WildStar Interview: Jeremy Gaffney, Part 1

The executive producer for WS talks combat mechanics, Milestones, player scaling and more in part one of our interview

Last month I went down to San Francisco to meet with Carbine Studios and check out its current build of WildStar. In-between presentations and actually playing the game, I had the chance to sit down with Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney and ask him about some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of WildStar’s design. Player specializations, Milestones, gear scaling, Path abilities, and more.

Mainly from looking at the system, you can have different builds by focusing on different stats. In particular, with the Warrior I can focus on Technology or Strength and I’ve seen different skills scale off of different stats. I assume that will tie to how you will do a tank specialization versus a DPS specialization. So how exactly do you plan to do that later on? If I want to flip from a tank role to a DPS role, is it just a matter of going into my Abilities page and picking different abilities or do I need to go to town and respend my ability points?

Well, we’ve been experimenting with multiple ways of doing it. We’re an iterative dev shop which is good because, you know, what we do is we do something and then if it sucks, we kick it out and rip it out and go “Aah we’re idiots” and if it’s good, then we make sure to double down and do it better. But the annoying part of that is what we’ve really done is build up the base systems where we’re trying to make banks of fun abilities and then we’re giving the players different interesting ways of grouping those together. So the way that works today may or may not survive through beta as players mix and match.

The way it’s working today in this group is you have your limited action set; you have a number of different abilities that you’re unlocking over time. Many of these abilities have built-in synergies with them – you might have builders and finishers for instance. And as you parcel out those abilities, we want to make sure that there’s a bank of fun builders and a bank of fun finishers, but then how do you enforce the players which one… Do we want to force them to have at least one builder or at least one finisher? Or is it okay if they build something with all builders? Or what if they make all finishers and they never have a builder so they can never use any of the abilities they’ve chosen for themselves?

So a lot of that’s actually what we’re iterating right now. The most recent iteration of this is basically giving you at least a couple of specs that you can flip between where you can say “Here are the banks of abilities I like and want to work together”. You unlock more of those over time, so it’s like “I’m going into this particular dungeon and so I want this particular ability back” or “I’m going to go do PvP so I’ll pull up my PvP bank”. You get calls from your trainer when there’re new abilities at your trainer, you can level up the abilities you have to higher and higher levels, but honestly we really want to dump a couple thousand more players in the game and get feedback from them on it before we really commit to whatever the final thing is. We’ve done enough games that we feel confident to make bunches of cool abilities that work together and we’ve played with a few different systems on that and we’ll probably do more of that in the future.

All right, the Milestones system. I like the idea - it’s unique compared to what I’m used to in MMOs. I’m just curious about… I’ll go with Warrior because I know him better. He had one, Strike Fear – you can get extra threat after you’ve used Bum Rush. He had another one that I believe was a health drain ability on a couple of hits. And then there was a passive increase to your armor by some percentage of your Tech.

Good memory.

Do you expect that players will want milestones that are just for their primary stats? If I’m a DPS warrior, I’m pretty much going to stack a bunch of Strength milestones? Or will it be likely that somebody is going to have one piece of Magic gear and one piece of Tech gear on their DPS warrior just to pick up that one crucial milestone?

So what we’re trying to do is incent you to do it across multiple stats. Um, because in the best of our world, and this is something we’ve been actively iterating on, because, like you, I think we sense that core of a fun system in there and we want to make sure we do the right balance of “it should feel valuable to you to have your main stats up” but also it would be nice if there was a valid alternate spec. For instance, hey here’s a Dexterity warrior or here are other things where there’re some neat synergies that come out of those stats.

What the milestones are intended to do – it turns out the… this is going to be a longer answer than you want, but I think it’s an interesting question, so forgive me. It turns out there’s a player curve that’s particularly fun or there’s a curve that is particularly fun to players. Let me grab a pen and next will be some paper. Here…

And you see this curve in games occasionally and we build many of our systems around it. So what that curve looks like is a staggered stair step. Now what does that mean? Let’s take your ability – every time your ability points go up, you should feel if you even gain one more point of Strength, you ought to feel a benefit from it. If not you should adjust your curve so that one point of Strength, well it used to be 10 points and now it’s one – if you can get an item that’s one point better, it would be nice if you could feel an impact from it. So that means I get +1 Strength and this is Power, let’s say, and I get slightly better at Strength, but players don’t notice smooth curves. If your entire game looked like this where one point of Strength gave me a fraction of a percent of critical, it’s not very compelling to the user because you never really…, especially at the higher level like one more point – who really notices that other than someone going and running the spreadsheet.

Especially if mobs are scaling at the same rate.

Yes, exactly. But you do notice as a human being, you’re wired to notice big jumps. So if you have… if you got to a certain threshold, let’s say 100 Strength, and now there’s a big jump in your power, you notice that. And this happens in games, but often it’s hidden or it’s like a softcap you’ve hit where it’s like “I’m as great as I can possibly be, woohoo I win!” or let’s suppose I become immune to criticals at a certain Stamina percent point. That’s cool, but it’s so hidden that you would almost have to get a spreadsheet or learn from other players to find it. So what we’d like to do is make that a lot more visible and in your face and Milestones are part of that where it’s like okay, not only… Let’s take a game that does this really well; Diablo, for instance. Let’s go back to Diablo 1 or Diablo 2. When your Strength goes up from 10 to 11, it gives you a bit of a boost but not that noticeable, but if you have a sword sitting there that needs 15 Strength to wield, then going from 14 to 15 is a big potential leap for you. That is a noticeable leap. Well, that is, and they’re good designers so I’d imagine it is probably done intentionally – that gives you a staggered stair step where every +1 matters, but then some +1s matter a lot more than other ones.

So Milestones are an attempt to make that visually obvious to players. And in the build you’re playing, it isn’t visually obvious enough – you know, you should be really looking forward to “Oh if I fiddle with my stats and I cast this buff and I did this thing, wata!” Now my jump goes twice as far and I feel a big impact. But that’s the intent of that system where it’s really trying to drive is to give you that kind of feel and to build that sort of staggered stair step into your thing. So when you find a +3 sword, it might not always really matter, but sometimes it really matters and you’re really stoked to find that new item that’s in exactly the right configuration, both at the low levels and at the high end – you know, it’s very powerful. So that’s where Milestones are going and they’re part of the way there, but there’s probably not all of the way there.

It looks like Tech for a tank, Strength for a DPS warrior – is there the possibility of a mixed-stat skill?

Yep, absolutely. Over time what we’ll drive toward, I suspect, is things like not just rewarding you for having dumped everything into one thing, but rewarding you for having a mid-level and also over time it’s driving you toward “Here’s an ability you can unlock if your Dex hits blah-blah threshold”. That way we can make sure that it’s not just monotonic “I go up a level, I have to have chosen one or the other between Strength and Tech”. I think it would be too monotonic if that were always the optimal path. I mean, if I wanna be Strength focused, cool – there should be rewards for it. But that shouldn’t be the only way to get rewards. So I don’t know what’s appearing in here because I don’t remember which version of the build we have, but what our designers have been working toward is more sort of making some interesting hybrid points along the middle that are valuable too.

(switches to the Path screen) It’s obviously a placeholder, hence the IOU, but what are you guys planning on for the Path ability unlocks? As a Solider or an Explorer, what’s something I can look forward to unlocking?

The most fun ones I’ve bumped into in the game so far are temp abilities or daily ability boosts. For instance, as a high level Explorer, getting a once-a-day jetpack. But in general, what they are is they’re things that support the kind of stuff you like doing and they tend to be utility, so it’s not like “to be the best in PvP, I need to be a Soldier because they’re the only ones with DPS-affecting stuff”. So some of it will affect DPS, but we’re trying to balance that to be good in PvP as well as PvE and have some value. You get a bank of different abilities or different skills or some can even be items that in general are supporting the kind of things you want to do. The jetpack’s a great example because Explorers love movement and often, if I have a particularly tough jump puzzle, well if once a day I can solve the jump puzzle by saying “screw this I’m getting out the jetpack”, then that’s very valuable to you… and maybe it’s even useful in combat once or twice for getting away from a tough enemy. But they’re infrequent use things, so it’s not like trivializing what you can do. We’ve debating doing things like for example giving mount access to Explorers earlier and this sort of thing via these sorts of abilities as well, but we’ll see as we add some more permanent things in there as well. It’s really something that we’re – everything iterates, but this is one that we’ve played with as well. The best are really things that support your play style though.

Since we’re already on Path – so you’ll see stuff for your Path as you level, it’s part of your leveling experience. Will Paths come into play any when you start doing instances?


So an Explorer might be able to find an extra path and skip trash or something?

Exactly, though we try not to do too much like “here’s a bunch of trash mobs”. In general, in each of the dungeons we’ve done so far, there tend to be one or more things for your Path you can do to unlock or you get a power which, if you use the power well, you get extra Path XP for successfully using it. An example – may or may not end up in final game, we’ll see – is that the Settler maybe has a campfire which acts as a rez point you can place down forever in a dungeon, so if you wipe out, you’re not running all the way back from the beginning of the dungeon, but you come back up at the camp that you laid down. And if you have multiple Settlers, you’re stoked because in this particular raid or dungeon, now there are more save points than there otherwise would be. And similarly in PvP, we generally give you powers and if you successfully use those powers in a good way, then you earn yourself Path XP. Because if you’ve leveled up entirely by PvP, we don’t want you having top level in your class but having a Path level of 3 because you didn’t have any way of advancing things. So we’ve tried to experiment in each of our areas of gameplay to make sure there’s good path stuff for you to do and in the other games that you can still advance your Path as well.

We've got more answers from Jeremy in part 2 of our interview, so come back tomorrow to find out more about PvP, Telegraphed versus targeted abilities, healing, and more. (Update: Part 2 can be found here.)

Michael "Ragar" Branham


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