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Cryptic Messages: Emmert Talks Neverwinter

It's been fascinating to watch the MMO scene evolving over the past couple of years, and seeing the various players stepping away from traditional models. Now it seems to be Cryptic's turn. After City Of Heroes, Champions and Star Trek, they are now looking at creating something a little different: Neverwinter, a D&D game that appeals to both the adventurer and the Dungeon Master, relying as it does on an amalgam of Cryptic's own content and user-generated dungeons for its ongoing adventures. Cryptic's bossman Jack Emmert has already spoken in interviews about how he felt that Champions and Star Trek lacked polish, and in this interview he speaks about what that realisation means for Neverwinter, and why this game represents a new era for the company that originally set out to make MMOs.

RPS: So how did this game come about? How did you end up developing a game that moves away from your established MMO models?

Emmert: Well internally at Cryptic we had been working on a user-generated-content-driven fantasy MMO before we were acquired by Atari. When the discussions for the acquisitions started, the fact that Atari controlled the D&D licence, and had the Neverwinter property, came up and it just made immediate sense to change the game we had been working on into a Neverwinter game. The rest is history from that point on.

RPS: So what's the philosophy for this new game? You've mentioned in other interviews how differently the company is approaching Neverwinter, so how does that manifest in the design?

Emmert: We want to make an old-school tactical Western RPG. We want to get back to the roots of Neverwinter and we want to taste the strategies of those D&D games where you have to manoeuvre around, select your abilities carefully, and so forth. It's not turn-based, and it's not isometric, but that old school model was our focus to start with. Secondly we wanted the game to be immersive, so we want the experience to be inspired by games like Oblivion and Dragon Age, and to take a cue from fantasy products that created incredible worlds to delve into. Thirdly we wanted it to genuinely represent a D&D experience! We looked at the 4th Edition rules and tried to make sure that we could bring that alive as much as was possible with our tools.

RPS: So tell me about the player experience. How different is it to previous Crpytic MMOs? Still got the splendid character creators?

Emmert: Well you start with character creation of course, and there are customisation tools for that, and character creation is based on D&D 4th Edition's process. After that you will probably face a tutorial level, which we have yet to build! And then you will enter into the world of Neverwinter. Once you are through that you will enter one of a number of persistent zones. Now these are much smaller in terms of population, it won't be the same numbers of people we've seen in previous games from us, it'll be just a few score. So it's enough that you will run into others, but it won't feel crowded. The focus here is on the co-op RPG experience, so we want you to be able to meet new people, or meet with friends, but then get on with adventuring. You will get to that from the persistent zones, although these contain storylines too. Some missions will take you into instances off of these persistent zones, and sometimes you will just stumble across them. It depends.

RPS: So aside from being tighter and smaller in terms of how the world is packaged, the game is going to ride on user-generated content, appealing to the “Dungeon Master” impulses in some of us. How is that going to feature in the game itself?

Emmert: Right now the plan is for the players to be able to lay out – at the very least – interior quests or missions, with monsters, dialogues, different mission objectives. It will be more in-depth than what City Of Heroes did with the mission architect, but perhaps not as technically complex as what the Neverwinter Nights tools were like, or even the Dragon Age tools. It will be flexible however, there will be assigned behaviours and assigned dialogues and so on. Once you've created that the creator will be able to attach that to pre-existing entrances, or even attach it to contacts, NPCs in the Neverwinter persistent world. Players will be able to click on them, talk, and then launch into a UGC mission.

RPS: So players will have scope to script their own fictions, tell their own stories to some extent within the game world?

Emmert: Yes! We've also talked about allowing people to create their own campaign settings within the Neverwinter world. We're still toying around with how to do it, and looking at whether that's a genuinely good idea.

RPS: If I can just go off at a tangent for a second: side-kicking from City Of Heroes, allowing you to play with friends of vastly different levels, that always seemed like a smart development in MMOs. Will it turn up in Neverwinter?

Emmert: That's something we're still looking at, to be honest. I think in D&D there are already mechanics for players of a good range of levels to team up and take things on. We do have that mechanic in both Star Trek and Champions, just as a side note, and I am surprised more people haven't utilised it, but hey, there it is.

RPS: Yeah, it was one of those features that when I saw it in Heroes I just assumed it would be in every future MMO, and it really doesn't seem to have been that popular. Odd. It should have become a standard. Anyway, there's so much D&D lore out there, even for the Neverwinter corner of that universe, how did you figure out where to place your game, what lore to use, and so on? What's the creative process for that kind of fiction wrangling?

Emmert: Well we are in constant contact with Wizards Of The Coast [D&D licence holders, obviously – RPS Notebrain] and they are working with us to flesh out the mythology and background of the area. Of course the good thing for us is that the 4th Edition D&D setting is one hundred years after the previous setting, and the previous Neverwinter games, so of course a lot has changed. Many of the people are long gone or dead, so there's a brand new wave of characters. At the same time RA Salvatore is writing a new series based on Neverwinter and his stories will bridge the gap and help inform the player about the events leading up to and occurring in our game.

RPS: I haven't played 4th Edition myself, but quite a few people have observed that it seems to reflect MMO mechanics in some ways. Is that your experience of it?

Emmert: To a degree. The similarities start with the fact that MMOs adopted RPG mechanics, which were adopted from D&D, which were frankly adopted from wargame miniatures. MMO development had a baseline understanding of D&D, but the difference is that they are programmed. Programmers had to sit down and systematise how each of these character classes would work in their game. They made them follow set rules so that when they were implementing the skills of a fighter, as opposed to a magic user, I would be able to use variations of the same code for both. This means there was a certain similarity in how the rules were executed. In 4th Edition D&D Wizards took the morass of special rules and one-off exceptions that were part of the various character classes, something that was rife in first and second edition variations of the game, and systematised them. Both MMOs and 4th Edition have systematised the character classes and the mechanics, and so there's no huge surprise that they ended up in a similar place. Of course there are also people at Wizards who played MMOs, and this would likely have influenced their thinking. I think 4th Edition is both more accessible for more people, and more tactile. It's very much about using miniatures, using placement, about your environment, about seeing your character in a room. It's a 3D environment, and that's what a videogame is too. It translates right across from one to the other.

RPS: So we're heading for a kind of perfect D&D by working at it across paper and digital formats?

Emmert: I wouldn't say perfect, I would say... it depends on the goal of the game. When the goals of an MMORPG and the goals of a pen and paper RPG are the same, then you are going to end up with similar results. So no, not perfect, it depends on what you want to do with it.

RPS: Anyway, what I've been trying to process here, and it's tough to articulate in some ways, but this isn't an MMO in the traditional sense. It's more like the co-op RPG of old that spilled out onto the net with some persistent bits...

Emmert: I want to clarify that. It's an online multiplayer game, an OMG. But what makes it unique in the industry is that we're putting it out there like any other fantasy RPG, like Dragon Age or Oblivion, but we're going to be supplementing it with content, month after month. Maybe with these other games you will get a DLC here or there, but it's not continual and there is no persistence. What we're doing is taking the living, growing elements of an MMO, and attaching that onto a traditional RPG experience. That's why this OMG model is relatively unique. A sustained effort to grow the game like in an MMO.

RPS: And this is a new direction for you as a company, isn't it? A step away from the niche you made for yourselves?

Emmert: Yes, yes I think so.

RPS: And that's because MMOs are changing so much now? I mean what was always interesting about Cryptic was you were very explicitly about making MMOs and making them quickly...

Emmert: We would do an MMO if the opportunity arrived, but there was a huge change in our approach after Champions and Star Trek. We looked at everything after those games, technology, the tool chains, the approach to development... We looked at all that and said: “We made a bad assumption.” That was that we made City Of Heroes in a year and half, we made Villains in nine months, we made Champions in a year and a half, and a Star Trek in a year and half. Insanely quickly. We thought that our competitive edge was that we could make good games quickly, and we thought the quality of Champions and Star Trek were far beyond what we had done with City Of Heroes or City Of Villains. The market place and the critics said differently. They say no, this isn't up to snuff. We then had to go back and ask ourselves what we could do to make the games better, and the answer was to use our online technology to make much more focused, polished content. Instead of creating a system where we are pumping out a hundred or more hours of content, we create a much more finite amount and polish that. Our previous system just isn't translating successfully now, which is unfortunate because I believed in everything we were doing. But you can't argue with those reviews! It will make Neverwinter a better game.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Neverwinter is scheduled for the end of 2011.

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Jim Rossignol