It’s a well-known fact that FPS legend John Romero (Doom, Quake) has founded a new company, Slipgate Ironworks, and that the firm is at work in the Bay Area on an MMO. While details have been slight until now, Romero appeared on a panel at last week's OGDC conference in Seattle to offer his opinion on the challenges for designing these worlds, and afterwards answered a few exclusive questions from Gamasutra.
“We’ve been working with [the BigWorld engine] for about a year and a half,” Romero began, by talking about his technology licensing deal, adding that these online games are now about not leaving the community outside the world, but taking it inside. “I think everyone is working on the integration between the 2D and the 3D,” he said of community and forums that might be lost inside a normal game.
When talk turned to business models, Romero said, “We’re looking at subscription – also looking at item sale… looking at all that stuff.” It hasn’t been locked in, and all the possibilities are being built directly into the game, in case they want to add it later. “We’ll have the game designed for a huge item economy.”
Just how all that will work has yet to be decided. “That’s going to be up to the marketing guy we don’t have yet,” says Romero, adding that Slipgate Ironworks has “purposely kept marketing out of the game,” because he wants the team to remain above marketing’s influence. Once it’s nearing completion, it can be shown to sales and marketing specialists or partners to get the game out there.
Ultimately, it comes down to singularity of vision. “We know what we want to make,” Romero said confidently. One hurdle facing the company is staffing. “It’s taken a long time for us to build up our studio,” Romero said. “Even in the Bay Area: the bigger the team gets the harder it gets.” Also the entire team is involved in the interviewing process, and ultimately must agree to new hirers. “The quality goes up the more we bring them in.” The company hiring rate is just 1.7 percent of all applicants.
“We’re doing everything – Craigslist, Gamasutra, going to GDC and handing out cards – any way that we can,” he says of their efforts to find good people. The company even has a referral bonus. “We’re in San Francisco, and everyone has a job.” Something that Romero would never consider is outsourcing for jobs he might not fill immediately. “I wouldn’t outsource programming!”
While finding people is tough, finding money isn’t difficult for Romero, who has investment from Silicon Valley to the east coast. “It really does help to have a good value proposition,” he says, adding of the investors from seed capital to B-Class, “They got it.” But would he ever work with a publisher again? “No way, that’s a treadmill.”
“With investors you don’t have to make deadlines,” he says, referencing the conventional milestone payment method. “[Publishers are] just a distribution thing.” He doesn’t view virtual worlds just bags of cash, either. “I have a friend who runs five text MUDs,” he Romero says, “and makes over a million dollars a year, just selling items in a text MUD. Just selling lines of text."
At the end of his talk, Romero noted that the single biggest challenge is execution. “Just making it and getting it done. Especially getting it done.” You’re "not out there trying to make a quick buck", but when you’re trying to build a platform that will last a really long time, he says. “Quality has to be really high. You have to make sure it’s all solid.”
Gamasutra asked Romero how long it took to flesh out what the game would be. “Still happening,” responded. The high-level work has been done. But as the game takes shape, so does iteration, and the evolution of what works. “It’s been a long time because, we want to make something that people are going to love to live in, versus play for twenty hours and put down.”
There’s combat, he told Gamasutra, and “we want a big, big audience in this game.” Romero describes having fun in the world, but adds that he wants players to be able to move through the world as well, using the advance of the story. Further mentioned is the fact that the game takes place on “an Earth-like planet.” The game has to be something people can relate to. “People will buy in faster to a game they can relate to. People can relate to Earth,” Romero chuckles.
But he won’t talk about ‘value proposition’ that brought in his investors. “We’ve been in stealth mode since day one.” Nor can he say when the game will ship, or even if it’s nearing Alpha. “Well,” he laughs, “You’re always nearing Alpha.”