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NetDevil examines the evolution of Jumpgate

Jumpgate's development over the past few years can be split into two phases: a post-release phase and a post-expansion phase. During the post-release phase, NetDevil spent most of its energy ensuring the company's survival, since the original US publisher for Jumpgate, 3DO, relinquished control of the game back to us in late 2001, and in fact went bankrupt shortly thereafter. To keep the company going, NetDevil obtained a contract with NCSoft to develop a new MMORPG title, Auto Assault (now nearing release), while a limited development team continued to maintain Jumpgate.

As NetDevil focused on our Auto Assault contract and started a growth surge, the remaining Jumpgate team produced "Episode 2: 'Attack of the Conflux'", which released in March 2003. This expansion added player-owned stations (Jumpgate's equivalent of housing seen in other MMORPGs), more ships to fly, more AI features, piracy support, and numerous smaller enhancements to the game.

I joined the company late in the development of Episode 2, and wasn't able to contribute much to its content. However, not long after Episode 2 released, the Jumpgate dev team suffered some staff changes, and since then I've gradually found myself acting as the project lead. Due to the community reaction to the long wait for Episode 2, our development practice switched to smaller monthly patches instead of big expansions. There probably won't ever be an 'Episode 3' for Jumpgate, because now the idea is to get any new changes done in much smaller bites.

What we could call the post-expansion phase began sometime in late 2003, after most follow-on work to Episode 2 was completed. Because the remaining team assigned to Jumpgate is very small, and made up of people who didn't originally author the codebase, progress hasn't been as fast as anyone really wants. Nevertheless, the scope of development has gradually changed from cautious cycles of polishing and rebalancing in late 2003 and 2004, to much more ambitious, game-changing feature adds as 2006 dawns.

Because I began work on Jumpgate as an inexperienced developer, I see these last couple of years as having been full of challenge and excitement. By luck and circumstance, I'm involved in a chance to take a remarkable and unique, but poorly-known title and see what can be done to make it better, with the benefit of many lessons already learned by my predecessors. Keeping things moving forward has been pretty stressful now and then, but it's extremely rewarding when there's visible progress.

Despite bumps in the road, such as the sudden closure of our European partner Mightygames just last year (summer 2005) and the recombination of our player community onto a single "worldwide" server, steady progress is being made. The new player experience has been improved, the economy has been reworked, and many other changes have been made based upon suggestions from the community, a limitless source of inspiration. Kudos definitely go to our team of QA player-volunteers for supporting development and helping immensely to speed our updates along.

Jumpgate was originally unique among online games for being designed as a massively-multiplayer flight simulator, not an RPG. The development strategy for Jumpgate has become to try to change things to emphasize the game's strengths, such as its flight engine and its focus on PvP action, while at the same time modernizing the game as much as possible to keep up with other games being released every passing year. The two biggest projects already in progress are an AI rewrite, and a new interfactional warfare system.

Perhaps the most interesting project being tried, from the point of view of game design, is greater empowerment of the players. In keeping with the skill-based, hands-on gameplay of the flight engine, it is now a fundamental goal for all future work to create new social tools and other ways for the players to direct the activities of other players and eventually, direct the dynamic evolution of the game world as a whole. I'm extremely privileged to be involved in this fascinating process, and hope to continue developing for Jumpgate well into the future.

- - Steve "Istvan" Hartmeyer, Jumpgate Developer

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