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Behind Carbine Studios

Interviews By Jon Wood on May 13, 2009

Can you tell us a little bit about how Carbine Studios came to be?

Jeremy Gaffney:

Carbine was originally founded by a number of seniors and leads who left Blizzard's World of Warcraft team after that game launched.  NCsoft was very impressed with Carbine's founders, and signed the team on as an internal studio - the team has been quietly working ever since.  Since being founded with around 10 people, the team has grown to about 75, with experienced people from a large number of shipped MMOs.


You have a lot of talent gathered from some pretty prominent MMOs. Can you give us some examples and some idea of their positions within the team?

Jeremy Gaffney:

Obviously, we have a bunch of guys with WoW experience, but we also have folks who worked on EQ2, Warhammer Online, Vanguard, Gods and Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, City of Heroes and a number of other MMOs.  Those people have positions throughout Carbine, with many of them in senior positions in programming, management, art, and design.  In general we think that most of the games that come out have strong points in one area or another - being geeky fanboys ourselves we've tried to get people who worked on systems that excited us.  F'rinstance, the gent who was behind that neat Diplomacy minigame in Vanguard is working on our tradeskill minigames, and one of the guys behind Warhammer's cool public quest system is heading up our content team and working on our own unique content systems.  Oh, and I shouldn't forget Tim Cain, our design director, who is also pretty well-known for his work creating Fallout.

While we know that you can't talk specifics about the game that you're working on, I wanted to ask a few questions about the overall philosophies of the studio (or those in charge of it):

We know that you have people on staff from the team behind Blizzard's World of Warcraft. How important do you think it is to a) keep close to the WoW formula or b) differentiate as much as possible from the WoW formula when it comes to design?

Jeremy Gaffney:

In our opinion, clone games fail.  World of Warcraft did some stuff great, but the games that are going to try to formula exactly are going to find they're competing in a market of people who have played that game for the last four years and want something new.  Now the core of what made World of Warcraft work is still important - polish, balance, tuning, and being very critical and iterative in your development.  But in terms of systems and content, games that don't break significant new ground are going to have a very tough time of it, and we don't plan on making that mistake.

We know that you are making a science fiction (or Science Fantasy) MMO. Can you tell us a little bit about what can be learned from the current crop of sci-fi MMOs, both successful and cancelled?

Jeremy Gaffney:

Science Fiction has some inherent trickiness to the genre - it's very difficult to make scifi accessible while at the same time appealing to the diehard fan.  For instance, Star Wars has a pretty broad appeal - it's a universe that is cool and you could see wanting to live in it, and it has archetypes that are recognizable and aspirational - you get what a Wookiee is without having to read 3 pages of technobabble backstory.  That's tough to pull off in science fiction!  So that's a challenge we've tackled - making a world you can understand fairly quickly and that you WANT to be in - that doesn't try to bombard you with how geeky we are yet still has enough depth to appeal to our inner geeks.

What advantages and / or freedoms does making a sci-fi MMO give your team?

Jeremy Gaffney:

Any genre that hasn't been overdone is really fun to work in; being able to juggle science and magic means that the creative shackles are off.  There have been some good SciFi MMO's made - Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, EVE, and more - and each has been really different and there are some big swaths of cool untouched territory in between those sub-genres.

What are some of the detractors or pitfalls in making a non-fantasy MMO?

Jeremy Gaffney:

One big benefit of the fantasy genre is that the archetypes are super-recognizable - maybe not to the general public, but certainly to the MMO fan.  If you play a warrior or a mage or a rogue, you have a lot of knowledge about what your playstyle might be or your role within a party.  Choosing your race and class are super-important decisions that a player makes - in fact, really about the ONLY non-reversible decisions a player makes in the average MMO - and you do it within seconds of entering a game, before you know anything about the world.  In scifi, you're making these very important decisions with less info yet - there just aren't the established cleric, magic-user, thief roles that you might expect in fantasy - nor races you've seen a thousand takes on like dwarves and elves.  We try to strike a balance with some recognizable archetypes for players that might feel more comfortable with a role they know about - but that still has our own funky, stylistic take on it. We've also made sure to include some surprises so that the experience will be fresh and new to our players.  And some classes really focus on the science and magic blend of our game and the things unique to our universe. You just won't see them or their playstyles in any game you've played before.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about sandbox games vs. "guided experience" or "theme park" games. Can you give us, in your opinion, some pros and cons of each side?

Jeremy Gaffney:

The best games have elements of both - a sandbox with zero guidance has replayability but loses and confuses a big chunk of the audience, while a pure theme park game might be fun once, but rarely is going to have the depth needed to have players enjoy years of gameplay.  We have a few new ways of delivering quests that allows the world to be more sandboxy and letting you explore "off the rails" while still providing guidance and direction within the sandbox...more on that later once we start showing more of the game down the road.

On the subject of advancement: What different approaches to character advancement need to be considered when starting a new MMO project?

Jeremy Gaffney:

There's more to character advancement than just leveling and gaining abilities - one of our core mantras is "play how you want, when you want, with whom you want".  If a player wants to level up doing battlegrounds and doesn't like PvE, we try to let them do that.  Some players only play in groups, some only play solo, many mix - all that has to be valid, and making sure that you can find groups and your friends when you want is a key to that.   Another thing that games have done in the past that can be improved on is that there is often a very hard shift at the level cap - you might have enjoyed soloing up to the cap, but now the gameplay shifts to raiding with 10-20 people or pure PvP - and that's a very hard adjustment to make.  We try to smooth that by having a softer "jump" at cap between the different playstyles, and encouraging both shifting between playstyles and supporting those who really want to focus on just one playstyle: be it PvP, PvE, soloing, grouping, raiding, or tradeskilling.


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