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Creating Blighthaven

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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This week, Carbine Studios is keeping a promise. One month after WildStar’s launch, the first major content update will be hitting our PCs. Besides the thousand-odd bugfixes and new cosmetic items, the bulk of the update is Blighthaven, a new endgame questing zone. While eager gamers have been testing out Strain-themed content on the new Public Test Realm, Carbine’s also been demonstrating new features, Blighthaven and a revamped Northern Wastes in a trio of livestreams.

As a result of this cavalcade of news, I was interested to find out just how it was put together. Where had the ideas come from, and how did the studio shape Blighthaven into the zone we’re about to enjoy? Senior Game Designer Brian Berke headed up the team responsible for it, and kindly agreed to share all the details with me. In a wide-ranging discussion, we covered everything from the initial brainstorming to the tools used to build it.

Berke’s been working on WildStar for some two and a half years, currently heading up a four-person team responsible for zone content. “Mostly we’re implementing the quests, the challenges, and basically everything that you would find in our zones.” Prior to joining Carbine, his background was in engineering, working on backend programming for early Stargate titles before switching into game design with Stargate Resistance.

Purging the Purple

As players climb towards level cap, the lush world of Nexus gives way to various shades of purple Strain, a virulent bio-phage that corrupts everything it touches. According to Berke, this new zone should provide a welcome contrast. “One of the central themes of Blighthaven that we really wanted to dive into was an idea that we wanted a place that was a haven from the blight. The team had just finished up implementing the content in Grimvault, so we wanted to do something that was a little less purple, to be honest.”

“As we dove into that brainstorming, it felt like, after doing all these quests for Drusera, you motivate her a little bit and give her a hope for the future she didn’t really have before. So, lore-wise, we knew we wanted to represent that in a very real way. That’s where we came up with the idea to use the world itself to show her fighting back against the Entity. Those two ideas really came together and formed the basis of the Drusera Tree at the heart of the zone.”

“After that, we really wanted to dive more into her origin story, so we stared exploring the concepts of the Nursery. And then, this crazy idea came of this giant alien organism you could swim through. I didn’t actually think we would be able to pull that one off, but our engineers and world artists always find a way to surprise me, and we were able to do it.”

Before the first NPCs are dropped into a new WildStar zone, the Narrative Team create a Zone Brief, detailing the plot points it needs to cover, the overall feel, and so on. “Once we have that zone brief, we start our brainstorming process as a team, and we come up with the quests and challenges and ideas that we want to hit at a high level. So right from the start, everyone gets to contribute their ideas for the entire zone. From those meetings, it’s usually clear which designers favor which areas, and we assign them out informally based on those interests. Each team probably works a little bit differently, in so far as that’s what’s been working best for us and we haven’t really had any conflicts – everyone’s been really excited about the area they get to work on.”

With that in mind, I was expecting the designers to have personal favorites, such as a particular faction or race that they preferred to work with. Surprisingly though, Berke tells me that’s not the case. “When we play, certainly – we seem to be split 50-50. Personally I love playing the Chua, but we have a few Aurin fans as well. But as far as faction or race favoritism when we’re creating the content, not really. Both factions have so many interesting stories and plots to explore, so we’ve never really been pulled to one or the other when we’re designing the content. It’s quite the opposite really, we never seem to find enough time to tell everything we want to tell, so we always have those ideas on the back burner.”

The challenge then is blending it all together, ensuring that everyone has the type of content they enjoy. Is there enough for solo players? What about guilds, or players questing in groups? How about those that love the path content? Berke told me that thinking in this way helps the team branch out into the different types of content that WildStar offers, using a ‘gameplay first’ philosophy. “Basically our goal is that, wherever you go in WildStar, you have access to those challenges. You can go and do the quest lines in the order that we intended you to do them, or you can pick a direction, go, and you’ll find stuff to do.”

There was, however, one final piece of the puzzle that I was eager to understand: how do you keep it fun and entertaining, for zone after zone? For me it’s all about the story, a sentiment that Berke shared. “I know a lot of people play games for different reasons, but that’s one thing that really gets me into our questing; those stories that we get to tell.”

Ultimately though, it’s the solid combat foundation that Berke feels is the secret. “We’re really lucky on the quest team to have combat that is so engaging and so fun. So really, our quests, we try to tell a story that doesn’t completely remove you from that combat. We try and give you interesting things to do, while you’re going around killing mobs. I think that’s really the basis – we keep the fun gameplay, we give you interesting mechanics to play around with you’re going around and enjoying our combat.”

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.