Why The 'Rift: Planes of Telara' GM Might Stare At Your Picnic - Developer Pop Quiz #13

Rift: Planes of Telara

Developer Pop Quiz is a weekly interview series in which we ask developers from around the industry the same 10 questions and post their responses.

Having worked in the MMO space for years, Trion Worlds' General Manager Scott Hartsman brings a unique perspective to this week's Developer Pop Quiz. After falling in love with the industry as a kid, he went to work on work on "EverQuest 2," before beginning his latest project "Rift: Planes of Telara."

Name: Scott Hartsman

Title: General Manager, Redwood Studio and CCO

Company: Trion Worlds

Job Description: Directs 5TH Cell and its titles.

First title worked on: "Scepter of Goth"

Most recent title worked on: "Rift: Planes of Telara," "EverQuest II," "EverQuest Live"

What game has most influenced you, and why?

Hands down, the original "EverQuest." Growing up as a huge fan of both tabletop and computer RPGs, it was a life-long dream to be able to both play in and help create online worlds that could provide a similar kind of experience as "a group of friends, working together, doing great things." To me, "EverQuest" was the first game that truly began to scratch the surface of that kind of a graphical, immersive fantasy adventure world. I made friendships playing and working on that game that continue to this day.

What are you playing right now?

"Rift" is taking up almost all of my play time. The game just passed the stage where the pieces have come together, and we've been iterating in front of real testers who come on board with real expectations. Other than the launch itself, that transition between "in development" and "in testing" is the most exciting part of making MMOs to me. It's equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking. You have real data and real feedback that helps to truly crystallize your priorities, your strengths, and your weaknesses.

Beyond our game, and since I recently purchased an iPad, I find myself playing a lot of "Strategy" and "Defense of the Oasis." The fact that those games pack that much replayable entertainment into relatively inexpensive packages is really phenomenal.

What was your first break in the games industry?

The owners of "Scepter of Goth" hired me on to work part time creating content, areas, and events when I was just a kid. Making dungeons and castles and items and creatures and events in that game is what inspired me to learn about how everything worked technically. That led to learning programming from some really smart (and incredibly patient) people who were making different online worlds, and eventually going back to school for a degree in it, then returning to online games years later.

What's the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

"Don't take it personally." Applies just as well to making games as it does to life in general.

Where do you look for inspiration?

It may sound trite, but: "Everywhere." Like a lot of game developers, I try to play as many games as I can -- MMO, casual, strategy, shooters, you name it. Games of all types and qualities. Sometimes to see what things people are doing well, but a lot of times to get a feel for something that I wish I could do, but the game doesn't let me. The "this would be great, if only..." moment. I really enjoy spotting "if only"s. (I've definitely made my share for others to benefit from, so I don't feel bad about this.)

Beyond that, I try to spot interesting patterns all the time. It doesn't even have to be anything extraordinary -- It could be simple little things like physical act like watching people choose picnic tables in a park, or a social pattern like the way people in a bar interact with each other.

Every now and then you spot one and realize: "Hey, you could make a game mechanic out of this..." There's that little leap of intuition that happens right before you stumble on a good one -- trying to make that leap happen is something I still wish I could do on-demand. I'd say that less than one out of any given hundred turn out to have any practical use, but it's an interesting exercise.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned about game development?

Never undervalue your players. In a lot of ways, it's as much their game as it is the developers'. Back around 2001, I was putting together a patch message for "EverQuest"'s public Test Server. Because of a particularly traumatic graphics engine upgrade, and any number of other technical challenges around then, we had a really rough series of patches. The Test Server players had been incredibly patient - I was amazed that they were sticking through it with us. Instead of closing it with the traditional "You're in Our World Now," I ended it with "Thank you for making our world yours." It shocked me how much some of our players noticed and appreciated that simple acknowledgement.

You don't always have to agree with your players (and there will be plenty of times you don't), but you do need to respect them, and you should always do your damndest to try to put yourself in their shoes. Play the game they're playing, the way they're playing it. Experience the things that frustrate them. You may not always draw the same conclusions, but more often than not you'll be speaking the same language. People can tell when that's genuine and when that's fake. Be genuine. The day you stop being able to do that is the day you should move on, because the person who can is going to do the job better.

Who do you think will come out on top this console generation?

[Ed. Note: Mr. Hartsman declined to answer since his expertise is more in the realm of PCs.]

What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?

In online worlds, I think there's a lot of room for more emergent behaviors in games. We started out with really open worlds where very little direction, generally fairly loose rules, and finding the fun was half of the game. Relative to the audience sizes of today, they were pretty niche experiences. Turns out, not many people are interested in finding the fun themselves as a full time activity.

On the MMO side, we "fixed" this by progressing to more steered, scripted experiences like you'd find in a single player game. Steering people toward all of the fun lead to worlds that felt like the entire experience was on rails. That strategy definitely has succeeded in reaching far larger audiences, but that's not the end all be all. Some have tried adding repeatable events to that, but that alone really doesn't play to the strengths of the medium.

If you're playing to the real strengths of the medium, you can include all of those kinds of elements - Static content and events - then go one step farther. It's okay to give up some control to interesting emergent behaviors. Let the systems and content play off of each other. Make a world that's a living character of its own. Give the players a more interesting experience - Let them explore both the content and the systems in new ways they haven't been able to.

There are more people that are playing MMOs than ever before, and I think they're looking for something more than the exact same kinds of experiences they've been having for the last ten years. There's room for both guided gameplay as well as emergent, interesting behaviors - What's a world like that play like? It's going to be really interesting to find out.

What is the most important thing that has happened to gaming in the last 10 years?

Always-on, broadband Internet being widely available. A decade ago, we were far more limited in the kinds of experiences we could provide - The worlds were largely static and barely ever changed, other than the occasional expansion pack shipped on a CD. Requiring people to download art and sound could try the patience of even the most devoted fan of the genre. Half of the players of the first generation of 3d online worlds even had access to broadband, much less actually paid for it. These days, that's practically unthinkable. That lets us do all kinds of fantastic things with great new content that were impossible 10 years ago.

Where do you see gaming in 5 years?

We're going to begin to see the promise of living worlds that a lot of us have been trying to push toward actually start to take shape in ways that actually include fun gameplay. At the same time, given that broadband was the last technology innovation - where people's homes were connected all the time, wireless is the next one, where people themselves are connected all the time.