“We got to let our imaginations go.” – An Interview with Derek Brinkmann and Tim Cotten

Ultima Codex: Okay, we are live, and we have with us Derek Brinkmann and Tim Cotten, both of Citadel Studios.

Tim Cotten: Hi gentlemen!

Derek Brinkmann: Hey everybody.

UC: So they’re here today primarily to talk to us about Shards Online. So welcome to both; hi both. Derek and Tim, thanks for agreeing to this today.

TC: Hey there.

UC: Hey there. So…where to start? Shards is coming into its final week — there’s about nine, ten days left in the campaign if I’m not mistaken?

DB: Yeah. We’re actually ending on a Friday evening. The campaign ends on Friday night, and we’re going to do like a two-hour stream to wrap up the campaign, right at the end. I kind of calculated the time to when the campaign would end, because I wanted to end on a Friday.

UC: Nice. And obviously, the campaign has succeeded this time; you’ve hit the goal, $50,000. And you’ve exceeded that, I think; last I checked you were at $75,000.

TC: .That’s right! We’ve exceeded it!

DB: Yeah. Actually, we see our stretch goals as just as important as the initial goal, and so we didn’t slow down or relax when we hit our $50,000. We’re working just as hard now as we ever were just to hit all those stretch goals. The more stretch goals we hit, the better the game’s going to be when we get to alpha in the spring.

UC: I’m honestly hoping that you hit the $90,000 mark, because I want to check out that story editor. That’s always been my favourite thing — and my downfall — to find a game that has a really good editing toolkit.

TC: That’s one of the strongest features of even the Ultima series, you know? Even from the old days. I remember: I got online in the pioneer wagon days of the Internet, and they had an Ultima 6 editor where you could edit the world, the stories, and everything. That was amazing, man; that kind of tool really set me on the path to want to be a game designer.

UC: There are two or three of those, and they’re all fun to play with. Ultima 6 is my favourite, so I think I’ve messed with all of those that you would have encountered. And you know, there’s some great stuff there.

DB: Looks like Tim dropped for a second.

UC: Oh no! We lost Tim! Come back, Tim…we’ll give Tim a minute.

DB: Yeah. You can ask me a question while we’re waiting for him, if you want.

UC: Yeah, sure. So…you are building Shards with the Unity engine. And the big feature of course — or one of the big features — in Shards is its moddability. You want to give players maximum power. There’s Tim!

TC: Hey, I’m sorry. I got disconnected somehow.

DB: Of course, of course.

UC: It happens. What were we saying about technology? That’s right…

TC: I don’t know if I got cut off in the middle or anything.

DB: No, we’re just…yeah, we’re good.

UC: So I was just launching into a question about the fact that Shards is being built for moddability, right? It’s being built for players to run their own shards, tell their own stories, and set up their own worlds. Can you give us some details about…about a few different aspects. What is the scripting language, for example? If a player wanted to import models, what tools do they need?

DB: I can answer that one. We’re attacking the customizability of the game in multiple levels. Our first approach is toward the gameplay simulation side of it. And what that means is that you can change…you’re working with the assets that we’ve provided on the client side. So you have the set of monsters, and animations, and particle effects — everything that comes with the game. But we allow you to change the rules of the game, to customize and create your own characters, to create your own stories. And all that is done with a combination of a couple of tools that we’ll be providing, and our Lua scripting engine on the back-end.

And…essentially, everything can be done in Lua. Our entire gameplay engine — almost all the gameplay code — is written in Lua. And so that allows you to change just about anything with our Lua scripting engine, which makes it extremely powerful. But there are some people out there who want to get in and customize the game without having the ability to be able to script. And so we’re creating some tools that are built on top of the Lua engine that allow you to do some of the stuff in a WYSIWYG-type editor. And there are a couple of examples of those tools that will come right with alpha one. The template editor — that allows you to attach behaviours to objects; it allows you to change some basic properties, their name, their colour, things like that. And then you also have your world object editor, and that allows you to place objects down in the world that are dynamic, that are objects you can interact with.

In Ultima Online, they were called “server births”; they’d have server birth rares which were objects the designers forgot to lock down, so somebody could just come by and pick them up. And our world objects are just like those, where they’re the objects that are just placed around the world that are meant for when the game comes up.

And it’s more than the objects you can see; there’s also invisible objects, and their purpose is to act as a controller for certain systems. A simple example is a spawner, right? You can place down a spawner object which only gods can see; it’s an invisible object for players. But that object is in control of spawning a monster, or some group of monsters, in an area. And when you combine that world object editor tool with the template editor tool, you can create lots and lots of different scenarios and modifications without ever even touching Lua. And you had mentioned our $90,000 goal: that will give us a story editor on top of it. It’s kind of an extension to the template editor that allows you to assign some really dynamic properties to characters, which includes branching dialogue — where you can change what a character says based on what a player says to them — and a task/reward kind of thing, where they can send you on a variety of different tasks and give you something in return for completing it. Those are the two core goals for the story editor.

And that’s just phase one. When we get into phase two and phase three, we start talking about custom assets. That’s being able to create your own maps; that’s being able to create your own characters; create your own models; import your own objects, animations, effects — all of that is coming later. And still, even before we hit beta, a good deal of the custom asset stuff will be available. But right now, we’re very focused on that first alpha one build, and that’s where we’ll be focusing on the rules, the story, and the content.

TC: I’ll jump in as well. One important thing to understand about the project is it’s not middleware, you know? We’re not trying to create a game engine; we’re trying to create a game itself — a full game, a full, wonderful game with its own plot, its own characters, its own stories, its own assets, its own behaviours. And then we’re saying: “here, community, here are tools. You can change it, you can copy it, you can do whatever you want with it.”

And it’s like an onion: you just peel back the complexity. At the very surface, as Derek said, there are very simple tools. Or you can dive in and you can learn the scripting language that runs the entire thing.

DB: The idea really came out of…we really enjoyed the freedom that designers had on Ultima Online to create content for Ultima Online. There were times that the Ultima Online team hired someone with no knowledge of scripting whatsoever and taught them how to create content in Ultima Online, and they were able to do it with no knowledge. And a lot of them actually picked up scripting language skills in order to be able to create this stuff, but they were able to do it relatively fast.

And that’s because it’s just a very powerful way to approach game design. And so we said: “that’s great; let’s give that power to the players.”

TC: Exactly. And this time we’ve chosen Lua as a language. It’s popular, it’s well-understood, the resources for game development are vast for it. So it’ll be a natural transition for anyone who’s done mods for other games as well.

DB: And it’s a forgiving language, which is nice.

TC: Yes it is.

UC: Cool. Well, that’s…those are all…how to put this? I’m not an MMO guy; I don’t come from the MMO side of the Ultima fandom by any stretch. But there’s definitely a huge appeal there, because it sounds like — especially if the story editor gets reached as a goal…

TC: Right, right. You mentioned you were very interested in that. When you think about what Ultima was, you had NPCs. You could walk up, in Ultima 6, you could literally say “hi”, “hello”, “name”, “job”, and you’d actually get a bunch of keyword responses. You could type your own conversation to these people, and get real responses, right? We want to provide that same kind of idea, and we want to allow you to customize it whether you’re going to do keywords, or whether you’re going to do a “pick a choice” branching conversation. We are creating those tools so you can have that kind of Ultima experience of in-depth characters.

UC: Yeah, and I mean…I’m almost thinking that if I set up my own shard, I could basically have an Ultima world running inside it.

DB: One of the things that’s really interesting is giving players the ability to either make a server private, or set the player limit on a server. It’s flexible enough to where you could, if you had enough resources, actually run many shards, connect them all together, and support maybe even over a thousand players on your server. But it’s also able to be scaled back to the point where you could run a single shard, put a low player limit on it — maybe you just want to have it for you and your friends, and you’re going to run some campaign, some live event DMing-style stuff where you want to bring them through some kind of role-playing campaign.

That’s completely doable with the system as well, and you get a great game to start, so you already have characters to work with. You know, just like people who do D&D pen-and-paper, they often start with a world, and they create their own stories within that world. And so we’re providing that same starting point for that. It’s already there; everything is there. You can just add to it.

UC: Well, you also call out Neverwinter Nights on the campaign page, and that’s exactly how that game works. You build yourself a little world in and around the assets from that, and get a bunch of your buddies together and DM the game for them.

DB: Yeah. It’s really surprising that the larger game companies haven’t attempted something like this yet. I mean, I kind of understand that it’s a scary concept to them, to give that much power to players. But when you look back, I mean…Neverwinter Nights was a hugely successful game. And so it’s just surprising that someone else hasn’t tried that same formula.

UC: Maybe it’s more complex to support; I could certainly see that. But anyway…you mentioned something there, and I had a question about it, and it slipped out of my head. So I’m going to see if I can remember that and come back to it. But in the meantime, someone had a really good question; what was that?

One thing I am curious about: you have a bit of a relationship with Rob Denton and the team at Broadsword, don’t you? Can you discuss that at all? Do they have any involvement with Shards?

DB: Yeah, sure, I can talk about that.

TC: I was going to say: we used to work with all those people.

UC: That was the old UO team, right? So…

DB: It’s actually many of the people who are still on Ultima Online. Over the years, Ultima Online has had a lot of comings and goings of people, obviously. So many people have worked on that project over the years. But the team that’s working on it now actually has a lot of the same members that were there when we were working on it. And so we’ve got a very close relationship with them, and also Rob Denton. We go out to lunch with him fairly regularly and just discuss the direction we’re taking with the company, and the product. And he’s a great resource for us, because he’s been there, he’s done it.

I don’t know if you want to expand on that Tim; he’s just a great guy to bounce ideas off of.

TC: I was going to say: it’s great to have your former boss, the guy who owned your studio, be willing to sit down at lunch, treat you, and talk about the realities of running a company, pushing out real content, and pulling people and resources together. I think it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. And it’s always a pleasure even when we just get the chance to stop by and say “hi” to the UO team. I think Derek and I have a great and abiding love for everything Ultima and Ultima Online. And Shards is essentially a tribute to that kind of game; that’s what we want to pull off. So all of their support is absolutely…just great.

DB: It was six or seven years ago — or maybe even more than that — the last time before we started working on this, the last time me, Rob Denton, and Tim were in a room together was when he had convinced us to move to Virginia to continue to work on UO when they had moved the project.

TC: That’s true, I remember that. They flew us out here, they got us some good food, and somehow they managed to convince us. And next thing we knew, we were driving across the country.

DB: It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

TC: Yeah, there you go. Probably a Texas de Brazil meal too much.

UC: Well, let’s pick away at that little bit of history for bit then. Because I’m curious as to how you both got started in the gaming industry, and also — in particular — with Ultima Online. Where did that association begin?

TC: Sure. Derek, why don’t you start, and I’ll jump in after.

DB: Let’s see…I started in the game industry way back in…I was an intern for Tiburon, the EA studio that makes Madden. And so I was working on Madden 2004 way back, and had a lot of fun there at Tiburon. And there was a time where I was moving every couple of years, so I was exploring my options and heading out to different EA studios. And one of the teams that was hiring was the Ultima Online team in Redwood Shores. And so I sat down with a bunch of people there — I think, Tim, you might have been one of the people I was interviewed by.

TC: Yup! Absolutely.

DB: And I just…I felt at home, instantly. I’d always had this great reverence for Ultima Online being the great-grandfather of MMOs. I had a couple of different offers for jobs at different EA studios, and that that one was just a no-brainer; I didn’t really have to think about it. And so when I ended up out there, Tim and I became really close…not only co-workers, but friends really quickly. And so things kind of blossomed from there. Tim can talk about how he got started.

TC: Oh sure. My story goes back to being a freshman in high school when UO was actually just announcing itself. I put in my money, I got a black-and-white beta CD, and there we went. I was a little fan groupie; I emailed Raph Koster — Designer Dragon — all the time, and was like: “hey, I’ve got this cool idea!” He was very nice…to a child.

But it certainly set me in motion to want to do something with games. And you know, I didn’t know what that would be. So I went through life, I went to college, I started studying computer programming, I started doing all of these things. And one day, I’m playing UO, and I had actually joined the Stratics crew at Stratics. And we went to E3 that year, and I interviewed a bunch of people, and it was a great experience. And I actually had this very strange and serendipitous encounter with a video game pianist; his name is Martin Loom, I believe. And he was playing all these great, great compositions, all these really cool themes on the piano for games. It was really cool, at the time.

This was like pre-YouTube or early YouTube days, and the media company that was hosting him forgot to bring a camera. So they traded me footage for their entire library of game design books, because they were a publisher. So they literally sent me — I don’t know — like $1,000 worth of game design and programming books in the mail. I studied the heck out of those things. And then one day, the community manager of UO put up a job posting on Stratics, and I said: “hey, I’d like to apply for that!”

Flew into Redwood City, managed to somehow convince them that I liked to play UO, and could use my programming skills for great good, and joined the team. And sure enough, Derek came on the team afterwards, and he and several other guys, we all just hung out and became great friends, and even…yeah, we rented a house together. We had the “UO Frat House” eventually.

DB: We actually called it the “UO Frat House”.

TC: It was hilarious, and awesome. It was really just a great time to be young, and alive, and a game designer.

DB: For sure. And also, shortly after we moved to Virginia to continue working on UO…that was kind of the time that Tim and I were co-leads on the Stygian Abyss expansion. And that’s…of all my time in the game industry over these last ten or eleven years — maybe more now, geeze — I’d say that expansion was the most fun we’ve ever had. We just…Tim and I just really synced up and we just had a blast.

TC: What we got to do…we got to let our imaginations go. Because not only did we have all the experience of working on it before; suddenly we were in a position where we could build what, really, we hoped the players wanted to see. And we feel that we delivered something really fun.

DB: I think so.

UC: Again, not really being an MMO sort myself, I was happy to see some of the stuff that came out of the Stygian Abyss expansion, because it seemed to also take a few steps back toward what I would consider the “traditional” Ultima lore. I mean, you nailed the re-creation of the first level of the Abyss from Underworld.

TC: Oh hey, thank you! Thank you. I think I remember an editor, like an actual map ripper to pull that out of the Underworld binary I had, and then we converted it to a tile system for UO. That was a fun level.

DB: That was pretty cool, yeah; it was a lot of fun.

UC: Yeah, that was…I still like looking at that map.

DB: I remember there was a thread on Stratics, years after Stygian Abyss came out, and it was just talking about what people’s favourite expansions on Ultima Online were. And it just brought a smile to my face to see the Stygian Abyss expansion come up a couple times in that thread. Obviously everybody has their favourite; it wasn’t the…

TC: T2A! *cough*

DB: …but just to see that people thought that that expansion was one of the best expansions for Ultima Online really put a smile on my face. It’s just so good to see that appreciation.

UC: Yeah, I can see that being very edifying.

TC: Oh, man, I was just glad it didn’t have the bad rep of a couple of other expansions. That’s how I felt. The expansions that shall not be named!

DB: I’ll never forget the day that we actually launched Stygian Abyss, that we actually turned the servers on with the Stygian Abyss expansion enabled on them. What a nerve-wracking day it was. As far as expansion pack launches go, I’d say it went fairly smoothly.

TC: It went fairly smoothly. There were some bugs. There were some good ones, like jumping into the slime pit and getting tons and tons of reputation by one-hit wonders. Didn’t think that one through. But we worked that out. Servers didn’t crash; that was a good thing.

UC: Actually…servers! You mentioned that, and that reminded me of the question I was going to ask before, that I forgot. With Shards, obviously players can run their own shards; you mentioned a collection of shards. Now, this is where my understanding falls short, so I’m just going to ask: is that all run on your server infrastructure? Or if I have an old Dell server at home, can I run Shards off of that?

TC: Derek will jump into this in real detail, but the quick answer is: it’s kind of like Minecraft in the sense that if you want to run a shard, on your Dell, on your Internet connection at home, go for it. If you want to run a huge cluster with multiple shards, that’s where our infrastructure comes into play…and hands off to Derek.

DB: Right, so…the challenge in saying “we’re going to create a player-run MMO” is: how do you simplify MMO architecture to the point where a player can do it? If you look at…I’ve seen the architecture of games like Ultima Online, WAR (Age of Reckoning). It’s extremely complex to create an MMO. And so I sat down for a very long time, put my head together with a whole bunch of people like Mike Moore (one of the tech guys from Ultima Online). And we figured out what we needed to do is put all the complicated, complex, inter-connected stuff all behind a wall that we take care of for you. And so we put this magical name on it; we call it “the cluster”. And so when we say “cluster”, that’s all it is; it’s really more like a server in a traditional concept. Like when you go to World of Warcraft and you see a server list; each item on there is, in our world, a cluster. And so we handle all that complex, inter-connected madness, and what you do is, you run a shard.


Note: This transcript is incomplete. I’ll be sure to get it finished soon.