Stargate Worlds, the first Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, has recently entered the production phase. GateWorld, partially stationed in the same town as the game’s development, sat down with Creative Director Chris Klug to see how the project is progressing!
In this interview, Chris discusses why he believes Stargate will translate so well into the MMO environment. He shares his perception of the franchise, nagging consistencies of canon, and how he and his team plan on mapping that space into an online game that is, without a doubt, SG-1. Beware of minor spoilers for SG-1‘s 200th episode in this interview!
Our thanks to Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment for granting us unprecedented access into their workspace!
Our conversation with Chris is 43 minutes long. The full interview is also available in audio format for your listening convenience, and is transcribed below!
GW: Chris, thank you for your time.
CK: Oh, you’re welcome.
GW: Now, you’ve been involved in making games since the early eighties. What are some of the highlights of your work, and how does Worlds stack up in comparison? Intensity and commitment-wise.
CK: I guess, probably, most people would know my work mainly through role-playing games I’ve done. I did a James Bond role-playing game that people still talk about. I did some N[intendo] 64 role-playing games. I had done some baseball work, actually. It’s sort of funny. The people who know me from role-playing games don’t know me as a baseball game designer, and vice versa. And when the find out I work in the other space they look at me odd. Baseball fans don’t normally hang out with [Dungeons and Dragons] players. That’s kind of interesting.
In terms of commitment, I’m a game design professional. What that means to me is I could be designing a Care Bears game and it would get my full attention and emotional commitment. I immerse myself in whatever topic I work on.
GW: But you’ve done a lot of really different, distinct titles. Do you think that helps you when you’re tackling a new problem? “I’ve done this, and I’ve done this, so this is really not out of the ordinary.”
CK: My original training was in theater. I was a set, lighting and costume designer. The real unifying thing, to me, is the thought process by which I take something that exists in another medium and transfer it into a new medium. As a set/costume designer you’re taking the written word and visualizing it. You look for attributes in those words to inspire your visuals and then let you create the visuals. So it’s a transfer process.
The first big game design I ever did was the James Bond game, and I approached the Bond game exactly the same way I would design a set, which sounds really odd. But I always look for a defining concept or moment in the original work that I can extract out and use it to inspire the game design.
In the Bond game it was a moment in the novel, Casino Royale. I can remember the moment vividly. He’s sitting on a park bench and he realizes that the guy on the park bench across from him is probably going to try to assassinate him. That mindset of the intuition he had and the deductive process he did of figuring out that the guy wasn’t really reading his newspaper, he was really looking at him, inspired the whole way I did the game design. So it isn’t so much for me, the breadth of topics, it’s really the original thought process I was trained to use when I was a designer.
GW: How long have you been watching SG-1?
CK: I watched about a dozen episodes off and on before I was approached for the job. Since then I’ve watched every episode. Again, when I was designing the Bond game I had never read a Bond novel before I did it. I just got the job and dove in and read all the novels and then kind of assimilated the material. Was I aware of the show? Of course I was aware of the show. Did I watch the show with my wife, on occasion? Sure. But I really became interested in what the show was and how it worked once I got the job.
GW: Stargate really is a day job, but do you also consider yourself a fan?
CK: Now, yeah. Certainly not before I got the job. It was another television show. But the first thing I really tried to do when I began watching the show is to figure out why it worked. Shows don’t last on TV as long as it has lasted without having some fundamental thing it does really, really well.
GW: What does Stargate do that it does really well?
CK: It personalizes science fiction stories — to me. The thing I saw in it, right away, was this mixture of the science fiction setting with real, deep, emotional character stories. It’s what separated it from Star Trek to me. It’s what separated it from a lot of TV science fiction where they seem to worry more about all the doodads and the gizmos then about the people. It really is a show about the team and the bonding on the team.
I was approached to work on the project and I sat down with my wife to watch some episodes. I think I’ve talked to you about this at one point or another — I saw this episode, I think it’s the last episode in Season Seven, when Jack’s being taken over by the Ancient memory and he can’t talk anymore. Teal’c comes up to him, and it’s obvious that Teal’c wants to tell him that he loves him, but doesn’t get the words out. Jack reaches up and touches his cheek.
The communication that occurred between the two characters in that moment, it really hit me at that instant that this was really what the show was about. And it was the camaraderie between the team members that set up everything else that the show tried to do. It was that mixture of emotional, character-driven stories with a science fiction setting that gave the show its depth.
Secondarily for me, was it weaves in this additional emotional moment of not taking itself too seriously. The whistling of the Stargate theme while riding the elevator, the references to MacGyver, the “He plays on a television show” line. All this stuff, to me, is very endearing, because it includes the audience in the show. It’s part of what, I think, makes the fans of the show so loyal. They feel in on the joke. That’s what separated the show, to me, from its competition. It really all came back to the writing in the end, in how the writers approach the show.
GW: What did you think of “200,” in terms of nudging the fans?
CK: Well, I think it’s part of the whole fun that they have with the whole idea. It was particularly inventive to have these ex-Farscape actors riff on the Farscape thing. It’s a very “television” thing to do. It goes all the way back to St. Elsewhere. I saw it last night on an episode of Brothers and Sisters, where Rob Moore made a remark about “he used to have a thing for Demi Moore.” That goes back to the movie they were both in. Fans of TV are very self-aware. I thought that was really a well-done episode in that vein.
GW: So how did you get involved with Worlds? You eluded that you’d only seen about twelve episodes beforehand. What triggered this?
CK: I was looking for my next job in the game business. My game design history goes back to what we would call “pencil and paper games” in the early eighties when the first computer games were coming out. The large part of the hobby played a lot of the games with books and dice and pencils and maps and pieces. So my design background goes all the way back to those days. My resume came across the desk of Joe Ybarra, who is the Vice President of the studio here. He was attracted to the fact that I had this depth of experience, that I had done other licensed products. He interviewed me and brought me on board.
GW: When did you join Cheyenne?
CK: I think my first day was December 3rd of .
GW: So the company was a few months old.
CK: It’s been about 14, 15 months.
GW: Are you pleased with the progress of the game so far?
CK: Yeah! I’m really proud of the game. I’m pleased with how far we’ve gotten. We have some basic conceits about how we were going to approach the product. From a game playing point of view one of the things we really wanted to do was to change the fundamental dynamic of the way an MMO plays. Most of the successful MMOs are men and women in tights running around, smacking things with swords. That’s not happening so much on Stargate.
In the combat area, it’s more about people armed with ranged weapons. Staff weapons for the Jaffa, P90s for SG-1, firing at each other over distance. We saw that as an opportunity to do something brand new in the MMO space. We’ve concentrated most of our combat system design on delivering an open-world, ranged combat mechanic. People firing at each other from cover, moving around, trying to outflank each other. It’s very different from the typical MMO game play. And I think we’ve done something revolutionary, and I’m pretty excited about it.
[The] second focus that we had was there’s four members of the SG-1 team. Two of them, while they certainly will pick up a gun and fire it, are more known for their intellectual problem-solving. Sam being the scientist, and Michael Shanks playing the archaeologist character. That has never really been done in the MMO space as well.
So we’re weaving in problem solving for those two archetypes so that we get the emotional pastiche of the show in the game activities that you do. It isn’t just enough for me to look at the simple solution which is “Oh, they have combat in Stargate! OK, well we’ll do a combat game!”
GW: Ah. you’re not just taking one piece. You’re looking at the whole scope.
CK: Right. Again, it goes back to how I view the problem. To me it’s about delivering an experience in a game that has its emotional roots in the original [intellectual property]. A game isn’t a TV show, but if, at the end of an evening’s play, you feel like the universe that you’ve just inhabited is the same universe that you would see when you watch the show, I think that I’ve succeeded.
So it needs to have a little combat. It needs to have a little problem-solving. It needs to have a little “funny.” That’s another thing. The show doesn’t take itself so seriously. And since Richard Dean Anderson’s humor pervaded the show, pervaded the approach to the way they delivered “funny,” the game has to make you laugh on occasion as well. So I need to hit all those notes.
GW: Are we hitting all those notes so far?
CK: Well, in combat, absolutely, we’re hitting those notes. The little games we’ve made to emulate the problem solving, I think, are brilliant. I think that they could stand on their own as games you might download on the Internet. Now, the “funny” we’ll see. We haven’t built any missions in the game yet. We haven’t delivered that. But I’ve hired writers whose work I would like to hold up as being good enough for the show.
The history of bad writing in video games, particularly, makes me crazy. I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And what I mean by that is gamers don’t expect much of the writing because, historically, it’s been pretty bad. So they assume it’s always going to be bad. What I really want to try to do is to make people laugh because it’s really funny. To deliver some of that back-and-forth between the players and the characters they meet in the world so that you get the whole emotional range of the show.
GW: And that really is Stargate in the process!
CK: That would be what I’m aiming for. That’s right.
GW: Can you briefly describe your week-in, week-out routine working with this team? Also, what do you encourage, and what do you expect?
CK: For me, in what I do, I spend 70 percent of my time in meetings. I meet with the artists to go over the latest artwork. I meet with the programmers to make sure they’re building the game and they don’t have any problems. Compromise over the things that we need to compromise on. It’s a fixed-sized bucket, right? We have a certain amount of money. We have a certain amount of people. We have a certain time frame in which we want the game to come out. Those forces at work cause us to not be able to deliver every single thing we’ve ever imagined that the game might have in it.
And then I meet with my three department heads to talk about any particular problem that they might have. What worlds we’re doing. What they look like. How the story interacts with the worlds. What happens when a player-character in the world gets shot. All these details come up in meetings that we discuss, and then the teams go out and work on the low-level details of making them happen.
I spend some of my time prepping for meetings with the outside world, with the press. I spend some of my time prepping for meetings with the investors. Some of my time prepping for meetings with my boss. So I guide the process, but I do very little of the actual “sitting down and writing the rules of the game.”
Now, what I look for in people that I hire … Really, that role of assembling the staff is, I think, my most important job. Certainly, I must articulate what the vision of the game is. I must communicate that vision to people. I had to sell Brad Wright and Robert Cooper what the vision of the game was, early on.
Once that was done, to link it to a baseball analogy, I think the most important job of a baseball manager is to pick the 25 guys he goes north with after spring training. I think that my most important job was to hire a team that I thought could deliver the game. I’d rather be the dumbest guy in the room than the smartest guy in the room. If they’re all smart, I’ll look smart and the game will get built.
What it means is I look for people who can think for themselves. I look for people who have a broad range of experience. I don’t only mean game design experience. Game design, on some levels, is a very imitative art. By that, often we look at things that have been done in another medium. Stargate is a good example. We try to extract out of it some sort of game play — and deliver that game play.
To me, it’s always advantageous if the people that I hire are passionately interested in other things as well as games, and especially if they’ve had a background in other medium. My lead system designer, Zeb Cook, was originally a theater guy. And then he taught English for a while. And then he did AD&D for a long time. Then he moved into the computer game business. He’s got this broad background.
Josh Kurtz, my lead world film builder, went to film school originally before he went to work for Blizzard on World of Warcraft. My lead content designer, Sean Dugan, was a writer and a magazine editor before I hired him on “Earth and Beyond.” And because of this breadth they can bring lots of other experiences to bare. Games are ultimately an entertainment medium, so experience in any other entertainment form, whether it’s novel writing or theater or TV is always a plus for me, because it really is about knowing how to entertain an audience.
GW: The big, burning question going around: When is this game going to be playable? Can you give us an approximate, vague, possibly-not-so-much time period?
CK: The only thing I can really tell you is that we’ll release it when we and MGM feel it’s ready to go.
GW: So you’re not going to release it undone. That’s really good.
CK: No, we’re not going to release it undone. And some representatives from MGM were here last week and they articulated that exact position. We were meeting with some potential publishing partners, and we have a plan and a schedule, because we’d be irresponsible if we didn’t have a plan and a schedule. But it’s going to get driven by when we think it’s ready, ultimately.
GW: Good. There’s a rumor going around that it’s going to be some time in 2007. That’s not going to happen, right?
CK: I wouldn’t bet on that.
GW: OK. Information regarding the game’s archetypes has recently been released as well. Users will be able to play an archaeologist, Asgard, Goa’uld, Jaffa, scientist, soldier or commando. Was it difficult to hollow out these choices, and what do you feel about them will present the most interesting and entertaining gaming experience that there can be?
CK: Well, let’s see. They were arrived at after a long series of meetings where we tried to, ultimately, emulate the dramatic situations that we saw on the show. That was really what drove us. That gave us the initial list of what things people would want to do.
The second thing was fans of the show — what would they have always longed to do? Obviously there’s some easy answers, which is “be a member of SG-1.” That’s certainly obvious. But the Asgard have been a particular emotional favorite for many people who are fans of the show. The Goa’uld, I think, are amazingly interesting. Even though the show portrays them as nefarious, shall we say.
One of the things I looked for in the opportunity to design the game was, effectively, if you think about it, the story of what’s happened over the last ten seasons has been told through SG-1’s eyes. It would be an interesting story to tell that same ten-year arc through the eyes of the Goa’uld. Because you can’t assume that the Goa’uld are stupid. They’ve dominated the galaxy for, I don’t know, ten thousand years? I’m just making that up. I don’t know how long.
Most people out in the galaxy, other than the humans of earth, speak Goa’uld. They’re a big deal in the Milky Way. They couldn’t have pulled that off if they were inherently stupid, right? OK, flawed, perhaps. Stupid? Not necessarily. So I was really fascinated with the Goa’uld story. I had an idea that it could be really interesting to play on that side of the fence. Viewing SG-1 as the usurpers to an empire that they had long-worked to build and maintain.
Both the Asgard and Goa’uld were very attractive to me. The other races, especially the alliance races. I know that they are emotional favorites for some of the fans, but we were looking not only for attractive races for the player, but races that would give us activities for the player to do. It’s not enough to dress up like a Nox. You have to give the Nox something that makes sense for them do be doing in the conflict that you imbue the universe with.
So early on, what we were working with is not only what play activities would be available for the characters but what the story was. Because, ultimately, those two things have to talk to each other. So you have to say, “Alright. What’s at stake in the universe? What do people care about? How are these chosen archetypes effectively involved in the conflict, and have something immediate to do and at stake because of the conflict.”
You add into that soup needing to ship the game within our lifetimes. So you get this “OK, so we’ll try to tell this kind of story with these kinds of characters. Give the player something important to do in that story, and limit the number of things that we have to build so that we can actually get the game out the door. At the end of all that process came the fact that — initially we had started out with “Well there’s human, and there’s Goa’uld, and there’s Asgard, and Jaffa, of course. And in each of those races we’re going to give you these professions.
And by the time we kept boiling away at that mixture, we ended up realizing that there wasn’t really enough to separate professions in these non-human races. They might have individual skill sets, but that a Goa’uld was really a Goa’uld. An Asgard was really an Asgard. The idea of an Asgard medic, as opposed to an Asgard scientist, sort of seemed a little weird. So we collapsed the archetypes but gave them individual sets of skills that they can choose.
GW: That also must be a very difficult problem because a lot of the things that people resonate with, say the Ori and the Ancients, don’t really translate well into a videogame medium. Something that’s intangible.
CK: The other thing that we were wrestling with was you can’t just look at what a particular archetype might be at its highest level of power. You need to look at the beginning level, the mid-level and the high level. How do the characters grow in ability? What changes over time? How do they play with other archetypes and teams? And the Ori failed on a number of those kinds of counts. So it was a mixture of many things going together that led us to the archetypes we chose.
GW: How committed are you to following canon? For all those die-hard canon hogs out there? I’m one of them! I admit it!
CK: You and I’ve had this discussion. My major guiding principle is the tone and spirit of the show. Secondarily, we were told early on by Brad Wright and Robert Cooper that we had their encouragement to show parts of the universe that we would invent that they couldn’t do on the TV series.
For budgetary reasons it’s very difficult for them do show a big, galactic fleet action in space. Very difficult to pull off. It’s very difficult for them to pull off any kind of huge land battle with lots of soldiers. Very tough to do. They’re limited in the sets they can use. They’re limited in the costumes they can use. It’s a television show with a tight budget and they do the best they can.
So, in a game environment we’re not limited in the same way. We’re limited in other interesting sorts of ways. We probably have a longer preproduction cycle than even a feature film does. We’re, effectively, building everything from scratch. We just can’t throw four pieces of wood together, put some canvass on it and pretend it’s a wall. We have to build the wall from scratch. In a weird kind of way.
We can’t just hire an actor and get, with that actor, the sense of humor and the physicality. We have to build that character from scratch. Every limb, every joint, has to be constructed. So some things are easier for us, but some things are equally hard.
So, that being said, we evaluated the story we wanted to tell. We evaluated the locations in the universe. We picked places, some places that we felt were emotional touchstones for the player. SGC is the prime example. You can’t do a Stargate game without doing SGC. But when either the career of the character or the story demanded a new location be invented, we felt empowered to go ahead and create that new location.
Now, there is probably a line that we draw where the desire to make the game fun will overcome the desire to make it absolutely indelibly match the canon that exists in the show. Does that mean that we willy-nilly change things? Of course that’s not true. In our forums I’ve seen an occasional “Wait a minute, how can you play a level-one Goa’uld? That’s odd. Aren’t they endowed with genetic memory?”
In those instances we have made an effort to bridge the gap between what you’ve seen in the show and what we’re doing in the universe, with respect to the show being the ultimate word — the ultimate answer to that. But it was interesting in the forums where “Oh, I get to play a Goa’uld. Oh, that’s really cool.” Which was the reaction I was looking for. That they understand in the game environment playing a Goa’uld would be really, really cool. As long as we don’t ignore what the show says about the Goa’uld, they’re pretty-much OK with that.
But I think that everything we’re doing is within the spirit of the show. And the final word is I’m sure, I’m certain, that somewhere in the game we’ll have a location that is going to look slightly different from the way it looks on the television show. I am sorry. Dakara, Chulak, these iconic locations are going to look like they look on the show. But we can’t get every level of detail correct. We’re trying for the feeling of the thing whether this coat of paint matches identically what this coat of paint you see on your television monitor, if you understand what I’m saying.
GW: Yes, definitely.
CK: Sam’s hairstyle changed, God-knows …
GW: Which can be a blessing and a curse, I can imagine. For as many number of times it has happened.
GW: So far, what has been the biggest challenge in bringing this game to life?
CK: That’s a good question. The biggest challenge really has been embracing and delivering on the promise of expanding the typical MMO game play style. Game players in general love to talk about what they want to see that’s new, but they tend to speak with their dollars buying things that they already know. So trying to deliver them something that feels comfortable and evokes old, warm, fuzzy feelings, yet at the same time trying to do some innovative stuff is really the biggest challenge.
Getting people involved in the project, their passion for Stargate — that’s been easy. And Stargate maps so really well to the MMO space that that’s been pretty easy. Interestingly enough, let me articulate that a little bit. When people talk about how well Stargate maps to the MMO space, the thing that they often talk about is “Well, the universe is segmented into these individual worlds and the gate provides transportation between the worlds. And we can go back and forth really easily, and that’s how an MMO works, and that’s pretty cool. I think that that’s, like, almost irrelevant.
The thing that, I think, really makes Stargate work well for the MMO space is that the activities that you see the heroes in the show doing every minute map to MMO game play. The basic MMO game paradigm is a handful of people with differing skill sets coming together to do a task. That’s the definition of SG-1! One of the things we do is we look at episodes and try to map them into missions we might give to the player.
With the exception of, maybe, Sam going out on a date, which is a little tough to pull off in an MMO space, a lot of the episodes, really, you can just deliver them as a mission pretty directly. Give the team a problem, the team has to go off and solve it, they might go off in two different directions in the same time but come back together at the end. There maybe is a little fighting, there’s a little puzzle-solving, they have to go talk. All these activities are easy to emulate in the game space. Which is what makes it such a powerful IP for me.
GW: Definitely. Stargate, it has such a strong and loyal fan base. The team at Cheyenne has such high expectations to meet. Do you think it’s a help, or a hindrance, that so many fans are meticulously monitoring this game’s development?
CK: OK, so this is a mixed blessing, I think. It is very similar to me to what happens when a film production company buys a novel and they want to make a movie of that novel.
GW: They have to interpret it.
CK: Peter Jackson and his work on “Lord of the Rings,” the hurdle that he had to jump was really, really high. And he and his screenwriters have arituclated on the net, in many places, the fact that you just have to change stuff. As much as it might be painful, Tom Bombadil didn’t make the cut because it slowed the movie down.
GW: Well, the book was not a movie!
CK: Right. OK, but. I agree with what you’re saying, however, not every fan of Tolkien agreed with what you were saying.
OK. So, while the passion and the interest you get, as part of the package, when you sign up for an IP, is useful, the fans have to be willing to say “Alright, well, this isn’t exactly the show.” We’re delivering something that will undeniably be SG-1 in the video game space. As long as the fans are willing, for instance, to say “Alright, I’m going to accept the fact that the Goa’uld character that I’m creating isn’t going to come out of the box dominating the universe.” As long as people are willing to make that kind of compromise, I think we’re OK.
GW: OK, good. For non-Stargate gamers, though, what will Worlds offer them that no other MMO experience can?
CK: The change in the basic fundamental game play paradigm. Non-combat game play will be a viable way to level [up], which is almost unheard of. The combat paradigm for MMO game play is you take a fighter, you put him in front of the group, you have a healer who his healing him constantly, and you have a wizard who is doing this area effect damage to the bad guy isn’t our combat paradigm. Our combat paradigm is much more akin to a squad of soldiers each with a similar but slightly different set of skills working in team to take on multiple enemies at once.
GW: Can you give us any kind of inkling as to the current storyline that’s being proposed for the game?
CK: I’d rather not at this point. It’s still in-process. It’s been a real challenge to try to find a storyline that fits into the canon. A place to put that storyline. Because, ultimately, once it goes live the vast majority of it is fixed in time. It’s very difficult to change, whole-cloth, all of the content in an MMO once it goes live. You can add to the fringes over here. You can do an expansion pack over in this corner. But the fundamental world itself is going to stay pretty-much the way you shipped it.
At some point we’re going to nail the whole thing down. At this point I know the basic storyline. It’s pretty-much not going to change, but since some of the worlds that need to get built to support that aren’t set in stone yet, I’d rather not commit myself at this time.
GW: Do you think fans of the overall Stargate franchise will be pleased?
CK: Yeah! No, I think that they will. I think that it’s a storyline that, we think, could have happened. It’s a little more epic than a typical episode might be. You might describe it this way: If at a point in the show’s history Wright and Cooper had the opportunity to stop and tell a movie, at that point in time, this might have been the movie they might have told.
GW: Good. What kind of planets can we expect to play, and what original worlds are you particularly excited about?
CK: Well, the video game nature, what we can do, allows us to do a little more zero-gravity stuff. Moons. Worlds that have multiple suns, and what that looks like. It’s a science fiction universe and it’s part of what Wright and Cooper encouraged us to do was to deliver the kinds of vistas that they might have trouble delivering. It’s a mixture of about 50 percent worlds that we’ve seen on the show and about 50 percent worlds that we’ve invented whole-cloth.
GW: That’s a pretty good balance!
CK: Yeah. And, again, they shoot in Vancouver, so everything tends to have a tinge of Vancouver to it. We can go outside that kind of thing. We are interested in exploring science fiction cultures in many different kinds of genres.
GW: OK. When launch time comes, do you intend to have your own player in the universe, and if so, what side will you be on?
CK: I’m a die-hard MMO player. I’m sure I’ll have more than one character at launch. My first character, I’ll probably play on the Goa’uld side of the fence, for the reasons that I’ve articulated. I think it’s a more interesting story on some levels. Interesting in the sense it’s a story we don’t know. We all can articulate the arc of Jack O’Neill’s career, and what happened and how he related. To me the interesting stuff is how the opposite side of the fence can be told in a fresh way.
GW: Do you plan on overseeing the, hopefully, many expansions that fans will demand?
CK: That’s really a strategic decision for Cheyenne. There are people underneath me who are looking for opportunities to grow. I may be more valuable to Cheyenne working on a different project. I may be more valuable to Cheyenne on the live team. Hard to say. Don’t know. That’s a decision that will get made probably in the two or three months just prior to launch. Certainly we’re laying the plans now for what the expansions will be like. I’ll be involved in them whether I’m actually day-to-day doing them or not.
GW: Where do you see yourself heading after Worlds?
CK: I have no idea.
GW: You’re not going to retire, are you?
CK: No, but if you want to get technical about it, a couple-three months before this offer came I didn’t know that I was going to be here. We’ll just have to see. Since I’ve had this really weird career of doing games in any genre, it’s kind of hard to say.
GW: Yeah, who knows where you’re going to end up next! Could be doing Smurfs or something!