Posted Thu, May 11, 2006 by Ethec
|by Jeff Woleslagle and Phil Comeau|
If David “Zeb” Cook is in the credits, you can rest assured that the game will be fun. One of the best known names in game design, Cook had a lengthy career as one of the pen-and-paper RPG scene’s most prolific authors, but is best known in MMORPG circles as the lead designer in Cryptic Studio’s enormously popular City of Heroes / City of Villains franchise.
Recently, David “Zeb” Cook joined the Cheyenne Mountain team as Lead Systems Designer for the highly anticipated MMO, Stargate Worlds, based on the long-running hit television series.
Several members of the CME team, including Mr. Cook, were gracious enough to meet with us last Thursday morning at the swanky Hotel Figeroua near the sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center, where E3 set up camp.
First, we asked Mr. Cook to expand a bit upon his role in the development of Stargate Worlds:
David "Zeb" Cook
|At Cheyenne Mountain, I am Lead Systems Designer for Stargate Worlds. Basically, my job is to figure out how the game’s supposed to play. We’ve got Chris Klug, the creative director, he tells me what he wants, and I say: given that, how do we make combat work, how do we build characters, basically what do you do, and how do you do it.
So I’ve got two other guys working with me and right now we are plunging into making the combat system work, getting the mechanics the way we want them to work, so we can start testing that and at the same time, you can’t figure out combat until you figure out how characters are going to work together. But that means you have to figure out this and this… it’s a pretty frantic pace right now, trying to get all the basic mechanics really solid, and we’ll build from there.
I heard a lot about the combat system in a pre-E3 interview with Joe Ybarra. You can almost see these designers' eyes light up when they chat up their vision for SGW's combat system. I wondered aloud what the biggest challenge was in bringing the Stargate model for combat into the MMO space:
|The biggest challenge we’re facing is that this is not fantasy combat. With the fantasy combat you’ve got in every other MMO, you run up to the enemy with your sword and go whack whack whack. And eventually it falls apart. On the other hand, we’ve got submachine guns and high caliber handguns and energy blasts and all this other stuff, and people have this idea of how modern should be. If you hand someone a submachine gun and it takes a hundred rounds to drop an enemy, they’re going to go, “that just doesn’t feel right.”
So, everybody expects modern combat to be a lot more dangerous and more lethal. So we want that kind of feeling, that standing in the open going toe to toe with someone is really a bad idea. You need to find cover, you need to do stuff, you need to make them move. But at the same time, it’s an MMO. You don’t want people saying, ‘Oh, I just got one-shot killed, that wasn’t fun.’ So, the challenge is to get combat to the point that they’re saying, ‘oh, standing out in the open is a bad idea.’ But at the same time, give them enough time to react to stuff, to feel like they have a chance on things that are happening.
We want you to be able to play through missions and feel smart, ‘we’ll get through this alive, we’ll be beat up, but it’ll be good.’ At the same time, we don’t want people saying ‘Oh my God, standing in the open is dangerous, so let’s all run and hide.’ We want you to feel like I can move around, I can do stuff, so it’s a tricky balance.
Combat sounds pretty intense, and as the pace of gameplay in MMOs quickens, communication between players can become a significant design hurdle. Since Stargate Worlds is purportedly more about relationships than it is the running and gunning your way through the universe, how will Stargate Worlds allow players to strategize before entering the fray? Would the flow of the game's maps encourage players to chat it up?
|A lot of that is going to fall to the world builders, the content designers, who are responsible for building all that flow. The ideal thing is that you come out, you’ve got your little scanner out, and you know that there’s a camp of Jaffa over there. You can do a little chat planning, because we want you to really feel like, ‘we really need to use tactics here.’ You can’t exactly pin them down with aggro the way a tank does, but you can say ‘I’ll go in and basically draw their fire, and you move around to their flank,’ because there will be bonuses for that kind of thing, ‘and you lay in with heavy weapons to suppress those guys over there, so they won’t move out of cover.’ We want you to look at what states you can induce in the opponent with these weapons that will set up this kind of situation. Then ideally you can execute it, and everything goes wrong, and you improvise. (laughter)
During combat, you’re not chatting with your friends, but you’re focused on ‘Look, he’s over here’ – that kind of stuff. If we can make tools to make that easier, we'd like to do that.
CME hasn't been very keen on integrated voicechat for a variety of good reasons, but since Mr. Cook is a little closer to the demands of the combat system than most, we figured we'd ask for his comments about providing voice over IP in Stargate Worlds?
|It’s hard to say at this point, there’s bigger things we have to get through. Even if we had integrated voice chat, I still have to design stuff that works without it, because we can’t count on everyone actually using it. If we design the game so that you can’t play it without the voicechat, that’s not a win.|
At this point, I let curiosity get the better of me and asked if he would contemplate using voice as another means of entering commands in Stargate Worlds. Forgive me, I'm badly hooked on Brain Age, you see, and am intrigued by all this next generation of interfacing stuff.
|Probably not. I’ve seen some experiments in that, and they tend to lead to hysterical results. Way back when I was working with InterPlay, there was a game [Bridge Commander]. You’d be flying a ship during combat and saying “GO LEFT!!” and the ship wouldn’t respond, because when you taught the game what to listen for is a very calm “go left”. Plus, instead of chatting with other players, you’d be focused on issuing commands.|
The other significant obstacle to fast-paced MMO combat is the massively multiplayer framework. The faster the fighting, the more bandwidth is needed, and the greater the potential for in-game disasters attributable (at least in part) to lag. I asked Mr. Cook if framerate and latency problems were on his radar at this early stage.
|In any game, you foresee all sorts of technical problems. Client-side it’s framerate and that sort of thing. Then there’s all the making sure that things stream in smoothly. Then all the latency issues – you just throw your hands up and say I’m not responsible for the mass of the internet. But we have to design systems that are tolerant of that kind of stuff. And it’s not just in terms of the code packet, it’s that, but it’s also in terms of your play. Which kind of brings it back to the combat. If combat is so lethal that you die because of latency all the time, that’s not fun. We want to make sure there’s a buffer so that when you come back, your guy is still alive; he may be in bad shape, but he’s still alive. No one likes dying from lag.|
Shifting gears a bit, I asked if Mr. Cook is a dyed-in-wool fan of the Stargate television series:
|I am. I have not seen all the episodes; I’m working through the ones I haven’t seen now. To be honest, I watched a lot of the earlier seasons, so I decided that the smart thing to do is just to go back and start watching them all again. Now I have to pay attention to things like, ‘oh look, that thing there, we have to make sure that’s in the game.’ And ‘how do we make a zat gun that doesn’t kill people in one shot?’ It’s either one shot kill or miss a lot. (laughter)|