This is Part 2 of our interview with creative director Jim Bishop, studio director Cameron Johnson, and head of research Michele Alexander-Sichelle from The Phoenix Project. For Part 1, check back over here.
The MMO landscape has changed a lot in the last five years and we see so many MMORPGs coming out now, most of them on a free to play model. How do you think the current landscape is going to affect what you have planned?
Michele: I’ll tell you something, I’ve done a fair amount of trying to look into this and listen to experts, and the one thing that everybody agrees on is there are so many different competing trends going on right now. So many different directions in which this market is going that nobody can predict exactly where it’s going to be. We have to do our best to look at this stuff, and realise that we are a business that does have to support itself, because we want to keep our servers on. We want to keep doing great development for many years to come. We’re building for sustainability, not some flash in the pan that disappears over night. But we also want to be true to the heart and core of who we are.
We’re not here to gouge people or rip people off, we’re here to make something that means something that the players can feel is their home. But it also does have to make enough to keep itself running, and we’d also like to get paid. [Laughs]
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Cameron: It has to be a big enough home that we have enough people to support it effectively.
Speaking about the landscape of the market, and going back the whole idea of swarm intelligence, what we have right now is almost an exploitation of a certain angle on it because there was this one mega-successful thing [WoW] and everyone’s trying to emulate them.
We’ve had a couple of interesting innovations since that, and the free to play model has been an innovation that has changed how things are run. It’s been a relatively successful one, but we’re also looking at where another success was that very few people are exploring and trying to exploit. The [MMO] market niche for the comic space heroes, villains and super powers genre is relatively sparsely populated.
At the same time, there’s more than enough room in the financing model, whether you do free to play or subs model, that’s not something you have to compete with other people on in terms of your model. You just need to look and see what works the best and maybe try to innovate and improve upon it.
Jim: Exactly, and don’t just think about the subscription / free-to-play hybrid models, think of all the other segues that are current in our societies nowadays. First of all it’s a contemporary game so there’s nothing to stop us from subtle advertising in-game in a contemporary world.
Cameron: Billboards, posters. This is just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks at the moment because we haven’t really had a chance to get any sponsors.
Jim: Yeh, because we don’t actually have a game, right. [Laughs]
Michelle: We talked about it early on, back when we were thinking there might be a chance of saving the original game. One way to keep it running, had that occurred, was in-game advertising.
Maxis has been releasing sponsored branded DLC for SimCity and not everyone was happy about it. How do you think the CoH community would react running around seeing a Dr Pepper billboard. Do you think they would think that by seeing these ads around they’d connect with the fact it was keeping the game online?
Cameron: There would be some mixed reactions to it. We’ve had mixed reactions when we’ve discussed it. I know that one of the things people have requested is at least give the subscribers the option to turn them off.
I honestly think that’s over-estimating the obnoxiousness of anything we put into it. I was watching the Avengers movie again last night and I know there were billboards up there that had real world products on them. I couldn’t tell you what they were because they were just part of the scenery.
In fact that’s part of the problem City of Heroes had when they first tried to pioneer something along these lines. They didn’t have all that many partners to begin with and they had a great deal of trouble with their financing model with getting people to see their ads.
Part of the reason I think the ads had a bad reputation was the limited number of sponsors that they had. It got repetitive when you only had one or two ads on every billboard in the city.
Michele: One of the reasons at least when they tried to do it with City of Heroes, was that because of the high rate of speed that the heroes moved at, they had trouble actually getting the impressions to register for the advertisers because people would move too quickly. So one of the things when we originally discussed this, I was thinking of a way to solve this and get people to realise “hey guys, this is one of the things to help us keep us up,” here’s your incentive, and have it fully integrated into the world and have it not be jarring and pull you out and you have a reason to look at it. Also put it in places where you’re going to stop and look at it.
Jim: Exactly. Strategically placed locations. Keep in mind that one of the things about this game that we have the advantage of seeing from an overview that CoH didn’t have is that social networking is huge nowadays. Our game is laterally going to be a social network, so why not accommodate it in such fashion. Put vendors and things at social hubs with our advertising.
Hey you’re going to Grand Central Station to hang out with your buddies, you’re going to be Atlas Park under the statues. Why are there not more billboards all around Atlas Park? Way off in the distance, but all around encompassing Atlas Park.
Now I’m not saying we have to do that, but that’s the strategy.
Cameron: The model for how you get the sponsors to pay you for your views does not have to even be, did someone stare at this billboard for 20 seconds of 1 second, or whatever the duration is. You can come up with other ways to price things and that’s something we’ll work out with our sponsors.
I think learning a little bit from radio spots will help. I know that when I listen to a talk radio host, he’ll often say “this is great product that I have really enjoyed using, just use offer code ‘my host name’.” While that offer code gets you like a five/ten percent discount or whatever it is they give you, it also tells the sponsor that “yes” that advertisement worked.
Jim: Right, and why couldn’t we have vendors that sell energy buff drinks that does healing to your character but it’s sponsored by Mountain Dew, and if you buy that you’re going to get an offer code. I don’t want to make it obnoxious but it could work.
Earlier in the interview we mentioned about the sparse space that superhero MMOs take up, and I wanted to say, look how few superhero games are in the market today but look how huge the superhero pop culture explosion is right now.
One of the attractions of City of Heroes was the ability to create what I wanted to create as a hero, and unlike Marvel Heroes for example, players are not tied to a particular look.
Cameron: That is in fact one of our primary goals. One of the very first things we hope to release, and we’re still looking at somewhere in the middle of next year before we expect we’ll be able to do it, is the avatar builder so that people have exactly that opportunity. And yes, nothing that you make a choice for in your mechanical build, for you character’s functionality, will require you to make your character look different than the way you want him to look.
In fact we’re looking at having animation skins for powers. So if you want to have your Fireblast be something that comes from waving your hands around and making a gesture, or you want to have it come from that flaming tank on your back and the hose you’re holding. They are both the same power but we’re looking at ways of having animation differences so you can really customise that look even more.
I’ll take Path of Exile as an example here as far as microtransactions are concerned, where it has spell effect mictrotransactons. Is that something that you’re looking at? It’s a cosmetic thing but it makes my Spandex suit look different.
Jim: You’re not going to be disappointed. The very top priority from player perspective in this game is layer customisation, that is your top thing that you’ll see.
Michele: It really is.
Jim: And that goes across the board, your character, your avatar, your costume, your story, your ability to create story content that affects you, and the universe to interact with that content. Plans on a mission creator, so we have an architect system, and your super base will have even more customisation. You’ll have personal space if we see our way to it. There are so many features that we would like to do all related to customisation.
Cameron: Even your ability to integrate, or not integrate, your out of character social interactions into your character’s story will be part of what you can customise. Everything about your character and experience in the game we’re hoping to put in your hands.
Michele: As we can make it practical, functional, and add it in with expansions when needed.
Do you feel that now is a good time for this? For years people have been harping on about how PC gaming is dying and consoles are taking over the world. We have the Xbox One and PS4 coming out which are bringing consoles closer to what we’re used to as PC gamers. Do you think that PC gaming is seeing a resurgence?
Cameron: I don’t ever think it saw a death. It may not have been the sexy thing that all AAA games wanted to produce for, but I think that’s due to the fact that it’s hard to target a game for a non-uniform console. I actually think PCs are becoming more uniform. So in that sense I do think it’s going to be seeing a real revival.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s generally cheaper and still effective to buy your gaming PC off the shelf as one of the packages at say Dell or Apple, or whoever it is selling one, than it is to try to custom build it. I don’t think PC is going to be a console killer or anything. PCs are something people have, in fact they’re something that people increasingly have. I don’t think we’ll ever see a death of the PC game, we’re just going to see a little shifting back and forth between where people invest in it based on the ease of producing games for it.
Since we have chosen our platform, it’s almost an if you build they will come sort of thing. The only reason people haven’t been building for PC games as much as consoles is that it’s harder to budget for, and I mean it’s harder to target your resources for your target machine.
If everything goes to plan for you guys and you get a solid team together to give up your day jobs to do this full-time, would you be looking to get a full in-house studio setup ?
Cameron: Yes, in order for this to succeed and start hiring people and such we’re going to have physical place where our people are working under one roof. Because, and I’ll be honest with you communication over the Internet is reeeaallly difficult.
Jim: It is. It’s so hard. If we had a physical place, half of our growing pains would have less severe symptoms.
Cameron: When we have the ability to do so we will have a physical place where the company employees get together and make the product.
Is that one of your primary goals as soon as your Kickstarter completes?
Cameron: Not a primary goal.
Jim: That’s along a different path.
Cameron: The amount of money that would be required to do that, well we’ll have to have some sort of external influx or the game will have to have already started succeeding.
That’s one of the reasons why we’re doing the staggered release of products to help support itself as it goes along. First the avatar builder, then the base designer etc.
You’ve talked a bit about monetisation, but at a base level are we looking at a F2P model or a subs model?
Cameron: On the most basic level we’re looking at the hybrid sort of thing like our spiritual predecessor used. It’s not going to be identical, we’re looking at ways to improve upon it or to tweak it so that it can be a good experience for everybody.
Jim: To create a better economy from it.
Michele: One thing about City of Heroes was that it was a good model, the only problem with the premium subscriptions from a revenue stand point was that so many of us already had access to almost everything because we had paid accounts for so long.
Jim: So there really was no point in having a sub, once it went free to play and you were a veteran for god know how many years, it’s like, OK, why do I need the premium stuff unless I’m going to do the incarnate thing. So if you didn’t want to do that, the game was already your oyster. You could go back and make another alt and you wouldn’t have to subscribe. That to me illustrates one of those mistakes we want to avoid. If there is no reason to have a premium subscriber, we don’t to force there to be one either. If it all works with microtransactions we may go that way.
Cameron: I have been toying with lots of ideas but none of them are fleshed out enough to talk about them publically.
Michelle: We talk about this behind the scenes and we’re looking in to a lot of models, but again, our goal is to succeed and keep giving new things to our players. We’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Cameron: Just to give you a little window into what it is I’m doing, I’m very goal oriented when I start trying to design anything. I try to have “here’s what I want it to achieve,” and everything I do I try to focus towards that. What I’m hoping this project will achieve with our monetisation model is that, yes, it actually genuinely is free to play on some level for someone who wants to experience the entire game.
If the game is a smashing success, and going back to one of your previous questions, do you think it would be possible to release it on a console?
Cameron: We are not currently looking at it. This does not mean that we won’t look at it in the future. When you play a game on a console you hold a controller in your hand, The actual controls you have access to are vastly different on a console than they are on a PC. We are designing for PC and we don’t want to make a mistake and somehow design the game for both a PC and a console and have it play on neither.
If and when we build it on a console we will have to take a very hard look at our UI in order to make sure it works for everyone.
As long as you don’t do a Defiance on us, then I’ll be happy. It’s the worst PC MMO UI ever.
Michele: See that’s one of the risks. I started out on console games and historically each have had their own strengths. That’s not as true any more. There is a little bit more common ground but there are certain things that would be major problem that wouldn’t be there in a console version if everybody had attached keyboards. Unless everybody had a plugged in keyboard, it becomes hard to make that transition properly. That’s one of the biggest things.
Jim: We haven’t even talked about whether we are going to pursue voice right now as an option. We are looking at a chat system , and she’s right, how many console controllers have a keyboard?
Cameron: A console version could be later if we do it, but it’s not out of the question.
Finally, you have the Kickstarter starting in a couple of months and you’re preparing for that now, but what is it your followers should be super excited about with the game and the Kickstarter? What do you think is going to make people really back this one?
Cameron: The whole package honestly. There are so many things about the project I get excited about, picking just one to talk about is difficult.
With the Kickstarter itself we have perks that range from really cool things you can get early access to, or special toys in the customisation options to show off that you’ve backed the Kickstarter, to a few at the higher end and limited edition that let you put your own mark on the City.
Jim: Yeh, I mean some of the Kickstarter perks are things like owning your own building.
Cameron: I wasn’t going to say that specifically. [Laughs]
Jim: I said “like” [Laughs] Like owning your own piece of the game basically where you are the steward of that piece of the game. Or customised sets of something. Basically where you really have a unique stamp in the game. I think like any MMO out there, if you could get a piece of that game where you could walk into a certain location and there’s your place, and it’s yours and it’s got your name all over it, “Eat at Joes.”
There are so many things that I know are in it because I was part of the committee to work out the rewards, and I remember going over them thinking “this is going to rock, I want one of those” … Oh wait, I’m a dev I can have one of those. [Laughs]
It’s going to be a decent Kickstarter and I think we’ll make our goal because it is that appealing.
Michele: This goes back to customisation. This is a community that really did help build a previous world and they’re coming in at the ground floor helping us build another anew. That has to be a big appeal. It has to for this community.
I’m not going to beat on NCSoft, but for whatever reason, what happened to us was hard and it was a big blow. I want to see this happen because we are the underdogs and we’ve set out to build a company and to build a new world and to prove that “Hey, we used to be consumers and now we’re developers. We’re going to make this leap and if we can do it, you can do it.”
Cameron: That’s the beauty of this, there’s no one to tell us we can’t do it other than our own community, and our own community wants to see it happen. So the biggest thing we are looking for is our community to really try and expand itself, go out to talk to other people, get them interested, share what they love about it. Talk to people like you because a growing community will make this project succeed. That’s really all there is to it.
Michele For a lot of us it’s been our dream to design games, and now it’s now time to take those dreams out of mothballs and make them happen.
Jim: Some of us have been in other projects that are similar but not videogames, and this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
For more information on The Phoenix Project, drop over to the Missing Worlds Media site.
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