Take Privateer, make it an MMO, add a dash of Eve and a dollop of WoW and you've got Jumpgate Evolution, a new massive online multiplayer game from NetDevil. JG:E is the sequel to the original Jumpgate, which was released back in 2001 and attracted a small, but dedicated, following. From the screenshots we've seen so far, JG:E has some seriously cool looking ships and some truly breathtaking space vistas.
I've been looking forward to this game for months now, so it was a real treat to get to pick the brain of Hermann Peterscheck, Lead Producer at NetDevil. Here's what I learned.
1.One of the complaints about the original Jumpgate game was that space felt a little boring when there weren't a lot of other players around. You've tried to avoid this on JGE by bringing in a reactive AI system. How do you plan to keep the AI from becoming an endless succession of farming fodder, while still keeping the universe populated enough to keep things interesting?
Answer: That’s one of the reasons these games take so long to make! The answer is that it is really difficult to make AI that is both compelling and believable and yet predictable enough to support things like missions and difficulty progression. The way you do that is by trying things, testing them and then trying more things until the test shows that in the aggregate AI is “fun.” There is no magic formula other than try, test and repeat many, many, many times.
2. Creating a sense of immersion in a living, breathing universe is one of the most important things in an MMO. We've already heard that JGE will feature a deep storyline and many in-game player driven lore-advancing events (a characteristic of the original Jumpgate as well). Can you give us any specific examples of the ways in which players will be able to evolve and advance the plotline of JGE?
Answer: Well, this happens in a long term and a short term way. The short term way is by making specific choices about things like which faction you decide to do missions for, or shoot down; which corporation you align yourself with and things like that. The long term is more complex as it involves us looking at what large groups of people are doing and adjusting the content in that direction. We’ve got ideas on how to automate that more, and I’ll give a few examples. One thing you can do is “unlock” content based on aggregating player activities. For example you can have a new part of the game open up when a certain large set of criteria are met (millions of enemies killed in some epic battle, a really difficult boss encounter, etc). Another way you can do this is by having specific, hand-written events. These generally require a lot of work and can become very difficult to synchronize when you have a multi-server world-wide game.
3. The flying physics in Jumpgate were very realistic. A lot of players liked that, but it was also one of the things that made it less accessible to new gamers. JGE is supposed to balance realism with accessibility by offering two different flying modes. What other ways are you trying to open interest up to more gamers? Are there any features you feel will make JGE especially accessible to new players?
Answer: This is another one of those “there are no magic bullets” answers. We’ve talked a lot about this topic but the same rule applies as to just about everything else. If you want to know if your game is accessible, test it. If you want to know where it isn’t accessible, test it. If you want to know if what you’ve done has improved accessibility, test that . That being said I can tell you that in general what you end up with is strong consensus in most areas and then impossible disagreement in a few others. Where that disagreement occurs (for example, flight modes) you have to bite the bullet and support both or risk the loss of a potential audience (see PvP vs. PvE arguments for another example). In general the #1 thing is to just explain things to people. I think the best way to know what the game needs to tell the players is to pretend like you are teaching someone how to play. What do you tell them? When do you say it? How do you get them to understand? Those same methods can be translated into game events that really help people a lot. Most people actually WANT to play a game when they see something interesting in it and it’s up to the developer to talk them out of it... many games are very successful at convincing players to stop playing them.
4. You seem to be straying away from total free-for-all PVP with Jumpgate Evolution. The universe has been divided into 'safe' and 'unsafe' sections of space so that players can enjoy PvP or PvE with equal ease. Can you tell us some of the things that will characterize the different sections of space? How sharp will the divisions between both be?
Answer: This is one of those unwinnable holy wars. There are people who say that without open PvP your game will suck. There are people who say open PvP destroys the game. You can’t easily have one part of space that is both open PvP and not open PvP so this is a case where we decided to divide things up. Then you have to make sure that the things people do in those different areas are different, but equally compelling. My hope is that people will be open to try out both. The main differences are that in one area you are protected from being randomly attacked by artificial game rules, in the other area, you are not. The other differences are more subtle. For example, the PvP sections are going to tend to have more PvP focused missions and content for players to work through whereas the PvE areas will reward that kind of game play. I honestly believe that because of how we are making the game it is likely that everyone will play both and slightly favour one over the other.
5. Will there be any artificial limits on the size of PvP battles in JGE, like the continent caps in Planetside?
Answer: All game limits are perhaps artificial in one way or another. There are physical limits: for example, there is only so much bandwidth you have, there are only so many polygons you can draw. Our limits, however, are more game play oriented. Once there are about 150 moving objects around you, it’s quite difficult to know what is going on and more than that it becomes nonsense. For JGE, we have more units in one battle than any game I have seen. Humans have a hard time telling the difference between say 20 and 30 objects, so from what we’ve seen there are “tons” of ships in battles and if we allowed much more, it would start to take away from the experience....
6. In your E3 walk through we got to see our first glimpses of a full-on fleet battle, complete with massive capital ships bristling with guns and hangar bays. Will these bad-boys only show up during PvE events, or will players be able to 'hire' or 'requisition' NPC capital ships for large-scale PvP action?
Answer: Interesting idea... We believe in design economy (Valve term); thus if we have our artists spend 6 weeks making a capital ship, I’ll be damned if it only shows up in one place...
7. Will we ever get to see capital ships fight capital ships? Please?
8. Can you give us a better idea of how the economy of JGE will function? How much of it will be player driven? Will there be some 'auction house' like mechanic? How much of a part do you expect crafting to play in the economy? How profitable will endless PvE loot grinding be?
Answer: There is an auction house. The economy is player driven. I expect crafting (manufacturing) to be a big part of the game. Endless “harvesting” of items and endless selling equates to endlessly profitability. But it isn’t the most efficient or fun way to make a living. There are essentially a few “sources” of items: missions, loot drops, stores, mining, refining, manufacturing and recycling. Of those types, buying from stores will be the least useful. Mission items and loot drops will often not be transferrable (bind on equipped)... thus I expect the greatest source of objects in the game to be from players trading them to each other via the auction house and drops from enemies in the game. For myself, I really enjoy mining and selling raw materials. I also like to go find “stuff” and then recycle it into “other stuff” which I can sell to other people who need it. We are trying to make a crafting mechanic that is both easy to get into, but scales up to a very high level of difficulty (and, therefore, profitability).
9. Roughly how many players per 'server' do you expect to have?
Answer: We expect somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000.
10. Outside of combat, trade and crafting seem to be the only other things to do in JGE. Will there be any sort of social component to the game?
Answer: Well, there are the PvP instances which are actually highly social, as are the shared missions. We will also have guilds (squads) which allow players to organize at that level and then there are groups (wings) which are a more temporary structure. All of this is with built in and integrated voice chat which adds a lot of social qualities. Social is something that seems to happen when a bunch of people are having fun doing the same thing, so I suppose that as we get into testing more we will add more social mechanics as players want them.
11. What abilities will player squadrons in your game have? Will there be a maximum number of pilots per squadron?
Answer: There is no logical limit to squad size right now, though there will have to be some limit, but I don’t see any reason that squads can’t contain hundreds of people if that many people want to be part of the same unit. We currently have a basic squad system planned and once we have that we will test it and see what people want more of. Right off the top I can say these three things are at least tentatively strong contenders: squad medals/stats, squad crafting and squad banks. I’ll let the players decide which of those, if any, they want more than others.
12. Can you give us an official wording on whether or not Conflux ships will be playable by characters in game?
Answer: Currently, they are not officially playable. In theory, of course, we can make any ship we want playable so that can change. It’s also cool for us to let GMs fly around as any ship they like and role play the various AI to give the game more life. We really try to take an organic approach here. If people really love the idea of flying conflux ships and it doesn’t break the game, it’s always a possibility, now isn’t it?
13. Do you expect to have cockpit graphics ready for launch?
14. Like a lot of other gamers, I'm signed up and waiting for the beta winners to be announced. Can you give us an idea of when they'll be announced, or when the beta will be?
Answer: Soon. Basically where we are now is that we are doing friends and family testing and that will grow as we need to test more. We’re careful about using testing when we feel that we really need it as opposed to when a schedule says so. I know it’s frustrating for players who are looking forward to the game, but playing something that isn’t ready is far more frustrating.
Thanks a bunch for the interview, Hermann! If Jumpgate Evolution sounds like your kind of game, you can check out their website and sign up for the beta here. See also our recent interview with the Makers of Global Agenda. Update: 2009 MMORPG Round-up.