The folks over at Carbine Studios have made no secret of their goal to make their upcoming MMORPG WildStar truly stand out from the rest of the genre. We’ve seen it with their artstyle, we’ve seen it with their approach to community, but this week they wanted to hammer home the fact that this also applies to their gameplay mechanics at a basic level. We had already seen how movement was an important part of achieving this, but today’s DevSpeak video, which focused on Aiming, ensured that we got the message – that the fighting in WildStar is truly dynamic and fluid when compared to its peers.
Ahead of the release of the latest DevSpeak video, I was able to chat with Lead Combat Designer Chris Lynch and Class Team Lead Hugh Shelton about how Aiming, otherwise known as "freeform targeting" by the team, is a core part of the WildStar experience, how it combines with movement and telegraphs and how the system was originally conceived and developed. After all, back when the game was first in the design stages, WildStar was yet another Tab-targetting MMO, but as Chris and Hugh explain, their belief and persistence in delivering something better changed the game for the better.
The origins of the Aiming system come from another mechanic – telegraphs. For those not in the know, these decals are placed on the ground to indicate where an ability will land once it is performed, providing the player with an easy way of identifying what is happening during combat. Here’s the thing though – originally, these telegraphs were just for enemy creature abilities. “It felt really, really good on the creatures but at the time we were still on a tab-target, single target MMO, and it didn’t really jive that well with how our telegraphs felt” said Lynch, explaining that after a few class designers and effect artists came up to him with the idea of taking this mechanic and putting it on player abilities, he gave them a weekend to come up with something. Come the following Monday, Lynch finally saw the fruits of their labour and instantly saw the potential.
“[For example] you see, like, three yeti, and they’re staggered, right, so you’re going to want to line up those shots so you hit all three yeti as opposed to hitting buttons and hitting one yeti at a time, so I’m going to instinctively move and place my character in a position in which I’m going to hit all three of those yeti. And once I started seeing that I said “Yeah, we’ve got something here and we need to start getting this further,” and we showed [Head of Carbine Studios James] Gaffeney.” Of course, The Gaffer wanted to be sure that Lynch and his team really believed in what they were doing, so he asked him a very bold question – “so he asked me “Chris, are you willing to stake your career on this?” and I just really, really believed in this system, and I think it goes really, really well with our telegraph, and I said “Yes.” So he gave us pretty much free reign to evolve the system to what you see today.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Much like Lynch, Shelton strongly believed in this new gameplay mechanic when he first joined the team just over a year ago. “As long as I’ve been here I’ve been trying to push it even further because just like Chris I saw that it was the direction we should move in,” Shelton said, “And so, thanks to the flexibility of our tools, we’re able to create some really interesting shapes for these player abilities. So it decides things where one attack is different from another attack just because it applies a secondary effect, we’re able to make attack different from each other based on their telegraph shape, or whatever the player is aiming with, because a cone verses a cone with multiple smaller sections, where the smaller sections do more damages, it’s a big difference.”
Lynch went onto explain that because of the way all of the mechanics come together, and how the telegraphs from creatures work, it “constantly [makes] the player re-evaluate where their position is because aiming is huge. Our freeform targeting emphasises aiming, the telegraph system that creatures use forces you to move, which then you have to re-evaluate your aiming again, so it’s kind of a simple old puzzle that you’re constantly trying to resolve during combat.” Lining up shots, moving and then re-lining up again is something that Lynch feels “every single player seems to get,” with Shelton adding that this was largely down to the “fluidity” of the mechanics. “So you’re not having to re-target creatures if you’re healing and dealing damage at the same time,” he said, “you’re not necessarily having to switch from ally to an enemy to perform your abilities.”
All the of the relevant information for combat is right in front of you in the environment, Lynch continued to explain, so getting used to the size of abilities is quick to learn, “I don’t have to worry about tab-targeting out, I don’t have to worry about the missing anything in the game, it’s all very easy and seamless.” With players also able to preview the AoE (that’s Area of Effect to those that don’t know the lingo) players can prepare their attack with precision before executing it.
The latest DevSpeak video – the series for which has proven to be incredibly popular with fans – was premièred to the team at Carbine earlier this week, and while Community Manager David Bass had tweeted that the viewing for a very positive response, I took the opportunity to ask Lynch and Shelton what their initial reactions were upon seeing it. “I loved it!” Lynch responded with, “I love how the Cinematics team sit down with us and they talk about these systems and they want to really actually know the systems so they can explain it to the audience. I think they do an amazing job of taking what we say and making it much, much prettier than anything we could ever say, and presenting a funny, humorous way to the audience that, they see it and it’s just fun to watch the systems be explained so well, and I don’t think that I could ever achieve explaining that well in such a clean and exciting manner. But yeah, I really love the video!” He went on to state the end of the video was a personal highlight, “it has nothing to do with aiming, but it’s fun!”
What makes the DevSpeak videos so effective is how the Cinematics team and the developer collaborate, something Shelton went on to explain. “We actually have one of our Class team members help write the scripts for the DevSpeaks so we have developers right there on the team along with them, “ he said, “So we have people who are playing the game all the time helping to write the videos, so they’re always really accurate to what’s actually going into WildStar and it’s awesome to see how they translate what’s really in the game into something that’s entertaining to watch.”
Of course, seeing a visual demonstration of it is incredibly helpful, and having had hands-on time with WildStar earlier this year I get to see exactly how effective the combat mechanics were, but I had noticed that in other gameplay demonstrations found online and, more specifically, watching the public try out the game on the show room floor at this year’s Rezzed, that players tended to remain rather static as they fought. I put it to Lynch and Shelton that this was almost certainly down to players being conditioned to play MMOs in a certain way, and while titles such as Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World had made efforts to make combat more mobile, it still was hindered by the limits of Tab-Targeting. So I asked them – had the team considered the challenges in transitioning players to this new style of play for the genre after years of doing things a certain way?
“There are definitely challenges with that, but luckily we’re going to have a tutorial experience that will go over the basics of all the movement and aiming sort of stuff with the player,” Lynch replied, but went to clarify such a tutorial was “still in development” and would be included at launch. “We also have the benefit in that it’s an MMO and this is a game that people are going to be playing for hundreds or thousands of hours, and it’s not necessarily the best type of game to show on the [show floor at conventions]… in fact it’s probably the worst type of game to show on the floor due to that! But the players that stick with it and play it a little bit longer than the short demos will just get it, and once it does click it’s pretty intuitive.”
The topic of the level of mobility while freeform targeting was then brought up, asking just how mobile players will be while placing down telegraphs, something Lynch explained would vary on a class-by-class basis. “For the most part, everybody does have abilities they can move while casting, it’s just that each class might have more or less that they can move while casting. They can do things like slow your movement speed while you’re casting abilities, and that’s just something that we use to differentiate the different classes, so you have someone who feels a lot heavier and someone who feels a lot more mobile. Melee classes in general need to have that full mobility so that they can stay on their targets, whereas the range classes such as Esper or Spellslinger might have some abilities that you have to stand still to cast, but those abilities in general are going to be more effective than if they were something that they could cast while moving. “
Of course, one of the worries that the community had early on when telegraphs were first announced was that it could theoretically make combat a trivial experience. After all, you can see exactly where big-damage moves would be landing, and adding them to player abilities could exacerbate the issue, but of course, it’s something that Carbine have already taken into consideration. “We definitely start off easy” Lynch explained, “we want the players to get used to the telegraph system, to recognise that red means bad, to get out of red and if you don’t you’re going to get hurt, but as you level up through the game we start lowering the reaction time you have or increasing the complexity of the red that you will see on the ground. Also, we have these new things we are implementing right now called Special Random Events or SREs – [right now] they don’t have a fancy name, it’s just an internal name – but these are things that play along with our breakout gameplay system, and that’s what the next DevSpeak is going to be on so I won’t go into too much detail about that, but it’s another way for the creature to help land their telegraph on you but it has its own gameplay involved in there that we’ll describe in the next DevSpeak….”
Well, you heard it here first, folks.
“… But yes, as creatures level and as you level, telegraphs will get more complex, the reaction time will go down, you’ll have to be more precise with your movement, and you’ll become better at the game and we’ll actually start testing out how good you’re becoming.” Shelton when on to add that because the developers had been working on telegraphs for quite some time now, that the team had “taken the shapes that the creatures are using [for their AoE] to extremes. You’re going to see things that you haven’t seen in other MMOs that also do the “Don’t stand in the red area!” sort of thing, or “Don’t stand in the fire!” Since we’re able to message to the player where the damage is coming we’re able to force them where we want them to go, or force them away from each other, force them closer to each other, and we can do that by attaching telegraphs to you, attaching telegraphs to the area, attaching telegraphs to the creature themselves, so things get, especially in the dungeons, a lot more frantic than you might expect.”
Of course, while making it rather easy was a risk, going the other way and making the telegraph and aiming system chaotic and confusing is also a real possibility, so I asked Lynch and Shelton if the feedback from players so far with raids and dungeons had shown that some encounters were a giving the players too much to process and react to all at once. “The dungeons have been going out to the beta testers and they’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the dungeons” Lynch replied. “If they are finding it overwhelming, particular boss fights might need to be retuned, but overall they like or really enjoy most of the boss fights and it doesn’t seem too overwhelming. We try to cull those types of [chaotic] fights out before they get seen by the public. We have had them in the past, like they’re still very chaotic, but we’ve eliminated all if not all of those.”
Shelton went on to explain that, at the moment, Carbine has a group of core testers that “get to run through dungeons and content before our closed beta testers do,” streaming their playthroughs to the developers so they can “see the players experiencing these sorts of things” which ultimately “helps the dungeon team tweak and tune their balance as necessary.” As for raids, Lynch pointed out that they were still being tested internally at this moment in time. “We’ve actually built an internal guild, we’ll call it 40+ people, so we can start testing all of those raids internally, and we’ve asked the developers to [pick a] particular class and stick with that class. They become more and more familiar with it just like your player would, and they’re getting better and better.” While he admitted that they were “not quite at the level we need them to be for attempting true raid content” they were at least able to “test out the functionality and overall difficulty of the fight, ensuring that the public were “not seeing that chaotic stuff you’re talking about.”
A huge thanks to Chris and Hugh from Carbine Studios for taking the time out to chat to me! Be sure to stay tuned, as next weekend Carbine Studios will be unveiling the final two playable races for WildStar during San Diego Comic-Con. WildStar currently does not have a release date, but the developers are hoping to release the online game later this year.