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Interviews: An Interview With Hermann Peterscheck

By Carolyn Koh on July 10, 2007

An Interview With Hermann Peterscheck

In 2001, a space MMOG was released with little fanfare but a small, yet strong fan base. Did you hear about it? It was before EVE Online, before Planetside or Earth and Beyond. It was named Jumpgate and distinguished itself from the MMORPGs that were launching all around them, by billing themselves as NOT an MMORPG, but an MMO space flight and combat game. A game of skill, not gear and levels - a game best controlled with a joystick.

That was Jumpgate. It drew inspiration from older single-player, free-form spaceflight games from the 1980's and 1990's such as Elite, Elite II, and Wing Commander: Privateer. Developed by a small indie-group known as NetDevil, it outlived Earth and Beyond, which was published by Electronics Arts. It survived losing its publisher not three months after it launched, it was developed and run by the smallest team known to man (six), but yet it survived - not unloved, but relatively unknown - for six years.

Today, NetDevil is giving Jumpgate a much needed facelift and overhaul. With the years of experience running a space simulator behind them, Netdevil is improving upon the original IP with significant enhancements to: the gameplay, the addition of an advanced AI, and a complete graphics overhaul. They've even added to the dedicated team (eight)!

Although they weren't quite ready to reveal details such as the backstory or launch - I ran into several sudden pauses as he prepared to answer some questions only to halt himself with an "Err... we're not ready to talk about that yet." Hermann Peterscheck, the Producer of Jumpgate, waxed enthusiastic over their plans. I could hear his excitement leaping out over the speaker phone as he described the improvements Netdevil has been working on and testing.

"We have a completely new rendering engine we're working on. New models, new and more intuitive UI, player owned stations, pirates, defense mechanisms, a detailed squad system, better accessibility and most importantly, a new AI server."

Jumpgate suffers currently from lack of players and hence in-game balance of resources and balance between the factions. By design, Jumpgate has a simple supply-based economy. There are no trade skills per se, but raw materials have to be mined and supplied to Space Stations for product to be created and available for purchase. Prices are controlled by supply and demand of each product. The new Artificial Intelligence server will assist in balancing the game and game economy by spawning miners, haulers to run resources from one station to another, enemy ships and pirates for PvE. Creating a persistent world with NPCs acting on their own scripts, Jumpgate is ready to evolve from a MMO space flight and combat game to a fully fledged MMORPG.

Per Hermann, they've had a team of eight working on the overhaul for the past 10 months and they are in the closed testing stage, especially the "Easy to get into, quick to learn, fun to play" mantra they are chanting over at the Netdevil studios. It is this mantra that they hope will attract more players as more players means improved cash flow and improved cash flow will mean that they can afford to put more content into Jumpgate.

Hermann defined their focus - good accessibility, low specs, fun game - saying, "We're concentrating on what we already know and are doing well, we want to do better", as he described what Jumpgate had and had not. I asked what he meant by working on accessibility. "Everyone should be able to play the game, we need to capture a new player's interest in the first hour of the game. We are keeping the learning curve low."

What he was describing then is a basic fundamental of good game design, a good game has to be easy to learn, but hard to master, as most successful games are - think of chess - a simple game to learn, yet one that takes a lifetime to master.

Hermann described the extent to which they were testing and re-testing to ensure that accessibility was low enough for the "off the street" rawest recruit ever to step foot into a space station. "We are taking complete newbies and watching / taping them as they log-in and play the game. The threshold should be so low, there isn't one. Someone completely new to this game should be able to figure out where the combat target is, how to line up his sights and fire at the target in minutes. Given a joystick, he should be able to fly his ship instinctively."

In reference to low system specs, high frame-rates and hence a critical component to the fun to play factor, Herman was even more passionate as he fired off his comments at breakneck speed. I heard many references that could have come straight out from Netdevil's Auto Assault Post Mortem whitepaper.

"A game is no fun if your computer can't handle it. Low frame rates are no fun. Customization adds to overhead. One of our aims is to keep the minimum specs low."

Although there is little customization in the game despite player requests - such as the ability to place customized logos on their ships, Jumpgate: Evolution will allow players to maintain and manage their own space stations.

"MMOG players want to personalize their experience and in that, we've provided a functional method rather than a cosmetic method of doing that. Players get to own their very own part of space in player owned stations."

When faced with challenges, some of the most elegant answers can result. Not unlike the old army guy giving the toughest, dirtiest job to the laziest soldier as they will devise the simplest, fastest way to complete it, Hermann talked about how their developers have risen to the challenge of the system spec constraint.

"System specs dictates art direction and design. We have to be conscious of them every part of the way. I am amazed by the techniques the art guys have come up to address this constraint. It was a bonus. An unexpected boost in quality with low system specs, yet maintaining a higher frame rate in the game."

What Netdevil is doing is an amazing effort when you think of the size of the development team and a worthy feat if they succeed, given the complexity of MMORPGs in the market these days. Way to go, Netdevil, you can bet your loyal fans are eagerly awaiting the launch of Jumpgate: Evolution.

You can sign up for the beta test here.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.