Interview with Mark Kern (Red 5 Studios)

For those who don’t know, Mark Kern (the former team lead for World of Warcraft) recently left Blizzard to form his own MMO development company, Red 5 Studios. Mark took a brief respite from 24/7 entrepreneurship to answer a few of my questions:

When World of Warcraft first came to market, it succeeded in part by addressing some serious design flaws that plagued other MMORPGs. Now the competition has learned. How will Red 5 distinguish itself from companies like Blizzard, Sony, Ncsoft, Turbine, etc?

Competition is a good thing. We were certainly aware of it on our last project and I think we did well. So, it isn’t a new thing for us. I think World of Warcraft’s design and implementation caught many people off guard. Most felt it was the wrong direction to take and predicted that the game would quickly burn out. They are just starting to absorb the reasons why it worked, while we have the advantage of already internalizing those lessons.

To remain competitive, we will have to stay ahead of the curve, and build on what we’ve already learned. Being small has its advantages, in that we can take greater risks and are nimble enough to change direction quickly if we need to. We are also 100% focused on development. We didn’t want to have to split our attention between making the game and deploying, marketing and operating it like most other MMO studios. This can be a huge distraction.

In response to concerns with market saturation, many MMO developers have talked about branching out to new genres and styles (other than fantasy RPG.) Which genres/styles are most interesting to you, and why?

I don’t feel that the Western markets are saturated. If you look at Asia, where in many places the predominant form of gaming is online, I think you can see that there is vast room for growth in the US and Europe. There are only a handful of MMO games per year coming out in this country, and there is room for more now that MMOs have achieved a scale on par and even exceeding non-MMO games.

But there is certainly saturation in the fantasy RPG area of MMOs. Chasing this genre for many developers is going to be a tough haul. The genre has gotten to be so feature and content laden that only the biggest developers will be able to afford to create a fantasy game rich enough to compete with Blizzard or Sony. New companies should look to fresh gameplay concepts and new experiences to carve a niche for themselves in this new, expanded, MMO market.

Two areas that particularly interest me are action-oriented gaming and casual gaming. Both areas have huge fanbases that have yet to come over fully to MMO persistent-style play. You can see action games with online components starting to venture into persistence with item unlocks and stat tracking. I see this as only the beginning.

The other area is definitely more casual, socially-oriented experiences. I think The Sims Online really missed the mark on what could otherwise have been a tremendous opportunity. I think if you look at web and flash based persistent online games such as Neopets and Habbo Hotel with their huge numbers of registered users, you start to get a glimpse of what these games could really be like. They are pretty basic right now, and there is lots of room for improvement and more engaging gameplay. They could be so much cooler than they are now.

Most MMOGs don’t even finish development, or fail shortly after release. What are you doing to manage these risks in the early stages of your game’s development?

One reason many MMOs fail so early is the huge financial commitment involved. Many companies underestimate what it takes to do one of these games, or fail to understand why they should be investing the amounts it takes to do a great MMO. What we’re doing at Red 5 is to partner with companies that already understand the costs and operational aspects of MMOs. We’ve also approaching financing from a variety of sources in order to make sure we have sound financial grounding to undertake these massive games.

Another issue is that making these games is difficult for even experienced game teams. If you’ve never done it before, you’re in for a surprise because everything is ten times harder to do than in a regular game. You have to think about the interaction of thousands of players and what that means for your game systems, features, storytelling, game servers, databases and content creation. Many teams never transition or scale to what’s needed to make an MMO. We’re lucky in that we’ve been through school of hard knocks before. We all understand what it takes and how to get there.

MMOGs today are often accused of offering poor customer service, and World of Warcraft is no exception. Do you think that’s fair, and how (if at all) do you intend to address it at Red 5?

This is, in part, a bad rap. These companies spend lots of money and effort to try and provide the best customer service they can and the effort is sincere. I think, though, that they kind of fell into a trap. The trap consists of a service model that was inherited from the old MUD days. Back then it was no sweat for the small group of volunteer staff to manage a server of a hundred or so players on a person by person basis. The GMs also had vast powers to fix things and lots of time to interact with users. But when you try to scale that up to five million customers, it just doesn’t hold up anymore.

If you look at what a GM is these days, they don’t look like the GMs of yore. In the past a GM had a lot of time to chat with users, make them feel welcome, help newbies and fix bugs with a wide array of access to the game code. Today, GMs spend a huge amount of time policing player behavior, and the other part of their time dealing with game bugs that they often have no power to fix. So, what happens when a customer’s only interaction with GMs is when they are being reprimanded or being told that “it’s a known bug” that they can’t fix? Pretty negative, right?

What we want to do is turn that on its head. We think the best value for gamers is to have GMs that actually contribute to a positive experience in the game. That means getting them out of the policing and bug reporting business. We’ve got some strong ideas on how we want to make this happen and you’ll get to see those in our first game.

World of Warcraft reduced but by no means eliminated the typical “grind” quests found in MMORPGs (i.e. “kill 40 wolves and bring me their pelts.”) What can be done to further minimize this kind of gameplay and/or make it more rewarding?

I think that everyone is looking at ways to make the MMO experience more meaningful from a story perspective. The quests and tasks in an MMO are the same as any single-player RPG. The difference is that a single player RPG really weaves the tasks into a deep story, with characters and plot twists and cinematic moments. I think you’ll see more and more of this creep into MMOs. The challenge has been that you can’t control or pause the world in an MMO. Without that, you can’t stop and tell a story, or make the player feel much like a hero when you are surrounded by tons of other players doing the same thing or interfering in some delicate task.

What’s going to make all that more possible now is the acceptance of instancing in many MMOs. When players are in an instance, you have total control over the game situation in that isolated group of players. World of Warcraft plays with this quite extensively, even as far as little real-time cut-scenes in places. I think you’ll see this emulated in other games. Of course, doing those types of quests is very labor intensive. We’ll have to have better tools to allow us to create and test more of this type of content.

Finally, I think static worlds are going to go away. As bandwidth and server hardware improves, we’re going to see a lot more experimentation with dynamic worlds where players can change their environment and affect the things around them. I think this is really going to be a key feature for the next generation of MMOs.

What are the best ways to take advantage of user-generated content in a highly-controlled environment like World of Warcraft? How do you hope to solicit this content, if at all, in your upcoming game?

Having players able to create stuff in the world is a very cool idea with a lot of challenges. It’s cool because players feel vested in your world, it strengthens the community around the game, and it presumably solves the finite content and replayability problem that every MMO faces.

But the challenges are that you need to make sure the user stuff a) doesn’t break the economy and b) doesn’t corrupt characters, make them super powerful, destroy the game balance, etc. It’s hard enough for professional game designers to balance this stuff. The easy way out is to only allow cosmetic changes to your world, or restrict them to the experience of the creator and some friends (i.e. a guild), but this greatly dilutes the power of user-created content. Then you have the problem of quality control, as not everybody is going to create great content. In fact, about 90% of it will be noise: incomplete, broken, poorly designed, inappropriate, or just plain boring. If 90% of what a player experiences in your game is broken, how does that reflect on your MMO?

I won’t say too much about our approach because it is still evolving, but what we are trying to do is to make sure that user-generated content is meaningful to the game, and to create mechanisms to elevate and ensure the quality level of the content. Finally, we are playing a lot with the concept of time in MMOs and how player actions can affect a dynamic world around them. This is another form of player-driven content that has yet to be fully explored. Most MMOs feature a world frozen in time: a story captured at a certain point that doesn’t really progress. In MMOs today we have character progression, but we don’t have story or world progression. Turbine played with this a bit in AC, and I’d like to see it explored further.

If you can, please say a little about the game you’re currently working on now.

I think I’ve hinted at a few things already. We should probably just leave it at that for now, but I can say that you’ll be hearing more sooner rather than later.

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