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38 Studios: Exclusive ION Interview with Jason Roberts and Steve Danuser, Part Two

Posted Wed, May 21, 2008 by Cody Bye

Questions by Cody “Micajah” Bye and Tony “RadarX” Jones

Answers by Steve Danuser and Jason Roberts (38 Studios)

Recently, the Ten Ton Hammer team had the exquisite opportunity to sit down with two veritable veterans of the MMOG industry, Jason Roberts and Steve Danuser from 38 Studios, to talk about the future of massively multiplayer games and the design philosophies behind their upcoming game. In Part One of our exclusive interview, we talked about a number of forward looking ideas, and we continued those thoughts in Part Two. Enjoy!

If you haven’t read Part One, make sure you click here!


The 38 Studios Logo

Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking specifically to the forum experience, where do you feel forums are going? You see a lot more of the companies starting to shift that type of work on to the fansites. How do you feel about the delegation of responsibility on to fansites?

Steve Danuser: There’s a spectrum with that, and initially on EQ II we did what – in hindsight – was a mistake. We tried to make the forums all inclusive. Anything you wanted to talk about in the game, we had a forum for. We had a big long list of forums and it was great and it would foster all sorts of communication. But what it did was take away stuff for our fansites to do.

I don’t agree with the other extreme either where developers throw up their hands and say, “Well we don’t get much out of the forums anyway, let’s just let them handle it. We’ll dole out something when it’s important, but for the most part we’ll just let those guys handle it.”

I think that part of having a healthy community is having someone who’s hands-on and is able to foster communication and guide discussions. Not dominate them, but steer people in the right direction. To do that, you need to do it in an environment that you control and moderate. So I think that having a minimalist set of forums where you can cover things like a board for newbies, general discussion, customer support issues, upcoming events, and news, is the middle ground where you can still have a healthy community of your own, but still leave enough for fansites to have their own particular forums where they have areas dedicated to particular classes or activities. Community managers should foster that and embrace that; give them the tools to do that.

I think it’s important to have a program where you let fansites get an approved status, where you link to them, drive traffic to them, and you say that this is a site that’s all about X class. The community manager should participate in those forums and show that it does have that sort of presence. In return, the fansite should uphold some guidelines. It needs to be a healthy place that is good for developers to interact with the community.

It’s a two way street, definitely but I think fostering those relationships is key in keeping the community healthy for the long term.

Ten Ton Hammer: Where do you think the industry is really going? What kind of changes are we going to be seeing in the next wave of games? Will we continue to see more "hardcore" games, or will it be more focused on the casual?

Jason Roberts: I think it's a combination of both. We're finally starting to see diversity, which is kinda nice. It's alot like when we first started seeing first person shooters; a few were released then it really started to diversify. You began to see other themes and other genres, and getting that diversity out there so you do see a lot more of game variety is essential. Players should be able to find fantasy MMOs or sci-fi MMOs or adventure MMOs. I see a lot of that actually occurring, along with a combination of different business models, so you can finally choose what you want to play.

Steve: I think that there's definitely a broadening of the genre, which is really good. The discussion right now is, "How do you compete in a WoW dominated market?" There are all these different discussions, but ultimately people will play a good game.

Again, with movies its the same way. Lord of the Rings comes out and it's a huge fantasy film, and all of a sudden people are afraid to put out another fantasy movie. If any big movie comes out, there are a bunch of different imitators - a lot of which are crappy - but if it's a good movie and holds up, it'll be watched.

That's the way we feel about the whole thing, there's such a wide variety available to people in the number of games that people can make, and as long as you can make the game up to the level of quality that we believe is key, the sky's the limit.

I believe there will continue to be games that go after the mass markets. Some of them will be good, and some of them will show to be bad. There will be more niche games, because people are trying to develop technology that makes it easy to make MMOs, but those will be "lighter" experiences in a way that are more focused on one specific kind of thing rather than the overall depth you saw in games like WoW or the big ticket MMOs.

Ten Ton Hammer: What about PvP? There seems to be a resurgence going on with this particular mechanic. Do you think that trend will continue? Will games need to focus on a quality PvP experience to be successful in the mass market?

Jason: It depends on the audience you want to hit. Some games will be on an extreme over to one side or the other. There will be games that focus solely on PvP while others do just PvE and there will be a whole band in between there. Even the styles of PvP can be changed - from arena combat to free for all to team-based. I think you'll see a big wide band in there.

For PvE focused games, you'll probably include portions of PvP if it makes sense in the context of what their game is trying to do. It certainly doesn't make sense in all games. If you just tack on the PvP experience at the end, it will fail. But if you implement the feature to be a part of your game, it'll work out. That's one thing that WoW has done very very well.

Steve: WoW more than any other game has made PvP acceptable to the MMO masses. By their subscriber base alone, they get a lot more people playing it. I've never personally liked PvP - never PvPed in previous MMOs - but even I enjoyed PvP in World of Warcraft.

But the type of PvP they have is not the same as the type of PvP that people want. Some folks love that free for all, gank anything, show that I'm tough by killing anyone that comes my way type of PvP. There will be games that embrace that philosophy too. How well they do depends alot on how polished their experience is and how fun the gameplay turns out. I don't think it could ever have the mass market appeal that WoW's PvP does, but there's certainly enough of a market out there for a game to come out and be profitable with that system.

Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking of performance, system requirements seem to be a subject that's brought up a lot when you're talking about the future of the industry. Should North American developers look at the system requirements they have for games and make those lower? Or do you think the trend is going in a different direction?

Jason: In general, you want to get your system requirements as low as possible, because that gives you access to the largest market. I think part of it is also making your game distinctive in one way or another. A lot of the previous MMOs have attempted to go with very realistic graphics; they’re trying to make fantasy real in some way or another instead of trying to come up with a distinctive look. That’s one of the things WoW did very very well, was that they have a VERY distinct style.

With EQ II, LOTRO, and Conan, sometimes it’s very difficult to tell whether they’re the same game or if it’s a different game just from the screenshots. I think more people are realizing that they need to have a distinct style so the game can be easily identified.

Steve: That’s one of the things when we first talked about Todd McFarlane being on board, everyone was wondering if we were going to make a game that looked just like Spawn. But what Todd has proven that he can do is make a distinctive style and a distinctive look. What is valuable about his insight on our art team is that they’re the ones making the assets and the creatures that are going into the game, so they are really the ones making our distinctive style.

Ultimately, what we want to do is have someone be able to look at the game and know that it’s our game. They can tell from the screenshots, the richness in the environment, and how those characters look, move, and feel. That’s the game that 38 Studios made. In the end, it’s more about having a unique style than having a basis on technical requirements.

Like Jason said, we want the requirements to be as low as possible to reach the broadest market but still be able to display that distinctiveness to our audience.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you do that from a design standpoint too? Make a style all your own?

Jason: This goes back to our design philosophies and what philosophies we actually choose to use within the game. Certain philosophies – like the player’s commodity is their time, don’t waste it – and trying to have a focused experience, but also trying to allow players to have the freedom to do things that they want to do by giving players lots of options. It’s all about giving players freedom but suggesting certain areas or things that they might enjoy doing.

On top of that, we also want to make sure the game has a particular feel to it when players interact with our world. It’s a particular tone, and it’s what we use in design – we talk about the “tone” of the game. Art conveys style, and design conveys tone.

Steve: Obviously story is a big thing for us. You don’t bring someone like R.A. Salvatore on board and not care about story. So this leads people to speculate and say, “Oh, you’re going to have a bunch of stuff that people read, and that’s how you convey story.”

In the second evolution of MMOs, when you went from EQ to EQ II and World of Warcraft, those early games were really quest light. Even though it was called EverQuest, there really weren’t many quests. So it seemed like a natural evolution to throw more quests into the game and have a quest journal and convey story elements through that.

But what ended up happening – of course – is that people ended up ignoring those text boxes and only wanting to get to the things that are their path of advancement. So all of that stuff just becomes a new kind of grinding. We’re really focused on what the role of quests are going to be in our game; not so worried about the quantity of quests but using them to guide you through the experience. We want you to play the game how you want to play it, so we’re going to reward you on the things you do, not on the things that we want you to do.

It’s definitely one of our guiding philosophies, especially when it comes to quests and making them accessible and easy to get to if you want to get them, but not make them feel like a checklist you have to do.

Ten Ton Hammer: How are you going to engage players with the story then? In World of Warcraft, it seems like the majority of players power through any quest in the game and don’t even look at the flavor of it. How do you make them care?

Steve: One of the problems, like you mentioned, is that there are some things in games like World of Warcraft and others where the quest is just “go and kill 10 of this and I’ll give you something.” Other are highly scripted things, like having Thrall come up and talk to you. However, there’s no real way to distinguish to the player which quests are of which type. So you have to be consistent. If you’re going to call something a quest, it should be memorable, epic, and teach you something about the world.

If you give players that system of feedback where it’s just not about killing stuff, it’s about doing these things to see something change as a result, that helps convey story much easier than just giving them something to read. They’ll skip that every time.

You’ll have to assume that most players won’t catch the fine details of your story, but if you do it in broad strokes so that they’re playing through the experience and seeing it unfold, that gives them a sense of “oh that was really cool because I saw this happen, I helped make that tower fall down” even if they don’t get the fine details of it.

Jason: There’s some things that games like EverQuest have actually taught us that we’ve forgotten with the use of things like quest journals. They had a lot of things that were implied quests where you could discover things on your own. Players would find an interesting item then wonder where it goes to, and they’d find out the whole background behind this particular item. In a way, as a player, you can make your own story and make these decisions yourself so then you’ve written your own path through something rather than having a checklist that you’re going down.

That way, we push a little bit of the storytelling on to you by just giving you an environment and a situation where that story can evolve out of.

Ten Ton Hammer: So as our final question, are you hoping to step away from the “quest grind” and into something different? It sounds like you want players to have a bit more freedom to go and do what they want and not feel tied down to the experience you get through a quest grind. Will that be a viable option, for a player to go out and look around and check things out?

Jason: If we build an environment that allows that to happen, we hope it emerges out of it. The nice thing about quests is that it gives you a nice short term goal. But if that’s the only method you have to convey those short term goals, that’s a problem and we feel that there are other ways that you can do that. It is effective, but there are other options that can be used.

Steve: If you walk into a new area in an MMO and see ten guys that have marks above their head telling you that you need to grab their quest, you’re lost. There’s no way to tell out of those quests which are going to be memorable, cool, or tell you about the area. We do really want to draw a distinction between those kinds of things and make sure that if you see someone offering you a quest, it’s going to be something that is rewarding and cool. It’ll be something that’s meaningful for you.

We still want to have those other short term goals, but we want to change it so that it feels like less of a requirement and more of choice and reward players for doing that quest. Don’t make it something that’s mandatory.

Part of the reliance upon quests has quashed the explorer’s aspect of gameplay. If you are one of those people that likes to go into a new zone and run around before taking any quests, we want to embolden that. If you kill a random named monster that was a quest monster, we want the game to know that you’ve killed him previously rather than making you go track him down again. We want to reward the explorers and give them items for finding those little details.

Copernicus-Green-City.jpg

Some of the remaining game properties from 38 Studios were sold off during an auction this week but Copernicus wasn’t one of them.

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Fri, Dec 13, 2013
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Bidders made their offers for the remaining game assets and tech left over of the defunct 38 Studios in the final asset auction earlier today.

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Wed, Dec 11, 2013
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The auction for 38 Studios’ game assets and IPs has been pushed back to December following “greater than expected” interest.

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Fri, Nov 08, 2013
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The lawyer charged with selling off 38 Studios’ game IPs wants to delay next week’s planned auction due to “greater than expected interest.”

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Wed, Nov 06, 2013
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