Joe Ybarra is one of the original game producers for Electronic Arts. His roster of achievements in award winning games include Bards Tale and Starflight, and his MMORPG credits include Shadowbane and Matrix Online. At the 2008 ION Games Conference, I finally tracked him down for a chat about Stargate Worlds which will be published by FireSky, a subsidiary of Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment.
“How,” I asked Joe Ybarra, Senior Vice President of Strategic Operations at Firesky, “did you get involved in making Stargate World?” I wanted to know how a small software company that started out as Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment ended up with an IP like Stargate and the cooperation with MGM studios for an MMORPG.
In 2002, I was told, the original founders of the company were working for MGM on DvD work – the menus and additional features on the DvDs of movies they sold. The founders were really big Stargate fans and managed to obtain an option to develop a Stargate online game, and in 2005 hired Joe to run the project.
“I was employee number one and built Stargate Studios up from scratch,” said Ybarra, “The first thing I had to do was watch the series. I had only watched the movie at that point.”
There are ten seasons of Stargate SG-1 and currently, Stargate Atlantis is in its fifth season. There are over 240 episodes of the show and it took Joe six months to watch them all. During which time, he also made the level cap with his character in World of Warcraft.
Firesky has a required ten episode list that all developers must watch to understand the very basics of the world, but all watch beyond that. Set between seasons three and eight and before Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Worlds picks up on the multitude of plots that already exist and are expanding on them. The Jaffa Rebellion is one of these plots that Stargate World builds upon, and they have also added new material that fleshes out the tension between the Praxis and the Alliance.
Ybarra recommended the largest fan-site for Stargate, Gateworld’s http://www.gateworld.net top 100 list for players who want to familiarize themselves with the history and lore of Stargate. He also recommended watching various one-off episodes such as the Destruction of Nagada for a better understanding of the events that shape the world of Stargate.
“We enjoy the subtle humor in the Stargate episodes and you’ll find much of it in game as well. Watch the 100th episode,” said Ybarra, “It shows that they don’t take themselves too seriously as it pokes fun at themselves.”
The 100th episode of Stargate SG-1 is titled “Wormhole Xtreme!” and produced as a “special” that was full of inside jokes and cameo appearances. The title also refers to a campy Sci-Fi series of the same name that is a show-within-a-show.
“How does MGM figure into Stargate Worlds?” I wanted to know.
“The producers encourage us to build new material based on the original storyline,” was the response. “Stargate Worlds is part of the big storyline. New material is drawn from the original storyline and will be familiar to fans, and keeping in canon. In fact, MGM and the producers of Stargate see Stargate Worlds as part of canon.”
“We have a very close relationship with MGM,” said Ybarra, “and we’re on their automated script delivery system. Each time a new script is ready, we get a copy.”
There has been quite a bit of content and progress exchange, and the actors are also very interested in the game. After launch, the Live Team will be writing “Atlantis” era material and current content – for example, mentions of Ancient Technology and puddle jumpers – are oriented to lead up to the current TV timeline. The gameplay model will also follow the TV model in that it is episodic and mission based. The quest logic is the vehicle to carry the story, and provides the backbone of how the player progresses.
“So how is the game getting along? What news have you got for eager fans?”
“It’s not moving as fast as I would like,” Ybarra laughed, “does it ever? But it is coming along very nicely. Currently, we are working on internal playtesting. One of the items that currently is receiving attention is the polish of the game UI elements. For example, we use the concept of “Cover” as this is a modern – if not futuristic – combat system afterall. How good is our cover system? We’re concentrating on strategy and combat. Our UI has to be intuitive, and there’s a lot of work still to be done on it.”
Tuning of the AI is also a major priority at this time as the enemies you face in game will be similar to those seen on the TV series, and it is infrequent that enemies you run into are unintelligent. On the same subject, the combat system of Stargate Worlds is tuned for one against many with a minimum of three opponents and a median of five to seven. This too is due to the modern combat system.
Ybarra expects that players of the MMOG will be fans of the show that may not ever have played a PC game before, much less and MMOG. Or it could be MMOG fans who are looking for a Sci-Fi genre MMOG to play who may not have watched any Stargate TV episodes at all and the entire spectrum in between. As such, accessibility is important and their usability lab is testing the tutorials using “naïve” users and gauging the difficulty of the learning curve. There are also many mini-games that will be found in Stargate Worlds. For example reverse engineering alien technology, learning how to pick locks and freeing enslaved Goa’uld prisoners.
Beta signup is open right now and Ybarra expects that closed beta will begin in the next couple of months to begin working on “pocket worlds”, that is testing situations in quests, missions and combat. The community site is also being revamped and will soon contain a knowledge base and game information.
Finally, I asked if the actors and Stargate characters are involved in some fashion in the game. “Oh, very much so,” said Ybarra, “We interact with the actors and they are all very interested in the progress of the game and sometimes have ideas for us. As for the major characters being in the game, most likely they will be used for live events.”
“So, much like Darth Vader walking around in Star Wars and interacting with the players, perhaps we may have the actors themselves playing their Stargate World characters in game?” I probed. Ybarra merely smiled.