Creating a stable, successful MMO is a challenging task, as any number of high profile launches in the past couple of years will testify to.
One licensed title currently in development is Stargate Worlds, and here Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment's studio manager, Dan Elggren, explains some of the team's views on MMO theory.
Q: How's development on the game coming along?
Dan Elggren: It's pretty good. We've been inviting beta users on a regular basis, trying to get our stress testing up, to test the servers, the game and all that stuff, and then onto closed beta for more gameplay feedback.
Q: How are you approaching the rollout of the game between the US and Europe?
Dan Elggren: Well, the Stargate brand I think is very strong in Europe - in terms of localisation we're trying a couple of different languages for rollout. For us, working in the UK is fairly easy, and the servers - and the pings for those servers - should be pretty powerful, and they'll be ultimately able to service all the different European countries.
Q: There are huge benefits to working with a big license like Stargate, but it can be a double edged sword sometimes as well - what's it been like working with the licensor on this project?
Dan Elggren: MGM and the boys up in Vancouver have actually been very powerful to work with. I've worked with a bunch of different licensees in the past on different products, and they're usually more of a hindrance on the game process than a benefit.
But here they've actually been a huge benefit, because they'll give us the IP, the strength, and we were just able to mould it into a game and ultimately make a great game first and secondary to that is adding Stargate on top.
From their perspective, they're looking at the new stories, the new worlds that we're building and realising they can put that back into their future movies or TV shows, and it just expands that whole IP into something more powerful.
So when the game comes out we want it to be another leg of the table for the Stargate franchise, to really hold it up and make it stronger. That's really where they've really looked at it as well - Brad Wright and Robert Cooper have been very supportive, their comments and feedback has been a positive, open, collaborative effort.
Q: We've seen a few big film licenses tackle the MMO space in the past few years, with varying degrees of success - what sort of lessons have you learned from them?
Dan Elggren: Well, you look at the MMO industry as a whole and you see a lot of the World of Warcraft clones out there. WoW's a great product and they've been very successful, but there's only so much of that you can copy before people really want to have the same experience, just with a different skin on it.
So as we look at the new generation of MMOs coming out this year, Age of Conan was a next step, a sort of evolution, in the gameplay process in how they had the second-by-second feedback with the different attack points. That was really cool.
We've all along been looking at the combat - for one, we're sci-fi, so that's a differentiating feature. But then we also have ranged combat - it changes the whole dynamic of the combat system, and you can't really have a system where you trade shots over each other's heads until somebody dies... we have more of a dynamic universe, so that when I go up and shoot a group of guys, that group is going to scatter and they're all going to start attacking.
So it's really that more dynamic AI system that we have in there - and they're also using cover within the world, behind objects, crates, anything they see that they can utilise. But you also get benefit from being in cover, and just having that cover dynamic helps the battlefield change, maybe every time you go into that same area, because they'll look at different tactics for how to attack that.
We originally designed it for a one-on-many type of situation, but now we've been playing it a lot and getting feedback, people would just come in a group up - and then from that you'd have someone pull aggro and flank, and then the mobs start moving in a different situation.
So going back to the question, what is it that people are looking for? I think that evolution in combat, and how it plays and feels, is more engaging. Where you get a lot of people that play console games, or PC first-person shooters, there's a faster pace in how the game gives you feedback.
Q: How are you approaching the levelling aspect, or character development - how do you take people through the game?
Dan Elggren: It's an interesting dynamic with stories in MMOs. There are some people that really love them and want to read pages of text, and there are other who just want to hang out with their buddies and do things.
With Stargate we're going to have a strong story. The way that we've embedded that in the universe is one of the ways that we pull people through the game, because it's one thing to go in and play as a Jaffa, but it's another thing to go in and play as an Asgard. They're two different characters, and they're going to have two different ways of looking at and interacting with the universe.
An interesting dynamic that we're playing around with, that's having people go through and be able to play alts and play different pieces of the storyline, because as they play those different pieces there's that carrot - so if somebody levels up, they get a new carrot, or if they play a new character they get a new carrot. It's all the different ways of getting the carrots that we want people to explore.
Q: How are you approaching the concept of the endgame in Stargate, in order to keep people engaged for long periods of time?
Dan Elggren: The endgame has always been a big question for us, in terms of how we'd handle that. World of Warcraft, with those 40-man raids, you're game has essentially completely changed, and you're no longer playing the game that you've been training for the last 60 levels - you're playing a new game.
For some people that was very attractive, and for others it just turned them off. So we've played around with different dynamics. We're still going to be focusing on smaller raids that people go in as a group of 4-6 people, and then we'll grow into larger raids at some point - but to start with really just catering to what we've been teaching people the entire time they've been playing the game.
At the same time, as I was talking about the story, we want to be able to have endgame levelling, so once you get to what our level cap is now - which is 50 - we're going to be releasing new content every 6-8 weeks. So that's new storyline elements, new pieces of the universe in there, but also add new abilities, new armour, and one or two levels.
So we're hoping that shortly after launch, 6-8 weeks, we're going to release that content and people will go from 50 to 52, and then 52 to 54 - and keep doing that until we get to an expansion pack and then we take it a higher level after that.
Q: That's a really ambitious thing to try and do...
Dan Elggren: You're right, it is very ambitious, but for me - as studio head - in order for us to be successful, that content complete date is powerful, because then I can have part of my team going through and polishing the game, while I can break off another piece of the team to focus on post-live content. I want them developing that content... it essentially needs to be in the can by the time the game is out.
So I should be able to just flip a switch and start releasing that first patch, have that ready, and then be at least two patches ahead of what's already shipping now. And you're right - if you promise your end user that you'll be delivering stuff every 6-8 weeks, or 12 weeks, or whatever and you miss that, you lose that trust.
Q: Blizzard previously expressed a desire to release one expansion to World of Warcraft every year, but already that's proving difficult to achieve - people hold you to what you say.
Dan Elggren: I worked on a game called Earth and Beyond a while back and shortly after we launched they closed Westwood, and that's where all the developers were. So they were trying to get as much of the team as possible up to Redwood Shores, but at the same time we'd promised them a 3-month patch that would add content.
We delivered the first one, Westwood closed probably 8 or 9 months later - but then you probably lost all your base. People don't care if you closed, it doesn't matter what type of hardships that individual went through - if the product isn't what they're saying it is, they're absolutely going to have a hard time making it to the next level.
Dan Elggren is studio manager at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.