"This is going to be the best game most of us have built in our lives," Carbine Studios Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney said bluntly.
The game in question, of course, is WildStar, and it represents Gaffney's 10th or so trip through the beta development chute on the way to release. There's an undeniable note of pride and calm confidence in his voice as he talks about the baby that's growing inside Carbine's womb right now, and he was definitely not shy in opening up about all of the decisions and work the team's made as WildStar heads into its second trimester... er, closed beta test.
Before that, however, Gaffney provided a recap of the first closed beta test. He said that it was pretty limited, with only 2,000 players testing out the lowbie Exile zones. The team moved some of the elder game content down in level so that people could test it out, and developers spent some time doing impromptu Q&A sessions with players in the field. As a result, Carbine is ready to shift over to the Dominion side and greatly expand the beta in size and content. Read on for the full scoop on what the next step will entail.
Closed beta team... assemble!
Expanding a beta is always a tricky prospect. There are always more applicants than those accepted (at least until open beta), and the team has to balance inviting people in with the numbers that provide useful feedback for what's being tested. For the second closed beta test, Carbine is looking to initially add just a couple thousand more, but that number is poised to skyrocket.
Carbine is also scheduling a weekend stress test with around 15,000 players to pounce on and possibly break the servers. Because the team fully expects there to be outages and other unforeseen complications, this might not be the fun joyride that some expect. The good news is that Carbine will attempt to invite those 15,000 into the beta proper. Looks like there's a silver lining to every stress test, eh?
There's a lot to test, too. Attribute milestones are a new feature in CB2, and Gaffney expects that players will come to love chasing these. As players level up and gain better gear, they'll be pushing certain attributes higher and higher. When they hit attribute milestones, they can unlock a huge packet of stat increases or even unlock special skills. This adds strategy for character building, as players who specialize in an attribute could get some of the best skills from milestones, but a generalist player could sample skills from several milestones if so desired.
Getting into a scrap with PvP
PvP wasn't a huge focus of CB1, but that's not the case this time around. Carbine is excited to test out its first battleground called Smash & Grab. It's a 10v10 capture-the-flag variant that allows for up to three flags to be in play at any one time (one at either base and one in the center).
While one of the new areas in CB2 is designed for open-world PvP, the lack of Exiles in this test will make that somewhat difficult. So expect open-world conflict to come in CB3 instead.
PvP will be bolstered by the addition of another system: rallying. Rallying brings all players in an instance up to the same level so that, for example, players level 3 to 30 can compete in the same space. Gear and skills will be scaled up as well, although players at a higher level will still retain some advantages (such as a more diverse array of skills).
Rallying and its partner-in-crime, mentoring, will eventually allow for more players in WildStar to group together than before. Rallying will extend to PvE in future updates, while mentoring (which lowers players to their teammate's level) will be alive and kicking in CB2. This gives players a choice of how to play, Gaffney explained. If you want to be a high-level character who rofflestomps all over a dungeon for his low-level friends, that's fine. But if you want useful rewards, then you can choose to mentor down and take it at-level like the rest of the chumps.
The doom and dungeons of the Dominion
With the Exiles tucked all safe and cozy in their beds, closed beta 2 wakes up the Dominion to play. The three revealed Dominion races (Cassians, Draken, and Mechari) will be available, as will the first four Dominion zones.
Included with these areas is a level 20 dungeon, the Ruins of Kel Voreth. Like most of WildStar's 5-man content, it's pretty challenging and geared for coordinated teams. Look at it this way: Carbine wants to hand out the best rewards possible, but it can't do that if you're just face-rolling through dungeons with dysfunctional PUGs. Feel free to try, however. Kel Voreth is a giant castle populated by "techno-barbarians" who are more likely to use a big circuit board for a shield than for overclocking their sweet rigs.
Raid frames are coming with CB2, and Gaffney is incredibly excited to see how the raiding game shapes up in the future. He said that there are plans to host weekly competitions between raiding guilds to step up to various challenges, with the winners coming away with legendary gear, so it will be a matter of not who is best overall but who is best on any particular week.
In raids, dungeons, and PvP, communication will be paramount to victory. Because players are often deeply involved in movement and fighting, Carbine's turned to visual signs via skill use to add non-verbal communication. These can include healing nodes that players can put down for others to run up and repair damage or fire pits that fighters can clearly see so that enemies can be kicked into the burning pyre.
As with the dynamic events of the overworld, dungeons will be subject to random events and content to keep things interesting. Maybe there will be a special boss available for the next hour, or maybe the game will announce a special challenge with fitting rewards. Randomness makes games interesting, Gaffney believes, but it also cheeses off the hardcore something fierce because it favors the newbie. To keep things somewhat fair, Carbine is extending the randomness across the board: That special boss will be available to everyone during a random period of time instead of a group that lucks out with the RNG.
Taking the familiar and giving it an interesting twist seems to be the M.O. for the studio. Gaffney said that the developers are gunning for as much variety as possible in WildStar so that the game doesn't get predictable or feel like a retread of other MMOs. This philosophy extends beyond PvP to all corners of the game. Think mining is safe? Well, what if the rocks might explode on you or open up a doorway to a hidden dungeon? That'll make your heart beat a bit faster when you approach a node.
"Houston, we have an addon"
Closed beta 2 is more than just the other side of the faction pancake. Houston, WildStar's addon creation tool, will be making its debut in this phase. Gaffney noted wryly that it took less than six hours into the first closed beta for players to create an addon without a toolset or any instructions, and the team expects the modding community to explode once modders get their hands on Houston. All of WildStar's UI elements are open to mod, leading players to create friend-finder tools, better communication features, and goodies for their guilds.
So what if a player comes up with a mod that's so dang good that Carbine decides it's got to be a part of the official WildStar package? Gaffney hopes and expects this to happen, but he said that the team is struggling with how to compensate modders for their work (money is out of the question due to international laws and whatnot). "Will we steal people's UIs?" he said. "Hell yes! How can we do it in such a way that it's not stealing? That's the question."
Home sweet dungeon
In the 19-page patch notes for CB2, Carbine devoted an entire page to its housing updates. The already impressive-sounding system is growing by leaps and bounds, with over 400 new decor items coming in this patch alone. But what's more interesting is the mention of housing dungeons.
Wait, what? Housing dungeons?
The idea here is that players will come across drops (for example, a treasure map) in the world that can be taken back to their housing plots and plugged into one of the sockets. The socket will transform into a pocket dungeon that will take between two and five players to clean out. It's a good excuse to invite a friend or make a few new ones via the LFG tool, and when the dungeon is defeated, it remains on the plot for several days to spit out loot for the victor. There are eight such housing dungeons prepared already, with more to come.
Every little bit counts
The hour-long call with Gaffney covered such a wide swath of additions and topics that it would be easy to blow this article up into an unwieldy monstrosity. Maybe you'd be interested in hearing about how the achievement system has been upgraded with more integrated rewards and how it's been bound to trade skill advancement. Perhaps behind-the-scenes tales such as when the team voluntarily spent a weekend doing a major city polish pass so that beta testers wouldn't have to see the place in half-assembled shambles would captivate your imagination. It's not outside of the realm of reason that a quick overview of "coordinate crafting," where players navigate an open world grid to create goods, is up your alley. Possibly mentions of amusing skills, such as Espers trailing what Gaffney calls "unicorn poop" (i.e., healing rainbows) behind them for teammates, are of supreme importance in your life.
Through all of the zany pressure of bringing this massive MMO to life, Carbine holds on to its sense of humor to keep things light and enjoyable. Gaffney related a story about how Stalkers had figured out that stealthing after a PvP arena battle allowed them to stay in the area when they should've left. So instead of creating a dull, efficient solution, the developers coded the NPC spectators to toss beer cans at the invisible lingerers until they skulked off.
There's a lot to do as WildStar barrels toward its late 2013 release. Gaffney said that the team is relying on dialogue and feedback from players in this vital phase of development. For example, a burning issue of the day is whether or not the game will include permanent flying mounts (temporary flight, through jetpacks and the like, is already in). The game is coded to allow flight, but whether or not it's in the best interests of WildStar -- and how to do it the right way if so -- is something the team wants to collaborate with players over.
There are also the final two races, one per faction, that Carbine has left to reveal. Gaffney promised that a reveal is coming within the next couple of months, although he's concerned that the team has to race against leakers.
It's going to be some time before this bouncing baby MMO will come into the world, but it's good to hear that it's developing all of the proper appendages and unicorn poop that it should have.
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