Exclusive Neverwinter Interview with Jack Emmert

We met up with Jack Emmert during PAX East 2013 to discuss Neverwinter, and some of the lessons Cryptic Studios has learned over the years.

Even with the third beta weekend for Neverwinter in full swing, the game has another strong showing this year for PAX East. From what we’ve seen so far, gamers have been wrapping around the booth for a chance to hop into the show floor build, and snag some awesome loot in the process. We also got to see the massive gathering for one of the book signings by R.A. Salvatore for his newest novel, The Last Threshold, based in the Neverwinter setting.

While we weren’t able to snag a copy (we had to scamper off to our next appointment and didn’t want to rudely cut in line) we’ll hopefully get another chance when we meet up with the crew from Neverwinter and Perfect World later tonight. In fact, I jokingly suggested to Phil that we should sign and present a copy of the novel to R.A. Salvatore during the shindig, so we’ll see if we can pull that off.

In the meantime, we had a chance to chat with Cryptic Studios’ Jack Emmert on the show floor, and talk about some of the design decisions behind Neverwinter, and some of the lessons learned over the years from the studio’s previous releases.

Neverwinter

Ten Ton Hammer: Based on our time playing Neverwinter so far, I’ve noticed a lot of interesting iteration on past Cryptic gameplay elements. For example, the companions seem like a more refined version of what we saw in Star Trek Online, and then of course there’s the more obvious iteration on the Foundry toolset.

Jack Emmert: The moment-to-moment gameplay even has a little City of Heroes in it. What we want to do is make a game that’s fun to play and start with that concept, rather than make an MMO. So it’s a bit of a different mindset to start with.

But you’re absolutely right on the companions. Believe me; we learned a lot from the bridge officers. I love Star Trek and it’s doing phenomenal, but here’s the funny thing with that game: Star Trek has more users than City of Heroes did at its peak. You would never know that, but it’s a strange reality that it’s a bigger game in every way you can measure.

It’s an amazing success for us, and it also shows that with the help of Perfect World we’ve been able to put resources into a game, grow it, and make it better. So even with a live free-to-play game it isn’t this cycle where you’re losing subscribers; you can continue to grow your game.

Anyway, you’re absolutely right in that bridge officers were hugely informative in the process of creating companions in Neverwinter. And then the Foundry, of course, builds on the way we approached user-generated content in Star Trek Online.

Then with the combat, City of Heroes was an inspiration but by the same token so was Champions. With those we learned a lot about what to do, and what not to do.

Neverwinter Ghost

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s interesting you should mention that, because there’s something I often refer to as the “Jack Emmert school of game design.” What that really means is the idea of encounter sizes playing a large role in making combat feel more interesting and vital which is something we see a lot of in Neverwinter.

Jack Emmert: You’re absolutely right, and that goes back to the original math that we did in City of Heroes to determine the way that we approach these things. And it’s really basic: killing four or five things is more heroic than just killing one thing. That was the basic concept, but I think we’ve learned a lot.

One of the problems is that when you have a whole bunch of little minion dudes, the real problem in gameplay is that the funnest moment is when combat first begins. The reason being that every time you kill a minion, the DPS of that encounter decreases, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to win once you kill the first critter, whereas with a standard MMO encounter if you have a bunch of guys attacking one dude, his DPS continues at a high level up until the point he dies, so it’s a bit stressful. So obviously we try to vary that. We’ve tried to change it up, and learn from that.

Ten Ton Hammer: Has that help you refine your approach to the pacing of content as well? For example, originally Neverwinter was going to be more of a co-op game, before the decision was made to expand the game to be more of a full MMO, yet even in its present form Neverwinter still retains that very modular feel to gameplay.

Jack Emmert: Absolutely. You should be able to play for half an hour and accomplish something. That means finish a quest, maybe do some crafting, and feel like you’ve made some progress. All of our games have that basic principle.

One of our biggest concerns with MMOs is time commitment. So it’s about being able to create a system where you can just get in and have fun, or get some XP even if you only play for half an hour. You shouldn’t need to play for six hours for things to happen. I remember EverQuest, and I was there for DAoC, but I couldn’t possibly play those games now because I just don’t have that kind of time to invest. But I still want to play MMOs, so we create these experiences that we call “bite-sized fun”.


For some bite-sized fun of your own, be sure to dive into the current beta weekend event for Neverwinter. If you don’t already have a beta key, we’ve got a handy giveaway running to help you dive in and check the game out.

We’ll have more from our discussions with Jack Emmert coming your way soon, including some deeper looks at what really defines an MMO in the modern era, and what it means to create meaningful social gameplay in an era when gamers no longer play MMOs as a form of graphical chat. All that an much more are coming your way as we continue bringing you the latest from PAX East 2013!

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