9th May 2009 | 09:00
Bill Roper has a fairly epic history. Through the '90s he was director at some company called Blizzard, and had a key role on the development of Diablo, StarCraft and yes - WarCraft.
After his golden years at one of the world's largest development companies, Roper branched off to form his own studio; the ill-fated developer of Hellgate: London, Flagship studios, which eventually went bust last year.
That there is a story far bigger than most game luminaries ever get. But now the WarCraft man's back to head up development on promising MMO Champions Online at Cryptic Studios - and perhaps take on his old studio at their own game.
We sat down with the man for a chat...
What stage of development are you at with Champions Online? It must be almost done...
Bill Roper: Yeah we're almost done. The release date is set for July 14 [note: the date has since been confirmed for September 1 in the US and Sept 4 in Europe], so we are in the bug hunt/polish phase, where our bug testers rate each mission after they play it. So what we're doing right now is taking to 25 lowest rated missions, and then kicking those back to the designers for tweaking. It's all on track though.
As an iconic figure in the MMO world, how have you found yourself working on Championships Online?
Roper: It's been a lot of fun. I've worked on so many sci-fi or fantasy-based things that working on a superhero game is really cool. You can get away with everything.
What brought you to working on Champions Online?
Roper: After we closed Flagship studios - the company I had for five years - I was looking for whatever my next opportunity was going to be in the gaming industry. I actually just wanted to get into the beta for Champions Online. And through a mutual friend of mine, I ended up having an email with one of the designers and he emailed me saying he wasn't sure he could get me into the beta because it was closed to industry. I said that I was technically not in the industry right now - because I was between positions. He was like: "Really? Maybe you should talk to my boss." So I came in and met the CEO and directors, and they said they'd love me to come and work on the team. So when I was given the opportunity to choose which product I wanted to jump onto, I chose Champions - I played Champions as a kid so I was familiar with all the concept and ideas.
So it was in beta phase before you joined the team?
Roper:It had been in closed 'friends and family' beta for a while.
So how has that restricted your influence on the game's development?
Roper: A lot of the biggest things I've been able to do is offer a fresh eye. When you're working for while with a team it's very easy to get your head down and be focused, and there are certain things you don't think of. So it's good to bring in experience from other games, play it for the first time and ask a lot of questions, and distil some of the game's features that were going to take far too long to develop in the way they'd laid them out.
That's the kinda thing I use to do at Blizzard - come onto a project in the last six to 12 months and basically help get it out the door and make sure the right elements are happening. It's been a refreshing change because at Flagship I was the CEO so I didn't get to develop much.
Would you ever consider going back to Blizzard should the opportunity arise?
Roper: Sure. Blizzard's an incredible company. If there was something that made sense to go back there I wouldn't be closed off to it, but I think that it's sure to be interesting. I'm sure it'd be an amazingly different place now.
How did the disappointing performance of Hellgate London and Flagship's closure affect you, and what have you taken from that?
Roper: It was really difficult. I think the biggest problem with Hellgate London was that we tried to do too much. We had a single-player game, that was also free multiplayer, but also had a subscription element, it shipped in 14 languages simultaneously, and there were all these different versions on different operating systems. Then it also had really top-end graphics but we also did low-poly versions of everything.
The list went on and on and ultimately it just meant that we were spread far too thin, we didn't have nearly enough time to really do what would have probably been the more important things in the game.
So at Cryptic I take that and I now ask what parts are actually vital to the game - throw away the parts that aren't important. Don't worry about supporting all these varying elements - things that can seem like a really idea at the time, but add a lot of distraction to the game.
I think the other big thing that I learned was that my career, while important, isn't my life. I was very personally invested into flagship. When the game didn't perform as well as we wanted - considering all the hype around the game and company - I think people took that incredibly personally. And when the company could no longer be sustained, I saw that as a failure of me, not the company. Most companies fail, and we'd surpassed most start-ups because we'd actually shipped a game.
What I really learned is that, what we do [as games developers] is great, it's fun, and we should be doing everything we can to make the best game possible. But we're not curing aids or sending someone to the moon. We're making videogames. It's okay to go home at the end of the day and not be obsessive over your job. You can make good games without it becoming your entire life.
Champions is headed for 360 as well as PC. Has that placed any restrictions on development?
Roper: Not that much really. We're still waiting for Atari and Microsoft to hammer out business details for how it will operate on the 360 as an MMO. We knew when it would be out on PC so one of the pushes we had was to really focus on the PC interface. It's got to feel good for PC players using mouse and keyboard.
Previously there had been a big focus on getting to feel great working for both platforms. All of the mechanics, though, really work fine, we really didn't have to compromise anything graphically on PC and the comic shading we're using translates exceptionally well to 360.
There's nothing we've done from a technical or gameplay standpoint that to prohibitive to be on 360, and we haven't compromised what we want the game to be. It helps knowing from the beginning that your game is going to be on a console, and that your design is fun and rich that works within the hardware specs.
Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast was perhaps the last hugely successful MMO on consoles. Are you hoping Champions Online will do the same for the current generation?
Roper: I hope so, and I think that it can be. Console gamers have a good history of liking super heroes, and I think that consoles are ripe to get a good MMO now. On a daily basis I've had to think about how to make that happen, and that's a big challenge.
On the PC it's pretty much an open platform. If you run the servers and you build the tech you can host people online. Whereas on consoles, other people own the platform, so there all sorts of business details to sort out. But I don't have to worry about that, I just try to make the game great, and I really do think it'll be fantastic on consoles.
360 is a closed platform, which is often touted as key difference between it and the PS3 which is far more open. User created content will play a big part in Champions Online - how will that fit into MS' usually tight policies?
Roper: I don't really know that we have a lot of restrictions on that. I think those are issues that Atari and MS are hammering out right now - how often we can release updates and how it will work.
I think the thing that's good about our Nemesis system is that it resides within the game as it's shipped, it's not separate or a DLC component, which gets around a lot of the concerns you might have when you look at Xbox. You are adjusting things that are already in the game.
The fact that there aren't really a lot of MMOs on consoles is not due to developers not wanting to make MMOs for consoles, and I think that console players would love to be playing MMOs. I think it's just that it's always a higher-level question that has to be sorted out at a corporate business level. How will it all work? For example, MS has a lot of restrictions on the 360, and they work really well for 95 percent of titles, but I think MMOs fall under that five percent where we break all the rules in terms of how we have to interact with our customer.
360 owners already have to pay for Xbox Live Gold accounts. So there must be an issue over getting them to pay again for MMOs with subscription business models...
Roper: I'd imagine there will be.
Would a PS3 version of the game ever be considered?
Roper: Sure. I'd love to have us release on every platform conceivable. At this point, I'm sure it's all about figuring out how to make an MMO model work on consoles.
And you've chosen the 360 as the first to try it on?
Roper: The 360 is basically a PC in a box, right? So it's a lot easier to do that. The PS3 is a whole different development platform, but we've been talking with PS3 development teams who can at least do the engine conversion. It's something we've been exploring. I know everybody in the team would be ecstatic to get the game out everywhere we can, because the more players the better.
You've been quoted as saying that World of Warcraft is now so polished that efforts to challenge it would be futile - or words to that effect. It's dominated for almost five years, do you see it dominating for another five?
Roper: I think it's difficult to know when it'll stop being dominant. I think there'll be a window that will open that'll allow another game to step in. That's what WoW did to Everquest. Everquest was winding down, Sony was focused on Everquest 2, there weren't any other real big MMOs in the pipeline, and the idea for WoW was originally "we're going to make the best Everquest that's ever been made". It's the same gameplay model, but polishes everything and gets rid of everything that didn't work.
I think the difference is that the next game that comes along and captures that imagination is going to be a game that does something different - a game that offers some other really compelling thing in an MMO space for players to do. Because I think it would be near impossible for someone to say "let's make the best WoW you could ever make and get rid of things that don't work", because that's what Blizzard already did.
But making something that takes advantage of the fact that WoW has opened up the MMO genre to a massive amount of players, especially in the West, is where other people developing MMOs should look to. It's not about "How do I make the next WoW", it's more about "How do we make a great MMO that we know a lot of people will want to play, and have something different that's compelling and interesting."
WoW has a lot of players, but when you talk to some of these players they're like "yeah, I play, but there's not a lot else to play", they try something else and then they come back. Maybe WoW will dominate for another five years, maybe only for another year. Who can tell?
Thanks for your time.