Jeremy Gaffney runs on Diet Coke. A lot of it. He's boundless energy, and he's got boundless ambition to match. "We are trying to be the biggest game on the planet," the executive producer of Carbine Studios declared boldly to the handful of people in my WildStar demo in San Francisco last month.
But he's clearly no fool: "Our goal is to have the biggest game on the planet, not to have a crappy game that we shove out early." He's at ease when discussing the studio's two-year live plan, PAX East demo (there will be one), and the upcoming business model reveal ("fairly soon"), but even with closed beta coming in the next three months or so and a launch window targeted for the end of 2013, he clings to the mantra he must have learned from fellow NCsoft studio ArenaNet: "It's ready when it's ready."
It's not completely ready yet, but I did get a little tour of what is.
"MMOs have probably failed you"
Gaffney began his presentation with this gem -- his belief that MMOs have failed us, that we return again and again to the altar of MMOs only to be let down when they try to push us into one form of unfun or another. WildStar's philosophy, by contrast, is "play how you want to play." Gaffney argues that his team's goal is to give players lots of choices over what they want to do, not to "impose the team's will of awesome design-ness" on the game.
Better still, the game is intended to reward the player for whatever his choices might be. After all, Gaffney says, "if you reward people for doing fun things, they'll do more fun things, but if you reward people for doing boring things, they'll do more boring things." He believes MMOs fail for two specific reasons: They fail to create a compelling leveling experience, and they fail to create an interesting endgame -- or, as he put it bluntly, "trying to get to the end sucks and then getting to the end sucks." Carbine's goal is to tackle the problem head-on with an interesting and fantastic setting, heavy content variety and density, intricate combat telegraphing, a dynamic story, and a player-modifiable world.
Sound like a sandbox? It is and it isn't. "We don't think about it as sandbox vs. themepark," Gaffney told me. "It's like a modern playground. There are sandboxes within it, and there are directed things within it, and it's best when they overlap." Carbine believes those two worlds intersect along the player story and ensure that sandbox fans will never feel pushed along and themepark fans won't ever get too lost. WildStar isn't strictly about building the perfect sandpark. As Gaffney put it, "How about we all just make good games? Good games sell pretty well too."
"Cool at the cap"
So how exactly will WildStar make the level climb and the endgame compelling? For starters, the game is embracing raids. Big ones. How does 40-man competitive raiding strike you? Imagine dynamic raids that change rules on a weekly basis and a ladder system to rank and reward groups of different sizes and makeups for their on-the-fly ingenuity and speed rather than their repetition and progression. In an age when most MMOs are scaling back raids, it's certainly an interesting tactic for Carbine's opus.
If you're not really the raiding type and the thought of even dynamic raids does nothing for you, cheer up because WildStar also hopes to innovate in the solo endgame arena, specifically via story advancement. The devs don't want you to be stuck with typical endgame fare like dailies or tradeskills if you'd rather be doing something else like smashing monsters in the face, so solo players both highbie and lowbie can expect monthly story content just for them. That's also how the developers plan to insert new lore and move the game's narrative forward. Imagine that -- crucial lore in solo content, not in a raid less than 1% of your players will ever see!
And yes, I did say "monthly content." Gaffney invoked those sectors of the Chinese MMO market now pushing major content patches weekly vs. western studios, which might deliver only a few per year. WildStar wants to match that faster content pace; the engine and world, says Gaffney, is designed to make that easy.
If you're more the PvP type, then keep your eyes peeled for more information on Warplots, a new system Carbine hasn't fully explained just yet. The gist is that they're custom battlefields overlaid on the housing system for PvP purposes. Nifty!
Houses in the sky
I managed to sneak in a few questions about the housing system outlined in the team's video from some months ago. Gaffney confirmed that the housing system exteriors are hook-based, meaning that you can't pile five million items on your porch. But inside your home, there are no Lord of the Rings Online-style hooks at all; you'll be able to freely place items anywhere and everywhere to create whatever space you want.
Gaffney also told me that you will be able to move your island home to be near the homes of your friends. I was envisioning circling my island up next to my guildies' islands for one giant guild floating fortress, but Gaffney wouldn't quite commit as to whether the islands will be completely open-world or instanced since the system is still a work in progress. Ultimately, his housing directive is to avoid the "empty hood syndrome" faced by games with instanced structures.
"Exploration doesn't make a very good bullet point"
Gaffney gave me a tour of the Deradune zone to complement my hands-on with the area, and fortunately he pointed out to me many things I hadn't noticed during my whirlwind newbie experience. For example, the world is busy doing stuff whether you're there or not -- animals are fighting each other (and will come to your aid), NPCs patrol the roads, and dynamic events pop up all around you. In fact, I had a hard time figuring out what was dynamic and what wasn't until Gaffney called out an enemy dropship that plopped down, spewed out combatants, and transformed the area and the quests popping up on the screen.
What blew me away was the hidden tunnel system under the zone itself. An explorer character, Gaffney explained, can access these tunnels to travel quickly across zones and interact with special mobs and quests. A settler character, by contrast, can build up quest hubs to add mount vendors and temporary taxi routes, aiding everyone's travel while he gains experience. These mechanics are balanced such that a single settler in an empty zone can still make interesting things happen, but a packed zone will take a lot more effort from (but provide a lot more benefit to) all the people there.
In the quest to avoid "zone fatigue," the WildStar team is leaning on several different tricks. One, which I didn't personally get to see, involves quests that port you to other planets with entirely different landscapes for one-off missions. Another involves terraforming -- that is, little chunks of other zones inside the zone you're in, all explained through the lore. That I did see; it reminded me of the biodomes in World of Warcraft'sBurning Crusade zone Netherstorm. Weather in the zones can keep you on your toes as well; I saw one zone where wind played a huge role and gravity inverted (the better for jumping puzzles), and in Deradune itself, red sandstorms occasionally obscured my view (and apparently can stun unwary travelers). Don't expect too much phasing when it comes to zone change; the devs believe that mechanic, while useful, separates players too much.
Where promises of housing and exploration and solo content turned me from an eager fan to a rabid fangirl, the meat-and-potatoes portion of the gameplay left me slightly less confident in Carbine's ambition. Gaffney has said he doesn't want questing to be about NPCs standing around with exclamation points over their heads, but there were nevertheless a lot of those in Deradune. The entire questing system is a joy -- it is utterly refined and sleek for any modern MMO, let alone one most of a year from launch, but it is still a questing system, and I am left to imagine what higher-end dynamic questing will feel like (more in the Guild Wars 2 style, perhaps?). But for now, in lowbie Deradune, it is tuned for those players expecting (amazing) quest logs and (beautiful) maps and NPCs standing in a village, and for accessibility's sake, maybe that's a good thing.
In fact, quite a lot about WildStar's combat mechanics feels layered and progressive. Much ado has been made over the game's telegraphing system, which displays the range and location of your outgoing attacks and your enemies' incoming attacks, meaning that combat requires a bit more of your attention if you want to dodge effectively. But if you don't care about dodging (or you're really terrible at it), you can build your character to tank through it. At high levels, characters will find they telegraph their own intentions to their fellow players without needing to type or talk over each other in Ventrilo. Advanced gamers can avail themselves of timed achievements, and you can even pick up extra buffs for completing individual fights in certain ways or moving between fights at a quickened pace (as it was, those buffs dropped and bounced out on the ground along with loot, slurping up satisfyingly as I swooped around).
In other words, newbies won't even notice some of the systems they are passing by, but vets can dig in and take advantage of them -- and no doubt that principle was affecting very newbie me.
Combat, for all that, is extremely smooth and enjoyable -- exactly what you'd expect out of a modern MMO. The buttons just work. My class, race, and faction are still under embargo, so I can't go into much more detail about how combat worked specifically for me, but it felt good. Really good. Just not exactly unique -- like many of the relatively "stock" elements of WildStar, it feels carefully iterated-upon rather than innovated. Then again, I'm not sure combat needed reinventing (or that there's much left to innovate). If you're the sort who's always thought World of Warcraft has ridiculously smooth combat, then you'll want to know that this is much, much better but captures the same flavor, and you won't be surprised to hear it, either. Anyone who's looked at Carbine's roster (made up of ex-Blizzard devs) and "high-personality" art style will instantly know that the very best of WoW is represented and improved on here. Its innovation is found in its scope, in the fact that it's daring to do something like reward explorers and builders, focus on social tools, and not only include housing but do so at launch.
Ultimately, I see bits and pieces of World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, Guild Wars 2, Torchlight, and Firefly in WildStar, but it's been shinied up with 2013-era upgrades -- the modern conveniences today's MMO gamers expect along with the broad gameplay that heretofore only sandboxes offered. If even half of WildStar's promises are fulfilled, it'll be much more like the sandbox game I'm looking for than like the Work Online grindmills so many others are trying to be. My chief concerns right now are for the game's profile; if it truly means to launch at the end of 2013 and be the era's blockbuster MMO, it's got to kick its hype into high gear so that mainstream gamers aren't befuddled when game journos whisper its name with awe. It's got the features and the polish; it just needs the publicity.
Me, I'm looking forward to growing my sky garden and kicking some Dominion butt. I've already told my guildies to pack up the arkship and set course for Nexus.
Don't forget our other articles from the January 2013 WildStar press event!