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Interview Today's Date:

Meet The Mayor of Paragon City:
An Interview with Jack Emmert of Cryptic Studios

The lobby of Cryptic Studios.
For years, I avoided anything approaching serious gaming. Oh, I had a Playstation 2, brought to me by Santa Claus after much quiet simpering to my wife whenever we went to Costco, but that was just because I really wanted to play Batman: Vengeance. And then, of course, it was too hard.

In the Fanboy Planet offices, the hardcore gaming crown went to guys like Kevin Miller (who, by the way, is the voice of Sly Cooper) and Michael Goodson, who spent many months in The Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars Galaxies. He taunted me with visions of an upcoming game, City of Heroes, that I wouldn't be able to play because I had a Mac and not a PC. The taunting grew so great that more quiet simpering at Costco landed me a laptop computer powerful enough to play the game. Okay, and Fanboy Planet needed to be more mobile in its operations capabilities. But really, it was powerful enough to play the game.

Clearly, American gamers agree that City of Heroes is worth the sacrifice. They've vaulted the game's developers, the previously unknown Cryptic Studios, to the best seller list, which makes publisher NCSoft very, very happy. The Korean-based company, also known for the MMORPG Lineage, is making plans to roll out City of Heroes for an international audience, because the word is spreading. We're a nation of Goodsons, taunting our global gaming brethren.

At Comic-Con, Cryptic Studios had a very visible presence with the game. While Everquest was literally up against a wall, though with a beautiful display, it was Cryptic that had the heart of the Con. It didn't hurt that they had some marketing deals with Scott Kurtz of PvP and Mike Kunkel of The Astonish Factory: if you bought $50 worth of those creators' items, you'd get a copy of City of Heroes free. No guarantees that you'd get to fight crime alongside Scott or Mike, but it's possible. (For the record, I'm The Night Panda.)

With all this excitement, we felt it was silly not to visit Cryptic Studios at home, since they're essentially in Fanboy Planet's backyard. At their San Diego booth, I made arrangements with Kevin G. Sullivan, NCSoft's Product Marketing Manager for Cryptic, to stop by the actual office after all the madness was over.

But for Cryptic Studios, the madness keeps on going. When I visited at the end of July, they were under the gun to finish the next expansion to the game, titled "A Shadow of the Past." Scheduled to push to subscribers mid to late September, they were hoping to finish up a full month beforehand. If that weren't enough, their success is pushing them to find newer, bigger offices as they expand. Still, Kevin managed to get me some face time with the Lead Game Designer and all around game guru Jack Emmert, a man who I just might like to see take Mark Waid on in a trivia contest some time.

Jack sat me down in his office and opened up about the unexpected path his life has taken, from serious scholarship (serious) to becoming the Mayor of Paragon City.

Derek McCaw : What inspired you to do City of Heroes?

Jack in his glamorous surroundings...
Jack Emmert: I was not the one inspired. Rick Dakin and Michael Lewis were friends from childhood. They had the idea of creating the game. They knew me, and brought me onboard because of my expertise in comics and superheroes.

Derek McCaw : And what made you the expert?

Jack Emmert: I started reading comics when I was a kid. I'd use all my allowance on them, always going down to the convenience store. Later, I actually worked at a comic book store, for about ten years on and off; I'd work in the summers and after school. In between graduate degrees, I worked there full time for a year and a half.

So I did many many comic book conventions. I have a massive comic book collection. When we moved - it's one ton. It's literally one ton of comics.

Derek McCaw : So you're no stranger to fandom. I notice the array of toys in your office. Are these for reference? It's refreshing to see them out of the box…

Jack Emmert: I'm not really a collector. To tell you the truth, I do collect Godzillas. But the superhero stuff that I have is mostly because I saw them and thought they were cool. When I grew up, I didn't have a lot of money, and there were a lot of times that my parents said no. Frankly, I didn't want to deal with that anymore.

So if I see a toy that I want, I just buy it, because there were so many times that I couldn't when I was younger. It's a childish thing, I'll admit, but it helps get me through the day.

Derek McCaw : During San Diego, it was announced that WizKids would be making a special Statesman HeroClix…so do you play that game as well?

Jack Emmert: Sure, I play HeroClix. I play Vs. as well. I play a lot of miniatures games. I'm a game guy. I love painting miniatures.

Derek McCaw : Who do you really like in the comics industry, or are you reading comics at all these days?

Jack Emmert: I read about ninety titles a month. It's very difficult to pin down. Fantastic Four, Hulk. All the X-Men titles. JLA, JSA, Nightwing, Batman, Detective, Superman, Action, Outsiders, Teen Titans…

Derek McCaw : That sounds like pretty much everything. So what was your coolest moment at the Con?

Jack Emmert: I don't really have one. I'm not that kind of guy. Getting signatures and stuff like that it's just not me.

Derek McCaw : Anything make you geek out?

Jack Emmert: Getting to talk to Marv Wolfman. That was exciting. Not just as a Fanboy, but as a fellow creator. Not that I'm a creator, because frankly I'm at best a maestro or a conductor; it's really the hard work of everybody else here at Cryptic. It was just really neat to talk to him.

Derek McCaw : What does it feel like now to be on that side of fandom? You have a booth at Comic-Con, you've got massive promotions going on with creators…you're the crack of Comic-Con.

Jack Emmert: It's obviously really great. Right now, here at Cryptic, I don't think it sinks in on a daily basis. I don't think that we really understand the impact that our game has had, because most people don't encounter fans.

Even when I encounter fans at conventions, it just seems unreal. It just doesn't seem like this is our game that we worked on, because you can't constantly deal with it. To tell you the truth, I try to keep it all in perspective. It's the fans - they're the ones that are making the game a success. It's not me or anyone here at Cryptic.

We have a press release coming out soon. We're climbing toward 200,000 users, and it's just unreal. It's unreal. We've been a best-selling game for three months in a row, April, May and June, the number one PC game in North America. (Since this interview, you can add a month.)

But look at this office. We started with five people. We'd never done anything. You can't describe anything else we'd ever done as a company. This is the first game I've ever worked on. There's all these things. You'd never have envisioned this amount of success.

Jack's concession to success -- all the toys he can buy...
Derek McCaw : You bring up a good point. You started this in 2000…

Jack Emmert: We started in July of 2000. We jerked around the first few months trying to figure out what we were doing. I would say we really started doing real work in January. We figured out, okay, let's do X, Y and Z.

Derek McCaw: So that's basically three years with no background, no history of success - that must have been scary, to not know what kind of impact you're going to make.

Jack Emmert: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. In retrospect, I probably didn't even worry about it, to be honest. I kind of felt that there was a certain modicum of success that we would definitely get because were a superhero game, because we represented something different in the market. We'd be okay.

Worst case scenario, it would at least be like we'd proven our worth that we could make a game, and then improve upon our performance for the next time. But obviously, the great success that we've had is just terrific - it's very exciting.

As you can see by our surroundings, we take it to heart. (Jack smiles and rolls his eyes.) I drive the same car that I did as a grad student.

Derek McCaw : What are your degrees in?

Jack Emmert: I have a Masters' degree in Ancient History, and a Masters' degree in Greek and Latin. I have all but the dissertation. When I joined Cryptic Studios I had written rough drafts of the first few chapters.

Derek McCaw : So it seems an odd transition from Ancient History to videogames…

Jack Emmert: Yeah, it is and it isn't. I mean, certainly the big common factor is focus. When you study for your PhD, there is an amount of focus that is required that is beyond anything that I could possibly describe. The things that I used to do…

I used to wake up every morning at seven o'clock and read Greek - ancient Greek - just anything, for about an hour, before I took a shower and drank coffee. I did that every single day for a year, because I was going to take my Greek exam. And that was in addition to the course I was teaching and the other classes that I was taking.

There were no days off. When I was studying for my PhD exams, I read a book a day for one year, and I have notes in all my books. I had to learn German in a year. I had to learn French, and I taught myself in eight weeks to pass the exam.

That skill, that focus, you still need in computer games. It's really no different. The major difference is that while it's so friggin' hard to read Thucydides in the original Greek…there's nothing in computer games alone that is that hard, but the problem is that there's five billion things going on at once. You just have to be able to keep it all straight and answer questions. That's the biggest difference.

Derek McCaw: What element of the game makes you the most proud?

Lame hero of Paragon City: Fanboy Planet.
Don't bother looking for him --
he only sits around reading the paper.
Jack Emmert: I would have to say character creation. I'm most proud of the fact that people can create a fun character, get in and start playing right away. We stripped away many of the trappings that most massively multi-player games have.

We don't have stats because I felt that those numbers didn't really mean anything to the average player. My thought was that when you get in and you play a fighting game, like Marvel vs. Capcom, you see bars. You don't see numbers. You just learn the moves and it's fun.

That's what I wanted to capture, because that was a successful way of capturing the superhero essence. It's not about number balancing; it's about fantastic powers. Everything in our game revolves around people's powers.

By slimming down the choices that people make initially, we can get them into the game and enjoying the experience that much more. Also, superheroes are unique. No two are the same. So we have a costume creation system, so instead of people earning cool bits of armor, they get cool costumes from the start.

Everybody's different. Everybody's unique walking in. And this has enhanced players' connection to their own avatars, because when you run into another person, they're not exactly like them. In other games, two fighters, they pretty much look the same in terms of what they wear and their attacks and things like that. That's not so true in our game.

Derek McCaw : We've got the update, A Shadow of the Past, coming soon…

Jack Emmert: That's our next free extension…

Derek McCaw : Among other things, in that players can get "capes" at Level 20, something they'd been clamoring for. What are some of the other things you'd like to fix in the game in the future?

Jack Emmert: There's two things that I really want to accomplish. The first thing, in this year, before City of Villains. Number one is, expanding game play beyond combat. Right now we have a kicking combat game. That's it! There's nothing else.

On the plus side, combat is the essence of all videogames. It's the essence of most games, after all. Chess, for instance, is really just combat. Checkers.

It's a start, but certainly savvy MMPG players want more. And I want more. I want to be able to deliver other game systems that help enhance the superhero immersion factor. We are working on that. It won't be in the second expansion, but it will be soon thereafter that you will see us expanding gameplay pretty extensively.

In fact, "A Shadow of the Past" does introduce a new system which is really cool. Players earn badges. These badges are for various accomplishments. Some of them are for defeating a certain number of villains. Some are for healing a certain amount of comrades.

Whatever it is, the really cool part is that there are secret parts of the city where if you can find them, that counts toward your badges. If you get certain badges, you can get bonus to hit points, bonus to endurance and other cool rewards. It's really all about exploration and finding all these secret little stories that are hidden in the nooks and crannies of Paragon City.

I think players will really love it. It's difficult to explain on the fly, but when people play it…so that's one step.

Then another system, which I'm not yet ready to talk about but we're going to start working on, I really want to get in before City of Villains, too. Hopefully soon.

I also want to expand game play outside Paragon City. In other words, everything takes place within the city right now. Superheroes travel all across the world, all across the universe. So the second expansion introduces another dimension. Our first expansion introduced adventures in alternate realities and alternate timelines. We're going to continue to do that.

The third expansion is going to have some areas just off the coast of Paragon City. We're going to slowly start building out from the city itself. That's a great foundation.

Derek McCaw : You referred to "A Shadow of the Past" as the second free expansion. So is City of Villains considered an expansion pack, or a separate game?

The art director's office -- camoflaged for your protection.
Jack Emmert: Right now we're thinking of it as a second game, so that if somebody does not want to play a superhero, ever, they can buy City of Villains and play the villain track and do everything. They don't need the City of Heroes disc.

If a current City of Heroes player decides to pick up City of Villains, then that will augment his current game. We don't plan on it being a different subscription or anything like that. It's kind of a new model; it's something very different.

Essentially, if a City of Heroes player does not have a City of Villains pack, he just can't play as a villain. He might not have access to some of those things that villains do. By the same token, villains won't have the same access to the things the heroes do. That's going to be the differentiation there.

Derek McCaw : Will you have players able to combat each other?

Jack Emmert: Certainly. It's at the heart of the game! (laughs) That's the major portion of gameplay, the PvP between the villain and the hero.

Not just that, I want to make sure that players can take on the role. Just like we wanted our players to be heroes in City of Heroes, we want to make sure a player feels like a bad guy. What are the ways we can do that without being distasteful or immature? I don't want to cross that line.

Derek McCaw : Any hope for a City of Innocent Bystanders?

Jack Emmert: (laughs) I will say it's highly unlikely that villains will be able to harm non-player characters. Otherwise, the city would just be empty. But people will be afraid of villains. That's far more likely.

Derek McCaw : I was just thinking that was a logical third game.

Jack Emmert: Third game…those thoughts are already underway...

And with those tantalizing words, we moved on, Jack back to work and me back to trying to level up.  

Derek McCaw

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