Still in stealth mode, NCSoft’s Carbine Studios seems to be working on something big, with a budget of between $50 to $70 million. What they will do with those resources is still unclear, but Steve’s interview with them will get you inside their heads.
Sitting down with a pre-announcement studio like Carbine is always an interesting experience. It’s only natural as a reporter to want to talk about their game. They want to talk about it, too, but they signed a piece of paper saying that they would be tortured and killed, and their family homes bulldozed to the ground if they spilled the beans too soon.
The trick, then, is to talk about their game, without actually talking about it.
That wasn’t going to be too hard, considering the fact that I knew next to nothing to begin with.
But I got educated, fast. Read on for the transcript.
The MMO Gamer: To get us started, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about what you do at Carbine.
Chad Moore: I’m Chad Moore, lead creative designer.
Jeremy Gaffney: The fellow with the sultry voice is Jeremy Gaffney, executive producer.
Matt Mocarski: Matt Mocarski, art director.
The MMO Gamer: Have any of you guys ever read the book Atlas Shrugged?
The MMO Gamer: Talking with you before the recorder started running, that’s the first thing that came to mind… John Galt came along and showed you the way, and then all of a sudden you dropped what you were doing and all ran off to Carbine-Galt’s Gulch.
I know you can’t talk specifics, but just generalities, what was this grand appeal? You guys have all worked on games before, what was the irresistible magnetism that drew you to Carbine?
Matt Mocarski: I’ll answer that.
Our lead concept artist, Cory Loftis, never worked in games before, but he is a visionary artist. His artwork completely sold me. I didn’t know who this guy was, I’d never seen his stuff. He’s not online, in forums anywhere.
His ideas are absolutely incredible, and this is early-on in the production process where we didn’t really have a solid IP, we just had ideas, right?
I think it’s safe to say we’re doing a science-fantasy hybrid, and there’s a lot of appeal to that.
I don’t necessarily like the purer science fiction… I think Star Wars is more of a fantasy world, but it has a sci-fi coating on it, its archetypes are based in fantasy. I saw a lot of that in what Carbine was doing.
There’s a lot of talent in the industry as far as concepting goes, but his ideas were like everything I ever wanted to do in a game but didn’t know how to express perfectly.
I know it sounds like I’m just doing the regular like, “Hey, everything’s amazing!” stuff like that, but really I’m being perfectly honest with you. I love the art on the game.
Jeremy Gaffney: Also, I think we have a very solid core team, and a lot of people want to work with them. We’ve gone out of our way to grab people who have done stuff that’s really impressed us.
Our lead designer is Tim Cain of Fallout fame, and he’s done enough cool stuff before that there’s a bunch of people who want to work with him.
Our art team is super strong, super strong lead. That attracts a bunch of people, just ask Cory.
Our programming team is really strong. We’ve got guys who have worked not just on Blizzard games, but also from EverQuest and EverQuest II, Vanguard… You name an MMO and we’ve probably got someone who has done a piece of it.
We’ve always just gone out of our way to get guys who have done the key bits of it, too. I guess I talk too much about that in detail, but it’s kind of a dream-team, which is nice, and having critical mass just attractive.
It attracted us, and part of it, I think, is just being with that critical mass, it’s the team we want to work with.
Chad Moore: When I came down to check it out, when I saw what they were doing, there were two parts that came into it.
One was the game itself looks amazing, and that was a big, big part of my decision.
The other part, as everyone was saying, is the team. There’s a lot of guys I used to work with at Troika Games, and Troika was all about story.
We really wanted to tell interesting stories, and figure out a way to tell those stories in the MMO space. I think there’s a lot of room for that.
For me, that was a big draw.
The MMO Gamer: Storytelling is one of those big fetishes I have, particularly in the MMO genre, and I’d like to get back to that in just a moment.
But, first… you mentioned ideas and ideals that attracted you to Carbine in the pre-production phase. I hear that from a lot of MMO developers.
The problem is, once the money starts flowing, ideals tend to fall by the wayside in favor of, “The guy with the cash says he wants us to make an EverQuest clone because that’s what he thinks sells. So, let’s forget our ideals and make an EverQuest clone.”
Have those ideals held steady, even after what was it-50 or 70 million dollars-has gotten involved?
Jeremy Gaffney: Having been an NCSoft exec, the one thing I can say would get NCSoft in our office kicking our asses would be for us to make a clone game.
You can love or hate NCSoft’s games, but one thing we’re not is a “clone” company. We’re a risk-taking company.
Whether or not we succeed or fail, any genre we tackle, we’re a company who is willing to take risks and put some big money down for those risks, which makes them a great company to work for.
That’s going to create some stellar successes, and I’m sure it’s going to create some stellar failures, going forward.
But it’s much more interesting to work for a company like that than one like, “Hey, let’s clone the last game, it was really popular, and clone games are so successful in our business!” They’re just not. A great way to fail would be for us to make a copy of WoW.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, back to storytelling, now. As I mentioned before, that’s a very red-meat subject for me and I like to argue with people about it, a lot.
I was arguing with Paul Barnett the other day, and his position was essentially that games are meant to be mindless, instant-on, always available entertainment… You can tell a story with them, but it’s supposed to be a game first. If you get a story out of them, that’s secondary.
It didn’t sound like…
Jeremy Gaffney: He probably said that at a very rapid pace, with his fists pounding on the table…
The MMO Gamer: Actually he was extremely cogent. I wasn’t expecting that, either. [laughs]
Anyway, based on your previous statements, I take it that’s not the philosophy you’re working under.
I’m sure you can’t get into specifics, again, because of the stealthy nature at the moment. But, could you give a broad overview of the philosophy toward storytelling you’re working under?
Chad Moore: What I would say about the genre, up to this point anyway, is that a lot of games have not taken a holistic view on storytelling.
I think that given the nature of persistent worlds, and how we deliver quests and the gameplay, you need to figure out creative ways to integrate storytelling into the things that you’re doing, not sort of a veneer that’s at the front end.
Like, you get a big chunk of text and a lot of lore that most people aren’t probably going to pay attention to because they want to get to the next quest.
So what we’ve been trying to figure out is, where are there interesting ways to tell stories while you’re doing something?
Not like standing here and listening to some guy go off, but integrating the storytelling into the actual gameplay. I think that’s really important.
The genre has evolved from the single player RPGs where people would sit around, and they’d read books, and they’d read every piece of quest text. That’s not the kind of thing that people get into from a storytelling standpoint any more.
We are trying to figure out ways to deliver interesting stories, not just through quests, but visually. We talk a lot about Fallout 3. They did a great job with their visual storytelling.
You go to a place, and without hearing anybody talk, you’d walk into a room. There’d be a little vignette, let’s say, two skeletons laying on a bed. That’s a story. It’s told through the world, without anybody actually having a quest bang over their head.
Those are the kind of things that we’re really trying to take a look at, and evolve storytelling in a persistent world so that it’s more core to the kind of game that we’re making.
The MMO Gamer: So, in other words, you aren’t of the little box three inches wide by five inches long telling you to go kill fifteen rats constitutes a story, school of thought?
Chad Moore: [laughter] Yes, I think that’s not the greatest way to tell a story.
The MMO Gamer: If you had your druthers, just what would be the greatest way to tell a story?
Chad Moore: [laughter] I don’t think that I can get into those specifics, right now.
Matt Mocarski: Just to add to that, just to add to how important it is for Carbine to tell a story in our game: We’re a new IP.
Nobody knows anything about our world. Nobody knows anything about our characters. There’s not ten or fifteen years of history of our franchise.
We don’t have anything to pull from. So when people play our game, we need to sell that. We need to explain. They need to understand our world, how this world works.
Whether through visual storytelling or literal text storytelling, we’re going to be presenting story across a lot of different ways to the player.
The MMO Gamer: We’ve established, I think, that you aren’t planning on making a clone.
But there’s a clone, and then there’s taking a hodgepodge of other features that have come before. You can do that very effectively, but it’s not the same thing as going out on a limb and trying something original.
I’ve put this question to Matt Firor over at ZeniMax, who are also making a spooky, can’t-tell-you-anything-about-it MMO, and I’d like to put the same question to you now: Is innovation in the MMO genre overrated?
Jeremy Gaffney: I would argue no. Here’s why: When you look at the games that have come out, regardless of anyone’s opinion on any given game, it’s rare that one comes out that doesn’t at least have one cool new thing that hasn’t been done before.
Every now and again, you get a game that tries to do a whole bunch of stuff. The way in which your question is right, that innovation is overrated, is that if you don’t have a polished game, then I would say it doesn’t matter how much innovation you have.
If you’re going to do a half-assed job on the basics, then you can innovate all you want, you’re still going to drop a huge portion of your audience off a cliff. They can’t get into your game, can’t figure it out, kind of don’t like it, it kind of doesn’t feel right, you didn’t tune all your combat stuff right, and so on.
Step one is polish the crap out of it and make sure your game is well-tuned, balanced, and all that kind of stuff. It sounds basic, but if you’ve got deadlines looming down, you’ve got execs who are going to crack on your head if it’s not out by the end of your fiscal year… It’s very tough in that environment to do that.
It’s one of the benefits of being in a company where we have less of that sort of executive pressure. The game companies that succeed are the ones who do it right like that. You just have to. Now, you don’t want to ship in 2020 if you’re starting in 2005, but you have to take the time to do it right.
The MMO Gamer: Most developers these days seem to work with an eye toward keeping players subscribed for as long as humanly possible through the use of-to borrow a coined term-cockblocks, and other assorted timesinks.
Is that a wise approach? Or should the focus be more on fun? Let the player advance through the game the way they want to, and not worry about whether they’re going to be paying their $15 next month because they’ve seen everything?
Jeremy Gaffney: Here’s a theory on that that I’ll give you. We’re not big believers in timesinks. What we try to do, and we’re setting up again in its given area, or given quest flow, is really to tune it so that it’s on as opposed to tuning it so it’s going to suck up any amount of your time.
We want you to see this zone for as long as there’s neat, cool stuff to see in it, and then move you on to the next area. As opposed to, “Hey, we’ve got to burn fifteen more hours so we’d better give you a couple ‘Kill 500 Goblins’ quests.
The era of the straight-up grind is past. Now, one thing that games have done very cleverly that has disguised that quite successfully, is to give you…
The MMO Gamer: The quest grind?
Jeremy Gaffney: What the quest grind has become in our industry is, “Let’s give you a fair number of very simple tasks to do in a given area, where you’ve got to kill this bunch of goblins, and you’ve got to pick up these old rocks off the ground. You’ve got a trade skill, here’s a mining note you can hit.”
Even though each of the tasks is individually simple, they’re layered on top of one another, so that if you’re maybe not a very bright player, you can still make it through and do it in whatever order. It doesn’t matter.
If you’re very efficient, then you can figure out exactly the right order to do it in, so you’re twenty percent faster. If you are really focused on one area, you want to do trade skills and not the other stuff if you can avoid it all, you can play the game in that fashion.
It’s actually a very clever setup, but it’s also kind of the setup of the last generation of MMOs. While that worked great for the last batch, I think you really need to improve on that moving forward, in terms of having better quest depth and complexity, and having more quests where you’re doing unique things.
The MMO Gamer: Such as?
Jeremy Gaffney: One of our quest theories is that each quest should show you something new. Whether that be a new gameplay style, because we have a very clever scripting system which lets us do all sorts of neat stuff.
Is it going to show you a new style of gameplay? Is it going to show you a new area, a new art thing you haven’t seen before? Be able to have each quest give you something interesting. If it doesn’t have anything interesting, why do it? Why does the player want to do it, other than just getting their little bar to go up? That has been sufficient in the industry for a while.
If you do any quests beyond that string of very simple quests, it’s a pleasant extra, but I think you’re going to see more and more of that coming out as these games mature.
Chad Moore: I would just also say that since you’ve got such a huge user base now of MMO players, like Jeremy’s saying, they’ve seen all that.
There’s going to be an expectation from those people to raise the bar. We have just been attempting to do that on the quest design side, on the scripting side.
Having the super talents on our team always makes even simple quests look better. We’ve really, really attempted to increase the complexity of the quest and the mechanics to make more interesting gameplay possible.
The MMO Gamer: Back in the olden days, I’m sure we all remember the olden days, there weren’t that many quests to begin with. If you wanted one, you had to run around hitting “H” to every NPC you saw, in every town, until one of them finally talked back.
These days, you get to the little golden question mark, or silver exclamation point, or whatever the cheesy “I have a quest” icon is, and the quest grind has replaced the “just go out and find a camp” grind-but it’s still a grind in the end.
I guess my question is, when the hell are we going to stop grinding?
Jeremy Gaffney: Well, there’s grinding, and then there’s grinding. Grinding, literally, is doing the same thing over and over again. So, anything you can do within your quest variation to keep that from happening, keeps you engaged enough that it doesn’t feel like a grind.
One of the great things about the quest grind, when that first came out, was that you didn’t feel like you were grinding anymore, because you weren’t sitting in a field killing one monster over and over.
Now you’re being dragged off to go do whatever the next thing was on that little list on the side of your thing. You’re going to go to the next one, and the next one.
There’s a place for that, the same place as you expand it from killing fields of monsters into killing fields of quests. You still get XP for killing monsters, it’s just not become your focus anymore. Some of the elements of that are fun, and you want to carry those on. But, I think the era has passed where you can have that be your only way of doing things.
I’m a believer in advancement in a number of different ways. There are more systems than just killing stuff in the game, and there’s more systems than just following your quest log through a game.
Chad Moore: One of the things we’ve been really trying to innovate upon, which alleviates a little bit of that feeling of the quest grind is just how we deliver quests.
Really trying to break out of the “you go to a camp and there’s five quest bangs, that’s where you get all you content.”
We’re really trying to push the idea that you go out into the world and content comes to you in creative ways. I’m a big fan of not having to follow that same sort of real structured framework of “get quests here, backing them all up, go to the next place, getting those quests there, backing those all up.” I think there’s definitely room for innovation to be done, and we’ve been innovative on that front.
Jeremy Gaffney: At this point in the interview a bunch of NCSoft execs have rushed into the room, thrown a burlap sack over Chad’s head, and dragged him away screaming.
The MMO Gamer: So, are any of you guys role-players? Like polyhedral dice, thousand page rule book role-players?
Jeremy Gaffney: Were you to go into our conference room right now, you would see that we have two projectors. One projector’s pointing at the wall, on which we can show lovely PowerPoint presentations to get your funding and impress cool press people.
The other projector points at the table, so we can display maps for role-playing games.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, so that answers that question.
Matt Mocarski: I think there are like four games going on right now.
The MMO Gamer: Where I was going with this was, I was a hardcore role-playing nerd back in high school. I was the guy with the deck of Magic cards and the d20 dice in his backpack.
But, I never got the urge to role-play in a modern MMO. I did in MUDs, but once graphics came along-I mean, how can you role-play killing 15 rats? It’s not exactly heroic.
Do you think we can ever get that experience back, will there ever be an MMO-like yours, for instance-where somebody could get back into that pen and paper feel and find the urge to role-play in an MMO again?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think the things that helps that the most is when you see games that have more sand-box attitudes. The less that you’re on rails, the more opportunity you have to make your own decisions and that kind of thing.
One of the reasons you so rarely see interesting choices in MMOs is because it’s very expensive to have multiple tracks of content. If you’re going to do a game where you have the good to each side, and the good choice and the evil choice for any given quest and 14 different ways to solve it, you end up with a massive amount of content which half your players might never see.
I think that’s what kept the industry from doing a lot of that stuff. But over time, as you get more efficient at being able to make content, and you have better tools and scripting and all that sort of good stuff to do it with, I think you’ll see more of that.
We love-role playing ourselves and we love embracing it; we certainly plan on providing whatever reasonable amount of support for it we can, but simultaneously, we also know there’s a lot of players who don’t do it and have not touched it.
We really try and let everybody play in their own fashion more than anything else. But I think, overall, the industry is getting more sand-boxy, rather than less, and I think that helps that crowd as well.
That’s why you saw such a bunch of role-players in Ultima Online, since it’s a pure sand-box game in many ways, and that’s why saw so many evil creepers going in, pwning and looting said role-players.
The MMO Gamer: Ah yes, those were the days.
Jeremy Gaffney: Yes, I’m guessing which side you might have been on in that. [laughing]
The MMO Gamer: I was about 13 years old at the time, so that should make it a very easy guess.
Anyway, to your point, Ultima Online was, to corrupt the title, the ultimate sand-box.
If you wanted to you could go down to a lake, catch a fish, put it in a jar, take it back to your house, put it in your aquarium and feed it.
You can’t exactly do that in an MMO these days. You’re lucky if you can even get a house to begin with.
Is it just my imagination, or has there been a constant paring down of features since they hit a high-water mark with UO?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think a part of that is you went from 2D to 3D, generating assets got much more expensive.
Also, in UO, you could build a piano out of lumps of coal by stacking them just the right way, so that at a certain camera angle it looked like you had a piano in your room. That doesn’t happen any more in 3D.
It’s a lot tougher to give you those building blocks for people to play with. But there’s just some great concepts in there, too, that I think are worth revisiting, and I think the industry as a whole could learn from some of that freedom that you allow players to do.
UO was great with their whole housing system and their ability to decorate and give you a sense of ownership. That’s very powerful stuff and I’m not sure, really, that it’s been repeated yet.
There’s one thing, too, that’s very tricky about games, and these MMOs in particular, which is: they launch with a feature set, and that’s the feature set they have forever.
You play your game, you like it or didn’t like it, then you drop out after six months and that’s you vision of that game forever. The games that have managed to reinvent themselves and really add over time have been able to do a lot of that stuff.
Building your own base in City of Heroes feels awesome, it gives a lot of that power, and complexity and coolness, but it’s also very tough to get people to go back in and experience that sort of thing when they played the game, they’re only playing the new stuff that comes out.
A lot of depth in UO happened because they were able to do that over time, and extend that game over time when there weren’t a lot of alternatives to play, as opposed to now when there’s new MMOs that come out on a fairly regular basis to keep you distracted and keep you from seeing the neat stuff that gets added into a game.
The MMO Gamer: One of my other major issues as a player is the static nature of most MMO worlds.
In most MMOs, you could walk up to some NPC in the starting city, and get a quest to kill 15 rats.
Quit the game for five years, go back, and that same NPC is still there, in the exact same spot, offering that exact same quest to kill the exact same 15 rats.
How do you get past that stagnation? That feeling that everything is freeze-dried for years at a time?
Jeremy Gaffney: Those same NCSoft execs are about to run in the room with more burlap sacks.
There are some fantastic answers to that and I think games are way, way, way too static. The… and uh… yes!
Chad Moore: Go ahead and shut that off. [reaches toward voice recorder]
The MMO Gamer: Moving on, then!
Since I’m sure just about everything else I could think of is still off limits at this point, is there anything that you guys, personally, want to talk about before we go?
Matt Mocarski: As much as everybody wants to see it, we want to show it, but those are delicate things and they go through more people than the dev team.
If there one place where we’re going to have to shuffle around with other NCSoft companies, it’s how we release our announcements and everything.
We want to show it as much as you guys want to see it. Jeremy, and Chad and myself all want to talk about it because that’s all we do.
If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t want to talk about it. We’re all excited about it and it’s not up to us exactly what we can say about it. I can’t wait for you guys to see it and I want to hear your reactions. That’s about it.
Chad Moore: I’ll take the burlap bag off quickly here. I think given the team that we have and a lot of those people have a lot of MMO experience, we just have some good insight to the places where the genre could use some improvement.
We have people that have done this many, many times before. I think that’s one of the coolest things about our team and about our game is that we’re really trying to push the envelope in those places that, probably most people would agree, need to be improved.
For me that’s the coolest thing about being at Carbine.
Jeremy Gaffney: Plus, we’re a whole company of gamers. We’re just making games we think ought to be made, and want to play, truth be told.
It’s a combination of being sure you don’t reinvent stuff just for the sake of being different and you reinvent stuff where you can really add something to the whole mix.
It’s a balancing act.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, thank all of you for joining us, we appreciate it, and we hope we can do it again some time.
Stay tuned to The MMO Gamer for more information as it becomes available regarding Carbine’s mystery title. In the meanwhile, you can visit the company’s official website: http://www.carbinestudios.com