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Not So Cryptic: Neverwinter And A Studio Reboot

Cryptic Studios COO and co-founder Jack Emmert candidly puts Star Trek Online and Champions Online into perspective and discusses creative decisions on the upcoming Neverwinter.

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.


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.


Your initial idea of the game sounds like it draws some cues from Oblivion, where you're doing a quest and you stumble upon a guy that needs help with a ghost in his basement or something. Then you branch off pretty naturally to that little mission.

JE: That is 100 percent my goal. I don't want to be so full of hubris as to say we can create a game as good as Oblivion or Dragon Age -- that's what we hope to do. But we all use the term "Dragon Age mixed with Oblivion," where we want a really tight, great storyline, which Dragon Age really delivered, and one of the best-loved things in Oblivion for me was stumbling upon the little stuff, like finding the farmer who needs my help or something. So that's the gameplay we're really trying to capture.

I find with that kind of format, that's a big reason I didn't even finish the main storyline in Oblivion, but still had 100 hours in it, because there were so many other interesting things to do. I'm not sure if you can really call them "side quests," because they branch so nicely from the main path.

JE: We actually call them "vignettes," that's our terminology for them.

You were candid in a recent interview, saying that you didn't think Cryptic games' quality has been up to par. What do you think you have to do to raise the quality to where you want it to be?

JE: Well it's not that I thought the quality wasn't up to par, it's the customers and critics and everybody else, right? [laughs] All you have to do is go to Metacritic.com. It's not like we went out and said, "We're gonna make a really shi... mediocre game, and put in a box," no. We all thought that Star Trek Online was going to be phenomenal. We all thought that Champions was going to be phenomenal.

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. Because there was nothing that would lead us to believe leading into it, from the data we had in beta, like the number of people playing, the number of downloads, how often they played and all that kind of stuff. It had exceeded anything that we had done previously.

So the reviews meant we had to have a reality check. The old way of doing things is very simple. We made City of Heroes in about a year-and-a-half. We made City of Villains in nine months, and both of which were successful, both of which were highly-acclaimed and reviewed.

And we looked around at MMO companies, and they were struggling. They were spending tens of millions of dollars, and we spent, what, $8 million on City of Heroes and $6 million on City of Villains. Here, we had a game, it was successful, we pumped 'em out, we had the technology, we had the tools, we thought we could be doing it forever, because we were like, "Yeah, we'll just keep making them every 18 months! We can!"


Star Trek Online

But what's happened over time is, quite frankly, World of Warcraft. I think it's a very different marketplace now. Because of World of Warcraft, the expectations are raised. So now with Champions and with Star Trek, we need to improve those games. We need to make them better. We're doing everything we can with our live team to improve the quality of gameplay. Not just to shove more content in, but to polish it.

With City of Heroes and City of Villains, that just wasn't the case. 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. They are so much better than City of Heroes was at launch, it's not even close. But just look at the review scores.

I designed City of Heroes. I didn't design Champions and I didn't design Star Trek. I have no horse in this race. I'm honestly bashing myself by saying these are better games. But I can honestly say, especially with Star Trek and Champions, they were just better. So when you see the reaction to the games, it really astonishes.


Why do you think there was a disparity between the beta and the post-release reaction? What do you think accounts for that?

JE: I wouldn't say it's discordance, I wouldn't say that everyone was positive in the beta, nobody ever is. But the level of negative comments was exactly what we had for City of Heroes and City of Villains, so we didn't hear that all out. 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.

Previously, with City of Heroes and City of Villains, there just weren't that many options. It's a much different market.

There are four or five other MMOs that have come out and have made the market that much bigger, not to mention that I'd say 70 to 90 percent of the people who'd be the market for Star Trek and Champions are already paying a subscription to World of Warcraft.

Now the question isn't "Do I like this game," necessarily, but "Man, am I really willing to pay another subscription on top of World of Warcraft and Xbox Live Gold?"

Do you think that these monthly subscription business models are the way forward, or do you think microtransactions would be the way?

JE: I just submitted a GDC talk about this! We haven't announced a business model [for Neverwinter], so I'll be general. Do I think that subscriptions are on the way out? No, because I guarantee you that BioWare's Star Wars is going to charge a monthly subscription. And I can guarantee you that it will do numbers, because it's going to be a great game, there are great people working on it, it's a great IP. So to say that subscriptions are dead is just flat out stupid.

But there is a threshold to get into the subscription business that requires a quality level that demands a lot of resources. That gives you a chance to roll the dice and see whether you're competitive. And in some cases, well thus far and in almost every case, every MMO that's been released has suffered dramatic declines. Even if you spent $50, $60, $70 million in development, that doesn't guarantee success. It gives you an opportunity to roll the dice, whether it's Warhammer or Conan or poor APB. It's a ton of money, but you don't know what's going to happen.

I think with BioWare, they're spending a ton of money, but those are great guys, and I think it'll be a great game, so I think it'll hit a million-plus subscribers. So I don't think subscriptions are on the way out, but I do think that it's extremely demanding and gamers are very picky. And they should be. When you're compared to World of Warcraft... That game is phenomenal. I can't complain, that's just the benchmark, and that's what you should aim to reach for.

So you said you haven't announced a business model for Neverwinter.

JE: Yes, we haven't announced a business model for Neverwinter.

So you're not going to necessarily slap a price on the box and forget about it.

JE: No.

Is it going to be a monthly subscription? Microtransactions?

JE: I can guarantee you that we envision this as an online product that will continue to grow over time, that we continue to add content to. So whether it's subscription fee, whether it's free-to-play, whether it's microtransactions, whether it's pay-by-the-minute [laughs], whether it's some sort of Ponzi scheme that I haven't figured out, I don't know. None of that has been announced.

Does the co-op format hint at a console release? A co-op game would be easier to get on something like Xbox Live and you had commented before about being flabbergasted about the situation in trying to get Champions on Xbox 360. Does Neverwinter have a better "in" on consoles by making it co-op?

JE: Oh I don't know, what kind of trouble can I get in here? I doubt it. Honestly I don't know. We tried for a long time. People will just yell at me if I'm too honest, so it isn't worth the hassle [laughs]. But no, there are no plans to take Neverwinter to consoles. Sure, I'd love to, but... um...

You can spill your guts to me, if you want...

JE: [Pause] It's been challenging, like I said in the past, dealing with big company entities, but it is what it is. But I'm looking forward to [SOE and Warner's] DC Universe Online this year, so I'll be there! Day one!

You're a pretty honest interview.

JE: Yeah, I'm a pretty candid interview, I always have been. The reason why I'm like this is because this is a new direction for Cryptic. The things that I'm saying about Neverwinter are going to apply to much more than Neverwinter. We're revealing other things in the future. I'm going to keep talking about it because we have changed almost everything we're doing, and it is important.

It's funny, the honesty -- people say "You shouldn't have done Star Trek," or "If you had to do it in 18 months, then you shouldn't have done it! You should've known that you were going to do a bad job!" I'm like, "Yeah, right." We had the Star Trek IP, we had done MMOs in 18 months that have been successful, we're going to say "No"? It's just funny being cut apart for being honest.

When you say this is a "new direction," does that mean you're done with introducing new traditional MMOs?

JE: No, I don't think it's out of the question, but I think our development philosophy is different. Mainly, make a great game, and don't worry about how many quests you have or how long it takes to level. Just make great games. And that's what we're focused on right now -- fun, good, high-quality products, triple-A products. No more 75 Metacritic scores [laughs]. My heart just can't take it anymore.

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