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Q&A: NetDevil's Brown On Balancing Difficult MMO Design

How do you launch a space combat MMO in today's market? Gamasutra caught up with NetDevil president Scott Brown to discuss Jumpgate: Evolution's design, the need for accessibility and solo play, the beta process, and more.
NetDevil's PC MMO Jumpgate: Evolution is an interesting title -- a fairly ambitious action-based space combat and trading MMO title in the hands of only a 13-person team. Moreover, it's being developed by the Colorado-based company behind the upcoming Lego Universe, which is also part of online game publisher and developer Gazillion Entertainment. Jumpgate: Evolution will debut commercially this summer, and is published by Codemasters. But what are the best approaches for a title like this? The MMO market is challenging enough -- even big chancers like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online are closing servers, and the audience is becoming increasingly picky and jaded. It has to be a worrisome space to be entering. However, this title is an update of a still-running MMO that debuted in 2001, and is in a genre (space combat) which is relatively under-represented in MMOs. Therefore, Gamasutra sat down with NetDevil president Scott Brown for a demo of the title, and discussed the team's design processes, the need for accessibility and solo play, its attitude towards player-vs-player play, and the necessity of a beta process as a proving ground for the game's core ideas. There's a three monitor setup here that no one who's reading this on the site can see. It's ridiculous. Scott Brown: Everyone says that! And you know, we've always had it as sort of a demo machine, but I've never really played it. But now that we've been here demoing it so much, I've been playing on it so much. And then I was playing it on the laptop and, you lose that peripheral [vision] and it's like, "Wow, what a difference!" So yeah, it's... yeah, this is real tempting. [laughter] It's awesome. And we support kinda all the stuff for the sim people. Joysticks, gamepads. Have you ever seen TrackIR? That's a really cool technology. Where you basically wear it on your head and they have a sensor and as you look with your head the camera pans. We support that. It's really cool. You are making a game that's -- I don't want to say niche -- but it's a focused game. How do you make decisions on what you need to support, and what's worth your time? SB: Don't tell the marketing people that are behind us, but we just do what we think is really fun. [laughter] It's definitely an interesting question, because ultimately game development is a series of compromises. SB: It is. It is. You can't have everything, right? And so, yeah, I mean, you're absolutely right but how we do it is if we think it adds real value to the game -- and to be honest it's mostly like, it takes someone on the team being like, "I want to have that when I play" and then they add it for themselves in essence. Do you worry about losing perspective, though? SB: That's why we focus test almost every single day. In the end that's what really determines a lot of what we do. And it's not like we spend tons of time -- it's not like there's that many peripherals, to be honest with you. Joystick is just supporting the Microsoft joystick API. Like you know the [Logitech keyboard] G15? Some of the guys have those and they love 'em so they supported it because they already had one and they wanted it to work. Somebody already had the TrackIR and they supported it because they wanted it to work. So that's kind of where that comes from. There are a lot of questions right now about audience and accessibility in MMOs. SB: You know, we've continued to work on accessibility and make sure the UI gives you the right cues, and I think we've gotten combat even easier to play now, from starting out. Anyone who sits down and starts playing this has been really, really good. The more accessible a game is, the bigger the potential audience -- but at the same time, people who get involved with these games for a long period of time like a certain amount of toothiness, you know what I mean? So how do you balance that when you're designing? SB: It's the whole "easy to learn, difficult to master". That's the magic formula if there is such a thing. And how you get there is tons of iteration. I wish I knew some shortcut. Maybe there are better designers than us that know what it is, but to me it's just trial and error. Like, "What if we tried something like this" and then we focus test it, we get a bunch of people play it, we see what the results are and we try something else. And so, that's that tricky layer. It's also difficult -- it's more difficult because with a stats-based RPG you can say, "Oh, let's make that sword do more damage" or let's make someone hit more often and they do -- where I can't make you hit more often. And so if you're really good at flying you're gonna do a lot more damage than someone who's not. And so how tough do I choose to make the A.I. there, and stuff? And that's an interesting problem. When it comes to MMO design, one decision to be made is whether you really engender cooperation, or let people solo. How did you tackle that? SB: I think you have to let people solo. My opinion is you must let people solo. I mean, I frankly want to solo sometimes. So what we've done is we've made it so that A, seeing other people isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing. So if you're out doing missions and someone else is out doing them as well we have this concept called "soft grouping" where you actually basically auto-share -- if you're both trying to kill guys and we're out in the field killing them we'll actually help each other out instead of take each other's kills or whatever. The other thing we do is if you actually do form a group then we'll even share your missions. And so a big problem we have is that, let's say, you've already done this mission but I haven't, will you help me? And you're like, "Ahhn, I already did that one. I'll work on something else." Well, we'll now give you credit even if someone else has the mission. So like, when you group up you basically just share all the missions. And so there's always a reason to play with somebody else. It just means you're going to get even more missions accomplished if you work that way. A component of grouping in most MMOs is building a team based on classes that benefit each other. Is that an element of the design? SB: It is. One of the things that -- and really it's kind of a lesson from Auto Assault -- we tried to copy MMO classes of the tank, the healer, the DPS kind of roles. But those won't work at these sorts of movement speeds very well. So instead what we looked at was like modern air combat or modern naval combat. Why is there an F-14, an F-16, an F-18? Why do those different planes exist, what are their roles? Why is there a cruiser versus a battleship? And so that's kind of more the roles we took. There's light fighters, there's heavy fighters, there's bombers, there's transport ships, there's scout ships. There's different ships that have different roles in the game but they're more role based than a class as you would expect. What's nice is we can let you try them all and work towards achieving them all because you can only fly one at a time. Where in another game maybe if you're too powerful at magic and sword you could do both at the same time and that'd make you too powerful. Well, you're only in this one ship, so. That's interesting, I mean, something that I find when I talk to you is that you are accretive in terms of design concepts. You take and choose from different sources it seems rather than sticking with just one, maybe a preconceived solution. SB: Yeah, well I think mostly we've learned that we're wrong a lot. And so we just kind of try to look for different ways of solving the same problem, I think. I was really struck when we talked before; you mentioned being inspired by Gran Turismo license tests, which I thought was really cool. I don't know if it's a pet peeve; I like it when people reconsider, recontextualize proven design in new genres. SB: The goal here is to not reinvent the wheel. If something works and it works great, let's use it. So mostly what we're doing is we're taking stuff from the old space things that were fun, stuff from movies that seemed cool -- we talked about it before -- and now proven stuff from various games. Some of it's MMOs, some of it's yeah, like you said, Gran Turismo. Some games have PvP servers; Lord of the Rings Online handles it with specific area that's PvP, and then you pull back out. What was your philosophy when you approached it? SB: Our idea behind PvP was that we wanted two forms. One is sort of instant action. So this is really based off of our old simulator system. Where basically what you would do is you'd be at a station, hit a button, pop in the simulator and you go train against other people. We just thought, let's make it more fun and let's make it very objective-based. And so that's what that system is all about -- and so you get in here, you're fighting these things, you're taking out the launch base and the turrets, all that kind of stuff. Then there's the open PvP. And this to me is a sort of -- it's the ultimate. This is where the game all comes together. Players are out to capture other sectors and so the first group that's involved is the collectors; miners and people who have gotten rare components from various things had to then gather enough stuff in order to build it. Then the crafter gets involved and they had to go build these substation components. Then the hauler gets involved because the haulers have to carry those components out to build these battle stations in space and then the fighters are involved because they have to defend the crafter while he builds it and then they have to defend the station once it's up or they have to go take out the other group station. Not only that -- that's just to build the thing, but then to manage attack you got scouts out like one map away in each direction and they're saying, "Hey watch out, I've got five fighters coming in from this sector here" and they're trying to help coordinate and the players are running around and everything. Basically, at the bottom [indicates the map on-screen] those are the three starting areas. So there's Octavius, Solrain, and Quantar. That's where you play through your race's background. Then they all come together. And that sort of where you choose, as the player, like, am I going to do PvP and start fighting those guys and trying to capture sectors? Or I wanna go PvE and more sort of work alongside those guys to stop the bigger threats of the area. We really wanna try -- and I don't know if it will work but it is going to prove this -- to do no PvP and PvE servers and we're trying to mix it. That's tough. SB: Well, the players just may be oil and water; we may not be able to do this. But basically what happens is if you follow along the bottom thing there. That takes you all the way to level cap, all in a very PvE sense. With consensual PvP if you're interested. But if you do the top row that's wide open anything goes sandbox-y open PvP and that also takes you all the way to the top level. And so you can sort of choose either path or change your mind and go back and forth. I think people would like to try it. I think what they're afraid of is just getting overwhelmed by it. And I'm hoping that by doing this, we'll get more people to play PvP than we would otherwise because it's there for them. But we'll see. Beta will prove. This will either be a cool idea or it will be a study of why you don't ever want to try this. So you really have to rely on the beta to prove out everything after all? SB: It's there to prove all the balancing stuff. Is crafting worth it? Does anybody mine? Do people like the missions or do they want less missions and more PvP? That's what beta tells you.

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