PC Interview

Connect 08: Hermann Peterscheck (NetDevil)

Jumpgate, the PC platform, visuals, and more

Huddled in a corner of the press lounge at Codemasters' Connect 08 showcase (taking place at Birmingham's neon-decorated Omega Sektor), I'm given the chance to question NetDevil's Hermann Peterscheck, producer of Jumpgate Evolution, on his new MMO title, and the state of the genre in general.

Why did you choose to make a sci-fi themed MMO?

Well, firstly we really like the sci-fi theme, and secondly, we think that quality comes through iterations. Our first game was a sci-fi game (the original Jumpgate), and then we made Auto Assault. First and foremost I really like games like this, and I can't play one at the moment, so I want to make it! When I wake up in the morning, I look forward to playing this.

Also, we know how to make a sci-fi game and we're getting better at doing it. Why is that it that Bungie make Halo 1, Halo 2 and Halo 3? Its because every time they're getting better at it. We get better at making Jumpgate every time, we're building on the lessons of the past.

It's tempting to go for the new cool thing, to make something new, but this robs us of past experience sometimes. The opportunity to go down into a really refined, polished experience. I want to make something that's really great and I think the way to do this is to put the time in, to iterate and iterate and iterate.

These are the main competing reasons!

How do you choose which features to include in your MMO experience, given the complexity of certain examples of the genre?

I think the way to think about it is, an hour of development time per hour of user enjoyment. What you want to do is provide the most amount of fun for the least work, especially because every time you add something you risk breaking what's there.

Figuring out whether battle stations are worth it, for example; you ask people, and if they say 'yes' you try and include them. Customisation? 'Yep, that's cool'. What about... homing missiles? 'No, we don't really care about that.' So its really about asking people. Then you test, and see if people play it. But really its all about trial and error.

You know, designers like to think they have it all worked out but it doesn't usually work like that.

Is this especially apparent because the genre is so young?

Look at the Portal post-mortem, the way they made Portal. The way they made Portal was like a student game. They made it in six weeks, then they made it again. Building and testing, building and testing, building and testing - and then eighteen months later you have game of the year.

They didn't know exactly what they were doing... but they knew to test. I really like that story.

Will Jumpgate Evolution be based on a monthly subscription?

I don't think we've announced that yet, actually.

For the purposes of a question - can we assume it probably will be?

For the purposes of a question I think we probably can [laughs].

What do you see as the future business model of the MMO genre - will subscriptions persist, or will alternative models be introduced, micro-transations, in-world advertising, etc?

Here's what i think. At GDC there was a panel on the future of MMOs. This question was asked, and there were some interesting answers. First and foremost it was suggested no one has made 200 million dollars from micro-transactions. But that's not true. Then we heard that subscriptions are dead. But just look at WoW in China.

The final answer is really interesting, and i think it boils down to making a really good game, and then fitting your business model around that. It doesn't matter how I try and charge you, I can't fool you into paying for crap. You're going to see through it.

If your game makes sense in a micro-transaction way, do that. If you game makes sense in a subscription way, then do that. I also think, with regard to advertising. If you have FIFA Online then advertising makes sense, in fact, it makes the world more believable. However, I don't want to see an ad for Coca-Cola in WoW.

[Laughs]

Or maybe do! Its all about focus on the game. I'm glad, for example, WoW isn't micro-transactional. I'd spend a thousand dollars a month!

Does that tempt you to consider micro-transactions?

[Laughs] Well, you know, there are different people involved in this business. It is of course commercial. For me, as a producer, I really want to make sure the game is enjoyable. Its natural selection. if the game deserves to make money, it does. If not, then it dies. Games that are successful get copied by other companies who also want to make money.

Both models have a future, I think micro-transactions will get bigger in North America and Europe. I think maybe subscriptions won't ever work in Asia beyond one game at a time. I think advertising... there's going to be a lot of it... because every other field is like that. What's worse? iTunes or cable? iTunes is micro-transactional, cable is subscription... they both work.

What features do you think will help separate Jumpgate from the crowd?

Strong visual appeal. Low-accesibility. It runs on everything. These are three big things, though they are of course un-sexy, and rather boring, but i think you have to look at the landscape of games. Why is Runescape successful? It runs on everything!

The barrier for entry is zero. I think a lot of games lose players because they don't work. They have a poor frame-rate, take up 18GB of space, and they still don't look great. They crash. These are core features. Most games don't fail because their combat system is weird. they fail in more fundamental ways.

Our mechanic is going to be strong. In terms of fitting into a bucket, you know, its a strong proposition. When I tell you it is a space combat game, you can play the game in your head. If I tell you its sort of like God of War with hot wheels... you're confused!

Going back to your earlier point... do you think the PC platform is suffering as a cutting edge games machine?

It used to be that the PC was always ahead of consoles, but now, not so much. The problem is that the audience for PC gaming is getting larger, but the specs are getting lower. I think the problem is that game developers are like little kids. Whatever the new shiny thing is, we want it, the problem with that new shiny thing is that most people don't own it. It turns out that most of the people out there don't care about real shadows, high dynamic range lighting, they don't know what this is. They don't care.

They care if its bright, and saturated, and pretty, like Pixar. So I think as a developer, if you're responsible, you have to talk to people in a way that makes the game better. Sometimes, going high-tech isn't the way to make the game better.

So, art direction and the like is key to creating games without super high-specs?

When you make a game you have to decide what you want to do. Some games work well... remember the original Far Cry? That worked well going high-spec. But not so much recently.

The attitude of "here's a problem, lets just push the tech"... that's kind of a lazy attitude. If you're a musician and you want to learn piano and you start with Rachmaninov, well, you know, its going to be a disaster. You've got to get the basics right first. You're not equipped. Game makers should go back to making core experiences that work without extra tools, make sure the core experience works.

So your game can work just as well in a Chinese internet cafe as when sold in a London High Street?

That's the idea. Accept our low spec is probably their high-spec... a tale of two cities.

And with a friendly nod from the resident PRs, the interview is over, and we return to the main arena to watch the masses enjoying Codies' various MMO games on display. And to see improbably bearded Gandalf gorging himself on a sausage roll by the Omega Sektor toilets. I kid ye not.

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