As two of the most public figures at Cryptic Studios, Bill Roper (Champions Online) and Craig Zinkievich (Star Trek Online) are typically at the forefront of controversy, adulation and speculation. At GDC 2010, Massively sat down with the pair to discuss what it's like working for Cryptic, how they deal with the ups and downs of being game developers, and the pressure of handling the future of two hot MMORPG franchises.
Massively: How do the Champions and STO teams collaborate between each other?
Bill Roper: I think it's really good the way the company interacts back and forth -- "Hey, this worked for us, you guys should do that too." "This totally didn't work for us, don't do that, do something different."
Craig Zinkievich: "Hey, you know, about three-and-a-half weeks after launch, don't have a free 90-day promo! Don't do that! That didn't work well!" [Laughs]
Massively: Player response to patches and updates has been mixed. What have you learned from the past and what are you taking into the future?
Bill: That was a big thing we learned, that players were fine with getting smaller things more quickly. We followed the more traditional model with Champions, which was making the next "big thing." Players would have been a lot happier if we would have said, "Here's a cool thing that's an hour of gameplay that's really themed and really fun, and you'll be getting something like that every three weeks" instead of waiting for the waterfall to happen.
Craig: And it's really just engaging with the community a lot more. Figuring out what's very important to them and jumping on it as soon as possible. That's the cool thing about developing a MMO, it's no longer a team of 35-40 developers working on it, it's everybody -- it's the entire community driving this project.
Massively: A lot of commenters on this site are very harsh on Cryptic. What are some of the things you wish people could see that you guys are doing in your studio that would make people change their minds about Cryptic?
Bill: You have to develop a thicker skin when you go on the forums. A lot of people who post are like, "I'm going to be totally vocal and outrageous!" Instead of going "I wish you guys would do that," they go, "I can't believe they're slaughtering babies and eating them there because they're all evil!" I think the thing that disappoints me is this perception that we sit around and purposefully try to come up with something to screw our players.
Craig: It's the weekly "slap in the face and throw you under the bus!"
Bill: We have bets when news goes up, how many posts in it'll be before someone says "slap in the face" or "throw under the bus" or "from Day One."
When we sit around, we're literally saying, "What's going to make the game a better experience? What are we going to try to address that players want?" We're just trying to make the best game we can make.
Craig: The thing that bugs me, the thing I love about Cryptic is that we're just guys. We're just making video games that we want to make. Everybody on the dev team loves it with a passion, wants to make it the best game possible. Part of the reason why we work at Cryptic is that we have a hard time putting a project down, we're always wanting to make it better. And any sort of vision where we're these evil business people trying to milk the last penny, when in fact, maybe we're crappy business people, but we just really love doing what we're doing. That's the thing we wish we could get out more. Every once in a while we make mistakes, but it would be worse if we were those evil business people who didn't care. Because when we make that mistake, we feel bad about it, it goes through the dev team: "What were we doing?"
Bill: It is something that's so close to us. One time when we were working on something for Revelation, someone had posted something in our forums that said, "You haven't posted on this thread for five days! You're probably on a beach somewhere, rolling around in money!" People are almost fatalistic, they expect the worst -- "You must've done this for a reason!" Making games is really hard to make and maintain, and you're dealing with a vastly disparate playerbase. On every issue, you have people come down on both sides of it.
Apparently I have a lot of [money], because my favorite new moniker I've gotten on the forums is "Dollar Bill" because all I do is sit around and figure out how to milk cash from our players. I used to wear pants made of money and burned them every night.
If a game comes out and it's not what the players believed it was going to be, what they think they deserve, what they were promised -- the amount of rage associated with that is kind of frightening, to be honest. I love the passion for the game, but it's gotten kind of crazy. The fact that it's not just, like, "Man, I really hated that game, I think it sucked!" It's gone past that point: "That guy who made that game, or that team that made the game, they're evil!"
Craig: We still do what we do and we love it, and sometimes all you need to do is go into the game anonymously and play with players, and it's like, yeah. This is what we do, and this is why we do it.
Massively: What is the best part of being a game developer?
Bill: The Money Pants.
Craig: The Tricorder Money Hats. [Laughs]
Bill: For me, the best part is that you can have an idea or vision and have an opportunity to realize it. We are in a really rare position where we can actually do that! I can have an idea that I think is really cool, and as long as it makes the vetting process that it's not insane, it's like, cool! Let's try that, let's put that in. I've played games forever, and the fact I get to make them? That's crazy!
Craig: That is probably the overwhelming thing. We're in this industry because this is what we're doing when we're not working -- we're playing games. Secondary for me is that in this industry, in this work, where your technical challenges in a MMO far outstrip challenges in pure tech. Everything you have to do to support that number of people, the machines to keep things running, the creative side of things -- working with designers, artists, getting that vision out there. And then working with the community to kind of build this one huge thing, and mold this thing. That ends up having a life of its own -- that's why I do it.
Massively: Thanks so much guys!
Bill: It was our pleasure!