Neverwinter Wonders

A chat with Cryptic's Jack Emmert.

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.

Neverwinter aspires to be a co-op Dragon Age, Emmert has said, and is one of several projects in development at Cryptic - a studio already busy with the day-to-day maintenance of two big MMOs.

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.

Star Trek Online was released for PC earlier this year.

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.

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