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Interview with Mark Kern of Red 5 Studios

Interviews By  on April 13, 2007

Interview with Mark Kern of Red 5 Studios

MMORPG.com:

Great to talk with you Mark. Can you tell us how you got started in video games and more importantly MMOs?

Mark Kern:

I wrote my first computer game on a TRS-80 computer so I've been at this for some time now! I knew I always wanted to make games, but it wasn't until college that I started to think about online games. I played a commercial mud called Gemstone on the Genie bulletin board service back when you paid $5/hour to play. I was absolutely hooked, and nearly flunked out of school until one day I quit cold turkey. But even though I had quit, I kept thinking about designing the ultimate text-based MMO. Things have changed now, but I'm still trying to create teams and make the best games possible. And if you look very, very closely, you'll see some Gemstone influence in World of Warcraft today.

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MMORPG.com:

Many people say MMO games follow the classic fantasy style of RPG. What RPG games were you a fan of? How did they influence your choices in game design?

Mark Kern:

I've been a big fan of early Japanese RPGs like the Square classics Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan). I loved the huge world feel that hearkened back to the Ultima days, but what really hooked me were the little soap operas played out between the main characters. I couldn't wait to see what happened next! I'm very, very interested in bringing some story back to MMO gameplay.

MMORPG.com:

One of the big questions is the time it takes to play an MMO. Players continue to get older and may not have time to play games for as many hours a day. While you are always going to get hardcore players, do you feel there is a reasonable way to balance game play for players who may not have a lot of time?

Mark Kern:

Players need to feel able to achieve meaningful goals in more discreet increments of time. A good stand-alone game length used to be 40+ hours, but now most are 20+ hours and selling better than ever, reaching a wider audience and, as you say, an older audience. MMOs, of course, have no "end," but they could be structured better to let players log in, accomplish tasks, and either move on to new tasks or take a break for real life. One of my pet peeves is the current implementation of guilds in MMOs. To join a good guild, you have to be ready to commit a huge chunk of time and wait a very long time to acquire all your gear through raiding. We've taken one of the greatest joys of playing these games, socialization, and turned it into a job. There's gotta be a better way to do this and we're addressing that in our next game.

MMORPG.com:

End Game content is a very important part of MMOs. Once players reach maximum level there are always different things for them to do. Can you give us your thoughts on end game concepts like PvP or Raids? Are there new ideas out there that might give players more options?

Mark Kern:

I really feel like we did a good job tailoring the beginning and middle parts of MMO gaming to broaden the appeal of these games, but in World of Warcraft, the end game is pretty much a mirror of Everquest's raiding system. The encounters are much more interesting, and the instancing solves a lot of problems, but I just don't feel there was really a concerted effort to create a broad based end game for "the rest of us." I don't think raiding is the right solution here. I'm much more inclined to favor PvP, but even that has its limits. The real issue is that our worlds are static, and they need to become much, much more dynamic.

MMORPG.com:

In the past you worked for Blizzard. Now you have started up on your own with Red 5 Studios. What is it like running your own company?

Mark Kern:

It's been great. This is actually my second company and I've learned much, much more this time around. In my first company, I carried much of the weight myself, which at times got to be crushing. This time around I'm focused on building the best team I can and sharing the responsibility of making the company a success together.

MMORPG.com:

The secondary market has become a major issue in MMOs. Do you mind sharing your thoughts on the topic?

Mark Kern:

Well, the fact is that the secondary market isn't going to go away anytime soon. People obviously want to be able to buy and sell in-game components and, as they said in Jurassic Park, "nature will find a way." I think we're going to have to rethink much of how items and economies work in our games. There is only so much you can do with game design to limit or eliminate secondary markets, and legal recourse has proven to be elusive. The only means of dealing with the problem now is constant enforcement, which is very costly, time consuming, consumer hostile and ultimately futile. There are analogies here to DRM and the music industry, but its even deeper and more complicated than that...we're going to have to adapt.

MMORPG.com:

Some people say there are too many MMOs; others think the market is only beginning. How do you believe these games will grow in a very competitive platform?

Mark Kern:

Take a look at Asia, where the dominant form of gaming is online. I think there is tremendous opportunity to grow in the market in North America and Europe, but we are going to have to stop making the same game over and over. The current rage seems to be to use a movie or book license to gather support and minimize risk, which is the wrong way to do it. We have to recognize that most narrative driven IPs are very, very ill-suited to open-world, thousand-hero MMOs. We also have to realize that people playing MMOs have stopped watching television and are now deriving their entertainment from these much more powerful and immersive games. Games are going to be the leading source of IP in the future, especially worlds created around MMOs.

MMORPG.com:

Many games are staring to be designed across platforms. Xbox 360 and PC gamers are starting to share servers in virtual worlds. How do you see this impacting the MMO market?

Mark Kern:

It's a good thing. MMOs are not about being a PC game or a 360 game. MMOs are a platform unto themselves. All the game logic and storage is on the server, and everything else is really just a dumb terminal. The power is in the network effect of users and the servers that run the game. If you look at what's happening with the Web, you'll see that it makes more and more sense in a networked environment to host all data in the network and to have server based applications that access that data. I think you'll see it become true for games as well.

MMORPG.com:

When designing an MMO game, what is the one question you find yourself asking the most?

Mark Kern:

What can we do with all this capability? We've barely scratched the surface of what we can do.

MMORPG.com:

We know you can not say too much, but how have things been going at Red 5 Studios? When can we expect to hear about some upcoming games?

Mark Kern:

We're really excited because we are in production mode this year and you should hear an announcement from us in the not too distant future. The team is also growing in leaps and bounds with the success of our "Golden Ticket" recruiting program. We recently hired Scott Youngblood, the lead designer of the Tribes series, and he's very excited because he's always wanted to work on a massive online game. We have other key hires with excellent accomplishments who are joining us at a steady clip, and it really feels like we're building a great team. We're really looking forward to this year and we're already playing our game and having a lot of fun!

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