Bill Roper is a PC gaming legend. As vice president of Blizzard North, Roper played a key role in the success of Diablo and Diablo II, still considered by many to be the Blizzard's best games. Then he left, co-founded Flagship Studios and released the now defunct Hellgate: London, a game that was, essentially, Diablo in first person. Now, as design director and executive producer at Atari-owned Cryptic Studios, he's in charge of Champions Online, a superhero MMO due out on PC this spring. Here, in the second part of a mammoth interview with VideoGamer.com, Roper tells us why fans should be so excited about Star Trek Online, and delivers his verdict on the latest iteration of the very series he made his name on: Diablo 3.
VideoGamer.com: It's exciting times at Cryptic, and you've got quite a few projects in the works. One of those is Star Trek Online. How excited should your average MMO fan be by the game?
BR: I think it's great because both sides of the fence should be excited. Star Trek fans should be excited and MMO players should be excited. The huge advantage Star Trek has, and really all the games we work on at Cryptic, is that we work from a core tool set that they've spent a couple of years on. It's very mature. It grows on its own with requests from the development teams. The huge benefit of that is we're not recreating the wheel every time we're working on a game. Those core tools are there: how missions get built, how effects hook up, the graphics pipeline, all those things that can take so long. So the teams get to focus much more than usual on just building content and game systems, which is a huge benefit. It allows us to create games faster because we're not having to create all the associated technology every time, and it also enables us to make games that are richer in experience because we're spending the bulk of our time on that content, on what's going in. If we're coming up with new ideas, new technologies and new systems, it's usually around a new gameplay mechanic we don't have, or to be able to do something in missions that we don't have the ability to do. That's when new things get created. But those are basically made available to all projects. So from an MMO gamer's standpoint, when STO comes out, it has the benefit of all the core systems that have been built for both titles, for Champions and for STO. And then anything we've done that's specific in Champions, because it runs off that same core technology, can be transferable.
There's things that get done in STO, and we go, oh we could totally use that in Champions! And we'll steal that tech or that new idea. A good example of that is STO has both ship and ground based combat. For the ship based combat one of the things they had to do was come up with directional shielding. That's always been a hallmark of space battle and Star Trek, they have shielding at different sections of the ship, forward shields, rear shields. So they built the ship combat model around the fact that you have directional shielding. Now there's this technology available for directional shields. In Champions we now have that as a tool that we can use if we want to build a device that has directional shielding, for example. To use it either for player powers, to use it as some kind of shtick for a boss that you fight, it now becomes open and something we get to use because the core of the technology has that ability. So from that MMO standpoint players should be really excited. The team's experience that's on there, they've done MMO work in the past. They can really focus on making things that are interesting and exciting and fun because they're not having to spend all that time on the tech and tools.
On the Star Trek side, they have people that are as passionate about the license as the players and as the people that love Star Trek. They've spent a lot of time not looking at, well what's the gaming thing we can do, and we'll just layer Star Trek over it? But, what are core elements to what Star Trek is? The ship combat is very geared towards that. The fact that they have directional shields and not just, oh you've got a ship that you fly around and it's got a bunch of hit points and some of those are shields. Combat is about facing and turning and the strategy that's involved in that. The fact that your character in STO is a captain. Many people would assume that you would start up in Star Fleet academy and you're a lowly ensign and you work up the ranks and eventually you get to become a captain. No, you want to be a captain. That's the iconic position in Star Trek. You're a captain. You have a ship. Yes you're at the beginning of a career but that career is that pinnacle career that you want. The things that you are building up are your crew around you, the ship that you have and the areas you can go to. Throughout all of it they've worked very hard on that.
They recently released a video that gave hint to the way the character creation works. This is where they definitely get to borrow from all the work that we've done with character customisation on Champions. They have a very rich system for creating your avatar, your captain, where you can not only chose from all the races almost in the Star Trek universe, certainly all the big ones, like Romulan and Klingon and human, but then a lot of the minor races. But then there's all those pieces those are built with and tons of other alien pieces so players can make, if they want to, a Bajoran but they can also make their own unique alien race. What's very cool about that is, and all of this goes through the approval process with CBS, you're going to be able to create, and this is pretty exciting, for the first time your own characters and races within the Star Trek cannon. Wow look I'm making this, check it out I made this race and I named it and they're in the Star Trek universe because they're in the game. For Star Trek fans there are going to be so many things they can do that will ring very true to them. Both sides of the fence are going to be really excited by it.
VideoGamer.com: Can you tell me about this super secret unannounced MMO Cryptic has in the works for 2011?
BR: No (laughs). That's why anything that's been announced as secret is secret! We definitely want to continue to intelligently grow the company, leverage that technology we've built to be able to work on different titles, to continue to grow it. It's actually very nice to have specifically core technology teams. So the technology never stagnates. It's not like we made some tech and then, oh let's use that for 10 years. It's constantly evolving, constantly growing. But it's not required for the development teams to be responsible for that. I have programmers on Champions Online that are just on Champions, but they can be more games system programmers and working on things that support gameplay and game mechanics, as opposed to systems programmers which are in our core technology group, that are working on graphics pipelines and optimisations and core systems like marketplaces and in-game mail, and all those big chunks of things that you want to have in every MMO. The huge advantage of that is the games get to launch in a more mature state. The fact that we'll have email when we launch with Champions Online where you can attach items is huge. Not every MMO launches with that, but it's becoming an expectation. So there's things that we get through having that core tech team that really helps us. It also allows us then to more intelligently and easily add another project. So while I can't tell you what it is, the good part is we can make it better and faster because we've actually got all that core tech in place.
VideoGamer.com: Can you tell me when Cryptic will lift the lid on the project?
BR: I have no idea! Not my project so I don't know. Nowadays that is above my pay grade!
VideoGamer.com: What do you think of Diablo III?
BR: I'm very interested to see, I think not only how the game comes out, but also how players react to it. With Hellgate: London at Flagship we definitely did it in a different setting, we did it with some different viewpoints, but the core mechanic was really what I would consider that Diablo mechanic. Fighting lots of enemies, lots of loot dropping, built entirely on the concepts of randomisation. Beyond the issues we had when we launched the game, we actually found that there was a lot of feedback that they just felt the gameplay was repetitive and boring. It was really interesting because it pointed to me wondering if that style of game is still going to be engaging for players. It very well may be. We certainly may have just not hit the mark with the presentation of the game mechanic, but the mechanic itself was very solid. So I'm somewhat interested to find out if players are going to go through and be content with clicking on a lot of stuff, killing guys and having lots of loot drop off in random areas. I don't know.
I am positive that the game will be highly polished, very well put together, very fun when it comes out, though I think players have seen also some of the changes that are going to occur with that. With the fact that the creators of the franchise don't work there any more. That it's not the Blizzard North (now defunct) guys that always worked on the Diablo titles that are on it but the core teams in Irvine (Blizzard's HQ in California). The first outward sign of that was when the first screens and video came out. Diablo players were like, it's not dark and it's not Gothic! It all looks cartooney! One of the things I always enjoyed about that separation between Blizzard and Blizzard North was that the Diablo games had a very distinct art style. They had different art directors, they had different people working on it, they had a different sensibility about them. Diablo was I think grittier and darker and a little more leaning towards the photo realistic. Whereas the Craft games that were being built down in Irvine were bigger and broader in scope, brighter colours, just different pallets and different presentation. Both of those were very strong from that visual standpoint, for example. But it makes complete sense to me where they went because they basically took the Diablo universe and then approached it from the Blizzard Ivine stance for the visuals. That's the way they approach things. It wasn't that I looked at it and went, oh my God that looks terrible. I was like, that looks like Blizzard. The guys in Irvine. That's what it looks like to me. Their interpretation of it.
There are some things that seem like they're going to be pretty cool. There's a higher level of interactivity with the environment. They've done some really cool stuff with some of the powers. When I saw the video at first, they had the Witch Doctor cast the Wall of Zombies or something like that, and I was like, that's just the coolest spell ever. It's such a great idea. It's just a wall spell but the fact that they decided to make it zombies, I'm like, OK that's just really cool! So I have no doubts that it will come out as what we all know a Blizzard product will be, which is having a lot of time and care put into it, very polished and a very complete product. I'm excited and interested to see what it's going to be because it'll be the Diablo franchise but without the people that shepherded it before. I am hopeful that it's going to be what I'm expecting as a Diablo fanatic for it to be. But time will tell.
VideoGamer.com: You mention that you can understand the art style and direction Blizzard has taken with Diablo III, but are you pleased with it or disappointed with it? You were one of the chief architects of the original Diablo games which, as you've said, were darker and grittier than the Craft games.
BR: You know, I liked the darker grittier. I liked the differences in art style, to be honest. So, I think I would personally from a player standpoint prefer that. One of the things that we always tried to get across was that Diablo was Gothic fantasy and I think there was just a need that was put in there from the visuals that I didn't necessarily get. I got it from the architecture and to a degree from the character design but not the feeling of the world. I can't say that I dislike it. I didn't look at it and go, oh my God that's horrible. But I looked at it and went, it's not really... to me as a player it just didn't really ring with Diablo.
VideoGamer.com: It seems to have split the fan base right down the middle. Were you keeping tabs on that reaction?
BR: Yeah we definitely saw that. I wasn't shocked by it but I was a little surprised at how vocal people were. There are still a lot of people I'm sure that play Diablo II and the expansion but at the same time there are a lot of people who have their memory of what the game was. They've seen it come out and it's so obviously not that from that visual standpoint. It triggers all those, ah what are you doing with my fond memory?! Like, oh my God! And as we found the people that are online, that will get online and post on forums, are very vocal. And typically vocal with displeasure. People that like stuff don't go online and say, this is the best thing ever! My God I love it! They tend to just be enjoying it. Whereas the people that want to get on there and have issues are the ones that yell the loudest. So it's difficult to judge accurately what that will really mean. Probably to be honest all those people that were online talking about how they hated how it looked will be the first ones in the store to buy it and hate it in person.
The thing that's good about that, and any developer that sees people posting in forums, following these stories, voicing pleasure or displeasure, the huge part about that is that they are passionate about what you're doing. That's the good takeaway. If they didn't care about the game they wouldn't say anything. So even when they're on there saying, ah I really hate this decision you made, they're expressing that because they love the core product. That's a huge thing to look at. As developers look at these things, to not become entirely discouraged when people are online bitching about something that you said or that you're doing. At least they care enough to be upset about it.
Champions Online is due out this spring. Star Trek Online is due out in 2010. Cryptic has an unannounced MMO due out in 2011.