In late 2001 NetDevil, a small independent developer, released Jumpgate: The Reconstruction, a unique take on a then young MMOG market. The game, which would earn a devout if relatively small following, centered on intense space combat in a massively multiplayer setting, though it would remain overshadowed by larger projects with bigger budgets. Now, NetDevil is looking to reinvent its own niche with a sequel to Jumpgate called Jumpgate: Evolution, a larger and more organized effort to finally make the property both a cult and bona fide hit. We sat down with Hermann Peterscheck, Lead Producer of Jumpgate: Evolution to find out how NetDevil is planning to elevate their game to the next level.
The Escapist: So what’s the job of a producer on Jumpgate: Evolution?
Hermann Peterscheck: It’s kind of funny, the role of producer in the gaming industry is a lot like other roles in the gaming industry; it’s kind of loosely defined. Basically it’s managing the timeline and deliverables and budgeting. But also, interfacing between the different departments to make sure people are all moving in the same direction. My job is to make sure the game gets done.
TE: So how did you guys decide on a sequel to Jumpgate as opposed to a new expansion or property?
HP: The reality is that most game companies that are started, or at least the independent ones, are just started on vision and dog work. It’s a few people get together and they say, “hey, wouldn’t it be great if there were a game that did this, this, this and this?” And that’s really how Jumpgate was started. At that time the big game that was played was Air Warriors, but we were also big fans of Wing Commander and later on Tie Fighter, so Scott’s idea was always, “Imagine that scene at the end of Return of the Jedi where all the ships jump in and there’s the big fight around the Death Star, like I wanna play that!”
This was before “MMO” was even a word, so it’s interesting the process when you go to pitch it to publishers and there’s no mainstream MMO like World of WarCraft or EverQuest or any of that. And you say you’re gonna make this game and there will be all these people playing, and they ask if you mean 32 people in a map and you say no! A thousand people!
So after Auto Assualt we all sat down and wondered, well, what can we do? And, a lot of ideas got bounced around, but the reality is that a lot of the quality games come out of iteration. You’ll notice that a lot of the really successful studios tend to make similar kinds of games over and over. So we talked about this love of space games and the people out there who still like playing them, so we wondered what we could do if we really spent some time and resources with that game.
Originally it was supposed to be an update, but as we worked on it more and more, especially with the visual quality coming out of the art department early on, we decided we should make a completely new game. It evolved from there, and has grown into what it now is.
TE: And the name of the game is, of course, Evolution. So, how has Jumpgate “evolved”?
HP: Well, really everything.
The spirit of the game is still the same. It’s a space combat MMO, different than EVE, which is an empire building MMO. Jumpgate is you’re flying a ship and firing at enemies and engaging in PvP. It’s sort of a Wing Commander or X-Wing Versus Tie Fighter experience online. That’s the main focus.
However, since the original game launched, a lot of things in the MMO industry have changed, and things have been added. You can’t ignore that. So, things like player-driven economies and lots of AI, quests, items, different kinds of PvP; these are things we’re rolling into the game to enhance the experience. Really, it’s taking what we’ve learned from Auto Assault and other games that are out there and putting it together with the original JG vision to create a compelling experience.
My hope is that in your mind, if I say something like Privateer Online, that evokes the kind of image of what the game could be. To get that emotional response to be a Han Solo in the game is what we’re trying to capture.
TE: For new players to Jumpgate or Evolution, what’s going to attract a new market to this game?
HP: I think a lot of times when developers get asked that very question, they talk about some new mechanic they’ve come up with. So they’ll say something like “we have a really cool combat system” or “we have this awesome quest system no one’s ever seen before,” and while that stuff can be compelling, pretty much MMOs all have the same features. In my mind, what distinguishes high quality MMOs is the ease in which you can get into and the depth that’s there once you’re in.
So we’re spending a lot of time blind-testing the game. Having people come in, sit down and play.
I think from the onset there’re a lot of fans out there of space games and there haven’t really been a hugely successful space combat game in some time. Freespace 2 did pretty well and was a lot of fun, but I think there’s an unserved audience, and if you make a good game, you’ll grab them.
And you’ll grab their friends.
If I play an MMO, and I’m playing for a few hours and it’s fun, I’m going to grab my buddy and tell him. I think the growth of a lot of the big MMOs, especially the ones that don’t have a huge advertising power, like, say, EVE, comes from that kind of experience. So, I’m not really so much concerned with creating a market. I’m more concerned with making sure that market is aware of the game, and when they jump in and try it, their experience is positive.
Where I think a lot of MMOs fall apart is they just don’t work. You get ’em and they crash, the login servers don’t work or there’s a huge download. So we’re really trying to make sure we don’t stumble in those areas.
Another thing we’re focused on is making the game visually appealing right from the outset. A lot of MMOs and games really have these incredibly high system requirements and then end up choking. So we’re looking at games that had stunning visuals but not have incredibly high system requirements, so the ones that come to mind are EVE, World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. They look good and they run on everything.
So, considering our specs, I’m impressed with what the art team has come up with. We’ve done a lot of things to make sure the game is visually compelling and that a lot of people can play it.
One of the things MMOs get criticized for is when they launch and aren’t immediately successful, they’re empty. And empty MMOs are not fun. So we did a lot of work on an AI server to make sure that space feels full with trading vessels moving around trading cargo and doing other things, so that when you launch it already feels alive right away. We can scale that up and down depending on the server, so if a lot of people start playing the game we can make the AI less or more. So it’s pretty cool to have that.
TE: I spoke once with Scott Brown, and he talked about making sure a game at its most basic is fun early in the process before you start adding a lot of content. Was that a focus?
HP: It’s an interesting thing. Obviously we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that issue. You get between 30 seconds and five minutes to make an impression when someone starts playing your game. And within that time they decide definitively if that game is worth playing or not, and if you don’t nail that time, you’re going to lose the majority of the people right there.
So, we spent an enormous amount of time on that initial amount of time and still are. Things like, how easy is it to log in and create a new character? How well does that system work? When you first enter the game, what are you seeing? What are you experiencing? What is hooking you into the game to make you care at all about it?
So it’s things like having the intro tell you a story that you care about. It’s seeing things that are visually compelling. It’s not having the ship controls get you frustrated. It’s being able to defeat the first enemies without too much trouble and get a good reward. And through this iterative testing process a lot of that stuff comes out. We make a flight engine we think is good, but if eight people come in and can’t fly the ship, we obviously need to make that engine work. It’s all these basic things that prevent a person from being engaged.
I think when people get a game and start playing it they want to enjoy it, to be engaged, and I’m amazed at how many games kick you in the teeth and say, “Whatever you do, don’t have fun.” If you talk people into that, eventually they go away. So we’re really focused on bringing down those barriers, and the temptation is, as a developer, to constantly worry about features and content. But, I’m also amazed that the games that end up doing well inevitably have the comment “I wish there was more.” Like, you finish God of War 2, and you think that. That’s what you want from a game.
So these games that have thousands of hours of content but are mediocre actually have no content. After 30 seconds you put it away and you don’t care that there are 5,000, 500 or five missions, because you didn’t do one. So we want to make sure we have that positive first experience.
TE: You guys are self-publishing Jumpgate: Evolution. Is that still correct?
HP: As of right now, yes.
TE: Do you think we’ll see Jumpgate: Evolution on store shelves at some point, or will it be online only? Are you still working on that?
HP: I can’t comment on that right now.
TE: OK, do you have any plans for when beta might start?
HP: I don’t have any information on that right now. That’s one of the things that goes into it, right? I’ve seen a lot of MMOs beta too early and suffer the consequences. We are conscious of that, so we’ll go into beta when it’s ready.
Sean Sands is a freelance writer, one of the co-founder of Gamerswithjobs.com and runs a small graphic design business with his wife near Minneapolis. When not writing about gaming, he can often be found playing video games and pretending to call it work.