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.
of Cryptic Studios.
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
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.
McCaw : What inspired you to do City of Heroes?
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.
his glamorous surroundings...
McCaw : And what made you the expert?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
McCaw : During San Diego, it was announced
that WizKids would be making a special Statesman HeroClix…so
do you play that game as well?
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
McCaw : Who do you really like in the comics industry,
or are you reading comics at all these days?
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…
McCaw : That sounds like pretty much everything.
So what was your coolest moment at the Con?
Emmert: I don't really have one. I'm not that kind of
guy. Getting signatures and stuff like that it's just not
McCaw : Anything make you geek out?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
McCaw : You bring up a good point. You started this
concession to success -- all the toys he can buy...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
McCaw : What are your degrees in?
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.
McCaw : So it seems an odd transition from Ancient History
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…
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.
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.
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
McCaw: What element of the game makes you the most
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
of Paragon City: Fanboy Planet.
Don't bother looking for him --
he only sits around reading the paper.
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.
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.
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.
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.
McCaw : We've got the update, A Shadow of the Past,
Emmert: That's our next free extension…
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
players will really love it. It's difficult to explain on
the fly, but when people play it…so that's one step.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
director's office -- camoflaged for your protection.
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
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
McCaw : Will you have players able to combat each other?
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.
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
McCaw : Any hope for a City of Innocent Bystanders?
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.
McCaw : I was just thinking that was a logical third
Emmert: Third game…those thoughts are already underway...
with those tantalizing words, we moved on, Jack back to
work and me back to trying to level up.