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WildStar: how to survive the MMO update arms race

Tuesday, 30th July 2013 08:22 GMT By Dave Cook

WildStar is the first MMO from the ex-Blizzard developers at Carbine Studios. VG247′s Dave Cook speaks with the team about why a content arms race is changing the face of MMO development.

Wildstar

Developed by Carbine Studios, Wildstar is an MMO set on the contested planet Nexus.

The planet is locked in a war between the imperialistic Dominion group and a band of rebels called The Exiles.

Work on Wildstar began in 2007 and the team was formed by around 20 former Blizzard members who worked extensively on World of Warcraft.

The game’s last two races were unveiled this month. Check out the announcement trailer here.

Be it through patches, expansions or DLC, it’s not uncommon to see games bolstered after they’ve launched. Publishers have developed a real appetite for add-on content as a means of encouraging long-tail sales, and to stop gamers from leaving a brand in search of something new.

This is most apparent in the MMO scene where, due to the high price of developing games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, developers need to constantly give players a reason to return in order to recoup costs, but at a time where free-to-play MMOs run hot studios need increasingly effective propositions to keep people interested.

Unless these games offer players the incentive to return, they’ll simply go elsewhere, and this demand for fresh, appealing content has given rise to what WildStar producer Jeremy Gaffney described to me as an update arms race. It’s also why Carbine Studios’ debut MMO is targeting frequent and substantial content drops after it launches later this year.

“In China they went for the sort of normal three-month patch cycle for most of their games,” Gaffney said of the Chinese MMO scene, “which is kind of similar in Korea, the US and Europe. Then some bright group was there who said, ‘We’re going to do it in two months’, and they got more users, then someone else was like, ‘We’ll do a big update in a month’.

“Of the successful games; they’re updating weekly or bi-weekly now. It’s like this arms race for how much new stuff can you add in the game, because it turns out people crave it. Same stuff you see with League of Legends; every three weeks, cool new stuff. Guild Wars 2 has just moved to a two-week cycle and that’s brilliant. Players really reward that, but as a developer it’s very hard to do that.

“We’ve tooled from an early stage to try and have that rapid update cycle. We’ve been believers for quite a long while that frequency of quality updates is something that players really reward. I don’t know that you sell more boxes you know what I mean? It’s not going to be like a line on the box or show up in a review but by god you stay in a game that’s making more of the stuff that you love.”


Check out this fun Wildstar trailer to get a feel for the game’s funnybone.

It’s a common sense approach on the surface, but it’s fraught with high-strain demands for any developer. It’s lucky then that Carbine was founded by around 20 former World of Warcraft developers at Blizzard who have been steeped in MMO development for many years. They know the pitfalls, they’ve seen games collapse and there’s a genuine passion and understand of what makes gamers invest time and money into an online world.

WildStar certainly has an identity that stands out among today’s glut of fantasy MMOs that often tend to cover similar themes, races and class archetypes. It sees the imperialistic Dominion faction and a band of rebels called the Exiles fighting over the newly-discovered planet Nexus. There’s a neat sci-fi vibe at play along with smatterings of comedy and a bright colour palette, but the plot also hides a darker edge.

Gaffney explained that the Carbine has taken note of many stumbling blocks of the MMO genre over the years and ironed them out through smart design. For example, he said that it makes no sense to have a dynamic event where two factions engage in PvP battle over two strongholds when you can make the bases two giant, rampaging robots instead. It’s no secret which of the two presentations is more appealing.

“We build the whole world to be modifiable,” Gaffney explained when I asked him about new dynamic content, post-launch updates and world events. “We mark areas with plugs and sockets, and it’s what lets us do a cool housing system where you can dig gardens, mines and all that kind of stuff. It’s what lets us do war-plots where you build your fortress and walls, capture raid bosses and pin them down and all that.

“That same tech lets us do both dynamic events and lets us add stuff to the game very rapidly. We can basically flag an area of our world and swap it in and out with other areas of world trivially, so it lets us do big updates like that quite nicely. We’re going to put everything in beta and see what the fans like, because they really run the show at the end of the day rather than us.”

Gaffney stressed that while additional content geared towards faction or group play is of interest to Carbine, the studio would like to progress the overarching world story through regular solo updates after launch. He then added that you can’t exactly follow much of an add-on story in a raid with 40 beasts or PvP opponents breathing down your neck. This personal solo experience is where Carbine’s long-tail focus lies, but that doesn’t rule out new group content either.

“60% of people play massively single player mode,” Gaffney continued, “they don’t group, they don’t do any of that stuff. They just want to play in a big world but not necessarily do all this social crap. Well, that 60% of people are kind of voting with their feet on that so why not support them with solo content and not just have everything be group content?”

I asked Gaffney if relaxed patching regulations on both PS4 and Xbox One will result in a sharp increase in MMOs on consoles given the desire of many studios to regularly patch-in new content. The launch of titles like DC Universe Onlne, Dust 514, Happy Wars and the impending release of DriveClub and Warframe on PS4 suggest that a sea change is slowly building momentum.

“It’s going to take off at some point,” he replied. “It’ll take off when you are guaranteed to have a [large] hard drive on a machine – which it seems this generation has gotten much better at – when you can patch frequently because, a lot of the barriers between MMOs and consoles to date has been, if you can’t patch a game regularly and there’s a huge approval process you’re screwed.

“It’s another reason you need a hard drive is for all that patching, and the third thing is business model. Most of the business models of the past, it looking like two companies were poised to make a crap-ton of money where nobody else was, and those two companies were Sony and Microsoft.”

Gaffney added that if you’re a publisher without the business model to make money for yourself in the MMO space then it’s a no-brainer if you decide to skip consoles in favour of PCs, but he felt that the next-generation of consoles seems better suited to treating MMO developers fairly, and in accommodating their need to constantly update. As for WildStar however, it’s purely a PC game for now.

“We’re going to do PC first because we love PC,” Gaffney explained, “and we think you should do the things you love first. We may branch out onto consoles some day but in general now we want to own the PC market more than we’re heading after console.”

You need only look at how frequently updates for Guild Wars 2 roll out, such as recent world event Bazaar of the Four Winds, as well as the way constant additions to non-MMO games like League of Legends and Dota 2 work effectively in retaining a game’s fan base. In many ways the hardest part isn’t in creating and launching an MMO, it’s figuring out how to stop it from dying before it matures.

I’ve often heard that constant iteration is the key to crafting a solid MMO experience that stands the test of time. It’s clear to me that Gaffney and the Carbine team understand that explicitly, so it’ll be interesting to see just how malleable and updated the game will be once it eventually launches, and how successful it is in keeping people along for the ride.

What’s your take on WildStar? Do you like what you’ve seen so far? Let us know below.

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13 Comments

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  1. backup

    first think of surviving PC gaming than MMO

    #1 9 months ago
  2. hives

    Can’t wait. Tradition + innovation. Raids, path system is interesting, cool combat and great world and races etc. Hope it will be awesome.

    #2 9 months ago
  3. viralshag

    I’m being cautiously optimistic about it. Too many times we’ve heard the great ideas devs have for their next big MMO and so often it rolls out like all the rest which is simply another grindfest in a different outfit.

    I do like the look of some of their ideas and I hope they pull it off. Part of me just feels like MMOs are a dying genre of gaming considering everything else on offer. I would love to commit to an MMO like I did with WoW back in the day but that’s just not going to happen, no matter how good the game is.

    #3 9 months ago
  4. Llewelyn_MT

    @backup: How is ignoring reality working out for you? The most popular games are PC exclusives. It always was like that and it will be for the foreseeable future.

    #4 9 months ago
  5. Phoenixblight

    I got it play in a beta and because of NDA I can’t say much but what they have shown is exactly how it is in game. I am now just waiting for a release date :P

    #5 9 months ago
  6. DSB

    “It’s what lets us do war-plots where you build your fortress and walls, capture raid bosses and pin them down and all that.”

    Wait… You can trap a raid boss in your backyard?!

    #6 9 months ago
  7. Phoenixblight

    @6

    He is talking about putting raid bosses in war plots which is guild specific.

    #7 9 months ago
  8. GrimRita

    @3 Bingo! This has come on my radar and I am starting to dig deeper to see if there is anything to interest me.

    #5 – If you’re right then this could be the MMO we’ve all been waiting for but we are all used to the failed promises from some of the biggest players.

    Any ideas on release windows? Will it be 2013?

    #8 9 months ago
  9. DSB

    @7 He’s talking about pinning them down though. In my mind that means strapping the fucker down so you can stand there and gloat after he gives you and your guild a hard time taking him down.

    That sort of thing would fucking melt my raider heart :D

    Why the hell shouldn’t we have a clubhouse festooned with the heads of dead bosses? Bring. It.

    #9 9 months ago
  10. Phoenixblight

    @9

    THey did say you will be able to put trophies of accomplishments in your house though I doubt it will be the whole model especially with the size of their bosses.

    @8

    THey said 2013 for release window but I suspect based on what I have seen it will be probably Q1-Q2 of 2014. They still have two more classes to show off and such.

    #10 9 months ago
  11. GwynbleiddiuM

    @10 can you at least tell me if the traditional combat roles are there, healing, tanking, etc? I don’t really like to play let’s say 2 classes that essentially are doing the same thing just slightly different from one another, aka the shit GW2 pulled.

    #11 9 months ago
  12. Hcw87

    Yes, there are traditional combat roles, and yes you can put trophies on your wall (bosses you’ve slain etc). Not the entire model, but lets say the head for example.

    #12 9 months ago
  13. TheWulf

    They’re stuck in the past to a degree, though. This is the problem. And I think the solution lies somewhere between Torchlight’s method of generating maps, and good AI. But that’s just me. I’d rather take on a crowd of mobs with good AI than stand there playing whack-a-mole with one mob, as has sadly become the standard. And I’d prefer that dungeons randomly assemble themselves, even including random puzzle chunks, so there’d be fun in diving into them again and again.

    Then there’s the whole research, logic puzzles, and jumping puzzles thing. If you give people a language to research, they’ll do it. Whether it’s the D’ni tongue, the Grineer/Corpus languages, or anything else. It can engage a community and get everyone hyped whilst trying to figure this stuff out. Plus it can be fun to be able to read and understand clues left behind, that no one else can. One of the hilarious things about the Myst games is that the solutions to the hardest puzzles were often written nearby in D’ni tongue.

    And then there’s the compulsion of exploration, if you make a game which is truly fun to explore, with lots of collectibles to be obtained without grinding (just from exploration and poking the environment) then you’ll draw in a completely new audience. The LEGO games are a fantastic example of how to do this right. I don’t see any problems with having secrets in an MMO that you need to obtain certain things to access, so long as the MMO tells you what you need. Sort of like how certain LEGO puzzles require certain characters, but they tell you which you need.

    On top of that, I’d like to see things designed more like levels. I mentioned randomly linked dungeon chunks. The thing with that is that procedurally linking chunks doesn’t have to mean that there’s no good level design, and Torchlight proves this. So I’d want a dungeon to feel like a finely crafted third person platformer, with lots to explore, puzzles to solve, and things to find.

    And if we really have to do combat, then it should be akin to a spectacle fighter with lots of movement, and the AI of our opponents should be worthwhile. Good examples of this are Champions Online and Guild Wars 1. By this, I mean melee foes that will flank you, ranged foes that know how to hold their distance, and groups that work together to keep you away from their healers and buffers/debuffers.

    That’s another thing I don’t see in MMOs. I think I’ve only ever seen it in CO and GW1, actually. Mobs that actually act as healers to mob groups. And I want to see travelling mob groups and packs, I want to see intelligently designed patrols. I want there to be at least one healer in every patrol, at least one crowd control person (buffer/debuffer), and a good amount of ranged/close quarters combatants.

    I think that if an MMO could deliver on all of that, it would be incredible. As it is, I’m waiting for MMOs to catch up with me. Sadly, no one seems to have the balls to try it, everyone keeps remaking the same old thing. That was one of my greatest issues with The Secret World. 10% of The Secret World is fun, when you’re exploring, learning the lore, solving the puzzles, researching, and so on. Then 90% of it is just standard MMO combat and that kills it.

    The MMO combat grind kills the spirit of most people to actually stick with such a game. Then you only have a minority of about 2-3% who do stick with it because they can handle it. See just about every MMO ever. Even WoW’s subscriptions are dropping off at an alarming rate. Because in most MMOs you’re standing there playing whack-a-mole with a mob, and then you have to repeat that exact same process 500 times for the next goodness knows how many hours to get somewhere.

    So yeah.

    I’m waiting for MMOs to catch up with me. I know what would make a good MMO. It’s not hard.

    And regarding having dungeons in well-designed chunks, you could even provide an editor suite for players to design their own, which can then be uploaded for approval. The best chunks can then be cycled into the game, sort of like how STO’s foundry works, but actually having a meaningful impact. So you’d get the best of how Torchlight works in that regard.

    And no more damn vertical progression or levels, these things are for tools. It’s more fun if you have horizontal progression, where the further you go into a game, the more options of how you can play at any one time open up to you, rather than simply gaining BIGGAR NUMBARZ. This is one thing I think The Secret World did well (shame about the combat).

    #13 9 months ago