Ten people. That's the size of the team at NetDevil currently working on Jumpgate: Evolution. This sceince-fiction, space-combat MMO, only recently announced and due out by the end of this year, is flying (and shooting) in the face of the wisdom received from Activision chief Bobby Kotick - that it would cost at least half a billion dollars to succeed in massively multiplayer gaming.
"I think it's, frankly, BS," says NetDevil president Scott Brown, speaking to us at last week's Connect 08 event in Birmingham - the showcase for Codemasters Online Gaming, which will be publishing Jumpgate: Evolution in Europe. "I think that's the big guys trying to say get out, don't compete with us. It's not true."
Of course, NetDevil isn't exactly aiming to steal the audience of Kotick's adopted baby, World of Warcraft, with this sequel to its original Jumpgate from 2001. It's not even aiming to compete too closely with the daddy of space-faring MMOs, EVE Online. Jumpgate: Evolution is a pacey, aggressive, skill-based dogfighter and galactic trader, a game in search of a lost constituency of big kids with flight-sim joysticks who are still chasing the dream of being an X-Wing pilot.
"The primary market is going to be fans of space games," confirms Brown. "Elite, Wing Commander, FreeSpace, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. We've tried to make an online game for those players, but we've hopefully made it accessible enough that it'll be a game that's easy enough for others to get into. The secondary market will just be other MMO players. EVE is an incredible game, it's beautiful, it's amazing. But it's more of a 'create your corporate empire in space' game. Ours is more in-the-cockpit adrenaline. So we're kind of opposites. I've heard someone say: we're Star Wars, they're Star Trek."
The better to replicate the seat-of-the-pants intensity of flying a space fighter, NetDevil is bending over backwards to include as much hardware support as it can - quite a novelty in the MMO field, where developers tend to rely on the online nature of their worlds to go the extra immersion mile. Not just joysticks, but keyboard displays, powered seats and head-tracking systems will all be supported.
Not everyone will want to make that investment, of course, and thankfully the mouse-and-keyboard setup is elegant, logical and highly responsive. The mouse steers your craft and fires lasers, WASD keys are throttle and strafe, Q and E are roll, there's a high-speed boost on shift, brakes on the space bar and missiles - not that we got that far, sadly - on C. It's a little twitchy and disorienting at first, but that's because it really is that long since we played a space-combat game; a couple of missions in and you'll be twisting and weaving and barrel-rolling with abandon.
For such a low-budget, small-scale development, Jumpgate: Evolution looks mighty slick, too. The asteroid cluster in the first sector is a little chunky, perhaps, but the ship designs are sharp, and NetDevil has found every opportunity it can to splash neon colours and hazy, rippling energy effects all over the screen. It's an answer to the eternal problem posed by space games - how to maintain visual interest in the void, especially considering the physical scale, and extended play time, of an MMO.
"Yeah, it's a huge problem," concedes Brown. "It's something that we've addressed in a number of ways. First off, we tried to make the world really bright and colourful. We've tried to keep the maps a little more condensed than they used to be, to keep you in the action a little bit more. We tried to make lots of upgrades so that you fly much faster. With all the old great space games like say Wing Commander, you hit autopilot and skip from one exciting part to the next; you can't really do that in an MMO."
NetDevil has also been anxious to ensure the game scales well on more modest PC setups, too. "We joke that it runs on a caluclator," says Brown, noting the current prevalence of laptops with fast processors and weak graphics cards. It's also about getting this modest, niche MMO in front of as many people as possible. "It's everything. Especially when you're like us," says Brown. "We need every player we can get. Frankly, there haven't been a lot of space games recently. We don't know where the players all are."
Space games are the constant reference for Jumpgate, rather than MMOs, and NetDevil is keen to stress that this isn't an RPG - there are no attributes, no dice-rolling, just you and your targeting skills. That said, you can of course expect to improve your ship's equipment - the first few missions add a second laser cannon, a faster engine, better shields and a new power unit - and, later on, upgrade to higher-level ships through a licensing system that Brown likens to Gran Turismo's. And yes, there's still an experience bar at the bottom of the screen, driving you on to grind out a few more space pirates and score the latest sweet little boost to your ship's stats. It's still pure MMO.
Indeed, Jumpgate: Evolution's feature list is a fairly straightforward trot through everything you expect of both space-faring adventure and massively multiplayer gaming. There's a crafting system based around mining, refining and manufacturing, a player-driven economy, auction house and mail systems, a number of factions to ally yourself with (or otherwise), and a mix of player-versus-environment and player-versus-player scenarios. What there isn't is a player avatar beyond a small portrait. "It's a real small team, and so we've just decided to really focus on the space flight, make that really great, and see," says Brown.
However, the extremely tight restrictions on Jumpgate: Evolution's development have also led to what might be the most interesting aspect of its design. The game features a dynamic mission system that sets you tasks based on how long you want to play for, your faction ratings with various groups, and general activity within the game's universe. "Instead of telling our story and pre-building thousands of missions that you play through, it's more about your story as a player," he says. "Small teams can make great games, but there is a limit to how much they can do. That's why you use stuff like the dynamic missions."
The idea is that the excitement in Jumpgate will be generated by the players themselves, rather than by huge swathes of scripted, crafted content. "Everything players do affects the world," says Brown. "Prices are affected by who's running what goods, and if you want to build something you might only be able to do it in a PvP area of space. So you've got to escort this big hauler out there" - cargo freighters will apparently be mostly AI controlled - "and get him out to this part of space so they can manufacture these weapons you need, and then get him back out of there."
It's an interesting proposition, as is the extensive depth of the faction system. Although players initially choose one of three races - mercantile, religious and imperial - there is a "huge pool" of factions in Jumpgate: Evolution, and they will be tied quite strongly into some interesting-sounding player-versus-player setups like the one above. "PvP in a game like ours is especially strong," says Brown. "How long did you play Quake, right? For forever, every day, even though you played the same three maps. It's not so much about endless content in an action game."
If there's a worry, it's that NetDevil has attempted the sci-fi action MMO before, and it didn't work out too well. We don't mean with the original Jumpgate - which still enjoys a small but loyal audience - but with its post-apocalyptic, vehicular combat MMO, Auto Assault, published by NCsoft in 2006. Auto Assault was a bizarre, tumbledown hybrid of a game, which despite some interesting ideas and impressive physics was a commercial disaster, and got canned after little over a year. Brown is humble about it, in retrospect - and keen to point out the lessons learned.
"We were so obsessed with everything having to be different," he says. "Levelling had to be different, skills had to be different, crafting had to be different. We had this word 'unique' stuck in our head. And it turns out that when everything feels unique, the game feels foreign. Uncomfortable, you know? The other thing is, I think the game was too complex. I think one of the secrets of WOW - well, maybe it's not a secret - is that it's very easy, accessible, but it is certainly not an easy game at the end."
The effect on Jumpgate: Evolution is immediately obvious, even in our brief playtest. It's prettier, smoother, easier to grasp, far more immediately rewarding than Auto Assault was. It's a very simple proposition, and, so far, it works. However, you have to wonder whether such a small team (even though it will grow before launch) can make the game compelling enough in the long term to convince people to pay for a box copy and months, or years, of subscription.
Jumpgate: Evolution is a low-budget MMO, and despite the glossy looks, it shows. That's not necessarily a bad thing. While the majority of NetDevil's staff is tasked with creating the inevitably huge LEGO Universe, those ten guys are beavering away on a labour of love, and that's rare in the juggernaut-dominated world of MMOs. "Jumpgate is the game we started our company to make," says Brown. "We said, let's go back and take another shot at it. I think the work they're doing is just amazing. A small group of guys going, let's take our baby and see what we can do."