Interview: Melissa Bianco City of Heroes Lead Designer

City of Heroes is the long standing do-it-yourself super hero game from NCSoft. It takes some special talents and tenacity to stay on top of an MMO industry which has crushed so many franchises. City of Heroes Issue 20: Incarnates was released recently, and the franchises 7th anniversary is coming up. Geek Woman does a Q&A with Melissa “War Witch” Bianco, one of the leading game designers for Paragon Studios. She is one of the longest standing members of the City of Heroes team. Over the last 7 years, Melissa was primarily in charge of developing and implementing zones and missions in game as well as plotting events and easter eggs. She was promoted into the role of Lead Designer in January 2010, when she began taking over for Positron, and then took on a more “hands-on” role in systems development.

Geek Woman: I know many young women would love a long term job at an MMO, how were you able to accomplish the dream?

Melissa Bianco: I was introduced to video games back in the 80s by a friend of mine in elementary school who had an Atari.  The first game (other than Pong) that I ever played was Space Invaders.  As I graduated high school and moved out, I was able to pick up a PC and began playing PC adventure games like Phantasmagoria, Silent Hill, and Noctropolis (one of my all-time faves).  From there, it was simply a matter of getting in on MMO betas – which I did.  Everything from Meridian59 to The Realm, EverQuest and Anarchy Online.  I was hooked!

By the time the City of Heroes opportunity came around, I’d been a gamer for several years (not just PC, but I was an avid SNES console player, too).  My husband was the one who found out about City of Heroes hiring back in late 2001.  He heard they were in development and just happened to be in San Jose.  So, in the great philosophy which I have long adopted, “Go Big or Go Home” – I sent them an email and inquired about whether or not they needed administrative help.  I had absolutely NO practical experience other than playing games, so I didn’t want to push my luck.  But what I DID have experience in, office management, they happened to of had a need for.   (By the way, this is pretty important for people wanting to get into the industry to keep in mind; not everyone gets hired on as a designer or artist.  Sometimes, you have to fit a need before you get a shot at the brass ring.)

So I checked out their website and sent an email offering my services, and discovered they were in the middle of a move (from Kings Row to the new studio), but that they’d get back to me once they were settled in.  And then I didn’t hear anything back for a couple of months.  I was disappointed, but – hey, what was I thinking?  A job in the game industry?  Pipe dream!  So in early 2002, I was about to head off to a job interview within the Neurosurgery Department at Stanford University when I got a call to come in.  I was hired that day.  (Yes, I blew off Stanford.)

What’s your educational background?

I graduated high school in North Vancouver, British Columbia (Go, Argyle!) in 1987 and then frittered away my first semester at Capilano College (now University).  I knew that I wanted to be involved in a creative industry and, at the time, I was really hoping for it to be the film industry.  I never wanted to be IN FRONT of the camera, but I did want to be involved creatively.  So I applied for the Media Resources program at Capilano and was denied.  (Sad face.)  I took a Film History class, bought a motorcycle, worked in retail and reapplied for the next program.  I was accepted and graduated in 1991.

Around that time, I was also taking Screenwriting classes and Sign Language classes.  When I moved to California in 1999, I attended Ohlone College where I began working towards an AA in Sign Language, but because I wasn’t a Resident, the tuition fees were killing me and I had to drop out and “get a real job.”  Luckily for me, that “real job” became City of Heroes.  Since 1999, I’ve worked full-time and taken classes in my spare time.  I love learning new things.  It never gets old.

What did you do at CoH before you became lead designer?

Ha ha!  Everything.  When I first started, as I said, I was the Office Manager, so the majority of my day was filing, payroll, paying bills, and making sure the administrative side ran smoothly.  The “day of transition” came when I was asked if I had time to help out with placing some navigational beacons in-game so that the MOBs could navigate the terrain.  I’d never done anything like that before, never used an editor, but I wanted to help out so I said, “Sure!”

That was my first “design task.”  It was ridiculous how uncoordinated I was with a 3D editor.  Z-axis?  X-Axis?  Depth?  It was like a Lucy Skit. But, time and experience have a way of teaching you and so I picked it up, and then I was needed for something else, which I gladly agreed to.  And then another thing.  And another.  Finally, they transitioned me into an “Associate Designer.”   That day was amazing.  I was so excited!

I never actually “built” anything at first, I just placed it.  My niche was working in the World with the editor.  Eventually, I was promoted to Designer, then Staff Designer, then Senior Designer, and then Lead.  My first love has always been World, and so that is where I am most comfortable.  That happened over a several year period.  So I can say that I copied, filed, worked in the editor, wrote dialogue, wrote missions, built and placed spawns, designed trials (Eden and Sewers), populated zones (a ton of ‘em), built mission maps, began to lead teams, and placed plenty of Easter Eggs.  J

City of Heroes has been a successful MMO for many years now, what is your secret?

You know, I’ve often thought about that myself.  I’ve looked at our situation and other games and I’ve seen them fade away where we’ve just kept on going.  I’m going to guess that it’s a combination of being the first in the genre (so that gave us plenty of time to iterate and add content), being the right genre at the right time (look how popular comics and movies like Spider Man are!), and having a game that was attractive to the casual player.

Until City of Heroes, we were still running back to our corpses, camping spawns, losing skills and stats every time we died, and being forced to endure a really long “educational” curve before being able to go out and play.  Many games at the time required a major commitment, but people could pop into our game for 30 minutes to an hour and accomplish something.  Not only that, we were a city of heroes, uniquely created – every one, in a time where customization was on par with picking your dress color.  We gave players the ability to be utterly unique, tell their own stories, and play the way that they wanted to play.  And – come on – flying is cool, isn’t it?

In addition, we launched solidly.  I remember every launch day of every major MMO that I played from the mid-90s to City of Heroes and you hear horror stories about delays, crashes, and phrases like, “Soon.”  That was par for the course back then, things just had to get sorted out once you went live.  When City of Heroes launched, it may not have been seamless, but I remember it being pretty freaking close.  So much so that it was big news.

Finally, I think we tapped into a market that no one else had seriously reached.  The casual female.  All those wives and girlfriends who were really NOT into running around the forest as wood elf ranger, could definitely get behind a hot looking woman in spandex blasting bad guys with lightning bolts for a few minutes.  I heard tons of stories of wives who weren’t interested in playing City of Heroes, who just happened to look over their husband’s shoulder and go, “Huh…maybe I should check that out.”  And then they started playing, too.

Can you tell us how you developed and implemented zones and missions in the game?

At first, I didn’t have much control over content.  I was an Implementer, not an Architect.  Our styles have changed over the years as people have come and gone, and it’s always interesting to see the difference between where we were and where we are.  I am in a unique position to actually remember these things.  When we first started, we were very “mad lib” with our mission and world population approach so that we could produce a lot of content.  We had to.  We had a ton of zones built and very little time to get them populated.

Over time, lessons had been learned and we couldn’t just slap a zone together and toss in some missions and hopefully they’d somehow come together.  We began asking key questions:  why did this zone exist, who’s telling the story, how is the world supporting that story, and what are we doing differently in our missions to tell it?  Striga Isle was a turning point for us.  Ever since, our entire methodology became about cohesion and lore.  This is a big deal.  You have to outline it all, we have a kick-off to make sure that the story being told fits the lore (after several years live, we have a lot of lore to be faithful to), and that all departments can accommodate the vision.  It’s a much more streamlined and efficient process, but there is no loss of creativity, and when it comes together, man – that’s magic.

It must have been fun to be the person who is plotting events and easter eggs?

It is!!  I mean, I’m not the only one who’s done that, but I’ve been pretty sneaky over the years.  Easter Eggs are the reason I will walk every pixel of every contained area in a map, just to see IF there’s something fun there.  Or hidden.  Actually, I blame Zelda for that because I was always looking for those cracks in the wall for some great reward.  This is a very simple and fun way for me to get people exploring and, hopefully, smiling.  My easter eggs are, by definition, never very serious, but hopefully they are fun.  Joe Morrissey, one of our senior designers, and I had a great time with the Easter Eggs in the Midnighter Club.  I thought I was being so tough on the clues, but people blew through them like I gave them an Answer Sheet.

And plotting just comes naturally to me.  You should hear my maniacal laugh, it’s really quite something.

The most recent expansion pack, Going Rogue did very well while other franchises are going belly up, did you have a hand in that?

I did!  I stepped into the Lead role to help get Going Rogue out the door.  At the time, Matt “Positron” Miller was heads down working on the Incarnate System and they needed someone to drive the Design team to meet our goals and put out quality world and mission content for the expansion launch.  Not only that, we were also introducing the Going Rogue system, a new universe, 20 levels of content, new power sets, and the list goes on.  It was a big expansion with a lot of moving parts and we needed to make some big decisions to hit dates, not kill ourselves (more than we did), and put out a product that was solid.  Not just visually, (I will sing the praises of the Art team forever, because ever since we launched GR, the quality on every new asset that goes into the game is heads and shoulders above anything we’ve ever done), but technically and creatively.

Until Going Rogue and Praetoria, the majority of my influence was focused on implementation or zone mechanics.  This project had me in on the very beginning, sitting in conference rooms with Joe Morrissey and coming up with how we were going to present this alternate Praetorian universe.  Man.  Talk about jumping in the deep end on your first try!  But we did it.  It was quite an experience being involved in every piece of every discussion from what are we going to call it, what will the “feel” and “tone” be, to what do you think of this mailbox?  I mean, it was epic in terms of considerations, schedule, and all the little icky picky stuff.  I learned more in one concentrated year of leadership than I did over the several years before.  It was like a crash course in game development and, as Lead Designer, I felt the weight of the success (or failure) of this product rest heavily on my shoulders.  So that was a lot of pressure.  It was pressure to keep the team focused, motivated, and positive, make smart decisions, and make sure that I was communicating with the rest of the departments.  It all worked out in the end and Going Rogue has been great.

CoH is all the way up to Issue 20, what impact will the new update have on the franchise?

It’ll be epic.  This is the Incarnate System! Positron’s creative brainchild!  He’s been working on this for a while now so all those level 50s have something new to experience and work towards.  And not just something to do, but the Incarnate Trials are tough!  They require planning and execution and coordination.  They’re tied into the Well of Furies, where Statesman and Lord Recluse received their Powers.  This is big, not just from a lore and story perspective, but from an achievement perspective as well.

How important a role does player feedback play into the success of the franchise and studio as a whole?

It’s critical.  You may put together a game that you absolutely love.  You think it’s the cat’s meow, visually, technically, and from a content perspective, but if no one likes it, you have no players.  We’ve listened to our players over the years and we have taken into account their feedback.  Not all the time, obviously, because they don’t have the insight into the direction, limitations of system, or risk vs. reward perspective that we do, but if it’s a good suggestion that we can implement, of course we’re going to take it into consideration.  That’s what beta is for.  That’s what forums are for.

We’ve gotten extremely valuable feedback from our players on some of our big ticket item systems such as super sidekicking, a lot of the content for Issue 19, the mentor project, merging the markets (loudly!), our trials, costume suggestions, powers suggestions, the Going Rogue system, and other really key features.

Do you have a character in the game that you like to play as?

I have many.  But, besides War Witch, my favorite character is a tall lanky black-clad attitudinal woman whose acerbic wit and wicked outfit  is matched only by her desire to help others.  She’s fun.  J  (And no, I’m not revealing her name.)