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Wildstar Dev On Biz Model, Jumping Puzzle Pain & Sunsets

"We're mixing innovation and doing what's been done well before"

Yesterday, I caught up with Carbine Studio's bossguy Jeremy Gaffney to see what's been going on in their upcoming mega-MMO Wildstar. While he wasn't quite ready to reveal how the game will make money, he did drop a few big hints about the payment scheme they're looking at. We also tackled the jumping puzzles which made me see red last time I played the game, how they're continually responding to player feedback, finding the sweet spot between too easy and too hard, and the one weird trick to cut down belly fat that apparently makes both Wildstar and WoW's terrain so timeless.

RPS: What are you able to tell us about the business model at this stage?

Jeremy Gaffney: Some of the stuff we'll be talking about [at Develop] will relate to what we're doing with our business model, but not pointing it out as such. We're going to a reveal in a couple of weeks, basically, because what we really want to do is have a dev speak that talks to it in detail.. Because if there's a single thing we've found, it's that nobody loves a business model. Everybody hates business models. No-one's like "I love a subscription game!", it's "I hate cash shops" or "I hate free to play," or "I hate subs." So what we want to do is try to be flexible, let people pay how they want to pay and do a bit more of a hybrid.

But we don't want to confuse that too, because part of providing flexibility is potential confusion, so we'll do a dev speak that explains in detail, "here's what the hell we're talking about" in non-bullshit terms, in language that devs will get and users will get.

RPS: I suppose there's a certain fear of having certain tags, like 'free to play', attached to a game these days - it can provoke a negative response straight away.

Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, we're a hybrid model at the end of the day, so people are going to pick on their least favourite aspect and tag us with it. And that's fine, you can't change human nature, so so be it. People have a right to be jaded, because there's enough that comes out. Being unique in this space is tricky, especially in the land of giants and the land of the larger the budget is, the more scared people usually are to innovate. Telling your boss how you just set fire to 100 million dollars... It's safest to do what's done before, when perversely what's done been before is what fails.

RPS: Would you say, then, that you are innovating, or will it seem very familiar when it's revealed?

Jeremy Gaffney: I think we're mixing innovation and doing what's been done well before, much like the game itself. I guess in the art of teasing, then, some of it is stuff that's been done before but we have our own particular spin on it. Some people will say 'oh, it's a clone of this, that or the other' and some people will say it's a ton of new stuff, so we'll see.

RPS: Is there a tension to so often having to talk about your game in terms of money, rather than its content, because the business model is always the big MMO question now?

Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, but I mean the best games out there I think do a good job of letting users pay for what they want. Take League of Legends - every three weeks you get a new hero. People are excited because it's something new, and it's overpowered because it's something new, people don't know how to counter it yet. I've talked to the guys over at Riot about it, because the fans will argue that the new heroes are OP because they design them that way. What Riot say, over beers, say it's only because it's new it feels OP, but then every three weeks it's something new and exciting, and if you were just about to drop out of the game, there's something that pulls you back in. It's good for retention. That's powerful.

I think the games you'll see doing really well going forwards are the ones that manage to add stuff to the game rapidly. Look at what Guild Wars 2 is doing with giant new patches every couple of weeks. What's interesting about that is that there are two types of things that are attractive to new users. One is things that are press-facing, that are new and interesting and neat, and then there are those which retain the users you already have. Balancing that mix of where you're spending your time, it's really hard in development. Rapidly new updates like that, it's not usually pressworthy, the game has to be ginormous for that to be press worthy, but you need that mix of bringing in new people with 'aha, here's this giant new system and oh my god now there's earth-shattering giant robots going around destroying everything' versus 'hey, we're just going to make sure the game stays fun.'

RPS: What has changed the most since I last played Wildstar last Winter?

Jeremy Gaffney: We've done a big new patch every five to six weeks, a huge patch, and it's literally between 30 and 70 pages of patch notes. Because the secret is that if you can actually listen to your fans and then modify your game to make it better on a regular basis, you kind of win. If you can modify your game quickly, so that there's a constant stream of new things that are coming out, you kind of win.

RPS: Do you mean balance things or content things?

Jeremy Gaffney: A bit of both. By balance we change a lot of systems, we change the user interface for a lot of things that work or don't, we track stuff taking every character that hasn't logged in for two weeks, and we put a skull on the map for where the character was. Why hasn't someone logged in for two weeks? It turns out there'll be clusters of skulls around your worst content, or the level ranges where it got too long or too tedious, or you didn't have the right stuff.. That kind of analysis is actually really important, because you get a ton of feedback from what people say, but here also from what people do.

It's also more convoluted than that, we encourage people to log off near houses and so on, but out in the actual world, what was the last content you interacted with, why did that content drive you out? Whether that number of users is large or small, if you are an intelligent developer you'd better be making that as small as possible, learning from the people. The massive benefit of being an online game is you're the god of your little world. You have all the information, it's a matter of having the time and inclination to process what's actually going on?

RPS: How many of those skulls were where someone was on the Explorer path and trying to jump up a tree with lots of branches and falling off again and again?

Jeremy Gaffney: [Laughs uproariously]. There are clusters right around those damn trees... We actually put in something just for that, we were finding people were double-tapping to dodge, and were accidentally dodging their asses to death off the edge of a cliff. You're like 'I need to place my little beacon, taptaptap', and dead.

RPS: Yeah, I had turn off the dodge in options when I played it, because if I got the timing wrong I'd just be hurled out of the bloody tree.

Jeremy Gaffney: We've got an option on the interface now, where you can just click on the little dodge meter thing and temporarily turn it off. That reduced our Explorer raining death count [laughs.] I remember in EverQuest back in the day, the newbie zone for the Wood Elves is all up in the trees, and so it would rain down newbie elves all the damn time. You could walk underneath it and it was this cascade of newbs trying to figure out how to walk around.

We did learn over time, we did a focus group, bring in users every week under NDA. There's a jump puzzle in one of the early zones, and this one woman tried it and failed. There are three of us in the room watching, and she tries again, and fails. Then she tried 40-something times, and over this we started cheering as she'd get to the second stage. This attracted more devs in, so by the time she finally did it, people from across the building were watching and we're like "you guys need to shut the fuck up, because she can hear you cheering every time she makes a successful jump, she can hear you going 'noooooooooooooo' every time she flops." Finally, after 40-something times she made it to the top. It wasn't that tough of a puzzle, but we just hadn't tuned it quite right. 40 of us came running into the room, like 'yeeeeeeeeeeah!' She was so mortified.

RPS: I had very similar at the demo day, the more I failed the more frustrated I got, the more errors I made from impatience, and I had this small crowd of games journalists gather to watch me. I knew there was like a hundred other things I could be doing in the game, but I felt I had to get to the top of this damn tree, click whatever's there...

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Jeremy Gaffney: You're helping us tune our game. Also it means that the reward has got to be damn good if you finally make up there, is something we've learned. You don't want to be 'oh, some XP.'

RPS: I don't remember what the reward was, I have to say. I just dropped the mouse and went outside to calm down once I finally did it.

Jeremy Gaffney: [laughs] Well, if you do that now you'll end up as a little skull on a map somewhere.

RPS: I'm going to presume mine wasn't an isolated experience, then, so what have you done in terms of those jump puzzles other than the dodge thing?

Jeremy Gaffney: Basically what we've done is expanding the level, open world PvP is now going on, so you get to shared zone earlier, and we've logged the crap out of everything, then pulled the crap out things. I'm sure this will leak, but we've just done in beta a list of 27 changes based on player feedback. They're fundamental, it's things like how quests are delivered to pieces of the UI to how itemisation works, to how the attributes system works. We've found weird stuff.

We were two classes of users at the level 15-20 range, and what's happening were half of them were saying 'this game's great' and half were saying 'this game's way too fricking hard.'. So we dug into the map and we found that there's a system where you can hand-tune your item. People who did this, who basically were crafting their own items, were kicking ass, and those who were not were dying in droves and had no idea why. It's because they weren't customising their items to actually be efficient. They weren't min-maxing. That's on us as developers.
We either need to make it obvious why you're dying, and give you the tools you need to fix it, or we need to really stage stuff out so as users you're coming in and understanding. We were trying to dump too much stuff on newbie users, all these systems, challenges, paths, blah blah blah and then on top do this item customisation. If you missed the tutorial pane or you didn't see the little 32 pixel by 32 pixel icon to go do it, or read your item tooltip, you'd never learn the system. That's on us, that's the kind of stuff we have to tune. We want to make sure the game is challenging, but it's not a challenge based on shit that's in the UI or some unintuitive thing, like double-dash throwing you off the top of a treetop. That's not fun, that's you fighting the UI.

RPS: There must be some conflict in yourselves, where you've made a system you're proud of but you have to kill your baby to cater to the lowest common denominator, potentially.

Jeremy Gaffney: We think that everybody over time should be able to get up to level cap, whether it's by smacking their face into a lot of monsters along the way, staggering through. Above level cap, it's elitist, it's fricking hard, it's not for everyone. Grandma's never going to make it through a raid, you know? But there'd better be enough challenging stuff along the way, because people don't want dumbed down games either, they want a sense of achievement for actually doing stuff. So that mix of 'hey, if you're an expert player here are all these puzzles and stuff along the way that only you can do.' The great mass of newbs out there are going to have to find four buddies and do this thing that you'd be cool enough to do by yourself. If the game's too easy for you at low level, you get bored. It's fun briefly, but it's like playing with god mode. After a while you're 'ah, screw this.'

It's fun, actually, as developer, it's where the sweet spot is. It's why we dump tons of rewards on you if you do more, if you fight loads of monsters at once. Newbies will never know, they'll only fight one thing at once. Experts are like "I can fight these five things, I'm going to scan three of them at the same time because I'm a Scientist, I'm going to set up this landmine to go blow up half of them, I'm going to train them into another mob...' You're going to get a whole ton of reward for doing that, but you actually had to think and have skill to be able to pull that kind of stuff of. Newbies are still out there grinding their first response.

RPS: Do you guys liaise with the Guild Wars 2 team at all, to learn from what they've got right and wrong?

Jeremy Gaffney: Last week actually, we sent ten of our guys out to ArenaNet and did a big post-mortem on what's worked for them and what's not on Guild Wars 2. One of the things they've done is so fricking hard, and I don't know if obvious to users or not, but they've doing three week patches, big new patches every couple of weeks. That's fricking hard, you look at Riot with League of Legends, their entire company is devoted to nothing but making sure they have a new hero come out every few weeks. With Guild Wars it's the same kind of thing, they have 17 individual teams focusing on individual features, who all coordinate on different branches to be able to merge in, have new stuff come out every couple of weeks.

RPS: It's insane, I'm forever reporting on two or three person indie teams making amazing things from scratch in a few months, and then you have ten times as many people just to introduce a new character in something that's already released.

Jeremy Gaffney: If you're a big content game you need a big team, there are very few ways to avoid it. You can try to do what Camelot Unchained is doing and have just PvP, because PvP... Well, Dust 2 is still PvP, that's still brilliant for Counter-Strike twelve years later or whatever it's been. PvP you don't need to generate a ton of content for it. Randomised content, you can get away with that but people see through that facade fairly quickly. That can't really be everything, though it can be a big chunk of it. Diablo proves that, the old Diablos, not really the new ones. Or user-created content, what Neverwinter Nights is trying to do. Pulling of those things are where you'll see the indie teams making the big-scale MMOs because you need to come up with a trick for the content. I think you'll see very few of the us and the WoW-style, Everquest-style, huge masses of content tuned by large teams. Guild Wars is another one of those , and it pulls it off without a subscription fee, which is quite remarkable.

That area is very tough to sustain, especially because you have to compete with every other game that's done it before. It's not that the games are dead, they're still out - WoW's still trucking along with ten million subs. It's 'only' ten million now, but it's still ten million. It's not doomed, it's still going to be played ten years from now, and we have to compete with that every time we make a new game. Especially with new IP, you'd better be good, you'd better get all the details right. Look how many games have been left by the wayside.

Another thing is elder games. Have many MMOs have neglected putting in the game at the top level? It's stupid, because where do you spend most of your time, it's at that top level. You cannot depend on having a rapid patch cycle, like 'oh, we're going to cram in all those elder games a month after launch.' That doesn't work at all. You need to tune them, you need to balance them. Most of our work between now and launch, it's getting those elder games tuned up. Because guess what, having a raid, a group of people who are hardcore raiders, who can level all the way up the game, then you need to be tuning it based on their feedback as they're doing it over and over again, that takes time. That takes nothing but time. That's why you see game after game after game launching without frickin' elder games, or 'hey we're going to patch it in.'

RPS: You think they weren't able to test it during development?

Jeremy Gaffney: Testing it is very, very hard. Testing it right is very, very hard. Tuning it right is very hard too - did you make it too easy, or did you make it too hard, so only the top 1% can do it? The sweet spot's in the middle of that, and finding that sweet spot is tricky. But name me a game that's launched with a good elder game in the last five years.

RPS: It's certainly a common complaint I read soon after launch.

Jeremy Gaffney: That's why every new game that comes out, you see it sell one million, two million, three million boxes. People are interested in MMOs, but people burn out because there's nothing to do in the long haul. If we do that too, you can say what frickin' idiots we are, because at the end of the day that's where the users are, that's where the money is, where the retention is, where you game becomes compelling and fun is there's something to do a month after launch.

RPS: So you're willing to make the grand statement that you've got it right with this? We have heard very similar claims from other developers in the past.

Jeremy Gaffney: I am comfortable making the statement that we're fucking idiots if we don't do it right [laughs].

RPS: I always like to ask this - name me one thing in your game that you're proud of that almost no players will ever notice.

Jeremy Gaffney: It's tricky, because I have the executive producer hat on most of the time, so I get to do boring shit most of the time. For me personally - but it's a team effort, many other people have impact on this - stuff I had a direct hand in was the plug and socket system, making sure that the world was modifiable. Most users will never give a crap, it's not like we stick a bullet point on the box saying 'hey, we change our world all the time', but the whole world is based on these plugs and sockets, we swap in and out new pieces all the time.

Why don't people notice? It's because users don't notice dynamic shit, like a spaceship crashes and a new dungeon appears where it hits, and guards go out from it and setup outposts with quest givers and things. The guy who saw the spaceship fall out of the sky knows it's dynamic, but everyone else is like 'hey, cool, some quests', because they're just consuming the content as they level up and are in the next area. But I think it adds an ineffable quality to the world, of realism, or of sandboxy-type elements. That kind of stuff I think is important. It's what's going to let us keep up a really frequent patch schedule after launch, because we've set up the world to move in different pieces all the time.

Something else, and I don't know how well known this is, but in World of Warcraft, which something like 40% of our team came from, the sun rises and sets in the same spot every day. Most people don't know that. And the moon rises and sets in exactly the same spot, so if you look to the West it's always the sun and the moon going up and down. Why? Now you can bake in lighting everywhere across the world, so you know that your light source is always coming from the west, it can always be across the mountains or whatever, and that's why WoW's terrain and stuff still looks good a decade later and everyone else's looks like crap. It's because they pulled off tricks like that to be able to bake that stuff in.

So it happens to be that our soon and our moon always rise and set in the same spot, and our terrain looks really good in part because of that. We do a very similar thing, we make sure the light sources always come from one side and then you can have your artists go hand-paint. We take it to another level, because our artists can actually paint on the ground like it was a canvas, so they can bake it whatever the hell they want. It's those kinds of tricks that users will never notice, or if they do it's a rarity, but here it is a decade later and have you ever see anything mentioning that the sun always rises and sets in the same spot in WoW? Nope.

RPS: I'm going to go and login tonight and watch it go up and down. Thanks for your time.

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