InterviewInterview - Horizons: Empire of Istaria - Rick Simmons

Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted

Developer: Virtrium

Release Date: 12/08/03


Setting: fantasy

There are few people working on Horizons who have been with the project longer than Chief Technology Officer, Rick Simmons. Although not one of the more visible members of the team, he is one of the most important as he works within the engineering team to see game concepts designed, scheduled, implemented and released to players while scheduling, planning and coordinating implementations. And, somewhere in his spare time he manages to represent the company's technical assets to people outside the company (that platform technology David Bowman mentioned in his interview).

Personally, I think he's just dreaming of a way to use all that hardware to build his own spacecraft… What was your very first video game experience (not necessarily the first game you played) and why do you think that has "stuck in your head" to this day?

Rick Simmons: The first game experience that I remember spending a lot of time playing was on the Vic20 playing Scott Adams, Adventureland and Voodoo Castle. One of the reasons Adventureland stuck in my head was the countless hours I spent trying to figure out how to solve the puzzles (most memorable are the chiggers that kept killing me - I spent days trying to figure out what to do), the other was that both these games provided a large world which seemed alive. I remember playing Voodoo Castle and trying to figure out what to do with the mob outside the castle, looking around the kitchen for knife and using the castle's dumbwaiter. I'm not a game historian, but I'm sure these were some of the first digital virtual worlds - albeit single player - but they sparked my imagination for creating virtual spaces. Did you grow up wanting to work in the gaming, not necessarily electronic, industry? Or were your goals different? And if so, what were they?

Rick Simmons: It may sound strange, but I don't remember thinking that I wanted to work in the game industry. I always knew I wanted to work with computers and spent a lot of time learning everything I could about computers - programming, hardware, OS. I was also very interested in technical drawing/art design and spent countless hours making up logos/designs, or making layouts and mock blueprints of our house and yard - whatever I could come up with. Throughout all of this, I spent time making text adventures for personal enjoyment and to share with friends. To make a long story short, I ended up with a successful career developing commercial software in the retail, petroleum, environmental and telecommunications industries. Regardless of the application, I've always enjoyed trying to understand problems, organize them into more manageable pieces and create solutions. Tell me about your "professional" life before Horizons. What experience do you have? And what are you most proud of?

Rick Simmons: Excluding the myriad of 'interesting' jobs I did as a teenager, I've worked in a number of different industries, but have always been involved in software development. The work I found most interesting and enjoyed most was in the petroleum industry. I think a big part of that work was the people - geologists and geophysicists are just cool people in general and you get to deal with a lot of complex problems. The thing that makes it so interesting is that a lot of the work is interpretation - so there's not a single right answer, it's more like building a case to prove or disprove - and the software involved has to deal with that ambiguity and deal with the degrees or 'rightness or wrongness' in trying to solve problems. What's the last book you read that had an effect on your life and why? And if you don't read books, what's the last movie?

Rick Simmons: The last book I read that I really enjoyed was the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. It's a fantastic mix of science fiction and literary fiction and can be enjoyed on so many levels. After reading this series, I've had a lot of interesting thoughts on reality and what it means for something to be real or not real, how the concept of 'real' relates to virtual spaces and at what point would events occurring within virtual spaces be considered 'real' by the general population. Name the five greatest games of all time:

Rick Simmons:

  • Alpha Centauri
  • Pax Imperia
  • Galactica Imperium
  • Dark Reign
  • MUME - online MUD Outside of work, what are your passions and hobbies? What would you be doing RIGHT NOW if you could get up from the keyboard and go do it?

Rick Simmons: I'd be shifting my polyplasmic galactic cruiser into dimension shift mode and making way for…hah hah - just kidding. I would be meditating and allowing my consciousness to slide within our galactic plane allowing me to become one with the heartbeat of the universe. Even though your interests are thoroughly grounded on Terra Firma your language speaks of the stars (as well as your favorite video games). Do you harbor a secret love of exploring the cosmos? And what do you believe you would find?

Rick Simmons: I certainly like thinking about the universe and the severe vastness of objects that are contained "within" the universe. When you consider the incredible breadth of objects, both in complexity and size, it's absolutely amazing.

When it comes to exploring the universe, I'd be equally happy having the objects in the universe brought to me as seeking them out. I think there's a distinction between people who enjoy exploring for the sake of making the find (the hunt), while others explore to find something that is novel to them (the hunt is incidental). As for exploring the universe, I think our concept of reality - what we perceive as space and time - is not uniform across the universe. I think that as we continue to expand our understanding of the cosmos, we'll further our understanding of how reality has not one form, but many forms and perhaps there are beings who exist in these other portions of the universe.

Space based games are most interesting to me because they often have lots of interesting gadgets and concepts - and there's always the most awesome technology tree. If there's one thing I love in this world it's technology trees. I'm going to stop right here, because once I start talking about technology trees, I just can't stop - they are just too cool. Cats or Dogs? Hamburgers or Hot Dogs? Or....something I didn't mention?

Rick Simmons: Cats or Dogs: I'm not big on animals in the house. They are cute, but just a bit too dirty for me to share my living space. I think they're really nice when they're outside.

Hamburgers or Hotdogs: I worked as a butcher's assistant and in a slaughter house when I was a teenager. One of the things I took away from the experience was that I prefer my animal flesh whole.

Something Didn't Mention: Chocolate soy milk is really good and red wines from Chile are exceptional. What do you feel is the most important lesson you've learned that you could pass on to someone new to the business from your time on the team?

Rick Simmons:

  1. You need a real plan (not a pretend one)
  2. You need funding for the real plan (not the pretend one)
  3. You need a team working on the real plan (not the pretend one and not their own plan) The MMO industry, especially with the 800 lb. gorilla in the room known as WoW, is going to go in unknown directions. One of them may, unfortunately be an even stronger push for first year immediate profits. Not taking into account Horizons' "stumble" at launch, what do you think this will do to prepared smaller MMOs that were never intended to be the next WoW? Will they be able to survive and even thrive? Will games that launch slowly but strong and take time to gain momentum be allowed?

Rick Simmons:
Outside of the technical complexity and production complexity that is involved in making an MMP product - which I still think is the first big hurdle to jump when developing an MMP product and marketing is a close second - I think the current environment favors the smaller product. When raising money, your chances of success are higher to pitch a niche product with 10k to 20k subscribers that has a low-cost product development design and a marketing approach that builds upon a tight community. Compare that to making a pitch where you're trying to raise money to compete for the same customer as some of the bigger names. Besides requiring a great design and a big development budget, an ultra superb $$$$ marketing effort is also required. I do think that each unique product to the market attracts new players, but there is still some shifting of players between products - everyone wants to try what's new. All of the big players in the MMP space are not going to stand idle while some new-comer tries to corner in on their space.

So - you've got two approaches, come in small and under the radar, or large and visible. My opinion is that today's market favors the product that comes in under the radar because it ultimately carries less capital risk. Of course, sometimes people will back the most crazy outlandish idea because bigger just seems better. Product pitch would go something like, "WOW has brought 4 million subscribers to the door - there are lots of people out there who are just anxious for the next game and in the big picture, 4 million subscribers is Nothing! This game has got Shader Model 9.3 - even the video card companies don't have that AND this game design has got over 3000 levels of progression. We'll bring in 4 million subscribers the first day and over 20 million in the first year. Just sign here!" Ok, totally outrageous never ever going to happen fantasy time. Describe the setting of the game you want to create. Single or multi-player.

Rick Simmons: The ultimate game that I would like to make - ignoring cost to create, design issues, technical considerations and market feasibility - is an MMP game with two distinct modes of game play. One mode involves the player who basically makes a game world (call this the world developer game), while the other mode is where players play the game worlds that are created (think of each world as Horizons-esk / AO-esk / WOW-esk / etc). The world developer game requires the player to take a planet in space and make that planet hospitable, attract flora and fauna, balance the ecosystem, terraform, build cities / towns, attract native NPC populations, etc. The more players that are attracted to the planet, the planet grows, or more planets are made available.

The players who actually play on these worlds can move between worlds and experience a world and style of play that appeals to them most. One of the complicated parts (and there's lots more) is developing a progression system that is independent of the world that is built and provides enough attraction to maintain subscriptions. This is definitely a complicated product to build and there's certainly many design considerations to be dealt with, but it certainly appeals to my sense - or lack thereof - for creating a virtual universe.

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About the Author, Kelly Heckman (A.K.A Ophelea)

I'm a mother of two boys, ages 11 and 13 and live in the chaos that ensues. I've a permanent disability that keeps me homebound, so books, kids, games and books are my constant companions. Oh, and books, too. *grins*

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.