Interview with Paul McInnes – Interview by Jim Batt

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Jim had the privilege of interviewing Paul McInnes at the 2001 Australian Game Developers Conference, on a variety of topics including his previous academic study as well as his current work on Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs).

Paul McInnes is lead game designer on Micro Forte‘s upcoming Citizen Zero online game. He is also a PhD candidate in social anthropology.

Academic and Industry

To start off, could you explain what your background is and how you ended up as a senior game designer at Micro Forte?

I have been making games for as long as I can remember. I started out with card games and board games but in the early 1980s I started making my own paper and pencil RPGs and writing computer games. This was always a hobby, although I must admit that the balance between study and game making/playing was pretty much even during my university years. In the mid 1990s I started a PhD in anthropology (my other grand passion), and developed an academic interest in the anthropology of play, and a recreational and professional interest in text MUDs. MUDs offered a wonderful coming together of my two grand passions.

Two and a half years ago I was in Canberra and unemployed and at a friend’s suggestion approached Micro Forte about work. Strange as it seems now, I never considered a job in the game industry. Micro Forte was at the early stages of developing their MMOG, and the idea of including a social scientist with a background in making RPGs made sense to them. An interview led to a short contract, led to a full-time design position.

What was your area of study, and has it directly helped your work as a game designer?

My academic background is in anthropology and archaeology, and general social science. It has had a very big impact on my designing. I have always tried to draw on my academic knowledge in creating games, and games have provided an interesting source of ideas for my ideas about the way people work.

More specifically, my anthropological background has encouraged me to look at questions of meaning and community in MMOGs in a different way. It has also given me a critical distance from the design debates about MMOGs, which are often focussed on very narrow technical questions. I believe that what we are seeing is the birth of a new kind of medium, not just a new genre of games. There is a lot more that can be achieved with MMOGs than exists within the current formulas.

Do you think that the academic study of games and gameplay can offer anything practical to the game development industry?

Yes, up to a point. I think that the academic study of games can operate to open up new perspectives on the nature of play, and provide those in the industry with an analytic distance from their own craft activities. However, the reality is that making games is very much a craft activity. It combines elements of science and engineering, but in the end finding the things that are fun and combining the elements of design to enhance the player’s experience is alchemy.

Do you or Micro Forte actively encourage academic study in the area of games, and if not, could you see a place for such collaboration in the future?

Personally, I’d like to see more collaborative work between academia and the games industry. However, what is striking about working in the games industry is that the people within the industry are intelligent, creative people who already are engaged in a continuous process of analysing games. Very little escapes the critical attention of the MF crew. Analysis is an intrinsic part of the game developer’s art. To be relevant to the industry the academic world needs to provide better tools for analysis and to bring insights from other disciplines into the industry. I can see great potential in drawing on psychology, cognitive science and social science (particularly anthropology of course).

Your game is somewhat unique being the first Australian MMOG, as well as containing highly original content and impressive technical innovations. Given this, how have you found working within the Australian game industry, which has been often been dominated by commercially ‘safe’ games such as those based on licenses, sport, etc?

I have been lucky because my first job in the industry has been with a company that is pushing the envelope in terms of design and technology. We have also given ourselves plenty of time to analyse and experiment. As a result, BigWorld technology is based on a very astute analysis of the future needs of the MMOG medium, and the Citizen Zero design is based on a very astute analysis of the untapped possibilities of the medium. This is vital if we are to succeed in what is becoming a very crowded market: creating yet another EverQuest is a recipe for commercial disaster. What excites us at Micro Forte is the opportunity to evolve the medium, bring some genuinely different experiences to those people who love MMOGs.

Working on a MMOG

How have you found working on the BigWorld technology, which is to be marketed separately as middleware, while working simultaneously on the game Citizen Zero?

It is a challenge. We are not a big team, and there are clearly competing priorities in developing specific game, and a generic technology that is designed to support the next generation MMOGs. At the same time, the concrete design challenges created by the Citizen Zero design has certainly helped refine the technology, and the possibilities of the technology have opened up new ideas within the design.

Once it is up and running, what are your plans for ongoing content creation and maintenance of Citizen Zero? What is the estimated time span of this game?

The game is designed from the ground up so that new content can be added as desired, without having to take down the servers. The game itself offers players a living world that also functions as a set of mysteries to be solved. We would expect Citizen Zero to have a life of at least 3-4 years but it could be much longer.

What sort of infrastructure will be set up to handle this?

The game will be run, expanded and balanced by the "live team". A MMOG is about providing a service, not about selling a box, and the ongoing costs of customer support and content expansion are a major portion of the overall cost of running the game.

What did you think of Bruno Bonnell’s (CEO of Infogrames Entertainment) somewhat pessimistic view of online gaming, which he expressed in his AGDC keynote talk?

Bruno Bonnell argued that commercial success for online gaming is at least 5 years away. However, he is interested in a very mainstream market, the true casual player. A successful online game or gaming service in his view needs to reach tens of millions of players or more. It is clear that MMOGs are a niche product at the moment and I cannot see that changing for some years to come, now at one level I agree with his assessment. However, Citizen Zero is a good product that will be successful within the MMOG niche. It won’t draw in tens of millions of players, but it will make of lot of gamers very happy indeed.

Do you believe it is possible to make MMOGs that appeal to, and are accessible by, the casual gamer audience?

Yes, but I don’t think that there are enough casual players who are educated on online gaming to make it a commercial success yet. When a player with no knowledge of computers can turn on their gaming console and jump into a game as accessible as a classic Playstation game, play for 30 minutes and then stop feeling satisfied by the experience, without feeling nervous or socially intimidated by being online, the mainstream market will have arrived.

Building a community and public participation Micro Forte, and specifically yourself, have been very active in establishing an online community even before the game is released, using the message boards on the Citizen Zero website. Could you outline some of reasons behind making this decision?

We have made a deliberate decision to build a small but dedicated community rather than hype the product. This is a long-term project and if you build expectations too early, players will lose interest. We are blessed with a small but marvelously creative and good-willed crew on the forums. The community provides us with a great source of feedback about the design, and a tonic when the long process of making the game takes its toll.

How useful has Micro Forte’s choice to discuss some design issues with this community been for you as a game designer?

The community has been a very useful point of reference with the design. It was really remarkable because when we started the forums, the ideas and suggestions about game content and the overall feel that the people were coming up with was straight out of our design documents. It has given us great confidence that the core ideas behind CZ, and the general thrust of the design are going to reach the intended audience. They have been good at letting us know what kinds of things excite them, and that’s led to a few shifts in emphasis in parts of the design.

Could you outline briefly the value of public beta testing and feedback on a project such as this? What are the plans for a public beta test on Citizen Zero?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Beta testing is essential for both refining the technology and the gameplay. There will be a public Beta test but we cannot say at this stage when this will be.

Citizen Zero and BigWorld

What are you doing in your game to avoid the ‘kill and loot’, level up style of power gaming that is so prevalent in most current MMOGs?

Kill and loot is good design. You get conflict, the excitement of the battle and the "kinder surprise" at the end. However, it is pretty clear that there are going to be plenty of kill and loot games out there and we wanted to make something that offered a different kind of experience. It might seem an arrogant analogy, but if the existing kill and loot MMOGs are akin to Quake, then Citizen Zero is akin to Half-Life. Quake and Half-life are both first-person shooters, but Half-life offers a different kind of experience by playing more attention to context and story.

Citizen Zero uses an extremely sophisticated dynamic mission generator to provide varied challenges for individuals and teams, against computer-controlled opponents and against other players. Think team-based MGS or System Shock 2 and you get some idea of the system we are creating. The five pillars of the gameplay are combat, stealth, hacking, driving vehicles and outdoor activities. The mission system builds on, combines and enhances all of these. There is also plenty of good old-fashioned free-form exploring and killing and looting.

How is the dynamic mission generating system going to work in Citizen Zero and to what extent has the technology been developed?

The technology is well under development but not yet complete. The workings of the system are one of the things that will make CZ stand out from its competitors so I can’t give any details.

How will the character memory flashback system work? Have you looked at how such devices are used in film, and are there any similarities between your use of flashback and the cinematic use?

In Citizen Zero, characters start with their memories erased. They can regain memories during the playing of the game. The exact process is still under wraps. One of the tricky challenges here is to find a way that players can uncover surprises about their character without the game undermining their own character concept. We have a solution, but that is also under wraps.

I imagine you have done a lot of work on the how the factions and social systems within the game work. How important a part of the game will these end up being?

Very important indeed. The faction system in CZ is original, dynamic and involving. Alas, it is also under wraps. I can say that the factions within the game operate as "slippery poles" to climb (you can rise within the ranks) and suppliers of cool equipment and missions and challenges. One advantage of this approach is that a dedicated player can rise within a variety of factions in turn, adding a great deal of longevity to the game.

Concluding remarks

What are some of your favorite games, and what have you been playing recently?

My favourite games? I’d have to say the Harshlands text MUD, but it really isn’t a game. I’d say Doom, System Shock 2, Thief, Deus Ex, Civilisation, Half Life but I’ll play and enjoy pretty much anything if it’s well balanced and well crafted.

In conclusion is there anything that you would like to say to the Australian game academics and industry?

Jump in. The water’s fine.

A huge thank you to Paul McInnes for taking the time to talk to the Refractory, and it sounds like Citizen Zero will certainly be worth a good look when it comes out.