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.