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Sections: WISH Interview
with Dave Rickey

WISH is the Ultra MMO Game in development by Mutable Realms which will bring gamers to a new, larger world of gaming in massively multiplayer games with their new server architecture allowing thousands of players to interact on a single server. Dave Riceky took time out from his busy development grind to answer our questions about this game currently in Alpha Testing.

Interview: Dave Rickey from Mutable Realms - Div Devlin (11-19-03)

Hi Dave, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Everyone pretty much knows who you are, but could you give us a self-introduction anyways?

Well, I first started playing online games back in 1992, moving from text games to some of the early graphical efforts like Shadows of Yserbius and Multi-Player BattleTech. When UO went into Beta, I managed to snag the account of a friend, and I really, really liked what the game aspired to be. I say "aspired", because balance problems, exploits, and bugs made UO a very different game than what everyone had hoped for. But I found the ambitions inspiring enough that I quit my job developing web servers (in 1997) and set out to become an online game designer. I spent some time working with the VN, helping with the UO and AC Vaults and eventually running the EQ Vault. My first job in the industry was as the #2 GM in EverQuest, after that I went to Mythic Entertainment to work on Dark Age of Camelot in more different jobs than I am able to count, finally winding up the Content Designer. Now I'm the Lead Designer on Wish, of course.

Folks in the know, say you are a great guy and someone I could feel comfortable with drinking the night way out on the town. You're a regular guy. So, are you a glass man or a bottle man?

Beer in large quantities sometimes messes with my digestion, so I tend to stick to vodka and 7-Up with a twist when I'm out to do some serious drinking. ;-) It is interesting to contrast my online reputation with my in-person impression. I say the same things either way, but online the body language and inflections don't come across. The thing is, I've always been like this, both in person and online, I say what I mean and if you looked up "Tactless" in the dictionary you'd find my picture. But in online communication people have a lot more time to analyze what was meant as a throwaway one-liner, and it sometimes gets me in trouble.

As a designer or producer working on a title, there are always personal goals that individuals will set for themselves. Can you share with us some of your personal goals for "WISH?"

Make a wheelbarrow-load of money, buy a Porsche, get performance upgrades, the usual. ;-) Seriously, I really want Wish to move in a different direction. The industry is all stampeding towards the same things, an EQ-like PvE game, a DAoC-like PvP game, an AO-like "private dungeons" system. Don't get me wrong, these things *work*, and in some cases extremely well, but they are already out there, people who want that in their game already have that experience ready and waiting. Beyond that, nearly *all* of the upcoming games are moving in these same directions, essentially creating variants on the same middle-of-the road compromise. But I've already been there and done that, and I'm not really interested in just refining the formula.

Can you tell us what goals Mutable Realms has for "WISH?"

Did I mention the Porsche? Beyond the fact that I personally have already been part of making some of the games that defined the formula and want to move on to something more interesting, it would be foolish for Mutable Realms to try and make Wish just one more of these, trying to compete with Blizzard, Microsoft and Sony. So we're trying to look at some of the roads not taken, some of the things that *almost* worked, that were really fun but had to be sacrificed in order to solve problems in other areas. We're trying to be realistic in our goals, we think a significant portion the market is getting tired of variations on the loot-and-level theme and we want Wish to be more focused on communities and social gameplay. So we're tearing down a lot of the trappings of LnL, the strict segregation of content by level, the focus on collecting equipment as loot, the constant treadmilling on your way to become "Uber, just like everybody else."

That doesn't mean you don't have a PvE game, but do you have to have a PvE game where the goal is just grinding up the same monsters over and over for the XP, or alternatively beating on the big huge monster pinata and squabbling over the loot it drops? And Class-based systems may be good for creating mutual dependance and encouraging social bonds, but does that mean you need umpteen different classes, most of them one-trick ponies with only one gameplay element of their own to justify their existence?

And what about the roads not taken? We gave up on dynamic worlds where the monsters attack the towns and the players drive them back, but we didn't give up on them because the idea wasn't sound or fun, we gave up because our worlds wound up so crowded and our games so imbalanced that the systems didn't work. Now we know more, and CPU/memory is a lot cheaper, so let's back off a few steps and try again. I think there's a market out there for a game that brings something new to the table.

The point here is that Wish really needs to break from the pack and go in its own direction. When you're facing an increasingly crowded market, you have to think smarter and look for the opportunities that are being missed. The biggest of those is that we want to make a world where what the players do *matters*, it's not all flash and smoke and mirrors, but substantive impacts that really affect the world around them.

When we first saw "WISH," it was as a playable demo earlier this year at E3. Our first impression of it was, "We want to play it now!" As a MMO Game in alpha it looked more completed than some major titles on release. How long was it in development before it was actually announced, why the wait to announce it?

A lot of Wish's development pre-dated me, a lot of time was spent developing the underlying technologies. Distributed server architectures, reliable pathing algorithms, and robust network protocols are very important to an MMO, but they aren't very exciting and potential players aren't much interested in hearing about them. But because they started with a client-server technology and then attached a client to it, rather than the other way around like usually happens, a lot of progress seemed to happen very quickly. Mutable Realms has really assembled an excellent team, and I'm glad to have to opportunity to work with them.

Mutable Realms is small-scale company, undertaking a pretty large project. We've seen in the past the problems smaller independent designers have faced promising gamers the world, but upon release only delivering a fraction of the game play. How prepared is Mutable Realms, as well as you for taking on this game after live?

Mutable Realms is small compared to some of the other companies in the business, but fairly large for a start-up game company (about the same size as Mythic was before Camelot launched, actually). But we do have to scale some of our ambitions to meet the realities of the time and manpower available, sometimes we have to tell ourselves "That would be really, cool, but we just can't commit to doing it." However, there's often ways to finesse that. For example, it would be really cool to have a world population system based on Artificial Life systems, where creatures were born, wandered through the world eating and being eaten, all the things that everyone was promising to have 5 years ago. However, such systems are inherently experimental right now, and are more in the category of toys and academic curiousities than robust sciences we can use to build a game.

But if you really examine *what* is cool about the idea, and you study what more proven technologies like cellular automata and fuzzy-logic state machines are capable of, you realize that there may be a way to capture the same behaviours, dynamics, and fun in systems that we actually know how to build. And because we know how those systems work at much greater depth than A-Life, we have fallback positions, ways to salvage fun and preserve gameplay if our ambitions don't work out.

That being said, I'm really torn when I go to talk to players about Wish, because on the one hand I know that if I don't make bold promises that fire their imaginations and get them excited about the prospect of playing, it will be hard to attract mindshare from the other games. On the other, I don't want to make any promises I don't know I can keep, so I try to confine myself to talking about the really cool stuff we already have, rather than what we hope to have. It's really a balancing act.

Overall, how is Mutable Realms approaching "WISH" as a long term lasting MMO Game? Is it a service or is it a product?

It's both. At this phase of things, it's almost pure product, we're developing systems and content much like you would for a single-player game. But as we go through Beta and get closer to launch, it will become more and more of a service, and we've contracted with the Themis Group to help us handle that transition. And of course after launch, you are doing both at once, with part of the team developing follow-up products in the form of expansions, while a larger team provides ongoing service.

You have some major players taking part in the development of "WISH," especially when it comes to the in game music and sounds. An Emmy Award winning designer? This could be one of the first games that we don't turn off the speakers on! Can you tell us more about this?

Our sound designer is Mike Kimball, and yes, he did win some Emmys for his work on the X-Files. Since coming to Mutable Realms, Mike has been the driving force behind the development of our audio content and audio software requirements. He has really pushed the developers to provide him with the means to achieve film score sound quality. Because of his efforts, Wish has a very rich and layered soundstage.

We're rabid PvP'ers. Mutable Realms has a balance in mind, to make all our wishes come true within WISH. Can you tell us more on the PvP system and 'Houses?' Will it be akin to early Ultima Online?

Early Ultima Online was not good experience for the industry and market as a whole. The Dread Lords cast a very long shadow, to the point that Camelot, even coming out 4 years later, had to work very hard to convince people that a game with PvP as a focus could work at all. What we've learned since is that there are some players (about 20%) who are perfectly okay with PvP under almost any conditions, some (again about 20%) who don't like it under almost all circumstances, and the majority of the players (the remaining 60%) can take it or leave it alone, *as long as it will leave them alone*. Almost everyone in Camelot engages in RvR combat from time to time, but they have the power to control whether or not they are vulnerable.

Wish is providing that control in the form of the Houses. Being a House means conquering a monster-controlled town and becoming responsible for its well-being. You gain control of the town, its buildings, and the resources that surround it, and you get rewarded by being able to collect taxes on transactions within that territory. This means there's inherently a competition between towns for tax revenues, and from that the seeds of conflict between Houses. So the power to control territory carries with it the possibility that someone else will disagree with how you use that control, and declare war on you in an attempt to force you to change.

At the same time, if you're not part of a House, you're not subject to this, rather you're the beneficiary of the contest between Houses to attract your trade to their towns so they can collect taxes. So what happens in the politics and wars affects you indirectly and makes the world more interesting, but you don't have to look over your shoulder and worry that anybody is going to gank you. And the system has been set up to work even if as few as 20% of the players choose to participate in the HvH portions of the game (hmm... I wonder where that number came from ;-).

So far what has been the major hurdle in development? Will we, as players, have a working crafting system, questing system, guild interface system, before release? Will content and fun be patched in later?

Questing is already in, a minimal version of Guild support is in and the full UI should be in by Beta. Crafting is tied together with a whole bunch of other systems, and it's hard to say when it will be fully functional. But there will definitely be Crafting support by release. I'd say the biggest hurdles we are facing are the endless details that will come up as people try to find ways to manipulate the HvH systems and associated economic systems to gain advantage through loopholes, and generating enough things in the world that are interesting to keep the players busy and having fun, without resorting to tricks like long treadmills.

How long has Wish been in development now, and is the team following the philosophy of "We Will Release When It's Ready?"

Roughly the last year and a half. Our philosophy is a mixture of "We'll release when it's done" and "We'll build it so it's done when we release." By that, I mean that we look at the resources available and the systems we need, and assess the tradeoffs between adding more detail and the man-hours required to do so. Frequently there are multiple ways to implement a system, and some are more flexible to coping with deadlines than others. What we're trying to avoid is the "Aim for the moon, hit yourself in the foot" phenomenon that is so common in this business, where overly ambitious designs get slashed and burned in the last few months because the money has run out.

How will Community Relations be handled as you move closer to the starting stages of Beta? There is very little hype of WISH currently, are you guys going to do Community Relations in-house with a Manager or outsource?

In Beta, it will be outsourced to Themis. After that, we'll scale back the size of the testing population and look at bringing it in-house in the months between Beta and the pre-release load testing.

BETA? When? How? Now?

Beta is planned to start on December 1 and run through the end of February. Then we'll probably keep the most helpful of the beta testers online through the next stage of development (Gamma?) until the final month or so before launch, when we'll do load testing (Delta?).

Thanks for taking time out to speak with us and sharing with us more information in what is becoming a highly anticipated title!

Beta Applications are available on the Themis site. To Learn more about Wish visit Mutable Realms official site.

Discuss: Make a Wish for Christmas Beta Gifts!

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