Innovation is always a risk, but Arizona-based Cheyenne Mountain believes that when they enter the MMO market with their debut title Stargate Worlds, they can give people a fresh take on the MMO and find success. They’ve got everything they need: a major cult license, Unreal 3 and an IP well suited to a virtual world. Now they just need to pull it together and get it done.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it will so feel different than every other MMO that you’ll begin to rethink literally re-navigating the play-space,” said Creative Director Chris Klug, whom we interviewed along with Studio Head Dan Elggren, Art Director Howard Lyon and Technology Director Demetrius Comes to find out more.
It may have become a gaming cliché to some, but Cheyenne insists that it is their Artificial Intelligence (AI) that sets them apart and given the lack of evolution in MMO AI over the years, it’s definitely an area that could use a fresh take.
“The key is really that they react to you,” explained Klug. “They’re a little unpredictable in a good entertaining way. You really have to think your way through the battlefield.”
Their basic encounter system demands that players consider real, logical tactics as they move forward. This means cover, flanking and teamwork. It’s made even more important because the enemies will do it to you. This is how they differ from the regular MMO, who all too often rely on “MMO tactics” like “pulling”. (This is the long established convention where a ranged character attacks one wayward monster to pull him away from the group, then the entire group beats that one down, before moving to another.)
Fans are used to pulling and other MMO tactics, some might even say they demand them in their games. So why is Stargate’s solution better?
“MMO conventions came out of people throwing themselves out at EQI and seeing what happened and evolving strategies out of that,” said Klug. “I am confident that our game is more fundamentally, organically logical than that ever was.”
It makes a certain amount of sense. The way people fight in basically every MMO is at its core an artificial and unintended symptom of AI holes in the late 90s. The really long of tooth may even remember the concept of pulling, now standard, was once considered an exploit. Yet, here were are in 2008 and not unjustifiably, Cheyenne points out that virtually every MMO operates on the same set of artificial rules, none of which were ever intended.
Thus, the team at Cheyenne has set out to create a system that is far more realistic, but also more approachable for the average fan. They get logic points, it makes more sense to do what a person would naturally do than some strange AI exploit. But they are also aware that while logic is on their side, they’re still breaking established conventions of MMOs and players need to be able to get into it without confusion.
“It depends also on how you present it to the player, and the design team is working hard to present this deep, but simple system in a way that people can learn it,” said Howard Lyon. He went on to explain how they layer it in over time, so that it can retain its complexity over time without an overwhelming sea of buttons in the first ten minutes.
Studio Head Dan Elggren added that the system should be instantly familiar to both fans of MMOs and first person shooters, but ultimately, according to Klug it is its own unique beast. “It feels not like an MMO, it feels not like a shooter, it feels like something fun and unique,” he said.
If this all sounds very familiar, you’re not alone. Recent high profile flops Hellgate: London and Tabula Rasa both preached similar stories throughout the development process as they tried to merge sci-fi shooters with MMOs, only to be panned by critics and ignored by fans. On the plus side, Mass Effect continues the BioWare tradition of printing money. Suffice it to say, Cheyenne isn’t living in a bubble.
“I think that there is much more to do in our game, than certainly in Hellgate or Tabula Rasa,” Klug said. “We based our fundamental interplay on the show, so there is this mixture of casual gameplay, story, different archetypes and combat all in the same space.”
Which leads into the second major differentiator for Stargate Worlds, and it’s all in the title. Unlike the last three sci-fi/rpg/shooter games, they have a major intellectual property behind them: Stargate.
They’re very aware of their own IP and have gone to great lengths to weave the style of the show into all facets of gameplay. Nowhere is this more evident than in their approach to classes and, as a result, basic gameplay.
“Frankly, we have the best writing staff in the game industry and we understand how to tell stories in the interactive space,” boasted Klug. He cited the team’s experience from Earth & Beyond, Ultima Online and other past projects as examples of their strength.
They believe firmly that games stories are best told through what the player does and not what he reads, which means that while there will of course be text for the fans to read, they don’t expect to hit you with a wall of backstory and then have you fetch three Jafa heads. “The mission descriptions, even if you click through them, are really, really brief,” underlined Klug.
Stargate itself is a very story driven IP and their challenge is to make sure the gameplay feels like the show. Again, this is one of those areas where it’s impossible to get a sense of it without playing, but their claim that the text will be minimal, while the experience tells the story is definitely saying the right things. Now they just need to deliver on the promise.
They are confident that through iteration and careful design, they have avoided the pitfalls. They have already built all their missions, they told us, and feel they’ll stand up to the show and not tell test. “The only way [players] can ignore [the story] effectively is to not play,” added Klug.
This approach extends beyond the actual mission wrappers and into the way players actually take them on.
Each class can be placed along the spectrum of how combat oriented they are. For example, a Soldier is going to do the vast majority of their missions with a gun in hand, as one would expect. An Archeologist may do only a very few in that way. In between fall the other classes.
What does someone do in an MMO if not kill things, one might ask? Play mini-games related to the scenario is Cheyenne’s answer. For those who seek and crave explosions, life can be happy as a Soldier, but this is only a small part of each scenario. A good group will have each person approach a given scenario from their strength, so while the Soldier lobs frags at the enemy, the archeologist might have to disarm a bomb or pick a lock.
At this stage, Cheyenne wasn’t ready to go into too many details on exactly how the actual mini-games will function, but Klug did throw out Bejeweled as a generic example of a comparable style of game. At launch, the game will offer a handful of different games, each scalable based on factors within the game. There obviously won’t be an infinite number of games for players to play, but Cheyenne is confident what they do feature will be challenging, scalable and with enough variety to keep people engaged.
“We are allowing the archeologist to use mini-games to navigate the general gamespace,” said Klug cryptically. He refused to elaborate on what the heck that might mean, save to say, “you’ve never seen it in an MMO before.”
Of course, this is all for naught if the game doesn’t look like Stargate. To build their world, they have established high profile deals with BigWorld Technologies and Epic to power their game. BigWorld runs the under the hood stuff that the average fan is hopefully never aware of, while Epic’s Unreal 3 is the graphic engine of choice.
With an engine as tricked out as Unreal, especially one intended for the FPS genre, there is always the worry that for all the nice things they intend, the average fan won’t actually be able to make the darn thing run on a PC not cooled by dry ice. Not the case, Cheyenne promises.
“Restricting ourselves to this high end market really doesn’t make sense to anyone in the room,” Chris told us. They explained that they chose Unreal because it allowed them to get up and running quickly and focus on the product. The question of how high the system requirements is really more an issue of content than engine. They’ve worked hard to modify the Unreal engine to suit the needs of a virtual world and the sheer development timelines of an MMO should let PCs catch up. They believe their game will have more than enough sliders to embrace a large cross section of PCs.
There remains a lot of work to be done and in general, Cheyenne remains mum on most timelines.
“The gameplay is really starting to come together and we’re doing internal play testing, iteration on the worlds and so forth,” Elggren said.
They did say Stargate Worlds remains on schedule for a Fall 2008 release, but did not get into public testing timelines. The target date should put it up against some stiff competition in the form of EA Mythic’s Warhammer Online and potentially Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion to World of Warcraft. Nonetheless, Cheyenne doesn’t seem too worried. “All you can really do is make the best game you can,” Klug said.