Wildstar interview: Stephan Frost on fixing the MMO endgame

Phil Savage


Wildstar doesn't seem interested in revolutionising the MMO. Instead, Carbine are overhauling some of the genre's most entrenched systems and attitudes. I recently had the chance to sit down with game design producer Stephan Frost to talk about Wildstar's end game content, and how the team are preparing to support all corners of the player-base after they've hit the level cap.

PC Gamer: Today we saw some of the mid-level content in the game. A lot of Wildstar's design seems targeted at traditional problems in the MMO structure. Are you doing anything to target the pre-end game lull you sometimes see during a game's later levelling content?

Stephan Frost: We had to make sure the levelling content for Wildstar was fun. That was a big goal for us. We've looked at things—both as developers who have worked on MMOs, but also as fans as the genre. One of the things you'll notice in these games is often the beginning is super high-value—there's a lot of cool quests and fun stuff—then it dips really low, and towards the end it starts to pick up again. We were trying to make something that just continuously went up, and we do that in multiple ways.

In the PvE content we have these systems: paths, challenges and quests. We have this thing called 'layered content'. Effectively, If I have this quest that's to go fight marauders (that's space pirates), we have a system where it completes faster the more XP you get. If you fight a big badass marauder, you can get more XP, rather than the little scrawny terrible marauders. So we're rewarding players who hunt out the harder-core stuff. And it's okay for the casuals that don't want to do that. It's just going to take them a little bit longer.

You add on top of that a challenge. Maybe there's a challenge that says "kill 14 marauders in two minutes". So you're like, well good, I'm already doing something that's killing marauders anyway. And then we add a path mission on top of that, and maybe it's scan marauders if you're a scientist. Now you're figuring out information and lore about the marauders. Really you're doing one thing and you're getting the credit for three. So if you're an efficient player, you're going to go through this stuff a lot faster than the average player who's just doing things one at a time, right? We created systems like that to help out those players, so they can get through this stuff quicker; so they can feel smart and rewarded for getting this stuff faster.

Then on top of that we have things like dungeons, adventures, PvP—that sort of thing. And then we also have things like Shiphand missions. Shiphand missions are scaling dungeons that you can level through as you're playing the game. So the first one starts at level 12. I can bring up to five people in, or I can go by myself: the enemies scale their difficulty based off the amount of people in the dungeon. Those are really fun experiences, because they're tailor fit to this off-the-planet experience. Basically, a ship captain says to you, "hey, I have a mining colony up on an asteroid, but there's been a lot of weird things going on with my crew, maybe you can come out and help out because I've been getting weird messages." You go there and investigate it and find out that of course it's something like Aliens, where everybody has facehuggers on their face, and you've got to kill them. But it's providing something that's off the planet, that's different, that is not the usual questing. And it provides a different feeling. It's not just the same quest, quest, quest, quest all the time.

PC Gamer: I suppose that gives players a reason to group throughout the levelling process?

Stephan Frost: We have a system for that as well. When you group together, you get a grouping currency called Renown. So when you earn that, you can actually buy things that you can only get by grouping together. We're trying to reward players for doing things that we think are good gameplay.

PC Gamer: What problems have you found with the MMO end game that you're trying to fix?

Stephan Frost: Well, having an end game is step one. We've noticed a lot of MMOs, they'll come out—especially subscription ones—they'll come out, they'll have content up to max level and then there's nothing to do. Then harcore gamers just leave in droves and everybody follows behind them. We needed to make sure we had content at the end game for people of all sorts of backgrounds in content processing. If you are really casual, we have stuff for you; if you are extremely hardcore, we have stuff for you. And we had a look at that across all genres, and whether that was a dungeon experience, PvP experience or PvE experience. All that stuff needed to be done. So that was step one through... I don't know how many steps I just listed.

We also have something... when you're done levelling, you still continue to accrue XP. And when you hit 51 it resets and goes to 50, but you earn elder currency. These elder gems are what you spend on vendors that are only available at level 50. So there's still things for you to earn even though you're done levelling. You also have things like combat progression, such as abilities: you have ability tiers. So if I have an ability, I have up to eight tiers, and I have to fill up those tiers to max to get the full potential out of my class. There are 30-something abilities, and those tiers are earned every level, so it means you're going to have to work to get all these different abilities. You won't get them all by the time you get to end game. Same with the amp system: those are perks you can unlock, and you can spec out your amps in a specific way, but if you want to get all of them it's going to take you a long time to get those things filled up.

On top of all that, we have items that are in dungeons, for example, called Artifact weapons. These weapons have quests on them, and they're really brutal, difficult quests. One of them, for example, is to kill two 40-person bosses at the same time. That's out in the open-world, and you have to kill them with that weapon. As you progress on these quests, it makes it more powerful and more powerful. So let's say that you fill out all those quests and you now have the most powerful weapon in the entire game. Well done. Let's say we raise the level cap in a year and a half. It's now 60. What we can do is add more quests onto that weapon and still keep it relevant, and it's not like you just throw that thing away because the level cap now has made it obsolete.

We're trying to figure out these problems and I think we've got a pretty good solution on them. I'm sure we'll still run into some, but we're going to work our asses off to figure out solutions to these pretty regularly.

PC Gamer: It sounds like you're not on the back-foot when it comes to endgame. You have systems in place for the people who rush through.

Stephan Frost: I would not be surprised if within 24-48 hours, someone was in level cap in our game. It would not shock me in the slightest. We're fine with that. Well, we're not. Take your time. We don't want people to rush through this stuff, but we're knowledgeable about that, sure.

PC Gamer: So for more casual players—those who aren't going to be doing raids—is end game based around Renown and Elder gems?

Stephan Frost: That's one of them. Renown is certainly one of them. Another way you can do stuff for PvE is we have these things called PCPs. PCPs are Pocket Cap Playspaces, and so they are effectively public events that you can compete in. Some of them are in the world, like in Malgrave. This is a level 50 area, and there's two faction parts to it, so the Exiles and Dominion have their events that are going on. If the Dominion finishes theirs faster than the Exiles, they get more rewards for doing that. So it's not just the same old same old, finding quests or something like that. We'll include dailies for people who maybe don't want to do that stuff, but that's another option that we have their too.

We also have those PCPs in instances, so you can have groups of people going into these things, trying to get these things done, and you can earn rewards that way as well. We also have stuff for housing that you can unlock and find. The elder currency that you're earning can unlock loads of stuff, and it's not like when you get to end game you'll be like "well, there's nothing more for me to do. There's loads of stuff you can get, and different ways; doing those Shiphand missions that scale, and doing all that stuff is a great way to do it. And doing dungeons, and PvP—pretty much, if there's a way to level up in Wildstar, we have end game for it.

PC Gamer: So, with PCPs, there's a competition element to the factions? It's not just PvP combat?

Stephan Frost: It's mostly combat, really. But it is a good way to build up that competition to get through stuff faster. The fun part of it is, a lot of the... let's say you're collecting resources and you need 800 pieces of something to build a massive communications dish. You're going out in the field and finding those. Well, it just so happens to be the same field that the opposing faction is in as well, so there is some competition there. We have servers where you can turn off World PvP if you're not into that. We also have World PvP servers too, so you can fight everybody to get that. It's just two different types of gameplay: factions that are coming together and doing different stuff.

PC Gamer: Moving on to Warplots, how do teams go about planning their tactics?

Stephan Frost: You can build your Warplot way in advance. It's not like when you start a match, you have to build it in 10 minutes and then the game starts. You can build it far in advance, and build in loads of different stuff, so people can see what the Warplot layout is going to be and theorise what their strategies come out to, and what they can do with that. There are definitely some people who try to do the zerging methodology, but certainly the people who are more organised and have figured out ways to defend against that and set up Warplot traps that were just made for people who do that offense... if they can react to that defensively, then they'll take them out every time. Also more skilled PvP players are going to have a hand up in this game too.

It becomes very interesting to watch and see different people come up with these ideas of how they're going to do stuff. Are they going to be on the offensive? Are they going to be defensive? Do we use our Warplot boss that we've gotten from a dungeon and make sure that it takes out half of their raiding party that's coming in? There's just a load of ways that you can react to, and it's pretty fun to see how people are reacting.

PC Gamer: Is it designed for guilds, then? Can you get Warplot pick-up groups?

Stephan Frost: Kind of. You have to have at least ten people in your war party. The rest can be mercenaries. So if I wanted to play and I don't care about starting a Warplot, I just want to kill things—I don't care about strategy, I'm just all about running in and kicking ass—you can sign up as a mercenary. Whenever somebody else is starting a match and X amount of spaces open, you can fill one of those spaces.

PC Gamer: Thanks to the telegraph system, raid boss attacks almost resemble bullet hell shmups. Is there a danger that people are just learning the patterns, and not actually reacting to the attacks?

Stephan Frost: Well the great thing about our game is that these are like puzzles more than they are patterns. The puzzle is what types of telegraphs does this boss use, and how do I need to react to them? The great thing is that we don't say, hey, two minutes in we're going to put a telegraph here and here, so all you have to do is stand over there. What we do instead is we place telegraphs based off of locations of people. Let's say I'm standing in the corner and I've been there too long, eventually over time there's probably going to be a telegraph that gets placed right under or next to that player, so they have to get out of the way. We have patterns where we go, okay, at this point the boss is gonna zig-zag across the whole room. How he zig-zags is probably going to change based off of all these player locations. It's something that we're trying to combat so it's just, "I know what happens three minutes in". We'll do it with a little bit of randomness, so it's something you can still recognise, react and move out of the way of.

PC Gamer: Raids are traditionally the most hardcore content found within an MMO. Are you doing anything to avoid min-maxing, or is that something you encourage from your players?

Stephan Frost: We have a highly customisable combat system, and the thing I like about it is that I don't know—I'm sure somebody will argue with me on this, and will find some sort of way to prove me wrong on the internet—but so far, it's been kind of difficult to say, "this is the best build for this rank or class". I like tanking with more CCs, because you have to do group interrupts on bosses and dungeons, so I like to depend on myself to do a lot of those CCs, and then only need a couple from my friends. And that way, it allows me as a tank to interrupt and do the things I need to do. Somebody else may say, "well no, the threat generating one is the best, with a little bit of DPS". It all kind of ranges. I'm sure there are some people who can say this is the best possible way to do it, but I love the fact that our abilities are so skill based, because it allows you to customise how you want to do something, as opposed to this is the best way to do it.

PC Gamer: So the need for targeting and specific placement kind of supersedes that sense of, "you need to be have full armour with these stats, running in this specific way"?

Stephan Frost: Yeah, we're trying to avoid that stuff, just because it's not as much fun when it's just, well, this is the only way I can be effective. Gear still plays an important part in our game and progressing through stuff, because it's all about survivability and killing things faster, but how you kill things is a big part of what makes it fun. Figuring out, well this is most effective for me because, as a Stalker, I'm highly slippery and mobile and I move around all the time—backstabs and going in and out of stealth. As opposed to a tank Stalker, which is just I'm gonna stand here and take all the damage. It really just depends on how you want to frame it. So far, I think there have been a lot of people who are trying to identify the best way to do it, and I don't think I've heard of anything that's definitive on that yet.

PC Gamer: Thanks for your time.

About the Author
Phil Savage

Phil has been PC gaming since the '90s, when RPGs had dice rolls and open world adventures were weird and French. Now he's the deputy editor of PC Gamer; commissioning features, filling magazine pages, and knowing where the apostrophe goes in '90s. He plays Scout in TF2, and isn't even ashamed.

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