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NetDevil on Auto Assault and JumpGate Evolution

NetDevil have had an interesting journey. They're a privately owned, Colorado-based company that started out by making a niche space-combat MMO, Jumpgate, in 2001. They then went on to create the disastrous post-apocalyptic vehicle combat MMO Auto Assault in 2006 - a game so unpopular that it was switched off just over a year after release by owners NCSoft. Now NetDevil are back on track and working on two projects: a remake of their original MMO, JumpGate Evolution, and the LEGO Universe MMO. Both are looking extremely promising, but in this interview with executive producer Hermann Peterscheck we focus on lessons learned from the failure of Auto Assault, and what we can expect from this second attempt at Jumpgate.

RPS: How did the team feel in the aftermath of Auto Assault? What was learned from that project?

A lot! Honestly it could fill a book! Obviously after the game didn't do as well as expected and was eventually turned off, that's a very difficult thing to get through. As a team you end up spending years of your life working very long hours and when that doesn't pay off the way you expect, then that's certainly a painful thing. We ended up spending a lot of time thinking and evaluating why things didn't go better and learned a lot of lessons from that which we are applying across the board. There's probably a million things that contribute the success of a product but on a high level there's a few big lessons which I think are important for MMO development. The first is to polish early, and not at the end. Numerous high profile game failures result directly from breaking this rule. The idea is that at the end of development you will always be in chaos, fire fighting mode - and if performance optimizations are thrown in with that as well, it's not a very good scenario. The other problem is that if you don't have a great looking, well running game early, then it's really hard to evaluate how good the game really is. The "law," if you will, is there's no such thing as a good game with a bad frame rate.

The other big lesson we learned is that features don't save you. This means that development needs to be a progression where you work on a few core features and stay on them until they are done and working. This takes a lot of discipline because developers always want to work on the "next cool thing." In addition there is always enormous pressure to have all the features that every other game has. Once again you can see a number of high profile failures where games had a ton of features, but that didn't save them. Conversely, there are example of games with very limited features that did quite well - Portal is the recent example, but there are lots of others.

The third major thing is that for MMOs I feel it's important to look good and run well on reasonably spec'd hardware. If you look at the larger, more successful MMOs they tend to run on lots of machines. I think the reason for this is two-fold. The first is that you have to get lots of people playing for the game to be fun, which means the higher the system spec, the smaller the initial population. The other reason is that you need to run the game for a long time. This means that if you have super high end ultra realistic graphics, the next evolution in hardware will date your game. World of Warcraft, notably, has kept itself looking really good by being highly stylized, which means that you don't think of the game as getting graphically behind as quickly as more realistic looking games.

RPS: What's the motivation behind returning to something you've already had one pass at, with Jumpgate?

Honestly there’s lots of reasons, some of them are business related, some of them aren’t. At the end of the day, though, you have to be working on something you really want to do, so that’s the big motivator. There’s no big action space MMO, something Freelancer Online or Wing Commander Online. We want to play that game and since it doesn’t exist we want to make it. We also hope and suspect that there are other people who feel the same way. I think that it is very difficult to “time” the market. You don’t ever really know which game people are going to like, or what they are going to respond to so I think that it’s important to work on stuff that you can be passionate about. The other, less exciting reason, is that we have experience making this kind of game and if you look at the games that are really great they tend to be iterations on an existing game. For example, compare Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3. Bungie got better and better by iterating on the same game over and over again. Just like everything else in life, you get better with practice so I think it’s logical to assume that if we make another space action MMO it will be better than the first.

RPS: How is Jumpgate different from other MMOs?

I think it’s different in lots of ways, but then also similar; which sounds like a dodgy answer. On the different side we really are a space action MMO. This means that the game plays like Wing Commander, Privateer or X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. We want to capture the experience of flying a ship through space and doing various activities: fighting, trading, mining, crafting and so on. Thus from a player experience, the game is different than anything else out there in the mainstream. That being said, there are some similar mechanics. For example, you get missions and earn experience. You gain rank (level) and get access to new equipment and ships You can play with other people in groups to accomplish more difficult goals. You can build stuff and sell it to other players, or buy from them. You can earn medals and titles, gain faction rating and so on. All the basic kinds of things that MMOs tend to have are all there. My hope is that people will be comfortable with the mix of mechanics and features and that we can basically capture a kind of “Han Solo” type of experience… if that makes sense.

RPS: Can you tell us something specific about Jumpgate Evolution that really excites you? A “dungeon”, a mission, a particular place or game mechanic?

Hmm… this is a very common question and it’s really difficult to answer. I think the reason why is for me, the value of a game comes in the overall experience. It’s hard to nail down this feature or that content that makes something really awesome – it’s the culmination of everything that makes it work, I think. Having said that an area that I feel is really cool right now is the unpredictable nature of the AI. We have AI that behave like patrols around a spawn point, which is typical of most MMOs. However, our AI system allows us to have AI do many more things like band together, jump through various parts of space, fight each other and so on. Something that happened a few weeks ago during a test was that I jumped into a core station system and there were some Conflux that just jumped in behind me (Conflux are the “bad” alien race in the game). The station AI responded to the threat by sending out a defender patrol who engaged the Conflux ships and took them out. This was not planned, scripted or triggered in any way, it was just a result of a few simple behaviors interacting in unpredictable ways. We want to exploit those kinds of things a lot and hopefully tie them in so that the player can directly take advantage of them.

RPS: Specifically, how will the long-game of Jumpgate play out? (In Eve people end up building empires, in WoW they end up raiding, what will long term Jumpgaters be doing?)

It’s an interesting question and I’m not really sure how it will play out. We plan to have both high end game play, such as really tough boss like opponents who require a number of people to take out. There’s also PvP which was a big part of the original game and more advanced players tend to like that. Then there is the economy which tends to be a long term meta game. People like to keep making more and more complex stuff and sell it for more and more money and you can generally keep adding to that at the top to keep the game going. Adding content is another thing that we have to do on an ongoing basis. In other words I think endgame content is a pretty well known strategy. Again, it’s all in the execution, not in the idea per se. The critical thing is to have a number of options for people. If you only have one thing for people to do at the “end” they are likely to get bored. The other thing is to be responsive to what people want to do. I suspect that as the game grows, we will get a lot of ideas from the players themselves.

RPS: How do you plan to keep player numbers down in PvP battles? I mean, won't players simply gang up into bigger and bigger groups to defeat their opponents? How does that work?

I am often surprised at how these things tend to work out. I know that EVE has had some reported problems with huge battles causing issues. At some point it’s inevitable that if you have an open world environment with PvP, it will attract a larger number of people as the shard population grows. You may notice that World of Warcraft doesn’t seem to have that problem mainly because they split their world into shards. Now, of course, they don’t have the benefit of really huge battles either – so it’s really a design decision more than anything else. For example, nothing stops the entire shard population of World of Warcraft from going into one central location and messing up the game; so why doesn’t that happen? I think a lot of it is that people don’t deliberately do things to screw up their own game experience. If an area is too full, people tend to go somewhere else. People behave in predictable ways when it comes to social environments. For example, I may really want to go to a certain restaurant. If the wait is 20 minutes I may wait, if the wait is 3 hours, I won’t wait. So by virtue of the frustration being high enough I will go somewhere else to enhance my enjoyment. Thus, I think that as developers we shouldn’t be so quick to control the player experience. I know that you have to take into account things like high populations, but at some point you have to let go and watch what people do. So, if in Jumpgate all 2000 people are in one area fighting and they hate it because it’s crowded but don’t have anything else to do, is the problem that the game can’t handle 2000 people in one area or is the problem that the game doesn’t give people options so that it doesn’t have to handle 2000 people in one area? Is the solution forcing people to separate or is the solution giving people reasons to separate? I like to try and think of ways to make people choose in ways that are both fun and work well in the game instead of forcing people to play the game the way we want them too. Besides, players are smart… they are not going to play the game the way you intend them to in most cases anyway.

RPS: NetDevil is in an interesting position now, with two MMOs in the works. Is the ability to work on multiple projects something that is important to the direction the company is now taking? What is the future for NetDevil?

I think the future of the company is to keep making MMOs. It’s something we have been doing since the birth of the genre, and it’s the kinds of games we really enjoy working on. We might do other things as well, but I can’t imagine that NetDevil will ever stop making MMOs; assuming MMOs themselves don’t cease to exist, which I doubt will happen. As far as multiple projects, it’s really not an uncommon thing. Most 3rd party developers work on at least 2 things at a time if for no other reason to mitigate risk. You never really know what is going to happen when you release a game; even if you release a great game. By doing a few things at the same time you have a better chance at success which is what you need to keep making games. It’s a very competitive industry with rising development costs and a tiny percentage of titles dominating most of the market share. This is in-line with every other entertainment segment, so it’s not really surprising, not will it change. Making MMOs is really hard. Making two MMOs is even harder. Honestly, the biggest limit to growth is talent. It’s difficult to find people who can work on these kinds of games, and it’s also hard to hold onto them because the demand is so high. Our strategy is to make a company that has an environment that produces quality products. Then you use that to help attract and keep the talent that ensures you can keep doing it. If you do that I think eventually you will be financially successful as well. It sounds really simple, but it’s incredibly hard to make games that are worth people’s time and money. I hope that we can achieve that.

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Jim Rossignol