Yesterday, I caught up with Carbine Studio’s bossguy Jeremy Gaffney to see what’s been going on in their upcoming mega-MMO Wildstar. While he wasn’t quite ready to reveal how the game will make money, he did drop a few big hints about the payment scheme they’re looking at. We also tackled the jumping puzzles which made me see red last time I played the game, how they’re continually responding to player feedback, finding the sweet spot between too easy and too hard, and the one weird trick to cut down belly fat that apparently makes both Wildstar and WoW’s terrain so timeless.
RPS: What are you able to tell us about the business model at this stage?
Jeremy Gaffney: Some of the stuff we’ll be talking about [at Develop] will relate to what we’re doing with our business model, but not pointing it out as such. We’re going to a reveal in a couple of weeks, basically, because what we really want to do is have a dev speak that talks to it in detail.. Because if there’s a single thing we’ve found, it’s that nobody loves a business model. Everybody hates business models. No-one’s like “I love a subscription game!”, it’s “I hate cash shops” or “I hate free to play,” or “I hate subs.” So what we want to do is try to be flexible, let people pay how they want to pay and do a bit more of a hybrid.
But we don’t want to confuse that too, because part of providing flexibility is potential confusion, so we’ll do a dev speak that explains in detail, “here’s what the hell we’re talking about” in non-bullshit terms, in language that devs will get and users will get.
RPS: I suppose there’s a certain fear of having certain tags, like ‘free to play’, attached to a game these days – it can provoke a negative response straight away.
Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, we’re a hybrid model at the end of the day, so people are going to pick on their least favourite aspect and tag us with it. And that’s fine, you can’t change human nature, so so be it. People have a right to be jaded, because there’s enough that comes out. Being unique in this space is tricky, especially in the land of giants and the land of the larger the budget is, the more scared people usually are to innovate. Telling your boss how you just set fire to 100 million dollars… It’s safest to do what’s done before, when perversely what’s done been before is what fails.
RPS: Would you say, then, that you are innovating, or will it seem very familiar when it’s revealed?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think we’re mixing innovation and doing what’s been done well before, much like the game itself. I guess in the art of teasing, then, some of it is stuff that’s been done before but we have our own particular spin on it. Some people will say ‘oh, it’s a clone of this, that or the other’ and some people will say it’s a ton of new stuff, so we’ll see.
RPS: Is there a tension to so often having to talk about your game in terms of money, rather than its content, because the business model is always the big MMO question now?
Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, but I mean the best games out there I think do a good job of letting users pay for what they want. Take League of Legends – every three weeks you get a new hero. People are excited because it’s something new, and it’s overpowered because it’s something new, people don’t know how to counter it yet. I’ve talked to the guys over at Riot about it, because the fans will argue that the new heroes are OP because they design them that way. What Riot say, over beers, say it’s only because it’s new it feels OP, but then every three weeks it’s something new and exciting, and if you were just about to drop out of the game, there’s something that pulls you back in. It’s good for retention. That’s powerful.
I think the games you’ll see doing really well going forwards are the ones that manage to add stuff to the game rapidly. Look at what Guild Wars 2 is doing with giant new patches every couple of weeks. What’s interesting about that is that there are two types of things that are attractive to new users. One is things that are press-facing, that are new and interesting and neat, and then there are those which retain the users you already have. Balancing that mix of where you’re spending your time, it’s really hard in development. Rapidly new updates like that, it’s not usually pressworthy, the game has to be ginormous for that to be press worthy, but you need that mix of bringing in new people with ‘aha, here’s this giant new system and oh my god now there’s earth-shattering giant robots going around destroying everything’ versus ‘hey, we’re just going to make sure the game stays fun.’
RPS: What has changed the most since I last played Wildstar last Winter?
Jeremy Gaffney: We’ve done a big new patch every five to six weeks, a huge patch, and it’s literally between 30 and 70 pages of patch notes. Because the secret is that if you can actually listen to your fans and then modify your game to make it better on a regular basis, you kind of win. If you can modify your game quickly, so that there’s a constant stream of new things that are coming out, you kind of win.
RPS: Do you mean balance things or content things?
Jeremy Gaffney: A bit of both. By balance we change a lot of systems, we change the user interface for a lot of things that work or don’t, we track stuff taking every character that hasn’t logged in for two weeks, and we put a skull on the map for where the character was. Why hasn’t someone logged in for two weeks? It turns out there’ll be clusters of skulls around your worst content, or the level ranges where it got too long or too tedious, or you didn’t have the right stuff.. That kind of analysis is actually really important, because you get a ton of feedback from what people say, but here also from what people do.
It’s also more convoluted than that, we encourage people to log off near houses and so on, but out in the actual world, what was the last content you interacted with, why did that content drive you out? Whether that number of users is large or small, if you are an intelligent developer you’d better be making that as small as possible, learning from the people. The massive benefit of being an online game is you’re the god of your little world. You have all the information, it’s a matter of having the time and inclination to process what’s actually going on?
RPS: How many of those skulls were where someone was on the Explorer path and trying to jump up a tree with lots of branches and falling off again and again?
Jeremy Gaffney: [Laughs uproariously]. There are clusters right around those damn trees… We actually put in something just for that, we were finding people were double-tapping to dodge, and were accidentally dodging their asses to death off the edge of a cliff. You’re like ‘I need to place my little beacon, taptaptap’, and dead.
RPS: Yeah, I had turn off the dodge in options when I played it, because if I got the timing wrong I’d just be hurled out of the bloody tree.
Jeremy Gaffney: We’ve got an option on the interface now, where you can just click on the little dodge meter thing and temporarily turn it off. That reduced our Explorer raining death count [laughs.] I remember in EverQuest back in the day, the newbie zone for the Wood Elves is all up in the trees, and so it would rain down newbie elves all the damn time. You could walk underneath it and it was this cascade of newbs trying to figure out how to walk around.
We did learn over time, we did a focus group, bring in users every week under NDA. There’s a jump puzzle in one of the early zones, and this one woman tried it and failed. There are three of us in the room watching, and she tries again, and fails. Then she tried 40-something times, and over this we started cheering as she’d get to the second stage. This attracted more devs in, so by the time she finally did it, people from across the building were watching and we’re like “you guys need to shut the fuck up, because she can hear you cheering every time she makes a successful jump, she can hear you going ‘noooooooooooooo’ every time she flops.” Finally, after 40-something times she made it to the top. It wasn’t that tough of a puzzle, but we just hadn’t tuned it quite right. 40 of us came running into the room, like ‘yeeeeeeeeeeah!’ She was so mortified.