It's a beautiful Thursday on San Francisco's legendary Embarcadero. The sun's shining, the birds are singing, the breeze is blowing in off the Bay, and how are Carbine's President Jeremy Gaffney and I spending this glorious afternoon? Inside of course, talking about games. Well, one game—Wildstar. With a little more than a week to go before launch, I was intent on bringing up some of my selfish concerns about the game; fortunately the affable Gaffney was happy to oblige me.
MMORPG: You've mentioned that Wildstar offers different methods of leveling which is good for MMO veterans who are burned out on the quest line route. How exactly do we go about avoiding quest line tedium?
JG: We mix in path missions which lets you choose what player type you are and opt in for more missions of that type. More building missions if you're a settler, more combat missions if you're a soldier etc. (Combat missions are by far the most popular by the way, even with all the people who are like, “No, no combat!” 26% of our player base is like, “More combat!”) About 20% of your quests will be about that (your chosen Path). So if you like jumping puzzles or Simon-says type-puzzles your Path will steer you towards those kinds of things.
MMORPG: So what happens if players with different Paths want to play together?
JG: What's hardest to test pre-launch is “I have a friend and I'm going to play near them.” Think about how beta tests work. It's all a random lottery. If you got a key, your friend often didn't. So in Wildstar, if you're on the same Path you get the same benefits and you can advance even more easily with someone else near you. The fights scale up and the rewards scale up. If you're playing near someone with a different Path, you each get benefits when—if the Explorer plants a flag on top of a mountain and a Soldier's nearby for instance, they both get it.
What we do poorly on that front is most of our quests are set up so they're sharable, but some are not. One of the things we've been asking people for bug reports on are instances of when you have to get twice as many boxes or you're competing to click the thing—we're trying to weed out as much of that as possible.
MMORPG: You've mentioned your intention to maintain an aggressive monthly update schedule. How do you plan to do that without causing developer burnout and missing tons of bugs?
JG: Two or three days after launch we'll get the PTS (Public Test Server) up with Drop One. We call them Drops and we have Drops of various sizes queued up. One nice thing will be having the PTS up and that'll be nice from a stability standpoint, because the Drops will get a month of testing. Drop One is already actually locked and it's going through localization and all that kind of stuff now. I walked with the development heads through the next sixteen monthly updates in game the other day—they're not done of course, or we'd just ship 'em. You have to have pre-pro(duction) on all of this stuff. If you don't, you screw yourself.
One of the biggest fallacies in our business is, “Oh, you can just launch and then use a patch and just stick everything in there.” No. If you want to do a raid, you better have it in concept long before it goes to generating the assets, the room layout, the encounter layout, before you bring your first round of testers who then tell you everything sucks and you tear out half of what you did in the first part. Then there's the iteration stage where you then tune it, and itemize it, and deploy it – that's an 8 month process. People think you can just stick stuff in, but you pay for it if you do that.
MMORPG: So you've been bringing all of these updates along at once?
JG: We've spent the last six months on monthly updates. We haven't had a lot of hoopla about it because we wanted to make sure we could do it. We don't like promising stuff we can't do and I'm sure somewhere we'll screw up and it'll be five weeks or something like that. The long and the short of it is that A, a lot of it's in process and B, half the team is reactive and they're there just to make sure that existing stuff gets better. If you're committed to taking your worst elements and turning them into your best elements on a monthly basis, I think that's a pretty good algorithm for making a decent game over time.
MMORPG: What does Wildstar contribute to the evolution of the MMO genre?
JG: I'll talk mechanically because that's easiest. Nothing like Paths has been done before. Warplots are really radical because it's mixing in the building elements and the raid elements. You go on a raid and capture a raid boss, you bring him back to Warplots and put him up against other Warplots—that dynamic doesn't exist in—I've never played a game where I captured a raid boss and then used it to coordinate PvP. I think the combat's very different too. It might be evolutionary vs revolutionary but the evolutionary part is making it based on AOE so when fighting in groups, positioning matters. Like, how am I lining up my shotgun blast?
There's a whole crew of players who've done action combat but they haven't done that at a raid level, and they're excited about it. Also the jaded raiders are excited about it, and they are damn hard to impress. The deep housing system is new. The free-form placement of objects plus being able to manipulate the terrain plus housing dungeons at launch that you can do with multiple friends. Housing's been done before but not very well, and I don't think it's ever been done well at launch. There's a host of stuff that's different.
MMORPG: Wildstar leans heavily on a theme park kind of experience. Do you think you'll be able to win over the players who aren't keen on that?
JG: It's tricky because we really want to make a mix but people want to stick you in a category. Our conceit was, start off in theme park mode because if you're a new player, it's very hard to be a new player in a sandbox. Experiencing EVE as a noob is like, “Oh, there's an asteroid. I'll try mining it. Oh I'm dead, all my crap's gone. Oh crap. Oh heck.” We start in theme park and then add more sandbox elements over time. We have as much exploration as you can have in a crafted content game as opposed to a user-generated content game or a dynamic content game. Those kinds of games have their weaknesses too.
Wildstar is theme parky I suppose, and there's a jaded crowd out there you can't reach but that's OK. What we're aiming for more than anything else is not the player playing WoW. If you've been playing that game for ten years, nothing's going to pry you out. Still, for every player playing WoW, you have ten players who used to play WoW. We want those ten.
MMORPG: Do you consider the free-to-play MMOs your competition?
JG: I'm biased because we have a conceit that good games do well. Subscriptions don't scare people off. Every developer is having trouble keeping customers. We'll find out when the next generation of games comes out whether it's that people are just always going to leave, or if [they leave because] developers just didn't do a good enough job nailing that end-game stuff.
MMORPG: So you're pretty confident about Wildstar's chances.
JG: Well, confident enough to spends tens of millions of dollars backing up that bet. One of the great things about our business is it's all experimental.
MMORPG: PvP intimidates some players. What does Wildstar do to help draw those people in?
JG: A lot of that seal has been broken of crossing the streams [between PvE and PvP]. I think a lot of people got bored with leveling up and shifted into PvP to level up alternate characters or learned that opting into team PvP isn't really that scary. It's scary when you're sitting there alone and someone comes up and ganks you and laughs and poops on your corpse. But when you have 20 of your buddies and you're fighting against 20 other people who can't talk to you or talk smack—that is a controlled environment that's fun. It's as much about camaraderie among your friends as it is about “Hey, I'm going to go kill all these people and then poop on their corpses.” (laughs)
MMORPG: How did you know that Wildstar's crazy, wacky, technicolor approach would go over with players?
JG: I don't know that we had a choice just based on the personalities of the dev team involved. The general philosophy is based on a couple of things. It takes the average person about 130 or so hours to get to top level and then a couple thousand more before they've seen everything and done everything. If you're going to do that in a humorless, bleak environment, it's just not fun. There's enough brown games out there for god's sake. From an emotional standpoint, you want the humor. If the game took itself seriously all the time, that would get old. If it was funny all the time, it would get old.
Wildstar has an epic story, but it's in a whimsical world and the reason why is it gives us the freedom to—you know, at one point you're throwing little bureaucrats across the field with this giant catapult and they're splatting against the wall, and at another you're saving the universe. It lets us do both of those and keep you from stabbing yourself in the face with a fork because you've done the same damn thing for so long.
MMORPG: Where do you expect to see the most emergent gameplay? Possibly housing?
JG: Oh that's a grand question. One of the things people have done with their houses is built mazes or skate parks way up in the sky. They make jumping puzzles and use their hover boards. Housing's gone way beyond my expectations. Also, one of our devs made an add-on that would save off the state of your house during beta so you could recreate your house when the game went live. Our add-on community has blossomed because no one's done really deep LUA integration and been as open source about it as our UI guys have. There's already 500 Wildstar mods up on Curse. That's nice to see as well.
MMORPG: I could sit here and geek out all day about this stuff, but it looks like we're out of time. Thanks for talking to me today and good luck at launch.