Bartle Banter: Wildstar’s Jeremy Gaffney

By Alec Meer on November 16th, 2011 at 2:33 pm.

You *don't* want to be the big rock guy? What's wrong with you?

Back in July, NCSoft and Carbine Studios took the lid off their next big MMO, Wildstar. I know because I was there when they did. The talking point about Wildstar was how it plans to approach the tropes of the genre in a new way – primarily by asking you to pick a Path on top of the usual class and race choices. Are you an Explorer, a Soldier, an Achiever or a Builder? Or a waster who can’t be bothered to make even a simple decision like that? A little while back, I chatted to Carbine Studios bossman (and Turbine co-founder) Jeremy Gaffney about the path they’d chosen for the game, how it is (and isn’t) based around the theories of grandfather-of-MMOs Richard Bartle, what Exploring entails here, why they have a bunny-eared character, the problem of preconceptions about MMOs and secret slides.

RPS: I’m probably going to ask a limited spectrum of questions, as I immediately gravitated to the Explorer path and didn’t check out the other stuff. But then, I guess that’s the point of the game.

JG: It’s funny, as we show it and do interviews, most rooms are a complete blend [of paths], which is nice. We’re also logging everything – the deep dark secret of what we’re doing at the show floor… We check to see what everybody plays, how long they play, how much they complete of it, to track and make sure we get the right balance, doing the right thing, are we making the play styles pay off… I think we’re hitting the right division.

RPS: There’s almost an element of social experiment to it, in terms of being based specifically around the Bartle theory of MMO/MUD play styles. Have there been any other games that have so deliberately done that before?

JG: I am so bummed that you mention Bartle right now, and the reason why is because in the presentation I’ve been giving I had a hidden slide. So when journalists ask the right question I would be ‘Achievement Unlocked, you’ve found the hidden slide.’ But no-one in any of the interviews has asked me about Bartle yet, and here I am without my slideshow. You’re the only person to reference it so far.

But here’s the trick of Bartle’s. Bartle’s breaks it down to four – you’ve got your killer, you’ve got your socialiser, you’ve got your explorer and your achiever. The trick there is that it applies to Paths, kind of. But Killer under Bartle’s is a griefer, you get your jollies on mucking with people, ruining other people’s game. We don’t do that, that is not a game style that we want to cater to, we want those people in other people’s games.

Also, almost everybody’s an Achiever to some level. So what we did was break achievement up into three different areas – collecting, combat achievement like getting better and better at fighting, and also the building style thing, the building up type of achievement. And we added story to this too, because a lot of people play just to get into the story, digging into the lore. Those variants are all sort of sprinkled throughout our paths. Some of it’s related – I’ve talked with Richard before and I know his stuff, we looked at his research, but a lot of it’s sort of [outside of that], both what we’ve observed and how play as well. So it’s interesting, because I like Richard’s stuff.

RPS: A potential problem I found with going for quite rigid paths like that was that, when playing the Explorer path, I kept wandering past guys on the Fighting path and feeling jealous that I couldn’t do what they were doing – I almost wanted to do their stuff more than my own stuff, because it was locked off to me.

JG: The trick is you can help, y’know. If you jump in it gets tougher, and you get the reward for participating as well. The Soldiers who provoke it, they get the most reward, but if you help anyone else on their Path, you get a reward for doing it. And we do something that’s clever, or at least I think it’s clever… The Explorer: you find the cliff passage that no-one else can find, you get your way up to the top. Usually what we do is we take content that’s for the other Paths, like the scientist can scan rare rocks, make it hard to find out here but there’s a ton of them in the area that the Explorer can unlock. So if you help the Explorer out, he’s giving you access so you can do your own thing easier. If you’re playing together, that’s more natural. Because what we don’t want is this guy runs that way, that guy runs off in the opposite direction, and they never see each other again. Nah, you gotta do it together – you’re friends, you want to play nicely together.

RPS: Much as I immediately gravitated to Explorer, there was a strange sense of resistance to being so easily identified and pigeonholed by the game: my Exploration wasn’t organic exploration like I’ve done in other MMOs, but done in a sort of sign-posted way. Has that been something you’re conscious of?

JG: What we do is we take 70% of the world, and that’s a mix of all the styles, and then about 30%, depending on the zone, swaps over and that’s about you and about your path. So, as an Explorer you have your normal mix of stuff, but then an extra chunk on top of it that’s all about exploring. Because if your Path was 100%, you’d be bored stiff of doing the same thing. Combat’s cool, but you want to bias the game towards it, not be all about it, or you’ll get tired of it. Also, that 70% of the world lets us have an area where everyone can interact together and do the same things together, and then your Path is layered on top of that.

Layering is really key to us, really the heart of what makes the game rich and the game deep is lots of things happening in an area and then have them all intertwine. The paths, dynamic stuff, the challenges in the world… The more you get into it, the more these things start piling on top of each other, so you’re doing three things at once, five things, six things… It’s really what gives the depth, so if you’re an excellent player there’s more for you to do.

RPS: What sort of variety is there in the Explorer stuff? It’s not all walking to a node marked on the map, activating it then having a new path appear, presumably?

JG: We try to give you a lot of variety. I’m a good chunk Explorer as well, and often it’s… if you just put a flagpole up there, somewhere in the mountains, and tell me I have to go out there and find it somehow, that actually engages me a lot. But it’s good to have variety once you’ve got up there: what’s blocking you, what are things to overcome… It’s not all jump puzzles or big rumbly things, we try to vary it zone to zone to zone, so you’re doing things that you have to interact with on the way. But basic the gameplay we try to keep it consistent, so it’s the kind of things you like. So Explorers, even in the first few zones, you’re unlocking cliff paths and that sort of thing so you can get to hidden areas; you’re getting jump buffs so you can bounce around and do super-jumping. In the next zone there’s a low-gravity area where you can float about, try to leap up the cliff walls to get as high as you can to access hidden areas. There are minefields you have to traverse, avalanches you have to get around. So even the low-key stuff, we try to keep it varied enough that you’re engaged: it’s not the same thing again and again and again.

Also we tune the mix a lot. What we’re trying to do is hit the right balance where you feel the bulk of the game is about what you want, but there’s enough shared that you’re doing it with your friends, so you’re not playing four seperate games but one game all tied together.

RPS: What about the end-game? Will the Paths still be in play there?

JG: We involve the paths in the elder game, and we’re really committed to elder game – because a mistake that’s commonly made is ‘hey, it’s a cool game, and you level up, and you get to the end, now what?’ So what we want to do is make sure we have an interesting and deep elder game for each of the styles of play. Not styles in the Paths sense, but if you’re all about dungeons you’re all about those in the elder game; if you’re all about solo play you want an elder game that’s interesting for that. We’re trying to hit each of those major groups – if you like dungeons, awesome, here’s a raid system with new elements. Our goal for elder games is you need to have tons of stuff to do at the end. There’s probably not a better way to set fire to a bunch of money than make an MMO and not make an elder game for it.

RPS: I notice you’re calling it ‘elder game’ rather than ‘end game’ – that’s a new one on me. You don’t think of MMOs as ending, presumably?

JG: Yeah, exactly. It’s not the end of the game, there’s generally always something to do, and if not there’s probably an expansion pack that comes out right after.

RPS: You’ve said already that you wanted to embrace some of the key tropes of the genre as well as trying out new stuff – doesn’t that immediately raise the risk of facing potentially negative preconceptions among MMO-fatigued gamers?

JG: We if err on the side of anything, it’s to take farther away from what’s there. I think people want different stuff. But some things work, y’know? We want to give you direction through a zone, so we’ll use a quest for that. People are used to quests, they know the mechanic, but then let’s add more and more. There are challenges, a skill challenge pops up out of nowhere, or your path stuff – that’s not quest-based, it’s generally that you see something interesting and do you want to deal with it or not deal with it, depending on what’s happening in the environment. But we give you a basis that you’re familiar with.

The same kind of thought goes into classes and races – our Warrior is a guy with a big sword. If you want something familiar, you’ve probably played a guy with a big sword before so you have an expectation. But the Spellslinger is guns and magic flying around – you’ve seen less of that. And then there are more esoteric classes yet, that you kind of haven’t seen anything like before. So there’s a breadth, you can choose – if you want to play something more familiar, rock on. If you want to play something more esoteric, rock on. Both people exist, you know. In our team, as gamers, half of us want one and half want the other.

RPS: Do you feel like it’s going to be challenge to convey those more esoteric elements given the excitement around traditional MMOs is no longer what it once was and it’s that much harder to win people round? People are going to see screenshots and videos and those who don’t pay closer attention might say ‘oh, yet another MMO’ – how do you let them know there’s more going on?

JG: Honestly, I have a very simple precept, which is that good games sell. Fun games, people play ‘em. So the goal is not ‘hey, do we have the right magic buzzword?’ it’s make the game fun, do everything we can to make the game fun. Beyond that, we need to communicate as best as possible ‘hey, here’s the cool stuff.’ Keep on bringing it into people’s views, but don’t get so crazy about trying to make your unique thing stand out that you forget the goal – make it fun. It’s not make it different, it’s make it fun. We try to hit the right balance for that, and I think we have. The buzz we’ve got so far, people kind of get it. Playstyle stuff in particular is nice, because people understand them. You play games, you know you’re stuff, you already have a play style – but you’re not used to having it communicated, or catered to, and it does feel different to do it. But the goal is to feel fun, not that we’re smacking people upside the head all the time going ‘pay attention to this!’

RPS: Changing tack entirely, quite a few people have been asking about this bunny-eared, anime-looking race you’ve got in there…

JG: Ah yes. They don’t all have bunny ears, by the way. You choose your ears, choose your tail, all that good stuff.

RPS: Good to hear! Is that a deliberate attempt to make the game appeal to the Asian market, as broadly speaking it’s Western-styled?

JG: We actually kind of do it for us rather than try to hit the markets. We’ve had a lot of experience bringing games from the West to the East and vice-versa, but people kind of like what they like. I think most Western companies, if they to Easternise stuff, kind of get it wrong, and both East and West go ‘what the heck is that?’ So it’s not necessarily for the Eastern market or anything like that – it’s because some of our guys have an anime vibe to ‘em and they show that in that in their stuff. We do try to have bits that appeal to all sorts of things – on each faction we try to have big, tough guys, we try to have smaller guys… Humans exist on both things, and the reason why is because often when you’re making your first character choices you’re doing it based on visuals. Not everyone is attractive to one side or the other.

Humans get chosen most commonly in most games, so you get the game launching and almost everyone’s chosen humans. We’d like to avoid that – it’s happened before in many games, and we’d like not to do the same stuff.

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22 Comments »

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  1. outoffeelinsobad says:

    Their art director is Barbara Canepa. I am sure of it.

  2. hench says:

    So, is it a sandbox or a themepark? I assume the latter and therefore I wont have much interest in it

    • Choca says:

      Theme park. From what I have played of it, it’s pretty much WoW in a sci-fi+magic universe.

  3. Lobotomist says:

    This interview makes me real sad.

    To see such potential (like Tim Caine) working on what basically is horse beaten to pulp – or WOW MMORPG de Jour

    What twist can we make to WOW today ?

    People are so sick of playing this ONE game. I only see this gameplay (like for instance in Rift) i literally fall asleep at keyboard.

    And the twist de jour is Bartle system. Made in 1980 for text games called MUDs that were ages beyond WOW MMORPGs.

    Real sad waste. Especially when I see how much love was poured into this game.

    Please no more !

    • archimandrite says:

      Is Tim Cain still working with them? Last I heard, Obsidian had picked him up.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      yea, RPS saying he’s left.

      …but he did do something surely while he was there.

  4. Vexing Vision says:

    i really, really don’t care about the game. But I want to see more of the animated trailers.

    This could be such an amazing series.

    • westyfield says:

      Damnit yes, that trailer is awesome.

    • Torgen says:

      As I raved in a previous article, I *really* want to see the folks that made that trailer set loose to make either a movie, or a TV miniseries with these characters.

    • Jupiah says:

      I would so watch a television series based off of that trailer.

      And if the actual game has characters with even half the charm and personality as they do in that trailer I’ll have to try it out.

  5. GenBanks says:

    ‘This video is private’ on the gameplay footage :(

    I think I remember applying for beta access on the Wildstar website a while ago, I hope I get to try it out soon. It sounds interesting.

  6. Blackcompany says:

    Dude with the Sword looks like he maybe could actually move the health bar on a Skyrim Giant.
    .
    Or…maybe not…

  7. archimandrite says:

    A big part of what I love about exploring in games is the unscripted nature of it. Going over a hill or down a path, and not knowing where it leads is exciting. Being told where to explore doesn’t feel like exploring, it just feels like the breadcrumb quests in every other MMO that lead you to the next town.

  8. Hoaxfish says:

    Only a few things really stand out in this interview…

    Him using “Elder game”… while I get the idea that MMOs don’t “end” like stories do, or single-player games do… I think it’s pretty agreed terminology that “End Game” is not really about a concrete “end” but that you’ve hit the “end stage” of your character development, that there are no more “level ups” to go through. Calling it “Elder game” just sort of comes across as a denial just to be different.

    The explorer path sounds like a horrible way to kill that feel of discovery. While it’s nice to see it formally recognised as a form of play, it just seems like they’re trying to fit it into something that goes along with their other 3 forms of “interaction”. I’m not sure “mixing them around” is really going to solve that.

    and finally, the “they don’t all have bunny ears” answer just sort of makes me feel like they aren’t really trying too hard for a consistent world… I mean, I know it’s cartoony overall, but the race just seems one step beyond. Like they’ve inserted roger rabbit into the real world, and thinks that he doesn’t stand out much.

    Still vaguely interested to see where this all goes though…

  9. mihor_fego says:

    Let’s see… gunslingers, animal ears and tails, focus on exploration; sounds great to me! But…

    I loved being clueless in WoW and exploring every nook and cranny of the world. The problem is exactly that the world is finite, so you either had to adapt into doing endgame raids, pvp or just quit. After raiding for a year when I was playing WoW, I wouldn’t ever wanna reach a point this is the only option in a game. Especially considering one who was not on a combat path would probably be a deadweight in such an environment.

    Unless they can prove what they claim is true and have something like procedurally generated co-op exploration dungeons and raids where you need groups to solve puzzles to progress. Of course no one is crazy enough to try such a thing, so I keep my hopes down for now, even if I like what I see.

    • Josh W says:

      Actually I’d say your in a great position, just move from game to game, as the wow-ish content-based games will probably always keep being made, and you can just shift your subscription from one to another as you complete them! The only trick is in timing your game changes with the freinds you’ve made.

  10. Bart Stewart says:

    Good interview.

    I’m happy to see the concscious reference in this game’s design to the four original Bartle Types. Understanding what gamers like and how to give it to them — as the starting point for designing a game — just seems like smart customer service to me.

    I have some quibbles with the “Bartleness” of the styles as described here. If you’re trying to fit gameplay to playstyles, your success will hinge on the accuracy of your understanding what the styles actually are and who actually has them.

    For example, no, not everyone has some Achiever in them, or at least not to anything like the same degree. Socializers in particular are turned off by the Achiever’s hypercompetitiveness, while Explorers have an expansive/creative view of resources compared to the Achiever’s zero-sum, I-can-only-win-if-you-lose perspective. Assuming that everyone is roughly equally driven by a need to compete will make Wildstar’s gameplay less compelling for non-Achievers. (“Less compelling” == less revenue.)

    I’m also not sure that Carbine, or perhaps Jeremy Gaffney personally, really “get” Explorers and exploratory gameplay. The response to the question, “What sort of variety is there in the Explorer stuff?” seemed vague and rambling at first, and ended with describing exploration in its purely physical, terrain-mapping form. But exploration as a playstyle motivation is more than that; it’s about discovery, it’s about knowledge, it’s about illuminating the mysteries of how the universe works. A game with real Exploration in it would, in addition to physical mapmaking, allow players who are good at and enjoy systems-thinking to apply that natural talent. This often shows up in games as puzzle-solving in one form or another, but the larger application is in pattern recognition — being particularly good at seeing functional structure in masses of data. An Achiever can repetitively run a bunch of experiments to collect data on how the game’s systems work (persistence being their key gameplay behavior), but it’s likely to be a perception-oriented Explorer who can look at those results and generate a good description of the structure and function of the underlying complex gameplay systems.

    Explorers are also creative builders (as opposed to the “making stuff purely in order to sell a lot of it” Achievers), which makes it a bit strange to see that interest given its own path in Wildstar as the Builder. I don’t know whether splitting exploration content into two paths will help or hurt this game, though.

    (I rattle on like this about gamer motivations at even greater length in my Gamasutra article on Personality and Playstyles.)

    Having said all this, I do like the sound of “layering” playstyle-aligned content. That sounds exactly right to me, and I think it can help make Wildstar an enjoyable MMORPG even if (IMO) the Paths don’t quite nail down the differences in what gamers actually like doing.

    Regardless of those opinions, best of luck to everyone at Carbine.

    • Josh W says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking, my knowledge of myself as an explorer type gamer might trick me, when I’d actually be happier exploring the most dynamic and complex parts of the game (probably raids), or perhaps building stuff.

      Edit: Also, I have to say, that’s a beast of an article, my first thought was that your additional experientialist role for GNS wasn’t correct, but then I wondered whether the category that GNS type theory finds so hard to address; “I just play for immersion”, actually related to the roleplay equivalent of ilinix.

      In other words it’s not just that the world feels “real” (sim), that the decision space you are given fills the full expanse of the character concept (gamism), or that you are identifying with someone in a really humanly charged situation (nar), but that you are taken out of yourself into a totally new world beyond the limits of your actual life (?). To be honest I’d call that agenda escapism, and then suddenly it fits into place!

      Each different creative agenda has it’s own version of immersion, but only the escapist version has not been recognised, mainly because unlike all the other agendas, the gamesmaster doesn’t get to be involved in it: In the sim game, they build or tweak systems or backgrounds, in the nar game, they chuck thematically meaty stuff at people to see what they do with them, in the gamist game, they build challenges or things to fight for, but in the escapist games? Where can they get the rush of high speed bursting of limits?

      No wait, actually, they do! Weirdly enough the performer/manipulator power-trip gamesmaster can fit in with this like a glove, so long as they are good enough at it to actually achieve their objectives:

      The players have the vertigo of being completely different selves in another world, and the gamesmaster has the rush of messing with his player’s emotions. Not for me at all, but I can see why people might go for it.

      In a completely different kind of ilinix game, you have those comedy games where everyone is a player and you have a vast array of cards or other random generators to interpret, and everyone laughs at it and tries and fails to get it to make sense. These games tend to be very close to rediculous boardgames because of the way the imaginary world tends to break down, but they are very funny!

      That seems almost too neat to work, I’ll have to think about it, but good work regardless!

      Edit no 2: Ok I think that further deep analysis of the differences between the different descriptions of game engagement will cause you to shift from the positions held here, some of them fit well, some of them don’t. I think the reason for the first successes is based on some actual game psychology stuff, mixed with our love of making 2 by 2 matricies! There seems to be some theory inheritance going on too.

  11. SighmanSays says:

    Is it just me or is that Steve Blum… again.

  12. FRIENDLYUNIT says:

    I… am attracted to this despite myself. Probably because of the awesome trailer.

    Yes, this is WoW again, nothing especially new, but honed and polished really beautifully. I could draw an iPhone analogy.

  13. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    *sigh* Alas, Wildstar. I am not sure whether Gaffney feels that the game will be the most fun they can make it to be. Of course, of course it should be tried before truly being judged in this fashion, but I’d wish that they (or another MMO designer) would’ve gone further in going off the beaten path.