Life is trying things to see if they work.
- Ray Bradbury
One of the things that I like about NetDevil in general and Jumpgate Evolution in particular is that we actually are trying to make different kinds of MMOs. This sounds a bit strange as the last three articles have focused quite a bit on how to appeal to the masses, how to be accessible for everyone, how learning from experts and avoiding senseless innovation is a good idea and things like that. I wanted to wrap up these series of logs by talking a bit about the magic that happens in game development. I love that we work on games that are both in theme and genre somewhat risky.
Making a space combat MMO is a bit of a risky proposition. Action MMOs have had mixed success rates. Space MMOs have a checkered past with some hits and some misses. So far fantasy games dominate the market and every other genre is fighting over a seemingly smaller pool of players. All of that being said the question beckons: Why in the world would we make a space MMO? At some point the creation process is irrational… and it is irrationality and risk that drives creative industries forward. Just think; it is largely the same people that made BioShock and System Shock. I would argue that both of those are also “risky” games and of high quality; yet one was a much bigger success than the other. I guess the point is that even if you are dedicated to quality and do all the right things there is no way to guarantee commercial success. There are things you can do to mitigate the risk but at the end of the day we have chosen a risky industry and we must live and die by that decision.
A lot of things go into making a game, and to some extent even more goes into making a massively multiplayer game. Many times the decisions come down to what not to do as opposed to what to do. People who work on games tend to be creative and have strong opinions and so there is no lack of great ideas – thus it becomes an issue of what to cut as opposed to what to add.
The original game helped us a lot in the early development process. One of the things that is true of many successful game companies is that they iterate on similar games and with Jumpgate Evolution we have that opportunity. Instead of just starting with a blank slate we are able to step back and look at our previous effort and test against it to see what we should keep, change, add and so on. One of our developers has been working on the original game for many years and he is an invaluable source of information. I worked on Jumpgate Classic, informally, way back in the day – and I have fond memories of spending evenings and weekends messing around with Scott, Peter, Ryan and Steve (Remo). It’s great to have the feeling of coming in and working on this kind of game again!
So getting back to Jumpgate Evolution. The goal of the game is simple: create a great online space action game. To figure out the details of what that means is an ongoing process. It involves playing other games, talking in groups about what we would like and wouldn’t like and then lots of testing and iteration. There are many times throughout the week people on the team will be talking about some cool thing they would like to see. These conversations can lead to more formalized “meetings” in which we discuss the particular implementation of that features and why it would be so great. In general the best ideas have a high level of buy in and it creates excitement which then leads to a better game. On the other end of things we test the game with people outside of the development team to make sure that what we are doing makes sense, is fun. Generally, these session are amazing – and often painful. People find problems that we never thought of and things that we thought were obvious prove themselves to be obscure and confusing. Then we take that feedback and try and figure out solutions and do it all again. To give a specific example it took about 40 of such iterations to get basic space flight balanced and presented in a way that most people could just sit down and fly around.
There are times when it feels like the things we are hard at work on don’t add up to a great game. It can be frustrating to spend, for example, 2 weeks on some memory bug that makes the game crash after 4 hours of play. Fixing that bug is critical but does not make the game itself better beyond that it works. Then there are moments like the other day where our AI programmer spent a few hours doing some grouping algorithms and that day’s play session was incredible. Those moments are what the game development process is all about; and if you have enough of those moments, I believe you will have a game that can transcend some of the rules that define what a great game is.
Through the mire of marketing demographics, acceptance testing, heavy iteration, feature analysis, content creation and all the other pieces of the game we must always try and keep sight of the game itself. We must also remember that the game is for others as well as for us. I want to make a game I want to play, but I also want other people to like it as well; and I think that is what most developers want as well. If it weren’t I suppose we wouldn’t spend time writing things like this diary. We are constantly trying things to see if they work and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t; but I think the important thing is to keep trying things to see if they work.