It's All Depth - A WildStar Interview with Jeremy Gaffey

WildStar is probably the biggest surprise of the season with its announcement at gamescom earlier this month, coupled with hands-on time with the game the very same day. We wanted to dig more into the world of WildStar so we sat down with Jeremy Gaffey, Executive Producer of WildStar, being developed by Carbine Studios and published by NCsoft.

Combat in WildStar TTH: The WildStar announcement was quite a surprise to all of us.

Jeremy Gaffey: I’m kind of amazed myself. We’ve been working in stealth for a long time. I’m amazed that we’ve managed to keep it to ourselves. The company was formed by 20 or so of the senior and lead guys of World of Warcraft, who started the company back in the day. Since then, we’ve been pulling people from all sorts of backgrounds. If you mention a main MMO, we probably have someone who’s worked on it, such as Asheron’s Call, City of Heroes, and City of Villains. Everybody has worked on a bunch of stuff. Inside the industry people. You may know a bit about the studio, but how there was no leak about the game; I don’t know how.

TTH: Especially given to where you’re located at in Irvine--you’re in the same building with everybody else.

Jeremy Gaffey: Yeah, exactly.

TTH: I think you may be the only people who have ever announced an MMO game and gave a hands-on the same day. How long have you been working on it? How were you able to keep it a secret?

Jeremy Gaffey: For me personally, I’ve been on the project for three and a half years. The company formed before that in kind of the Blue Sky mode, where it did research for a couple of years before entering into production on WildStar.

In terms of how we pulled it off, up until three days ago, only six people outside of our company had played the game other than friends and family who were coming in, signing NDAs, and getting handcuffed and doing it. The key was that we logged the crap out of everything that goes on in the game. We have feedback on all of that. Every time we’ve gotten people in, we record everything they do, we log everything they do, and we change the game based upon that. So the secret was to go hands-on immediately because we’re logging all the paths people pick, we’re logging all the paths they walk through the game, and change the content based on that. “Oh, hell. They didn’t find these three challenges. Ok, we better make them more obvious. Too many people find it; we better make it more obscure. Nobody likes this class, so let’s change that.” That kind of stuff. We do that constantly. Part of the reason why we announced, while we kept it a secret as long as possible, is that we need more bodies in there. We need more testers, so it’s going to leak at some point. So let’s come out publicly now.

TTH: One of the things that we noticed when we first started playing was how easy it is to play. It has all the standard things like hotbars, but you have additional complexities, like those red lines we see on some of the screens.

Jeremy Gaffey: The threat indicators. What we want to do is let players build momentum. What we mean by that is the faster you play, the better you weave things up, the better the rewards you get.

There are three phases in our combat: there’s recognize, then react, then reward. We show the players what’s happening and we give them a bunch of ways to solve it. It’s simple really.

You'll see a red indicator around the mob, so what do you do about it? You can dodge out of it; you can double tap and dodge. You can knock it over, stun it, use crowd control, you can use high cooldown abilities to kill it faster. Then we give you a reward for it. There are different kinds of rewards. If you can dodge it successfully, it gets vulnerable so you can kill it faster and it’ll take more damage. Also, we give you xp rewards for this.

To start off simple: you provoke an attack, you get a threat, dodge out. Now you get an evasion bonus and then it gets vulnerable, teaching you that this is exactly how you go about doing it. We give you xp rewards that pay you off as you do it.
Exploring in WildStar

Exploring WildStar

As you fight multiple enemies, you get bonuses for chaining stuff: killing multiple things at the same time as it gets more complex. Juggling different things at the same time gives you that payoff. You gain double kills, triple kills, and beyond that. You gain momentum as you go from fight to fight.

The key there is this: a novice player coming in and playing their first MMO--keep it simple early and make it more complex as you go. If you’re an advanced player, you’ve got multiple level 85s, you’ve played every game in existence; right from the start, you’re going to start digging into the complexity. It’s the key that pervades everything. Part of this is the paths: choose your own play style and part of the game biases over to it.

We want to keep it simple for newbies, but we’re all gamers. So right beneath that is a hardcore system so that you’re actually challenged by at a low level. None of us want to go “kill 10 more goblins” again in our life, it’s got to be a bit more variety than that early on. Very rapidly, we start adding more layers so it gets more interesting.

TTH: How many races do you have?

Jeremy Gaffey: Human, Aurin, and Granok are three that are unlocked here at the conventions. Each faction has a variety of races. We have two factions: the Exiles – basically you’re the good guys and the Dominion, who are effectively the bad guys. Each has their own selection of races. Humans are in both factions. One of the things that you learn in MMOs is that people tend to pick their race based on some odd criteria. Usually, it’s how they look; how pretty they are or not or how badass they are. If you don’t know anything else, you pick human. That’s why you stick humans in both factions so you don’t have faction imbalances from day one. You put pretty races on both sides so they can always pick a pretty race. You put badass races on both sides so if you want to play a badass, it’s not that everyone has to play one faction. Faction imbalance sucks so you put a lot of  work into your races to avoid that.

TTH: Seaking about factions and balancing factions, that all points to one thing for me and that would be PvP.

Jeremy Gaffey: We have a zero-bullshit policy at Carbine where we don’t talk about stuff that we can’t show. We definitely have PvP and it’s important.

There’s no better way on this planet to set fire to a huge pile of cash than to make an MMO and not put the elder game in it because people buying your box and leaving after two months sucks. We prefer not to do that. So we’re making sure that we have elder games in each area, including PvP. It has to have it. Or else why bother making an MMO? It’s all about keeping people for the long term, not losing them after two months.

The Northern WildsTTH: The game starts on a planet called Nexus. How many different starting areas do you have? Is there a different starting area for every race?

Jeremy Gaffey: It’s actually varies. In this particular case…I won’t commit to this, I won’t sign my name in blood on this, but this is how we’re doing it now. If it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it, and if it’s not, then we’ll change it during development:

At the moment, you can choose which starting area you want based on the choice you make. Hey, I want to start in the Granok area. I want to start in the human area; I want to start in the Aurin area. We actually do that as any race, because if it’s your multiple time through and you want to try a new area, rock on. If you want to join your buddy in the lowbie area so you can start in the same area and not do the run across the world to try to find your friend, hey, rock on. We give you your choice about that at the moment.

For the conventions demos, you can come in on either the main arc ship which crashes in this area or you can come in with the mercenary group that’s coming in to help you. So if you come in as a Granok, you get in a drop pod and get dropped in another area and fight your way over to help the humans who’ve crashed in another area. The short form is they’re racial based so you can learn about the races. They’ll let you choose which area you want to start in as opposed to forcing you according to race.

TTH: The other thing we’ve noticed is that the game is sci-fi with a little bit of magic thrown in. It has a taste of Firefly. I guess the question is if we’re talking about sci-fi and space, is there space travel? Are there other planets?

Jeremy Gaffey: We’re not doing free-flight space travel, that kind of stuff. We do have some things that take place in areas around the planet as well that are more spatial based. We’re tackling one game at a time so we’re mostly focused on avatar, combat, flight within the area of the planet as opposed to up in space and beyond the planet.

TTH: So most of your game experience will be on Nexus?

Jeremy Gaffey: Absolutely, and that’s a good question that nobody has actually asked me yet. We debated that for a long time.

TTH: Alright, so we’ve got four paths. We have the soldier, scientist, explorer, and the settler. I think I’ve gotten an understanding of the explorer. The soldier, from my understanding, is more battle oriented.

Jeremy Gaffey: Yes. As a combat thing, it’s a Leeroy Jenkins play style: provoke big battles and fight as much as you can. Public quests are what they provoke. Basically, you plant a flag and all the monsters nearby start attacking; kill them in droves, get extra rewards, get cool new toys to play with and blow stuff up faster. Other people can jump in and help out. If you help out the other paths, you actually gain some path experience for yourself as well for your own path. So when you’re grouped with your friends, you’re not annoyed when your explorer buddy runs off to find a shiny rock somewhere. You help them out and you get a little bit of path experience yourself. He helps you out and you both get a share.

TTH: So there’s class experience and path experience. So you have two different ways of leveling up?

Jeremy Gaffey: Effectively, yes.

TTH: Gotcha. Now what do the scientist and the settler do?

Jeremy Gaffey: Ah, here’s what they do. We unlocked the soldier and the explorer for this hands-on, the pre-alpha stage. We locked the other two for a very simple reason, which is that we’re lazy bastards and didn’t want to polish them up for public consumption. You can bump into content for them that’s sprinkled about for them as well if you look for it. What settlers do is all social stuff.

There are combat achievements, soldier’s beating stuff up. For the settler, it’s about building and forming relationships so it’s a different kind of achievement. It’s part socializer and part achiever. I’ll summarize that by putting that in a simpler form. What they do: social quests for social rewards. You may find an item that will allow you to buff up other players. If you can buff five other players inside of a certain time challenge, we’ll give you a permanent reward that will give you a permanent thing that’ll allow you to throw mini-buffs all over the place. You see things broken around town; you fix them up and actually improve quest areas of the game, the towns and that kind of stuff. You improve the economy; new vendors start appearing, new shops start appearing. Things start decaying and breaking after other players made them. You can fix them up and gain some settler experience and start building up the social areas. It’s all about interacting with other players. If there aren’t other players around you can get a bunch of quests building up your relationships with people in town, such as the NPCs and that kind of thing.

We have a cool tech that we don’t show in the newbie area, but we can change our terrain, we can change the lighting, spawns, structures, all that stuff at runtime. This is neat for us as developers because we get to tell better stories through it, and some of that is to let players have some impact upon the world and actually change stuff. That’s something we can do, and we do that in a bunch of ways.

Grouping in WildStar

A group in WildStar

Scientists, what are they about? They’re a collector, another part of the achievement play style. Completionists. If you’re an achievement whore, and you’ve got to do every single achievement; if you play Grand Theft Auto and you have to achieve one hundred percent, you have to find every single collectible item, this is the play style based around that. So what you do is look for interesting things in the environment. You have a scanner so you can scan things. Maybe you’re finding creatures as you’re doing a story quest and you realize some of the creatures are mutated. As a scientist, you can tell that there’s something different about them. You scan them and the more you scan a given thing, the more you unlock information about it. You get more powerful; you get better at taking them on. We see interesting things in the environment. See green glowing rocks in the area? If you scan enough of those, you realize that they're a heat source. It’s going to heal people nearby if you activate it. You use your scanner to start activating them around the zone. Now there are little buff areas in the world that you can make for yourself and your friends. You unlock them. That’s what scientists are all about.

There’s a second part of that which is they dig into more of the story. Because a lot of people that play games who want more story, more lore. So these guys are unlocking things, they’re unlocking more and more bits of lore about the background. You’re in a battleground full ancient robots. You start scanning the robots and you start finding interesting things that they can do. Also, you can start digging into the why. What happened here? What was this battle all about? What caused this? Is this related to the mystery of why the Eldin disappeared? You can dig more into that as a scientist. It’s kind of a combination of two play styles: collecting and story.

TTH: Let’s go back to combat again. We see that there’s a skill bar laid out like a standard MMOG.  How complicated does that skill bar get? Are you going to have 50 skills on there?

Jeremy Gaffey: We give you a bunch of skills and powers. What we try to do is make them interact in interesting ways, and they get more interesting. You unlock different components to them as you level up. As you customize your character, you deal with the various ways that you can tweak your character as you level up. What we try to do is to make the combinations interesting so that we don’t have to give you a trillion of them to give you complex combat.

You do gain more and more over time; you get enough. The goal is to make so there’s a set of them that you play with.

Our UI is fully modable and all that good stuff. We’re a AAA MMO. Pretty much, we’re talking about a limited set of stuff now and we’re going to announce more, more, and more because we’re marketing whores--in a nice way! As part of that, pretty much if standard MMOs do it, we’re probably doing it. We have our own take on it in some fashion or our own spin or bend on it. But hey, tradeskills, auction houses, guilds, raiding--all that good kind of stuff, we generally do them, we generally have them. We have a different spin on it based upon the tech we get to play with and enjoy as developers.

TTH:  If you were to summarize: this is what we want to do in one word, what would it be?

Jeremy Gaffey: It’s depth. Depth is our word. We want the deepest, the richest MMO out there. It’s our goal. What that means is content everywhere. We layer content on top of each other. Give me as much complexity as possible so I can juggle much at the same time, so as a skilled player, it’s interesting for me. Our monsters get hungry so they wander off. The monsters don’t like each other, so maybe there's a prey mob. It gets hungry so it eats the grass. Jungle cats run in the grass. They eat the prey.

You learn about this over time and, if you’re skilled, you get to actually use this. Prey is scared of you. You walk towards it and it runs off. It runs into the cats, and now they weaken each other so you can jump in and beat on them. Now you get a challenge: kill five cats in three minutes. So now you’re trying to drag all the cats together. There’s a huntress nearby who’s giving you reputation for the tougher things you’re fighting. If you fight near her, you get higher reputation. Now you’re trying to drag all the cats that you’re trying to kill as fast as possible to the huntress. There’s a second huntress so you’re trying to get in between them so they both can cheer you on and give you rep. It adds up so there’s depth.

TTH: So you're attempting to bring a level of immersion into your game that you don't often see any more.

Jeremy Gaffey: You know that immersion is such a burnt word because so many people claimed it and maybe not delivered on it, but that’s what it’s about, sucking you into the world. The key thing is that we call that momentum, that’s the short form. I’ve played content that I’ve built so I know all the secrets, I know all the hidden stuff, the dynamic elements that pop up, and the randomness and all that. You get sucked in because it’s challenging enough to actually do it, but it’s simple enough. You walk up, start clicking on stuff, kill it, and figure it out. It’s simple enough that you can walk up and do it, but as you dig in, there’s more there. That’s kind of the goal. I don't know if that's something you can put on the box; it’s tough to sell to newbs, but it comes off as fun. You just have fun as you play the game. While it’s tough to stick that on the side of the box and be believable, it’s kind of the goal.

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