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Seeking success with WildStar, a game 'no sane human being' would make
Seeking success with  WildStar , a game 'no sane human being' would make
June 2, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

June 2, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
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The modern MMO launch is fraught with peril. Even what seems a sure bet can end up a disappointment. Though Carbine Studios is filled with veterans of the MMO space, there are no guarantees of success.

The game's executive producer is Jeremy Gaffney, a co-founder of the MMO studio Turbine and an NCsoft veteran. He has a natural sarcasm sharpened by years of dealing with the complexities of developing online games and dealing with their communities.

Over the course of an hour, he outlined to Gamasutra how, with WildStar, he hopes to serve MMO players a game that will provide exactly what they're looking for, and in turn avoid the pitfalls so many other games have fallen into.

If the space is so challenging, why build a premium MMO in the first place? The space is still ripe for success, says Gaffney. "There's still a couple billion dollars in it, so that's the plus side of it -- but getting those billions of dollars is challenging. Especially when people have been playing a game they love, prying them out of it is next to impossible. That's our challenge, is figuring out what we can do really break that."

Though the team is laden with World of Warcraft veterans, it's clear that Gaffney knows prying them away from Blizzard's clutches isn't a trivial task. He is equally aware that even if he gets them for a little while, he can just as easily lose them again.

"In our business, you're screwed if everybody buys your box and they're gone a month and a half later."


"There's a fan base out there that's interested. But what everybody has failed at, to date, is how can you keep people for the long haul," says Gaffney.

"The only way you can keep people over the long haul is have a good game. If you have a flashy box and a cool looking game but it's kinda boring, in the box business you can sell 10 million units of that and you don't care if everybody hates it a month later. In our business, you're screwed if everybody buys your box and they're gone a month and a half later."

The studio has spent a great deal of time crafting an inviting, brightly colored world with an epic sci-fi story to lure in players with conventional appeal. It has also spent a tremendous amount of time polishing that world.


"No sane human being would set themselves out on the course to make all this stuff just to get your game out the door," Gaffney says, in a moment of wry reflection. "It is very hard to just bust an entrant into the MMO field, because that's the base barrier you have to clear. And you can do all that stuff, and you still have to prove yourself. You have to still make sure your game is fun in the real world. So it's insane."

The Late-Game Challenge

But the biggest bet for WildStar's ongoing success is its late-game content. Gaffney estimates that half of the team's effort has been spent on content and systems for its endgame -- or what players will do after hitting level cap.

"We will launch with more stuff to do at level cap than anybody has ever, and the monthly updates will seed more, and more, and more," Gaffney says. "This is an imprecise model, but it does match to history. Those that have done it well succeeded. And those who have not done it have almost universally plopped. Our belief is put it in the box; don't try to patch it in."

"Our industry has hurt itself I think by trying to get things out the door more often than not."


Gaffney isn't just fighting for players: He's fighting a battle for the money and time to make the game that he thinks will be successful. "Our industry has hurt itself I think by trying to get things out the door more often than not," he says.

Why? Publishers often want return on investment for the insane burn rates of MMO teams as soon as possible. WildStar has a team of well over 200. "The bean counters can very easily be, 'Hey, you can level up to 50? Great! Stick that in a box and get it out the door and patch everything else,' so you need to have a certain amount of corporate will, insight, and intestinal fortitude to be able to take it and say, 'Okay, cool. We got up to 50 and that's a fun game, but let's build the next couple of hundred hours of content on top of that.'"

"Honestly, I think it's been the downfall of a lot competitors: You get it so it's barely functional, you stick it out the door, and then you pray. And those prayers have not been answered," says Gaffney. "We've held up launch past the polish point, where many other games have launched, because that's what we think the secret is."

Keeping Players from Boring Themselves

WildStar is full of handcrafted content -- the expensive kind of content, that takes years to produce. Other games have experimented by bolstering that with user-generated content; Gaffney reasons that it generally devolves into dungeons that are boring but offer a lot of easy experience points, which players will flock toward at the expense of having fun. That is not a win, in his book.

"Achievement is the love of watching bars grow -- that's our industry."


"If there is a fun thing to do that is inefficient and a horribly boring thing like smacking yourself in the face with a shovel next to it that gives more XP, players will do more XP. They'll try the fun thing once or twice but then go, 'No, I can't help it. I need to hit level 50. I want my end goal more than I want my journey.' So it's very easy to have the journey trivialized."

"Achievement is the love of watching bars grow -- that's our industry," Gaffney admits. "I don't think there's a more fundamental human need that gets tapped into by these games than watching your bars advance, and that feeling of progression -- of being able to say, 'I am tougher than I was before.'"

"The goal is, it's tough to get bored."


His team's job is to make sure that watching those bars grow is an enjoyable experience -- for a variety of players across different experience levels and different tastes in gameplay.

"The goal is, it's tough to get bored," says Gaffney. "Most MMO players, they've killed enough 10 goblins, and they don't need to kill 10 more goblins," he says. "Every area in the game, we try to have an interesting thing going on in the environment."

The idea is that "fighting monsters in this area is very different from fighting monsters in another area," and also that "the more risk you take the more reward you get: You're leveling faster than the newbies by leveling using systems they don't even know exist."

"This is necessary for the bored MMO crowd," Gaffney says. "We're mostly bored MMO players. That's a crowd we serve in particular."

There's also a focus on "creating incentive to help other players, which is another key aspect that's often left out in these games" -- fostering both socialization, and a way to onboard newbies.

"We want to make the next generation of jaded MMO players, by God," Gaffney says. He's kidding. Sort of.

Understanding player behavior

Another way in which the studio is attempting to ensure success is an extensive beta process with a heavy reliance on analytics. Gaffney mentions that the public beta has been going for six months, but then stops himself. "Really, it's a two-year beta process in many ways," he says -- the game has been in a "friends and family phase" for that long.

For the past two years, the company has also brought fans to the studio and showed them content under NDA, conducted extensive playtests, and also surveyed the beta participants.

All of this is necessary, says Gaffney. The surveys and feedback sessions let the team know players' conscious thoughts on the game, but "we mine their data -- because people say 'I love this,' 'I hate this,' but it is very interesting when the data can go dead against it."

"It's so interesting watching what people do, or choose not to do."


"It's so interesting watching what people do, or choose not to do. We data-drive everything in the game." Still, he says he's been surprised by the positivity of player responses overall so far. "It's very weird to have people actively enjoying a thing. It's not our buddies in there, it's jaded MMO players."

And the "jaded" part is a big problem for the industry, he reckons -- hence the interest in keeping players filled up on high-quality end-game content, and making sure it's ready at launch.

"Even a good game churns 5 percent of its users out every month," says Gaffney. "That means every 20 months you've churned out your whole user base." If you have one friend who still plays an MMO, that means you might have 10 friends who used to play that MMO.

"It's a very ethical business to be in, I think, in many ways."


"We don't really give a crap about your buddy who's still playing; we give a crap about your 10 buddies who aren't playing anymore. That's the crew who goes to buy your 1 million, 2 million, 10 million boxes -- is that. You need to have a damn good and deep game that follows that if you are going to keep them for the long haul."

"We have a vision around how to capture that," concludes Gaffney. "During beta, yes, we have all the numbers to say that yes, that will happen." And he's happy to be here, all things considered: "It's a very ethical business to be in, I think, in many ways," he says. "If you don't provide a service people enjoy, then you fail."


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Comments


Richard Black
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I love this article. Gaffney expresses everything I've felt about MMOs for years now. Especially the releasing early and muddying the waters for a game that could have been great with a few more months polish. I think he's 100% right about the industry.

Just wish I enjoyed playing Wildstar more... wasn't my thing and didn't grab me.

Sean Monica
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Yeah I def agree with you mate. What seems to be the common word is this game is 100% hit or miss for a ton of people from what I'm told.

Terry Matthes
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Wildstar is a fun alternative to the medieval fantasy landscape most MMOs are set in. It has a really fun Sci-Fi atmosphere and the music is pretty good too! I definitely think this game will scratch an itch that a lot of players have been trying to reach.

I would also like to point out that there is a fair amount of voice over for an MMO. This is a nice change from games like Final Fantasy XIV (which I enjoy) that have little to no voice work.

There is a lot of creativity in this game and it shows. From the character design, to the music, all the way through to the game's combat and crafting systems.

I found myself running around a lot trying to get a good look at all the crazy monsters; running, flying, and swimming around the world. There are also a myriad of cool environments to check out and you can interact with a lot of phenomenon within those environments too.

Wildstar is fun. Try it out :)

Jennis Kartens
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Despite the setting and, as such, quite beautiful look, I still can't help me but be utterly bored by the visual direction. Possibly too many years of WoW have left their mark for that particular style... also a lot of other games adopting that one. For a time it was okay, but especially for the long term I can't stand the overcolored world. Not saying I would want realistic worlds, but a different and fresh approach would have won me over.

Terry Matthes
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The art style does indeed follow the over saturated and graphically bold style set by WOW. I think it works well for this game given it's satirical nature and the outright zaniness the came exhibits anywhere it can. To go in a different visual direction would have decoupled the game's overall narrative in my opinion.

I understand a lot of people will always want a more photo realistic sci fi experience given today's computing power, but that adds a lot of time and doesn't necessarily marry well with the content.

To each his own in the end though.

Theresa Catalano
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Honestly, I think the visual style comes across as garish and ugly. It's just not appealing to look at. There's often too many bright colors that clash, and great kind of a messy look. And then there's the character designs which seem kind of deformed and half-assed, in a not so very pleasing way.

I think there's big problems with the gameplay as well, but the visuals alone would be enough to turn me off.

Jennis Kartens
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"I understand a lot of people will always want a more photo realistic sci fi experience given today's computing power"

Well you didn't understand what I specifically wrote:

"[...]Not saying I would want realistic worlds,[...]

There are many approaches for different directions that exclude "photo realism" (which is an awful terminus, since we're still years away from that in full interactive 3D games. Offline rendering merely touches that topic and still hits the uncanny valley on a frequent basis. And even if it crosses safely, that is mostly thanks to post production and not the initial render).

There are other styles one can use.

Paul Tozour
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Really enjoying WildStar. They did a terrific job innovating on the core gameplay and breaking the stale MMO formula. There's really nothing else out like it.

Matthew Darragh
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I agree. This is the first MMO in years to capture me. I wasn't even planning on playing this and then open beta sold me on it.

Paul Lenoue
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No Mac client. Add this to the dozens of other WoW contenders who struggled and failed. How can you succeed when you exclude 30% to 40% of your potential audience?

Christian Schmidt
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30-40%? That's quite a guess. The OS X install base alone is just above 7% market share, and gamers would be just a fraction of that. At least with Bootcamp there are options. Not ideal, but a very different story from a decade ago.

http://www.netmarketshare.com/operating-system-market-share.aspx?
qprid=10&qpcustomd=0

Stephen Horn
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I wonder if the MMO gaming population is even 7% for OSX. Valve's Hardware Survey shows a little less than 3.5% of its hardware base are running any flavor of OSX.

http://store.steampowered.com/hwsurvey/

Jeremy Gaffney
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That's approximately the data we see, unfortunately. However it's tough to tell because so few MMOs support mac at launch, so there may be a bias to the data.

Paul Lenoue
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First, that "Mac has only 7% of the market share" is wildly misleading when it comes to games. The majority of windows machines out there are used for businesses, run old or limited versions of windows, etc. When it comes to computers used by people for home use the Mac percentage is much higher, though how much is uncertain due to bias in most surveys. Like the ones you see put out by windows-only game companies that ask their players which OS they use.

Secondly, Mac sales are increasing while windows machines are decreasing. While that 7% figure, though misleading, was true fifteen years ago it's no longer applicable.

Thirdly, the 30%-40% number came from the study of numerous games that were released for both OS. Numerous surveys have shown a higher percentage of Mac users play games than windows users, many of whom use their personal machines for casual net stuff.

Fourthly, the "Echo Chamber Effect" distorts the reality of the OS gaming balance. "Serious" gamers, those who buy computers specifically for top-level gaming, dominate the forums, comments and blogs, thus promoting the belief that games are only for windows and Macs are a tiny, insignificant minority. Yet when you compare the success and profit of games that are windows only to those that are released for both OS you'll find that OS X plays a significant role not represented in forums. Then again, most of the time mac users are driven out of forums by hostile windows/android users, thus perpetuating the belief that mac users don't play games because they can't voice their opinions.

Finally, when it comes to MMOs the thing that kills them off faster than bad game design (and lord knows there's enough of that) is the ghost town effect. Nobody wants to play an MMO that's sparsely populated, so excluding even 20% to 30% of potential players right from the start makes it a lot harder to get a "community" feel in your game.

People also want to play with friends. If one of your friends owns a Mac that removes a large number of games from consideration. Player-created content games show Mac users create more stuff (30% to 60% more depending on the game) so there's more items players can use which attracts more players which builds on the sense of community.

While you can have limited success making a windows-only MMO you'll most likely fail due to excluding a large number of players when launching the game. It would be like refusing to allow people in California to join the game, or putting all players in the east coast states behind a firewall so they couldn't participate with everyone else.

Stephen Horn
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> While that 7% figure, though misleading, was true fifteen years ago it's no longer applicable.

According to http://www.netmarketshare.com/, data gathered May 2014, Macs account for approximately 7.39% of unique desktop computers that access the Internet. That trend is increasing, however, and a linear extrapolation from July 2013 to May 2014 suggests that OSX should reach 20% market share around Feb 2062.

adam anthony
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I thought the beta was just okay. I didn't feel it was worth the price to be an early adopter of the game. It has some cool gameplay elements, but was too similar to WoW in almost every way. I do hope they find success, though.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I sort of really wanted to like wildstar... I was waiting to get a beta invite probably for a few years (I think it was a few years), and when i finally got a chance to play it... All I can say is that it just didn't seem sufficiently interesting. Maybe it's me, since I've definitely burnt out of MMOs. But for some reason, as charming as the art is, and as "fun" as the combat is. It still felt uninspired.

I'm pretty sad about it and I definitely hope it goes great for them, but I honestly can't really see it succeeding.
I feel the sci-fi setting could be detrimental to the audience too. I love it ( I'm absolutely done with high fantasy ), but I've seen many very nice looking sci-fi mmos die simply because players don't connect with the universe as much.
And also, I look at the horizon, and out of the alternatives, I feel the future comes in the shape of Destiny... In spite of myself, I'm more excited for that than any traditional mmos.

CHASE DE LANGUILLETTE
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the combat in the game looks like it could be fun. i just hope they don't bury PVP behind 5-10+ hours of mandatory PVE, like every other MMO out there.

Christian Nutt
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He told me you could get into PVP at level 6 or 7 -- can't quite remember. I'm sure you can find out online, given that people are already playing the release version.

Jeremy Gaffney
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Yeah, it's level six. Your first time through that's maybe 2 hours in, I'd estimate (longer if you look at everything, shorter if you're just blazing to get through)

Theresa Catalano
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"Uninspired", that is the word that sums up Wildstar in a nutshell. When you read this article, it seems like the developers have illusions that they are shaking up the formula, and boy does that not mesh with the actual experience of playing the game. Stale. Rote. Overly familiar. Those are the words you can't help thinking of when you play this game. It just doesn't do enough to change the WoW formula, it does little things here and there but the overall experience is just more of the same.

I would love to see a new MMO that REALLY mixes things up, that obliterates the WoW formula and actually manages to feel fresh. Unfortunately that is not Wildstar. Inspiration is a hard thing to comeby, these days.

Christian Nutt
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Maybe it's a failure of my article, but it was clear to me from seeing the game and also what he said that it was a very qualified kind of evolution the team was going for with this game -- it's clearly of the same lineage of DikuMUD DNA that brought us EverQuest, WoW, and other fantasy MMOs.

And I think that was the goal, explicitly. The goal, as best as I can identify it from our conversation and from what I saw of the game was to create the best MMO of that lineage yet -- not to actually create a new type of MMO.

adam anthony
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Thats what every MMO has attempted to do for the past few years, isnt it?

TC Weidner
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exactly, they are all fighting over the same piece of the pie, while ignoring the rest of the pie.

Christian Nutt
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Not sure if that's what "every" MMO was doing, or at least, it's certainly not what every MMO implied it was doing. Gaffney was very open about the fact that this is an "MMO player's MMO" that follows in the footsteps of other popular games and attempts to succeed by bringing much more content and better-designed and carefully evolved versions of systems MMO players already like.

If anything, I think he's more honest about what WildStar is than I have seen other MMO marketing campaigns be about their same-old, same-old products, to be honest.

Er, to clarify, I don't personally maintain that it is better than other MMOs -- that is just what I gather was the IDEA behind it.

Jeremy Gaffney
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I think that's reasonable, Christian.

We tried to do lots of iteration forward (combat is iterated enough to feel really new by raid level, and kinda new low level, housing is a step ahead of anyone else's at launch IMO, dungeons, raids, etc.) And also some some stuff that's just never been done (Warplots: build a fortress, capture raid bosses, and fight in organized PVP. Paths: seed in different content and rewards structures based on your gameplay style.)

People's mileage will vary. Certainly it's the case that some of the radical stuff is later in gameplay - we moved around a lot of elements because noobies were often overwhelmed when we tried to cram paths/combat variation/housing/etc. into the first few levels; some users are still trying to learn WASD while more jaded MMO folks are like "yeah yeah I get it do yet more".

James McDermott
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It would be really nice to see someone dissatisfied with the game write up an analysis, even a short one, on WHAT, exactly, the game claims to do differently than WoW/most MMOs but ultimately doesn't. Personally - and no offense meant to those who wrote in the comments - it gets rather boring reading "MMO x is [insert synonym for unoriginal here] because it copies WoW" and "MMO x is awesome because [insert 'awesome'-inducing feature(s) here]" opinions because they give little-to-no insight behind how the original posters formed them.

Terry Matthes
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Or you could just play it and decide for yourself :)

James McDermott
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And I do for other MMOs! :D

However, that's not the reason for my comment; it was just that I didn't feel they met the Gamasutra Comment Posting Terms and Conditions (http://www.gamasutra.com/static2/comment_guidelines.html), specifically the tenant on being thoughtful and constructive. The example comments I used - which exist in these very comments - I find to be more thrown-together than meaningful additions to discussions; in contrast, comments like the one made by TC Weidner on how MMOs seem to missing out on untapped potential through focusing on "watching bars grow", or Christian Nut's comments giving his detailed views on the WildStar developers based on his interview with Turbine co-founder Jeremy Gaffney DEFINITELY make meaningful additions to discussions which also move things forward.

TC Weidner
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"Achievement is the love of watching bars grow -- that's our industry."
------------------------------
I agree that's one demographic of the MMO genre, the one everyone keeps fighting over. I still suspect the biggest demographic for this genre still is sitting out there waiting to be served. Once it is, I can easily see 20 to 50 million or more players easily as a base for a game. The " Facebook of MMO's as you will, is still waiting to be made. Maybe someone, someday will have the money and guts to actually try something besides reskinned EQ game design.

Jeremy Gaffney
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Nice article, Christian - the guy you're interviewing sounds intelligent, charming, handsome, and modest.

Arno Hartholt
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Ha, first thing in ages that made me laugh out loud :)

Bruno Xavier
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I played till lvl10 in this 3 days headstart. Then got tired, but I think is because I've got a lot of things to do; the game is cool.

Dan White
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I find it rather contradictory that so many players wish to have something challenging, yet complain loudly if they feel they cannot easily overcome a challenge. Myself, the MMORPG I enjoyed the most was early EverQuest, before they eliminated corpse runs, nerfed boss fights and subsequently a lot of class abilities. Players had a real challenge and the fact that you'd have to run back through dangerous territory solo, or find available help to rez or get there, really raised the thrill and the investment in my character. There is always going to be a vocal contingent that is going to complain about losing their stuff or crying over some game mechanic. But they don't necessarily represent the majority of players.

That being said, I'm glad that Carbine is using actual data gathering and analysis for Wildstar in order to help determine what works, rather than succumbing to the trap of feeding the baying horde. Not relying on ancedotal "evidence" means that the game is most likely to improve over time, rather than trot down the same ignomious path of mediocrity.

Paul Chen
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Great read! Best wishes to Wildstar and looking forward to it seizing a large piece of the MMO pie. Through couple of betas it was definitely one of the more (if not most) polished experiences I've had. Personally loved the dev speaks, the live streams.

My only grudge, subscription model:
Have to shell out on subscription when there might be more local servers opening up.. don't know if we'll have ways to migrate over.

Paul Lenoue
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On of my biggest disappointments is lack of player-created content. Some games have tried to implement it badly, with no safeguards or serious thought on how to structure it, so when they failed everyone points to them and says "See? It can't work, so we won't even consider it." Instead of looking at what was done before, thinking about why they failed and coming up with solutions they just don't even try. This is really sad when you consider all that's being done in games like Minecraft.

Jeff Leigh
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We're talking about the same game here right?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmEDHT_Jfdc


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