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Interview with Steve Hartmeyer

Dana Massey Posted:
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Jumpgate: Interview with Steve "Istvan" Hartmeyer

Recently, we ran a developer journal written by Steve Hartmeyer, a developer on Jumpgate who may be better known as Istvan. It looked to the past. Now we compliment that with an interview that looks to the future of this space-flight MMORPG from the developers of Auto Assault.

MMORPG.com: Jumpgate has been around for some time. For those who never tried the game, can you tell us about the basic themes behind it?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Jumpgate is an online spaceflight simulator, set in a far-future milieu where a spacefaring civilization is being rebuilt amid conflicts among the successor states and corporations. Gameplay is reminiscent of Elite or Privateer, in which players can choose combat or profit to make their mark, but unlike those single-player games, every ship in Jumpgate is another player.

MMORPG.com: Since NetDevil has turned its attention primarily to Auto Assault what has changed about the level of support being given to Jumpgate?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Well I suppose the only significant change would have occurred back in early 2002, when NetDevil shifted focus to Auto Assault as the major new project to grow the company. Since then, resources available for Jumpgate support have been necessarily defined by our subscriptions. Really, the level of commitment from NetDevil has not changed for years.

MMORPG.com: What is on the immediate horizon for Jumpgate?
Steve Hartmeyer:

The game’s AI is being rewritten to act a bit more like mobile objects in MMORPGs, and to generally add more capability. Meanwhile, a factional conflict system is being built to encourage consensual PvP. White-knuckle PvP dogfighting is one of Jumpgate’s strong points, so a greater emphasis on that is definitely expected to be good for the game. Taken together, these changes are expected to have a substantial impact on players’ day-to-day activities.

MMORPG.com: Back at launch, Jumpgate gained fame for its live events being conducted by your partners at the Themis Group. What has happened with these events? Do you still run any?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Themis Group absolutely still runs in-game events, on a weekly basis or more often. Both storyline and non-story events are used to spice things up. Non-story events are usually just fun contests, typically for in-game awards. Storyline events bring any conflicts presently moving in the Jumpgate backstory home to the players, on a level players can get directly involved with, and are also used to trigger changes in the game environment, which might involve activating new features added in a prior patch.

MMORPG.com: Visually, the game shows its age. Do you ever foresee a major graphical upgrade?
Steve Hartmeyer:

It’s largely a question of whether a complete rewrite of the game will begin before a serious graphical update can happen. I tend to see our gameplay needs as being more important than the number of polys we render, or the resolution of our textures, but I acknowledge appearance does a lot to draw in new players. My own skills are more toward simulation and design of mechanics, rather than graphics programming, so although I’m interested in improving the look of the game, tackling that hasn’t been something I’ve been prepared to do, professionally. Of course, as the hardware being used to run the game clients has improved, it has become possible to update things while still using the game’s original graphics engine from 2001. Hesitant steps forward were made in late 2004, and there are more that can be taken before a major upgrade is left as the logical next step.

MMORPG.com: As a developer who joined the game after release, what about the game made you want to work on it and what now is your favorite aspect of it?
Steve Hartmeyer:

In truth, I wanted to work on the game before I really was a developer. I was a beta tester and then a player of Jumpgate for a few years before my career path took me into programming. The game struck me as incredibly loaded with potential – an ideal framework from which to hang mechanics for all sorts of gameplay. I was just in the right place at the right time when NetDevil needed another member of the team.MO< My favorite aspect of Jumpgate is hard to put my finger on, because now all I see are the things that I want to improve, or new gameplay I want to hang from the existing framework. The adrenaline rush of combat in Jumpgate is probably what I talk about most, when I reminisce about the days when I was a player – but I am still really bad at combat and usually avoided it as a pilot! Because I’m a social gamer, I greatly enjoyed the player interaction needed to get things done, organizing fellow players in team efforts to move projects forward. I’d like to increase the opportunities for that sort of thing in the game even more.

MMORPG.com: You mentioned in your developer journal here that you’ve added a number of new features to the game over recent years. Can you talk about their impact on the existing community? What were your best and worst experiences?
Steve Hartmeyer:

In general, all changes have been very well-received by the community. Everyone wants to see new features that make the game improve. ‘Impact’ suggests the kind of changes that alter the face of the game, and admittedly I’ve been working more in that direction as time has passed. I don’t want to get into the debate over whether it’s fair to the community to change the game experience – MMOGs by their nature are never finished and tend to evolve. In Jumpgate’s case, we have a niche game that is still not well-known, even after four years online. I think the community recognizes that change needs to happen to help grow the game, and while everyone has his own opinion on what is and is not a positive change or a good feature to add, the community has been consistently supportive. That support keeps me going and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

Limiting the topic to just features I’ve added, possibly my worst experience was undertaking some significant economy adjustments back in 2004. I had been under the impression the community had been begging for certain changes for well over a year. I finally had the wherewithal and opportunity to implement them. The response was lukewarm at best, pretty negative overall. It turned out, upon further analysis, that the community had changed in the time since my impression was formed, and the actual moment of implementation. I was late to the party, and really had missed the window for the desired changes. We’ve made the best of the situation since then, but I still regret my late timing on those revisions.

Certainly my best experience was probably the first major change I tried, which wasn’t a feature as much as a bug fix. It ended up being a total rewrite of the mechanism that was used to handle missile collisions. From the point of view of the players, suddenly one particular, popular ship type wasn’t handicapped anymore. The community response was tremendously positive. Being still very new as a developer at the time, for me that was the first moment when working on this big, legacy project wasn’t so intimidating. I thought, “I really can help make things better.” It was very empowering, and the memory of that has helped me move a lot of projects forward since.

MMORPG.com: PvP is a cornerstone of Jumpgate. Can you talk about how it is differentiated from other games in this way?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Jumpgate’s PvP is different from PvP in nearly every other online game I’m aware of because it really isn’t restricted in the ways players have come to expect from an MMORPG. This is because Jumpgate itself isn’t an MMORPG. While we do have a limited, circumstance-based penalty system in place, and there are several good reasons not to pick random fights, there’s otherwise not much preventing any pilot of any rank from engaging any other pilot in combat, at any time. Combat isn’t restricted, because a new pilot with a knack for 3D and good spatial awareness might just beat the socks off a high rank pilot who has been flying for years. Veteran pilots will scoff at that, I know, and the truth is there’s a formidable learning curve. However, a typical MMORPG system that limits combat by ranks wouldn’t make sense for Jumpgate, because rank has nothing to do with ability. There’s no avatar, character, or list of skills. You don’t click on your target and watch an attack animation, or select your tactics by keypress or menu. Ability in Jumpgate is in the mind of the pilot and the hands on the joystick. You have to fly your ship yourself, and that makes for sweaty palms, a pounding heart, some agonizing defeats and some very sweet victories – victories that aren’t your character’s, they’re yours.

MMORPG.com: When I first load up Jumpgate what keeps me playing?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Several changes were made last year to make things easier on the new pilot. But more important than any adjustments to features, the community is dramatically supportive of new players. Quite a few veteran pilots make it their business to identify, welcome, and coach new folks trying out the game. For many people, getting used to a hands-on game with near-Newtonian physics is pretty tough. Besides the personal drive to get better as a combat pilot, and the increasing opportunities to make a difference in the changing environment, it’s the encouragement of fellow players and friends you make in the community that help keep a lot of folks in the game.

MMORPG.com: As a game that has flown under the radar for so long, sometimes we hear rumors – fair or not – of its demise. Can you talk about the health and long-term prospects of Jumpgate?
Steve Hartmeyer:

Jumpgate has been around for more than four years, and there are only a handful of online games that can claim that kind of longevity. There are pilots flying who have been involved in Jumpgate since before the game was released, so with that in mind, I really don’t wonder much about when we’ll shut the game down. The development schedule right now extends at least two or three years into the future, and I add more to those plans every month. I won’t even bring up the possibility of a complete rewrite, which could take everything we’ve learned since the early betas in 1999 and re-launch the game using current technology.

We’ve gone forward since late 2003 just by striving to make Jumpgate a little bit better with every patch, and trying to get some word out about the game. Opportunities like this Q&A are much appreciated. Our present approach to continuation has sustained us for two years, and I think we may be getting better at it as time goes by. Despite limitations for the time being on what resources we can pour into the game, there is a will at NetDevil to keep Jumpgate online that I’ve learned not to underestimate.

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Dana Massey