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Interview: Zipper's Alan Van Slyke, part two

Did you anticipate the huge Q1 rush of games that we're in right now, and were you concerned at all about launching MAG in that window?

I think there's a lot of different thinking about which quarter you release in now. There's not the massive imbalances between calendar quarters that there used to be. I mean there are a lot of attractive quarters there now. We weren't really concerned at all with what quarter we released in.

My number one concern is making it the best game it can be, polishing it up, taking all the learnings from beta, and making sure all those things get onto the disc. So, you know, the quarter that it released I would say ... we're excited about it. We're mostly excited about having the game completely buttoned up before it goes to consumers and not being forced to ship in a specific fiscal quarter, you know. We had the ability to polish the game to what it needs to be before we put it on disc.

Besides the obvious reason, why wasn't there a single-player component in the game? Was it a budgetary issue, or did you just want to focus on the multiplayer component?

It was really the latter. It's all about, you know, the pillars: Scale, persistence, command. All of those things are multiplayer pillars and, you know, we just never really considered bolting on a single-player campaign onto it. We were really interested in making the game shine at what it does well, which is large multiplayer battles.

Do you think that multiple online shooters can co-exist at the same time? Are you at all concerned about MAG competing with games like Modern Warfare 2, or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or even SOCOM: Confrontation?

No, I don't think so. It's like, MAG really has a passionate user base already, and I think that we fill a very specific desire. I think in every genre people are going to play the games that they're most interested in, regardless of the breadth or depth of offerings within the genre. But, you know, our real focus is not to worry about what other games people are playing. It's to make MAG the most attractive game possible and then make sure that we're playing off of our strengths, and make sure that we're giving people what they want.

Like most online shooters, MAG is exponentially more fun when you're playing with people that you know. With that in mind, why did you decide to separate the player base into three different factions? I understand why from a narrative standpoint. But were you not concerned about dividing up friends who may not have collaborated on which faction they were going to end up in?

Well, we tried to do everything that we can to give people the ability to find their friends. And there were a lot of discussions, especially early on in the project about the best way to keep people together. I agree 100 percent. Playing with your friends and playing with headsets – I mean, that's the unparalleled experience, right? So, we definitely went out of our way to try to figure out ways to do that.

Now, that said, I think there's some things to play in with the fiction, with the multiple factions and their control of contracts in the Shadow War. And going with multiple factions allows us really to spread our wings a little bit with different aesthetics for a faction and give people all the different kinds of fields that they're playing in. So, I think there are a lot of reasons to go with multiple factions and different flavors and let people find the one that they enjoy. And, hopefully, your friends enjoy it too or you guys going to at least agree on one that you most enjoy so that you can play together.

We have this awesome multiplayer platform that we can build upon and add new gametypes to.

But why make the decision, then, to tie one character to each PSN ID? I know you can create a new one once you get your first character to 60, but why make the decision to tie people down to their very first decisions?

Well, a lot of it was about -- and I think this really bore itself out in beta and live MAG as well – people are really passionate about their alliance to the faction, almost to a fault. I mean people are getting kind of cranky about other factions and really passionately latching on to their own. So, I think a lot of it was this idea that people tend to be far more passionate about identifying with one faction than having a single persona that might, for instance, show up on leaderboards.

Like, if someone has characters with multiple factions, then people would be like, "well, which one is your main character, and which faction are you really fighting for?"

Do you have any information at all on how many players use headsets or if not, do you have any kind of anecdotal experience? Do you think headsets are necessary for having a good experience in the game?

I don't have any hard numbers. Anecdotally, yeah, I'd say 50 percent maybe. It's like, in every squad I'm in, it tends to be about half. Kind of like, three to six people with mics, or something like that. We definitely put all the provisions in the game to be able to have a great time and function with 100 percent effectiveness without a headset.

With that said, I think it adds an advantage, definitely when you're using a headset and you can immediately call out "there's a guy under the stairs" or "there's a guy in the church tower." I think people are finding that, although the game's compelling and completely functional without a headset that, you know, the squads that have a headset, they're really more hardcore about it. Those guys are definitely able to communicate on a different level and probably have an advantage.

A lot of players have been complaining about the factions being somewhat unbalanced – S.V.E.R. in particular seems to be dominating all of the contracts every time I hop on the game. Do you think that has something with them being a stronger team? Or do you think there is some kind of balancing issue that has cropped up since launch?

It's actually kind of both. We've already released two or three patches post-launch. It's hard for me to remember because we always have a couple cooking in the oven here that we haven't released yet. We have two that are in the pipeline that'll be released in coming weeks – actually, my community manager will probably kill me for saying that, but we have a number of patches that are already baking.

So, even though I think we've done a good job balancing each faction's gear and weapons and maps, I think what we're seeing are slight imbalances, in the short term.

But I think it's both. It's that, actually, if you look at the faction numbers, by percentage, by distribution, they're really like within a percent or two of each other; kind of 33, 33, 33. They're really close, but there definitely is the perception that S.V.E.R. is more powerful and we spent a lot of time internally looking at that and we'll definitely be reacting to that. I think that the current belief is that there's a couple of S.V.E.R. maps that are slightly easier to defend and so they end up defending it more often, and then they end up winning slightly more often, and then they gain slightly more experience, and then they're slightly higher levels and it kind of cascades.

So, even though I think we've done a good job balancing each faction's gear and weapons and maps, I think what we're seeing are slight imbalances, in the short term. The early experience curve is where people are really jumping ahead – the earlier part of the experience curve is far more conservative then the later part of the curve. So, in other words, to get from 1 to 20 is probably the same amount of experiences to get to from 50 to 51. I think you're seeing people jump out five levels, and then have five extra experience points, and then it feeds on itself a little bit.

When there's the slight perception that there's something different, then people will want to go to that faction, right? And so will the most talented players, the most hardcore players who are watching the forums, it'll imbalance it slightly more. It's something we're definitely aware of, and we've already got a number of fixes in the pipe. We're definitely committed to making sure all the maps, factions and gear is perfectly balanced.

Do you foresee MAG being sort of a platform? You spent three years developing it, and built your own tools from the ground up to make it – do you see it being something that's going to be around for a while?

It's funny that you use that word, because that's exactly how I, and I think the production team envisions it: As a platform. It's like, yeah, we made a big investment, we had a lot of learning, we built a lot of tech, and we have this awesome multiplayer platform that we can build upon and add new gametypes to. The possibilities are endless for us, and in many ways, even though we just released the game, looking forward for us is super exciting, knowing what we can do with the engine we have today.

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