When the president of MMO developer NetDevil, Scott Brown spoke at the Online Game Development Conference in May, his spirited postmortem on Auto Assault touched on the relationship between developers and publishers. “It isn’t that NCsoft was bad – they were great. It was the contract,” he told the audience.
Brown firmly believes that the stereotypical adversarial relationship that developers have with their publishers need not be so.
The future of those publishers is on the line constantly, notes NetDevil’s management. Publishers don’t go into deals wanting to crush development studios. They want to make a great game. Both parties want the same thing, it’s just hard to get there.
Gamasutra sat down with Brown to discuss a number of issues: development in tandem, the upcoming physics-based shooter, Warmonger (you play the role of a mercenary in an urban war zone), the LEGO MMO, and even the company’s moving offices (“we’re all excited…hopefully it’s a much more creative space.”).
But in the end, the new developer-publisher paradigm is something that Brown is concerned with, and still on his mind. “I think it’s milestone-based schedules that create all of the problems,” he told Gamasutra. It all comes back to the basics of software development, and perhaps NetDevil has found the answer…
Delivering the post-mortem: Brown, and producer Hermann Peterscheck talk Auto Assault. “We hope you can avoid some of the mistakes we made,” they told the room full of developers.
You’ve got four projects. Is that too many to work on?
Scott Brown: No, it’s not, because they’re not the same scale. If they were four, sixty-man teams, yeah. That would be way too much. But what we’re trying to do is balance a little bit between one massive team with everyone only focusing on one thing, and having a few smaller projects that are cool, creative outlets for people.
And we can take a little bigger risk on the smaller projects, too. It just costs so much money to make these games now, so you’ve got to take out as much risk as you can. It means games like Warmonger could never get made.
So what we’re doing is taking small teams and saying, ‘well, let’s try this idea.’ Let’s try something crazy like ‘what if everything in the world was destructible. What would that be like? How would that play?’ But of course it would require a super high-end computer to even be able to do the stuff we’re trying to do with it.
It’s okay to do that, if you don’t spend $15 million, or $50 million making it.
We’re working on Jumpgate now with a whole team revisiting that. And we’ll have a big announcement on what that actually is…soon. Jumpgate is another one of those games where people say, ‘well, space, it’s not one of the popular IPs, fantasy is what sells – are you sure this a good thing?’ It is for us. These are things we can be super-passionate about and really work on, without having to ramp up to hundreds of employees.
So you’ve got the LEGO MMO, you’ve got Jumpgate, you’ve got Warmonger. What’s the fourth one?
SB: Auto Assault.
What’s the status of Warmonger?
SB: Right now we’re sort of evaluating what’s the right sort of deployment for the game. One of the things that Ageia just did that’s pretty attractive is, with CellFactor, they added a few levels that didn’t require PhysX. And some that did. That way people can try the game and see the difference. Warmonger – up to now – is all PhysX.
We’re evaluating if it makes more sense to make some of the game not require the accelerator so you can see the difference. And also, maybe get a little more exposure for the title.
This, of course, is step one. We’ve got a big huge design of where we’d like this to go. Maybe it could go on to become an MMO-shooter, you know, kinda like Huxley style. Or maybe it goes on to become more like Battlefield style, where we release expansion packs, and fund it that way. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Now that we’ve got this fun toy that we built, where do we go from here?
How did the idea come about, to do a first-person shooter, when previously, you’ve done MMOs?
SB: Really, it’s an extension of physics. With Auto Assault, we’d done all that destruction. We said, ‘wow, this was cool and we really pushed things really far.’ But we were like, man, we want to push this a lot farther. If you want to go for the top end, that’s shooters.
Your market of the highest-end games, that’s the shooter market. That’s not really the MMOs. The MMOs that sell aren’t the ones that require über machines, the MMOs that sell are the ones that run on everyone’s computer.
It’s first-person-shooters that always push the edge. So we started talking to Ageia about working together to make something that could, for them, show off their hardware, and for us, give a cool, super-difficult task to see how much farther we could push it.
So you’d worked with them previously on Auto Assault?
SB: Yeah. We worked with them then, and said ‘let us help you.’ I’ve always been a big believer in just physics in games. So we just said, ‘what can we do? How do we help?’
They’re fighting the chicken and the egg problem. Developers don’t want to support the card, because there aren’t a lot of cards out there. People don’t want to buy the card, because there aren’t a lot of games to support the card.
We were like, how can we work together and come up with something pretty cool? So that’s really where that came from.
Job well done: Scott (right) and Hermann (left), relax in the lobby of Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic during the 2007 Online Game Development Conference.
How does the publishing work? Do you have a publisher for it, or are you…
SB: No, we’re just going to distribute it for free.
So it will be free?
SB: And that’s what we were saying – do
we do expansions that maybe we charge for? Do we do a weapon pack or
a map pack? That’s what we’re still trying to figure out: how
we’ll grow it from there.
So that’s how you keep the IP? You develop the game, then give it away for free?
SB: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know where it’s going to go yet. We’re talking to a number of publishers about it, maybe they’ll pick it up, maybe we’ll do a brand new IP, but use all the tech we’ve developed. We’re not sure exactly where it’s going yet. But our focus is really online, so this is an online shooter.
How did the LEGO deal come about?
SB: They came to us. They were doing an evaluation of all these developers across the world. And they came out and did an interview process, met with us, and studied our development processes. It was crazy, the questionnaire was amazing. ‘how does your backup work, how often…’ It was this big old form.
And I think we really hit it off well with those guys. I think they appreciated our willingness to make different MMOs instead of having everything have to follow the same mould every time.
We have a lot of experience with physics, obviously this will be a very physical world. [chuckles] In the end, they told us it was just our desire that made them really interested. They were like, ‘you guys are excited. You want to do this with us.’
I couldn’t say enough about how good they are. They’re so different than a game company. They just have a different approach. They’ve been in business longer, frankly, and they’re just a cool company.
For instance, they focus test everything. They’ve been doing that for years, on all their toys. And they know how to focus test, how to read the results of a focus test. That’s something they seem much better at than most game companies I’ve worked with before.
And so we focus test everything. ‘Here’s an idea, so let’s bring in some moms and some kids, run it past them, let’s show ‘em the visuals and tell them your idea.’ And then we just go from there. Everything we do is always focus tested, and has really great feedback. It’s a different process than we were used to. And it’s a good process.
What’s the creative result for your people being able to work on difference projects internally, and projects that are different from what’s normally in the marketplace?
SB: What you have to worry about is the burnout, right? If your MMO takes a long time, you don’t want to burnout, especially if you’re stuck on this game for four years… That’s some of what we’re trying to avoid by having these other projects. The other thing is: it just gives you other things to look at every day. Maybe you just did something that helps this other group. It just gives us the ability to break up the day a little bit.
So people will work on all four games at once?
SB: No, I mean, everybody has a project, a focus, certainly. But what we try to do is move people around a little bit. The things you’re trying to solve when you’re making an MMO are complex. So it’s nice to have a break every now and then.
The other thing that we’re doing is a lot of in-house reviews of our own products, and beating up on ourselves a little bit. It gives you a better critical view of what’s going on.
What other changes are there are NetDevil?
SB: The big switch that’s happened to our company this year is we’ve switched to agile development. A bunch of our people have been trained in Scrum and we’ve been working on that. It’s incredible. It’s made a huge difference in how we work, how we approach things.
Is that common in online developers?
SB: To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about other developers to know. But [internally] we just forced it. We said every project is switching at the beginning of the year. And we’ve gone through a pretty brutal learning curve on it: what works and what doesn’t. Different teams have evolved in different ways that are best for their project. It is amazing in terms of its results, though.
Everyone’s forced to treat things as shippable products, from the very beginning. Software development has so long been: throw everything in – that’s the alpha. Refine everything once – that’s the beta. Then refine everything as much as you can before you ship.
It’s like, no, no, we’re not going to do that, because you’re limited by real things, like time and money. Those are real factors that aren’t going to be changed.
Now what you say is, if those are going to be our factors, and someday we’re going to have to ship this thing, what you do instead of saying ‘we’ve got everything in there, but kind of crappy, so we’re going to refine as much as we can before it ships,’ now you say: we’re making one thing at a time that are great. And if we ship early, it just means we’ll ship without something, like less content
That’s something to ask about: publishers. How do you like working with publishers? How do you like being independent?
SB: I love being independent. That’s so cool, we own our own company. We founded it ourselves, we’re still running it ourselves. We don’t have investors to answer to, or anything. You have to answer to your publisher, of course.
That’s our customer, really. But it’s been great. It gives us a lot more flexibility than other companies, I think. I don’t know if we could have made the switch to agile if we were owned by somebody else.
How is the LEGO game being published?
SB: By LEGO.
So they’re boxing it, doing billing and collecting…
I can’t say yet, but it’s all by LEGO.
And NCsoft is still doing Auto Assault. Would you still work with them again?
SB: Absolutely. There are some things about NCsoft that I think they do better than anyone else. They also…they get it. They understand what it means, that shipping is the beginning of your product, not the end of your product. They understand MMOs. I really like those guys. We still talk to them all the time, about a lot of different stuff. And we’re talking to them about some of our new things, too.
Some of what our talk was about was the fact that publishers are…the problem comes in the development schedule. It’s this typical alpha-beta-ship thing. It doesn’t make sense. If your typical contract says you’ve got things that must be done by this day for your next milestone payment.
When you have that pressure as a developer, you’re forced to work to the milestone. If you don’t deliver those points, you’re not going to get paid. But maybe that’s not the right thing to do right now. Maybe it’s a bad way to do it, but they have accounting, which says they’re a certain value, and you must meet these milestones in order to pay you.
I think it’s milestone-based schedules that create all of the problems. It’s not anything evil about the publisher or the developer. That’s an ancient kind of contract that doesn’t make sense for making online games, in my opinion.
That’s the thing that you can change. And when you change that, you can have a great relationship.