Interview: MAG’s Ben Jones (Zipper)

During last week’s MAG event in London, TheSixthAxis had the opportunity to sit down with the guys from Zipper Interactive and talk everything MAG. Despite being an incredibly long day for the guys with some tired (and jet-lagged) heads on show, the enthusiasm and energy shown by everyone from Zipper for their new game shone through.

Literally as the event was finishing up, we got to speak to Ben Jones, one of Zipper’s senior Game Designers. In other words: if there is one guy who knows his MAG, it’s Ben.

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First, just to say: well done on the game. The event has gone great and it was a real thrill to finally get a look at the big one – a 256 Domination battle.

Thank you.

As a SOCOM fan from way back, the news that Zipper were working on a something new and so adventurous as MAG was a prospect I was both excited and, if I’m being honest, a little anxious about. How has the whole experience been for you guys, working on new IP?

It’s been great. I think it’s always tough trying to do something different. I don’t feel that we were straddled with SOCOM for so long or anything but, you know, it was our bread and butter, and at the same time, we’ve now created a game that is really balanced, and fun, and we’ve accomplished something unique. It was a great experience.

There’s something inherently safe from working with a tried and trusted franchise …

Right, I think any developer will tell you that new IP is an inherent risk, but when you couple that with a huge technological challenge, I think, what was great for us, was that we tackled the network architecture first, and then it was a matter of figuring out what type of game we wanted to build around that.

Regarding that technological challenge. From reading the MAG blog, you pretty much knew that 256 players was technically feasible quite early on in the process. Of course, knowing something is possible and then delivering on it are two different things entirely. What stumbling blocks or issues did you come across during the process that maybe came as something of a surprise?

Yeah, a lot of things surprised us! For example, once we had the number then we had to figure out what type of environment we were going to have. Most notably scale. At one point we had 2km squared, but in the end, we’ve gone with 1km squared which is much more manageable. And then, after figuring out the size, we had to figure out the population density we can have here. How much polish can we have in order to push the engine as far as we could and still deliver what we intended in terms of gameplay. And as for the gameplay itself, how do we design so it all works together? We have a command structure, but how do we orchestrate people on a battlefield? There were a lot of individual challenges and I think that, as a development process, that’s the nature of it. I think it was a huge challenge for us but a lot of fun to work on.

For people interested in game design, MAG would appear to be a good example of the importance of level design and game balance. What kind of process is involved when deciding how all this fits together?

That’s really a great question. It’s really a very elaborate process. When we first started out we had an open terrain map and scattered objectives – there was a lot less asset depth than what we have now – and then in order to have a balanced experience across all the maps, we’re going to have to do what we call temporalisation. If you’re familiar with our Acquisition maps, you have a front-line perimeter, four bunkers and a triple-A, and then you break through and accomplish your initial objectives – and this takes place on a huge map – and they work totally different and play very unique each time. The basic road or what you need to do on the maps to achieve your objectives remain the same, but you get more familiar with the flow and your surroundings.

From my experience with the betas and obviously playing the final game a lot here today, the concept of collaboration and depth is very apparent in MAG. How do you think your audience will adapt to what is essentially an FPS with a strong strategic mentality? For the Modern Warfare 2 crowd, for instance, players who have come to expect a degree of polish and how an online FPS plays and feels, do you see any challenge trying to appeal to this demographic? After all, MAG’s set up could be seen as a little daunting to those who are more familiar with just going online and simply shooting people.

Right. There are two things there. One: We really ease people into it. So, you start off with one game type and training etc. and then you work your way through so you’re not overwhelmed right away. And also, we built from the ground up to cater for a really wide player base.  What’s nice about merging an FPS and an MMO is that essentially you have all these roles within the world but you don’t necessarily have to be the best killer on the block. You can be behind the lines healing your team-mates, driving a tank and supporting with a gun, waiting in the helicopters so you can drop out at the right time, you really pick and choose in MAG. It’s up to you. And I think players will find their niche in the battlefield.

I’m assuming you discovered a lot about balance and roles in the game’s multiple betas. How many did you actually have? Was it five? Six?

Yeah. Five? I don’t know. Do you count all the point iterations? [laughs]

I think you should. In terms of progress and how MAG started to come together, what would be the main differences between the early betas and what we have now in the final product here today? What surprised you the most about players’ feedback which, in turn, helped make MAG a better game?

I think there were a lot of things that were surprising, but I think the interesting thing about the process is that we started so early on. We had the longest beta in the history of Sony. But in order to do that, we had to start it right in the midst of development. We were still figuring out the concept, so that enabled us to change a lot of things on the fly, whether it be a lighting model or the weapons, and as we got closer and closer to launch, it became more about: what is the community asking for? How can we tweak this or address an imbalance? How do we polish these missions a little bit more, to even including new features. We had a couple. In fact my favourite is the proximity chat.  Now you can hear your enemy talk smack talk or you can have conversations or strategise and relay that to your team. Pretty cool feature and totally community driven.

One of the game’s selling points would appear to be its longevity. From the number of PMCs, the levelling required, the various modes, even down to the Trophy list which intimates that, if people want to experience MAG to its full potential, they’re going to be playing it for a long time to come. What about the inevitable DLC element? Anything you can share on that front?

Right. Absolutely. We can’t really get into the specifics right now but this is something we’ve been working on for a long time and I think players, when they find out what we have planned in terms of future support for MAG in terms of the Shadow War and how that’s going to pan out, will be very surprised and excited.

A fourth PMC perhaps?

[smiles] You just never know. It could happen …

In terms of the actual PMCs. All very different and each with their own distinctive style from weapons, look and even appeal. Were you surprised of the split in terms of preference during the betas? And, despite having the lowest percentage, 24% if I remember correctly, SVER took the Sabotage war in the open one. Probably fittingly so, I’m thinking.

Yeah!

Usually the bad-asses attract the most support …

Exactly. But that was just the last phase of the beta. In earlier phases SVER were by far the most popular, and I think what was surprising the most was that it really levelled out. And that was our goal from the beginning: to create clear differentiation; to make them appealing enough so that different types of players are attracted to each. Which is a huge challenge but, the closer they are in population, the less we have to deal with in terms of imbalances. Which we’re prepared to do.  But again, not right now. We might not have to.

For people who may be still on the fence regarding MAG, we’re assuming that the last open beta was it. You’re not planning a post-launch demo or trial.

Yeah, the open beta was our demo. We put it up there for a week. It was up. We had over a million downloads, which is impressive for any demo or beta, so we were really happy with that.

A million is pretty good. And it was a huge download, too. So, that’s an achievement in itself.

Yeah, I think it is, too. Thankfully now everything comes on disc so you we don’t have to worry about that. But yeah, the beta was our demo, and though we didn’t have the chance to always jump in with the community and play, we were always monitoring.

Probably the biggest similarity I can see between MAG and any other game out there would be Warhawk. With its strategic nature and how planning plays such an integral part in MAG, any plans to incorporate something akin to Warhawk’s Command Centre in Home?

I think we should announce some stuff in that regard soon. We’ll definitely be supporting MAG in Home. When that launches I can’t exactly say but, especially with a game like MAG, the whole concept of meeting friends, joining groups and then going into battle, we value those opportunities.

What’s next for Zipper?

That’s a great question. I think what’s next for us is maybe a little beach time. Yeah, that would be nice. We’ll see what we can do about that. But, in the short-term, it’s all about getting MAG out the door and supporting it, making sure it’s a solid experience day one, and then down the road see how we can continue to build it up.

Thank you very much.

Hey, thank you, we appreciate your time.

Our thanks to Ben and the rest of the Zipper gang for taking the time and speaking with us about MAG. Don’t forget, MAG hits European stores today, and TheSixthAxis are right behind it with clan news and events coming shortly.

Images of Ben courtesy of Wonderwallweb due to a camera malfunction on the day. Thanks again Joe.

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