INTERVIEW - Cryptic Studios

Daav Valentaten and Noobfeed caught up with Chief of Operations Jack Emmert to ask them about their success story and plans for the future.

By Daavpuke, Posted 21 Feb 2011

Cryptic Studios is a developer that brings us many successful MMORPGs, straight from Silicon Valley, for about ten years now. They’ve gotten critical acclaim from just about all their ventures, such as City Of Heroes and Star Trek Online. Daav Valentaten and Noobfeed caught up with Chief of Operations Jack Emmert to ask them about their success story and plans for the future:

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios

Daav: First off, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to do an interview; especially since you mentioned: “Cryptic Studios is a leading developer of massively-multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG), with a reputation for delivering profitable, on-time, on-budget titles.” Are you taking a stab at the competition?

A little bit of a stab, I think, but I won’t name names! Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of companies promise a whole lot in their MMORPG’s and very, very few have even shipped. I have immense respect for companies that have proven themselves able to make a game and even more for those with 100,000+ subscribers. I don’t think much of the self-aggrandizement, I think. Let a company’s games do the talking.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
A zombie uprising in city Of Heroes

Daav: Founded in 2000, you yourself took 4 years before releasing the very successful City Of Heroes (CoH) (later sold to NCSoft). What was it like to work on that first project for so long? What are you all doing in that time? I suppose there was some time being used to build a quality engine from scratch?

We did build the engine from scratch, but it didn’t take us 4 years to make the game. A little over 2 yrs. in, we scrapped the design and rewrote every line of game programming. We actually made CoH in about 18 months. CoV (City Of Villains) was 9 months. Because of this enormous switch midway through, I don’t think we ever grew tired of the game. I should also note that there are a lot of MMO developers that have notoriously taken even longer to get their games out!

Daav: Was there a lot of pressure from yourselves, but also from the press and their expectations for the game? I remember a Dutch magazine who really loved the game; they even had an editor who went on about it for years.

We wanted to do well, but honestly, I think most people in the industry were really rooting for us. We were a small, no-name developer doing a game that a lot of people wanted to be made. Our publisher, NC Soft, had great credentials. So we have a good amount of good will towards us that helped the game when it launched.

Frankly, I was too dumb to imagine that failure was possible. I thought we’d work hard and the game would do well. It never occurred to me that the game wouldn’t succeed.

Daav: Once released, the game won a quite sizable amount of awards. That must’ve been nice to see your first project flourish like that. Was it an overwhelming feeling in the studio or did it feel more like just recognition for your hard work?

I was happiest to hear from fans at various conventions; they’d say “I play with my old high school friends” or “I play with my kids.” At least 3 couples have said they met playing City of Heroes. I was so grateful that I could be part of an experience that brought such happiness to folks.

I liked getting the awards, don’t get me wrong, but it was these stories that really got to me.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
Galactus will eat your Cryptic Studios whole! Om nom nom nom

Daav: On the downside of superhero success, City Of Heroes also attracted the attention of people who were less than happy with your franchise. In 2004, Marvel Comics filed a suit against you for copyright infringement. Luckily that ordeal was settled later on. Still, you must’ve drawn inspiration from many of their comics, so how did it feel when they acted against you?

I’d say we were pretty frustrated. And to this day, we can’t really talk about things and how they happened. Frankly, I wasn’t that upset that Marvel sued; after all, they were protecting their IP. And since their entire business is IP, I understand why they’d take the actions they did. It was how things happened that bothered me most.

Daav: Ironically, It’s that same Marvel that came to you in 2006 to ask you to create Marvel Universe Online, based on their line of superheroes. Were you honored still by the request?

It was Microsoft that came to us, not Marvel. But we resolved things with Marvel amicably. I think we both understood the other party quite well at the end. My personal knowledge of Marvel comics plus the success of City of Heroes certainly gave Marvel optimism.

Daav: The Marvel stories would continue to see hard times and in 2008 the license got cancelled. Luckily, your work was salvaged and reworked into your current license for Champions Online. Still, this rollercoaster must be a rough ride to go through. How did you take to the cancellation of the project?

It was dreadful – almost drove us out of business. We suddenly had 100+ people with no development deal! Luckily, we sold City of Heroes to NCSoft at that time, so we were able to keep things going for a while. We switched gears to Champions and then sought a new publisher/distributor. There was a lot of traveling for me and many sleepless nights.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
Random solo action sequence in Champions Online.

Daav: That venture also sprouted new beginnings and then some. You not only started working on Champions license back then, you straight up acquired the IP; a bold move. Were you so certain early on off the success from the MMO?

Champions, I thought, had a core, dedicated audience of hard core fans. Some were still playing the pen and paper game, but most had lapsed as they got older. I theorized that this game would perhaps bring them back. And I figured that all these die-hards would be great proselytizers (persuaders) for the game.

We were also switching gears from Marvel. We had to make a new game with a big team right away. By purchasing a pre-existing IP, we didn’t need to do a lot of time brainstorming about story, characters, environments, etc. Everything was right there at our fingertips.

Daav: Champions Online again saw its share of success. I’m sure many gamers are thankful for that. Can you give us more information about going free-to-play and what it will mean for the world of Champions?

Going free to play opens up Champions to a larger audience. There are simply not that many people who want to play an additional subscription fee (Xbox live, WoW, etc.) or who want to pay subscription at all. These people can now sample Champions to see if they like it; a true “try it before you buy it.” Then they can spend as much – or as little – as they’d like on the game. Heck, if they’d like to subscribe, we’re keeping that option too.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
Star Trek Online; it has an enterprise.

Daav: You also acquired the right to create the first MMO set in the Star Trek universe, after Perpetual Entertainment spent 4 years developing the game and then going bankrupt. But since the actual game wasn’t transferred, does that mean you built a game from scratch in two years, where they couldn’t in 4?

We built it all from scratch. We used a few pieces of concept art, but that was about it. Yes, we developed a game in 2 years, but remember, we had a working engine and experience in two previous products. We had a system by then.

Daav: Strangely enough, the huge Star Trek franchise didn’t help you get a warm welcome and Star Trek Online got a lesser reception compared to your other projects. How do you feel the reception has been since launch? What’s your side of the story?

I think the Star Trek movie certainly raised expectations for the game. Everyone was just crazy at our prospects. I’d be the first to say that perhaps the speed which we developed and that much vaunted system perhaps didn’t deliver what some fans had been expecting.

As with all MMO’s, I think the game has grown leaps and bounds since launch. We’ve added lots of features and content – mostly in response to the current fans. One of our coolest editions is the Weekly episodes. We put up a new episode (what we call quests) on a Saturday. It continues over several weeks. If a player does these missions during this limited time, he receives a unique reward. Afterwards, a player can still play, but he’ll never get that same reward. We’re trying to create the same feel when first run Star Trek episodes would be on Saturday afternoon or evening.

Daav: What’s available for Star Trek fans is Season 3: Genesis?

A whole lot of stuff.  First, we’re refurbishing the look of Sector Space – long requested by the fans. Second, we’ve added the ability to replay missions. Third, a lot of new content for our Klingon friends! Fourth, crafting in Memory Alpha has been expanded; more than 250 new items. And last of all – we’ll be rolling out the beta version of our UGC (User Generated Content)!

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios

Daav: All the franchises stated above are all set in a modern time at the least. Is there no love lost on traditional MMORPGs? You are a fellow Dungeons & Dragons fan, so surely there has to be a certain degree of respect for the genre?

I love D&D and, of course, I think World of Warcraft is brilliant. I enjoyed Dark Age of Camelot. But nowadays, a fantasy MMO really needs to set itself apart for me to play it. I find myself asking the basic question – would I play this game or WoW?

Daav: Your projects include City Of Heroes/Villains, Marvel Universe Online and Champions Online; all based around Superheroes. It’s safe to say you like those to some degree. But how do you feel you provide players with enough variety between projects?

Ideally, each game is distinct. In Champions, we really wanted to focus on player customization. So we added the ability to pick any power and the choice to create a personal arch-nemesis. We also added a deep loot system, stats and crafting. With City of Heroes, I had a very different mantra. I felt that MMO’s had gotten too complicated. I wanted something simpler, straightforward.

Daav: You state: “As an independent developer, Cryptic has the freedom to choose projects they are passionate about, based on genres and IP they know and love.”  Does that mean you wouldn’t take on a lucrative job if you aren’t familiar or fond of the idea in question?

In the past, we actively turned down things. A publisher wanted us to do a Mafia/modern crime MMO. We declined. We just didn’t want to do that game. Other opportunities came up, but we turned them down.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
Neverwinter is Cryptic Studios' first fantasy release.

Daav: You’ve announced to be working on a Dungeons & Dragons-themed title, called Neverwinter. Set in the same realm, how do you think the game will be created?

It’s a very different game for Cryptic. It’s an online, co-op game closer to Borderlands than it is to Champions Online. We want people to meet up in social areas, then embark on an adventure together.

Perhaps even more challenging for us, Neverwinter is all about story. It’s a tale with a beginning, middle and end. We’ve never done something so clear cut before. And we’re adding UGC in a scope that no other online game has done. A few have tried their hand at it and done very well. I’m hoping we can build on those successes.

Daav: The game will continue after the classic Neverwinter Nights series from BioWare. The 4th Edition rules from D&D have since wrecked the city of Neverwinter, so how will that affect gameplay from the previous game and how do you plan to follow up this franchise like this?

In this regard, Wizards of the Coast has been absolutely terrific. We’ve worked side by side with writers and creators in Seattle to fashion a Neverwinter that fits their world and our vision perfectly. Here’s what’s best: the Wizards people want a great game, period. If things need to be changed here or there, go for it. They totally understand that slavish devotion to 4th edition might not serve the end product well.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios

Daav: Neverwinter will be the first fantasy game to come from your studio. What aspects will you take from your previous franchises on to this one and which will be a new path to discovery for you?

It’s really, really hard to do a fantasy environment. Superheroes? Just look at pictures of Cities. Star Trek? Just watch the TV shows and movies. But fantasy? Sure – there’s no limits – but that’s exactly the problem – there’s no limits. Artists and designers sometimes can go off the rails.

Daav: Do you feel you’ll be able to create a fantasy MMO that doesn’t feel monotonous like many others are, in regards of questing and endless grinding for levels and resources?

Neverwinter isn’t a MMO. It’s more like Dragon Age. It’s not a game where a player needs to get online and play for hundreds of hours. It’s a story based RPG. So I don’t think it’ll feel any more monotonous than any fantasy RPG – it’ll just have the advantage of being able to play with your friends!

Daav: Since the game will probably require real-time combat, how do you plan on incorporating the calculations of dice rolls and core D&D rulings within the game? Will there be an option to watch this on the go as you battle foes and when using skills, feats, etc.?

The die rolls are all invisible to the player, though we do provide the damage ranges on weapons, spells and abilities. We’ve tweaked the “to hit” so that players miss, just not as often as they would in D&D.

NoobFeed Interview - Cryptic Studios
One of the cryptic screens in development, since taken down.

Daav: Your “In Development” section only has some cryptic art panels of games, to tease us. A lot of those art panels are radically different from each other. We can see a Cthulhu-like creature, an undead desert battle with an adventurer holding treasure and even dark shooters. What can you tell us about those?

I can tell you that the concept art was from a game we had in pre-production for quite a while: Lost Worlds. It was a modern day, action adventure along the lines of Indiana Jones or Clive Cussler. We decided against it for a variety of reasons. Mostly, the publisher we were working with decided against the game. We also had run into the issue of how to make the game last. Once you’re Indiana Jones – how do you evolve from there? How do you advance? What’s your aspiration to play 50, 100 hrs.?

Daav Valentaten,

comments powered by Disqus
  • avatar RON

    Turning down a modern crime MMO tells the story of their busyness level. Why won't they! As they already have so many blaster titles in their bags. But I don't understand why they didn't go for the modern day, action adventure and not sure why the publishers didn't want it. Perhaps weekly episode systems like Star Trek and unique reward would drew a good number of crowds and expected hours. Of course they know it better.

    For the time being, I'm very much looking forward to see the tale of Neverwinter.

    Posted Feb 22, 2011

  • Great interview. City of Heroes was one of the first MMOs to get me hopelessly addicted. I still have very fond memories of playing that one with co-workers to the wee hours of the morning.

    Posted Feb 24, 2011

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Publisher(s): NoobFeed
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Genres: Artcile
Themes: Feature, Editorial, Interviews, Opinion Pieces
Release Date: 2009-02-14

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