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 Champions Online and Star Trek Online, how collaboration helps their work environments, the pitfalls of communication and the future of MMOGs.

Bill Roper is the Executive Producer for Champions Online and Craig Zinkievich fills the same role for 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.

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.

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.

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