At AGC, I had the pleasure to speak with industry veterans Joe Ybarra and Dan Elggren, VP of Product Development and Senior Producer, respectively, at Cheyenne Mountain. Cheyenne is working on an MMO based on the Stargate TV and movie license, Stargate Worlds, and in spite of the perils facing the developers of any license-based science fiction MMO (as evidenced by the well-documented debacle that was once and may be again Star Wars Galaxies), I believe that this is the game (and the team) to watch in the coming years.
Stargate Worlds is still in pre-production, according to Cheyenne Mountain, but the team fully expects to move into active production very soon. Just like the developers of any other forthcoming big-budget title, Cheyenne is at AGC spreading good will with journalists and taking resumes from potential staffers. But it's what Cheyenne is doing differently that should make those with their eye on the maturation of the industry sit up and take notice. In addition to the usual staff positions (artists, coders and managers) which pad out the payroll sheets of typical MMOs, Cheyenne is looking for writers. Lots and lots of writers.
The Stargate Worlds writing staff is headed up by Anne Toole, a veteran of what could be called the television version of an MMO, a soap opera. Anne worked on the now-defunct Showtime series Total Recall 2070 and has most recently been working as a script writer for Days of Our Lives; which, at first, seems an odd pairing for someone working for a game company, until you consider that this game is an extension of one of the longest-running SF television series ever made, and promises to deliver story elements that are just as rich, diverse and (here's the most important part) episodic as that of the show. For a game as ambitious as Stargate Worlds someone with experience in the crucible of soap opera production should be a godsend.
The goal for the game, according to Elggren and Ybarra, is to create a living, breathing extension of the Stargate universe in the MMO space, full of hundreds of hours of scripted content and quests. They tell me that they've been encouraged by the producers of the television program to create not only the worlds and adventures which (for budgetary and other reasons) were impossible for them to create on TV, but also new worlds, races and scenarios of their own devising. This could be especially good news for fans of SG-1 which was recently cancelled by the Sci-Fi network, if Cheyenne manages to capture the essence of the universe just right.
But that's what was most interesting about speaking with Cheyenne. They didn't seem all that concerned about missing the target. Or maybe they were, but just hid it well. When I asked Dan and Joe if the audience expectation for such an eagerly anticipated property made them nervous, they admitted that it was a concern but insisted that the quality of the product is their primary concern. They added that since the universe is set in modern time, in our current universe, and has been on television for nine years, they had plenty of material from which to draw. Besides, they told me, the creators of the series never took the universe too seriously themselves, which, they hoped, would encourage gamers to treat it the same way.
The claim of hundreds of hours of content is nothing new, but what is new is their suggestion that much of that content will remain invisible at first pass. Ybarra explained that the goal is to create an experience so compelling and unique that players will come back again and again to replay the core of the game, but that with each play-through, the universe laid out before them will be substantially different; making, in essence, a whole new game. Again, this is something many jaded MMO gamers have heard before, but the team's insistence on the importance of the story element, and their willingness to put their payroll where their mouths are, suggests that this game may actually fulfill that promise.
As I spoke with Dan and Joe, it became clear that the real story at Cheyenne was Cheyenne itself. Regardless of how their current project turns out, this is a team that's actively employing the kinds of aggressive management and development techniques that many developers (and gamers) have been demanding. Joe insisted that regardless of the pressures on the team to produce a compelling, original and (most importantly) good game, Cheyenne is committed to maintaining a light, agile development team and giving its employees the kinds of benefits that many developers overlook - like time off and regular hours. As aware as they are that the adrenaline of a hectic schedule can often spur furious bouts of creativity, both have been there, done that, and recognize the value of stability. Erin Hoffman would be proud.
While we were discussing the maturation of the industry, I asked them the obligatory post-E3 question, "What's the next E3?" And, as has been the case with almost everyone else I've asked, neither seemed surprised that the bloated, cramped LA trade show had gone the way of the dodo, but they each had different ideas of what the perfect replacement show might be.
Dan, like a lot of developers, suggested that CES, the Las Vegas consumer technology show (and figurative birthplace of E3) would be the logical successor, and I couldn't agree more. Joe Ybarra on the other hand, a veteran of a great many industry trade shows replied simply that he "hated shows." But given his druthers, a smaller, more intimate venue like this year's AGC would be his preference. Of course, I have a feeling he was only saying so because our leather sofas at The Escapist booth were damn comfy, but the fact that the three of us spent nearly an hour talking in conversational tones on the show floor was truly remarkable, and a sign of just how insane E3 had gotten that that sort of thing struck as all as novel and unique.
Wherever we end up, however, it will be another two years at least before we're there to see Stargate Worlds, and with pockets full of money from MGM studios, and the backing and support of the television program's producers, it's clear that they've set the stage for either a glorious success story -- a demonstration of the power of well-established entertainment production models and team management philosophies in action -- or a stunning failure the likes of which we've seen time and again. Having spoken with them, and heard echoes of the words of some of the brightest, most well-respected visionaries in the industry directly form their mouths, I'm betting on the former. In spite of the odds.
I'll be following this one closely.