A Visit to Carbine, Part Three
This is the third and final entry in a series of articles detailing a visit to Carbine Studios, home of WildStar. In this segment, we’ll cover my discussions with team members who handle Operations and Crafting, with a bonus side visit to the game’s composer. The two previous entries in this series are available here and here.
My next interviewee of the day was WildStar's resident ninja, Director of Operations Craig 'Cougar' Turner. Unusually, he's become one of the bigger stars of the Nexus Report livestreams because it's rare that a game would let their Ops people anywhere near cameras or reporters. Having someone in his position being open with players and that accessible certainly helps maintain a semblance of transparency, whereas most other games tend to let their Community team be the spokespeople for what is normally very much a behind-the-scenes position. My immediate question for Turner was how server population was doing now that we're Megaservers + 1 month or so. He said that the transition definitely helped, but that it also caused new problems due to too many people in certain zones at the same time. He added that certain custom add-ons are also causing problems due to sending calls to every other person on the same realm with the same add-on, and they were going to have to fix that. Overall, however, server population was seen as being healthy and that things were better post-Megaservers than they were previously. Like Mike Donatelli earlier, he declined to discuss numbers or comments from players that the EU Luminai server was having issues. We continued speaking about some of the problems from beforehand, and Turner brought up a frequent player lament that the recruitment boss for group activities was the hardest boss of the game, and now things were better.
Then I asked him to give us a basic overview of a day in the life of Ops on a bad day, and I almost feel bad in retrospect because Turner had to deal with that situation the very next day when Drop 3 went live and there were a number of issues for his team to handle. I swear I didn't jinx him! However, Turner said that having him on camera when things go bad is a good thing. He mentioned how most Community teams prefer having such information somewhat sanitized for player consumption, but he preferred having it a little more raw, and he didn't mind if they cried wolf on occasion if something seemed to be a bigger deal than it actually was. We discussed his methods of triage for problems and how he handled getting pieces of information that indicated trouble. Generally after updates and releases, he and his team sit around and listen to players for a couple of hours, whether it's posts on the forums, posts on social media, or simply listening to zone chat in-game, to see if anything immediately crops up.
I asked Turner about the Megaserver launch, how it seemed relatively smooth from my perspective, and whether there were any major glitches along the way and how he and his team resolved them. He said that the CREDD system was the worst bit of the launch, how it was gobbling up people's money without giving them the CREDD. Turner added that they resolved the base problem within two hours and had everyone's money restored in six and that was because they had people in-game watching for issues. He continued by noting that they were expecting far more major issues and bugs to crop up because of the launch, and he laughed when I likened it to Y2K (for those of us old enough to properly remember that). He said that it came down to testing and the fact that they'd gotten more testing in than expected, so they caught three or four critical bugs through the use of the Public Test Realm and other methods and testing it with live data.
Turner described his daily job as being the signal-caller and how at WildStar's original launch when everyone else was in the kitchen with champagne and toasting the release, he was in his office with the executives doing the countdown and hitting the button... and then nothing happened. He said he loved that sort of environment, because it harkened back to his days as a tech working in theatre and his years in restaurant management. He said most of his job is triaging what might be incomplete information and what does he do with that incoming information. He added that the key was time management to a tee, and ensuring that he doesn't get bogged down with stuff he cannot immediately address and moving on to the stuff he can address or otherwise route correctly.
We discussed the role of social media in his daily work, and Turner said that one person's problem doesn't necessarily reach his ears. He noted that when people send him issues on Twitter, he'll check into them with an eye to seeing if it's a one-off or whether any given report is the first of many. If more reports of the same issue trickle in, he starts fishing for information amongst other departments, particularly Customer Service, to slowly build an image of what's going on. Turner than pointed out that eventually, there is a critical mass of confirmed reports and things get escalated appropriately after that.
Speaking specifically about the Megaserver merge, he stated that one of the larger random bugs happened when a player server-transferred and their guild details didn't merge correctly because the new server was on the same SQL box that the old one was and so the sequencing got messed up. One major guild's leader wound up in two guilds at once and had issues trying to remove people from the wrong guild and locating their guild bank's items, but Turner stated that less than a hundred people were affected by that particular bug. He added that they had like a half-dozen tiny issues with the launch, things that affected a low double-digit number apiece, and that he would take that sort of launch any day. He stated categorically that WildStar's launch was one of the best in the industry. Not the best, but he was proud to have it on his resume. Turner said that he creates processes that are constantly being reviewed and evolving because a static process was a useless process. We also discussed how the pre-launch Name Reservation System debacle had led to his rise in stardom amongst the community because of his open acknowledgement that something serious had gone wrong and the fact he actually publicly explained what happened and what steps they were taking to correct the problem and avoid it in the future. He said that he loves postmortems on problems like the NRS, because they need to know what they did right and what they did wrong in order to refine their processes.
My final interview of the day, I talked crafting with Noah Slater, and I asked him about crafting talents, how people are saying they have little benefit, and what Carbine is looking at to address making crafting a more viable regular activity for players. He said their basic goal was to help crafters work toward building stats they want on their crafted items versus random drops. After citing big-name crafter player Anhrez' question whether raid-level mats would get updated to ensure crafters could continue to craft relevant end-game progression items, Slater replied they also wanted to make sure crafting kept up with new drop, like the Defile zones just released this past week. He added that in Drop 3 that just released, there would be a number of new schematics, but actual materials weren't a huge focus for this drop. He pointed out that Expert Technologist research will lead to improved power cores and that he'd wanted that feature available for launch but it's finally here. Another big change is that Expert Technologists can craft two separate items: one to allow players to reroll an unfavorable rune slot type and another one to allow players to add a rune slot to items.
Another big name in crafting was brought up, our MMORPG colleague Chief Sarcan, who said that farming needs to have more skill and suggested that Carbine brings back mushrooms. After he stopped chuckling, Slater noted that they have a list of priorities, and that things that impact bugs were highest, annoyance issues or improvements second. He was very fond of the notion, but unfortunately, it was not near the priority list. We also discussed hobbies like fishing and where they stood. I reminded Slater of my interview with former president Jeremy Gaffney back at PAX East, and how the Gaffer said that they were in the 'getting it right' stage for the 3D telegraphs that fishing would require. Slater answered that they have a fishing prototype that is being worked on, but of course there's no ETA on it.
Overall, many of the crafting and hobby issues will be worked on in a more systematic way. Slater pointed out that fixing one particular item that dropped with bad stats such a heavy gun for Engineers that had a healing stat would only benefit Engineers. They were focusing more on the big picture and getting items in general to drop or be crafted with fewer incorrect stats. He also said that he was going to try and be accessible via his Twitter (@vikingnoah), so if people have crafting questions, he does try to answer them.
Toward the end of my visit, I was given a tour of their offices, and I met so many people whose names have cropped up in my Twitter feed or that we've seen on their livestreams. The tour itself wasn't at a pre-scheduled time, so there was no scrambling to pretend to be busy or happy or whatever. The natural view of the office was that people were legitimately working the day before a major drop. I saw plenty of fan art posted on various walls all over the office, observed the Community and Social Media folks planning their messaging for the next day's festivities, and got the biggest treat of all when visiting the office of composer Jeff Kurtenacker. Having been an unabashed fan of his work since his days composing for Pirates of the Burning Sea, I was completely unsurprised by the fact he's got more Jack Skellington toys in his office than a Disney warehouse. However, Kurtenacker was kind enough to allow me to listen to one of the tracks he composed for the Shade's Eve event that we sadly couldn't get this year due to the game having to suddenly change course. If you like Danny Elfman's music (a known Kurtenacker inspiration), you'll probably like this piece. It definitely had a Nightmare Before Christmas sort of vibe, so keep an ear out for it next October! He also let me listen to another piece with full orchestra and solo vocalist that was so ethereal and beautiful and truly movie-quality epic that it's as much a crime that it's not in the game that the game itself doesn't yet have an official soundtrack to purchase. Because of the vocals, it's not really suited for an in-game experience like zone music, but it sure as heck belongs over some credits or some in-house machinima or cinematics like the Blizzard folks make.
With that, my visit at Carbine came to an end. Because we had so many devs available to speak to, but they were also very busy with their regular work, I couldn't really get as in-depth with the questions as I would have liked due to time constraints. However, I do appreciate the fact they were willing to host a visit and let me poke around and talk to a number of key players on their team. At the end of the day, the overall impression I got was that the train was very much still on the rails and that the game isn't likely to be going away anytime soon. Everyone I spoke to was enthusiastic about their jobs and the game's future, even Craig Turner in his own mild-mannered ninja way. There wasn't the slightest hint about even the vaguest potential that the game might shift to a free-to-play setting, not even in the tantalizing snippets of conversation I overheard whilst wandering through the cubicles with my PR escort. In all, they're recovering from the hard hits they've taken since launch and things are looking up.
See you on Nexus!