Seeking success with WildStar, a game 'no sane human being' would make

Executive producer Jeremy Gaffney talks about how WildStar hopes to make an impression in an MMO market filled with "jaded" players who are quick to flee games.
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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