Q&A: NCsoft executive producer Jon Van Caneghem

Might and Magic creator returns to the design fold with plans to create an MMOG that breaks the rules and unites both casual and gonzo gamers alike. Can he get away with it?


With just two weeks under his belt at NCsoft's US location in Austin, Texas, the designer who single-handedly came up with the Might and Magic universe of role-playing games was still adjusting to life away from his home turf of Los Angeles. "What the heck. I’ve been in California my entire life, so this is an interesting change," he told us, sounding just a couple of clicks shy of 100 percent convinced he had made the right choice.

A longtime fan of the Wizardry and Ultima games, Van Caneghem created his own role-playing universe out of his LA apartment--which also served as warehouse, mailroom, and customer support center--in the early '80s.

He built the Might and Magic universe into a huge success, eventually selling his company, New World Computing, to Trip Hawkins and 3DO.

Earlier this month, Van Caneghem surfaced in Austin, Texas. Brought on to the NCsoft Austin team by cofounder and fellow role-playing-game designer Richard Garriott, Van Caneghem started the third chapter of his game design career as executive producer and lead on a new, currently unannounced game. We spoke with Caneghem by phone just a few days after he started. Claiming he felt like "a total newbie," he soon shifted the conversation toward his game.

GameSpot: You’ve been off a lot of people’s radar for a while. What the heck are you doing standing shoulder to shoulder with what was arguably your biggest competitor. What are you doing at NCsoft?

Jon Van Caneghem: The whole reason I came there was really to start from scratch. I didn’t want to have to do anything based on something that already existed--as with some of the baggage I had with all the Heroes games, where I had to always make a sequel.

GS: When did the games start to qualify as "baggage"?

JVC: I think toward the end with 3DO it started to feel that way. Like most publishers, they were very scared of doing something new. They always wanted to stick with building a sequel that they knew had a built-in sales number they could achieve... The execs look at the numbers and they go, “Hey, but we got such a fan base. Can you make another one?" Nine Might and Magics and four Heroes later, it gets to the point where I go, “Come on guys, let’s do something new!”

GS: How did you find yourself at NCsoft?

JVC: I’ve been wanting to make a next-gen online product since I sold [New World Computing] to 3DO in ’96. They had Meridian 59, and Ultima Online was just about to come out. I [thought], "This is the future for gaming, especially for RPGs." That was one of the main reasons for going [with 3DO].

GS: How did that relationship start off?

JVC: A few months into it, six or seven months into it, Trip [Hawkins, 3DO's founder] decided that building three PS2 titles would be better use of his money. So, my vision there got canceled. Ever since, I’ve been wanting to do massively multiplayer products. I’ve been building ideas, and I play every [MMO game] out there. I just really think it’s the future of gaming. Then I read about Richard and Robert Garriott starting their group, and then merging with NCsoft. I got real intrigued.

GS: Were you previously acquainted with the Garriotts?

JVC: And I’ve been friends with Richard and Robert for over 20 years now.

GS: As competitors no doubt...

JVC: You know, as friendly competitors...thinking [about] the same products. We’ve always had a good time together. I thought, “Hey, why don’t I call Richard and see what’s going on?”

GS: How will you fit into the NCsoft organization?

JVC: I’m building a complete team from scratch--currently bringing in very talented people from inside NCsoft [and] bringing in some people from outside, as well as looking for additional staff. It's going to be NCsoft’s second internal team--the other internal team at the moment is building Tabula Rasa, Richard's product.

GS: I noticed you have the same title as Richard...

JVC: I believe so.

GS: So does that put you on equal footing with Richard?

JVC: Absolutely.

GS: Well, congratulations.

JVC: Thanks. [Laughs]

GS: How far along are you in terms of creating your team and getting to work on the game?

JVC: I have a half a dozen people so far. We’re probably going to keep the team under 15 people for the first four to five, maybe six, months [while we] get the technology and infrastructure down--before we get into the full production mode of building tons of content.

GS: Will there be any sharing of technology between your team and the Tabula Rasa team?

JVC: That’s part of what I’m evaluating over the next couple of weeks. There’s a lot that NCsoft has to offer. Obviously, the backbone is in place...they have numerous online games they’re running now with City of Heroes and Lineage II, and everything else they’ve got going. I’m glad to take the backbone and run from there, which makes it exciting for me because it all works--customer support and billing. It’s a huge investment to build that.

GS: Your focus is on what?

JVC: I can just focus on the product and not have to rebuild that whole infrastructure.

GS: What can you tell me about the product?

JVC: My goal has been to build what I call the next-generation online title.

GS: Which means...

JVC: What I mean by that is that all the products currently are what I view as either first generation, or basically spin-offs of the EverQuest model. What I’ve been looking at is to take that next step, and the next level product is not that.

GS: What is it about the EverQuest model that’s right, and what is it that’s wrong?

JVC: What’s right is it’s fun, obviously. It has a lot of people who enjoy playing it. I guess what’s wrong is it’s still a very narrow audience. It has a lot of elements you might call sophisticated. And that blocks out a lot of people who enjoy playing PC games.

GS: Where do you intend to take it?

JVC: I’d like to bring the experience that people loved from the stand-alone products that I built for 20 years into the online model. My joke is that if any of the current MMOs were released as a stand-alone, they’d probably have failed miserably, so part of what I want to do with this next product is to solve that [problem], so anyone who would have bought a stand-alone product is going to enjoy my new game.

Right now there's a mind-set that enjoys either online products or stand-alone. So my biggest goal is to widen the user base to not just the few hundred thousand, but potentially millions who can play.

GS: Where do you start?

JVC: I think a lot of the gameplay mechanics are going to [have to] change to allow someone who only wants to play two to three hours a week to have just as fun an experience as the guy who’s going to be the 24/7 lunatic. Addressing those game mechanics is a big part of my plan.

GS: How do you approach that?

JVC: Once you take a genre, or, I should say, a set way of playing, like EverQuest, it pretty much sets the standard and then everyone builds on top of that. Once you choose that path you have no choice. You’re just enhancing a situation. I want to create a game that more people will enjoy playing--one where if you log off, you don’t feel bad... You can go to work, you can go to school, you can go on a date, and you don’t feel like you’ve fallen behind all your friends or that you’re missing out. Now, the basic designs are tailored towards having to spend a bazillion hours, and you have to do it all in a row, to keep up with the community.

That’s the [primary] thing that's limiting the audience of these style of games at this point.

GS: Interestingly, most solutions that pursue that goal segregate the audiences, providing a game experience for either the 24/7, bazillion-hours crowd or the single-session casual gamer. Few go after both audiences with a single game.

JVC: And that’s the game system I’m going to create. Don’t forget, I’ve been playing these games and building designs since the mid-'90s, so I have a million ideas and systems and game mechanics that I’ve been developing over this time. It still amazes me, the stuff my team talked about back then that still hasn’t been implemented. That’s the part that’s really exciting to me.

GS: Do you feel any games in the stand-alone space have been especially successful at engaging both audiences?

JVC: To some degree, yes, but I think the trick is going to be taking the stuff that works in stand-alone and applying it to the multiplayer environment. That's where the next step leads.

GS: Don’t you get the feeling that ultimately you can’t extract enough of a rewarding experience from other people--that you need your AI to egg and to encourage the gamer along?

JVC: You need tools and avenues where human players can have much more of an active role in the game...and then create the game. Not giving away too many things, you know, that’s really my goal, and that’s a lot of the ideas I have. That will create that situation where a new player or a seasoned player, or the guy who’s on all the time, will have a way to interact with each other and to create situations that are going to be compelling and interesting for all the players.

My biggest goal is you log on and there’s something new, exciting, and interesting to do every single day. One of the things we’re talking about here with a lot of guys, explaining my vision, is that almost all current [persistent world] games were built the same way we built stand-alone retail products. You build the game, you ship the box, and it’s version 1.0. The server’s locked down, and everyone who’s online playing is playing 1.0, and it’s treated like the updates and patches are the same as a retail product. [For example], in two weeks we’re going to have a patch. It’s identical to a retail product. To me the biggest thing everyone has missed is that you don’t have to do it that way. This is a live server that’s in one spot that all hundreds of thousands of people are playing off of. There’s no reason why it can’t be a live game, and not treated like: “We’ve got to wait two weeks for this new gameplay system to come out.”

Without giving away too many of the functions I’m talking about, [mine] is a different way of looking at it, in terms of how you build the product and what people can expect.

GS: What have you found to be most disappointing about the current generation of MMOGs?

JVC: The only other thing that’s really disappointed me about all the current games is that sometimes [I play on the beta], and then I finally run to the store the day [the full version] comes out. I get the game and run home and install it, and then all of a sudden I have this feeling that I could go to a Web site and find every item, every character, every map, every solution to everything about this entire game before I even play it. And I bought it the first day it came out. That’s not what this thing should be about. It ruins exploring, it ruins the experimenting when it’s all been figured out. That’s an experience I want to change.

If you think [in terms] of a live game, which an online game should be, then that whole mind-set doesn’t even make sense. Sure there will be Web sites that will give generalized ideas on how the game is played and how it works, but when you log on to play, you’re still going to have that excitement of: “I wonder what’s happening today, and I wonder what’s over that next hill.”

That’s the feeling I want to give people. And with that in mind, you can play once a week or you can play every day, and you’re going to have a good time.

GS: Why do you think The Sims Online didn’t hit the mark its creators thought it might?

JVC: You’ve got two major problems with [The Sims Online]. One is, there was an online, level-grinding community that were the first to early adopt, and they didn’t find those features for them to [work with]. And the second part of it is, it’s such new ground for people who are used to online games that I really didn’t think it had the features that they were looking for. But I admire the attempt. It’s still quite an ambitious thing to have done, and it’s a shame it didn’t catch on.

GS: Do you look to Asia for ideas, solutions?

JVC: Absolutely. NCsoft's Lineage II is a tremendous success. But again, it’s having to analyze the culture and seeing the response to Lineage II here in the US, compared to the success in Korea. It's a tremendous example to be analyzed that I’ve been doing quite a lot of it. It’s a fine line, but that’s part of the plan.

GS: After 3DO folded, what did you do?

JVC: When 3DO folded I basically retired. I decided I was done.

GS: How did you spend your time?

JVC: I played a lot of computer games, even more than when I was working. And I played a lot of MMO games. The first three or four months were great, and then it actually started to get boring. I would go, "Why’d they do this? Why’d they do that?" Which is what got me into the industry in the first place 20 years ago. While I was playing Ultima and Wizardry, and loving them, it got to the point where I said, “Why can’t they do this? Why can’t they do that?” That’s pretty much what got me off my butt to write Might and Magic 1. I had all these ideas based on what I had seen was being done, and I thought, well, why can’t we do this?

GS: Ultima and Wizardry were inspirations for you.

JVC: They definitely yanked me into this industry.

GS: When did you first meet Richard Garriott?

JVC: We met in 1986. I had just released Might and Magic 1, and he was starting Origin Systems with his brother. They had just done Ultima 3. They flew me out, and we talked about them publishing Might and Magic 1, but I had already made the package and was selling it. It wasn’t the right time to do business, but we became distant friends and have kept in contact ever since.

GS: You mentioned the relationship as friendly competition?

JVC: We used to call each other and say, “The only competition we have is bad products.” We believed that if someone would try an RPG and have a good experience, then they would buy all the other RPGs. That was our motto together. We kept in touch. We always got together at every GDC and E3, or any type of show where we were in the same cities.

GS: How tough is it to sell Richard Garriott on a game idea?

JVC: Richard is a very brave guy, and so far we get along so well that we practically think down the same lines in terms of how to build this product. Together, we make an incredible team since he is much more of a story visionary, and I am much more of the technical systems guy. We approach a product in a little bit different ways, but our skills are extremely complementary.

GS: Will Richard be involved?

JVC: Obviously Richard’s going to be involved to some degree. I think my ultimate goal, not to use a pun, is to take Richard's and my best accomplishments and create the next thing.

GS: What’s the landscape like today for a designer with a big idea and the desire to remain independent? Is there a chance to succeed?

JVC: There’s always a chance. I’m an optimist in that case. But it’s obviously gotten harder today with the budgets. But I’m a believer that it’s one strong-willed individual that makes something happen in this industry.

GS: How big of a challenge do you think you’re facing right now?

JVC: It’s a great big one, but given that, I wouldn’t have taken it on without NCsoft. To build the size of product I’m building, [leveraging] the infrastructure they have already built is the only way that I would consider taking on that task.

GS: Your goals?

JVC: My goal is to be the number one online title when it comes out. Whatever that’s going to take is basically my goal.

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