City of Heroes Dev Diary: Life after Statesman — the aftermath of a major lore change
PC Gamer routinely features Developer Diaries: tales of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the development studios making your favorite games. In this entry, City of Heroes’ lead designer Matt "Positron" Miller and content designer Sean "Dr. Aeon" McCann talk about the huge ramifications of killing off their games' main character in the last update, and all the things that one death changed. Let us know what you’d like to see developers discuss in future diaries in the comments.
When we first made the decision to kill off Statesman, who's arguably the most iconic character in City of Heroes, we knew that it would change the game world forever. Implementing that major lore change would be a monumental effort to pull off. MMOs are living things, and you can't make radical lore changes lightly. When you kill off a major character, you need to rewrite a ton of content, since missions, tasks, and events no longer can reference the deceased as if he or she were still alive. In this case, we were be dealing with the one-two punch of killing off both Statesman and Sister Psyche—characters that'd been with the game since its inception and who were embedded in the game's lore.
Rule #1: The consequences have to count
Sean "Dr. Aeon” McCann, the content designer in charge of implementing the missions that revealed the death of these two characters, insisted that if we were going to do all of this work, the characters involved needed to be dead dead, not just "comic book" dead. It wouldn’t be fair to the players to build the suspense of Statesman's and Sister Psyche's deaths only to have them return a few months later. If we did that, we'd be telling our players that we were writing a game story where there would never be true consequences, and that was definitely not our goal.
Rule #2: The devil's in the details
Reknitting the game lore wasn’t an easy task. Some things players experience still happen chronologically before Statesman and Sister Psyche die, such as the destruction of Galaxy City. We decided that both characters should remain in that content (although we did have a plan to pull them from there as well, if that would make it cleaner). Elsewhere, we altered missions so that they'd work without intervention by these two deceased heroes. Sometimes this meant only making a subtle text change by removing a reference. In other cases, we had to make a dramatic shift and carefully and logically replace Statesman or Sister Psyche with someone else.
Rule #3: Players' love of the game will shape lasting lore changes
Originally we'd picked Back Alley Brawler to become the owner of the Statesman Task Force (a special series of missions given to players by Statesman). Back Alley Brawler was a player favorite, and we frequently get requests to give him a more prominent role. Back Alley Brawler recently lost his home in the game, both metaphorically and physically, with the destruction of Galaxy City, so putting him in charge of the Task Force would have given him a new purpose.
However, after the changes went to beta, players spoke out that they wanted Ms. Liberty to be the new owner of that Task Force. It would "keep it in the family," since she is Statesman's granddaughter. She also had more of a game lore connection to Lord Recluse, who is the primary Villain antagonist in what was the Statesman Task Force. So for now, Back Alley Brawler has to wait for his day in the sun.
Before the request to switch out the Task Forcer quest-giver from Back Alley Brawler to Ms. Liberty could even get to his desk, Dr. Aeon had already read the player forums, agreed with the player suggestions, and switched the contact to Ms. Liberty. But Ms. Liberty has a prominent place in the game as a touchstone NPC for new players in Atlas Park. We didn’t want to remove Ms. Liberty from Atlas Park (we could already hear the outcry from players who had already posited that possibility), so we decided to let her remain there, coexisting in multiple locations in the game.
Rule #4: Change reveals new possibilities
Because we'd also killed off Sister Psyche, we had to replace her role as Task Force quest-giver in the game, too. We decided that Penelope Yin, a character introduced several years ago as the world’s most powerful psychic, would take Sister Psyche’s place in the Freedom Phalanx. Penelope would also give out her own Task Force. This decision revealed growth possibilities for her character, and players will see more about Penelope Yin's developing career in the Freedom Phalanx in Signature Story Arc #2.
Rule #5: Challenge old assumptions
Beyond reweaving the storylines of continuity, Statesman’s death also has an impact throughout the game's future stories. Statesman embodied strength, good, and morality in Paragon City. His forceful presence alone was enough to deter crime. With Statesman gone, villains all over the world can start enacting their plans. One problem we used to have to solve in writing stories was explaining why Statesman wasn't handling the issue, or in the case of villains, why Statesman wasn't pounding at a particular player villain’s door. With Statesman out of the equation, we can explore more stories for low-level characters and give a narrative that revolves more heavily around the player's character.
These changed story constraints don't just affect lower-level characters. Higher-level characters and Incarnates (City of Heroes' cosmic-level super-powered heroes and villains) are also greatly affected. With Statesman gone, Incarnate Heroes have to step up to face threats that they may never have known about while Statesman was the proverbial cork in the bottle. Villains can now attempt (and maybe get away with) things that they never could before because Statesman is gone.
Rule #6: Do the right thing and renew the game
The storyline of City of Heroes has changed forever with the death of Statesman and Sister Psyche because we stayed committed to our goal: Our super-powered hero and villain stories should have lasting consequences, both to the players and to the game lore overall. We’ve been trying to move our story forward so that it has a bigger focus on players. The deaths of these two characters will help serve as a catalyst for hero and villain storylines in the future. We’re all very excited about where the story of City of Heroes will go from here.