Ask me anything
Making the shift from working on single-player or co-op console titles to working on MMOs was both interesting and challenging. I’d always wanted to help create worlds, and if that’s what you enjoy as a designer, an MMO is kind of the holy grail. It’s not just a world, but a LIVING world. One of my best memories as a gamer was playing the original EverQuest the day it launched. I went into Qeynos, saw a ship, and thought it was scenery. Then there was a zone broadcast that the ship was leaving in a few minutes. Leaving? You mean… I can get on the ship? At that moment, I understood that this world was huge, simultaneous, and alive. There were people somewhere else fighting enemies, trading items, and hanging out, and I could get on the ship right now to go see them. It sounds trivial in today’s connected world, and I’d been involved with MUDs and Ultima Online for years before playing EQ, but there was something special and significant about that moment that stuck with me. It changed the way I looked at online games, forever.
You don’t realize until you work on an online game, however, that the coin has a flip side. Yes, it’s a living world that you’ve created, but as soon as you launch the game, it’s not yours anymore. From that point on, the game belongs to the people playing it. You have to listen to players and keep a careful eye on data you gather about what players are doing, saying, and buying. Keeping the game working and the world active and alive is a huge responsibility. Finding ways to take care of all of the needs—what your players need, what the game development team needs, and what your company needs—is a tremendous balancing act that never gets less challenging no matter how much time passes. I’m sure the EverQuest live team works through those challenges every day, even though EQ is in its 11th year as a continuously running MMO.
The most challenging solutions for me personally, though, came from trying to design an MMO that was easy to play yet deep enough to provide hours of content. The answer was in scalable systems—finding a way to ramp the difficulty and reward for each minigame so you have just as much to gain from playing it the 20th time as when you played it the first time. That was also a critical part of creating Free Realms as a whole. We had to figure out ways to make it just as fun (and just as meaningful) to play a Postman or a Chef as a Warrior or Ninja. That challenge would have been tricky even if Free Realms had been an offline, single-player game but in the online space where players compare themselves to others and where the game can live for years, it was even more difficult.
I think it depends on the game.
For games that expect you to project yourself into the main character, we’re doing pretty well! We generally get female avatars as a choice, with lots of options for customization. We’ve even gotten to the point that female characters have as many in-game story options as male characters. Dragon Age and Mass Effect are both good examples of great character options for both genders. Of course, MMOs have been featuring as many female as male character choices for years. MMOs typically have a higher percentage of women playing them, but I don’t know if there have been any definitive studies that determine how much of that is due to being able to create a female avatar.
For games that have a strong, defined lead character, I don’t think it matters whether that character is male or female: it matters whether it’s a good character, with great writing. Plenty of women like Bond or Bourne movies, and plenty of women like Uncharted. Tell us a good story with a compelling leading character, and we’ll get on board whatever the character’s gender.
There’s an interesting difference between men and women with avatars though. You almost never hear a man say, “I’m disappointed that I can only make a character that’s really ripped. I really want a character that looks like me.” I think that’s true even in the non-gamer space, where almost everyone creates an avatar that (facially) looks just like him/her. You hear it all the time with women, though. For example, I’ve heard from some women that they enjoy playing Ogre characters in EQ and EQ2 because the character models tend to be heavier. They like that body shape, and will pick from the faces associated with it even if that limits their facial appearance to something most would consider “ugly.” I think variety in body type is one of the upcoming frontiers in game avatars.
There are significant development hurdles, though. You can only vary the width of a body so much before animations don’t work. I’m not even talking about the different way you move when you’re heavy or slight—I’m talking about issues like the arms clipping through the hips while walking. Duplicating all of the animations and clothing choices in a large game for both male and female characters is a huge task. Multiply that by body types and the workload is INSANE, along with the hard drive and memory requirements for the end user. The same thing is true for height differences, by the way.
So the next time you’re playing a game that lets you create an avatar and you’re bummed that you can’t be really heavy or really tall, think of the animation and wearables teams, who already clocked in a zillion hours just to let you have a female avatar at all!
Nothing! The patient isn't sick--he's just going through those awkward pre-teen years, where he feels like he still should relate to girls by pulling their hair instead of talking to them or (God forbid) asking them on a date.
We're learning to be market-driven and some developers (and players) are having a hard time adjusting. That's creating some tension right now, for sure, but it's not a sign that there's something wrong. We’ll eventually get to the same mindset as TV and film companies, where it’s OK (and even preferable) for the same studio to produce Jimmy Kimmel Live, LOST, Criminal Minds, Scrubs and Desperate Housewives. We’ll also get to the point where the game equivalent of Desperate Housewives isn’t either discarded as worthless (when it’s just starting out) or debased as manipulative and “evil” (when it actually starts making money).
Is Farmville the game industry’s Desperate Housewives? Maybe, maybe not… but either way, it’s definitely not Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Professionally: the design team. Personally: the sense of freedom.
At its peak, we had almost 50 designers on the Free Realms team. They were a mix of SOE MMO veterans, experienced designers we hired, and brand new assistant and apprentice designers we brought in from QA, CS, and Community. They did fantastic work—and they literally moved mountains in the six months before and after launch. It’s awesome to see them working on new features for Free Realms, or moving on to some of the other projects here that reuse the Free Realms technology and tools.
From a more personal perspective, I love the fact that Free Realms is all about being free. Don’t like being a Ninja? Be a Warrior. Don’t like fighting? Be a Miner. Don’t like exploration? Teleport straight to what you want to do. The foundation of Free Realms is respect for player choices. From the start, I didn’t want to assume that an MMO had to be about killing monsters, or that because you were a girl you just wanted to decorate your house. I really wanted to ensure all play styles were equally valid and equally rewarding. I learned a lot from Free Realms, including the fact that I should have thought even more broadly about rewarding non-traditional play styles. How can players earn significant rewards for socializing in an MMO? How can we create stronger ties between vastly different play styles, like combat and house decorating? I’m not working on Free Realms anymore, but those kinds of questions are very much on my mind for my new project.