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

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

by Cody “Micajah” Bye and Tony
“RadarX” Jones
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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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/33729">click here!

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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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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

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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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.

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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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.

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

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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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

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

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

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?

style="font-weight: bold;">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

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