Boldly Going - A GDC 2010 Interview with Cryptic's Bill Roper and Craig Zinkievich

One of the best aspects of a conference like GDC is the incredible amount access there is to so many of the most talented folks in the gaming industry.

One of the best aspects of a conference like GDC is the incredible
amount access there is to so many of the most talented folks in the
gaming industry. While the opportunities to sit down and talk to those
people are abundant, it is a rare occasion when you get two of the most
talented at one table. Ten Ton Hammer struck gold this year in San
Francisco when we were able to corral Cryptic’s Bill Roper and Craig
Zinkievich and discuss their newly launched titles of style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online and
Star Trek Online,
how collaboration helps their work environments, the pitfalls of
communication and the future of MMOGs.


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Bill Roper is the Executive Producer for style="font-style: italic;">Champions Online
and Craig Zinkievich fills the same role for style="font-style: italic;">Star Trek Online,
both were so genuinely passionate about the games that we hardly needed
to supply them with questions. Our interview quickly turned into an
informative rap session that spanned many hot topics and nearly caused
us to be late for our next appointment, loosing track of time is indeed
the hallmark of a great interview.



Ten Ton Hammer: It’s a
bit of a rarity for one company to have two such high profile games,
especially ones that launched so close to each other, under one roof.
What has that experience been like? Is there an internal sense of
competition?




Bill:  No,
Craig and I hate each other [both laugh]



Craig:  There
is no underlying maybe, were in competition with each other.



Bill: Two
words “Bloodsport Fridays” [more laughter]



Bill: 
Seriously, one of the things I love about Cryptic and what got me
excited to join the company was that there is core tech and core design
concepts that all the teams work off of, and like Craig has said in the
past “wow I’m really glad that Champs came out first because A, B and C
happened and that let us do those things better”.  That’s not
only from the Dev’s side, it’s also true for the business side as
well.  It changed the whole way we handled the beta process
for STO, with Champs we made it very exclusive and tried to create a
buzz, but we should have opened it up and got it out there to as many
people as possible. When people played it they really liked it, so
that’s what we did for Star
Trek
Online.




Craig: It’s
really cool, because we aren’t separated, we’re all right
there.  It’s not like oh here is this team and here is this
team, everyone is really intermixed.  I remember about a month
into Champions Online
live where they were running into problems and we were able to say
“Guys, guys, check this out, we just wrote tech for that. Do this and
this and that all just will go away”. Which makes it really cool, we
all want to see each other’s projects succeed and do well.



Bill: Oh
and I also want to get rid of a misconception, because it ties into
this, we didn’t take a bunch of CO guys and funnel them into STO. I
read on the forums where “Oh you guys are communicating now so you must
have gotten your guys back from Star
Trek
”. That just doesn’t happen, we are separate teams.



Ten Ton Hammer:
Communication is definitely an important element, but what are the
pitfalls in communication, what do you learn from incidents such as the
recent furor over griefing in STO and the outcry from the official
response?




Craig: 
Expect going forward, and Bill can speak to this to, one of the things
that Cryptic is going to try and do is to over communicate, to get on
the forums and enable more people within the company to actually
communicate with the players and tell players things that are going on
that maybe other MMO companies won’t say. “You can’t tell them that!
That may change” or “Don’t go out there and communicate to them that we
are addressing that issue because who knows, something might go wrong
and that issue may not get resolved as fast as possible”.  



I think that most MMO companies, and even Cryptic in the past, we have
been very careful about our communication with the players. 
In the last few weeks we have made a conscience effort to change that
and were doing things like “Hey you know you’re working on that issue?
Go to the forums and tell them about it.” We’re going to, over the next
year; tell you what our plan is. What are the issues we’re working on?
What are the ones we’re really trying to find the answers for?



So not at all answering your question about griefing, but going forward
over the next couple months we know we are going to make mistakes but
we are going to communicate a whole lot more.  I think our
communities, after a short period of that kind of change and
communication mode, are going to be able to react and not read too much
into it like “oh they used these verbs in this order of the sentence”,
they are not going to take it as gospel but as more of an open dialogue
with the developers.



Bill: Well
that’s the hope.  Based on past experience I still expect them
to still somewhat pick it apart. But like Craig said, we’re just going
to be out there and let people know what our process is instead of just
filtering out information that we feel confident about or be as
measured in what we say.  I think initially people will still
be apt to say outrageous things, but that’s a small minority who will
always do that no matter what so we want to speak to that vast majority
who just want to know that we know that something is a problem.



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Ten Ton Hammer: 
How are things working out with the 90 day offer for STO?




Craig: 
Oh dear god! Promogate we like to call it. Mistakes were made,
facepalms ensued. Going forward there are going to be promotions, part
of this is running a business and getting new subscribers and getting
box sales but the most important part of this is our current
subscribers.  An apology all around for that misstep and we
may make mistakes in the future but hopefully all of that has been
resolved.



I think that events like this are sometimes what it takes to make sure
that our internal communication, between ourselves and Atari are
strengthened. I know in the last couple weeks several things have been
put into place to ensure better communications. I am never happy with
the status quo so I think we can always strive to make it better.




Ten Ton Hammer: 
How are things going with Champions
Online: Revelations
?




Bill: 
I’m really blown away by it, we were really happy to get it out onto
the PTS.  It is the biggest thing we have put out since the
game launched so we are giving it plenty of time in testing, and have
been getting great feedback so that we can make it as polished as
possible.Other than fixing the odd things that crop up and break when
something else gets fixed, we are pretty much delving down into those
microscopic bugs, and that’s really exciting.



It’s a blast, we were just playing it in initial testing and the team
has gone all out to make it the coolest thing out there, it’s easily
the best content we have had in the game.  It looks amazing,
it’s great to play and there are some really inventive missions in
there.



Craig: It is
some of the best stuff that Cryptic has made at all.



Ten Ton Hammer: 
What’s in store for STO in the next few
months?




Craig: 
We will be putting out the first update, Season One,
in the next couple of weeks.  After that we want to try and
react as fast as possible to the community and give them what they want
to see.  “This features done? Ok let’s get it out, this
feature is done? Ok let’s just get it out.” Things like a difficulty
slider, death penalty, more bridge officer things , enhancing memory
alpha, doing those as fast as possible and getting them out to the
community as soon as possible is what we are really doing over the next
few months with Star Trek.



Ten Ton Hammer: About
Bridge Officers, is there any plan to make
advancement more transparent?




Craig: I
think that there is a lot of complexity in Star Trek Online
that is not readily accessible and it’s very difficult to see “well if
I add to this skill what are my powers? What weapons of mine are
actually improving?”, so there are a lot of things we have planned UI
wise to really improve that.  It goes for the bridge officers
too, “is this skill going to help me? Is this skill actually going to
be useable on the ship that I have right now?” Yeah there are a lot of
usability things that we can do, and you continually add to the game to
make it more in your face and better for the user.



Ten Ton Hammer: We have a
one word question that should encompass a lot
of what players are anxious to hear about, and that is: Klingons?




Craig: Oh
yes, Klingons! So we have this clear vision for Klingons and
this clear plan for Klingons that is drastically different than
Federation gameplay, very PvP oriented and a very different path for
advancement, and we have heard the community and they will be getting
some love in the next couple of updates.  Update One has
Klingon star clusters in it, we have transferred a lot of the fleet
actions over so that they have that PvE content as well. They are
getting customizable ships now, so that when you get your Bird of Prey
you can swap out pieces just like the Federation. 



It’s one of the things that the community is very vocal about and
definitely wants and that really is our philosophy, what the community
wants then that’s where we are going to put our development money
into.  Making sure that they get unique PvE episodes down the
road, those are definitely things that we are doing.



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Ten Ton Hammer: Are there
any changes coming for PvP?




Craig: In
the first update we are adding Fed vs. Fed because there is
so much PvP going on in the game.



Bill: I
think the good thing with introducing Fed vs. Fed PvP is that
it will make it easier to get into a PvP match, there will be a larger
pool of players and you won’t have to wait as long for the Klingon
player.



Craig: 
We just have to make sure that as the Klingon
population increases that we don’t harm that aspect of PvP with the Fed
vs. Fed, we don’t want to kill that off.  So that the Fed vs.
Klingon is the thing that everybody wants, but the Fed vs. Fed is the
stepping stone in between.

 

Ten Ton Hammer: Anything
else interesting for Star Trek Online that you
want the community to know about that we haven’t touched on yet?




Craig: 
The big thing is that Season One, the first update is
coming soon and it has a whole lot of great stuff in it, more fleet
actions, IPvP matches, and another special task force that is pretty
cool. And then after that it’s not a question of  “ok look
we’re working on this update and we will see you in a couple months” it
will be every couple of weeks we are dropping something, every couple
of weeks we are implementing that feature that the forums are screaming
about.  We are really trying to address those issues that the
community really wants to see.



Bill: I
think the new special task force missions that are coming out
are really awesome, I have been playing them myself internally and they
are very different from what players expect.

 

Craig: Yes!



Bill: Which
the players found out the first time they tried
them. 



Craig: 
Like “oh it’s just an episode I’ll get a pick up group
and run through it” and then “oh man we are getting owned!”



Bill: I
love the fact they are a strong challenge for high end players,
we hear that all the time “we want our hard content.” Like on Champs,
we have been working on a new high end difficult thing for players to
get through where they have to think and not just throw out massive
damage, and I think that’s the great thing about the Special Task Force
missions.



Craig: And
there are two more in the pipeline, there are four planned,
and two are being actively worked on now.



We want to thank Bill and Craig for sitting down with us, conference
based interviews are usually a rushed affair as you plow on ahead to
your next appointment, but they gave up the ability to have a quiet
relaxing breakfast to answer our questions and we appreciate it. The
one underlying theme that we took away from our meeting was the
continued commitment they, and Cryptic, have in listening to the
community and never settling or just staying the course. While it’s
impossible to please all of the people all of the time, it is apparent
that there is a strong desire to do right by the players and give them
the worlds they want to inhabit.


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Star Trek Online Game Page.

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