Blowing Everything Up: From AAA to Freedom
I was recently asked this question: “Why did you blow everything up at the end of Wizardry 8?” This is a game I worked on nearly 8 years ago now, and at the very end of the game, the whole universe – planets, people, long story lines, subquests, potential sequels and everything – turned in a giant cloud of cosmic particles. Granted, the player actually blew it up, but I didn’t leave them any choice. There were a variety of ways it could go, but baby, it was going. BabaBoom. When I came up with this ending for the game, I had no idea that it would also be the last game published by Sir-tech Software, nor did I have the slightest inkling there wouldn’t be a Wizardry 9. Looking back, though, I suspect we all knew that the days of the single-player, hard-core PC RPG were numbered. You don’t make RPGs for money. You make them for love and to break even. They are the most time-intensive games to create with the largest confluence of systems. When I hear people brand new to game development saying that they want to start with an RPG, I want to simultaneously hug them and warn them. Have fun with the balance, kid. Remember not to get too deep into the math or you and your player will never figure your way out. Oh, and there’s a system for everything. But, I made RPGs for 20+ years, so clearly, I have a long love affair with them.
Back to the matter at hand: I blew the whole frigging thing up. Why?
- Clearing out the baggage: Writing the story for Wizardry 8 was like performing micro-surgery. I had to scour every previous Wizardry, and specifically 6 and 7, for any story tendrils and tie them all in and wrap them up. I suppose in retrospect that I didn’t need to do that, but as a long-time Wizardry player, I would have felt robbed doing it any other way.
- Starting with a blank slate: There were so many different directions the game could have gone had it gone on, but the longer the story lines went on, the more challenging it became for people to pick up the storyline midway. I think of shows like The Sopranos or Lost. A single episode is pleasurable, but people are less likely to join in when they know that they can’t get in from the beginning.
- Mechanical innovation: Games don’t just carry story. They carry mechanical and interface expectations, too. I needed you to start with a single character, and not your party of 6 which had followed you in from Wizardry 6 or Wizardry 7 or been created new here. Group play in games was now about six people playing six individual characters, not you controlling a party of six yourself.
So, the industry had evolved, and I wanted to do something new. Blowing up the universe was a radical solution, but it may have been the only one, and it serves as a decent metaphor for my return to full-time game development. There is a similar bababooming happening in the industry, and those who see it coming are making their way to the new game, the new universe, the new way that things will be. The industry today very much feels like the industry of 1982-ish. There are tons of games being released by single individuals or small groups, and they cover Facebook, indie game sites and the iPhone. The means to weed out the bad from the good is still evolving, and many are jumping on the bandwagon. Like 1982, some suspect that this “video game thing” is a fad, and that the love affair with Facebook as a platform and the iPhone will pass. I have heard myriad arguments about how the path to success is covered with lots and lots of polygons, lighting and particle effects, but I just don’t buy it anymore.
At their core, games have always been about social engagement. Always. It is more fun to play chess against another human being than a computer. In WoW now, it is more fun for me to play with my friends than it is by myself. Our play approach is laid back, we get together for more serious sessions on weekends, but our goal is socializing, not optimizing (in fact, I suspect that if I start to play that way and really pay attention to it, the RPG designer that lives in my head will show up and start analyzing everything to death).
While the platform (Facebook) and the game (WoW or *.ville) may change, the inherent forward momentum is toward massively social games where people have an opportunity to have fun with their friends, meet new friends and engage in the inherently social behavior for which we are wired.
At its core, the industry has always been about ROI. Spending 25 million for 20 to 1 odds for a payout is much less appetizing than spending nothing, $250, $2500 or $250K for similar odds with potentially larger payouts. There are other financial advantages: Gamestop is not reselling royalty-free instances in WoW. I believe our games will get smaller, more inherently social, more world- and destination-like and be in a constant state of rapid iteration in response to player desire. It is an amazing time and an amazing space to watch, be within as a player and a part of as a dev.
If you’re not familiar with Wizardry 8, here’s a refresher: