Interview with NetDevil’s Hermann Peterscheck


When you’re on a roll, you just want to share your success with the world. NetDevil, recently pulling in 150,000 sign-ups for the Jumpgate Evolution beta, has a lot of good news to share these days. chatted with Hermann Peterscheck, Producer for Jumpgate Evolution, to get his thoughts about where development of NetDevil’s sci-fi space-based MMO game is heading and how it fits in with the insanely competitive massively multiplayer online game space.

MPOGD: It was announced in November that NetDevil had achieved 150K beta tester sign-ups. Do you know how many of these folks are going to be allowed in during the first round of beta testing? Do you have a date for the start of open beta?

PETERSCHECK: No to both of those. In terms of the numbers of people, it’ll be the way betas are normally run. You start small and you put your toes in to make sure everything works when you let people in from the outside. Then we’ll grow that to test log-in infrastructure, land-rushing, first areas, and so forth. I don’t know exactly how many people that will be at this point. I see it as a reactionary process. If they find a bunch of stuff that’s terrible, then you take more time to fix it. If everything’s great, you let in a bunch more people.

MPOGD: In closed testing and in live public demos, where has the community been the most vocal about the development of Jumpgate Evolution?

PETERSCHECK: That’s actually a really interesting question, because I was expecting it to be much more varied based on where we’re testing. But it is fairly unified. We literally go to GameStop and say, “Hey, you guys want to test the game?” and the people there are “Yeah, cool!” Then we’ll bring them to the office and let them play for an hour. Then we go to PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) or fan events and let people play there. The common response is that the game is pretty accessible to play and the mechanics are fun. The core game play is there.

This is why I think more extensive beta testing is so important. What do people do next? There’s a lot of meat in the game that’s there, but in an hour you can’t really get to it. In an hour-long playtest, you’re kind of rushed in an MMO. I think people are curious how we’re going to keep them for 10, 20, 40, 100 or a 1,000 hours. The response has been, “This is cool. I want to play more.” That’s a great sign we’re ready to go into that kind of testing.

(With Jumpate Evolution), people seem to be surprised how easy it is to jump in and play. I think there’s an expectation that, especially with space games, they are really hard, difficult to get into and very serious. We’re making a game that’s trying to go for accessibility, so you can sit down and play with a joystick, a mouse or whatever input device desired.

MPOGD: Jumpgate Evolution looked spectacular at PAX on the high-end gaming rigs you had set up, which is to be expected. However, you’d mentioned you’re trying for a mainstream audience. So, how different will the Jumpgate Evolution experience be for players on low-end PCs compared to those on high-end PCs?

PETERSCHECK: Surprisingly, it’s not that big of a difference. Where the main difference comes in is if you have a graphics card that doesn’t support shaders, for example. We don’t have any shaders that are super advanced. We’re not doing anything visually that’s really, really advanced. We’ve tried to keep (performance baselines) relatively low, and then add things as we go.

For example, our minimum specification box has a GeForce 2 (video card) and it runs the game well. The framerate is always important. Because of the way we’re doing sky boxes – the background imagery – that’s relatively the same. So you get some differences with things like the jumpgate effect, which is a cool shader, so that doesn’t look quite as good or quite as advanced. Little things like that are different, of course.

What I look at as the benchmark is, I look at comparative games on that same spec and make sure we exceed that, and I thin k we’ve managed to do that now. So it’s really an issue if you have a card that doesn’t do shaders, then you’re kind of used to not seeing shaders. Obviously, when we demo the game, we want to turn everything up as high as we possibly can. If you’re partnering with hardware vendors and they’re really awesome to work with, then you want to take advantage of their high end stuff. This is what drives the industry forward. It’s not like we want to hold back there either. We’ve tried really hard to make it when you have a high-end system, you can turn everything up a notch. If you don’t, maybe you can’t see as far, but the game is still visually compelling. We built it to look good on that spec, then crank it up, as opposed to building a game for a monster rig then turning everything down.

MPOGD: What hardware vendors are you partnering with right now, as far as you are aware?

PETERSCHECK: We work with a lot of them. I can tell you we talk to Saitek, a joystick providers; we talk to the various video card providers, Intel, IBM and guys like them. I think for companies like them, games are not only cool, they push things (for them) in ways other applications don’t. For a game like Jumpgate Evolution, a space-action game, companies that do things like joysticks and other peripherals are very excited. Also, I feel that genre has been ignored for a while.

MPOGD: NetDevil has dabbled with PhysX, physics simulation technology in the past. Are you going to be using a more demanding realistic physics model or more arcade-style control for the sake of more accessibility?

PETERSCHECK: I’d say we’re somewhere in between. The flight engine is about physics. It definitely works on “force equals mass times acceleration.” If you bump into things, they exert force on you and push you back. In order to make the flight more responsive, to make it feel more like it’s underwater, rather than in space, you add drag. By changing things like drag, we can make an experience that feels more under control. We spent a lot of time tweaking that exact thing, to make sure it felt like a ship still. So it wasn’t like you push “W” to move forward, then you stop when you let go. It’s not like that at all. Certainly, it’s a flight engine where you feel like you’re flying around. At the same time, you don’t have to be an astronaut to control the ship moving around in space.

One of the things we did to appease the religious war about how realistic a flight engine should be. We have a switch to turn off the dampening, so you can fly in a much more unconstrained way. It turns out it’s actually really fun to be able to switch between those two things, based on what you’re doing. For example, if you’re in combat and you need to quickly fly backwards while shooting behind you, you can turn off your dampeners, swing around, fire behind you, turn dampeners back on and get away. It added a really cool style to the game play, and it wasn’t originally intended for that reason. I was expecting people would play one way or the other, but once they learned that option was there, they switched between them, so it became an alternate kind of game play. It’s not really an issue of either being purists or arcade-y. It’s about being fun.

Then, of course, different ships have different control. If you have a cargo hauler, it should control more like a semi truck, than if you have a light fighter, which should control more like a Ferrari. If you have a cargo hauler and it controls like a Porsche, it’s really alienating. It goes against your expectations. You expect that thing to be hard to turn.

MPOGD: Going back to PAX, what updates for Jumpgate Evolution have you been working on since then?

PETERSCHECK: We’ve been doing a lot of work on how PvP will work. There was PvP at PAX, but there wasn’t organized PvP. Also, we’re making more content through the level ranges, such as more sectors, more different enemies, more playable ships, more weapons and so on. As one random example of one of our updates, we have a mortar weapon that does area effect damage, which is really cool. So, you can sit back at 4 kilometers and fire this bullet and all the ships in the area take damage.

50% is still iterating on thousands and thousands of random, little bugs. I think the unsung hero of the game development process is all that the time we spend on the minutiae. It’s never on the back of the box; it’s never on the attached notes; it’s never anywhere, but it makes all the difference in the world.

MPOGD: What is the development path for Jumpgate Classic, as Jumpgate Evolution development continues forward? Do you expect player cannibalization? Is there a path to migration you’ve created for Classic to Evolution?

PETERSCHECK: In one sense if there was no Classic, there’d be no Evolution. Evolution exists because we had that game to start with and there was an existing group of people interested in it. When you finish one game – in this case Auto Assault – and you start thinking, “What do I want to do next,” a number of different ideas come up. If you go deeper into something you’ve already done and built well, you’ll probably do it better the second time. That’s what Jumpgate Evolution represents, taking the original game, expanding it and making it better. People react different to that, because some people have played Classic for seven years – or longer if they were in the beta. They’re very attached to all the details of the game, so changing those things is very upsetting sometimes. I understand that and I am sensitive to it.

Most of the people who show up at these events we go to are Classic players. They check out Evolution and give feedback, and it’s interesting to hear their opinion. They’re mostly really supportive of Jumpgate Evolution.

As far as transitioning people from one game to the other, I don’t know how we’re going to do that as far as what we’re going to offer in particular. I suspect almost all of the Classic players are going to at least try it. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. If not, we have no intention of turning (Jumpgate Classic) off. I don’t like destroying people’s hangouts and people’s experiences. You pour seven years into something and somebody turns it off, that really sucks. Our motivation isn’t so much, “If we release this game, will we cannibalize these other players?” It’s more about making games that are fun that people enjoy.

MPOGD: With Warhammer Online and Wrath of the Lich King out right now, has it sucked a lot of the air out of the room for most other online game developers? By that, I mean has it forced NetDevil to alter your development in any way to be able to compete for MMO gamers?

PETERSCHECK: On one hand, the audience is larger. World of Warcraft is most of that, sucking in millions of people that weren’t playing MMO games before now at least play WoW. How many of those translate into other games, I don’t know. Companies don’t tend to be very public with their numbers unless they are astronomical. My gut feeling is the MMO game market is growing. The interest in MMOs is increasing into larger and larger groups of people. I think there are (still) a lot of people who are potential MMO players that don’t even know what an MMO is. Most people have never heard of an MMO. If you ask someone “hey, what MMO are you playing,” they won’t know what you’re talking about except in Korea.

As far as competitiveness is concerned, it’s hard because MMOs are so engaging and people have so much ownership in them, that pulling them away from one to the other has proven to be very challenging. It’s actually easier for us, because we’re competing directly for your entertainment dollar and your entertainment hour. In that sense, we compete with Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, every game.

I think by making MMO games that open new genres or styles of game play, not only is it more fun to try to do something different instead of copying everyone else, but it also gives you an opportunity to place yourself into an audience that is completely unserved. There are some people who have played Privateer or Freelancer and so on, and they want an (MMO) game but don’t have one. If you give them one, they’ll play it, right? Maybe they don’t want to play WoW. Or, they might be playing WoW and want to play this, too.

MPOGD: Recently in an interview, Bioware’s Greg Zeschu said that game developers trying to appeal to a broader and broader audience, has caused consequence has to leave gaming, including online games – and that Star Wars: The Old Republic will remedy that. Do you feel this criticism applies to Jumpgate Evolution. If not, how do you feel Jumpgate Evolution goes against that grain?

PETERSCHECK: I think that statement is true, depending on how you make your game. If you’re trying to appeal to a broad audience, that has implications in technical terms and game design and so on.

I look at it like this: I played Ultima Online, which has the most brutal death penalty ever. You dropped all your stuff, and anybody could pick it up – monsters, players, anything – and I played the hell out of that game. I played EverQuest, where the death penalty was slightly less (severe). You lost experience, but you kept your stuff if you could manage to get back to your corpse. Slowly, over time, the death penalty has gotten less and less (severe), because it’s been proven through numbers that the more people you kick in the face, the fewer people who play your game. Then, there’s all these people, who feel there’s no danger getting in the ring, that I might get knocked out, then the fight’s not very fun.

One of the things I loved in Diablo II was the Hardcore mode with permanent death. I loved playing that way. But, if it was the only thing Diablo II had, I’d have quit long before. I think the key is to give people compelling choices and you have to proportionately reward them for increasing the level of difficulty in the game. For example if you’re going to do something like a hardcore mode, where if you die you lose half your experience and items drop, make the experience points double or make the loot drops bigger or put some giant medal in the dude’s chest so he can show off. I think the word “easy” and “hard” (in games) is wrong. I think it’s “rewarding” versus “punishing”. I think we’re seeing that games that are rewarding are more popular than games that are punishing. I’d say that WoW is not easy. Very few people have gotten to the end of WoW; very few people are in the top tier arena; very few people have killed the end bosses. It’s really, really hard to do that, but it’s not punishing and it doesn’t make you wish you hadn’t played. I think there’s strong value there.

Imagine if you could World of Warcraft, and you played a dungeon and you elected to play it hardcore. So that means, if I die, I lose a level and I drop a random item. But, if I win, my chance of getting that rare loot drop is times ten. I think a lot of people would do that. That would be very punishing, but I elected it; because I elected it, I wouldn’t mind so much. In that sense, yes, he’s right. If you dumb everything down and make it easy, we’re all going to be playing “Progress Quest”. At the same time, if death is permanent in every MMO game, we’re going to have a couple hundred users.

MPOGD thanks Hermann Peterscheck for his time and insight into Jumpgate Evolution and the increasingly interesting and complex MMO game industry!


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