WildStar Wednesday: Making Games with Jeremy Gaffney

Written by Robert "Robeardo" Land on November 02, 2011

Happy Wednesday, everyone! We're back from Paris and things are getting back under control. This week, I'm handing the reins for WildStar Wednesday over to our Executive Producer, Jeremy Gaffney. He has a few things he would like to say to everyone about WildStar and the way we've approached making it. Over to you, Jeremy!

"Well, we finally lifted the curtain a little bit last month.

Thank God. It's so nice not having to make your mom sign non-disclosure forms before you can tell her what you're working on.

We did something a bit interesting with our reveal - we announced WildStar and immediately let people play it. On the show floor. In alpha.


Well, first - and perhaps most importantly - we may be slightly nuts.

But beyond that, we thrive on getting feedback from real people and not consulting groups - and from finding out not only what they say, but also what they do in-game. We get good data on everything from which races, classes, and paths people choose, to how often folks die, what content is commonly discovered and what isn't found at all.

We also surveyed gamers as they saw WildStar for the first time - on art style, gameplay, combat, content makeup, all that. We like this kind of interaction. We love it, actually, but that sounds creepy and stalkerish.

And the whole combination of first-reveal announcement and real gameplay went pretty frickin' well.

Thanks to those of you who would stand in multi-hour-long lines (often several times, for multiple play-throughs), filled out surveys, and talked with the devs on the show floor. It was gratifying to hear so much positive stuff (everyone likes to hear other people enjoy what you've worked hard on), but hearing likes and dislikes, loves and hates - all of it makes the game better.

One question came up a few times - at gamescom, PAX Prime, Paris Games Week and at GDC Online: where do we fall as designers on the "sand box vs. theme park" debate? For those not aware of the terms, there are (this is a bit oversummarized) two schools of thought:

  • Player-directed gameplay is the bestzors: This is the "sand box" end of the spectrum - give some simple tools to players, and let them set their own goals.
  • Story-focused gameplay is where it's at: This is the "theme park" side - if there's no well-directed path through your game, players can get lost, confused, or really just not know where to go or what to do for fun. And besides, it's tough to tell a good story in a sandbox, and story is important to a lot of players.

Our answer is a hybrid. Developer-directed game play isn't always at odds with the player-directed experience. There are ways of giving direction even in a sandbox-style environment, and hitting the "sweet spot" between the two is an art. Too much direction, and the game is on rails - and that sucks all the magic out of the game quickly. Too little direction and it doesn't feel like the game is rewarding you for the creativity you put in as a player, and there's no reward path that helps guide you to the really interesting area of the game.

As you know, we have a mantra: let gamers play how they want. You as a gamer know where you fall on the spectrum; our job as game designers is to let you do that - and not get in your way. If you want to play without a ton of direction and choose your focus, rock on. If you want clear goals and some guideposts to give some rewards and meaning to the variety of content we make, we're cool with that too. Play how you want.

We look for the compelling elements of both. The appealing parts to us for sandbox style game play lie in having mechanics that combine together in interesting ways so that player creativity can become a factor. For instance, once you realize that prey mobs flee from you, you can scare the gazelles in the savannah into the jungle cats lying in ambush so that you can take advantage of the ensuing combat. We provide a bunch of simultaneous rewards - for completing combats skillfully, unlocking dynamic discoveries, following the goals of your path (exploration, scanning unusual creatures, etc.), or discovering found quests off the beaten path.

As a player, you get to choose what's important to you - and if you're skilled enough, you can try to tackle as many of these competing goals at once as you can handle - choosing how YOU want to deal with a rich and complex world.

But the first layer we add into each area is a compelling storyline. We know a lot of players love story, but often it's buried in clickable books in a library somewhere. We try to tie it in to the main theme and quest line of each area (we call them "tracts"). This gives you that strong direction (if you want to follow it) that brings context to all the other layers of content in the area. This combination feels pretty compelling - certainly feedback at gamescom and PAX was very strong on the mix.

For me personally as a gamer, I like the sweet spot in games where there are enough dynamic (random or player-driven) elements that a game moves from the realm of reducing game play to a simple online walk-through, to content that allows for a myriad of different approaches and strategies to complete. At best, others can provide hints and tips that they've found as good ways to approach the game, but in the end, you have to be the one to play it and make your own calls and realize your own success in WildStar.

Here is a quick summary of elements we combine to hunt down the "sweet spot" between sandbox and directed gaming:

Sandbox gameplay:
  • Layered content mechanics: The more layers that interact together, the more opportunity for you to combine them. Find a minefield that's part of a found quest in the world, and lead nearby monsters into it to get extra damage.
  • Dynamic elements: The more of these that interact well with creatures and other content, the more you as a player get to look for opportunities to combine things like creature encounters and environmental challenges cleverly. Randomly find an ancient Eldan rocket-launching weapon and it can come with a mission to blow up creatures as fast as possible...and you can knock monsters back (say, into the nearest minefield).
  • Ecology layer: Creature AI can add a lot of interesting outcomes. Learn that beasts get hungry or thirsty and wander off, and a tough pack of mobs can be broken up to be made easier.

Directed gameplay:
  • Strong story quest line: Each area has a strong storyline quest which takes you through the zone; often near other interesting content to help raise the odds you'll bump into the "off the rails content" but doesn't force you there.
  • Clear quest and challenge goals: Find that Eldan rocket launcher and get a timed quest to kill as much as you can as fast as you can. So you have a goal, but there's enough variability in HOW you pull it off that you're not held by the hand. Some areas might make the quest really easy or really hard to pull off, but you at least know what you have to do clearly to earn the rewards.

    There's much more to this than fits into an update, but I hope I've been able to explain some of our ideas about sandbox versus theme park design. Luckily we have some time to start talking about more - and better yet to reveal more - as we start discussing the zones beyond the lower level Northern Wilds Exile zone that we've let folks get hands-on with to date.

    Thanks for reading!"

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