Nine years after the formation of the company, Carbine Studios is finally adding the finishing touches to its debut release, a madcap sci-fi MMO known as WildStar. The game’s extraordinarily long gestation again highlights the high stakes involved in bringing a large scale MMO to market. In this case the risks are ameliorated somewhat by the all-star line-up of talent at the studio. Carbine staffers have contributed to the likes of World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Free Realms. On the business side of things, Carbine is backed by South Korean parent company NCSoft, the MMO giant responsible for Guild Wars, Lineage and City of Heroes.
WildStar challenges players to explore the mysterious world of Nexus, conquer all manner of alien life, amass fabulous wealth and customise gargantuan fortifications. We recently had the chance to chat with a couple of the key figures behind the game, creative director Chad Moore and executive producer Jeremy Gaffney. Moore and Gaffney were kind enough to take us through some of the big creative decisions made during the development of the game. Read on for an insight into WildStar’s underlying themes, its careful blend of humour and pathos, its daring new manual combat system and much more.
Erin Marcon: One of the narrative foundations of WildStar seems to be the disappearance of the ancient Eldan race. The lost race concept has been fertile ground for creators across a variety of media. Why do you think the idea has proven so enduring and how will your take differ from the likes of Halo and Mass Effect?
…there is something compelling about the idea of an entire race that disappears under mysterious circumstances. – Moore
Chad Moore: I think the general idea is enduring because one wants to have some exploration and mystery in the universe; if the universe is less advanced than your protagonist races, presumably one is dominant (which doesn’t make for an interesting story). If the universe is more advanced, if one’s races are completely dominated, that might be interesting but falls more into the “alien invasion” subcategory rather than one of exploration.
Even outside of science fiction, there is something compelling about the idea of an entire race that disappears under mysterious circumstances. In our own history, stories about the lost city of Atlantis or the decline of the Mayan civilization have resonated with us for centuries. I think this is because we see reflections of ourselves in these stories, and wonder whether or not these cataclysmic events might just happen to us as well. There is also a visceral kind of pleasure in guessing what might have happened to these races, especially when the circumstances surrounding their disappearance are opaque and mysterious.
In terms of its specific application in WildStar: one of the strongest aspects of our lore is that everything centres around the Eldan. Whether it’s the history of our races, the formation of our factions, or the indigenous races that players will encounter once they arrive – all of them are centrally tied to the Eldan. Secondly, almost all of our content is designed in some way to answer the question “What happened to the Eldan and what exactly were they doing on planet Nexus?” For example, you might be trying to contain an outbreak of the Ravenous in Celestion, but the outbreak is happening in an ancient Osun ruin, where you might find a number of datacubes about the Osun (one of the Eldan’s creations) and what might have led to their civilization being destroyed. Of course, we also have content that has been designed to directly answer that question – such as the Drusera instances and the post-launch World Story instances – and for players that really like to delve into the story, I think that these will be awesome experiences that are rarely available in open-world MMOs.
The point is, although we have many different stories that we’re telling in the game, at some level they are tied into the mystery of planet Nexus and what took place there long ago. This is not an existing IP with years of different games and stories that somehow need to be reconciled. We have been able to focus on our efforts on creating a world that is uniquely designed to tell the story of WildStar.
For me, our take on the basic theme is pretty unique – both because of the intertwined backstories of the factions and the past influence of the Eldan, and the fact that rather than being “post apocalypse” it’s more a “mid apocalypse” take – the planet is still going haywire as the abandoned experiments of the Eldan go catastrophically wrong, with danger and reward abounding in equal parts.
You’re asking players to join one of two factions, the ruthless Dominion or the rebellious Exiles. Some recent MMOs have revived the three faction concept, perhaps in an attempt to offer a slightly more nuanced selection of characters. Why was the adoption of two factions the right decision for WildStar?
Jeremy Gaffney: I’ll answer this from a game system perspective – there is a lot of benefit for PVP from a “three faction” system, as Dark Age of Camelot proved. However, there’s also the problem that you’re having to make three times as much levelling content, which requires a whole ‘nother sets of costs and benefits to ensue. In general, three-faction games have had to sacrifice levelling or end-game PVE depth for PVP strength, which is a valid choice but not a trivial one. We’ve tried to move that PVP depth into the user-created-fortress system of Warplots instead, while still having massive content depth for the factions both while levelling and at end game.
In most things, we adhere to the philosophy that simpler is better. From a story standpoint, in terms of the conflict that drives the game, I think that it is easier to start with two sides that generally have irreconcilable differences. Choose what most resonates with you as a player, and pledge your allegiance. Although I would agree that the three-faction concept can be more nuanced in terms of gameplay and balance mechanics, I personally think that it can make stories more complex and difficult to tell. When you are a new IP like we are, I think it is important that the conflict is as clear and compelling as possible, and having two sides makes that easier.
That being said, I also think that from both story and gameplay standpoints, adding a third faction would be very interesting down the road.
In an era of cut and paste combat systems, you’ve decided to take some risks. For one, you’re requiring all classes to employ a new form of manual targeting. This sounds like it could be a make-or-break feature for some players. Tell us a little about how it works.
Jeremy Gaffney: Well, we view combat as basically being a set of puzzles one has to solve – and we want to give the user the tools to recognize the different challenges in each fight, to react to each set of challenges in a hopefully interesting and skill based way, and then to reward you for successfully overcoming each new combat.
…we view combat as basically being a set of puzzles one has to solve – and we want to give the user the tools to recognize the different challenges in each fight… – Gaffney
So telegraphs are key to that – basically directed area-of-effect attacks by you and your adversaries, which show up on the ground in combat. This means you have to aim your attacks by hand, and gives you the freedom to react appropriately to these attacks as well. It also turns out somewhat emergently that as combats get more complex, you can be faced with some really insane challenges because the inherent clarity of the telegraphs means that we can give you a lot more to react to in real time, and as designers the puzzle set is wide open because no one has deeply explored this kind of combat.
As an example, in one of the highest level raids, you’re in the mind of a computer – it starts throwing telegraphs at you like an extending set of cubes. When the cubes hit a player, the trail behind the cubes grows, and you realize you’re in a 3D version of Snake (or Tron). It starts throwing other elements at you, and you realize it’s Tetris pieces raining down – the computer has decided to defeat you effectively with 80’s arcade references. We’re doing a raids video that will show all sorts of crazy extremes of the systems – we think it’ll blow peoples’ minds.
WildStar provides plenty of scope for PVP encounters, with support for clashes involving up to 20 players. This would be enough to satisfy some, but you actually have slightly grander ambitions, and not just in terms of player count. How does the Warplot system differ from typical PVP combat?
Jeremy Gaffney: The 40v40 Warplot system combines sheer havoc with coordinated large-scale group PVP with fortress building. You basically build about half of the battleground on which you fight, with offensive and defensive capabilities up to and including the ability to capture raid and veteran dungeon bosses and pin ‘em down on your plot to help defend your fortress.
All and all, it’s pretty nuts, truth be told. We try to mix the right level of strategic objectives, tactical choice, and long-term building up and organisation of your death fortress together.
The promotional material for WildStar has often been playful, perhaps even a little cheeky. Do you consider comedy to be one of the game’s central components? Is the humour limited to the setting and characters or does this madcap sensibility bleed into some of WildStar’s mechanics as well?
Jeremy Gaffney: It’s really a bit everywhere – there are a few tones we hit: DevSpeaks: This is a developer, usually producer Stephan Frost, talking to gamers directly about some in-game feature or philosophy. Usually with up-to-date MMO jargon and in-jokes thrown in. Flicks: This is an in-game character describing a feature, faction, new class, or lore from an in-game perspective. It’s humorous in a way similar to a lot of quests in the game itself. Lore: We actually tell a pretty serious story; the disappearance of the Eldan and the subsequent in-progress disruption to the planet doesn’t have a lot of tongue-in-cheek elements. Subfactions: But some of the players (protostar, Chua, etc.) are pretty amusing in their own right, and can break up the seriousness.
All in all, there’s a mix throughout the game – you tend to play these games for hundreds of hours, and in our opinion if it were all cheeky, it’d get old – the same really as if it were hundreds of hours of unrelenting grim humorlessness. So there’s a mix there throughout.
With the open beta now consigned to history, we’re now just two weeks away from WildStar’s official launch. Our thanks to Moore and Gaffney for participating in this discussion.