Zeb has been around the industry for sometime working as a lead on Cryptic Studio’s City of Villains, on several projects for Interplay including Fallout 2, and most impressively as a designer with TSR on several AD&D Products and as writer for many P&P RPG modules. So what does a Lead System Designer do? Zeb told us that in the case of Stargate Worlds it means he is the guy who figures out how things work. This means he is a man of many hats in a given day he may act as a Programmer, a World Designer, a Content Designer, even as a Producer. He is very hands-on in his management style.
My first interview with Joe Ybarra earlier in the year was during a time of filling in key positions (including that of Zeb), determining the direction of Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment (CME) as much as Stargate Worlds, and determining exactly how MGM and The Sci-Fi Channel, the two owners of the Stargate franchise, would work with CME. With so many Stargate fans in the room it was often difficult to discuss the game design as we often strayed to the franchise!
Of interest was the fact that when the project was initially begun they received a significant volume of Atlantis assets, not SG-1. It was from this that they first began their study of franchise. They were told - when signing the contract – that SG-1 would have a guaranteed 2-year additional run and Atlantis 5 years. With this mechanism, this part is rather exciting, they have an exceptional opportunity. They receive the screenplays three months ahead of production. From these, they can adjust the game accordingly and also, they can ask that something be adjusted in the shows themselves! One can only wonder how much this both helps and hinders writing since Stargate Worlds allows for a completely different galaxy.
Since speaking to Joe, SG-1 has announced that this will be its last season (the two year window has passed). While things in the “real world” may be changing, the production of Stargate Worlds is still moving forward.
Zeb indicated that the final stages of preproduction are nearing completion and they have recently finished filling the key positions on their development team with a host of experienced people from a variety of places. He went on to tell us that while the content team is still working out many of the details, several of the major decisions have been made - the most important of which is that they game will be based around Stargate Command (SGC) and of course the Cheyenne Mountain complex, the location of the Stargate project in the series. Now this of course brings up the question of will Atlantis and the Pegasus Galaxy be part of the storyline? At the moment Zeb informed us that they aren’t sure what they are going to do with Atlantis, but it shall more than likely wait for an expansion.
The universe created by SG-1 has varied environments. By using the SGC as their base it gives them volumes of detail to call upon when creating the game. However as Zeb agreed, they may not be able to completely keep the feel of the show since, with current technology, it would impossible to replicate the relationships that the characters have with each other – the “magic” that makes Stargate what it is. To help compensate for this, they will be focusing on creating highly scripted missions that will draw the players in by taking them on personal missions against a variety of enemies.
There are many unfinished stories in the Stargate universe. Joe Ybarra wants to know what happened to the Re’tu? Were the Tolan completely wiped out? Can the Asgard solve their cloning issue? So much content to be worked with… And, according to Zeb, they’ve hired writers – to write!
One of my personal pet-peeves with MMOs is character creation and development. We create our characters and are told to make decisions about “who” we want to be at the point of creation before we ever get to play. There are your standard archetypes and descriptors help, but playing can be an entirely different experience than what is expected. At the same time, wandering for 10-20 levels not knowing your purpose drives some players crazy. It’s a dilemma when designing any RPG, not just an MMO. Which direction do you choose? Both have merit.
Because the Air Force/Jaffa character structure of the Stargate universe lends itself so well to archetypes, Zeb indicated that at this time they’ve decided to work with a standard level based system with a possible specialization system (though this hasn’t been finalized at this time) to increase character customization – a skill/class hybrid. He went on to mention that they didn’t want a game that would force players to grind. Rather, they wanted to create a game that would allow players to reach maximum level fairly easily allowing for a number of options if they find they don’t like their initial choice. In addition to this, he mentioned that they were considering a sidekick system to enable players to group with friends who might be higher or lower level from themselves. Also, should a player find they don’t enjoy the character they’re playing, they can easily begin anew.
He went on to mention that the game will not be a first-person shooter; they decided to do this to keep the game accessible to a variety of players not just those who enjoy FPS type games (or people like me who don’t have the skill for an FPS as opposed to Fafnir who does). Now while he didn’t say how they were going to specifically work combat he did mention that they want a different feel for combat then any other game, with a smarter AI that will react more like a human would. What will this mean? It means that enemies won’t just open fire on the players; instead, they may break for cover. It could also mean that they may make use of tactics against the players. While one enemy is laying covering fire, two other enemies could flank the players and pop up on the side or even behind the player’s location! This will mean players will have to remain on their toes and that tactics and party composition will mean more then just the usual brute force.
Three of the four playable races that have been announced as of September are: Human, Jaffa and Goa'uld. Yeah, you can be the bad guy! And hey, I wanna be a Samantha Carter! I want to kick-ass, be hot and smarter than well, everyone! Zeb said this just may well be possible and necessary. Items will be important in combat – the more items you can use, the more accurate you will be. So, if you have special weapons training or you’re pumped like Teal’c, you’ll have an advantage. He also mentioned that non-combat skills/classes will exist, though the scope these skills hasn’t been decided. They do know that they will be able to improve items and probably create some small consumable items. Zeb gave an example of an Armorer Class who would be able to improve the weaponry of the players and even create ammunition for their use. A scientist or archaeologist may find a linguistic mini-puzzle that will make it possible to get through a mission with greater ease.
While Stargate has historically been a squad-based experienced, there have been instances where individuals were necessary to complete missions. Knowing this and keeping the solo-player in mind, they’re hoping to strike a balance. Though, as it is a multi-player game, they will provide rewards for “regular squad” play – the Stargate version of a guild.
Joe Ybarra is an energetic man who loves to smile and laugh. Zeb is quiet, unassuming and thoughtful. But, I had to ask the man who controls so much of the direction of the game, “What are you most excited about and what would be your absolute dream to put in the game given unrestricted money, time and technology?” Zeb smiled, looked thoughtful and said, “Now this is a dream, right?”
First, he’s very excited to be working with so many experienced people. He truly does love his team and you can hear it when he speaks about them. He’s proud of the people he works with. As far as his dream? He wants truly fluid feeling combat, “When I’m entering into a space I want to have to consider the terrain, really use tactics. I want to feel like I’m there”. Wouldn’t we all…
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.