We discuss the challenges and drawbacks of spreading an MMO between PCs and consoles.
By Tim Colwill on April 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm
What’s it like launching an MMO across three platforms? How are they going to update the games in sync when the PC can be updated straight away and the console updates take months and tens of thousands of dollars? And why aren’t they going free-to-play like the rest? We sat down with Nathan Richardson, VP of Development at Trion Worlds, to answer all these questions and more.
GON: Nathan, you joined Trion in October last year, which must have been fairly late in the development cycle. What were your goals in taking on Defiance and do you feel that you’ve achieved them?
Nathan: Well, Defiance has been around for almost five years. Of course in the early years it was very much discovery and pre-production work where you had SyFy and Trion working together first identifying what world it should be, or what kind of IP, and went through everything SyFy already had and whether we should expand on that or should we look at something to take in, but in the end it was actually created from scratch, this world, so that it would fit both mediums. Further on it just started to ramp up, so essentially when I joined the team is getting close to full production in terms of size, right now we’re 150 people making the game.
My goals were focusing the vision, also making sure we were working on the most important things at any given time and also of course making sure that, number one that we could ship on time because this product is as fixed date as it can possibly be, there’s no turning back once the SyFy channel airs the show, that was the fundamental goal of course but it was of course shipping successfully — it wasn’t about (excuse the French) “just f**king ship it”, it was about doing this good. Doing it well. So first it was getting us into a mode where we COULD ship on time, but secondly of course having a strong feedback loop with the customers from multiple avenues. It’s taking in that feedback, looking at our vision, and combining those and saying “okay this is what Defiance is supposed to be, but this is what people are saying about these parts of the game, we have to improve.”
GON: You say Defiance had been in development for five years, yet it seemed to be announced quite fully formed when it was first revealed. Were you working with SyFy at the start of those five years, or was there a product that already existed and SyFy said “we like the look of that, let’s work together on that one”?
Nathan: No no, it’s essentially the other way around. So there’s certain connections, networking that had happened before, and SyFy and Trion essentially were connected, part of a bigger family. SyFy wanted to do a transmedia kind of experience and they were simply looking for a partner for doing that, so they ended up with Trion, and that’s when the pow-wow starts back and forth. What kind of world? What IP? New IP? That sort of thing.
GON: So there’s 150 people now working on the game. But in December we know that quite a few high profile RIFT developers stepped down, such as Scott Hartsman for example. Has the impacted the delivery of Defiance at all?
Nathan: No, it didn’t. If anything we got more support from them. I’d say that this is a good example of making a decision where RIFT, as a game unit, simply weren’t achieving their goals, and at the same time we had to focus on Defiance, so the two are not related but it is the same company so, indirectly of course.
GON: But there must have been some lessons learned from RIFT’s development that can be applied to Defiance?
Nathan: Absolutely! Both in terms of how we develop games and the game design itself. So if you look at the game itself one of the major features that we have is arkfalls, these are basically the same as the things you have in RIFT that are called rifts. These dynamic events.
GON: So that’s a similar underlying code to what RIFT does? Are you able to just port that over?
Nathan: No, no, it’s not that easy. We do on the server side especially, we have a number of systems that are very similar, of course we aren’t at the point and we don’t have the strategy that we must all work in the same basic codebase. We have a large amount of sharing, but Defiance is a different graphics engine and everything like that. But on the server side we are employing systems which Trion first pioneered through RIFT.
GON: So is this Trion platform the Red Door project? What’s the status of that? It was talked about some time ago and we haven’t really seen much, as a player, for what the Red Door project means. As a player what does the Red Door project mean for me?
Nathan: Well as a player probably not much. From the perspective of being a game developer which is probably the biggest value in working with the Red Door is that it’s essentially a platform which provides you, from the beginning, with a solution to the logistical challenges that come from running an online game. Servers, operations, biling, customer support, all that kind of stuff. So that’s what the red door is. And that’s why essentially, the team that are making Defiance, these 150 people, are not working on all that backend stuff. That’s taken care of by the Red Door.
Internally all games use the Red Door. We also have some external titles using the Red Door such as Warface and we now have ArcheAge there. So to the player no, you wouldn’t really see it. You would feel it because you’d have those similar interfaces when you go into account management, stuff like that, support, we follow the same procedures, but that’s very much more behind the scenes kind of stuff.
GON: Can I ask why the pay-to-play model for Defiance? Why not a subscription fee?
Nathan: The point of subscription is that — we had a discussion with Microsoft, who have a lot of policies especially around massively online games, that you HAVE to have a subscription. So we were actually trying to get out of having a subscription with all our partners because we don’t believe that’s the right model for the game.
GON: So Microsoft actually tried to enforce a subscription fee on you for the 360 version?
Nathan: Well, that was simply the policy. The thing was that what we worked out was that we simply applied another business model, which everybody was all happy with. It’s all of course about something that works for both parties in terms of covering internal costs and stuff like that.
GON: Can I ask why you didn’t go free-to-play such as with End of Nations?
Nathan: Why not F2P? The thing is that because Defiance is such a console-focused game it’s kind of a hybrid model where you’re taking that retail aspect, and that’s kind of a fixed price-point almost in the store and retail outlets and so, quite early on the approach was taken to follow the retail model to a certain extent but to provide the long-term revenue that fuels the long-term development, we would not have a subscription but rather an aggressive model of DLCs, both free and paid DLCs, but also microtransactions on top of that. You have a choice, you don’t have to buy any of the DLCs or any of the microtransactions, you can just buy the game and play it.
GON: Obviously launching a game across three platforms is a pretty big undertaking –
GON: — but I was under the impression from other developers that content updates on the 360 for example are ferociously expensive. Phil Fish for example a while ago famously refused to patch Fez on the 360 because he said it would cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Valve’s TF2 as another example is literally years behind the PC version. Is this a problem you face? Does it cost you a lot of money to patch the console versions? How do you deal with this?
Nathan: So the answer to it is yes, there is cost involved, certainly. But that’s not only on first-party with Sony and Microsoft. The thing is that what’s much more difficult when you’re working with Sony and Microsoft is that they have a long lead time. So when we finalise our content, the lead time for it to be deployed because of the certification process that’s weeks and weeks or even months. The cost for us for going through that process is much more opportunity than financial costs.
If people are saying “okay hey I can’t spend $50,000 on going through certification process with Microsoft or Sony”, it sounds like they’re not doing the full calculations of just how much they’re spending on creating the content to begin with and getting it to the customer. There is always cost involved in getting the content to the customer. You might not just be calculating that from the beginning. So for us the cost of getting that content into the hands of the customer is entirely through lead time. It’s not through the cost of deploying it.
GON: Does that mean you expect that you’ll be delaying PC updates in order to match the console ones? Or will you be running them seperately since there’s obviously not that big a lead time on the PC version?
Nathan: In some cases it will. It entirely depends on the content. So if it’s patches to fix stuff, er, no. We will get those out as soon as we can on any of the three platforms. DLCs, like large DLCs, we will have them at the same time. Now that’s not because of the lead time itself, it’s more because we will have marketing pushes around the DLCs and they will of course benefit from being at the same time. In that case of course there will be a time shift because, yes, of course, the PC could get it from day one.
GON: I notice that the XBox version has Kinect support. What does this add to the game and can you replicate it using the Windows SDK for Kinect on PC?
Nathan: I’m actually not sure. What we’re doing with Microsoft, the focus is entirely on Kinect and Xbox and I’m not actually sure if the API is even available on PC. I’ll go check on this!
GON: So what does the Kinect support add to the 360 version that you felt couldn’t be done without gestural control?
Nathan: The thing is that it’s much more because of how you play on a console. You have the pad, and then that doesn’t really give you a lot of… doing advanced functions involves multiple buttons held down at the same time and so on and so forth. What we did there for example was that because Defiance doesn’t have classes, you create your own classes called loadouts, while you’re playing if you want to switch from one class to another, you just say that through voice messaging. So you can go from the healer over to the damage dealer just by saying it.
GON: So the reason you have Kinect is because you need that extra functionality on console that you can already get with a keyboard and mouse, for example?
Nathan: Yes, well, you can already fix that with the key bindings, it’s mainly the voice recognition that we’re using. It works all over the place, you can go into specific menus and everything just by calling it up through voice recognition.
GON: Could you add that functionality with a regular PC microphone?
Nathan: No. We could not.
GON: It needs to be the Kinect’s technology?
Nathan: Yeah. There’s a LOT of work and resources behind the libraries of the Kinect and how it processes voice and everything, dialect and accents, so, no… I mean sure, if we could find a library that does it to the same extent on PC, yeah, though for us it’d probably be too much work to integrate that versus the work we had to do to integrate it on the Kinect which was trivial.
GON: So that explains why there’s been no announcement on the PS3 Move support? Because the Kinect is used for voice rather than motion?
Nathan: That’s correct. We looked into it and it’s essentially, without spending considerable time and effort on it, it would feel superfluous, just a gimmick. Because the thing is that you are spending so much time with your hands on the controller with key combinations that you’d have to look at gestures which are like “shake your head” or “wave with both hands” which doesn’t make any sense.
Part two of our interview can be read here, in which we discuss how the game actually interacts with the TV show (finally!) and what Australian players can expect from their single-server experience.