Andy Velasquez has seen his fair share of MMO launches, but that doesn’t make a new one any less exhilarating or terrifying. As lead producer, he’s the captain of the Neverwinter ship and must make sure it’s seaworthy before slipping out of drydock and heading into the unknown waters of release. Metaphor or no, it’s a daunting job with little downtime, especially in this final week leading up to the soft launch of open beta.
Velasquez took a half-hour out of his busy schedule to sit with us and talk about the preparations being made for Neverwinter’s big moment. Read on for his candid insights into beta stories, launch day, and making tough calls when tough calls had to be made.
Massively: How are you feeling about how everything’s going right now leading up to launch?
Andy Velasquez: It’s good. I remember previous launches, there were things on fire and we were freaking out and running everywhere. My biggest concern right now is that I don’t have a major concern at the moment. We’ve done a lot of testing with alpha and beta, and everything’s going well right now. Our final punch list of things to do is down to a manageable size. It’s a weird place to be, but I’m appreciative for it.
What does your to-do list look like in the last week leading up to the soft launch?
Mostly at this point it’s performance, crash, and exploit issues. We’ve stopped adding that “one more cool thing” for the open beta period so that we can concentrate on coming out as stable as possible. The cool thing about MMOs is that we can patch whenever we want. We’ve set up a structure that all of those “wouldn’t it be nice if we did this” or “oh that’s a bit of an annoyance” things will go into a different bucket that we’ll release after we launch. Stability is what we’re really focusing on right now.
How stable is the client right now in comparison to the client from the first beta weekend?
The amount of confidence we have compared to then is orders of magnitude higher. Beta weekend 3 was a huge load test for us; we sent out keys all over the place. We had thousands and thousands of people come in, and we really got to flex systems like the queue systems, seeing how they handled thousands of teams trying to enter dungeons at the same time. In terms of the hardware, once we saw how many people got in and how the performance was, we ordered more machines and reconfigured our networks.
We’re feeling decently good. The giant question mark is how big that first week will be and how many people will come in. Because it is open beta, we’ll have tons of people trying out the game. Hopefully we’ll handle it well.
Why was the decision made to have a “no wipe” open beta?
We wanted to get people in the game as soon as we could. We felt confident from beta weekend 4, and there wasn’t anything major changing past now. So we wanted to reward our early adopters with some sort of benefit, and they’re doing a lot of great work for us, like promoting us by livestreaming the game. We wanted to give them the ability to get in and play and help us make the game better before the launch-launch.
How many people were playing the fourth beta weekend?
We had around 20,000 people or so.
Neverwinter uses the same type of single-shard, multi-instancing technology that Star Trek Online uses, right?
Yeah, it’s that same idea. We firmly believe that’s how we want our games to work, on a single shard with individual instances. So you don’t have to worry about “I can’t play with you because you’re on a different shard.” However, there are limitations to that technology, and so we anticipate that when we launch, because the interest has been so high, we will have temporary multiple shards. We have things in place that preserve, say, unique guild names across the shards. Once things settle down a bit, we’ll bring everyone back to a single shard.
A few numbers, if you don’t mind. How many levels will there be at launch?
There will be 60. This roughly maps to the first 20 levels of pen-and-paper D&D character. You go through heroic and paragon tiers. Obviously going up to 60 levels doesn’t make sense if you’re a big fan of traditional D&D. In early development, we tried things like level 1.2, level 1.3, and so on. In the end that created too much confusion, and we weren’t able to dole out the amount of accolades that players were used to.
How many zones does the game have?
Oh geez, I don’t know the final number. Around 14 or 15.
And is there a dungeon per tier?
There’s a major dungeon for each of the zones. There’s also a set of dungeons that come at the end of the game and then epic versions of all of the dungeons as well.
Are there raids or is it strictly five-man dungeon content?
They’re built for five-man parties, not for 40-man raids.
There are five classes at launch. Are there any other classes you’re working on that you’re not prepared to discuss yet?
We’ve already started work on classes six and seven. In fact, class six was really close to making it for the launch of the game.
One of the things we’re trying to do with Neverwinter is to ensure that we don’t just put out tons of stuff but put we put out things of high quality. It wasn’t that class six wasn’t good — it’s actually many of the developers’ favorite right now — but we wanted more time to focus on the launch and make it awesome. We figured that if the classes we released were really good, people would stick around to see what comes later, as opposed to if we put out a bunch of classes that are whatever, then nobody will care when we say that class 10 is coming next month.
Is there a concern that there is only a single healing class for launch?
I guess that it’s something we’re aware of. I wouldn’t say it’s a large concern, however unfortunate that it will be. We’ll get some more healing classes soon. It’s our intent to continually be adding more classes. We’ll put out some more as soon as we can.
What’s the response been like for the pre-order packages?
So on a sort of frank answer, I’m always blown away that there are so many people willing to support us. For us, the really high price points for the Hero/Guardian packages, it’s for people to say, “We like what you’re doing, so we’re supporting you guys and want to see you guys do more.” They’re buying into us as a studio and a product moreso than just purchasing a game. I look at it and it feels great. Every day the numbers go up. It’s really exciting on this end.
Which package is the most popular?
The Hero of the North. By far. [Ed.: This is the one that costs $199.99 and grants VIP status, the Menzoberranzan Renegade race, three extra character slots, and two million astral diamonds, among multiple other bits and bobs.]
What are you doing to prepare your team for launch? Is it all hands on deck?
For the dev team here at Cryptic, the 25th open beta start is what we consider as live, just like any other launch. It’s just like Star Trek Online and Champions Online at launch; that’s how seriously we’re treating it. We are live starting next Thursday.
One of the changes we saw coming out of the beta was a major change regarding purchasing skills. What other changes happened because of beta testing and feedback?
This is actually a question that gets asked to us a lot. It’s hard to say. We as a studio initially make the game for us, and when it goes to alpha and beta, it becomes about what the fans want and are interested in. We’ve got tons of data regarding class balance and leveling speed, potion usage, and deaths across levels. We’re constantly balancing to make sure that the classes are at least comporable with each other across all levels. That’s the most exciting part for me. On the previous games I’ve worked on, we didn’t have that opportunity on looking at player data like this. It doesn’t stop people from going on the forums and saying, “Look at what the Great Weapon Fighter can do, he’s so OP!” We want that. We want the players to feel empowered, but not so broken that they feel unfair to other people not playing that class.
Tons of UI changes. Who would have thought that users would have a lot to do with this when they started playing the game? [Laughs] Tons of moving this button around, making sure this thing glows more. The number of those things is endless.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview coming soon!