WildStar: Interview with Design Director Mike Donatelli about development, housing, gear, guilds and end-game
At a press event for WildStar two weeks ago, I was able to sit down and have a quick chat with Carbine Studios' Design Director of WildStar, Mike Donatelli. It was very impromptu, about 15-20 minutes long, but we were able to speak a lot about what WildStar will be to different MMORPG players, the development process, housing, gear and guilds.
Lance Liebl: Thanks for taking time to talk to me today. I've played a bit of the beta, but all of this higher Elder-game content is new to me. That said, I'm really enjoying the game so far.
Mike Donatelli: So this is the thing... we are in Beta 4 now. 1-3 is super basic, super simple, W to move. 3-6 is a little more training wheels – circle, square, triangle telegraphs – you only have a couple abilities still, and you get your first stun/interrupt. Then when you hit level 6, it's like a rollercoaster straight down. It's crazy. Where we see the feedback in the forums is like anywhere from 12-14 is when people are like 'holy crap this game is nuts.' And that's where it takes off.
LL: Some of my friends and coworkers are saying it's just like Tera or Neverwinter. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's so different. It's chaos.
MD: No it's utter chaos. I've said that. Little known fact, back in the day, we had just a regular MMO combat system. It was just like everybody elses. Press 1 button. Press 2. Oh, here comes my third one. Back to one. And you just sat there, and nobody liked it. And we're like, 'man, this sucks.' Our lead combat designer at the time, Chris Lynch, had this idea. Him and an artist were working on crazy stuff where you swing your sword and everything in front of you would get hit. They had animation and effects, and we were like, 'Okay, it's cool, but you wanna redesign the entire combat system? We're in the middle of making this MMO.' And he was like, 'I swear to god. I swear to god.' So we did it.
LL: How long ago was that change?
MD: Two years. Out of the last four, about two years ago. It's been a tight schedule. But the fact is, and I've been saying this, is that we've tried to make the front-end a little more casual-friendly. But, realistically, casual is not where we're gonna get most the people. Where I hope we're going to get a lot of people are MOBA players. That's the thing I liken our combat to the most: League of Legends. You play League of Legends. I play the crap out of League of Legends. Everybody plays League of Legends. That frenetic combat – we want that frenetic combat but in an MMO where I login, and I don't play for 45 minutes and then logout, but I'm building my character.
LL: Well that brings this up: I have two kids, a wife, two jobs. So a lot of MMOs lose players – like me -- that can't devote huge amounts of time; when you get to end-game and it's just raiding.
MD: So, myself being in exactly the same boat – I have a wife, I have two kids, this job is like two jobs – and I don't have very much time to play either. So what we did is this: I refer to it as an episode of the A-Team. You login, you go to a hub, you get a local story – the marauders have ransacked this mining town and you have to run them out – 10 quests later, you get a big cinematic at the end, you feel good. You look at your watch and it's been an hour and a half, finished. It's finished. I can go to bed now. You moved your bar a little bit, you collected some items, you're done. It's not like you login in two days or three days later because that's when you have another chance, and you're like, 'What was I doing? Why do I have a cattle prod? Where's this laser whip? What am I doing? I don't remember what it is on a 40-quest long chain.' So we definitely didn't do that so that you could do these bite-sized chunks of story. It's the same reason why we did the lore we did. You opt in, you either want more info, more info, more info about the quest; if you don't, you just accept, accept, accept and move on. Twitter-length texts, journals, datacrons – all these little chunks of things that's as much as you want to get into it.
We call it supplemental storytelling. If you want to dig deeper, go nuts. We didn't want to go down the path of saying here's a 12-quest long chain. Most quests are between four quests and maybe six, and that's like a long quest chain. We just want you to be able to get in, do what you gotta do, and logout. We have big, long, crazy story, but we save it until the end. So you only even learn about what's seriously going on around level 45. And then we have a post-launch schedule of every other month having a new story instance where you get to go in, and it's an hour-long experience where you get to learn and you get to do this very heroic storyline of saving the universe. In other games, you only learn that if you raid. We built the story into the solo story instance that you can just play over and over again to get more bit, and we kept the side-story stuff to the raid. So you might learn all this awesome stuff here, but then when you raid you're like, 'Oh, this is how it ties into the raid.' And again, hour-long; we make sure they're no longer than an hour because we want you to get in, do your thing, and prep for another story instance in a month or two.
LL: That's why I was so eager to try the public quests, because it's a form of end-game content where you can spend an hour doing it and feel like you've accomplished something.
MD: What it boils down to is this: that PCP is one of two at launch. The fastest we've seen anyone level in beta to date is 98 hours to go to cap – only leveling their character, not leveling their path. You don't have to level Path, but it's more interesting. It's more gameplay. You can dig as deep as you want – we call it layered content.
I've worked for a lot of game companies – mostly MMO companies. You'll have an exec come in and go 'We're making an MMO. It needs to be 300 hours long.' That's exactly how executive level people think. They already know the money they want to make. They want it to be 'This' because they know this will make them $175 million, $12.99 a month, $2 for each player and bandwidth to preserve them, it's all calculated. It's possibly the worst possible way to make game. We jumped in and said hours isn't even a metric. We don't care. If you beat the whole game in 40 hours and had a good time and said it was the best game you've ever played, I've won. But the point is, we don't like other games that force you to play their game. We want to entice you to stay.
LL: You're also doing that with housing by including it at such an early level.
MD: It used to be level six. Six was a train wreck. It was a train wreck because people were logging in and getting to six with not enough money to do anything really good and not enough content to play. We drop stuff in the world and quests give you some of these things. But you didn't have enough. Imagine there's a Maserati sitting in your drive that has no wheels. You want to drive it but can't.
LL: It reminds me a lot of the Star Wars Galaxies housing and also a little bit of Ultima's customization thrown in there. I'm just waiting for vendors to pop up for people to sell their stuff.
MD: Yea, we get that. The customization for housing is simply nuts. I've actually stopped playing housing in our beta because I don't want to ruin it. I have this dream: I'm gonna make a giant housing plot full of gold – a Smaug's lair type of thing. Because you can do that; you can size up giant gold piles and make hills.
We've made whole other floors on houses. It's awesome. The point being, when you hit cap and it's that login, do my thing and logout type of stuff, you login, you go run a public event, grind some rep, and when your bar flips from XP to Elder Points, you'll get Elder Gems. You can buy all kinds of stuff with Elder Gems. If you're a raider and want to jack up your amp that gives you high deflect raiding, you can pay Elder Gems to increase your character's internal leveling process. Or if you can't seem to get that one piece of armor you need for the raid to progress, you can use Elder Gems to buy something a little bit less, but it will at least get you in the ballpark. But you had to have killed the boss. We did it with all achievements so some putz PvE guy can't be like 'I'm buying all raid gear,' because he never killed the monsters. We're talking, if you've run a raid 20 times and beat this boss and never got the gear you wanted, the entire time you're getting Elder Points. All of a sudden you're like I've got 40 Elder Gems, I'm just gonna buy this hat so we can move to the next boss.
There's a balance there. And you're always gaining Elder Gems with anything you like to do. What do you like to do? You wanna run Adventures? Go run adventures!
LL: From your housing plot, can you run Adventures from there?
MD: There not called Adventures; they're called Expeditions, and they're hard to find. They're a plot that you have to find. When you find it and you have it, you can put it on your plot and just call up your friends. It scales, so you bring your friends and run it for Elder Points. You can run it as many times as you want. You can collect Elder Points, get Elder Gems, and then buy the crazy X on your housing plot.
LL: I think that's great. But as someone that only has an hour or two, everyone wants to see numbers. Everyone wants to see their character improve, and that's through gear. Obviously if you're running 40-man raids, that'll have the best gear. But are casual players going to be able to somewhat keep up gear-wise.
MD: Okay. We did PAX last year. This guy came up to me and was like, 'I'm in [this other game I won't name]. I'm a PUG raider. How will I get the raid gear?' And I told him he won't. And he was like, 'What do you mean I won't?' You won't if you don't raid.
If you raid with a big 40-man raid guild – or 20-man for the first one, but by that time we hope you have 40 men for the 40 – if you're raiding with 20 guys and this is your thing, you're a raider. If you're not a raider, why would you get the same things that they get after putting all that time in? So the whole point is, you might PUG a raid. You join a raid and kill the boss and you're like, 'How do I get the items?' Kill him 20 times and you'll get the achievement of killing the boss 20 times. Now you have the OPTION to buy the hat. It's not as good as the one that drops off him, but it'll help you get to the next level of raiding where you might not even need the other anymore. Again, he was like 'I don't wanna do that.' You don't have to. That's the best part about it. If you just want to do housing, you can run enough regular PCP content, solo daily stuff to get all the stuff you need.
I'm super-excited because I know there's going to eventually be a website that gives a long list of monsters for where the high-back brown chair drops. I'm gonna go to it and see that this monster is harder to kill but has a 20% chance to drop this chair, so I'm gonna go farm that guy to get it. And then you get one, but I really need six because I'm going to have a gigantic viking table. Where does the viking table drop? Honestly, we have literally thousands of décor items scattered throughout the world.
This is a little side, personal knowledge. We work with NCSOFT, and they did this review where they looked at every game that has housing today, not at launch but TODAY, and they said we have more items than any game that has ever had housing to-date. Even if the game has had housing for five years. The stuff that you're seeing in housing today is nowhere near the stuff these guys are churning out as we speak. The only reason there's not more is because at some point we had to just stop and be like 'Eff it, we'll put it in patch one.' And that's our plan. When you see patch one, the things in it will blow your mind. The plan is to not force you to stay, it's to entice you.
LL: I have one more quick question about Guilds. Is there going to be Guild housing somewhere in the future? Or is there a visual representation of your Guild, like a tabard?
MD: Yes, there are Guild tabards already. We call them Guild holograms. It's not a cloak, but it's like a three-dimensional guild symbol that kind of flies off you and rotates around you. Yes on that. And then guild housing... there's a reason why your house is floating in the sky.
LL: Okay. Alright. So... down the road...
LL: Alright, you don't have to say anything. What about Guild ranks? Do you raise your Guild in rank and get special skills?
MD: Absolutely. There are special guild perks and ranks based on circles. Circles is you log into the game Day 1 and you have two friends from work that are playing. I'm starting a Circle, calling it Work Circle, and I want you to be part of it. Then they join your Circle. But if you group with your Circle mates, you gain renown much faster, and renown is a housing currency. Then you can have multiple Circles, you can have a guild, and a war guild.
You've played MMOs where you have work friends that you don't want to bring into the guild but still wanna keep contact with him and keep tabs on where he is in the game.
We try to encourage community because without these social systems, nobody wants to play a single-player MMO. That's kind of where every MMO has been going for the past 10 years. I don't wanna play a single-player MMO; it's an MMO for a reason.
Thank you to Mike Donatelli for taking the time to speak with us. For more on WildStar, be sure to check out our other coverage:
- The Current State of WildStar
- WildStar PvP Detailed: End-game, Battlegrounds, Arenas and Warplots
- PvP Battlegrounds: Walatiki Temple gameplay
- PvP Warplots gameplay
- WildStar housing gameplay and breakdown