Many of the MMO companies are focused on chasing Blizzard's tail. Do you think that is a viable strategy?
In MMOs, as in any other genre, there are companies that will tend to lead from the front and there are companies that tend to chase. In the case of GTA, for example, there were a whole load of companies that tried to jump on the so-called bandwagon with varying degrees of success and I'm not sure that it was ultimately profitable for them to do so. In the same way, by simply redressing the World of Warcraft game mechanics in a different style, I'm not sure if you're actually adding value that gives consumers choice. I'm very much from the school of thought that says you build the experience from the ground up. Building from the ground up gives players an experience that is distinct from a pre-existing experience.
How does NCsoft build from the ground up?
I can't speak for NCsoft as a whole, only about our development strategy in Europe. What we're looking to do is to create novel game experiences, not to make copycat games in any way. While we totally appreciate games like World of Warcraft, that is not our starting point for developing new products. What we do is to identify a number of game concepts at a very high level that could be interesting, and we put them through an incubation process which we use to prove the game mechanics before even considering pre-production. We do that through a series of iterative processes.
You're not just taking an iterative approach to development, then, but design as well.
What we're doing is taking the agile approach to development and then applying that to the proving of the design concept. Obviously, nobody has a crystal ball and you don't really know what's going to work until you've proven it, so step number one is proving that a certain set of game mechanics actually works and is fun. Is it actually fun at its core? Incubation isn't even pre-production because we're not trying to take the end user or the visuals into account, we're only looking at it from a game mechanics point of view. If it's not fun, it goes in the bin.
Griefing is still a problem in a lot of multiplayer and online games. Some companies prefer to take a managed approach, others come at it from a design perspective. What is your preferred angle on dealing with it?
I would choose to handle it on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the type of game. There are pros and cons for both avenues. It depends very much upon the type of players populating the community. It's a question of what kind of gamers we're talking about. There's the typical hard core gamers and then there's a whole host of – I hate to use the word, let's use inverted commas and call them 'casual' gamers – games that reach out to audiences that haven't been exposed to the hard core experience and it's more important to give them a protected environment.
For many years, games have tended to compete on the basis of graphics, not gameplay. Do you think we have reached a point of diminishing marginal returns?
It's definitely reached the point of diminishing returns. The Wii has shown that there's more to life than graphics. Even the specialist press seem to be targeting graphics less and less in the way they talk about games. I can remember reading reviews, say five years back when it was all about the [graphical] representation, and nowadays it's more and more about the gameplay experience. The market is expanding in multiple directions. Connected gaming, whether it be persistent or impersistent, is becoming more and more important as we move forward into the future. From my perspective as a designer, that's getting back to the original essence of gaming, which originated as a social experience. The ability to connect people is going to become more powerful and that will ultimately expand the reach of gaming, because it's the social aspect from which games as a human activity originally came.
What do you consider the major design challenge going forward for NCsoft?
I think the main challenge is to not be pushed into following due to the runaway success of games like World of Warcraft. The challenge is to continue deriving great gameplay experiences from the bare bones, from a blank slate, where every addition to the design is considered from a logical point of view. To maximize your potential, you really need to work from first principles. If you only copy what other people are doing, then you're not going to understand the choices and compromises that were made from a design point of view.