Interview: Design Producer Stephan Frost on What Makes Wildstar a Unique and Fun MMO

on April 17, 2014 10:20 AM

While at this year’s PAX East I got the chance to spend time with Carbine Studio’s Design Producer Stephan Frost who works on the upcoming MMO, Wildstar. In a world that has countless MMOs, Wildstar stands out due to its unique art style and focus on fun. Stephan and I discussed the genesis of the game, its design, and what he and his team hoped to accomplish when creating it.

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How long has the game been in development for?

The studio’s been around for about nine years. Wildstar itself has been in development for about three and a half to four years. The time before that was spent establishing the IP and getting the tech working.

What kind of tech went into making it?

A ton of tech. It’s all proprietary tools and our engine was specifically made to handle MMOs. Unreal could be used for various things but this (engine) was specifically made for us to make a solid AAA MMO.

What was your original goal when creating the game? What was the genesis of it?

We just wanted to make a fun MMO that was unique. We wanted to evolve the genre rather than revolutionize it. A lot of what we did was to put action combat in the game, let’s make the players move around a ton. Let’s put in really hardcore stuff like 40 person raids, 20 person raids and WarPlots which are these death fortresses that you can customize and can battle other death fortresses with up to 80 people. We said “Okay, let’s make something that’s hardcore and fun and make sure that the leveling process doesn’t suck and that there’s an end game.”

What do you mean by “Make sure the leveling process doesn’t suck?”

[Laughs]

It’s not grindy. If you have crap combat in your game then you have a crap game. The thing that you do the most in these games is kill things so combat needs to be fun. When designing creatures we made sure to have these telegraphs in the game that kind of denote where you should and should not be.

As we developed the game we made crazier and crazier telegraphs for the leveling content. There’s stuff where telegraphs will follow you and you have to dash out of the way or you’ll be in a place with forty of them and you have to go in between them. It’s a lot more skill based than the traditional MMO where you use tap targeting or something like that.

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How much content is in the game?

Oh lord, there’s LOADS of stuff. We have the usual: trade skills, dungeons, PvP, arena based stuff, battle ground stuff, the usual PvE content. We also have Paths which are kind of more of a gameplay choice, or style for you. If you’re the type of person who just likes to kill things then we have “Soldier”… that’s me personally. There’s the “Explorer” If you want to go to the top of the highest mountains, if you want to go underground to explore ancient, technological ruins you can do that. As a “Scientist” you’re all about lore. This is great if you’re interested in alts because it makes these experiences different even in the same zones.

Can any of the characters do this stuff or do you have to build multiple characters to do all of these things?

When you select a path, that sticks with you for the rest of the game.

So you can’t really deviate too much from your chosen path?

Nope. Once you pick a path, you’re stuck with it. It’s like a class.

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I want to ask you about PvP. How did you make it so it was balanced for everyone?

A big part of what we do on the classes side of things is look at metrics and look at forum feedback. For example, we’ll see that it’s level 23 and the spell slinger is killing a lot more of a particular class. We would need to modify that. A lot of balance is coming from us right now because our class guys are ONLY working on balance, they’re not making new things, they’re not adding anything else into the game, they’re just worried about making the game as functional as possible in a PvP environment, in a PvE environment, and in dungeons.

What can you tell me about the lore of the game? Went went into creating that?

I think… and don’t quote me on this…

I am quoting you, this is an interview [Jokingly].

[Laughs]

I believe, working with our localization team, that there’s 2 million words in the game. There’s a lot. Our lore guy is Chad Moore and he will talk your ear off for days about the lore of the game. We’re a heavy personality based game but we also have some dark and sinister kind of stuff too.

There’s a world story that builds up as you level up. We noticed that raids were the only time where you would get story and raiders aren’t really into story per se so we wanted to make single player instances. People that aren’t into PvP usually want to hear more about the story so we created leveling instances for them to check out and to learn more about the planet. The idea, the Mcguffin for the story, is that you come to this planet that was once guarded by this ancient technology and defense systems and now it’s all down and the advanced race that lived there is gone. You land and you’re like “Wow, there’s all this crazy stuff here… what happened?” So you figure that out as you level and on top of that, after release, we’re going to have monthly updates and things like that so we’ll drop world stories in every so often.

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Tell me about the challenges in this game.

Challenges are like this: If I’m killing something, a prompt comes up that will say “Can you kill 20 of these things in less than two minutes?” So maybe you already have a quest to do that so it’s kind of like you’re getting two for one. Darksiders and Dante’s Inferno had something similar and we thought that we should put something like that in our game. It’s kind of cool and you can get rewards based on that too.

It’s all about fun for us. We didn’t need any real explanation for why we had these challenges in there. We put them in because they’re rad and you get loot off of them.

The art style of the game is very unique. Is the game’s style part of the “fun” that you mentioned? What can you tell me about it?

Our creative director/art director is Matt Mocarski who’s worked on a litany of titles like: Jak & Daxter, World of Warcraft, Legacy of Kain… old school stuff. He is a huge fan of animation, graphic novels, Pixar movies, comics in general, and other video games. So we took all of that, the stuff we really liked, and put it into this fun Pixar-kinda looking world.

All of those influences that you mentioned, you can totally see it in the design.

Yeah. It’s like Don Bluth, Pixar and Hellboy mixed. Matt may say “No, it’s really more of THIS”, but that’s what I see at least.

What about the color palette? Was there anything specific you guys wanted to do with that?

Bright colors. We wanted to have something that wasn’t dark and dreary. These things will hold up a lot better if you have that cartoony style over the years. You won’t have that uncanny valley problem where people are like “they look dead”. We wanted to have lively, fun, colorful experiences that kind of play with the combat too. The telegraphs are really brightly colored for example. Also, if you’re color blind, we have features set up to let you see the telegraphs in different colors.

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How big is the world of Wildstar?

It’s HUGE! I don’t know the exact kilometers, miles or anything like that but there are about 13 zones and within each zone there are things that we call “tracks”. If you were to look at it like a map it would be like the United States is the world, within that is a state and within the states there are counties. We have a lot of those. I can’t even tell you how big they are but I will tell you that our in-game one is so huge and massive that you NEED a mount. It’s critical.

And you have different kinds of mounts in the game?

Totally. We also have mount customization as well. If I have a Velociraptor, or a Velocirex as what we call it, I can ride on the back of that thing but I can also put cannon on its sides, ramen noodles… I can put loads of stuff on there. We have hoverboards too and they actually go over water.

It’s not like Back to the Future, right?

[Laughs]

No it’s not like Back to the Future. Marty McFly would be stoked if he had one of our hoverboards. There’s customization on those as well. There are subtle differences between mounts. The ground mounts run faster than the hoverboards but the hoverboards go over water and you can double jump with them.

Are there any plans to bring the game to consoles?

A lot of people have been asking that. We don’t right now. Our major plan is to get this thing out the door and make sure that everything is good. Certainly there have been people who have brought in controllers and have tried the game out with them just for funsies but not really in a development sense.

This was designed first and foremost to be on the PC so I think it would be difficult to translate to a controller in an effective manner. We can do it I think but it’s made for a PC.

It’s not totally out of the question though, right?

No, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

And the last question is, when is the release date?

June 3rd of 2014. If you pre-order you can get a three day head start and get into every beta that we have. We have beta weekends right now, it’s usually every other weekend, but as we get closer to launch it’s going to start opening up more and the level caps are going to rise. We’re going to have a lot more opportunities for people to get in there and check it out.

Thank you for your time.

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Tony has been a gamer ever since he came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was a kid. He's been a geek since he could draw his first breath and will be one until he draws his last. In addition to video games, Tony loves Comic Books, Anime, Science Fiction and Fantasy. If it's geeky then Tony is most likely into it.
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