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City of Heroes successor built on blood, sweat and Kickstarter

Missing Worlds Media will launch its Kickstarter campaign for The Phoenix Project, the spiritual successor to super hero MMO City of Heroes, on Sept. 8. The studio is terribly excited, and maybe a little nervous.

Last fall, Paragon Studios closed its doors and shut down City of Heroes due to a "realignment of company focus and publishing support" at parent company NCSoft. Players continued to support the MMO and its developers through its final days, and Paragon Studios made a bid to purchase the game outright from NCSoft in a last effort to save it.

But in the new year, a new hope arose: a group of programmers, designers and City of Heroes fans announced a new community-based studio, Missing Worlds Media. Missing Worlds, they said, would create the spiritual successor to the game they had lost, one that would capture the spirit and feel of City of Heroes.

On Sept. 8, Missing Worlds will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for The Phoenix Project, its answer to the woe City of Heroes' closing left behind.

Technical director Nate Downes told Polygon The Phoenix Project is already about one quarter to one third complete and 20 percent of the game's code is done — but that's "being optimistic," as he put it. Downes said that the entire project is currently staffed by volunteers, many of them with other, equally-demanding day jobs.

"This project has grown out of the community that was left behind when City of Heroes closed."

"This project has grown out of the community that was left behind when City of Heroes closed, so it's really just a lot of passionate people getting together to rebuild that home for themselves," he said. "It's an all-volunteer project of 136 people right now."

Missing Worlds studio director Cameron Johnson said that a handful of Phoenix Project developers are still full-time students, both in college and graduate school, and a few are "one of those house husband thingies," as Downes describes himself. The project needs funding, and using Kickstarter will provide the campaign with some reputability, as it is the most popular and trusted crowdfunding platform.

Johnson said Missing Worlds has been using Epic Games' Unreal Engine to build The Phoenix Project, and the company has been willing to cooperate with the indie studio's current lack of funds. Epic has licensed the engine to Missing Worlds with promise of payment later, once the Kickstarter campaign has closed.

What defines The Phoenix Project as a City of Heroes spiritual successor, Johnson believes, is the attention to detail put into the game's character creator.

"You build your character and get to play the game you want to play."

"The most popular thing from City of Heroes was the flexible avatar creator," he said. "The way characters looked rarely if ever had any direct impact on the game, but players wanted to make their characters as super hero-y or villainous as they wanted. We want to produce our own avatar builder so people can start playing like that again.

"[The avatar creator] has more of our attention on it, more than any other aspects [of the game] because it's something we can put out there relatively soon," he added, noting the company hopes to launch the creator by next summer, as well as an app version for mobile devices shortly after. "The avatar builder goes towards that high level of customization you want: you build your character and get to play the game you want to play."

The investment in a player-created character directly correlates to how satisfied players are with their avatar's appearance, according to Downes.

"It's the number one complaint we hear from people playing other games: you can either make your character look the way you want or behave the way you want," he said. "Like in in World of Warcraft, you get the perfect armor for how you want your character to look, but to make them perform just the right way you have to wear the same suit of armor everyone else in the game has."

A more mature Avengers tone rather than that of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Missing Worlds wants the look and feel of The Phoenix Project to be as close as possible to that of City of Heroes, but "with a more mature Avengers tone rather than that of a Saturday morning cartoon." Customization will be key, as players will be able to tailor their special powers as well as how those powers look visually. Costume-wise, Downes said the team is aiming for 20 different options for each avatar's 18 different areas as launch, with several different color options available for each costume piece as well.

The Phoenix Project will also include a "Leads System," which will replace the traditional questing mechanic for something a little more involved, Johnson said. Players will find clues that they can then piece together on their own and decide if there is a deeper mission to accomplish involving them. This will give players more agency in finding and completing quests, rather than having to approach and talk to various NPCs to get things moving.

"It doesn't necessarily change much, but it gives a powerful feeling to payers in that they're not feeling like someone's errand boy," Johnson said.

The game will hit Windows PC first, with a Mac version coming later. The mobile character creator is something the company feels strongly about having available as soon as possible, and there are no plans to bring the game to consoles. The campaign will launch on Sept. 8, and Missing Worlds is hoping — should funding be successful — to get The Phoenix Project in players' hands by the end of 2015.

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