Erick Slick is a designer and the Director of Development for Hero's Journey, the upcoming release from Simutronics. Every two weeks we have a chance to quiz someone from the team in what should become a community based Q&A series. You can submit your questions for future versions in this thread.
The quests in Hero’s Journey are said to scale to the level of those involved and be available at all levels. Given players can do any quests at any level, what incentive do players have to keep playing the game month after month?
Our research told us people wanted to be able to play together with their friends as much as possible, regardless of level. So, we’ve developed something that allows players to play together without worrying as much about differences in their levels. This unique approach sets HJ apart from the way MMORPGs usually handle level advancement and grouping.
The formula for how we accomplish this is still one of our closely guarded secrets. The basic idea, though, involves dynamically adjusting the challenges to the composition of the groups and a mechanism for bridging level differences within a group by normalizing the effective level of each character (within certain parameters and limitations).
The real thing to understand here is that we are lowering the barrier to playing with your friends. There will still be limitations, but you’ll find a much broader range of options for questing with your friends.
Simutronics has a very unique GM program in that you have volunteers produce much of the content for the game. Can you tell us a bit about the program and why you chose this route? Also, what process does the content go through and how different does it become from the hands of the GM to when the players see it?
The model Simutronics uses for content development is unique and innovative. We developed this approach with our very first title, GemStone II, over fifteen years ago. And over the years we have continually refined and honed our abilities to manage a large staff of GameMasters.
There are three important parts to this process: tools, management, and recruiting. You first have to have amazingly powerful tools, or all the GMs in the world won’t buy you a thing. Management of hundreds is a significantly difficult task that it requires some pretty elaborate procedures to deal with human resources issues, quality control and so forth. And lastly you have to hire and train a lot of talented people; something we are very good at.
Many people mistakenly think our GMs are volunteers. There is a revenue sharing process for compensating the GM corps, so even though they are not employees, in reality, they are independent contractors. Many of our GMs have gone on to important jobs in the gaming industry; besides other perks this is an awesome foot in the door for aspiring game developers. Most of our in-house Hero’s Journey developers started as GameMasters.
Some players hear about high amounts of instanced content and are turned off. What options and play styles will be available for those who prefer the “virtual world” type games with large, common areas?
This is clearly one place where we need to communicate better, so let me try and clarify: Hero’s Journey consists of both common and instanced areas (think City of Heroes style). You can hunt in common areas, with tons of other players all you want. And it’ll be fun.
Instanced areas are for quests, and because we do instancing we can put a lot of detail into these quests that is just not practical in a common area. From a game play standpoint, an instanced quest allows us to create the typical simulation conditions: an initial start setup, victory conditions and triggered events. These let us tell a mini-story during a quest, something that just doesn’t fit well in an anything-goes-and-is-always-going common area.
Further, we can support branching story elements in quests and multiple outcomes. There will often be different ways a quest can be completed. Quests won’t necessarily look the same each time you enter them or play the same. The layout and the puzzles can all be swapped in and out as much as the individual quest designer wants.
What you do in a quest can affect the common areas or other quest instances. What is done in common areas might impact instanced quests.
More significantly, the choices that your character makes in quests and in common areas will affect experiences and events that occur to them in the future. We call this the “Journey System” and it is a whole discussion in of itself.
As a small developer working on a AAA quality MMORPG, what are some of the challenges you face and how do you intend to continue to overcome them and make a game of equal or better quality to something from a major development house?
We’ve spent years developing our unique techniques for building games. These processes are unique to Simutronics, and it seems clear that our productivity is considerably higher than people are use to seeing. I love when people are surprised, but for us it’s business as usual.
As the Director of Development, my biggest challenge is how to do more with less. That requires me to be very creative and work hand-in-hand with my team on a myriad of issues. The fact that we don’t have money to just throw at a problem means we have to be smarter, and we are encouraged to constantly be inventive and take risks to get us where we need to be. This makes Simutronics a unique, challenging and rewarding place to ply one’s craft.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer these! Check back next Tuesday for more screenshots, and the following Thursday for screenshots and a Q&A!