Interview: Cryptic Studios Head Talks New Neverwinter, Why MMOs Kind of Suck

Nathan Grayson

On the surface, assuming the role of, say, a space captain, spell-slinging badass, or superhero who sees lasers and breathes blizzards sounds like just about the greatest thing ever. And yet, there is a videogame genre that basically says, “Ok, let's take those fantasies, grind them up, and sprinkle them in a blender with heaping helpings of boring .” It's the MMORPG, and Cryptic Studios head Jack Emmert – a man who's been behind the scenes on games like City of Heroes, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online –  has had just about enough of it.

His solution? Neverwinter. Described as a “co-op RPG,” it aims to reach a hand inside that blender and pluck out the boredom while leaving behind the good stuff. And, we suppose, keep both its hands. Difficult, in this case, doesn't even begin to describe it.

So, how's it gonna work? Read all about it – straight from Emmert himself – after the break.

Maximum PC: So, to start off, how's Neverwinter work, exactly? Is it an MMO? Is it a smaller-scale type of thing? Some sort of middle ground between the two?

Jack Emmert: Imagine Borderlands. Imagine Borderlands with ongoing monthly content, where players can generate missions and quests for each other with a terrific toolset. And Cryptic will be supporting it just like we have all of our persistent games.

It's not an MMO in the sense that there aren't zones with hundreds-and-hundreds of people. You are not fighting for spawns. There's a very strong storyline throughout the game. So it's more of a story-based game closer to things like Dragon Age or Oblivion, which we really try to follow.

If it's not quite an MMO, then why require players to play on your persistent servers and things like that? Why not just let them run their own games? What sort of benefits will players see from this system?

Because playing with other people is just fun. It's really that simple. In that, it shares what you'd find in a common MMO. The difference is, the zone is for a few score people; it's not for hundreds of people. You won't be getting missions to kill ten orcs or collect five whatevers. It's very much a story-based RPG.

So this isn't just some half-baked quest text that everyone will mash past in their frenzied rush to collect more vulture gizzards? Are we looking at actual well-developed characters, dialog trees, and the like?

Yep! I've been playing it today! [Laughs]. Most certainly. Dialog trees, voice-acting, cut-scenes – all of the things that you would expect in a traditional RPG.

How's the mission and quest line creation fit into that? Can players expand on existing plot lines within the game? Are the tools similar to those seen in the Neverwinter Nights games from BioWare and Obsidian?

Certainly, the main storyline would be like that. However, the difference would be that players can sort of find various hooks throughout our game to connect their user-generated content. They don't need to, but that's an option.

Your first MMO, City of Heroes – which you've now passed off to NCSoft – has also given its super-powered citizens a mission-creation system. Is there a link between the two? Were you inspired by the new direction your old game took?

What had happened was, we had been discussing user-generated content prior to selling-off City of Heroes. The Cryptic employees that went with City of Heroes really had that DNA. Because we'd been talking about it and designing another product, which, I think – looking back – we codenamed “Dungeon Master” internally.

So we'd been talking and thinking a lot about user-generated content, because it'd been part of what we thought the future would be. So I think they took it and ran with it and did the great Mission Architect system.

How'd the whole Neverwinter deal come about? Did Cryptic delve through dungeons of red tape because it so badly wanted the license? Or did the franchise – which the industry's sort of played hot potato with over the years – fall right into your lap?

Well, we got bought by Atari, so by that extension, it fell into our lap. We had, internally, a fantasy MMO with user-generated content tools [already in development]. So it made sense when we were acquired to step back and say, “Why don't we do the number-one game associated with user-created content in gaming?” – and that's Neverwinter.

So you're building the game – as well as the tools to let players build even more. Meanwhile, author R.A. Salvatore is writing a three-book series tie-in, leaving only people who are both illiterate and handless unable to experience your story. How much has his work influenced yours? Is there any pressure to launch alongside his books?

A lot of his books trace events leading up to the game. And so, from that standpoint, we are 100 percent inspired by what he's done, because it acts as the background to everything that we're doing. And lots of characters from Salvatore's trilogy are gonna be appearing in our setting.

But as for pressure, I haven't really felt any. Wizards of The Coast is great. We get on the phone with them at least once a week, and there's a constant back-and-forth. It's a pretty open book in both directions. They've been great at taking ideas we've come up with and vice-versa. So it's been really terrific. In fact, I worked on Star Trek Online and with Marvel. I've never really had a bad relationship with a licensor.

How strictly are you adhering to Dungeons and Dragons rulesets with Neverwinter? Are there dice rolls? Pages upon pages of stats? Do certain abilities only activate if our fingers are stained with Cheeto grease?

The dice-rolling isn't really apparent whatsoever. It's certainly faster-paced than what the pen-and-paper game would be. We're trying to use DnD Fourth Edition as the inspiration for the mechanic, but not really the foundation. So we're not really basing everything off their mechanics. We're taking a look at how we can translate them into a fun computer game.

In an earlier interview, you talked about how Cryptic is trying to shy away from a “hundreds of hours of mediocre content” philosophy. Do you think that's a big problem for MMOs in general? Do you think MMOs in general are guilty of padding out their length without adding anything truly worthwhile?

Well yeah, it's the very definition of an MMO. It's kind of hard to have 100 or 200 hours of meaningful content. You know, you play, say, BioShock, and you get it done in 10-12 hours, and it's terrific. But BioShock probably cost tens of millions of dollars. Imagine creating BioShock for 100 or 200 hours. You'd need a budget of $200 million. So it's simply not economically feasible. That's simply the reality: you can't make 200 hours of amazing, story-driven content. You could do it, but you'd need awfully deep pockets.

So what are your thoughts on games like BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic, which aim to do exactly that?

I haven't played it. I only know the premise. They have pretty deep pockets, and they're spending a lot of money. I'm guessing $100 million or more. So when you spend that amount of money, it's entirely possible to create that kind of experience. So BioWare can do it. Blizzard can do it. But that's because they can put $100 million into a game. Most developers can't.

With your recent change in design philosophy away from hundreds of hours of mediocre content, is Cryptic closing the book on the MMO chapter of its life? Is Cryptic done developing MMOs?

I think we'd do a new MMO if it made sense. But right now, it's definitely a change of pace. Technology isn't really the issue. It's whether we can design something and then execute it. That's really a challenge, and it's what we're trying to do.

For a while, Champions Online was slated to make the jump to consoles, but then you put the kibosh on that earlier this year. Why?

The game had released on the PC, and we still weren't sure when we were gonna be able to get it on the Xbox 360. We were still working through certification requirements and whatnot. And after a while, it was just, “Well, we've already launched the game and we're moving on to Star Trek. Let's just focus on that.” So we decided to put all our energy into PC and make the best games there. That was our decision.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a console port of an MMO's bitten the dust because Microsoft's little hurdles turned out to be colossal walls. Are MMOs on consoles even feasible with the business model as it is now? Or is there just too much red tape?

I'm sad that there aren't MMOs on the 360. I'm sad there aren't more on the PS3. But I don't know. I don't know why there aren't MMOs on those platforms.

Do you think they're shooting themselves in the foot in that respect? Do you think console-makers are missing out on a big opportunity by keeping MMOs off their platforms?

I think they're missing out on an opportunity, but from Microsoft's point of view, MMOs come with lots of headaches. Like billing. Who'd be billing? Would it be Microsoft or the MMO company? Or how about patches? Microsoft has its certification process, and that usually takes a certain amount of time. Well, on an MMO, sometimes they have to run a hotfix within 24 hours. So that's really hard to do with Microsoft. You've got dozens and dozens and dozens of games on Xbox Live – let alone all the very complicated certifications. So now you're talking about having to stop everything, just so you can look at one game's content. It's that kind of stuff. That'd be difficult.

So maybe, they're missing out on an opportunity. But they're also avoiding a big headache.

How are Champions Online and Star Trek Online doing these days? Are they both doing well in terms of subscriber numbers? What are your plans for supporting them in the future?

The biggest thing about both games is that the subscriptions are pretty damn stable. I can't really divulge any subscription numbers. And we've got some exciting stuff coming up for Champions to announce. You know, with Star Trek, we just started a new thing called “Weekly Episode.” It's like the television show – you know, there are new episodes once per week. And you get in and you play it, and we're giving rewards to you whether you're one of the people who played earlier or not. For Star Trek, we've got lots of plans to continue improving the game and getting feedback.

Lately, everyone's been kicking subscription fees to the curb and adopting free-to-play business models. Could we see something similar with Champions or Star Trek?

Sure, sure. You've gotta take any opportunity to maximize the number of people who can enjoy your game.

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