Wildstar interview: Stephan Frost on fixing the MMO endgame

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.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.