Ship of Heroes Q&A
I wanted to put up a few articles I have written elsewhere, so at this very beginning, there is content for you to enjoy while I work on producing the new! I hope you enjoy it enough to stick around while I settle in!

What's an MMO, especially a superhero MMO, without missions? Going in, beating up the bad guys, saving the day - that's what being a hero is all about. Today, the Ship of Heroes team has gone into more depth about how their mission instancing will work, and I was lucky enough to catch up with Casey McGeever for a few more details about several things including the creation of the game and their difficulty sliders.

But whatever happens, it needs to be FUN.

This video showcases the current stage of mission instances, and it is interesting to note that one of the devs was connecting from Europe, and 2 were on laptops. The Ship of Heroes game development model emphasizes building a small core game at a high quality level, and then progressively adding features, code, and art to expand the game as launch approaches. I would definitely say they are succeeding in this method, as the game is noticeably improved to my eyes with every video. The animation improvements in particular really stood out in this video. I am definitely looking forward to the launch of this game!

I would definitely say the look of the character models, the animations, special effects and the general environment all look significantly improved! And now, on to the interview...  

Casey McGeever: The first step was to decide what did we like in the old City of Heroes?  And what about other games we could or should draw inspiration from?  After all, we're not re-making COH -- we don't own the IP.

The first thing to realize is that we, and most other people, loved City of Heroes.  It was not a casual fling for most of us.  People, including me, still dream about their COH experience, even today.  A big part of that was the positive community.  So positive community was actually the first thing we wanted to provide to our players.  We know that we cannot have any continuity of story, or of location or of signature heroes, so all of that has to be completely new.  but the player experience can echo the things we like in other MMOs.

Neith: You've mentioned the positive community a lot. I'm curious how you intend to intentionally create that, given how negative MMO communities tend to be by default now.

CM: There are multiple elements to creating a positive community.  First is that we're committed to a code of conduct for players, including in game play and in chat, with 24x7 live moderation.  Violate the code of conduct and you'll be silenced for a short time.  Keep doing it and  eventually you'll be banned.  We know this makes our game different (and smaller) than other MMOs.  We also think it will enable  Ship of Heroes to deliver a different player experience.  One that a lot of players want, but cannot find.   Then there is the large team size, which supports the idea of guilds or groups coming together to do regular content, rather than repeating the same dungeon again and again.  Similarly for big raids.  The crafting, trading and harvesting part, along with the day-jobs, allows for a lot of things to be happening other than just run in, blast bad guys and level up.  It is inherently more social.  And then subtle things like the fact that our setting is beautiful -- dangerous and beautiful.  Not post-apocalyptic, or survivalist semi-horror.  That stuff is way oversold now.  Lots of elements are self-reinforcing in the game design.

The three things that we decided players for a new MMO would want to see were these:  a great character creator, a unique persistent level, and powers/ powersets. 

We plan to have the community volunteer and take some of this one.  We're a tiny team, and this is a community effort.  We're with them, and we hope the community is with us.

At the start we also knew we'd be using the skills of volunteers during development, and fusing them with skilled technical professionals like coders and artists, so one of the first things to figure out is what the volunteers can actually do, that needs to be done in the early stages.  This is a really important subject, because most volunteers want to write the story, or organize public events, or stuff they know how to do in real life.  Only rarely do people tell you that they want to volunteer to perfect multiplayer server structure...

Neith: Do you have a list of things players can volunteer to help with?

CM: We don't have a list for volunteers yet because we determined that we need to develop three critical things first, and then integrate them into a prototype game.  If we did not do that, we concluded we would be doing too many things  and possibly lose effective control of the game development, as a project.
The three things that we decided players for a new MMO would want to see were these:  a great character creator, a unique persistent level, and powers/ powersets.  We reasoned that if we could get those three things going, and then integrate them into a prototype, we would have the clear basis for a game.  Sixteen months later, we think we were right.    What we did not expect is that our audience is really hungry for combat video.  Combat apparently is where it all comes together.  Most players are looking for evidence that the game will be fun to play, and combat more than anything else shows them what to expect.  So now we have added combat to most of our recent videos.

Initially we thought there were two questions people would want answered: can these guys make a game?  And will it be really fun?  We expected more doubt on the first one than we have really experienced.  Our community knows we can make a game already.  They want to move on to question 2 and see more combat, more videos, and Alpha stuff.

Neith:  I will ask - does that mean there is more combat on the way to watch? 

CM: Yes, we more or less just shoehorn combat into almost every video now, because our community wants to see it, and they want to see how we can improve it.  So even though we are going to show a technical development video on mission instances, which is really important code development, we dropped a little indoor combat scene into it, just for the guys waiting patiently for us to get SOH built.  

I realized that what a supporter should ask is this: what they can expect from almost any Indie MMO project?  The answer is simple.  Each project will deliver more of same sort of stuff they have been delivering so far.  In most games, particularly Indie games, quality either stays the same or declines in the final sprint before a game gets launched.  So what you see now, is what you're going to play in the future. In the case of SoH we've made significant plans to improve the complexity and quality of what we are showing now.  But history makes that a tough target.  That's why we are so focused on good-looking work right now.  We think quality is the first thing, or the community will not embrace our game.

No one ever advertises a crappy game and then delivers gold at launch  The reverse happens a lot.  And sometimes crappy games get fixed.  But marketing often overhypes a game.  We are not willing to do that, at least knowingly.

There is a horrible and invisible element here.  If the game company has high overhead costs, then it needs to sell an enormous number of games or change high fees every month or both, just to break even. But a real Indie can keep costs low, and recycle most of the revenues back to costs of operation and new content.  This simple fact actually frees a small team to do all sorts of stuff that a big studio can't do.  It's like the big movie studios.  They need to make Rocky 19, because their costs are high.  But indie film makers make some great films too, often for smaller, niche audiences.  In our case, we can risk banning players with bad behavior because we are small, and don't mind staying that way.  Similarly we have a subscription model that doesn't work for the big studios anymore, in part because they don't take risks, and try to satisfy niche markets.

For us, the unifying principle behind Ship of Heroes is that the player experience should be positive, free of unwanted negative attention and with a friendly atmosphere.  Even if you are soloing, even if all you ever do is solo, you don't want that toxic atmosphere around you.  We think SoH should provide the level of challenge you want, and be adjustable to suit your mood.

I'm usually pretty cautious about talking about features that are not fully coded, and changing the difficulty level is not done.  But this is a key feature we want in Ship of Heroes.  We just need to deliver this.  So I'll talk about it before it is done.

Neith: Difficulty sliders are some of the things I am very interested in. Can you give a few details about it at all? Like, will it be more than simply increasing spawn numbers, defense and damage?

CM: You're asking a great question which is essentially a balancing question.  What we like, conceptually, is to allow players to increase the numbers of opponent, increase the level of opponents, increase the number of bosses, etc.  Right now we are not planning to suddenly give enemies at +4 powers or debuffs they did not have at +3.  I'm not saying that's out of the question -- it could make for a really interesting challenge proposition for the most skilled players, especially if the extra enemy powers were randomly assigned -- but that is definitely not in the at-launch scope.

But that's also a good example of why being an Indie team is so cool.  Once we've launched we can consider a lot of unusual variations.  As long as we don't force people to that sort of content, we think the community will be intrigued.

Neith: I was wondering about AI paths, actually. Tuning the AI to allow for more and fewer responses based upon the difficulty chosen. Like, at its easiest, the AI may have only 1 or 2 options to choose from, but at the higher levels it may have more, making it less predictable and 'smarter.' I don't know anything about AI to know how possible that is or is not though. But that is really cool to allow the difficulty sliders more than one simple setting. Do you mean there will be multiple variables players can pick rather than a single setting? Ooh, I guess another example might be at lower difficulties mobs won't call for help. but at higher difficulties they may send out a call to nearby enemies to come assist them.

CM: Changing weapons would be possible.  There is a lot that can be done with AI, and we plan to be experimenting, with the community, in 2018 on the subject of AI and how difficult people want it to be.  Our situation is unique.  We know MMOs are not for everyone, and superhero MMOs like Ship of Heroes are a niche market.  That's OK with us, we love that niche.  But does that niche want traditional AI, or something else?  I don't honestly think people know until they try some alternatives, and that is what Beta testing is all about.

Yes the summoning help thing would be pretty easy.  I think most of us have wondered, when we play MMOs and you go into the big warehouse, why does each of the nine mobs let you attack them one by one?  How does that work in the story? What if they all reacted at once?  Good if you're the tank.  Nerve racking if you're the devastator...

But whatever happens, it needs to be FUN.

So we need to be able to adapt.  We put a lot of effort into hearing what our community wants, between forums, polls, surveys, and in-person meetings.

One of the reasons I'm looking forward to PAX West is that I think I'll meet a lot of ex-COH players there. Since three new superhero games will be on the panel, I expect that will get people talking about what they like and what they want from a new game.

I've told you how important I think it is to integrate as we develop.  The city, the CCT and the first powers, that's a game.  So when we show mission instances in a day or two, you'll see us using the mission maps from May, the teaming stuff from July, the enemies from June, the powers we showed recently (and some new ones, if you squint).  It all fits together.  What you won't be able to see is the code that handles stuff like disconnects during a mission in an instance...what happens if you come back after a power outage and the mission has been completed?  Well, we coded that.  What if you have to kick someone?  We coded that.  These are just examples, but we are working our way through the development.  Some of it is just work, but we do what we can to dress it up so supporters can see the progress as new features are integrated into the game core.

NeithYou mentioned City of Heroes as well as other games earlier on. What other games were you looking at?

CM:  We did polling and found out the number one game that ex-COH players went to play after COH closed was SWTOR.  Kind of surprising, but there it is.  Really Jedi and Sith in spaceships are just superheroes and supervillains in space.

Neith: What elements of SWTOR are you looking at taking inspiration from?

CM: For SWTOR I think the crafting they started with had many good elements.  And of course, we like the idea of visiting alien worlds, each one being a different setting with unique challenges.  And we like the big spaceships (ours is bigger ).  And SWTOR has a number of good stories, but their stories are not like ours.  In their stories the player is always "the one."  In ours, you are the character you imagine, not the character Lucasarts imagines.

Also, if you look at the size of the playing areas, SWTOR has maps a bit smaller than ours, but similar.  Of course they make multiple maps, and then "situate" them on an "open world" but some of that open world is not really playable, and some is really only traversable.

Neith: Thanks for you time, and the chance to learn further insight into the upcoming game, Ship of Heroes! 

To learn more, visit the official Ship of Heroes site, the Ship of Heroes facebook page, and the Ship of Heroes Twitter.