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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.