At GDC, we chatted with Cheyenne Mountain Vice President of Product Development Joe Ybarra about Stargate Worlds. The Arizona based developer is about to ramp up and really get this project going. As they are now nearing the end of the planning phase, it is of interest to catch them in transition.

GDC 2007: Stargate Worlds Preview
Based on interview with Joe Ybarra
Article by Dana Massey

imageBy the end of March, Cheyenne Mountain hopes to have their first playable version of Stargate Worlds. Powered by the Unreal 3 graphics engine and BigWorld on the backend, the company has spent more than a year finding their way. There are over 100 employees now at Cheyenne Mountain, with 60 of them on Stargate. These numbers are even more impressive when the company’s belief in outsourcing is taken into account.

Joe Ybarra, the company’s VP of Product Development, met with us at GDC to discuss the team’s progress. Over the last year, the thematic direction of the game has changed, mostly due to the outside influence of the TV series, but since I last met Joe at GDC 2006, it seemed like the core values of the game itself had survived prototyping.

The company may be new, but Ybarra gave every impression that the team understood the need for pre-planning. Raising his hand off the table about ten inches, he told me that their design document was “this thick”. They’re rigorously documenting everything about the game to make sure they waste as little time and money as possible during production. This approach is a responsible approach to game development not often seen.

A few months ago, the company released the first round of screenshots from their game. With first playable still weeks away, I wondered where these came from. It turns out they’re from the “visual target”, which was an in-house area designed to exemplify everything they want their art to look like. As mentioned, Ybarra is a proponent of outsourcing and to do that successfully, a team needs to have a clear vision of what they want back. This area acts as the prototype for third party artist to follow when they create assets for Stargate Worlds.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that by the time we ship that we have had 400 to 500 people touch our game,” Ybarra confided.

imageUnlike many companies, who primarily outsource art production, Cheyenne Mountain is also having code, interface and even design done by outside companies. Their internal force are all top notch managers that make sure the work itself fits the greater project, that work is consistent from outside studio to outside studio and then assimilate it all into the game itself.

Story is a big part of the Stargate Worlds plan. For launch, the game hopes to work in stories that reflect SG-1 from the end of season three through to the end of season eight. Ybarra believes that there is a lot of prime material there for them to work with. While players won’t play out the episodes on screen, they will take the big plots from the show and weave around them.

He noted that TV often glosses over big plot points, it’s called dramatic compression. In a game, those moments are pure gold. For example, in SG-1 when they developed their first human starship, there was nothing to it. One day, someone dragged it in and said, “look what we invented!” In Stargate Worlds, players find out and participate in those background moments.

Originally, Ybarra had been a proponent of a form of interactive story where events from the TV show would roll-out on the small screen and in the game at the same time. Then SG-1 was cancelled. This began an iterative process where the team came up with and rejected several approaches to story in Stargate Worlds before finally settling on their current plan.

Ybarra still hopes to do some parallel content, there is after all Atlantis, a new series in development and two movies in the pipeline, but for the initial launch, it’s impossible to predict so far out. Rather than being undermined by scripts as they’re written for TV, they’re sticking to the past. Once the game is out the door, their six week content updates should provide them with the flexibility to pull off more lore-relevant content.

imageTheir first expansion is scheduled for roughly a year after release and – unless something big happens on the IP front – they hope to introduce Stargate Atlantis and related content. That means, no space-ships for launch, but quite likely in the first expansion. He noted that the Atlantis TV crew provided them with all their art assets used in the show and that these could be converted right into the game for the most authentic experience possible. Those assets though were not exactly made for games, so the process is not quite plug and play.

“[We’re] one to two steps away from photo realism,” Ybarra told us.

They feel it is important that the game reflect what people are used to seeing on TV. Unlike Star Trek Online, who do not have an active show to compete with, Stargate has several. This means that people have certain notions of what it should look like and are unlikely to be receptive to stylized art that is inconsistent with the shows on TV.

One of the most fascinating and endearing parts of SG-1 is that the show is not quite serious. There is a lot of self-referential humor that works wonderfully on TV. In a game, the temptation is usually to drop it and shoot for the core of the series. Ybarra doesn’t see it that way.

“You can’t just take this stuff too seriously,” he told us.

This extended to thinks like the Asgard race. This playable race does not wear clothes in the show and the design team made the decision to reflect this in the game. Rather than customizable clothes, the Asgards use robots. They’re essentially the pet class and players of them get their fix from tweaking those pets. That said, Ybarra noted he is a big fan of dressing them up. It’s not how the show described it, but an Asgard in a swap helmet would be a lot of fun. He’s still fighting this particular battle with his own staff, so who knows what will happen, but if it comes to pass, it is a prime example of not taking themselves too seriously.

imageInterestingly, we also got into the idea of in-game advertisements. Not in-UI banner ads, but product placement. I had asked how he hoped to take advantage of their contemporary real world setting, being one of the very few MMOs in this sphere. This was his answer.

He made clear that they have no firm plans or agreements in this space, but he does believe that they are perfectly positioned for it. While obviously, money is a motivator here, he also noted that he would only do it to add authenticity to the world, not to make a quick buck. He gave the example of brand name clothing and real weapons as two areas worth exploring. At this time though, this is all pure speculation on his part.

Despite some rumors and theories, Ybarra insists that no publishing deal has been signed. The company is in negotiations with several companies, but still must decide their strategy. On one hand, they may need a network of publishers to cover all territories, while other publishers may go for a global license. At this time, they’re in talks with multiple parties and would describe it as a matter of when, not if, they will sign a publishing deal.

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