Chatty Q&A: Carbine Studios executive producer discusses WildStar

It's been nearly a month since WildStar first launched to the public and after a bit of a rocky start, the game has quickly become a favorite of the Shacknews community. On the heels of the new Strain Ultra Drop update, which launched today, Shacknews wanted to get some of Chatty's questions into Carbine Studios.

Executive producer Jeremy Gaffney was more than happy to provide answers to our Giant Communist Robots guild, going into how the game's world was created, how quests are crafted, and why Carbine isn't about to give up on its vision of 40-person raids anytime soon.

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Haxim asks: I've heard that the story in the world is quite entertaining, what sorts of inspiration did they use to craft the game world/story?

Jeremy Gaffney, WildStar Execitive Producer: We actually had an original concept, which is that we wanted to tell an epic story inside a whimsical world. We want a place filled with danger and mystery and exploration, because we have all this content that unlocks over time. So you need a setting that will support that well, a core concept that resonates. And the core concept that resonated with our team was, "Imagine the most powerful race in the universe that invents the most powerful technology and magic. What happens when they disappear? And what made them disappear?" And that core concept really drove almost everything else along the way. So in terms of the world and story, that's a lot of it and the whimsical part really gave us the freedom to have a world where we do have a serious story running through, along with these crazy bad guys that you find out about over time. But it's also a world that's filled with psychopathic hamsters and space zombies and whatever we wanted to put in that made us laugh and we felt was fun.

melkore asks: Where did the idea of Warplots come from?

Gaffney I really wanted to do Warplots from an early era and the reason why is, we wanted to do cool, dynamic stuff in our world. So we made a system called "plugs and sockets," where you could take a section of the world and swap it out and bring in another part of another world and swap that in, so you could mix and match things. We had grand plans for it. We wanted to have discovery dungeons rumble up out of the ground, where something big appeared, or a spaceship crashes into the landscape and guards run off to make new camps. And we wanted housing where you could do crazy stuff, but the culmination of all that was... housing's been done before. What if you could build a complete fortress and with the "plugs and sockets," you could swap in your fortress pieces and other people's fortress pieces into a map. And then we wondered what would happen if we could capture raid bosses and use them there. So a lot of is organic and a lot of that original concept is based on those "plugs and sockets."

I'll tell you who else was really involved and took the original concept and made it real and made it her own and that is Jen Gordy, our head of group systems design. She just took that concept and, in the early stages, a lot of that stuff looked impossible. Lots of people, even some on our own team, said "There's no way you can do that," and she just took the idea and ran with it. That system is hers now, more than anyone's. She put the heart and soul into it.

InfoBiter asks: How do they plan to approach class balance post-release?

Gaffney: Class balance is always interesting, because you always get rock thinking paper is overpowered, while thinking scissors is just great. What we do is, we have a team lead for each of the classes, who's in constant communication with players through the forums and other channels, and they're keeping an eye on the data more than anything else, making sure things are at a correct balance level. And balance doesn't mean equal, it just means it is balanced. You look at how well StarCraft is designed, where you have different factions, each with very different powers that are balanced well against each other. That's good balance and that's what we aim for with the classes. We want them to be different from each other, but with no overwhelming advantage in the play styles.

Our biggest challenge is making sure that they're balanced in PvE for leveling, that they're balanced in the endgame, in War Zones, that they're balanced in Arenas across the top levels, and that they're balanced in Warplots at the top levels. We have so many kinds of content, making sure that everything's balanced and when you make a fix in a certain area... if there's something that makes a character powerful in Warplots and it's taken out, making that character weaker in all other areas of the game, you've really pissed off your player base. So we put a lot of effort into making sure we don't do those types of things by testing our moves in advance. We'll be deploying lots of things for testing runs, so that they get tested before they ever go out into the public.

The other thing involves players. We are very likely to invite some of the top players from different classes out to communicate directly with our class leads, because we want to make sure the tagline "The devs are listening" is not BS and that it's reality.

ashkie asks: What was the general approach to quest creation and do you feel that you have a sufficient number of memorable moments?

Gaffney: Here's our theory on quest creation. We want to create environments where players can either feel really clever if they're experienced, or if they're noobs, they can not be destroyed by the same stuff that's exciting to more experienced MMO players. So we call that layered content, where we take a main storyline with those epic moments you're talking about (cinematic moments, unlocks that change your surroundings, etc.), and we surround that with tasks, optional objectives like kill quests and collection quests. And another layer is paths, where the kinds of quests that paths give you encourage you to explore, whether they're jump puzzles, you have to find a way to get a beacon in the mountains, you have to uncover a hidden tunnel system, you're a settler and you're building stuff, or you're a soldier and you're organizing holdouts against big monsters. That path layer is about 20 percent mostly consists of stuff players probably like, since they chose their own character path. We really like that mix and when we've done an area well, then I think it really shows.

We also try to have environmental stuff. Even if you have to kill stuff, it feels different, because if you kill a really hard monster, it fills more of your quest bar, which is ideal for experienced players. And if you're a newbie, you can kill lesser monsters and fill the quest bar that way. And there are layer mechanics in the environment, where [for example] you'll find a minefield and you can lure monsters into it. Those environmental things make you feel smart for unlocking a secondary mechanic, so when we do that well, that seems great. Do we do that stuff well? Well, I think players will judge.

ashkie asks: What led to your decision to expose player performance with damage meters where other MMOs that came out after WOW shied away from exposing? How will this exposed data impact class balance changes?

Gaffney: It's not all about damage. I think the reason why we want to have damage meters is because your crowd-control expert might start to feel guilty for not contributing as much, but the data will show they had more impact on the fight than anybody else or similar ideas like that. We have the data. Why not show it? Users will figure out mods to show that data anyway, so why not add it in?

It also encourages optimal gameplay the more you provide that type of data. Humans like feedback loops and they start getting better just by seeing their improvement.

wykd asks: Is anything being done to improve the game's performance?

Gaffney: Oh, God, yes. We recently launched a new patch with a bunch of changes for Windows 7 users, some Nvidia changes, some windowed mode changes, and a slew of other changes. We optimize all the time and we will continue to. During beta, there were a lot of people that were having performance issues and I'm sure there are some that still do. But that has died down a lot, just because our team has put a ton of work into improving the game's performance.

ahlee asks: Presumably, the WildStar devs are confident in the long-term viability of the 40-man raiding model to have invested a significant amount of development into the content. Why do you think enough players will continue to be interested in 40-man raiding as time goes by and what steps are you taking to ensure players will want to organize 40-man raids instead of easier, smaller groups?

Gaffney: Ok... so here's why. Let's take World of Warcraft. WoW, I would say has the best raiding on the planet, aside from us. And in WoW, they have mastered the art of their combat system. Their combat system is "stand in one place, have a single target, and execute your heals or attacks on your target." That kind of gaming, they are masters at it. They have a great raiding system that's based on that.

But there's a reason why I think that you can go from larger raids to smaller ones. The art of hitting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then pressing your heal button... there's not very many ways to make that super interesting. And if you're in a group of 20... then really, how did that get more interesting with 20 than it did with 5? If you only have one target each, how interesting is it, really, when there's 20 other people targeting a thing versus one? If you can get most of the intersting gameplay out of the 10-man group versus the 40, then what the hell's the benefit? All you're doing really, then, is taking all the overhead of having to organize 40 people, which is large, for only a little more fun benefit.

The practice is, it's better if it's fun. When we did our combat system, pretty early on, we said, "Let's try out a world boss," and it was fun to play it with 20 people or 40 people, because positioning mattered. Now you have this group of people that need to coordinate over here. If you're doing this and he has a side attack, you all need to dodge to the side. Or there's five sub-bosses now that some of your party needs to go tackle. It was fun and it felt different and it felt powerful to do that. Go online and look at some of the streamers that do some of the raid stuff. Our marketing stuff looks great, but that's because it's marketing stuff. You can look up some of Zybak's raids, where he's the last man standing out of a 20-man raid, the monster's destroyed the floor in the entire rest of the room, and he launches into the air and delivers a final blow, with his entire raid guild cheering in the background for him. That's powerful stuff and something you don't really get from small-scale combat.

For us, that's really the reason for that and players will vote with their feedback and their wallets whether they like it or hate it, but at least, I will guarantee it's just more fun in those big groups. And if you were in a 10-man group, it wouldn't be as complex and interesting and fun. We know that, because we've run a bunch of scenarios with it.

It's so cool. I think our five-man dungeons (I'm biased, I guess), I think they're the best I've ever played in an MMO. Even the five-man runs feel so fresh because of the movement, because you can't just play grid, you have to actually play the game to get your heals and get your attacks. It's not just memorizing the boss's sequence.

If it turns out that 40-man organization is just too hard and we need to make more 20s, we may do that. We're not going to dumb it down, unless the players really demand it, because in practice we did it and it was more fun. That should be a rule for game designers: just do what's more fun.