MMO veteran Jeff Strain discusses how his new studio will transform the genre

Dawn of the Undead

Having worked on a multitude of MMO titles for over a decade, industry veteran Jeff Strain wants to transform the genre he helped build.

His vow is not mere rhetoric. Strain’s new studio – Undead Labs – is working on a project that defies some of the principal conventions of MMO game development.Undead’s debut project will not be released on PC. It won’t be released in Asia. And it won’t take the safety shots of swords and sorcery. Jeff Strain’s next project will be a zombie-filled MMO, or, as he wants to call it, a MMOZ.

In the first half of Develop’s extensive interview, Strain discusses the evolution of the genre, and why developers are reluctant to move to consoles.

Why did you leave NCsoft, and why set up your own studio?
I’d been with NCsoft since their acquisition of ArenaNet in 2002, and I stayed on in the capacity of executive producer, and then moved on as NCsoft’s president of product development.

As the years went by, I was getting further and further away from my product development roots. Y’know, you hear this story all the time. After a period away from hands-on development, I just got the itch again.

So, I think it’s just time for me to return to my roots. I had a good relationship with NCsoft, a very productive relationship, and I wish them all the best. I left amicably, and we’re just going to chart our own destinies.

You obviously have experience building popular PC titles, how do you translate that experience onto console game development?
The MMO industry has been my focus for over a decade – all the way back from the Warcraft days at Blizzard through to Guild Wars and NCsoft MMOs like Aion. I think that there’s so much more to MMOs than just the game that’s running on the user’s hardware.

When I look at creating a new MMO, my natural thought is not how we scale for the technical requirements of the platform, my larger thought is how do we scale the technical requirements of the gameplay mechanics we want to build, and support that on the back-end.

Obviously going onto the console platform, I believe very strongly that there’s a different style of play for consoles. Console gamers are not going to be as happy with selecting a target and selecting an action for the target and sitting back and wait for things to resolve. There’s an expectation for play to be very visceral. That has very strong ramifications for how you architect the back-end server network.

Latency masking is of course one of the big issues, but the wider view is that it’s going to take some different thinking about how MMOs are going to support console players. Certainly there are big technical requirements on console platforms, but the larger issue for console MMO development is about how you architect the back-end to support it.

You talk about the MMO genre needing fresh ideas for console development, I take it you have ideas with your new projects.
Well, [laughs] I’ve been doing this for a decade. And obviously there’s been a lot of thought put into console MMOs.

Probably every single MMO developer out there, particularly over the past four years or so during this platform cycle, have been thinking about how to bring MMOs to the console.

One of the things that comes up all the time is how do we build one game for everyone; both PC players and console players combined? All console developers are thinking about this. I’ve been poking at the idea for many, many years as have many other MMO developers.

The problem, of course, is that making a single game design that is equally appealing to both kinds of player – I mean it’s not impossible but it is inordinately difficult. And I am sceptical about how successful that’s going to be.

Really, for me the exciting new frontier is asking, what would an MMO just for console gamers play like? In the same way that Bungie and Rare went out and made FPSes for consoles.

There is a perceived reluctance from developers to actually go ahead with making console MMOs. How much does the user-interface issue play a part in this?
User-interface is one of the key reasons why we don’t see MMOs on consoles. But here’s the important distinction; it’s not that developing a console control interface for an MMO is any more difficult than building one for an FPS.

It’s that, right now, all of the thinking is on how to make an interface that is both applicable to a mouse-and-keyboard PC side as well as a console controller.

It’s again this notion that, if you already have MMOs on the market, and you’ve already got millions of players, it’s going to be difficult to convince people to shift to consoles, and so developers feel that they only can make console MMOs if they hybridize the two.

I don’t think that it’s impossible to make a great console interface for an MMO, it’s just that people have to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.

That meeting-point between console and PC interface that you mentioned, do you feel that motion control could bridge the gap?
I have to tell you, the possibilities of creating a MMO around the Wii controller are just staggering. You could do so much with it. Unfortunately, the hardware is just not up to scratch. But, hey, who knows what the next generation of hardware will bring. Certainly the Wii’s direct-access controller would enable a phenomenal level of MMO mechanics.

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