For the past ten years, Colorado-based developer NetDevil has focused almost exclusively on MMOs.
Its first project, Jumpgate: The Reconstruction Initiative, a space flight combat MMO, is still in operation. Its second, auto combat MMO Auto Assault, which saw a troubled release with publisher NCsoft, is not.
In addition to the fairly high-profile LEGO Universe MMO it is developing, NetDevil is now also working on a more personal project, a successor to the game its company was first founded to develop.
Jumpgate Evolution, remarkably being produced by a staff of about thirteen, is a sequel to the original Jumpgate and is planned for release in early 2009. Gamasutra sat down with co-founder Scott Brown to discuss the company's goals for the game, the importance of keeping focus in game design, and what NetDevil learned from Auto Assault.
One thing you talked about is the balance between having a story in the game and having a freely open game. How are you tackling that balance?
Scott Brown: Sure. So, we want people to feel that they're part of a story, so we tried to do some things, like various in-game cutscenes to give you a sense of the flavor of the sector, without leading you too much. We also try to keep the number of missions available to you smaller, so that way at any one time, there's only a few choices, and you can pick the path, and the game will adapt the missions it's giving you based on what you've done.
So it's a design challenge to figure out the right balance and how to implement that. And you talked about how it's freely available, whereas in most MMOs, you have to level up, progress, and improve in order to access newer points, so that's a natural limiter.
SB: Yeah. We still have levels, even though there are no dice roll or attributes, but they change what you have access to and where you can go. One of the things that's different, though, is that almost any action you take will give you experience. So if you want to run cargo or trade or mine or PvP, for example, you can just PvP and gain levels that way, too.
We don't want to force you into any particular path. We just use it as a way to both give you a sense of accomplishment, and it's just a really well-understood way of telling how powerful a pilot is - quickly assessing, and that kind of thing. So leveling works for that.
There has to be something to attain in a game they expect people to play for a length of time, I think.
SB: Right. But beyond levels, we also have licenses. It works a lot like, say, Gran Turismo, where the more you fly different things or use different weapons, you unlock the ability to have more things down that chain. So if you want to fly the giant cargo haulers, you've got to work your way up to those through the cargo ships.
Then we've got the medals, or achievements, for things like destroying so many guys, or such an accuracy with missiles, or whatever. There's lots of those simpler achievements you can unlock, too.
You mentioned Gran Turismo as something of an inspiration for some of your features. I think it's interesting when people pull features from games outside the genre they're developing, because it doesn't happen as much as I would expect. Have you looked at a lot of different kinds of games?
SB: Absolutely. We're very much trying to take the approach of it not being about every single thing having to be unique or new or different. If something works really well, why wouldn't you use that? I think where our game is unique is the combination of those things, and how it all works together I think is unlike anything else.
But our goal is not to be the most unique game ever made. It's supposed to be fun and accessible, and a great way to be accessible is to use mechanics that people already know. Why do you use WASD instead of DFRG, or something? It's because people expect it. That kind of approach we try to take for all of the features.
A large chunk of your audience may not be interested in Gran Turismo, but you know that game mechanic functions very well, because Sony's been using it for ten years. It's just another reason to take a look at other genres, I think.
SB: We do that all the time. If someone's solved a problem, I don't think it's a slam on our designers if they use a solution that someone else came up with, especially if it's going to mean that it's easier for other players.
When we were first discussing the game, you talked about how it's more action-oriented. It's more like a sandbox game, less like EVE Online, and more like a Freelancer online experience. Can you talk about how you found the right niche for what your game is and how you developed out the play style?
SB: Well, the reality is that Jumpgate is the game we started our company to make. It was the first game any of us had ever made, and it was a game we had always really wanted to play. We were all big X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, Wing Commander, and Elite nuts. We just loved that kind of game, and wanted to bring that experience online. With Jumpgate, there were only five of us by the time that game shipped.
SB: Yeah. Since then, we've learned a whole lot more about the process of making games and the process of making art and performance and game design and a lot of things. We just said, "Let's go back to that. Let's do it again, and this time, do it with everything we've learned so far and see how great we can make the game." That's kind of the approach we took to make this.
Now, the original Jumpgate came out in 2001, right?
And it's still running?
It still has an audience, obviously. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that when some of the early MMOs that are still around were launched, they weren't necessarily anticipating - and you can tell me whether or not you were anticipating it - still running the game seven years later with an active userbase.
SB: No idea. To be honest with you, we had no idea. We didn't know if it was a year, or...how long would a game run? I think stuff like Ultima Online has proven that maybe there's a shelf life to when it's the most exciting and when it has the biggest userbase, but I think for a lot of people, you play these games, you develop a community of friends, and you end up playing it because it's comfortable. You know what you're doing there.
In that sense, the model over time goes from not as much of a game to a service.
There's a lot of complexity in that.
SB: A lot of the things that developers, the first time they're making an online game - and certainly we did this - do wrong is that you forget about the service part of it. You don't realize that in order for your game to have a good service, you have to build all of those various tools in from the very beginning. How are you going to track where users get stuck? How are you going to give support when they lose an item?
One of the examples the producer of this project, Herman, always gives is the difference between buying an object in a store. In an offline game, it's "Decrement the store count by one, increase the inventory count by one. You're done." In an MMO, it's "Request to buy it from the server. Is it valid? Did you really have enough money? Does the server actually have any in stock? Validate the packet." There's so much more work that goes into even the simplest things when it's online, and those things add up to a lot of things by the time you're done.
About how many developers do you have working on this project?
SB: Now, I think the team is up to about thirteen people.
Wow. Are you outsourcing a lot of stuff?
SB: No, not so far. The goal here was to try to make a game a different way and keep costs reasonable. Much of this game was developed by the original team of guys - it was about maybe six or seven people. Only real recently we started to ramp up the team, as we're getting closer to a production mode.
But the thirteen people, that's a really small team. There are more people working on DS games right now.
How do you manage to produce it? I'm looking at the game right now, and I think the graphics look quite good. It seems quite polished. I don't know how much content you've actually produced or are in the process of producing, but that seems like a very small number of developers to be working on such a project.
SB: Well, you have to be picky about what you do and don't do. That's why we don't have avatars. We just had to say, "What are the core things that are going to make this great?" and we're going to make sure we have those things in the game by the time it launches. You don't have time for anything else. (laughter)
The other thing is that we had an old game to work from, so it's not like we were working from scratch. We had the codebase, the old title, the old tricks we had already done, a lot of the old bits and pieces there...
You solved some of the major issues.
SB: Yeah. We had 200 players working on the same screen on 9600 baud modems then, so taking that and what we know now, those weren't the issues we had to solve, really. Really, it's all been about iteration. We never focus tested before. Beta was our focus testing. We never brought people in and recorded play sessions and asked questionnaires and made changes to the UI based on feedback. We never took that process before. That's something we've been doing here a lot. The other thing a small team gets you, though, is that it buys you time. It doesn't cost as much, so we can spend more time.
The overhead is not as great.
SB: Yeah, exactly. We can spend more time iterating without that pressure of, "You've got to get it out this month!" or something. That's been very different for us.
Iteration is a huge buzzword right now, but it's also a very important concept, because people are finding that they're able to create much more polished game experiences through quickly iterating on their ideas.
SB: For instance, just getting someone to successfully, in a blind test, sit down and play the first mission and succeed - I thought in four or five iterations, we'd figure out all this stuff and be able to take it from there. It took over a hundred. It took a hundred times of, "Oh, they're confused here. Maybe we should bring this help popup a little bit sooner, or maybe those two came up too soon, so they ignored the second one."
It's that kind of little stuff - like when they want to equip, one person double-clicks and expects it to equip. One person drags and drops and expects it to equip. So you have to support all of those modes. It's that kind of little things you can't put as a bullet point on a box, but I think that's all the difference in the world between a great play session and a game you don't play anymore. We've spent a lot of time working on those kinds of details.
And you've been testing it with players of the original Jumpgate, or also virgins, so to speak?
SB: Some players, a lot of blind testers. The first phase was really not so much about experts, but more about people who have never played this before, people who think, "I can't play space sims because they're too hard." That's who we've focused on first to make sure the game is accessible enough so that they can sit down and play.
Now that we've got the guts in the game and the real gameplay, that's when the old gamers are going to be a critical part of our test.
And you said you're going to move into a beta, and this time you've iterated heavily. What do you expect to get out of the beta process?
SB: Balance. We really feel like, to be honest, when you go to beta is when you launch. You have to have that approach. It can't crash. The framerate's got to be good. It's got to be simple. The download's got to be small. All of these things add up to losing players. We've tried to make sure that...I'm hoping that beta's not about bugs and crashing servers. It's about balance.
It kills games these days. Maybe it didn't used to, but I think it does. I mean, Tabula Rasa's beta was horrific, and I don't think the game really recovered from that.
SB: Well, I'm not really going to pick on them, but I'll say Auto Assault. The beta was horrific, and it caught up with us, and a lot of people never came back. It was a lot of things. The system specs were high, the download was ten gigs, and a lot of people just gave up during that phase. We're shooting for a 500 meg download for this title, running on a GeForce 2. That kind of stuff.
We really want to make sure that we've done everything so that it's not just easy to play. Bad framerate equals bad game, you know what I mean? We're doing everything we can to keep the framerate smooth, and all these little things that really matter, but aren't sexy to talk about.
I know, but they're really crucial. That's the thing, right? When you're developing a game, you have to make the balance between, "What do we know is important?" and "What do people that we're making the game for think is important?" - and I don't mean the players, I mean the publisher. That's a struggle, of course.
SB: Yeah. It's a very different approach to development that we're trying to do, but it's something I'm real proud of, because I feel like it's working.
You must've learned a great deal from the whole experience of going through Auto Assault, because it was going to be the next big thing and...well, I don't have to tell you what happened.
SB: Well, we sort of feel like everyone's got the fantasy MMO covered, so we want to take risks. We want to try totally different kinds of games. What was so cool about NCsoft was they are very similar. They're willing to try a lot of different stuff. Hats off to them for giving us the ability to try for it.
I think, unfortunately, it seems lame to say, but I think what really got us in the end was process. It was just...we were building it in that standard way, and that's the way everybody works. You put all the features in, you get each thing done, there's a milestone, and that's just how everything works.
It's very, very difficult just for publishers and developers to come to...how do you sign an agreement? The easiest way to think of it is the difference of how you treat a contract to an employee. You would never say to an employee, "Okay, it's been two weeks. Time for your next pay period. Oh, you didn't get this stuff done? Well then I'm not going to pay you." You would never do that to an employee, and that's kind of the problem that we face as a third-party developer - how do you get over that?
That's what we're hopefully trying to do by proving to the publisher, "Look at the quality that we're putting in on this. Look what iterations is buying us." No one's going to argue with that.
Was there any reticence on the part of Codemasters after the Auto Assault situation?
SB: Absolutely. Everybody. That's hard to...everybody's like, "Why did it do what it did, and will they learn anything and do it better this time?" Again, I think the fact that they're willing to take the risk is a big deal, but of course, for us to get there, we had to get the game a lot farther. We had to make a pretty good, playable game before they or anyone would talk to us, really. That's been a lot of what we've had to overcome. I know we're going to have to overcome that with players, too, and get their confidence back.
Is this going to be a boxed product, or is it an entirely download product?
SB: Most likely it's going to be a pretty standard box plus subscription MMO.
You said you think of your audience more like a shooter audience or an action gamer PC audience, and less of a typical MMO audience or an EVE-type audience. Did you define the audience and then work toward satisfying that audience, or did you, as the game design emerged, figure out the audience?
SB: No, we made the game we wanted to make. There was no special marketing thought. That's not my specialty. You know what I mean? I just desperately want to play this game. I kind of feel like the audience thing gets overblown sometimes. I don't know about you, but when a game is really, really good, I play it. I don't know that I'm necessarily a big first-person guy, but Call of Duty 4 is a pretty awesome game. I don't know that I'm necessarily an RTS guy, but I'm going to play StarCraft II just like everybody else. I'm going to play Diablo III, and I play World of Warcraft. I play all kinds of different games.
Maybe I'm totally wrong, but I think people get too pigeonholed into, "Okay, this is this game with this audience." I feel like if you make really, really good games, you break that barrier. That's really what we're trying to do. We're trying to make the best space flight game ever made. That's our goal. We feel like if we build that, we get players.
If you look at it from another media perspective, Battlestar Galactica broke through to a larger audience than perhaps what would be associated with a hard sci-fi show on television. I know people who watch it that surprise me.
SB: And I'd say it's because of quality, right?
SB: And Lord of the Rings, the movie. "Fantasy movies don't work. You can't make fantasy movies." That was the rule. Well, who was the fanbase of Lord of the Rings? Everybody?
Yeah. It won Oscars.
SB: Yeah. That's just kind of how we're trying to approach this, is not so much worried about that. But again, we're keeping the cost reasonable so that if it ends up being a niche game, that's okay too.
I still want to know how the hell you're making an MMO with thirteen people, but I think that question is maybe a little broad. (laughter)
SB: Well, the reality is that it's a team of people who...most of them have shipped two MMOs. That's pretty rare. These guys know what they're doing, and we're working from a preexisting codebase. It also means your scope has to be somewhat limited, but there's a lot of things. Making a new map in space is not as hard as making a new map in some other game. It's not the same scale of time, I guess. That's kind of the tricks we're able to use.
I think one thing games often fail at is managing their scope to the things they do well. If you look at a lot of really successful games, there's not a bunch of stuff that they do badly. They just do what they do well.
SB: Right. We kind of came to this consensus that bad features are worse than no feature, which maybe sounds obvious, but certainly wasn't to us. With Auto Assault, we felt like, "Well, this is the list. Here's the features you have to have to be a successful MMO. Well, we better get it. We've got to have some kind of housing or whatever."
And I think now what we're trying to say is, "If we can't do it great, let's just not do it yet," and we'll focus on a smaller features set enough where we feel like it's going to be a full game experience. I mean, you've got auction and mail and all the stuff you would expect from an MMO, but like you said, there's no getting out of your ship and there's no walking around. There's no hanging out in the space bar, which sounds really cool and fun, but it's sort of beyond the scope of what we can do for the first version.
Our goal here is to get something out there that people love enough that we can continue to build it for a long, long time. If it turns out that avatars is what everybody wants, then that's what we'll do next. Or if flying down on planets is what everybody wants, then that's what we'll do next. We'll just go whichever way people want it to go once we bring it live.