We interview Content Director Mike Donatelli about WildStar's raids, guild fortresses, patch plans and more!
The Meaty Patch
Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney has committed to delivering a fresh slice of new content every eight weeks. As the man in charge of making this happen, I asked Donatelli if such a thing was possible. The answer comes back to an interesting distinction by the team; rather than calling it end-game, our time at level cap is described as Elder Game by the team.
“I guess the easiest way to explain it is, as far as I’m concerned, in the design that we have planned there is no end. I have a design for 18 months past launch, and this isn’t expansion content or big drops, it’s just instances and dungeons and solo story game play. Jeremy wants to make sure that we have made sure that there is something for the guys that just want to run by themselves, the group players, the PvP group players, the solo PvPers. I have a ton of design ready to go.”
“If we could implement it before launch that would be awesome, I’d love to have six months of it ready to rock and roll, but we’re pretty tight as it is right now. The idea is that I don’t know when this is supposed to end so I didn’t plan around it ending. It’s better to call it elder because you get to a point and you’re that level and that content is not necessarily on the treadmill, it’s a larger thing, but it doesn’t end.”
“I know we can pull off an 8 week [schedule].If you had told me when we were doing 3 month milestones that we could pull off an 8 week milestone, I’d have said you were absolutely insane, but we managed to do it and I’m happy with what we’ve produced, however I feel that the team is really going to have to nail it, to get out ahead of that. My plan, my hope is to have at least three of those in the hopper by launch. Three things of content that are already in game you’ve already downloaded or bought it in the box. It’s already gold mastered so then I can throw the switch and we’re already chugging along.”
“One of the reasons why I didn’t blanch at the thought of doing this is because this day and age, I can turn around and downloading a gig is not a big deal. I remember in the old days if you wanted to download 100 meg you had to flip the switch and go to bed. You’d be up the next day and that thing might be done. Nowadays people won’t even worry, ‘yeah whatever I’ll download an entire game off of Xbox, it’s like 8 gig, I don’t care it’ll take 15 minutes.’”
Donatelli is also primed and ready for special events, by having map plugs ready in advance. “The art is already there. There’s a map somewhere else that has all the plug information and that stuff, you don’t ever see it, but that’s what I’m swapping to and from so it’s all on the disc or it’s all in the game. Throwing in some monsters, some dialogue, some things of that nature is very low impact. From a technical standpoint I know we can do it. From an 8 week milestone standpoint I now we can pull it off, but again it’s kind of like that razor’s edge. We know there are so many layers of content to get it all right and get it all in the game.”
I also wanted to make sure that we’d be getting full-fat patches with enough content for us to really sink our teeth into. Could Donatelli guarantee that we wouldn’t get wafer-thin updates?
“Well, how I can guarantee that it’s not is that Jeremy mandated it would not be, and then my big schedule that we put together was several iterations in the making. Because it’s like, this is what we’re going to do! And he’s like, that’s not enough. And we had to come up with enough things to fill the gaps. But yeah, we have. The idea is, there are a lot of things I can’t talk about. There are a lot of big chunky combat things, a lot of zones, dungeons and shiphand missions.”
“When I say shiphand mission, ship missions are a thing unto themselves. It’s go off the planet someplace else and do this whole, entire thing that could take two hours to do, so it’s definitely not a quest. Like we’ve said, quests are super easy, we can crap quests into the world. But as far as Jeremy Gaffney’s concerned, that is never going to do, so the plan that he has approved, that I put together is definitely, it’s kind of the twist.”
“We’ve already planned all that out and I have a team, we’ve bulked the team up pretty well this year. The idea is that at the end, where you generally have to cut a bunch of people loose, our plan is to keep all those people, but for a reason. It’s very easy to turn around and say ‘oh, we’re going to cut 50% of the staff because we only have to keep a skeleton crew live team together to make sure bugs get worked out.’ That’s old school. If we’re going to follow Jeremy Gaffney’s path we have to have an army of developers constantly churning stuff out. I think he’s right, I’d play that game.”
Building the World
On top of the dungeons, raids, shiphand missions and all the other stuff that Donatelli’s aching to share, his team is responsible for fleshing out the open world. With a current build rate of nine square kilometres of finished content every eight weeks, that’s a large amount of world building. It’s something that requires a highly collaborative approach, with Content Design acting as the central point.
“We have a very interesting design process. The content design team puts the content in, but we utilize other teams as I mentioned before. Narrative design - we use them as a library. We’re like ‘Hey, we have this cool idea to have these big buttes all throughout the zone. We’ve going to put these tornados that throw you up in the air and spin you around, and you have to control your fall to land on the next level and do a lot of platforming game play’. So we came up with that idea on the content team and then they went to lore and said ‘Hey, tornados chucking you up in the air and you've got to land in other tornados that chuck you up further to get you up this enormous mountain...Why?...How?’ And in lore, because they’re the keepers of the lore, they turn around and say, ‘Well, we have primal energy. The whole universe is made up of primal energy and primal elements and one of them’s air. So there could totally be, naturally occurring primal air pockets.’”
“So we name them primal air pockets and they write a bit, they flesh the lore out. It’s a very cool thing for us to do - we come up with the game play idea and we go to them and ask how we fit it in our world. Because, as we mentioned before, story is super important but it’s easier for the narrative design team to weave it in and it makes for some really cool things.”
“It’s the same thing with combat and encounters. We turn around, we lay all the monsters out in the play space and we know these monsters are targets of this content. We know that there are Path targets involved; we know that there are challenges.
“We go to the Encounters Team and say ‘what we’re thinking is these are all pirates. Space pirates. We think that they would do these things and this type of combat from a content perspective. They go in and look at it, then they say ‘Eh, play space is kind of small for that but what we’ll do instead are these things.’”
“I went to the Art Team and said ‘Hey, a Robot Sheriff, he needs a ten gallon cowboy hat.’ And the art guy said ‘You know what, he does. Give me two days.’ If he’d turned around and told me that there was no way, he couldn’t fit a cowboy hat in there I’d have turned around and maybe gone a different way. But because he can and because it’s fun, and I would say that’s the basis of every we do. It all starts with ‘wouldn’t it be fun to do this thing?’ and people are like ‘Yeah, that would be fun.’ And that’s how challenges got made, I sat down with an artist and we talked about it. An artist named Max Matzenbacher - we were talking about challenges in Darksiders versus challenges in Dante’s Inferno and we were like ‘Let’s try it in the game. We can totally do that.’ And we did! And it’s one of the bigger things in our game.”
It’s that fluid relationship that Donatelli has with Lead Narrative Designer Chad Moore and Art Director Matt Mocarski that helps WildStar become more incredible than anyone could plan. “Matt will pop his head into my office, in the middle of a playtest. I’m playing with twenty people and they’re watching me play their content. He’ll come in and say ‘I’m going to set that asteroid on fire.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ Then I have to turn around and say ‘He’s going to set this whole asteroid on fire, so...’ We’re very fluid. There’s so much compromise going on, but it’s always compromise for the better.”
“Chad, before I went to the artist and said ‘hey, put a cowboy hat on this guy.’, I asked him if it wouldn’t be bad ass to put a tin badge and ten gallon on this guy. He was ‘Hell yeah, see if you can get some boots.’ I’ll start with the hat then I’ll try and eek the rest of it out of the art department at a later date.”
I’d like to thank Donatelli for his time, and wish him the best of look at getting a pair of boots soon. Maybe something with spurs.