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Not So Cryptic: Neverwinter And A Studio Reboot

August 27, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Los Gatos, CA-based online game developer Cryptic Studios is coming out of a slightly difficult period, in which the company launched two MMOs to less-than-stellar reactions from critics and many fans.

Of recently released PC MMOs Star Trek Online and Champions Online, says Cryptic Studios COO Jack Emmert in this new Gamasutra interview, "It's not that I thought the quality wasn't up to par, it's the customers and critics and everybody else, right?"

Emmert is co-founder of Cryptic, which was acquired by Atari in 2008. Since then, the studio's games have become a lynchpin in its parent's online strategy. Emmert also worked on the design of the company's first two games, NCsoft-owned MMOs City of Heroes and City of Villains.

He now is helping to guide the developer into a new era, he says, focused on quality and, in a surprise move, a new title that's not an MMO at all: the Dungeons & Dragons license-based PC co-op RPG Neverwinter.

Here, Emmert speaks candidly about his desire to steer the company back on track, the inspiration he's drawn from both the developer's own failures and other developer's successes.

The move to a co-op RPG instead of an MMO format -- why did Cryptic end up doing that? Your experience is in larger-scale MMOs.

Jack Emmert: I believe it's because the jump wasn't that big, because we saw that there were games out there increasingly using co-op multiplayer. I think Borderlands is one of the best examples recently. Not to mention the fact that the team thought it would make sense to make Neverwinter a game that revolves around story, and really revolves around previous games, [and] around R. A. Salvatore's trilogy.

In an MMO, it's really hard to thread in "Go collect 10 orc pelts" in a setting within a really compelling storyline. So we just thought we were not going to use that format.

That's kind of a knock on MMOs' storylines. Do you think that it'd be possible for a game company to really put an emphasis on a story in a massively multiplayer online game? That's what BioWare is saying they're going to do with their Star Wars: The Old Republic.

JE: Yeah I think it's entirely possible. For one it's an issue of size. I think BioWare has both the budget and the team to be able to do that. There are hundreds of people. That's all it is. It's like asking why Fallout 3 isn't an online game -- they could've easily made it an online game, it's just a matter of resources. So I think it's entirely possible, it's just a lot easier that an online co-op story experience is in many ways.

You mentioned Borderlands, and I'm a fan of that game. What is it about that game that kind of struck you?

JE: It was a perfect mesh. Well first of all it was just fun, right? Secondly, you're able to play with other people so effortlessly. It wasn't overly complex. It was basically an MMO, except you didn't have to feel like grinding. Did you ever feel like that?

No, it just was really good at encouraging you, or pushing you, to keep going.

JE: Yeah, and the way we've done it in MMOs, the traditional method, is to make killing 1,000 orcs interesting. We'd say, "You kill them and something really good pops out!" So it's kind of the slot machine effect -- slot machines are inherently boring, but you keep playing them in hopes of getting something good out of it. To a degree I think that's been an MMO formula. Certain games have done exceedingly well at moment-to-moment combat, and made that experience as entertaining as possible.

Nevertheless, there's plenty of repetition, no matter how fun it is. Somehow, Borderlands, which is certainly not an MMO, nor was it trying to pick up the MMO gameplay mechanics necessarily, but it's a weird amalgam. Seeing that is very unlikely, although Borderlands came out after our decision to do this with Neverwinter.


So was Neverwinter originally conceived as a co-op RPG, or as an MMO?

JE: Neverwinter was, at least initially... I'll be honest, my initial version is far different. My initial version was a flat-out MMO that would essentially be different zones in Neverwinter, and there would be various entrances and critters scattered throughout. And my initial idea -- and again, we flushed this down the toilet because this was a while ago -- but it was essentially going to be a dungeon that would be instanced between you and your friends. Any real story, per se, was all about exploration.

And there would be stories you would stumble upon, like, "Oh hey, these goblins are trying to relocate the tribe," or "Oh hey, these bandits are trying to look for a particular artifact." But you wouldn't go to a contact to get a mission, per se, as you would in World of Warcraft or Champions Online or whatever. It would be more exploration. But we decided that it would be something else, and I'm entirely for that, because it makes sense.

So it didn't have anything to do with that lawsuit between Turbine and Atari.

JE: No, no, no. Nobody's asked me that before, but that's a good question. No, not at all.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Leandro Rocha
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"But what's happened over time is, quite frankly, World of Warcraft." < This was really very honest to say. WoW is insanely great in every aspect. Its almost impossible to get close because the bar is so high...

Great interview Kris.

Bart Stewart
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I normally prefer to be positive, but yeesh. The Sidney Greenstreet impression is really hard to take -- Jack Emmert is shocked, shocked to learn that mindlessly cloning the mechanics from a superhero game to implement the unique Star Trek IP feels wrong to players and critics?

"So mistakenly, arrogantly on my part, I just thought we could take these games and make them over and over again. And we did with Champions and Star Trek."

I can't speak to Champs, but there were many of us who, for months before the beta of Star Trek Online even started, were telling Cryptic that reskinning CoX for the Star Trek IP was Not Going To Work, that there is no point in licensing the Star Trek IP (in order to gain some of its fans as initial customers) if you're not going to design the game's mechanics from the ground up around the iconic elements of that IP.

They *were* told, and long before beta ever started -- they simply chose not to listen. There was no excuse for that, so at least they're not making any excuses.

It's worth noting that STO is not a bad game, and it's getting better. But with the design strategy of reskinning CoX and the short development window, there was no way Star Trek Online was going to launch as the game it could have and should have been.

Again, I don't like sounding harsh. But it's tough seeing the precious opportunity to make a great game from one of the Big Three IPs so unnecessarily squandered.

I should add, though, that I wish Cryptic all the best with the NeverWinter game. I think they've got the talent to do a good job with it.

John Trauger
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Jack, seriously: *Nobody* told you reskinning WoW as a superhero game was going to fail? Did you even look around at the graveyard full of WoW clones? Or did you just not listen?

I dropped into Champions Online beta because I'm a longtime City of Heroes/Villains player, a veteran Champions player from its 3rd and 4th edition days and I was curious. I dropped COL because I'm already invested in CoH and didn't see anything that impressed me enough to want to start from total zero again. I'd also note how CoH's quality skyrocketed after Jack left.

My eternal screed whenever we touch on WoW: If I wanna play WoW, I'll play WoW. I'm not gonna play your WoW clone. If I'm done with WoW, I probably want something new and different so *again* I'm not gonna play your WoW clone.

Crib notes, sure. Just say no to cloning WoW.

John Trauger
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Bart: Got you covered on Champions Online. :)

Corey Holcomb-Hockin
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Anyone know who is writing "Neverwinter"? I know Obsidian and Bioware really have the writing part of RPGS covered well compared to most games.

I really wish it was just neverwinter nights 3. Those games have awesome communities.

Allan Douglass
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Champions Online was fun in beta, it had alot of potential. The biggest flaws were lack of cohesive teaming, bugs, and lack of content, acceptable flaws in beta or the first months of release as long as there is an end in sight. Its greatest strength was the amazing number of different ways you could make a powerful hero or heroine, the creative potential was boundless, the difficulty of the game was for the most part low. It appealed to a certain group of more casual MMO players, you could solo, you could try many different styles, builds, powers out and not have a flawed character that was unplayable to the casual subscriber. You could solo, team, create your own unique concept, it was fun. Heroes are all about the story, backstory, motivations for what they do, effective ways to achieve their goals.

On day 1 after the "head start" a patch was released that removed the power from most of the powers, and the development effort for months afterwards focused almost entirely on rooting out the remaining casual friendly play styles. This led to a spiral of more and more specific FotM type builds, and eroded the playerbase to the point that most of the time only 1 virtual instance of a server was active. The formula applied was based on the mythcal concept of "balance".

I one real problem in a game with such freedom is that it allows more creativity, and generally speaking a hero game leads to greater connection between the player and the avatar. When the connection is stronger, the discontent with changes to the avatar by the establishment, because the establishment determines you aren't playing right, goes deeper. In a PnP world, if a +3 weapon was changed mid game to +1 just because the establishment decided +3 was too much, and then told the group that more changes were coming, the group would not be happy. If it was a great leader and the content was excellent and fun, it might be accepted, otherwise it is a betrayal of trust, and an admission of not only failure but that any effort to build a character would be punished. To accept a change like that requires trust and belief that the establishment is right in the decision. In the case of a game like Champions, where the game has (beta acceptable) flaws that are allowed to continue while apparently arbitrary decisions are made that take the fun out of playing for a large segment of the playerbase, and there is no trust or belief in the establishment to begin with, players depart.

From what I have read, I think Jack enjoys playing games, and I also think he has a passion about making good games. What he has failed to understand is how to establish and maintain trust with a playerbase. CoX, CO, STO all had similar patterns to the above. The same flaws, the same goal of balance over innovative and fun content, the same failure to establish a playerbase that could trust the goals of the establishment. I hope Neverwinter is just plain fun. And any +3 weapons are not made +1 a month after release.

Andre Gagne
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"I think my hunch is that people have played so many MMOs, and there are so many MMOs in the marketplace, by this point they're willing to try anything. But they're not willing to spend money on everything. That's the biggest difference."

I can second that thought.

Nick Green
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I read Jack's interview on massively and thought, oh how nice, some honesty from Cryptic.

But then he said this here:

"Even in open beta, the reaction we got from [Champions] was better than anything we ever did with City of Heroes and City of Villains. We were sky high. So believe me when the reviews came out, we were shocked, just shocked."

I played in the CO open beta. It was frighteningly obvious how bad the game was and there was plenty of feedback to that effect in the beta forums. And he really expects us to believe he thought it was better than CoH?

For shame Mr Emmert, for shame....

Brian Linville
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I got invited into early Alpha for CO. We pretty much said from the beginning we didn't like the lack of solid team play options. Cryptic was responsive to what we were saying in general(for other complaints) and made a lot of changes because of it. But instead of starting from the beginning and adding another level of steady team play, they added in piece mail, disjointed bits here and there of team play that was too frustrating to do consistantly like you could do in CoH. This wasn't a big deal during the testing phase since we were testing bugs while soloing. But to go from testing a game because you want to help out or explore something new to trying to enjoy the game with other players, it's a big difference.

I wasn't in beta for CoH, but I did start playing it a few months after it came out--right when Through the Looking Glass came out. CO certainly did have a hell of a lot more to it than CoH did then and was better. The problem is that no one wanted to compare CO at launch to CoH at launch. They expected CO to be as good as CoH is now.