On Monday we published Part One of the portion of our recent interview with Cheyenne Mountain’s Joe Ybarra, focusing on Stargate Worlds, the company’s upcoming MMOG set in the Stargate universe. Here, for your continued enjoyment, is the conclusion.
A longer interview with Joe, focusing on his role as a co-founder of EA, and his enlightened approach to making games and managing teams can be found in This Week’s The Escapist. (link?)
The Escapist: You’ve been in the industry for some time, Joe. Is this collaboration with the studio introducing any new wrinkles, anything you didn’t expect? I mean, how is that working out, building a game working so closely with – in cooperation with – a third party?
Joe Ybarra: This has really been one of the more exciting opportunities I’ve seen, because everybody is just so easy to work with and gung ho. So the unusual aspect about it is how easy it’s been. … I found working with MGM and Vancouver even much easier than that, so it’s really been enjoyable working on this property.
TE: Do you think it’s mainly because of the parallel nature of the audience of the show vs. the audience of the game? It’s just a match made in heaven, that sort of thing?
JY: Yeah, pretty much. I think that’s true, I think it also has a lot to do with the passion of all the people. You know you don’t work on a TV show for 10 years and not have a lot of passion for your content. And Brad Wright and Robert Cooper, the show writers, all you have to do is spend a couple minutes with those guys, and this is their life. They really love this stuff, and they feel so strongly and passionately about it, they want to see it get leveraged as best as it can be. They’re very practical people; they see the value of what gaming brings to the table, they see how the game can actually help them from a TV production standpoint to expand their audiences at the same time.
So it’s a really good synergy there between what we can do and what the show is doing. So you put that together with everybody’s forward thinking and passion for the material and everybody being good people and fun to work with, and we have a magic opportunity here.
TE: So segue time: best game-building experience yet, Joe?
JY: The best, wow, I can’t really say that yet. I’ll be able to answer that question after we ship. Ask me that question after post-launch and I’ll tell you the answer, but it’s been pretty good. I can’t say it’s been the best because I’ve really worked with some amazing people in my career, but it’s right up there.
I’m trying to get everybody here motivated that I want to get this out in the early part of 2008. … In the universe of project management, one of the philosophies I have is that you can make things faster, cheaper or better – pick two. So in our particular case, what’s interesting is we actually make our ship goals, we will hit all three because we worked on this faster and better. We’ve really focused a lot of our efforts here on trying to make Stargate Worlds a better product in the sense of really analyzing what’s out there, really looking at what our property is and how to take maximum value out of it, etc.
So we’re already signing up for the better, so it’s the faster and cheaper that we’re really scratching our heads on, and the thing that’s kind of fun about this exercise is if I can make it faster by definition it, will be cheaper. And that’s because of the obvious expense: All of these projects are really expensive because they have really big armies working on them for very long periods of time. So if I can shave even three months off of my project, I can save the company millions of dollars. So that’s the whole idea, is that focusing on faster and better, which by definition is cheaper, if we actually execute that, this will be a real first.
TE: Yeah, fair enough. So you feel good about that? The early part of 2008 is looking good at this point?
JY: Yeah, kind of dicey. One of the problems of a damn MMOG is it’s really hard to tell how big you have to make it. It’s so hard to say because we all have our conceptions of how big the universe is supposed to be, and when you look at products like World of Warcraft, the folks at Blizzard did not build that game all at once. They got two years to improve on the thing, right? So for us to use them as a model for how big this thing needs to be is we’re not looking at apples and apples, you know we have to ask ourselves some other questions.
So business is a hard thing to measure in that. What I’m kind of articulating here is how much stuff do I have to build, but also there’s a qualitative aspect to that. How much polish and effort and energy are we pouring into the look and feel aspect of it? And of course, we’re going to want to put a lot in there because we’re an Unreal 3 based product, right, so there’s a bar we have to at least achieve, if not exceed. But on the other token is that we can polish this thing and make it look amazing. The problem is that you get to a point of diminishing returns, where the production cycle takes so long to get that last 5 percent, you have to ask was it worth it or not, especially since the customers are not buying these things because they look pretty, they buy them because they play fun.
So you have to find out where the edge of the world is in the qualitative aspect of it, and this is heading back to the point of business, the other thing that’s really hard to pin down is where do I stop, because I’m never going to stop building Stargate Worlds. The product launches and does anything close to the numbers that we would like to see at the bottom line in terms of where our minimum thresh holds are, yeah, we’ll building this thing five years from now, because economics for us right now are good enough that I don’t have to have 8 million customers to really have a good business here. So I have a reasonably good solid number figure here that’s going to measured with what the other [MMOGs] are doing. We’re fat, dumb and happy on this end that we could be building this thing forever, so we probably won’t do anything.
So having said that, how much do I launch with? That’s an interesting question, so this is sort of unique to building MMOGs; you don’t run into the same kind of problem solving when you do with stand alone products or consoles or whatever.
TE: Do you think the size issue cuts both ways though? I mean, World of Warcraft didn’t launch as big as it currently is, but it’s out there right now as big as it currently is, and there’s that judging. What you’re launching now isn’t what they launched with, but it’s impossible to make that comparison between whatever’s coming now and World of Warcraft, but do you think that hurts you?
JY: One of the things that we feel strongly about is part of the design principles of Stargate World is re-playability. One of the things I felt is somewhat frustrating about building or playing a traditional MMOG is the path to get to level cap is in any case deliberately extends to the point where it takes me 700 hours to get to level cap, and for me to think I’m going to do that more than once is crazy. You know, I just don’t have the time to do that, but what that means is there’s huge chunks of the game I’ll never see.
So for us, we felt that is was more important for the customer to see a lot of our game, and therefore we’re not going to make the level progression so arduous. Instead what we want to do is make the game, put the pressure back on the game itself to make the experience so varied and interesting that the customers want to play it over and over again. And that fits very nicely together with our content update model, because if I’m going to be adding more content into the game – OK, let me draw a map of that in a traditional MMOG, and I decide I want to put in new content from level 20 to level 30. So the customers that are already at level cap, what incentive do they have to start over just to see that content?
So there are a lot of ways that having this philosophy works better for us, at least as far as the material is concerned, so that we get people going through the game a lot and of course some of this is only possible, or best made possible, because of the Stargate. In the Stargate universe, in order for me to give you more content all I have to do is give you a new gate address. So it’s basically been leveraging off of what we got.
TE: It sounds like you’re on the track, Joe. I’m still very excited about this project and I know a lot of people are.
JY: Yeah, we’re pretty excited, too. We can’t wait to ship it because that means we’ll be done. I think that’s what’s fun about being on Live Team is that it’s pretty much obvious what you need to do. There’s a certain amount of momentum that going into Live Team carries forward from the original development effort, and then once you’re past that first three to six to nine months period of time, then you got customer feedback. You can actually data mine and actually ask customers, Hey, what do you want more of, etc., etc. It’s because it’s a lot easier to maintain and expand upon and of course in our case, we’ll have had the benefit of working with MGM and the Vancouver Studio with their additions to content. So for me, building Live Team is going to be pretty straight forward. It’s just getting the first one out that’s hard.