Join us as we quiz Jess Lebow on his work with Dungeons and Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast, reflect on his time sailing with Flying Lab, and look ahead to what the future of the industry might hold. Plus, for Guild Wars fans, a few insights into what the granddaddy of the setting thinks about how his offspring is doing nowadays.
If you could, can you give us a sense of what your background has been previous to arriving at Carbine Studios?
I started in the games industry at Wizards of the Coast. I was an editor for shared-world fiction. Forgotten Realms, Magic the Gathering, I did some work in other properties like Dragonlance, we had a property called Dark Matter at the time. I did that for about four, almost five years. Toward the end of that I started writing novels that were based on shared-world property IPs as well. I wrote in Magic the Gathering, several Forgotten Realms novels ... the fifth novel that I published, the most recent novel, is set in the Forgotten Realms. From there I left Wizards of the Coast and freelanced for about a year and a half, just writing novels.
When I got back into the industry I ended up going to be the original world designer for Guild Wars. The game hadn't come out yet, we were several years into production building content for it. Shipped that game and then Guild Wars: Factions as well. From there I went to Flying Lab software and was the content director for Pirates of the Burning Sea, which just came out this last year. Now I'm the lead Quest Designer at Carbine Studios here in sunny southern California. I'm with a kickass team, and having a lot of fun.
You talked about your experience working with Wizards of the Coast in the pen and paper industry; can you compare how that's similar to your work in computer gaming, or perhaps a bit different?
"Dropping a large box of text on the screen is not something that's conducive to gameplay."
That's probably the biggest difference there. In a way, though, fun gameplay is fun gameplay whether it's flipping cards or hitting skill buttons in an MMO.
How do you feel about Guild Wars, now that that series has seen a lot of success over the years?
I'm really proud of that game, and some of my best friends still work on it. I play it still today, I love it. I know that the boxes that can out, the expansions that came out after I left there were still based on the world that I helped set in motion. I still feel a lot of pride, I feel sort of protective of it. You know, it's something very near and dear to me. I love the characters and I love the world, I think it's really fun to play. I'm really pleased with the game.
It seems like Pirates of the Burning Sea is still a game that's trying to find its audience; how do you feel about how that game is doing so far?
Obviously I'm disappointed that it didn't have a larger reach right off the bat. We were consistently compared to EVE Online when we were in the process of developing it. If you look at the trends for EVE it's one of the few MMOs that have bucked the trend; they started out very slowly and built their audience over time and now they're at a much higher level back when they first shipped. Pirates is just shy of doing that, the game itself is well written and fun to play.
It's a different paced game than a Guild Wars or whatnot. It's a good time and I'm proud of that game as well. I'm not sure exactly ... I'm not sure I could my finger exactly on why the initial launch wasn't as robust as we wanted. They're pretty successful just the same; they're carrying out patches, they're having fun with the game, but in terms of being another Guild Wars it's not at this point – I'd love to see it grow into that.
What were some of the challenges of writing about the historical pirate element vs. a Wizards of the Coast title or Guild Wars' unique take on fantasy?
My initial thought when I got to Flying Lab and I started working on Pirates was that it was going to be harder. Fantasy, you can make up elves and creatures and the world can bend around your story to fit them. With Pirates that's not really the case; you have to use real world physics. There are characters you can look up that you can't cheat with. When we got into doing research, we realized that there was so much history and just a fantastic amount of story that takes place in the pirate genre. It didn't turn out to be that difficult, and it was a lot of fun. You had to stay more real world, obviously, but it didn't really hinder us.
The fantasy element in Guild Wars I really enjoyed. Most of my career has been in writing that sort of fantasy and the fact that you can push the limits on things is really exciting to me. The opposite of Pirates is true, though; if you get too far outside the limits of what people are willing to accept, then its' pretty easy to lose people. You have to be careful how you evolve that storyline, the technology, the physics of the world. I really enjoy doing that sort of stuff.
From your standpoint, where do you stand on the casual vs. hardcore debate?
I think there's plenty of room in the marketplace for both kinds of games. Just having come from ION in Seattle, there was a lot of talk about this at the conference, and I noticed there's not that many people that want to compete in the AAA MMO space. There's a huge drop between World of Warcraft and the next-highest grossing game. There's lots of room in there to come in and take a share, but it requires experience and money. That's a harder row to hoe.
The casual space where you have a free-to-play model with mictrotransactions might be more appealing, because the initial risk is lower. I think they're different audiences, but I think that it could be the same audience at different times of the day. What I came away with was that MMO players want different things from their games. A person doesn't only want one thing; that might be true in a certain segment of the population but generally not. Some might want to play PvP, some might want to play PvE, some might want to do some unstructured battle, some might want to craft, some might engage with the social aspects ... and one person might do all of those things over the course of a single play session. What I look for when I'm working on a game like this is always to add all those elements to things.
Guild Wars, for example, is great because you can run missions, you can play for a few hours with a group of people if you want to. Or you can just jump into Arena, do a five-minute battle with somebody, there's no consequence to that at all. I think there is room for games to support both styles of play. I think there's definitely room in the marketplace for games to offer something to both groups.
Personally, which side of that coin do you tend to find yourself on?
When it comes to PC games I tend to find myself on the more hardcore end of things. With online games I'm definitely more the hardcore player, and I like to work on those types of games because they're more involved. The big team with the big budget and lots of experience excites me, working with people who have accomplished things on several different titles. That said, I play flash games too, and I'll go home and play Portal on my Xbox or Advance Wars on my DS – those are fun titles. They're probably a little on the hardcore end too, of course, but they're sort of bite-sized chunks. Hardcore games are certainly what I like to develop.
Earlier you mentioned business models with MMOs; where do you fall on the issue of microtransactions?
I'm personally more of a subscription model kind of guy? I like to explore the whole world. I do see where that hybrid model is really attractive, though. It's hard to argue with the idea of cheap or free. As a brand, the way to get your game into the hands of people – there's no consequence to them downloading it and playing it for free. Whereas when players buy it for $60, that commits you to a certain amount of playtime and the barrier of entry is higher. I personally like to pay my $16 a month and play my game, but I also think the marketplace is more headed towards the hybrid model.
There were a number of events at ION focusing on community; how do you feel about the rising importance of community and community managers in MMOs?
I think community needs to grow organically. I think that when you're making an MMO, you're also building an online community. People want to play with their friends and interact, of course; some folks just want to come into the world and play by themselves but know there are other people around. I think you can't have an online game without a strong community. It's an integral component, and if you build it with that in mind you'll see success. At the same time I don't think you can force a large group of people into thinking or acting in a particular way. You have to let them do their own thing.
As an example, I once lead a parade, a peace march through downtown Seattle. We're leading this group of people down the street, like 5000 people on one road. We had to make a left turn onto Fifth avenue and get all these people to go the same direction. I'm out in front holding this banner with a group of people and we start making this turn. I assumed that everybody would go to the street and turn in the middle of the street like I did. But there's 5000 people, so they just flowed around the corner; up over planters, around mailboxes, over the sidewalk, down the other side ... when you have that many people you can't actually direct them. You can sort of point them in the right direction, you can influence them, but you can't tell them how to walk down the street. They're going to get down that road however they want to. I think it has to be an organic process.
What are you playing right now?
I'm playing Call of Duty 4, Portal on the 360, I'm playing Advance Wars for about the 15th time on the DS because I think that's about my favorite game in the world. I just finished Days of Ruin, and I'm going back to play Dual Strike. I'm playing World of Warcraft and, of course, the game we're working on every day. I'm also playing Guitar Hero 3 as well – I didn't play it when it first came out because the boss battles sort of turned me off, but I went ahead and bought it anyway. I also need to pick up Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto IV ... because, you know, I don't have enough to play already.
What do you play in World of Warcraft?
I have two characters right now; I have a rogue that I just started, playing on the server everyone here at Carbine uses. They play a lot here, and so I'm leveling up a human rogue. My other character is an Orc Shaman, and I like that one a lot.
You mention the consoles, and I'm curious: do you see MMOs on consoles as something happening in the near future, or a bit further out?
It's interesting you ask me that; I asked that same question at a couple of panels at ION. Technologically there's no reason why you couldn't do that now. There are, of course, a few people even trying to do that now. There are some market factors that are in the way, and the design is in the way in terms of forcing complicated MMOs to play on a typical console controller. You have all these skills and items that need to be accessed quickly, if they were designed so that they were easier to interface with ... I hope that happens. I think that would really open things up. There's no reason the two markets need to be segregated.
The Xbox and the PlayStation are just pared down, focused computers. You can't obviously upgrade components, but they're connected to the internet. There's no real reason we can't have people on PCs and people on consoles playing MMOs together. I really hope that we can do that, and I'd love to work on one in the future.
Are there any MMOs coming out in the near future that you're looking forward to?
Well, we've played them all. I was just looking over someone's shoulder the other day when they were playing the Lich King Beta, and a friend is playing Age of Conan ... I'm most interested in the Warhammer 40k MMO outside of what we're doing. I play 40k as a tabletop game and I want to see how they handle it. And, obviously, I'm going to be interested in Guild Wars 2 when that comes out.
As a last question: The view of a lot of people is that World of Warcraft is the genre leader, and that it's going to be the genre leader for some time. Do you think there is such a thing as a 'WoW Killer', or is time really Blizzard's biggest enemy?
I think that it will always have an audience; I don't think that audience will always be as big as it is now. I think it's going to grow some more, but I do think it will peak at some point. I think that ... people talk about wanting to be the WoW killer and wanting to take it down, and I'm not sure that's going to happen. I think someday someone will present the next level, design a game in the post-WoW MMO space that really succeeds. That's what we're doing here.
"Something will eventually replace [WoW] at the top. That may be us; I think we have a pretty good shot at it."
Thanks so much for your time, sir.