NetDevil – in its 11th year of operation and at work on their fourth and fifth games – is completely unlike any other MMO company. While scores of companies have risen and fallen, NetDevil continues to take measured steps forward. Later this year, the company plans to revisit its roots with Jumpgate Evolution, a completely revisited version of their 2001 debut space combat MMO.
At a glance, most fans would probably say Jumpgate Evolution looks a bit like EVE Online, and visually the two are obviously comparable. NetDevil’s game is more stylized, but there is only so much visual differentiation one can draw between two games where the player controls a space ship. That, though, is where the similarities end.
“My rule is to try and keep the rules simple and let the complexity come from the interplay of the rules,” explained Hermann Peterscheck, the producer of Jumpgate Evolution.
Jumpgate Evolution is about dogfights and real-time, player-skill-driven combat, while EVE is a higher level, tactical experience. Or to use the ultimate space-geek example, Jumpgate is to Star Wars as EVE is to Star Trek. The guns are aim and shoot, the world completely three dimensional (people can fly “upside down”) and advancement unlocks new toys, but it is still up to the player to use them.
Licenses are the core of Jumpgate’s advancement system. As players complete missions and kill enemies, they can earn new licenses, which are the basic fictional device that allows players to unlock new skills. For example, a player can buy “Mining One”, which allows them to do some basic resource gathering. As they do more, that enables them access to “Mining Two”, which in the fiction means a bigger drill, but in the game simply represents advancement.
A similar concept applies to the game’s combat roles. Players need to complete content in order to earn access to bigger ships and bigger guns. The combat is all about how true your shot is, but even the most talented player will have trouble if they don’t have good weapons.
That’s how the mechanics works, but once you’re actually out in combat, there is a solid mix of both player vs. environment (PvE) and player vs. player (PvP) content.
On the PvE side, Peterscheck believes its presence is important to fill space and ensure everyone always has on-demand combat. The Amananath are an alien race of uncertain loyalties that players should find themselves up against fairly regularly. There will be both smaller dogfight battles and epic multi-stage encounters to challenge players.
Battle Stations are the answer to raid content in Jumpgate Evolution. In the demonstration at GDC, Peterscheck swooped in – cheating outrageously, since this kind of encounter would regularly require a group – and first overcame a host of enemies in a dogfight around such a station. Once through that stage, he then had to take out a series of turrets on the station itself, then some shields, etc. Ultimately, the ship exploded in an epic bang.
On the PvP side, Peterscheck mentioned a variety of ways it will find its home in the game. At a basic level, there will simply be areas of space where anyone can fight each other. He feels it’s important that there be safe places and this is a model that has worked quite well for other space games, like EVE. He also mentioned that they’re open to full PvP servers if there is a demand for it from the community.
Peterscheck seemed most excited by the idea of scenario-driven PvP missions. Again, the player would be fully aware of the consequences of such a mission, but he hopes to use them to put players in interesting situations that pit them against each other. Whether that means simply sending them into parts of space outside their comfort zone or multiple players who have opposing goals to balance, this kind of content should raise the stakes.
Like any MMO, Jumpgate Evolution wouldn’t be complete without missions. In our demonstration, he showed off a new concept for a mission briefing screen, which adeptly countered the tedium of the regular MMO mission with a very setting-appropriate visual mission briefing screen. On top of the usual text box of description, important still shots were displayed in the window, which proved to be both immersive and informative.
Peterscheck noted that their game is fully Flash-based and he hopes they’ll be able to release it so that fans of the game can enhance and expand beyond it in ways NetDevil simply won’t have time to do.
While the core focus is clearly combat and missions, Peterscheck was quick to point out that they also have a variety of crafting, gathering and economic paths for players to enjoy as well. Players can build and plug modifications into their ships for added customization, but consistent with his core philosophy, has kept the system simple and accessible, a lesson his company learned from Auto Assault.
NetDevil has had its share of setbacks over its 11 years of operation. The original Jumpgate, while still in operation, was never overly successful and their sophomore effort Auto Assault may be remembered as one of the biggest flops in MMO history; publisher NCsoft shuttered it just over a year after launch.
Checkered history aside, it’s not all doom and gloom for NetDevil. Both games have their problems, neither is without its redeeming qualities. Ultimately, Auto Assault took a small and fun idea – fast paced car combat in a fully destructible environment – and likely just ran too far with it as an MMO. Jumpgate, unfortunately, got buried by a couple higher-profile competitors in what was an extremely limited market for space MMOs.
Neither of these games killed the company, which puts NetDevil in the unique position of one of the most experienced MMO developers in the world. Last year, they continued their journey of experience with the physics driven Warmonger, a free online FPS, and are now also at work on the mother of all toy licenses, a LEGO MMO.
With Jumpgate Evolution, the game’s system requirements are perhaps the single most important sign that they have used their experience for good and not evil. A string of MMOs have recently hit the market that require machines most people cannot afford just to get a decent frame rate and that is perhaps a big reason for their lack of financial success. If World of Warcraft taught the genre nothing, it’s that accessibility trumps pixel shaders every time. Jumpgate Evolution has taken the same system requirements as World of Warcraft as its baseline and created a game that is both beautiful and hopefully accessible to a vast majority of PC owners.
Jumpgate Evolution is not the most epic, cutting-edge or even original MMO shown at GDC this year, but they may be the company with the clearest idea of what they want to accomplish. They have a realistic vision of a tight, fun game that could easily take off. Publicly, NetDevil will only say that they plan to launch Jumpgate Evolution this year.