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Troy Hewitt Interview

William Murphy Posted:
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MMORPG: We wanted to talk about the design philosophy of Carbine Studios as 2012 will be a big year for WildStar. Can you tell us how the game came about?

TROY HEWITT: WildStar came about because a group of avid MMO players (who also happened to be game developers) approached NCsoft about setting up a team to shake up the MMO genre.  A team to that wanted to work on something truly unique, something screaming with a fresh personality, packed with systems and features that offered something both new and different from the many MMOs they’d had a hand in developing.  From there, the project evolved – the IP for WildStar came as a result of the team discussing and dissecting the ideas around what, as players, we wanted to see.

As a team we had already agreed on a simple philosophy:

Let players play how they want, when they want, with whom they want.

It might sound simple, but there’s a challenge here - especially when you consider the diversity of plays styles just on the Carbine team (never mind the rest of the world!). The team embraced the “play how you want to play” concept with a seriousness that inspired (and still inspires) passionate discussion and debate. No subject was safe: the story, the features, the tone of our quest text, the art style – all of it had to be developed in concert, and in service to the idea that we are creating a digital world for people, lots and lots of people, to embrace as their own.

I remember pretty clearly when things crystallized for our team into something tangible, understandable and, thankfully, explainable to people outside our offices.  That was the moment that both Paths and layered content became part of the Carbine design lexicon. With Paths allowing you to have an experience unique to your play style, and a layered content system that puts you in control of the depth and difficulty of your game experience, we finally had the methodology to support our long-held philosophy.

Other aspects of the game design took shape in the same fashion.  The closer we embraced the mantra “play how you want, when you want, with whom you want,” the faster we were able to make decisions and develop our ideas.  It’s the first thing our Executive Producer said to me when I began working at Carbine Studios, and that mantra has infused all aspects of the game development process.   It’s also a nice to have found a common ground between the members of our team who are completionists, collectors, competitive PvPers, explorers, highly social, tradeskillers, raiders, guild leaders, casual players… and the list goes on and on. You name it, and they are walking the halls here at Carbine.

Finding common ground between that diversity of play styles is what I love most about my job and our MMO in particular.  As a matter of fact, it is the reason why I joined this team. Players are first-class citizens on this project, and player feedback and community sentiment are what fuels the Carbine process.

MMORPG: When building an MMO, what mechanics do you feel are critical in the making of the game?

TROY HEWITT: Wow, that’s a big question, and it’s an answer that is a little different for each of our departments. Luckily, I’m the one that gets to answer this question, so I’ll tell you what I think is the most critical aspect of an MMO: Social Systems.

I’m talking about guilds with serious management tools. I’m talking about giving individuals opportunities to dominate in a balanced PvP experience and be celebrated for it. I’m speaking to mechanisms that allow the easy sharing of resources and support throughout in-game networks and connections. I’m talking about offering players the chance to enjoy quality in-game alone time if they need it, with options to connect easily and quickly with others should the mood strike you. Social systems are about providing opportunities for individual expression within the game world, and providing venues for you to tell your character’s story on a real-world stage.

So if you are asking me (and you did), the most critical mechanism in the creation of this MMO is facilitating opportunities for superior, high-quality interactions across the spectrum of play styles. That means creating tools for players that allow them to opt into experiences they prefer, and just as importantly, allowing them to opt out of the experiences they don’t.

You’ve heard us say it before: we’re working on full featured MMO here at Carbine. It’s the commitment to knitting all of that together with a suite of community controls that we plan to put in your hands.

MMORPG: How important is fusing solo and community content? How often should they overlap?

TROY HEWITT: I think it is very important to that there be some crossover between solo and community content.  I saw this on the Internet, so I know it’s a fact: people play MMOs to be in a world with other players.  That even applies to people like my boss (I’m looking at you, Senior Producer Eric DeMilt) who don’t want to interact with a ton of other people.  While these personality types may not run around the world handing out hugs and exchanging valentines, they are playing in a world that is alive and full of other people. And that’s the magic of MMOs.

That said, I think it is as much a mistake to try to segregate these experiences as it is to force the solo player to group in order to complete a goal.  This is where I remind you of our mantra of “play how you want, when you want, with whom you want.” I feel it’s our duty as developers to provide interesting and meaningful reasons for people to engage in community. Imagine the player with a preference for playing solo, riding into town on his epic mount – that’s a social interaction that allows a person to show off without being forcing them to engage in ways they’d prefer not to. Then, you’ve got players who group causally to take down a particularly hard boss, or take part in a public event with people they’ve not met, and might not ever speak to again. Then there are players that go so far as to create systems and content to share with others, tradeskillers that create and sell things to others, and those players who dive right in to building those strong social bonds with other players – like guild leaders, storytellers, role players and the like.

Ultimately, I believe Solo content and community content aren’t required to be at odds. Carbine’s goal is to give players that choice, letting them sort out how they want to experience WildStar. That being said, if they don’t come out of it having made some meaningful connections with other players, I’ll be surprised.

MMORPG: For WildStar you have a very wide open canvas in the universe you are building, what are your favorite parts?

TROY HEWITT: Again, this is a huge question.  There are tons of things about the game that compete for the top of my favorites list.  Unfortunately for you, and for me, I can’t talk about them yet. That said, I do know from the responses to our recent Facebook polls, that people are dying to know more about our races. That just happens to be one of the things I am most excited about, and I cannot wait until we can introduce more of them to you. As an aside, I’m pretty certain the Granok was modeled after our Lead Creative Designer Chad Moore. I keep trying to talk him into painting himself gray for the next convention, but he’s not into the idea (Come on Chad! It’s for the fans!). So while I love the races we’ve shown, I can’t wait until the day you get to see all the races we have waiting in the wings.

Beyond that, I love that we’ve been able to create such a stylized world.  We can tell these epic stories and create larger than life situations in a world I want to spend some serious time in. There’s not one NPC, creature or character in the game world that I wouldn’t want to see sitting on my desk as part of the requisite developer desktop toy collection.

And that’s just the stuff I can talk about. Buckle up friends, because you ain’t seen anything yet.

MMORPG: In dealing with a sci-fi genre game what are the biggest challenges?

TROY HEWITT: One of the biggest challenges in dealing with sci-fi is the “sci” part of the equation.  That might sound weird, but let me explain:  First, mixing sci-fi and fantasy is great.  The creative freedom you get by taking the best elements of both and combining them has been a lot of fun.  We can tell almost any story we want, and it feels threaded into the fabric of our world, rather than trying to introduce some discordant add-on that ends up feeling like some strange exception to all the rules.

In our gamescom/PAX announcement zone, the player emerges from a crashed space ship, fights his way through hostile yeti, defeats a frost giant, pummels some ice elementals, to then master the power of an ancient weather control tower that is threatening to freeze the zone and kill the crash survivors you’ve been working to save.

After the player solves this problem they are asked to help rescue lost survivors from a local tribe of cave dwelling creatures, move on to fight the baddies that shot you down in the first place, and then steal their aircraft to escape into the next zone. All those elements just work together, and make sense in our world setting.

That was the upside.  The downside, (and this is true of any game design process), was the tendency for us to get a little lost in the details of the “sci” part of the sci-fantasy mix. As an example: Why do people have swords in a world where you can have laser guns?  This, and issues like this, are topics we’ve spent lots of time discussing.  There’s something about science fiction that encourages you to seek answers to things you don’t necessarily need to justify.  Now, I’m not saying that the details aren’t important, but there has to be a level of flexibility in your fiction that won’t always fit into a neat little package. Dilithium crystals anyone?

So that’s the challenge that science fiction brings, leading you down a path of 3000 page feature specs combined with hours of meetings to justify why a certain thing functions in a certain way. Fortunately, our team has settled on an antidote to this challenge, and it really boils down to one question: Is it fun?

The answer has settled more than one debate here at Carbine.

MMORPG: How will players interact with the story of the worlds they are exploring? Is there a heavy lore system in the game?

TROY HEWITT: This is kind of a trick question, so I’m giving you a bit of a trick answer: In our world, the players are the story. Yes, there are mysteries to solve, ancient technologies to master, and conflicts to manage. But players log in to MMOs to be larger than life heroes in larger than life places, and that’s the world we’re working to build. Now with the standard issue MMO sentiment out of the way, let’s talk details:

Our game is set on the planet Nexus. The fabled lost world, rediscovered after thousands of years. Once the home world of the powerful Eldan, a technologically advanced race that mysteriously disappeared, leaving a world populated with deadly experimental creatures, powerful relics, ancient ruins, advanced technologies  and untold riches for those bold and strong enough to conquer, claim and master for themselves. Nexus is a world full of lore, with memorable characters and fantasy landscapes that serves as the stage for the greater conflict: the battle between the Dominion and the Exiles to claim Nexus as their own.

MMORPG: What plans do you have for 2012? Can we expect more news on WildStar?

TROY HEWITT: 2011 was a huge year for us, and we couldn’t be happier with the interest and excitement we’ve received from MMO fans.  Throughout last year we shared a lot of information about WildStar, and provided plenty of hints and clues about what’s to come. As a studio we don’t believe in talking about it without being able to put it in front of you directly, and we’ve already been hard at work preparing for this year’s convention season. So yes, we’ve got some big plans for 2012. In the interim, our community team continues to work overtime preparing a regular schedule of web features, like developer blogs, new creature and character lore, and regular video features that will give you a behind-the-scenes look at Carbine life.  So stop by www.wildstar-online.com, our Facebook and the @Team_WildStar twitter account for regular updates.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.