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Massively Exclusive: Jack Emmert speaks (about Neverwinter and a whole bunch of other stuff)

Jef Reahard

It seems everyone's got an opinion about the new Neverwinter online RPG recently announced by Cryptic. Whether you're a fan of the venerable Dungeons and Dragons franchise, a veteran of the classic single- and multi-player Neverwinter Nights titles, or just a fan of online games in general, you'll want to check out Massively's exclusive interview with Cryptic Studios COO Jack Emmert.

Our own Sera Brennan sat down to quiz the Cryptic mastermind about everything from the new title, to Cryptic's evolving business model, to some candid insights into the making of both Champions Online and Star Trek Online.

Roll your d20 and advance past the cut for more.

map of Faerun
Massively: We weren't expecting Neverwinter to be a cooperative RPG; we were expecting another MMO from you guys -- so why the sudden departure?

Jack Emmert: First of all, there's the IP itself. Neverwinter originally was more of a cooperative RPG, although it has an MMO accent, where players could set up their own servers and so forth. Nevertheless, predominantly, it was smaller groups of people. From our point of view, we just had to take a look at ourselves and kind of change the way we were doing things, and with the tools and the resources with our previous MMOs, we knew that Neverwinter had to be the highest possible quality, and we had to improve, dramatically, everything that we did. The best way to do that was to sort of change the style of gameplay so that the focus wasn't on hundreds of hours of mediocre (some would say even worse than mediocre) content, but instead create a rich story-driven multiplayer game. We want to make a great game -- the original Neverwinter is a true classic, and it's really important to hold to that standard.

You've described the game as not an MMO but a cooperative RPG.

(laughs) An OMG.

Right, an OMG, the online multiplayer game, yes. We also have these open spaces, public space, and privatized spaces. They aren't instances, and it's not an open world, and I'm trying to wrap my head around this, could you explain it a bit more?

We'll have worlds that are certainly cooperative. How many players will be in a particular area will be a little bit up in the air. There will be, for lack of a better word, dungeons, that you and your teammates go in, that will just be for you and your teammates, so more like a traditional instance would be in an MMO. Players will have lots of controls over whether something's public or private and so forth, and we're working on those various options now. As we go into beta and get feedback from people actually using the tools, we'll add more, but the idea of a large zone with hundreds of players, that isn't what Neverwinter is, no.

An example would be like Phantasy Star Online, perhaps, where players can meet up and play in these open spaces but move into privatized areas?

Yeah, that's not a bad analogy.

OK, I was just wondering how much action there is in the open spaces.

There is definitely some action; I would say the instances probably hold more.

So this runs like a standard single-player RPG, with a storyline.

Yep, a couple different storylines.

So how many are planned right now?

That depends on how you define a story. There's lots of different minor story elements; there's a major storyline going through the entire game; then there's lots of other side ones. And of course the game isn't done yet, so we may add or subtract from whatever our plan is, but a main story thread that stretches across each of the territories and areas that a player can cover, and then lots of things coming off of that.

I'm not going to be one of those developers who starts bitching about the reviewers or bitching about the customers. That's stupid. We've got to change and this is what we've got to do to change.

With and Steam out there, will we have to be online to play Neverwinter?

Yes, you will have to connect to our servers. Just like an MMO, that is a similarity.

So there's no offline play?

There is no offline play.

What type of business model are you going to use with this?

We haven't announced that yet -- we've got some kooky plans that I think people will like.

This will probably be something other than a box/point-of-retail sale model?

We're exploring a lot of different things. One thing that will certainly be true is that we'll want to keep the game alive and support it as a persistent... Just like everything we've ever done, Cryptic has always supported it after the fact with ongoing content and features. How that content is delivered, or given, or purchased, or bought, or traded, we haven't announced yet. (laughs) Don't worry, we're taking a look at what the market is, what type of company we want to be and what type of games we want to make. That's something that we'll announce eventually, but right now the focus is just on, internally, getting the game as good as it can possibly be.

The Forge, the toolset, how extensive is that going to be for players?

What we've done is take versions of our own tools and skin them, simplify them, and make it possible for players to create things like we do every day. Naturally that means they can be extremely complex, and one of the things we're looking at now is ways of organizing the tools so that people can get in and do it without needing extensive knowledge of 3-D tools. Fans of the original Neverwinter I don't think will be disappointed, and my personal goal is to include a group of people, like myself, who just want to get in and make simple adventures without having to tackle a large amount of complexity. It's easy to make complex tools.

Can the Forge tools work on the fly, like the old Aurora engine where there's a DM behind the scenes working things?

That's an interesting extension of the toolset. We've talked about it, but I'm not sure whether that will make it in or not.

I would love to run a Fourth Edition campaign through the toolset.

Yeah, to be an active dungeon master, to be present while your players are going through, yeah.

That's what all us nerds want, right?

(laughs) Sure.

Along those lines, you chose Fourth Edition. There's a big nerd fight over Fourth versus 3.5. Did you find Fourth to be a good choice for doing Neverwinter so far?

Yeah, it's been a remarkably easy transition, because of the way that Fourth has been done. It's very tactile; a lot of it is done with miniatures in mind, the way you set things up and so forth, they've already kind of thought about a 3-D world and what it's like positioning, where players are, how they move. That goes hand in hand with a computer game, so from that perspective it has been very straightforward. The way they've organized everything, back from the days when I played, it was a very chaotic organization of abilities and monsters and how things behave. They've made things far more systemic, which is better for us.

Everyone jokes that Fourth Edition is like an MMO for your tabletop.

That is something that's been bandied about. There's elements that they've adapted. The mechanics for taunting and holding aggro, within the game itself, that are inspired or seem to be inspired from computer games, if not MMOs, but I think a lot of it is when you focus in on a 3-D world, when you talk about miniatures and you're systemizing things like a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, a cleric, you're inevitably going to end up with MMO game mechanics, because that's what MMOs did. They took a look at the fantasy tropes and systemized them.

You mentioned the classes. You chose five to start with, almost like the traditional D&D party. Did you have that in mind, choosing those classics?

We wanted to take a look at what Fourth Edition has, but also what were the most recognizable character classes for people who played First, Second, or Third edition, that they could immediately snap their eyes to. There are lots of other Fourth Edition classes which are dramatically different from what you might expect. When I played, the ranger and the paladin were a big deal, obviously they're one among many now, the warlord and sorcerer and so forth in Fourth Edition. The priority is to fill out the character classes with the most recognizable ones for the most people, and then we'll continue that over time.

So you'll continue with more classes over time, eventually?

More content, more classes, everything.

Star Trek OnlineOne thing I've noticed so far, in reading your interview with Gamespot and reading about the game, [is that] it seems to be very focused. We have five classes, the heroic level set, and Neverwinter which is a huge city and you can do a lot with that. Is Cryptic going for a light content approach, like a lot of base content to start with, enough for a game, but light, and then looking to expand on it from there?

I'd say what we're trying to do, and having learned from Star Trek Online and Champions, let me tell you my philosophy before STO and CO. Coming out of City of Heroes we launched to great acclaim, we got a lot of publicity, everybody loved it, but we didn't have crafting and we didn't have PvP. All there was to do was fight. Over the years everybody pinged us on this. We added PvP and didn't really gain any subscribers. We added crafting and we gained roughly ten thousand subscribers for three months and then it went back down. So in the grand scheme of things, what I learned is, if you didn't have a feature at launch, you might as well never have it. Whatever you're going to have at launch defines you as a game.

Coming into the launch of STO and Champions, I made sure we had something for everyone. Here was the problem. By following that philosophy, nothing was polished. We ended up having lots of half-done features in some quarters. What I forgot was, inasmuch as a consumer or a player, if it isn't there at launch it might as well not be there, well if it's in half-done or half-done well, that's what you get remembered for. The fact that STO and Champions have gotten better since their launch, we've added content, we've fixed bugs, we've responded to players, all that stuff isn't as important or as forceful as that initial interaction with the game. So we have a very different mindset here. Right now, whatever we do, it's got to be the best possible quality we can. One of the ways of doing that is to focus your content. Make sure you understand what we're making. What is the game going to be and what isn't the game going to be? You're seeing that in the interviews. Here are the classes, here's where the game's going to be set, so that the stories, the quest, everything is entirely focused. We know what we're trying to make; we're not trying to make something for everybody.

That's a very interesting approach; it resonates a lot more. That bad stigma attaches, and it's really harsh and it sticks and never lets go. That's something that we've been looking at as a staff recently, why does that stigma attach even though MMOs change over time. There's a good question. Do you think Cryptic has evolved and how are you trying to throw off that negative stigma?

Well, I'm doing these interviews (laughs). We've changed our entire development strategy. We're no longer just doing MMOs but online multiplayer games. In the future we might do traditional MMOs, but it depends on the circumstances. We're going to do online games -- they'll probably be RPGs; they're going to be true to their genres. That's very important to me. All the game mechanics, everything revolves around it, and they are going to be focused. We are going to make sure that we carve out, in the time we have, to make the best possible content. Not the most, which is oftentimes what we did in the past, and one of the ways to make sure we're doing well, is we're having a new, basically every few months we have a vertical slice.

[Pauses] Here's what we used to do. In order to maximize the ability and efficiency, we would schedule all our features in a waterfall fashion. At any given time, we'd say, test one element of ground combat in STO and say "yeah this is pretty fun," but we wouldn't actually have a chance to assess the whole package until really late in the game, practically before launch. Everything would magically come together. This worked very well with City of Heroes and City of Villains -- we made City of Heroes in about a year and a half, City of Villains in nine months. We made Champions in two years and STO in a year and a half, so we're an incredibly efficient studio, you obviously know -- there's no one in the industry that's as prolific as we are, it's not even close.

Champions OnlineWe've always said you guys were super-fast.

But super-fast doesn't mean super-good. And that's what the reviews said, that's what the players said. The type of game that we made before World of Warcraft... City of Heroes was great for its day, but we can't just keep repeating the same methodology over and over -- we've got to make stuff that's great. These vertical slices, every element of the game is supposed to be in and functioning and working and the content is supposed to be shippable. So we sit and play it and do reviews and then we bring in a mock reviewer, someone who has no interaction with development, who reviews the game for what it is. This way we know we're trending in the right direction. We know we're getting better and better. The ultimate goal is to get a score of 90 or above because we want to make great products. I'm not going to say where we're at with Neverwinter but I'm happy with the trajectory because it keeps getting better and better. It's a pain in the ass though, these vertical slices, there's a reason why we did it the other way previously because it was more efficient. Having to get every little thing in and working is diffcult, but I think there's a huge improvement going on.

It's rare to hear waterfall these days. We hear dynamic development, SCRUM, we haven't heard waterfall in a long time.

We don't use that internal terminology; it's just a short-hand way of describing it. To be honest, I've been in charge of development for all these games, it's really been my fault because I assumed that what we did with City of Heroes and City of Villains was a model we could keep repeating ad infinitum. With Champions and STO, we did the same everything, and the review scores were dramatically smaller. (laughs) Both Champions and STO are far better than City of Heroes was at launch, and it's a different market now, we have to adjust. I'm not going to be one of those developers who starts bitching about the reviewers or bitching about the customers. That's stupid. We've got to change and this is what we've got to do to change.

You're working from R.A. Salvatore's upcoming novels. How has it been working in something that's coming out and tying your game into that?

It actually makes the game easier to develop in many respects. We have something to grab onto. When you're not working with an IP, the world is full of so many possibilities that the team can't help but come up with a thousand different ideas. When you're working with an IP or storyline like Salvatore's, there's no discussions like that, you know what you need to make. When someone comes up with an idea it either fits or it doesn't, and it's much easier to focus on making that as opposed to thinking about all the possibilities, if that makes sense.

Yeah it does make sense. I've been making a small game on my own and I understand that; there's so much to do and so many things to look at.

When you've got a great writer like Salvatore saying, "Yeah here's the books I'm going to do," we can say, "Got it, I don't need to think of the background for XYZ." It's a great foundation and starting place.

And now the final question that I love asking developers: what is the favorite part of your game? That part that sticks out to you, resonates in your mind, and makes you really want to play this game?

Definitely the combat. It's more tactical and interesting than we've done in awhile. Champions is very arcane. I like STO combat a lot; it's similar to that, a little bit thoughtful -- position is important but it's deeper than that. I'm looking at the condition of my players. If you play D&D Fourth Edition, you'll see lots of powers and abilities that are queued off of circumstances, when I'm stunned or bloodied, when I'm this or that. I have to pay attention to what I'm doing and what my teammates are doing. It's refreshing; it's an old-school RPG. It's not turn-based but it reminds me of that a lot.

It's tactical, you're making decisions and going from there. When you started describing the system in your game, it sounded like Fourth Edition -- it sounded great. Using the encounter powers once per encounter and so forth.

Exactly. I really like that. Having to sit down with a past character and I'll have to reacquaint myself with the build. You have to know your powers and it's not just min-maxing. I like all that; it's a fun, challenging experience.

Thanks for your time today.

Sure, sure, anytime.

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