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Bringing MMOs to Consoles - A Discussion with Turbine

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While the news that Turbine is in the process of creating a console massively multiplayer online game may not be entirely novel, up to this point the gaming community has heard very little about the actual development of said title and how Turbine is handling the relatively new frontier in massive gaming. At this year's San Diego Comic-Con, Ten Ton Hammer's Cody “Micajah” Bye sat down with Henrik Strandberg, Executive Director of Product Development for Turbine, to first discuss his company's achievements with revitalizing the Dungeons and Dragons Online franchise and then exploring the hurdles and advantages when creating an MMO for the console market. The discussion is frank and genuine, so if you're interested in learning more about the future of DDO and Turbine's console MMO, keep reading.



Ten Ton Hammer: How has the free-to-play part of DDO been received so far by the community and the fans?

Henrik Strandberg: I think the volume of people interested has exceeded our wildest expectations. We knew there were a lot of people out there that were interested in the game, but the sheer amount of people that signed up for the open beta… I think we’re happy with how everything held up really well even though we haven’t seen volumes like this since the game launched.

Ten Ton Hammer: So, how’s that transition going to work with characters already [in DDO]?

Strandberg: For an existing subscriber, it’s really not a huge difference. I think the only thing they will notice that there are a lot more people in the game and they can access the in-game store whenever they want. For an existing subscriber, it’s really not a huge difference. Obviously, a lot of the gameplay mechanics, a lot of the stuff we put into place to make this kind of change to the game, havebeen rolled out over the last year. We talk a little about the Hireling system, for example, to make the game a little more solo-friendly. We felt at launch it was maybe a little too true to the D&D experience.

Ten Ton Hammer: So the Hireling system was a little too close to the way D&D was at the beginning?

Strandberg: Rather the fact that at launch so much of the content was group-based and required you to have a pretty well-balanced group, which is very true to the original pen and paper game.

While it was very faithful - we had a game that was really close to the experience of pen and paper D&D - we also realized that in a modern MMO it just has to be more solo friendly. So weinitially added a solo setting to the dungeons in the game and then went to work on the hireling system which we rolled out late last year.  Hirelings is only one example of the types of systems and content we started looking at to put in place before we launched. I mean “launch” is maybe not the right word, but it is kinda what we’re doing.

Ten Ton Hammer: Right. There is a lot of relaunch marketing that is going on. You’ve got a different name and a big marketing effort.

Strandberg: Yeah. When we started looking into everything we needed or that we felt should be done to just give it a better chance to appeal to more people, the Hireling system was very high on the list. Making sure that we had the level cap all the way up to 20 just like in the pen and paper game. We took some flak for that at the original launch of the game. It just didn’t include everything that was supposed to be there. Obviously, also a lot of tuning and tweaking. We had a second look at the combat system and how we could make that a little more intuitive.

But I would say that other than those overall quality improvements, we were making [DDO] more accessible while also delivering all the content and all the features that people would expect from the pen and paper game. By far the biggest change is you basically get to choose your own payment plan.

Ten Ton Hammer: An a la carte system...

Strandberg: Exactly. I think that’s the best way to explain it. If you’re the type of player where you only get together once every two weeks to go raiding with your friends, that’s perfectly fine. Or maybe the players in that group will go in and purchase the dungeon pack, share it using their guest passes, and that is the way you want to experience the game, we shouldn’t have to charge everyone $15 per month.

And then of course if you run into problems while you are in the dungeons associated with your equipment, you can just go in and buy items that help you  get through those rather than having to go out and do some crafting or do some additional grinding just to be better prepared next time you tackle it. So it definitely caters a lot better to a wider player profile.

Ten Ton Hammer: It probably wasn’t obvious when it was built, but do you think DDO as a whole is more geared toward that sort of small group get together with your buddies rather than, say, The Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft?

Strandberg: At launch? Definitely. One of taglines that was passed around was “Friends don’t let friends play solo.” And that was one of the creative concepts for the game. It was very true to the D&D lore and as a result was designed to be group-based to get the most out of it, you needed a pretty balanced party.

As you know from playing a lot of MMOs, getting a good group together to do a raid or a high level instance, once you have beaten the last boss, it’s like, “Holy crap! That was awesome!” It’s pretty intense. While that is still a key concept of any MMO today, we also appreciate that it’s sometimes hard to find exactly the right group. Maybe your friends don’t have as much time as you have or the other way around. So we made it more solo-friendly.

Ten Ton Hammer: Okay, we’ll shift gears and talk about the broad concept of console MMOs. You’re working on one, right?

Strandberg: Yeah, we’ve been pretty open with the fact that, yes, we are migrating over to the console space in addition to continuing to support our existing PC products.

We haven’t announced which IP [intellectual property—Ed.] it is, or to be perfectly honest, we haven’t even announced what kind of game it is.

The obvious challenge when going from PC to console technology is that you have a very fixed memory model in consoles, which means that the engineers have to design the code very, very differently. It’s both mechanical and virtual memory.

Ten Ton Hammer: With your PC games, you tend to rely on virtual memory?

Strandberg: I mean on all games. Almost any PC today has way more memory than the consoles do. On the other hand, the consoles are much better at buffering content very fast and rendering much faster so that you don’t need to keep as much in memory at the same time. It’s just a different engineering approach. We’ve solved those challenges.

The second big challenge is on the design side. Playing with a mouse and keyboard is very different from playing with a game controller, especially so in an MMO, which is very reliant on having a lot of commands at your fingertips and for chat. Also tying back to that, you don’t have as much screen real estate on the console as you do in PC [games].

Ten Ton Hammer: You mean if you are playing on a standard CRT?

Strandberg: Which we have to support. You can’t really require people to have hi-def. I don’t remember exactly [the standard definition television resolution], but then it’s interlaced so you have two frames on top of each other. It gets really hard to display a lot of text, for example. The text just becomes too tiny.

Essentially, crank down your PC monitor to 600 x 480 and try to play your MMO. Sure, it works, but it’s not going to be very fun.

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s like playing the oldest version of EverQuest where three-quarters of your screen was dedicated to UI.

Strandberg: Exactly. Like going back to Ultima [laughs]. That’s a big challenge for UI designers and game designers. MMOs are very deep experiences. They require a lot of information to be displayed on the screen.

Ten Ton Hammer: Does [designing for a console] offer you any advantages compared to on the PC besides the obviously huge market base?

Strandberg: It’s a way to make PC games more accessible, to get away from this, “oh, you have to download a 10GB client before you can play.” Getting into the game and understanding and grasping the game so that you are actually having a good time inside the game within five minutes is really hard on PC, but we have actually managed to work around a lot of those challenges.

Ten Ton Hammer: Because your control system is so much simpler on the console?

Strandberg: And also the download / starting play model. With trial programs, it used to be that you had to download the entire client before you could get into the game. We have reengineered the way content is structured and developed the Turbine Download Manager that basically takes care of staggering those downloads for you.

You start with downloading the character generation portion so that you start with getting into it and making a character right away while in the background we download the rest of the early game experience. So in that way, we cut down on the up front download time significantly.

On console, there are zero barriers. That’s the whole concept of a console, literally plug and play.

Ten Ton Hammer: [laughing] You just stick the disc in there and play. No installation required.

Strandberg: Yeah, and as challenging as all of the technical certification requirements and the rules and restrictions from the inspectors can be sometimes, they are there to make sure that every game offers that experience. They make sure that your X button is always to confirm in any choice and to make sure that you can’t have a loading time that is more than 15-30 seconds.

Ten Ton Hammer: Really? I can still remember it feeling like the original Morrowind had, like, five minutes of load time [laughs].

Strandberg: Sometimes exceptions are allowed. But now as a whole, the console in my mind just offers a much more accessible and much better experience as a gaming platform, which is why console gaming is so popular. It will work on your video card. You know what I mean? You don’t have to rebuild your rig every time you buy a game or download the latest video drivers or things like that.

I think we at Turbine feel console is the superior platform, right now. If we can develop an MMO that meets all of the console criteria for accessibility, that’s going to be huge. It will be a paradigm shift in the MMO industry.

Ten Ton Hammer: So, do you think Turbine is ever going to make a PC MMO again?

Strandberg: Oh yeah.

Ten Ton Hammer: So you’re not stopping with the PC stuff, you’re expanding your horizons a little bit?

Strandberg: Exactly. We love our PC MMOs as much as everyone else.

Ten Ton Hammer: It’s certainly a different sort of style and different sort of experience for sure.

Strandberg: Those are the two obvious things. It’s a challenge for the designers and engineers to migrate our design philosophy and our code architecture from the PC to console. Then a lot the things I have been working on is… everything else. A lot more goes into launching and operating an MMO. Maybe a lot of people don’t see this because mostly they just look at the gameplay, but on top of that there is the whole service aspect, what we call online operations.

Ten Ton Hammer: Those are your Community Managers and your Game Masters and that sort of thing?

Strandberg: Exactly. It’s customer service. It’s billing support. It’s account management, network operations, tech support, quality assurance, and all that stuff. While the infrastructure is relatively similar, there are changes everywhere [laughs]. See what I mean?

Ten Ton Hammer: From a customer service point of view, are your tools to deal with GM complaints and that sort of thing harder to implement on a console?

Strandberg: Not necessarily, but maybe [laughs]. If you get stuck in LOTRO or DDO today, you just file a ticket to a GM that ends up in our help and reporting tool system. Whenever a new ticket comes in one of the customer service reps will see if they can help out as soon as possible.

Of course, we need to have that on the console as well. People are paying money to play online in some way, shape, or form. And when people pay for something, they demand service. So, how do we migrate our existing PC help and reporting tool system over to the console? Maybe all of the information would first have to go through all of the hardware manufacturer’s checks and balances. Some of the issues may be completely unrelated to what we’re doing. Some of them will have to be funneled over to the manufacturer to their customer support department, especially if it has to do with money and cash collection, which will go through the manufacturer’s billing interface. On top of that, the communication between the game and the game server will have to go through their authentication layers.

Ten Ton Hammer: Whichever console you’re on?

Strandberg: Exactly, just to ensure the integrity of the platform. Again, it’s not a revolutionary thing, but there are small differences in a lot of places.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you think that with the console audience vs. the PC audience, we are going to have a casual-hardcore split between the two MMO crowds?

Strandberg: Depends on the game.

Ten Ton Hammer: It seems like the casual audience would be much more prone to just go and buy the game on their console. It’s easy since you don’t have the barrier to entry.

Strandberg: Some of the most successful console games are actually really hardcore. I am reluctant to use the word casual. We’re not necessarily making a casual game. It can still be a really deep and engaging game. It’s just that at first glance it’s really accessible and inviting and easy to get into. The barrier of entry is so low that, sure, maybe some people will experience it as casual, but once you get a little deeper into the game and open up all of the features and realize the whole depth of the game, you just realize, “Holy crap! There’s hundreds if not thousands of hours of gameplay in here.” You get a tremendous value for money.

Ten Ton Hammer: Thank you so much for your time, Henrik, and we look forward to talking with you again!
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