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Massively interviews JGE producer Hermann Peterscheck

Chris Chester

Ever since ION 2008, the fine folks at NetDevil have been slightly more forthcoming with details from their sci fi opus-in-development, Jumpgate Evolution. First there was the interview that writer Keith Baker did about the game's three factions, filling us in one some of the background lore that's being plugged into the game. More recently, they did an interview on the more technical aspects of the game's development. Not wanting to miss out on the action, we caught up with Jumpgate Evolution producer Hermann Peterscheck, who, as you might recall, is awesome.

Check below the cut for some insights into NetDevil's perception of the recent mergers in the MMO industry, their approach to integrating PvP and PvE into the same game, and some information about Jumpgate's capital ships.

What's it like being one of the only game developers in Colorado?

Hermann Peterscheck: Lonely. [laughs] Actually, there's been quite a bit of growth here over the last ten years or so. But yeah, it's certainly been sort of an outlier as far as game development goes. We do everything we can to try and evangelize to get more companies to come out here. The quality of life here is really good and it's a lot cheaper than living in California. I think it's actually a lot like Austin, so hopefully more companies will work here.

Has there been a problem attracting talent; are people more reluctant to move out there?

Yeah, it's a double-edged sword. You have less competition, but on the other hand people in any industry are nervous to move somewhere where there's not a lot of options. That's one of the things you think about, 'If I move there and you guys disappear and I don't like it, I have to move back somewhere else.' So people don't like that. But on the other hand, like I said, it's a lot cheaper to live here than California. It's arguably a better quality of life depending on how you feel about traffic versus the beach.

But when I talk to other companies that are experiencing growth like we are, they have the same problem. Attracting good people is hard.

Have you been playing any of your competitor's products recently?

I pretty much try and play every MMO that comes out in addition to games that I'm currently interested in. It's for fun and research purposes. As a game developer, it's probably a good idea to play them all.

Does any of the recent consolidation in the game industry worry you as a company or is that something you see as a potential opportunity?

I don't know. I guess I don't think about it all that much. I think it's just sort of a phase thing. Basically, and this is true in pretty much every entertainment industry, you always have the giant monolith-type companies. So in our industry it's EA, Ubisoft, and Activision-Blizzard, companies like that. And then they kind of sit there and look at the field and if somebody pops their head up and does something unusually well, it's naturally attractive for those companies to then buy them. It tends to go in a cycle. If you're EA right now, maybe you look at Activision with their merger with Blizzard, and they've become this huge behemoth. And you're like, 'Woah, we have to do something to increase our market shares so that our stock price doesn't go down.' It's really driven by the business interests.

As a third party developer, we're not directly affected by those kind of things. It affects us more if the industry as a whole goes up or down. It makes it easier or harder for us to find people who are willing to pay for the development. As an independent developer you have to find money to work on your stuff. You can't rely on billions of dollars like Ubisoft or EA or a company like that. You have to be much more focused on the product than the large global strategy.

And even though we're big for a small developer, it's easier to respond to changes in the market. So if you perceive that this new genre is getting popular or that this kind of game is more popular than that kind of game, you can react to it. We've been kind of lucky just because we started with MMOs before MMOs were popular. Now MMOs are kind of starting to dominate the PC market. That puts us into an advantageous position, but that's luck largely.

How do you see Jumpgate Evolution fitting into the MMO market as it stands now? Is it potentially a mainstream product or are you looking to carve out a niche?

I don't know. I think it's very hard to evaluate those things because it's really impossible to project . Compare it to the movie industry when Star Wars came out in 1977. There were no massive, mainstream sci-fi movie hits. That genre didn't really exist. But before long it became a big hit. Along the same lines, before Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, huge fantasy movies just didn't exist. They simply weren't made, because the kind of people who identify with elves and wizards used to be a fringe group. Then those movies come out, and they are massive hits.

Moving over to the game industry and the MMO industry, the major hits with few exceptions have been fantasy character-based MMOs. Now, is that because people don't identify with any other genre? Is it because that genre lent itself to mechanics that people find addictive? Or is it simply that the best executed games have been fantasy games and coincidentally, that's the market that attracts it. Instead of trying to gauge what people find popular at the moment, you have to do your best to try and make a game that people find compelling and speaks to an audience that you can at least sort of identify.

We do basic market research. We look at the numbers of a game like EVE Online, which is our only really close comparable game, or something like Wing Commander and X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and see that they did pretty well in the mainstream market. Then you can draw some sort of conclusion and say, OK, we know there is some kind of market for this game. At the same time, we also feel that, looking at the risk/reward in terms of developing a game, you try to decide if it's worth going into.

On the one hand, while you have a space game, which is perceived to be higher risk because you can't compare it to other things, you have a scenario where you're shipping a game into an audience that is under-served. It might be smaller than the fantasy market, but you're hitting an unknown market. But if you build a fantasy game, you're hitting a known market that is over-served. What's really easier?

"At the end of the day, if you make a really great game, it'll find an audience, and if you don't, people aren't going to play it. As simplistic as that sounds, it's true."

At the end of the day, if you make a really great game, it'll find an audience, and if you don't, people aren't going to play it. As simplistic as that sounds, it's true. I play games that are fun. Right now I'm playing Grand Theft Auto 4 and LEGO Indiana Jones. Am I a platform gamer? Eh, not really. Am I a car simulation player? Eh, no. Do I particularly like violent games or mob stories? No, not really. But those are games that I think are really well made, so I have fun playing them.

What's a greater priority in developing Jumpgate: flashy graphics or having it run on a greater variety of hardware?

Have it run on a greater variety of hardware is more important, however I don't think they're mutually exclusive... much to my surprise. When we started working on Jumpgate, we said, 'OK, this is our minimum spec.' We basically looked at the major competitors. WoW, obviously being the eight-hundred pound gorilla and EVE, being the number one game we would be compared to and we looked at their minimum specs, which ended being virtually identical. We decided that those people who can play those games need to be able to play our games, period.

And then we used that to really drive our early development, graphics, assets pipelines, those kinds of things. It was incredibly challenging because there's a natural tendency for developers and artists especially to push the technical envelope. So we turned that around a little bit and said let's go the other way. How good can we make stuff look and still run on this level machine? The challenge then became: how can we cut polys or reduce texture memory more? And an interesting thing happened. We iterated very rapidly on early pieces of artwork to come up with a style and a look that scales well. As a result, the visual quality kept improving, because we kept making those same assets over and over and over again until they looked really good. And we used cheap techniques to simulate things that we thought looked good. Even if you're going to make a game with very high system specs, I still think it's very valuable to try and squeeze every little pixel you can for quality. Ironically, Jumpgate still looks good while still having the ability to scale across a wide variety of PCs.

That being said, MMO success comes from pouring users in the top and some percentage of them will stick. That represents your customer share. That's true of every MMO. Every time you change your technology, you're reducing the number of users you can pour in at the top. Runescape is the classic example. There's no barrier to entry. If you have a computer that can run a web browser and Java, you can play Runescape. Beyond that, now you have to download an executable. That removes a certain percentage. Now you need this much memory and this much processor and this much video card. That cuts out an even greater percentage. The more people you cut out, the higher your retention needs to be in order to hit the numbers that you need to be profitable.

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