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SOE Seattle Q&A

Dana Massey Posted:
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Matt Wilson Talks About SOE Seattle

It seems just yesterday that Mythica was one of the next big things on the MMORPG horizon. Many months and one cancelation later, Matt Wilson has landed on his feet at SOE Seattle - a new development house from the powerful MMO company. With EverQuest I & II, PlanetSide, Star Wars Galaxies and now The Matrix Online and an unannounced DC Comics MMORPG - what is left for them to release? Matt wont tell us, but promises it to be unlike anything currently available.

MMORPG.com: In many of the interviews you conducted last month, a key point you seemed to emphasize is that “more of the same” will not get you anywhere. Is it safe to assume from this that you will not aim SOE Seattle’s project(s) at the fantasy MMORPG genre?
Matt Wilson:

That is a safe assumption. We considered a number of different directions, settling ultimately on one that I think folks are going to enjoy playing as much as we’re going to enjoy creating. We are very excited to bring something new and different both in gameplay and setting.

MMORPG.com: As you look at the genre as a whole, which types of settings do you, as a fan, want to see explored in MMOs?
Matt Wilson:

The easy answer is more than two (sci-fi, fantasy). In Asia you’ll find MMP golf as well as several hundred other variations on existing themes and settings. Asia has always been more willing to experiment with setting than the west, and some of the efforts are intriguing to say the least.

As a fan, I’m eager to see people bring more original visions to the table that concentrate more on fun experiences than super hardcore mechanic minutiae.

MMORPG.com: The style vs. substance debate lives on. Many ignore games because the graphics are not up to snuff, and other games are viewed as nothing but eye-candy. In the end, there is no question that both are equally important. What is your approach to ensure that your game is beautiful?
Matt Wilson:

This question revolves around the “total package” that all the best games have. You can argue that without gameplay your game is just skin deep and all the work you did on making it beautiful just gave you the life span of a screen saver. On the other hand, a game that is not visually inviting, is not inviting at all.

To ensure we hit both, it’s very important to focus on both of those areas early. On the art side, it about defining your unique “style” and building visual concepts that represent that goal. This is not just about poly counts and water shaders, this includes color palettes, and world consistency. We do a great deal of paper concepts, style guides, studies, concepts, and storyboards before the first poly is ever built.

MMORPG.com: Conversely, what to you is the key to ensure that the game has substance to go along with that beauty?
Matt Wilson:

Starting with an engine these days is almost a must. This allows you to get gameplay prototypes up and rolling quickly and allows you to iterate on balance and new concepts. The goal here is to understand your gameplay before building all the systems for real.

Regardless of how serious or how wacky your universe is going to be, you need to make certain that there is a consistent internal logic that backs it all up. The next thing you need to consider is the genre itself. You may have an amazing back story and lore for your world, but a persistent universe is all about the passage of time meaning something. If your world doesn’t have a driving motivation that propels it forward, then you players will have no reason to stay .

MMORPG.com: For a very long time, the general war cry in the MMO community had seemed to call for something new. Then, along came WoW and EQII, which while both very solid games, are both continuations of pre-established themes in the genre. Why do you think this was, and do you think that was, and how has this influenced what you are working on
Matt Wilson:

EQII and WoW arguably represent the best in the MMO space, but do perpetuate the standard fantasy theme. The primary reason for EQII is it continuation of the EQ franchise. It’s roots are deeply established and the types of gameplay and setting are essential elements to it’s core identity. WoW’s theme was based on the WarCraft series. For them to take an established theme and combine it with a simplified version of established gameplay represented the minimal risk towards making a strong franchise. For us, these games are great models of top tier MMO’s of today, but what will be the EQ’s and WoW of the next generation? That’s what we are working on.

MMORPG.com: It is often said that the first ten minutes make or break a game. In something as huge as an MMO, to hear this is quite daunting. How do you think is best to approach this to ensure that those ten minutes are a blast, or do you agree with that statement at all?
Matt Wilson:

I fully agree with that statement. There are so many choices out there for entertainment, that if you don’t capture a person on your product in the first 10mins through the first hour, your product is probably done.

A game should offer the player interesting challenges which are achievable without frustration. This holds true for the entire game, and is a sacred goal for the first ten minutes to one hour of play. After the player has patiently made the effort of installing, loading , adjusting video options etc. the last thing they need is to be sprayed by an ‘information fire hose’ or be abandoned in a complex world.

I think small steps have been taken to bring in tutorials and other launching pads for beginning players, but I don’t think that is really enough. To have a great first 10mins you have to get the players in the action immediately.

MMO’s have lots of complexity and that depth is one of the reasons that people continue to play these games for an extend time. But do we have to get it all at once? Teach me the basics and get me in the action! Allow me to learn the rest as needed through context sensitive help as I explore the rest of the game. The games with the best 10mins make you believe you’re actually playing the game, not a tutorial.

MMORPG.com: Obviously, much of your team has experience working on Mythica. What did that experience teach you about making games in general and how have you put that to use to make sure whatever you are currently working on does not meet that same fate?
Matt Wilson:

Working on Mythica was a great experience for me, and even though we weren’t allowed to finish it, many great things came out of that project. The people are the most important part of a game project and keeping your focus on hiring the best, and giving those people a great environment for creating “magic” is the most important priority. The best parts of Mythica were created when people had the freedom to explore and build. We are really focusing on an iterative approach to game development on our new project, and so far it’s yielded fantastic results.

MMORPG.com: What is the single most frustrating thing you find common in MMOs that you would like to see gone?
Matt Wilson:

I want something different to play! It’s hard to move away from a proven model with the fantasy MMO, but I want to see more developers taking chances. It’s up to the developers and publishers out there to free us from killing yet another rat with even more hitpoints.

MMORPG.com: Presentation, in terms of UI, is a delicate art. Do it right, and no one notices, do it wrong and everyone lets you know. How will you tackle this issue to ensure that players effortless interact with their game?
Matt Wilson:

MMORPGs have the most complex UI requirements of any game outside a hard core flight or management simulation. The shear volume of variables and data a player needs constant access to (especially the more advanced characters) is tricky at best to negotiate.

The first way of tackling this problem is building game mechanics that are visually obvious in the game. The more you can rely on visual representations of stats and other mechanics the less UI you will require to play your game.

The second way is to test, watch and learn. Until you have seen someone play your game, you don’t know how good your UI truly is. Everyone has unique preferences, and priorities on what’s important to their gameplay experience. Observation and iteration is key for a UI that just fades into the background.

MMORPG.com: At this stage, you most likely cannot share specific details of what you are working on. That said the interview would not be complete if I did not ask. Can you tell us a few words about why people should anticipate what you are working on?
Matt Wilson:

A few words. Hmm. Well the game we’re going to be working on is all about ---
[SOEINTERVIEWBOT 11jx23: Matt Wilson was going to say he enjoyed the interview very much and looks forward speaking with you again in the future.]

Many thanks to Matt and the people at Sony who made this interview happen.

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Dana Massey