storytelling opportunities for us as Manticore dealt with her death in some surprising ways.
Interestingly, this also presented an opportunity for the studio to reinvent itself. We were always associated with Cryptic Studios (rightly so, since the game originated in that studio), but we have been Paragon for several years now, and this studio released the Going Rogue expansion, several free issues, added countless features and buckets of content. Not only that, we launched our incredibly aggressive City of Heroes Freedom initiative all on our own.
Which issue released so far has been your favorite? What made it your favorite?
I’ve worked on every single issue we have ever released and I have been really proud of each one. I love the fact that they’re free for subscribers (twenty-two issues and counting!), but honestly, the most recent because it sticks in my head the most. (Although I’m really partial to Issue 12: The Midnight Hour because it had all the awesomeness of time travel via Ouroboros back to Cimerora, a really unique ancient Mediterranean style location I mentioned earlier), we got to delve into the many secrets of the Midnight Squad and the Midnighter Club (I had a great time coming up with aster eggs), and I got to mess around with doing spawn makeover in The Hollows and, thus, the “girlfriends” meme was born. Plus, Percy Winkley, seriously, who doesn’t love saving him from himself over and over again?
What one thing that has been taken out of City of Heroes do you miss and would like to see make a comeback?
Well, it’s not so much what went live and then we removed (like Galaxy City, for example) but rather the things I wanted to do, design docs were written up, yet never made it beyond that point. The usual reasons: time, scope, technical constraints at the time. I would have liked to have seen Positron’s Archnemesis and Journal (an immersive visually-themed journal that would have replaced the Clues system for mission content, added a memoir section for player-notes, and even a photo page for screen captures of the mission) designs see some development love.
Signature Story Arc number two will be starting with the release of issue 23. What can you tell us about the story, the enemy groups involved or well anything really?!
The next Signature Story series is called Pandora’s Box and revolves around the aftermath of the death of Statesman: Positron is the new leader, Penelope Yin is all grown up and has joined the Phalanx, and there is some major tension with Manticore, who is unimpressed by her.
Villains, already established in the Rogue Isles, are growing a little restless under the thumb of Arachnos and so they’re starting to rebel to form their own group and if I were a name-dropping type, I might mention Captain Castillo and Odysseus actually working with you.
For some yet to be determined reason, heroes and villains are being granted great gobs of power (at random, apparently) and this is having an effect throughout Primal Earth so it’s up to Heroes and Villains to figure out why.
And, just for fun, I can drop a few spoilers: there’s time travel, allying with familiar faces, investigating some pretty iconic places, and dealing with the fallout of success.
The tagline of this series is: “Hope is not enough.”
The player summit is coming up quickly. Will you be attending? What are you looking forward to most?
Of course! I wouldn’t miss it! I’ll be there for Game Night, too. I’m bringing Jungle Speed. Every time I play it, I almost take one to the eye or get scratched but it’s a lot of fun.
By far and away, I like hanging with the players and just talking to them. I like to hear about their characters, their supergroups, what they like about the game. (Even what they don’t like about the game since they’re usually really reasonable and understanding of what our game can and can’t do.)
I’ve said this before and I still believe it to be true: our players are some of the best in the industry, they’re mature, respectful, and our really hard-core players stick with us through thick and thin so it’s nice to see them there, year after year, and get to know them not just as a forum name, but as a real person.
We’ve seen in the VIP beta that a new zone will be released called Night Ward. What was the inspiration for Night Ward?
Ever heard of the Slender Man online meme? Me either, but John “Protean” Hegner did and he and Chris Hockabout came up with “The Tall Stranger”, the basis of The Drudges visual style, from it.
There was also inspiration by Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. Some pen and paper games provided inspiration for the magical menagerie you see all over Night Ward. It wouldn’t be City of Heroes if we didn’t find some way to toss in popular movies so there’s also homage at the top of the Westerman building.
While it didn’t have a major influence, the Black Knights were loosely inspired by the Arthurian legend and since we had British on the brain in general, the Drudges were inspired by the Bobbies of London for their dashing style and witty dialogue.
There has been a lot of shake up in the structure in Paragon Studios. Some of our favourite people have been going over to work on that other project that we can’t talk about. What is the reason for taking people off one project and putting them on the new one instead of just hiring all new people?
The nature of any business is that some people stay and some people move on.
Like I said earlier, I’ve been on City of Heroes for over ten years and I’ve seen probably over a hundred people come and go (either to another project or to another studio). It’s just the natural evolution of this industry. Some people want to try something new within their discipline, others a new role, and some people just want a change in general. I’ve been really fortunate in that my role has constantly changed and evolved over ten years and so I’m quite happy and challenged, and it’s never a dull moment.
As for taking people off one project and moving them on to another rather than hiring new people, while we do both, it just makes sense to utilize your own people first. They’re talented, excited about the project, and willing to move over so it’s a natural choice. They already know each other, they’ve already established themselves as more than capable within their discipline, and they can hit the ground running since they’ve also established themselves within the culture of the studio.
I think it’s great that we provide opportunities for our developers to try new things and get their feet wet. This is one of the things that sets Paragon apart: opportunity and growth. It’s not like we on City of Heroes can’t walk ten feet and say, “Hey, can you help me with this?” (And we do, believe me.)
Last year I interviewed Nate “Second Measure” Birkholz. One of my final questions to him, and now my final one for you is; Where do you see City of Heroes a year from now?
I see us continuing to provide excellent content and Paragon Market offerings, and doing what we do best: telling some great stories, finding new and creative ways to do it, and listening to our players and incorporating their feedback. Oh, and we’re finally going to introduce Battalion to the game and see what kind of craziness they stir up because you KNOW they are going to be a problem. And, if I have my way, a Task Force that bears my name. KIDDING!
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Melissa for taking time out of her cat herding to sit down with me as well as a huge congratulations on her milestone. Come back for a special edition of Meta’s Verse this weekend for coverage of the player summit.