Last month, Cryptic Studios announced a new group, Cryptic North, built by hiring developers from the former Flying Labs Software. Based in Seattle, they’re supposed to be working on Champions Online. As a CO player, you’ll excuse me if I don’t jump for joy.
Cryptic has been neglecting Champions Online for the better part of a year. Communication between the developers and the player community has broken down to the point that we had to find out about Cryptic North the same way the rest of the gaming world did: An exclusive e-mail interview between Gamasutra and Cryptic’s Jack Emmert & Cryptic North’s Russell Williams.
Yeah, it was so exclusive, Cryptic couldn’t even tell their own customers.
We still haven’t heard a word from anybody at Perfect World Entertainment or Cryptic "South" about Cryptic North, or anything else, in the month since that interview. In fact, we’ve had only one major communique in the past 12 months, an Ask Cryptic back in February. It’s especially galling when Cryptic’s other player communities, Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, get regular updates from development and management.
I feel an FJM takedown rumbling up from the depths. Gamasutra’s questions in bold italics, Jack and Russell’s responses in bold, my commentary in regular type.
How long has the new studio been operating? How many people are currently there?
Jack Emmert: We began talks to bring Rusty and his team in and establish Cryptic North before December of 2012.
Right around the time Cryptic effectively reduced their cash shop to a key dispenser for lockboxes. Who wants to buy exactly what they want for a fixed price, anyway?
Russell Williams: Yeah, we went full speed ahead in January of 2013,
“Six months before we told anybody we existed.”
but we’ve also been collaborating with each other for years, back when most of Cryptic North was still Flying Lab.
“And we were impressed that Cryptic could handle two MMOs at the same time.”
We have 12 people in the Seattle Studio, but we have transplants from Cryptic come up here just as we have our Northerners go down there, so the studio size varies pretty dramatically from week-to-week.
A 600% increase in Champions Online developer head count! When they’re in Seattle, which they usually aren’t.
Why did Perfect World feel the need to add another Cryptic Studio?
JE: Whenever you have the opportunity to add experienced veterans to a team, you should jump on it.
Like when Cryptic picked up a bunch of ex-Paragon Studios devs after NCSoft stabbed City of Heroes in the back and, logically, put them to work on Champ– oh, that’s right. They were immediately assigned to Star Trek Online.
[Perfect World] is always making investments in the West. Runic, Unknown Worlds, Cryptic... Western growth and independently operating development houses like us are very important to PW’s future. It makes business sense.
“We love our independence! When we came up with lockboxes, entirely on our own, PWE said, ‘Well, if you insist. I know that’s our thing, but we’re not gonna force you into something Western gamers are resisting.’” [Sips Kool-Aid]
RW: Studio location is also very important. Silicon Valley is a great area, but tremendously competitive. Having a Seattle-based studio allows us to recruit Seattle-based talent.
Coming soon: Seattle Cliché Pack, with flannel shirt costume piece, vintage grunge tour t-shirt costume piece (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana variants), Drink Venti Latte emote (Starbucks, Peet’s, and Seattle’s Best), and David Stern’s Head-on-a-Pike non-combat pet!
JE: There’re also other benefits to having Cryptic North in Seattle. We just launched the Legacy of Romulus expansion to Star Trek Online and our Neverwinter Open Beta. Huge efforts for us.
It took every single person at Cryptic to push those major projects out the door…
It’s easy, as a studio, to get focused on a task to the exclusion of all else.
Russell and his team give us perspective and allow us to better diversify. That’s important for any developer.
“Russell told me he was impressed that we can handle two MMOs at the same time. Then he made a point to remind me that we have three. Awk-ward.”
What's Cryptic North going to be working on, exactly?
RW: Right now we are working hand-in-hand with the Cryptic Studios team on Champions Online,
Three closed bug tickets in six months!
though we contribute to Star Trek Online and Neverwinter.
49 hours per developer per 50-hour week.
Will Cryptic North be working projects independent from Redwood’s?
RW: A definite possibility. Right now we are focusing on polishing and improving Champs. Longer term, who knows?
Maybe they’ll close three bug tickets in five months!
JE: Absolutely we want to grow the studio to be more than it is.
“We’re always looking forward to the next project. The current projects will take care of themselves, right?”
Realistically, all growth is contingent upon success.
[Sternly] “There are levels of success we are prepared to accept.”
Right now our games are incredibly successful, so we’re growing and that means expansion North and South.
See, Cryptic has two studios and three games. That doesn’t divide evenly. Something has to give.
The MMO market is really risky. How do you plan on mitigating that risk?
JE: Short version: Make better games.
Captain Obvious replaces Defender as Champions Online poster hero!
Make cost effective games.
“We’ve almost mastered the formula for maximum lockbox key sales from minimum effort. One more disposable event in Champions Online, and I’m sure we’ll get it right!”
Treat our players better.
HEY, JACK! WHY DON’T YOU START BY NOT EXCLUDING ONE OF YOUR PLAYER COMMUNITIES FROM ALL COMMUNICATION!
It’s an upset victory for Jack Emmert over the Xbox One Introduction and Every EA Exec at Any Time for the Most Tone-Deaf Statement by a Video Game Executive Award for 2013, and the year’s only half over.
Take care of our talent. Focus on working business models.
[PWE lackey tops off Jack’s Kool-Aid]
A tried and true way to mitigate risk is diversification.
“I learned that after getting kicked to the curb for starting a second superhero MMO immediately after launching my first one. Now, I jump from genre to genre as I jump from project to project.”
And we also have a crazy diverse portfolio of games at [Perfect World Entertainment]. The MMO market is changing. We've seen the rise of free-to-play and we’ve seen that model rapidly displace traditional subscription games.
It’s the only business model that can avoid being stomped by World of Warcraft.
We’ve seen less emphasis on boxed PC titles and more emphasis on delivering unique MMOs that are not conventional tab-targeting experiences.
Neverwinter wasn’t an MMO until PWE bought Cryptic from Atari. PWE has an MMO hammer, and Neverwinter didn’t look enough like a nail, so Cryptic was told to take a look-to-target action game and wrap MMO common areas and trade & currency mechanics around it without adding tab-targeting.
We feel pretty good about where we are currently positioned with F2P and we believe that's the immediate future of the genre: triple-A F2P from the ground-up.
For sufficiently crippled-at-soft-launch-by-exploits values of “triple-A”.
That being said, of course we closely monitor our section of gaming and keep our finger on the pulse of the industry to see what’s next.
“OK, Neverwinter’s done. What’s next? WHAT’S NEXT?”
Platform convergence and 24/7 gaming, for example — playing an MMO like Neverwinter on a different platform, but with the same playerbase,
We could have had PC and Xbox 360 players on the same Champions Online servers, but noooooo… [Glares at Microsoft]
and taking a portion of that Neverwinter experience elsewhere, as is the case with Gateway.
“How do we web security again?”
Any thoughts on the upcoming consoles? Has Perfect World considered bringing its games to those?
JE: We always keep our options open and consoles are definitely in the cards.
Oh, I’m sure the developers of DC Universe Online are just quaking in their boots.
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are very interesting to us and we’re actively looking at the business behind free-to-play on consoles, the logistics behind it (how we manage accounts, patching, etc.) and the feasibility of porting our engines to those platforms.
“Oooh, I smell a new project!”
We can’t definitively say yes or no and this game or that one right now, but that’s a space we want to be in.
“We can say ‘no’ to Champions Online, though. We can always say no to Champions Online.”