Champions Online and Star Trek Online didn't cut the mustard. Atari and Cryptic may tout "solid" subscriber bases - and the games themselves may have them - but STO and Champions underwhelmed. We know it, you know it, Cryptic knows it. The man responsible is CEO Jack Emmert. He's ready to admit he made some "extremely bad decisions" and "misread the market completely" - and that a change has to come. So, Emmert is shifting the focus of Cryptic from MMOs to online multiplayer games. The first product of this will be Neverwinter, a direct follow-up to BioWare's Neverwinter Nights.
Fuelled with a coal-bucket full of questions, we sat Jack Emmert down for a chat.
Eurogamer: Hello Jack! How are things going over there?
Jack Emmert: So far so good. We actually have a [Neverwinter] milestone that we've hit today.
Eurogamer: What was that?
Jack Emmert: It's about three or four hours of almost shippable-quality game. When we do these vertical slices we bring in a mock reviewer to score the game. We've never done this before, it's a new process that we started after Star Trek and Champions - frankly in reaction to the low review scores. Because, honestly, pinch me - none of us expected those kind of reviews.
Clearly, internally, we didn't have a good sense of the quality of our games. So we have these vertical slices where we hire an outside reviewer to come in and give us a completely unbiased opinion of what's going on. And then of course we play-test [Neverwinter] ourselves and frankly I have a lot of fun.
Eurogamer: Are you concerned that by using those reviewers you become less focused on what you're doing and more concerned about what other people think?
Jack Emmert: It's certainly a concern. We have to keep our eye on the ball, because any reviewer might have a very have a peculiar sense of what they like and don't like that may be out of tune with what we're doing here or what the customer wants.
Certainly one could say that despite the reviews of Star Trek, we have a significant amount of subscribers. They like the game just fine. So, definitely the need to do a reality check, but it's still healthy to be able to anticipate and understand what an outside reviewer might say.
Eurogamer: You've announced Neverwinter to the world, but the reaction hasn't been positive - there are concerns about you as a developer after STO and Champions. That's got to be demoralising - how does it make you feel?
Jack Emmert: What happens is a storyline gets set - the story of a company; there's a swathe of negative reviews for Star Trek and Champions and that becomes who we are. It's amazing, because some of these people might not have even played our games - how would they know one way or the other?
What we were doing wasn't working so we've got to change our approach on everything: like these internal reviews, the style of games we do, focusing on quality, not worrying about making cookie-cutter MMOs. Just make a great game and the rest will follow. It's that simple.
Yeah, it's demoralising, but it's just a reminder that we have to buckle down.
Turbine went through the same thing: Asheron's Call 1 was a success and Asheron's Call definitely was not, and Dungeons & Dragons Online didn't hit their expectations at first. But then they came out with Lord of the Rings Online, which everybody liked.
You're only as good as your last game, and we need to turn it around, and Neverwinter is going to be part of that process. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our people and we believe in our technology.
Eurogamer: Cryptic bigwigs Bill Roper and Craig Zinkievich left. What else has happened behind the scenes there? Is it a different company when you walk in those doors each day?
Jack Emmert: The big change is the development philosophy. There are some more changes coming in terms of the games, but we'll cover that in the months to come. The big change is that we're not making MMOs, we're making online multiplayer games.
Basically we had come up with a formula where we could make what we thought was a fun MMO in 18 months. And we did that with City of Heroes; City of Villains we did in nine months; Champions 18 months; and Star Trek 18 months. There are not many people who can do that! But we learned that that formula might have worked for City of Heroes and City of Villains, but it doesn't work any more, so we just had to change that.
Eurogamer: Is this a follow-up to BioWare's Neverwinter Nights? Or is it something different?
Jack Emmert: Yes, it is certainly a sequel to Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2. The biggest difference is the setting: Fourth Edition D&D and Fourth Edition Forgotten Realms. In the pen and paper world, the clock has moved forward by over a century, so a lot of the people from the previous products have passed away, have changed.
Certainly we have plenty of Easter Eggs that refer back that game. Neverwinter is a completely different place to what it was: it's been totally destroyed. Some people are trying to rebuild it, and that's really where the player comes in, discovering how Neverwinter came to be like this and who lurks in the ruins, attempting to take advantage of the fall of Neverwinter.
Eurogamer: How many levels are there?
Jack Emmert: The the first 10 levels are Heroic. Right now we're sticking primarily at Heroic levels and we'll extend it from there. You'll go no higher than 10, certainly.
Eurogamer: What classes are you bringing over from Fourth Edition D&D?
Jack Emmert: Right now, Wizard, Fighter, Rogue, Ranger, Cleric. I traditionally have played tanks in MMOs, so I tend to go towards the fighter.
Eurogamer: Are single-player characters and multiplayer characters one and the same thing?
Jack Emmert: Yeah, you're absolutely right.
Eurogamer: How are you interpreting the Dungeons & Dragons rules?
Jack Emmert: I would say we're being inspired by D&D, not slavishly trying to copy. Where possible we're trying to use the abilities and powers and monsters and some of their behaviours. But it's not going to be a one-to-one correspondence.
For instance, there's no two-hit roll. We've used boons in a slightly different manner. Hit-points aren't exactly the same. But, by and large, the structure is similar. It's not turn-based.
Eurogamer: Oh, it's action-based? Are there discernible turns - is it all based on a dice-roll system?
Jack Emmert: There are dice rolls going on, but it's not turn-based in the sense that you can pause it. You target something, you attack, you swing. The random aspect is going to be how much damage you do, and that's affected by your feats and abilities.
It's not an action-RPG, but it's also not straight D&D where you roll a die to hit.
Eurogamer: Did you play tabletop Dungeons & Dragons?
Jack Emmert: Oh yeah. Just take a look at my background: I started gaming with pen and paper role-playing games. I've been playing D&D since 1979.
Eurogamer: Have you ever dressed up as a wizard?
Jack Emmert: No, no, I don't do the dressing up. I have my limits.
I am a huge gamer. If you come to my office you'd be shocked.
Eurogamer: What art direction are you taking - stylised or realistic?
Jack Emmert: It's going to be a little bit stylised: realistic-stylised - ha! I don't know if that's a term. We're trying to get some of the qualities that some of the Spanish fantasy authors have done in the past: your Vallejos, etc. That has an influence which will suggest a little bit of what people can expect.
We feel that this is the finest art we've ever done. Some of the things in Star Trek were frankly spectacular. I'd rather have a smaller zone or smaller dungeon that is spectacular than spend time making a large and mediocre experience. We fully understand we've got a lot to tackle, art-wise.
Eurogamer: When I'm bored of playing Neverwinter alone, how will I group with other players?
Jack Emmert: Basically Neverwinter is broken into a number of zones. There are other players in those areas, social hubs, where we plan for people to interact. There will also be various search mechanics similar to what we have in our other MMOs to allow you find your friends and what people are doing what quests and so forth.
Eurogamer: How many friends can I group up with?
Jack Emmert: Five, and you can fill a group with henchmen or friends or some combination thereof.
Eurogamer: What sort of content is there for groups - can we tackle story tasks or are we limited to dungeon crawling?
Jack Emmert: Everything that's part of the narrative. Everything.
Eurogamer: Presumably the danger with that is that it runs out at some point?
Jack Emmert: You're exactly right. Where that comes into play is the user-generated content. We also have a full slate of content we're going to continue to bring after release. We don't think people will find themselves at a loss for things to do. Dungeons can be repeated, too - they are persistent.
Eurogamer: The Neverwinter Nights toolset cheapened the game content for me. I had access to all the monsters, all the items, everything - the incentive to keep playing the game to gather the best equipment was gone.
Jack Emmert: Right now we're not sure that in our user-generated content you can make your own items and weapons. There would be very strict controls on that.
What currently the UGC is intended to do is for people to attach their quests, their stories into our world. You're right, it's possible for people to create bad content, and that's why we'll have rating systems - similar to what YouTube does - because the best stuff is just going to float to the top naturally.
Eurogamer: Presumably the social hubs that you have will cater for guilds and trading - standard social MMO mechanics?
Jack Emmert: You can do all those MMO things in this particular product, yes.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned there's going to be a fee to play Neverwinter. Is that right?
Jack Emmert: I did. We haven't talked about the business model at all. We've got some things planned.
Eurogamer: Will you charge from the beginning or is that still up in the air?
Jack Emmert: We haven't announced it yet. I wouldn't say it's up in the air; I would say some elements are still being debated.
Eurogamer: Are you tempted to make it a free-to-play product - one you download for free and then charge for after that?
Jack Emmert: Am I tempted? I can speak hypothetically! The time is certainly getting close where free-to-play... Triple-A videogames can be free-to-play. Now I'm not saying that's what Neverwinter is, but I am saying that free-to-play has traditionally been associated by pretty low quality products: very simple MMOs, extremely primitive graphically.
But DDO, for instance, has proven that you can put a pretty high quality product out there, make it free-to-play and you're going to attract an audience that is stable business-wise. What we're doing with Neverwinter, hey, we'll announce it soon enough.
Eurogamer: I loved your quote about an MMO being defined by what it was at launch rather than what was added post-release.
Jack Emmert: You should know that me saying that at the time was groundbreaking, because the thought had always been with MMOs is you launch and improve afterwards. It's a completely different world now.
That actually started with City of Heroes just prior to World of Warcraft. Because we launched, and we launched without PVP, without crafting. And even though we added it after the fact, we never gained any subscribers. It was a pretty groundbreaking thing to say. Of course now it seems obvious, but back in the day...
Eurogamer: Are there things you've left out of Neverwinter so that you can be as robust as possible at launch?
Jack Emmert: What I've done is carve out... If you read the comments, people ask why there are so few classes. Neverwinter 1 had something like 13.
Eurogamer: But you're adding classes after launch.
Jack Emmert: We will, you're absolutely right. But what we're saying is we're committed to making five great character classes. I'm going to be upfront and tell you exactly how it is. We'll add more afterwards. But I'd rather have a game that had five rock solid character classes than a game with 15 mediocre ones. That mediocrity sticks with the game, it just does.
We are creating an RPG similar to Dragon Age; a story with a beginning, middle and an end. We're not trying to create MMO with endgame. That's not what we're doing. We're focusing our efforts on quality, not quantity.
Eurogamer: Why aren't you making Neverwinter for console?
Jack Emmert: We just aren't. I want to do an MMO on console some day.
There are things I can focus and spend time on, like making a great Neverwinter game [on PC]. I'd love to do an online console RPG, but it just isn't... It's not for Neverwinter.
Eurogamer: You said you're only as good as your last game. Do you deserve a second - well, third - chance?
Jack Emmert: Hmm, that's really up to the consumers. Arguably no one should have bought Lord of the Rings after DDO and after Asheron's Call 2 from Turbine. Record of success doesn't always necessarily help, marketing budget doesn't always necessarily help - you've got to make a great game.
We have time, we have great guys, great developers. APB wasn't received well and look at what happened there. Here we are and we're kind of in a reverse position. I made some extremely bad decisions with Star Trek and Champions and misread the market completely and those games suffered as a result.
Hopefully our new focus and our change in the style of games we're making is going to match more what we can deliver to the public in a great fashion.
Eurogamer: What's the Neverwinter development cycle? When are we going to get a closed beta, open beta, demo, launch?
Jack Emmert: There's not going to be the traditional closed beta and open beta that we've done with MMOs, because it isn't the same product. We'll be following a testing cycle that fits with the type of game we're making.
Eurogamer: To clarify: can the public play Neverwinter this year?
Jack Emmert: Err, some lucky folks might. It's possible.
Eurogamer: Would those lucky folks be people that frequent your community site?
Jack Emmert: Yeah, yeah, it might be that, it might also by Neverwinter Nights people. People have done a lot of great mods and stuff. We researched that in secret and we definitely want to reach out to them because we want to make sure that the people who made great Neverwinter Nights mods over the years are included into the process of developing our UGC tools and really part of where we take this game.
Eurogamer: Are BioWare involved in Neverwinter at all?
Jack Emmert: No I'm afraid they aren't. It would be great if they were - I'm sure they could teach me a lot.
Jack Emmert is CEO of Cryptic studios. Neverwinter will be released on PC in 2011. There's a Neverwinter website, but little on it.