An interview with Shadowbane's assistant community manager
John Spofford recently had a chance to chat with Danielle Vanderlip about her past and the MMORPG genre in general. Within, you can find some interesting thoughts on what her perfect MMORPG would be.
John belongs to the the guild The Undead Lords and did this interview of his own initiative. We would like to thank him for sending the finished product our way.
What was the first MMORPG that you played (for a decent period of time) and what aspects of the game made you keep playing.
The first MMO that I had experience with on a long-term basis was EverQuest. My brother had pointed it out to me and never having experienced what an MMO was before I was intrigued.
The primary aspect that kept me playing was the guild I became associated with and the friends I made. Even when the game became grueling or demanding, I found myself still logging in just to be able to interact with the friends I had made. The other aspects were the ability to be a part of a living and breathing world on a Role-play aspect as well as to be able to engage in Player vs Player interactions. There is always something much more engaging when you add in the “People” factor of a game and you never quite know what to expect.
Other than the friends/guild aspect that kept you playing, were there any features of EverQuest that you consistently looked for when seeking the “next game” to play?
I think for me EverQuest only was the tip of the iceberg. While the world was very much alive so to speak and it had a system in which you could quest as a means to gain levels and new items, it still had an element that was stale. I began looking for something that had a bit more of a dynamic aspect to it. Even when there were GM run events, things were scripted and the outcome was assured. I wanted to be able to affect the world and change it and feel as if what I did mattered. What I began to look for was something deeper that was usually only to be found in pen and paper games.
The first game that comes to my mind when you talk about “something deeper” is, of course, Shadowbane, where you currently work as the Assistant Community Manager. What aspects of the game immediately drew you in? This can be anything in game and out.
The first thing that really drew me to Shadowbane was the unrestricted Player vs. Player atmosphere. I had gotten a taste of it before in Everquest but it was on a very superficial level. I had always been involved in playing First Person Shooters and Real Time Strategy games with friends and against friends at LAN parties.
Next was the fact that Shadowbane added in RTS elements that no other MMO had done. It had a sieging system in which not only could you build a city but you could tear one down should you wish.
Also, the aspect of being able to be a part of a dynamic and very open world with a deep and rich lore that anyone could create something out of made Shadowbane highly appealing to me and many others. You became a part of a real living breathing community that had just as many faults as it did benefits. It was a community you could effect change within by playing politics as well as adding in the brute force of your character and those you associated with.
The lore was a huge part of Shadowbane, and on the newest game server limits who can group with who, and what classes can be in which guild. The other big aspect of lore was the Feature Character program, what can you tell me about this?
The Feature Character program was a program in which we had a team of virtual actors that would run characters within the game world and create interactive events for the players. These events were loosely scripted to where we had the basic premise of the event and the backstory of the character we played, however the outcome wasn’t always perfectly scripted out. The end of an event was what the players made it. If they succeeded or failed it was on their own merit. If others came in to interrupt or take part, that was also a part of the event. There were no rules saying who could or could not participate and in that the events became different for each server even when the basis was the same.
Unfortunately with a program like this, it requires extra funds in order to keep a staff on hand to keep the events going. Eventually the staff was layed off or reshuffled and only a skeleton crew is able to do events relatively infrequently.
Support for player events however is still given as often as possible. We’ve always encouraged people to change the world they live in and whether for good or ill, that is exactly what we’ve gotten.
basically this was a form of developer interaction that the players frequently saw, and the first time (to my knowledge) that this would happen on a regular basis. I know UO and EQ had similar events, but they were far and few between and usually there to rally support for a new expansion. There was also interaction on the community side… the developers constantly listened to the thoughts, complaints and suggestions of their subscribers, which led to the Focus Group and Advocate Program, had you seen or heard of something like this used effectively in previous games, and what else can you tell us about the program?
I actually believe that Shadowbane is the first to actually publicly put together a group of players to use as a resource in developing the game and continuing to improve the game. While I’m aware that Guides in Everquest often had a limited amount of access to feedback for it, it wasn’t a formal program by any means. Dark Age of Camelot also used an Advocate sort of program that helped the Shadowbane program develop further by having specific class guides though the evolution seems to have occurred basically simultaneously with both games.
The Focus group was started within Shadowbane beta early on and became a sounding board of sorts in which the best and brightest of the community were pulled out and given direct access to the developers to voice concerns, ideas and give feedback on the direction the game was going.
In the evolution of the focus group, we added advocates after release that were considered the experts of their class. These people would interact with the community to get feedback on class specific issues and act as representatives to the developers. They also would be the people that we hoped the community could turn to to get the help they needed on learning a particular class better.
The program still thrives as a sounding board in which the developers and the community can interact and it helps to filter out a lot of the “noise” of the community in general to get down to the heart of the issues that need addressed such as game balance issues and bugs.
So an accurate description of what would draw somebody to a game like Shadowbane would be the active community both inside and out of the game, fequent developer interaction and involvement with the events, the ability to literally chance the face of the world, and the open pvp combat?
Say you are going to be a lead developer for “Project X.” Given your past gaming and development experience, which features do you find most important when:
Drawing people to the game
Drawing a “new crowd to the game”
And which features not present in your past/present experience would you find most rewarding to incorporate?
First you really need to be able to create a world that is interesting to people. It has to be a world that they feel they can be a part of. This would be a world in which they can easily identify with either through a genre such as Fantasy like JRR Tolkein depicted or Science Fiction such as found in Star Wars just to name a couple that are easily identified. It also needs to be visually appealing. It needs to be a place people want to look at and explore. Dull and dingy graphics can be overlooked by people if the gameplay is there however if you really want to draw a larger crowd in you need to be able to make the game visually interesting to get them interested in seeing more. It should also try to offer something new enough to be different from other games of its type. You have to be careful about going too far out on a limb because if it’s too wild or fanciful and it doesn’t deliver as well as what people expect, the game can fall flat. It needs to be different enough to be functional and interesting for long term without turning people off. It’s like a tightrope act. You need to find the balance between innovation and familiarity.
To draw in new players, you really need to be able to address all of the first part as well as creating a new player friendly environment. It needs to be created so that anyone can jump in and start playing and yet still has a level of complexity that as a player progresses and their level of knowledge progresses so does the game. It also needs to be able to find a way to create a safe enough environment that death isn’t painful to the point of frustration. The more hard-core players are always going to want death to mean something and it should, but at the same time, newer players can easily become turned off if it’s too hard. Not to generalize based on gender but women are often a little targetted demographic. They can be a powerful draw to a game and when designing to draw in new players, they could become a very important part of the player base. How women play and learn must be taken into account without changing the overall power and interest of the game itself. I have heard that women in general learn by example in games as well as become quickly discouraged when given highly competitive atmospheres so can be turned off easily. While there are many women that like to go out and explore and learn on their own as well as are highly competitive (such as myself) it’s important to recognize that not all women are the same as men are not all the same. By exploring the opportunities within expanding demographics, games can pull in a larger audience base that will allow them to thrive. This is vital in the life or death of an MMO inparticular.
There was a game that was in development at one point that I really took interest in. It was called Mythica and was based on Norse Mythology. The most intriguing thing about this game to me was the fact that the choices of quests your character made affected their path the same way that you could experience in a classic RPG. I also was impressed by their attempt to take on RTS elements within a questing system as well as dynamic spawns within a quest that would allow a player to experience a dungeon or quest even solo or in a small party. You weren’t required to have a large group of players in order to advance your own story or advance your character. It still had a catch that the experience level and items weren’t as prolific or fantastical as you could get by engaging in a larger and more epic quest type. They also had specific quests that would require a large super group but again was optional and not necessary to continue playing the game. The RTS elements were also on a much smaller scale than that of Shadowbane so that anyone could experience it for themselves without the need of being a part of a large guild or a guild to themself with all the power and money that would be necessary to enact a siege.
There is something about Pen and Paper games that still elludes that of the MMO. MMOs aren’t nearly as fluid or capable of adapting as quickly to circumstance without someone actively playing the role of Dungeon Master for each individual or group. There are games that are just now addressing the idea of modding that we have seen so prevalent in RTS games. The idea that players given the tools and the space in which to create additional spaces within a world is extremely intriguing to me. While it could definetly have it’s nightmarish qualities, it could become just as popular as as modding for games such as NeverWinter Nights, Warcraft and more. It would require a few more resources to maintain quality however I think if a community is given the right tools and quality maintained, it could become the next hot thing and could even save on resources for the development team. Their role would go from creating big expansion packs to supporting the creativitiy and development of their community thus keeping content fresh as well as giving players a vested interest in the game they are playing.
Another game that had an idea they attempted to implement was Horizons. They had a way in which players could work together cooperatively to release what were termed “subjugated” races. These were additional races that once discovered and freed could then be played by anyone that was a subscriber of the game. I’d love to see this done well and really become an integral part of an advancing story within a game. This is something that could be seen as an advancing goal for players and rather than people needing to play for so long or pay extra money for a new character, they could find it as a reward for perserverence within the game world. It would also effectively change the world to which new opportunities and interactions would be available to everyone that was a subcriber.
I’d also like to see politics be a more integral part of the game. While I am one of perhaps the few that value Player vs. Player interactions I believe that the political aspect of a game could become far more interesting than even the PvP. It’s a type of PvP on a whole new level. Alliances could be formed or broken, elections had and more. I’d love to be able to see this become a consideration in game design that allows another type of player an avenue of fun and interaction.
It’s really about creating a deeper gameplay experience on multiple levels whether just in the realm of PvE or PvP or even within a political and entreprenureal level such as what merchants. can experience Being able to incorporate all of these things into one game however would be a monumental task. Balance is always within the eye of the beholder as well and one person’s fun can be someone elses nightmare. Creating an environment in which different levels of experience can be gained in many ways would help create the kind of feeling that we see in Pen and Paper but whether or not the technology is necessarily capable or that a development house is even willing to take that kind of risk is always in question. It’s the pie in the sky that everyone hopes for and wishes for and strives for. MMOs are still very much in their infancy and it seems that at current it is not really progressing very much beyond what we’ve seen in Everquest and while Shadowbane has it’s own unique and addictive innovations, it does not draw in the large crowds that an EQ-like game such as World of Warcraft can. The best we can do is keep hoping that we’ll break through at some point and implement all of the best ideas in one game or realize that the best game is one that fits a particular niche and make the most of that niche and be satisfied with that. My inclination is to believe that we aren’t really willing to settle for not enough. Communities thrive on numbers and interaction as well as a feeling of closeness and involvement. Finding that right balance is the holy grail of game developers.
It almost looks like I know something.
Given everything that you described, and assuming that all present and future game developers have their own vision of what the utopian game would be, do you think that we will start to see games that branch out in different directions start compete with the “Big Names” and the same dessert, different flavor games?
I really do think we’re going to hit a glass ceiling so to speak. Players aren’t going to keep paying to play the same old games for years on end. While I’m sure the influx of new and younger players will come in to take the place of those burnt out, retention and growth are the keys to maintaining the health of this section of the industry. At some point we’re going to have to see development houses finding a way to take broader risks in their game design and we may well see that come in the way of branching niche games or even see an independent developer break through it and shock all the big names out of their same ol same ol cycle. There are a lot of people that I know that swear that if they could create a game it would be THE game. Everyone is a developer but it still comes down to technology and forsight. Risk can go one of two ways, it can either be very very good, or very very bad. It’s like winning the lottery. Either you have the right numbers or you don’t and it doesn’t just cost a dollar to play a losing ticket.
When will we see it happen? Well it won’t be this year. We’re still in the age of EQ clones. There are some flickerings of things for next year that I’m aware of but whether or not it reaches it’s fruition I couldn’t possibly say. I think the main problem is that the publishers are still very much in charge of the purse strings and while they have a right to be concerned about the bottom dollar (good development doesn’t come cheap) it’s never really good to have penny pinchers that are too afraid of seeing a risky investment through. The main things still holding back the kind of games we want to see are money and technology. When I say technology, I mean technology that everyone can take a part in and does not require massive upgrades to their machines and yet, be powerful enough innovations to create more for people to experience. The only other part that holds companies back that have access to the money and technology is innovation. If you don’t have the right vision, it’s not going to become anything more than what we’ve all seen before. We’re just looking for that spark to hit when the money and technology are all in place and waiting.