I saw four more presentations yesterday – Eve’s battle with RMT’s, Zynga and player behavoir, Blizzard’s design philosophies, and R.A. Salvatore’s talk about building a world that people can immerse themselves in.
I’m going to skip to the last speech, because out of all the talks I’ve seen, Salvatore’s speech resonated the most with me, and yet it also raised more questions than the others. I’ll add more notes about the others later today in another entry.
“From Fantasy to Franchise: How to Build a Universe Worthy of Devotion,” by R.A. Salvatore of 38 Studios.
First off, Salvatore proved his immense talent as a storyteller during the presentation, by recounting his adventures in Everquest. I found myself nodding and laughing often at his stories, because I did the exact same things, and he’s absolutely right about how amazing it felt to be in the world of Norrath. We really were the heroes in EQ, and yes, we really were the goats as well, and it was refreshing to have a game that allowed you to do both. I got excited at the thought that what he was striving for with Copernicus was a world with that same pull, that same ability to create genuine emotions out of simple gameplay.
But I’m also skeptical, because I’ve found myself often questioning my sanity in the years that have followed from my time in Everquest. Why did I play a game that had me spend weeks, sitting in one spot in Solusek B, staring at a point, waiting for a mob to spawn. Why did I put up with corpse recoveries in Fear that would sometimes take days, only to lead to failure and a poofed corpse. Even more importantly, when I started in EQ, I was by myself. Today, I’d be playing with an established network of gaming friends that goes back 10 years. Would we really want to start the game fractured and scattered all over the world, unable to talk to or reach each other? And I keep insisting to myself that a game like Everquest could never survive today, because players now have other MMOs to turn to in their moments of hair-ripping frustration, so it’s easier to just say “screw it,” and cancel.
So I’m extremely curious to see what happens with Copernicus. Salvatore made it very clear that his personal preferences for gameplay did not reflect at all upon what they were doing. He did, however, share some insight into how his storytelling approach factored into the upcoming project.
Salvatore talked about his principles in creating a world, and how that is reflected as well in his online gaming experiences. The point he stressed was that when you create a world, you’re asking people to suspend their disbelief. But if you create a world that makes sense, and reduces the need to make assumptions, the more a person will feel immersed in the world. As a side note, he added that music and art play a large role in creating a world worthy of devotion. The idea of “idealized reality” came to mind – it’s an art style that the 38 Studios team has discussed before, which describes their notion of artwork that has a familiar fantasy feel, but will be unique to Copernicus. WoW’s artwork, or even the classic Disney art style, are good examples of that.
He then explained how he composed a 10,000 year history of the world of project Copernicus. The idea was that there would always be consistency in their world, no matter who was working on the development team and when they joined. And he pointed to Big Huge Games as an example. When 38 Studios purchased them, they decided to have Big Huge Games work on a single player game, set in the same world as Copernicus. Right away, they could send over the 10k timeline, get the team up to speed, and have them painting on the same canvas. As a result, project Mercury was born, and they will launch their single player game first, which should help attract interest in the MMO to follow.
As a taste of what they have planned at 38 Studios with Copernicus, Salvatore gave us a bit of information about part of the death mechanic in the game. MMO players are accustomed to dying and reviving, but Salvatore felt that the whole concept of returning to life should make sense and fit in the larger scope of the world. So he created the idea of a “well of souls,” which, if you die, brings you back to life if you meet the conditions to be able to use them. What’s interesting is that he added that these wells are controlled by one race in the world, which raises the question of what are the implications of that mechanic in the world. How does that affect the power structure (kings, religions, territorial struggles among the races). He compared it to the Cold War – what if these wells were in the U.S. and in the USSR, and what if a 3rd party had complete control over them? How would that affect aggressions between the two sides? It’s an interesting concept, and I am eager to see how it translates to actual gameplay once Copernicus goes live.
His enthusiasm in the project, and his passion for games, really struck a cord with me. But after hearing lecture after lecture discuss the need for data-driven design decisions, I can’t help but ask myself, which is right? Does 38 Studios have a Blizzard version of a “strike team,” made up of people who are not connected with the design process, and can give impartial gameplay feedback? Are they weighing design decisions around any logging and data they have started collecting (Azeroth Advisor comes to mind here). We’ve seen so many MMO’s lately, with lots creative talent and a “vision” that end up coming up far short of the mark. We blog and post about how they’re simply “not finished,” or “too buggy,” but what if people left them simply because it just wasn’t their cup of tea. What happens when the design ideals you hold so dearly do not fit the data? Which should drive your decisions? If you abandon your ideals, what are you making? What are you left with?
In an age of numbers, it’s a big diceroll to emphasize artistic talent (storytelling, artwork, music). 38 Studios has definitely set the bar high – this is a game that is taking itself seriously. As a result, I think success will depend a lot more on whether the players share the same taste in gaming with those who created it. If it works, it will destroy the current trend of mmo development. Can’t wait to see what happens, but I’m definitely rooting for Copernicus.