Ed Stark and Dave Williams are veterans of the tabletop gaming industry. Between the two they’ve had a hand in publishing major revamps of pen and paper roleplaying systems, popular trading card games, and a number of board games.
Between the two they've had a hand in the revamp of Dungeons and Dragons to the 3.0 rule set, the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, the West End Star Wars Roleplaying game, and numerous card and board games.
Last year, they joined the still-running-silent, VC-backed MMO developer Red 5, based out of Orange County, California - the World Of Warcraft
veteran-founded company has been in existence since 2005, has $18.5 million in backing
from Benchmark Capital and Sierra Ventures, and most recently
announced former Oracle exec Michael Weingartner joining the firm as VP of engineering.
Since they signed up for the team, Stark and Williams have had the chance to realize some pretty far-out development dreams -- like bringing a sense of the tabletop gaming world to the grinding, sometimes-soulless world of MMOs.
With the Red 5 title still very much under wraps, they still wanted the opportunity to speak on the subject of developer vision. Specifically, they wanted to address the two concepts of persistence and community, two of the core ideas around which MMOs have coalesced in the past. The level of persistence the Red 5 developers are talking about, though, seems entirely different from the average massively multiplayer game.
Though they weren’t able to provide any substantive promises, Stark and Williams offered a bold vision of an MMO shaped and molded by its players. The concept is of a game world built up of communities that reinforce each other and explore their own goals -- in short, an MMO much more like a vibrant pen and paper campaign than the usual static landscape.
What is it about persistence and community that make them so important to massively multiplayer games?
Dave Williams: It’s my opinion, and largely the opinion of the folks here at Red 5, that persistence and community are essentially the two elements that massively multiplayer games do almost exclusively compared to offline games. Offline games just cannot do persistent worlds, persistent characters - all of the things that persistence means – the way online games can.
Online games are running 24/7. Those worlds continue on even after you’ve logged off. That means something. It gives it a “world” feel. People talk about the sandbox games, and the freedom they represent, but those sandboxes disappear when you’re not inside of them.
Ed Stark: A good community will drive the interest in a game, the development of a game, will keep a game alive, for a long time. If you are playing it, if you have friends playing it, then that makes you want to play that much more. If your friends quit the game, no matter how good it is, eventually you’re not going to feel like you want to play anymore. Any MMO that doesn’t focus on providing good community tools and functionality is really missing an opportunity.
How would you say that your backgrounds with pen-and-paper gaming translates to this persistent online community-based style of gaming?
DW: Tabletop games have existed for thousands of year, and eventually they added this concept of persistence and story – D&D, basically. It went from being just this tactical experience to something where you got to change the world around you from the inside out, you get to experience the world on a more personal (rather than abstract) level.
The persistence that massively multiplayer games have right now has overtones of that, but they really miss a lot of what tabletop games have been doing since the days of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the 70s. A lot of MMOs are a one-way street, where the player get to play “in” the world, but not affect it.
ES: Dave and I have both worked at companies where we’ve built mechanisms by which the players can affect the storylines and changes in the world directly. The thing with tabletop games is that all that reaction tends to be slow. Even if you’re publishing on the web, it takes some time for whatever mechanism you’ve created to tally the information, record the information, and then send out a response to the players.
DW: Yeah, that could be a six-month feedback loop, where the players do something cool before the world changes and the players find out what the repercussions of that are.
ES: One of the great things about MMOs is that you can develop a computer’s artificial intelligence so that it reacts to what the players are doing. It can provide changes in response to what the players have done quickly, almost automatically based on the designer’s intent.
DW: Right now for most of these games, when the player saves the princess and he starts walking away from the tower – if he looks back he’s going to see the princess at the top of the tower again. So the persistence we’re talking about doesn’t really happen in MMOs a lot today.
That’s the sort of thing tabletop players are used to and expect from our games. We really think that the electronic games need to move towards that place where the actions of the players actually have an effect on the world.
ES: Yeah, it’s funny. You have this high-tech series of games, more processing power than we’ve ever had, and they’re stuck back in the pre-70s era of having a static environment. We think that games should be able to react to player response and change over time to the way they play their game. And not just because the designer says so, not just on an expansion pack level.
What you’re driving to here seems to be something that a lot of people who play these games really want. They dream of the day where something as simple as a village “staying saved” for a little while can happen. Can you talk about how this would show up in a real game, though?
If you can’t get into a lot of specifics that’s understandable, but are we talking something like the village “staying saved”, or something like NPCs on the other side of the world talking about your character with other players?
DW: I think the village staying saved for a little while is the first level of what we’re talking about here. If you save the village, it stays saved – you saved it! But maybe now that village becomes an objective for another player; maybe something has to be done now because that village wasn’t destroyed. And so on, and so on, and so on. Building those mechanisms to make it a world that reacts to a player’s actions instead of existing in a static state. That’s the world we’re talking about.
ES: One of the things MMOs could take advantage of that I did as well back in my tabletop days, is take advantage of the idea that there are a lot of people playing in the same world. You can forge a community through shared experiences. The idea that “I played this adventure, you played this adventure, and it gives us something to talk about.” We can also talk about the outcome of the adventure. It’s not too much of a disconnect to say “Hey, my character went and saved the princess, but when you did it you weren’t able to save the princess.”
Then what we do is have the world adapt to that, by seeing what the ‘normal’ approach to an adventure is. These changes don’t have to solely result from one person doing something very strange. It just has to take into account that that could happen. We can take that approach that you don’t really see in MMOs. Designers don’t say “oh, most people did this so we’re going to change the world that way.” They just leave it static. And that bugs me.
Just to be clear: it doesn’t sound like you’re talking about pure instancing. It sounds like you’re talking about a shared world where player actions can have an impact on those around them. That’s fair to say?
ES: Well, definitely. If someone could say that playing a game where there are other people “around” is an MMO, then Party Poker is an MMO. Really it’s just a collection of instances. If you don’t have areas where players can interact with each other, then you’re not setting up a shared world – you’re setting up a whole bunch of unshared worlds. Where’s the fun in that?
DW: The type of things we’re talking about here have been addressed, somewhat, in instances in many games. But we are absolutely talking about making changes to the shared world experience. Having the players change what’s going on.
ES: And, I wanted to say, that doesn’t mean we won’t make use of instancing. That can be a fun experience too. But you have to bring everybody back to a place where they can all do things together.
DW: It’s certainly much easier to do in the instancing areas. You have more total control of the experience as a designer. There are things you can do in the shared world to let the players feel like their actions matter. That’s one of the big problems right now; yeah, your character got a little bit stronger than he was five minutes ago because he saved the princess, but did it really have any effect on the world? No.
When you’re talking about “a shared world”, to clarify, are you talking about what most MMO players think of when they think of a server? IE: a space with a few thousand players inhabiting it? Or something smaller?
Dave: We don’t have any firm numbers as far as how big our servers would be, but we are definitely talking about a shared world with many, many, many players.
It’s worth belaboring, because this is something that players have definitely been looking for – for some time. It’s worth clearing this up so as to avoid any vagueness here.
DW: We are not playing word games with you.
ES: When you think about RPG design or MMO design, I keep coming back to the idea that MMOs are still a relatively young industry. People are still learning how to design these things well.
I look at a game like World of Warcraft
or City of Heroes
, where they have these scripted events and I’ve had a lot of fun playing over the years, those are very similar to the way a pre-published RPG might be presented to the players. Here’s an adventure with a beginning, middle, and end, it works pretty much the same way. Dave and I have been doing that for almost twenty years. We know how that works.
We want to do something more, where the world can react, where you don’t just have to have the scripted events. We want the world to produce outcomes that are unexpected.
DW: Frankly that’s one of the most exciting things for us moving over to the electronic side. By putting these experiences out there for the players, instead of this very scripted, straightforward experience, you let the players go crazy. Who know what the players will come up with? That’s really cool.
So when you’re looking to do big additions to the game, you’re really looking to be more like a DM than a designer – you’re looking at what the players have done and liked and thinking “where can we go from here?”
ES: Absolutely. It’s more like providing options rather than just railroading people. I think you’ve hit it right on the head there. It will allow the players to have a vested interest in the game world. It will let them figure out what is fun for them, and go do that. Because not everybody will have the same idea of what that is, the world will take shape in different ways.
DW: It empowers the player to create the story that they want to create, by finding the types of content in the world that they think is fun, rather than “here is some content, consume it as fast as you can.” We really just want to put more control in the hands of the players.
ES: We’ve all seen it. No matter how vast or big an MMO world is, players consume the content way faster than the design teams can get it out there. If you create a game where players have some say, where they can create their own content, then you could theoretically never run out.
How would you compare what you folks are talking about here to Nevrax and the Ryzom Ring project for Saga of Ryzom, and what the NCSoft developers have talked about doing for City of Heroes?
DW: The NCSoft developers haven’t said a lot about what they’re going to allow or not allow, but what I think they’re talking about is not really what we’re talking about. By my understanding, they’re going to essentially put some of their tools literally in the hands of the players. “Go ahead and make stories.” That’s cool, I love that. I think it’s going to be great to see what kind of great stories people can come up with. I’ve got my superheroes ready and raring to go play that.
But that’s not really what we’re talking about. They are going to be creating a bunch of instanced little stories that take place outside of the shared world. You go to the story, you consume the story, you go back. That’s not what we are talking about. We’re talking about the idea that as you’re moving around in the shared world your actions change the game experience you and everyone else in that shared area.
ES: Let me use World of Warcraft
as an example: You’re an Alliance player of some stature. You’d like to organize a raid against Thunder Bluff. Right now you can do that, but the game doesn’t provide you with any way of making that ‘interesting.’ There’s no story element, there’s no reward – the game doesn’t incentivize you to do it.
DW: You do it because you think it would be fun!
ES: Right. We want to put systems in place so that when the player decides to do something like that, he can actually create missions in the world that will allow him to go do that. He can create rewards that will compensate players for participating.
DW: The idea is that there will be repercussions for making the things you do in the shared world actually matter. Beyond just personal character advancement.
ES: And this is all in-game, rather than leaving the game and creating like a script or writing up your own adventure. That’s exciting, but it’s not part of the game.
To transition from that to the other topic at hand, how do you see this kind of interaction creating a more vibrant community around an MMO?
DW: When it comes to communities I believe it’s about giving them purpose and tools. It’s sort of the same thing we were talking about with persistence. If you give players a reason to care about the community, and you give them the tools to make the community work well, then you’ll end up with a strong experience.
ES: I think what we’re talking about will end up evoking a great amount of investment from the players. You’re going to build your community through the persistence of the game, but you’re also going to get people more and more invested in how the game progresses. I mean, think about it: Every time you log into the game world you’re not necessarily going to change the story. That said, groups of players are going to get together and will cause changes.
The more you change the world the more you’re going to want to log in and see what’s happening – you’re going to want do ‘defend’ those changes and correct the changes you don’t like. You’re going to band together with like-minded players, and you’ll create your own community out of similar vested interests.
When you’re talking about “groups of players”, are you interested in supporting small groups /static parties? Are you thinking larger groups, guilds? Duos? What are you thinking about in terms of supporting grouping in your game?
DW: Why do we have to pick one of those?
ES: Let’s face it, most games have content that is “great for groups”, or “great for soloing” or “great for guilds”. That’s not always true. We’re not going to try to say we’re all things to all people. You do that and you end up being the middle of the road, nothing for no one.
DW: Unfortunately, yeah, any answer we gave on that would probably sound like what everybody else says. It all starts to run together and sound kind of pathetic.
ES: One thing I will say, though, is that we want these small groups – two, three, four players that you’d traditionally think of as a party – we want them to have a really fun game experience. We want them be able to go out and affect the world, even on a small level. We’re also looking at what other games have done for guilds, and … it’s not that great. “Oh, I have a chat channel! And a tabard! Don’t I feel special?”
You shouldn’t. That’s almost nothing. Guilds are the backbones of MMO communities; you have to give these people tools to make them feel special. There should be actual game incentives to be part of a group. Whether that’s a squad, or some big giant guild, we should have some reason to make you want to join up with other people. The game should reward you for doing that, and it shouldn’t penalize you for not doing it.
DW: Character advancement is a big part of a lot of MMOs, and as almost anyone will tell you, this creates a strong incentive to care about your character. You have all these choices for how to improve him, and it’s really cool and fun … and almost none of the games out there build these incentives at other levels of the game. We all enjoy the character persistence – why isn’t that also something that exists at the group level?
If you are talking about the community in your game, why not extend that concept from group, to guild, to the entire server? You’ve got personal goals for your character, why shouldn’t there be goals for your guild, or your whole server? Or maybe everyone in your faction? You’re going to have goals, right? So there will have to be repercussions for succeeding or failing at those goals as a result.
If servers have goals, and failing or achieving those goals can have repercussions, does that mean that you’re interested in having the game states on servers differ? That is, the storyline of the gameworld might be significantly different depending on which server you’re on?
DW: (joking) That sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
ES: I can’t imagine how you would do the things we’re talking about, and somehow keep things the same on every server. That would just be artificial. On our server, perhaps, our group is doing really well. But on other servers people of our same faction are doing poorly, we shouldn’t try to ‘fix’ that. We’re creating our own world here. I honestly see the case being that a few months to a year after our game releases, you’ll go onto different servers and see things being completely different between the two communities. It will be like a parallel universe. That’s the hope, anyway.