GS: When I was at the MI6 conference a bit ago, Wes Craven was talking about how the best stories are those that come from timeless experience. Why do you think fantasy games are more successful in the online space?
MJ: It’s easier. Fantasy is easier than sci-fi. Want to know why? It’s simple. A gun. What’s a gun, a gun is impersonal. A gun can shoot somebody from across the room. A gun in the future should be able to shoot a room from a mile away. Part of the challenge we found with Imperator is how do you make a combat system based on lasers and energy weapons, compelling to an RPG audience. That’s one of the challenges. The other challenge with a sci-fi game is that fantasy is very well defined in our minds – we all have a vision of what something like Lord of the Rings should look like, what a basic fantasy world should look like. Sci-fi is very different, because you have all these different planets and environments and creatures, that should be otherworldly. But go into Camelot, go into Warhammer, go into Dungeons & Dragons, go into Lord of the Rings, go into WoW and look at a wolf. It’s a wolf. There’s a difference in the wolf, but you look at it, and you say “that’s a wolf.” Same with a dragon, same with a bear, same with almost any kind of monster you can name. Sci-fi, could be anything. And that’s tougher. You’re now creating very original IP. I think that some day someone’s going to get it right. Nobody has yet – nobody’s even come close to getting it right. But when they do, then I think you’re going to see big numbers come out of sci-fi.
I also think there’s something I can’t explain, which is that people are more willing to play a fantasy game that’s not as good online, than they are willing to play a sci-fi game that’s not as good online. And I’m not sure why that is.
GS: What sorts of design innovations have you seen in the online space in recent years?
MJ: Aside from some of the things we’re doing, one of the things that WoW, a lesson that we all should learn, is that they spent a lot of time and money making the experience always feel good. It was smooth, and polished. Whether you consider that an innovation or not, I’m not sure. But it was different enough from the old school, and I’m an oldschool kind of guy. I’ve been doing games for a very long time. But I saw that our games had to change. We were already changing Camelot, but not enough. Not fast enough. WoW is forcing people like Mythic, like EA, like Sony, to look at what they did in that example, and think “we’ve got to be as good as that, otherwise players are going to look at us and say ‘oh that’s kind of oldschool MUD. That’s oldschool RPG or oldschool MMORPG.'" We’ve got to do better. I consider it an innovation because they did it for our industry, in such a better way than anybody else.
GS: It seems to me that the PC market is where better hardware and graphics can make the most difference in terms of design.
MJ: But it didn’t in WoW! That’s what’s so brilliant about it. You can play WoW on a lower spec machine than EverQuest 2, and than Warhammer. It was the way they designed it. If you look at the amount of polys that go into their figures, it’s less than what everybody has. And yet it feels better than EverQuest 2, and it feels better than Camelot. Now I don’t think it feels better than Warhammer, but it’s better than the games that went before it. And it wasn’t driven by the hardware, that’s what’s so amazing.
You can play WoW on a laptop that’s not even state of the art. Try that with EQ2, try that with Warhammer!
GS: Are you content at this point to still be ramping up to that situation where you’re trying to beat them? Is it ok to not be number one?
MJ: Would I like to be number one? Absolutely. I’d be a liar if I said otherwise. Have I promised EA that we’d be number one? Was that even part of the deal? No. I’ll let you in on something. Not only did I never say we were not going to be number one, I gave them numbers that were so low, and I said you’re going to have to want to partner with us because you like what we’re doing, you like what we already have, and you like these numbers – because I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to get 10 million subscribers. Because if I’d sat here and really believed that we were going to get 10 million subscribers I would have taken my asking price, and multiplied it by 10. So we gave them numbers that were realistic. These are numbers that are low. Do you still want to get involved with us. And I said this to EA – “I don’t want you getting involved, then coming back to us going ‘you promised us the moon and the stars, and you gave us a piece of dirt.’” EA didn’t do that.
I’d like to be number one in the online space. I’d like to make EA number one in the online space. I think we can get there. But I’d be very foolish, and a liar – and I’m neither – if I said that we were absolutely going to get there. Because almost every time, and you’ll notice Blizzard never said this publicly, almost any time a company says that, they almost always fail. We’ve never done it and we’ll never do it. When Camelot came out people were saying “You’re the EQ2 killer!” And we said “No we’re not. We’re going to make a great game, and we’re going to see how it shakes out.” And if we’re number one, we’ve earned it, and if we’re number two, we’ve earned it. And if we flop, we’ve earned it. It’s up to us.