When you think of a superhero, what comes to mind? I mean, after the flying and the x-ray eyebeams and so on ... You'd probably imagine someone who was determined, enthusiastic, persuasive and optimistic. They might even be more than a little noble, or at least their heart would be in the right place. Most of all, they'd love their job. After all, who wouldn't want to make a career out of making their world -- even a virtual world -- a better place to visit?
If that sounds like a superhero to you, then you need to meet Jack Emmert.
Jack is the lead designer for City of Heroes -- a massively multiplayer online role-playing game created by Cryptic Studios and published by NCSoft. For a monthly subscription fee, players can login and live a virtual life as a costumed crimefighter. In the five months since its release in April, City of Heroes has become one of the fastest selling massively multiplayer games of all time in North America. As of August 2004, the population of virtual hero-haven Paragon City topped 180,000 players, and with a European release scheduled before the end of the year, this positive trend shows no sign of stopping.
Part of this success has to be attributed to Cryptic's commitment to improving the player experience through regularly scheduled expansions. MMORPG players are used to everyday patching to repair issues and solve problems, but it is rare for such a game to provide stacks of new content and improved features at no additional cost. The first of these City of Heroes expansions -- Issue #1 -- was released in June. Subtitled "Through the Looking Glass", Issue #1 introduced players to three new villain groups, two new high-level zones and in-game costume tailors that allowed them to further customize their appearance.
With the release of Issue #2 ("A Shadow of the Past") just around the next corner, JIVE knew nobody better than Jack Emmert (aka "Statesman") to give us the lowdown on City of Heroes so far, where the City is going and what life is like for a part-time everyday superhero.
JIVE: Simple question first. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Jack: What did I want to be ...
JIVE: Or have you grown up yet?
Jack: What age group?
JIVE: Let's go with grade school.
Jack: I guess, when I was in grade school, I think I wanted to be a professor. That's what I always wanted to be.
JIVE: I understand you have a huge comic book collection. Were you a comic book kid?
Jack: Yeah. Ever since I was eight years old, I've been regularly buying comics. You know, I used to go down to the comic store ... excuse me, the convenience store, because the 7-11s used to have comics on racks. That was always such a big treat, just to go there and check it out. I remember that I was eight because my mother was very concerned about it at the time. We had a parent-teacher conference when I was that age, because she was concerned that I was reading too many comics, and the teacher said, "Look, he's reading, it's fine!" The ironies of life, eh?
JIVE: So who were your comic book heroes when you were small?
Jack: When I was young, my favorite hero was The Thing. I loved Marvel 2-in-1 and Fantastic Four when I was extremely little. When I became a teenager, my favorite titles were New Teen Titans and The X-Men.
JIVE: If you don't mind me asking, how old are you now?
JIVE: Okay, you can plead the fifth on this question, but if you had to choose, would you say you were more of a Marvel kid or a DC kid?
Jack: Certainly, when I was young I was almost entirely Marvel Comics. As I've gotten older, I think I'm pretty much 50/50. Some of my favorite titles are DC, but some of my longest-running [are Marvel] ... you know, I've been collecting Hulk and Fantastic Four since I was eight. But some of my favorite titles now are DC, like Justice Society.
JIVE: Oh, yeah. I've been reading DC's New Frontier lately.
Jack: New Frontier is amazing.
JIVE: Was the game always going to be called City of Heroes?
Jack: Yeah. That was my contribution from the beginning. City of Heroes ... it's a really good title, I mean, in retrospect. I didn't know how well it'd work, but it's nice, it's succinct, it explains what the game is ...
JIVE: Maybe I'm putting too much into this, but I've suspected that the use of the word "hero" -- as opposed to "crusader" or "vigilante" -- is very deliberate.
Jack: Oh, definitely. 'Cause "vigilante" is only a particular type of hero, a Punisher or even Batman ... and "crusader" obviously has tons of negative connotations from a religious standpoint, whereas a "hero" is something that everybody wants to be.
JIVE: Does the success of City of Heroes still surprise you? Or did you just know there was an audience out there?
Jack: I believed it, so I couldn't imagine that a superhero game wouldn't succeed. Of course, most of the publishers we talked to didn't agree, but it's edifying. Obviously, I'm very excited, but it's very removed, right? On my daily basis, I don't get to see the success. I'm in an office, doing the same thing I've been doing for several years, so my daily routines have not changed. So therefore, it's really hard to get a great feeling for how successful the game is, at least until I go out to conventions and meet fans. Then I get a better feel for it.
JIVE: What void has City of Heroes filled that makes it so successful? With so many fantasy and sci-fi games out there, what defines the need for this game in particular?
Jack: Well, jeez ... Everybody has dreamed of being a superhero, whereas not everybody has dreamed about being a wizard. Everybody remembers, at some point in their life, thinking about what superpowers would be the coolest or what costume would be awesome. Many young men go through a stage where they read comic books. Even girls today read comics. So I think it's a more universal theme, but more importantly I think that given events in America, in North America, that every one of us has a deep desire to be a hero. Every one of us wants to save lives. Every one of us wants to be there to protect our family, our homes, our neighbor, our country. In City of Heroes they get to visualize that very deep, very sincere desire they have inside.
JIVE: Do you ever get a chance to play the game just for the sake of playing? Or is it all just for research?
Jack: No, no, I play all the time. Right now, I'm actually playing playing, like levelling-up a character, with my brother, who is stationed in Korea. We play every weekend and that's like a real dedicated character. I create other characters on whims and go in and play for a little while, but this is a character I want to level-up and do it the right way.
JIVE: The game certainly lends itself to whims of "I think I'll make this character today." I don't know anyone I play City of Heroes with who doesn't have all eight slots filled up on their server.
Jack: Now that's something that I can honestly say surprised me. I did not dream anywhere close to the amount of characters that people would create. It's just absolutely astonishing.
JIVE: The current origin / archetype system seems to allow for every type of superhero ... almost.
Jack: Almost, yes.
JIVE: Is there going to be an expansion of the system to allow for more esoteric characters like Mr Fantastic or Aquaman or Green Arrow?
Jack: We will be covering those bases. For instance, archery will probably be in expansion ... in a ... in an expansion coming soon. That'll be available to blasters and defenders, whereas powers like Aquaman will be an epic archetype, which means that you have to do something to earn that slot. My favorite hero is Prince Namor.
JIVE: The Sub-Mariner!
Jack: What was the other character you mentioned? Oh, Mr Fantastic. Yeah, the problem with stretching is that it's just hard to multiplayer without distorting things. That might be a power we can never do, simply because of the technical limitations.
JIVE: Now, I know that you read the City of Heroes player forums. Those postings can get pretty brutal, so how do you decide what to listen to and what to tune out?
Jack: I suppose I just tune out the emotionalism in a post, because sometimes people are ... well, regardless of how offensive they are, they have good points, and that's what I need to remember. The most important thing is that a person might have hit the nail on the head, even if they did it in a way that I don't particularly care for. But that's just ... Hey, any businessman has to do that. Any businessman has to listen to rude, obnoxious customers, and realize that "Wait a minute, this guy actually has a point, and we might've just screwed him over!" So I just view it as a natural extension of being a business.
JIVE: Can you tell me a little about the writing process for City of Heroes? Have you had the existing story arcs since the game's conception, or do you have a staff of constantly producing writers?
Jack: We have constant things that are always being added. Essentially, we have three writers who do nothing but basically create new stories, new missions, new everything. And then ... starting in Issue Three, we're going to start moving the storyline of the game forward, where there's going to be some big, major events ... excuse me, a big, major event that happens that will change City of Heroes as we know it.
JIVE: Have you given any thought to approaching some of the bigger names in comic book writing to contribute or help with a plot? Or is it better to keep it in-house?
Jack: We want to keep it all in-house. That way, I think I have a better opportunity to monitor everything, to make sure that it fits in the general feeling of the city. When you deal off-site, inevitably, things go off in directions you don't want.
JIVE: Let's talk about the new expansion, A Shadow of the Past. Issue #2 has tons of updates and upgrades and fixes and new content ... if you had to pick your favorite new feature, what would it be?
Jack: I would say the badges, because that introduces essentially a new type of gameplay: Exploration. Players are rewarded for finding spots all across Paragon City. I think that [this new feature] is great, because it helps us tell more of the backstory. It lets players immerse themselves more, and it also rewards a new type of player, just somebody who likes finding out stuff, whereas previously our game was all about combat. So I think that is an important step that we're making, you know? Hey, look, there's something else to do besides fighting! You can go try to find and collect badges.
JIVE: Are the rumors true? Does Issue #2 bring underground dance clubs to Paragon City?
Jack: Yeah. [laughter] That was something that our producer, Craig Zinkevich, really wanted to get in. And he did it as a secret. There were only two other people here at Cryptic who even knew what was going on. He slipped it in, and the players [on the Test Server] found it in about three hours, but yeah ... it's just a social area for players to go have fun with their dance emotes and just meet, socialize ...
JIVE: Were their ideas for Issue #2 that just didn't make the deadline or that were left on the drawing board?
Jack: Signature Weapons, where players can design their own weapons, that had to be cut. I really wanted it and it'll come, but we just don't know when. I think our first priority is to get a bunch of these core powersets in the game, the ones that are common in comic books. Like archery, for instance ... sonic powers, flame control, just things that are more associated with superheroes, before I go back and add to the weapons system.
Mike*: One thing about the updates to keep in mind is that if you subscribe, you get the updates automatically. So the value is just tremendous. And I'll just say this ... between the first update and the second update, they've added six new zones to the game, which is about fifty-percent growth. It's like adding Atlanta to New York City. So everybody that's on is really getting something new, and this update, the second update, adds something not just for upper-level players, but also for some of the newer heroes in the lower-levels.
(He's not kidding. In addition to accomplishment/exploration badges and social clubs, Issue #2 brings in two new zones (The Hollows and The Shadow Shard), two new villain groups and three hero trials, as well as new gameplay enhancements, power respecification, and even the introduction of capes and permanent special effects that will make your hero look more heroic than ever.)JIVE: What made you guys decide on this kind of business model, providing major content updates on a regular basis for no more than the monthly subscription? Your predecessors in the MMO field have offered similar expansions, but for an additional cost.
Jack: I guess because ... I don't know ... NCSoft had a really great model with Lineage which had free updates, and it just always made sense. I don't really remember the decision-making process ... it just seemed like the right thing to do. Players already pay a monthly subscription fee, so they should be getting lots of cool, free stuff.
JIVE: This upcoming expansion is Issue #2, so how many Issues do you have planned out right now?
Jack: Oh, everything up through City of Villains.
JIVE: Was City of Villains part of the original concept? Or is it meant to satisfy a player need for PVP?
Jack: We've always planned to do City of Villains because it's just natural.
JIVE: It was always going to be a separate game?
Jack: Yes. We've always envisioned City of Heroes and City of Villains as being distinctly different.
JIVE: So you've always been Jack Emmert ... but now you're a superhero called Statesman, too.
Jack: Yeah. [laughter]
JIVE: Was Statesman the original name you created, or were there other names in the running?
Jack: Oh, no. That was one of my characters from an earlier paper-and-pencil role-playing game. So, yeah, that was always going to be me.
JIVE: Did you ever imagine that Statesman would one day be interchangeable with your own name?
Jack: I guess not to the degree that it has occurred, no. I'm sure that Richard Garriott and Lord British are synonymous too, but it didn't occur to me that it would happen like that, actually. It's funny. People call me Statesman when they meet me, like it's my first name or something, but that's cool. I think it's fun.
JIVE: Where do you see City of Heroes in five years? Will it follow the course of an Everquest with a City of Heroes 2?
Jack: I think I see City of Heroes just continuing to grow, continuing to expand gameplay. I'm not really ... you know, EQ2 and World of Warcraft are going to attract the fantasy fans and I'm sure they'll do great, but I think, in particular, I want to make sure that we're eyeing what makes sense for the superhero genre, what are the game systems that are realistic for us, that make players enjoy the game more.
JIVE: The books that will be coming out for City of Heroes, are you going to be writing those yourself?
Jack: No. We have authors, but I'm kind of dictating, along with one of the writers here. He's kind of in charge of handling the authors of the novels, so he's working with them on the outline. Basically, he gives me the outline of the books, then I tell him to take this in that direction and take that in this direction. So I influence them from that point. The game is so big right now that I can't micro-manage. I just can't do it.
JIVE: I know that there will be a Statesman HeroClix, but will we ever see a Statesman action figure?
Jack: No comment.
JIVE: I hate to ask much more about City of Heroes, because part of the fun is discovering what new things are introduced with each update. For instance, lots of players wonder when heroes will be allowed to change the colors of their powers, but I can be patient.
Jack: Yeah. Well, changing [power] colors, that's coming. I just can't promise you when.
JIVE: I imagine that almost everything is "coming" -- we just don't know when.
Jack: That's exactly right. That's always the way of things.
JIVE: Out of my own curiosity, toward the end of the City of Heroes beta, I saw a small handful of heroes in-game with the words "Statesman's Pal" floating just over their heads. Who were they?
Jack: Those were a bunch of guys I grouped with, just kind of as a pick-up group, then after we were done, I asked them a whole bunch of questions about the game. So they asked me, "Who are you?" And I said I was Statesman and they didn't believe me! So I said, "Alright, I'll prove it." And I gave them those titles. [laughter] That was fun.
JIVE: Do you ever have time for activities that don't involve heroes or villains?
Jack: Oh, yeah. I play miniatures games. I play D&D; every other Tuesday. I play collectible card games every other Wednesday.
Mike: And don't forget your Saturdays! They're occupied by another thing now, right?
Jack: Yeah, on Saturdays and Sundays, I'm a big ... I'm a sports fan, so I watch all the college games and NFL games. And I'm also doing a campaign with miniatures, where I paint little pewter guys.
JIVE: Do you have time to sit down and read a book?
Jack: I'm a pretty voracious reader, going back to my younger days as a grad student. I read tons of fantasy, tons of sci-fi. I'm enjoying China Melville's work, which I think is brilliant. Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis. Yeah, it's usually a book a week.
JIVE: During one of the many moments when my hero was lost in Perez Park, I was amused to find that part of the park is named Gaiman Woods. After Neil Gaiman, right?
Jack: Yes. All of our neighborhoods have some sort of Easter Egg meaning. Not just in Perez Park.
JIVE: What about music? Is there any type of music you particularly like?
Jack: No, actually, I don't listen to any music. It's kind of a strange story, when I was really young, I wanted to play the flute ... this may've been in the third grade and ... I don't know why, I just really wanted to play. I did it for about a year, then some music teacher, he said, "Look, you're just awful at this, could you please just stop? You're wasting my time and you're wasting yours." And ever since that day, I've never listened to any music.
JIVE: Wow. That's kind of sad, Jack.
Jack: I know. It is kind of sad. All I listen to is sports radio, to be honest. Isn't that weird? Just the effect that one person can have on a young person's life.
JIVE: Since you are a kind of real-life superhero now, have you put that to good use by using City of Heroes success for charities?
Jack: Certainly, I mean, in fact you're hitting on something that we're discussing internally about being able to reach out. A couple of charities have contacted us, and that's something I definitely want to do, to use Statesman for good. That's the whole point, right? That would be very exciting.
Mike: On that same point, NCSoft and Cryptic gave 2,000 copies of City of Heroes to returning sailors and marines in July. To echo what Jack said, there is a lot of discussion about where we can go next, but that was kind of the first step for not only Cryptic, but also for NCSoft establishing its presence here in North America.
Jack: Actually, you could do a big favor for me, because there are two charities that I work with all the time, but I've never ... I don't use my name with them. But I love cats and I do cat rescue with Siamese Rescue, which is a national organization, and Pet Promise, which is local to Columbus, Ohio. And so ... we don't have cats in the game yet, but if we did, I'm sure I would find a way to get those organizations in. I'm looking for any way that we can connect our fans to great charities.
JIVE: By the amount of cat-like costumes in-game, you can tell that players would love the ability to look like a cat or any animal for that matter!
Jack: We're working on that!
I've a feeling that I could throw any idea in front of Jack Emmert and he would reply, "We're working on it."
And I'd believe him.
* - Mike Crouch, PR Rep for NCSoft and an all-around nice guy.