Cryptic Studios is entering its third decade in the massively multiplayer online game market, where it started (like everyone else) in paid subscriptions before moving on to the free-to-play model.
In that time, CEO Stephen D’Angelo has seen the company grow from working on one game (City of Heroes) to now maintaining three MMORPGS: Champions Online (Cryptic also owns the pen-and-paper IP after the deal it had with Marvel fell apart and the studio pivoted to another brand), Star Trek Online, and Neverwinter.
And for the first time since the early 2010s, Cryptic is getting ready to release a new game: Magic Legends, which is a more action-RPG take on its MMO model.
I spoke with D’Angelo over the summer about the studio’s history and how Cryptic approaches the business. We talked about how it’s thrived since partnering with Perfect World after the Atari meltdown, how it came to work with Wizards of the Coast on two games, and how the business of online games has changed over the decades.
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This is the second part of our interview, and it’s been edited for clarity and flow. The first part covers Cryptic’s history with City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online.
GamesBeat: What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far with Neverwinter?
D’Angelo: That’s a tough one. Some of the same lessons underlie this in that — we can grab and support some of the Wizards storylines, but outside of what the stories are that Wizards is telling, when we make our own storylines, it’s more hit and miss. That commonality doesn’t always resonate with the player base. We have to work very hard when we write our own storylines and our own locations, to make sure that we’re testing that against what the players want and expect. That’s probably one of the big ones on the development side. But we’re always, like I said, trying to reinvent our games. Neverwinter is busy going through a bit of reinventing right now.
GamesBeat: I noticed that some people were upset about what’s going on with the healing classes at one point.
D’Angelo: One of the things that always happens is games age. You put out rewards and they’re a little bit tougher, a little bit better. There’s a bit of power creep. About every three years, each of our games, we have to go through and do a bit of rebalancing to make everything fair, make sense with itself, and give us more room to do more power creep. You don’t want to break the game, and you don’t want it to feel like it’s moving too far. But rebalancing, tweaks, we always end up not getting them 100% right. Thankfully our players are good with us and willing to work through the weeks it takes following an update to get all the little details ironed out.
GamesBeat: Didn’t you go through this just a couple of years ago with Neverwinter? I remember that a bunch of things got changed, and it felt a lot harder to play.
D’Angelo: There was a period where that did happen before. Some of it was just some bad math. We did get it fixed up. It took a few weeks longer than we wanted to chase down all the math problems, but yeah. Unfortunately, in the real world, mistakes happen.
GamesBeat: How do you talk to players when you make mistakes with these big IP-driven MMOs that have millions of players signed up?
D’Angelo: That’s a real challenge. Only a minority of the player base chooses to engage in any given forum. If you go to our forums, you engage with one class of player. We hang out on Twitch streams and talk to people who are streaming and ask them what’s going on, lots of conversations going there. We follow various YouTubers and try to see what’s going on there. We do try — that’s a good way for us to collect input, and then we publish a lot of things that we call blogs, which are our way of trying to reach the audiences that aren’t in those engaged channels, but still want to know things. We try to reach out that way and get feedback on those. We also do surveys. But it’s a challenging thing to really hear what your audience thinks and wants. A lot of times we have to go into data and say, do people like this? Let’s see how many people are playing it. How many people repeat play it? Are they playing it once and getting out? It’s a mix.
GamesBeat: How different is it to talk and communicate with players of a game like Neverwinter, which is a fantasy-driven IP, Star Trek, which is a sci-fi IP, and Champions, a superhero IP?
D’Angelo: I don’t think communicating with the players is much different in those three cases, but the audiences are different. The Neverwinter game, I’m going to use some generalizations here. As an action game in a fantasy genre, it collects a broader and slightly younger audience. They’re far more likely to be YouTube and Twitch savvy. They’re far more likely to be technology-driven. Our Star Trek audience does tend to skew a bit older. A lot of people in Star Trek, when they survey, it’s the only video game they play or have ever played. They’re playing it because it’s Trek, not because they’re video game fans. It’s easier to reach them on Star Trek news sites than on a game news site. Champions is in between. Superheroes are popular across a broad range of age groups, but it’s not as centralized. There are more 60-plus comic fans and 20-minus comic fans than there are people in the middle. That’s a personal generalization, at least. I can’t support that.
GamesBeat: Do you find that people still get confused about how to use all your runes and items in Neverwinter to make other things?
D’Angelo: Some of that is legacy thinking. You go back and take a look at what MMOs looked like in 2007, and they were complicated as all get out. At this point, players expect a more streamlined gameplay experience. Over the years, we try to do a revamp about every year to some system. How do we streamline this and make it be about the experience players want? Remove that complexity. That’s one of the pieces of Neverwinter that I don’t think has been quite as streamlined as we’d like. But it’s been getting better over the years. You’ve been playing a while. Do you think we’ve improved it?
GamesBeat: A little bit. I still find it confusing. But I also find, the way I like to play, I don’t need to worry about it. For me it’s more about the world and the story. I’ve been playing D&D about as long as I can remember. With that era of Neverwinter and working with Wizards now on two different games, does making sure that Wizards gets what they want become more important than other IP holders, or are they a customer just like CBS?
D’Angelo: Each of our three games is very independent in their relationship. There’s some crossover between Neverwinter and Magic in terms of they’re both working with Wizards. But the teams are very different, and the IP are very different. I don’t think there’s a lot of — we never have to make a choice about making one happy versus another, because they’re very independent games.
Gathering the Magic
GamesBeat: When you talk about taking it to new places with Magic, what do you mean by that?
D’Angelo: We’re doing a lot of things. Every game we do, we try to push boundaries. The Magic game, we’re pushing the technology boundaries forward immensely. The graphical fidelity, the various elements of the gameplay — we’re looking at the microsecond timing on controls, focusing on quality of gameplay, quality of imagery, in a way we’ve never done before. To a certain extent, it goes all the way back to 2007. The bar for technology in MMOs is not very high. World of Warcraft and its competitors were not stellar examples of high-end games. They were fun. That’s kind of where the bar was. But every time we try to move that bar forward. The Magic game addresses that with a higher art bar, a higher design bar, a higher gameplay bar. Also, internally, our improved production practices and the top-notch talent we’ve hired and grown.
GamesBeat: With Magic, you’re changing the mode of a free-to-play MMO a bit with selling booster packs, which is something you haven’t really done in an MMO before. It’s an obvious choice for the IP, but how does that work, and how is it different than the way you sell gems and cosmetics and other items in Star Trek or Neverwinter?
D’Angelo: Every game we do, one of the lessons we learn all the time is no two games are anything alike in how they monetize, because the audiences aren’t the same. In the end, if you want to sell things that make players happy, you need to sell things that are for the players, that aren’t just because a designer made it up. When we looked at what we’re doing with the Magic game, in many ways it’s — I view it as a three-way mashup, the core of the game. Fundamentally, you have an isometric game that people could compare to something like Diablo — at least it looks like Diablo. Underneath you have a gameplay engine that’s designed around, much like our other games, a 10-plus year cycle of quests and adventuring. It’s the core of an MMO gameplay experience. And then for all the progression, it’s something that’s very much like Clash Royale or Hearthstone, merging that in. Taking all those ingredients, stirring a bit, and you end up with something unique.
You talked about booster packs. One of the things about progression in our games is, if you play Clash Royale, you collect fragments of spells. You get enough fragments and you upgrade a spell to the next level. This is part of the core progression model. In many ways you can view spells as — in a traditional MMO you get gear, and you work to improve your gear. In this game you get spells and keep working to improve your spells. The way you improve them is a mechanic that uses the booster packs to unlock.
GamesBeat: Was that something that Wizards wanted you to do, because booster packs are such a big part of Magic, or was that your idea?
D’Angelo: With every game we do, we try to look and say, what does the audience for this IP expect? What do they want? What do they need? What’s the heart of their experience? In Star Trek people wanted to be the captain of a starship. That had to be the heart of the experience. To an extent starships become the center of the gameplay. In Magic, we didn’t have a lot of experience with how people were used to experiencing Magic except those cards. We had to pivot a bit and say, all right, if you try to make a video game out of a card game, you get a weird thing. But if you say, imagine this whole movie series about Magic, and someone made a card game and someone made a video game out of it, what does the video game look like?
At the same time, we have to draw on what people already know about the card game. Things like booster packs or decks or libraries, about spells and instants or summons, those are all intrinsic to what the IP is. It’s hard to completely separate, even for people’s emotion space. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to make it familiar and accessible. You start there. The booster packs are a natural way to make the whole thing accessible out of the gate. Where the monetization will evolve as we work with players after launch, we’ll see. But it’ll be a great place to start, making it grounded in what people are familiar with.
GamesBeat: How close is Magic to having a beta phase, where people can come in and play in larger numbers?
D’Angelo: Very close? We’re in public alpha testing right now, with thousands of people playing the game. We’ll move that up into beta level testing very soon. I’m not entirely sure what the date is, or if I can talk about it.
GamesBeat: Working on Magic, what have you learned so far that made you think, let’s put this in Neverwinter, let’s put this in Star Trek?
D’Angelo: When we’re making a new game, we don’t do a lot of learnings that go back, because most of the learnings happen when you encounter your players. There’s something I try to use around the studio all the time: until the day you launch the game, it’s the designer’s game. You’re making their vision, the game that’s in their head. But once you launch the game, it’s the player’s game. The players are setting the new vision for what’s important and what’s not. The designer’s job is to read that intent and support the player. Within weeks and months of Magic being out the door, we’ll learn a lot, and yes, I expect that will go back into Star Trek and Neverwinter, as we get new players and new perspectives on new systems.
GamesBeat: Is that an advantage you have, having different games with different groups of players? You can learn from one another and put new ideas into each game.
D’Angelo: Absolutely. We sit around in meetings — we literally have meetings. What did you guys experiment with last time? Well, we tried this. How’d it go? Didn’t work so great, or it worked great. All right, let’s see if we can try it too. We’re always trying to figure out how to leverage knowledge of what’s going on, adapt it for the audiences, try other things. But yes, having multiple games in-house that are all alive is immensely valuable. And even beyond that, being able to tap into the experience of Perfect World’s global game network and see what’s going on with the games that aren’t at Cryptic, that are being sold in other territories.
The MMO biz
GamesBeat: When it comes to the era where you’re going from PC only to PC and console, was that a long-term goal? Was it something you wanted to do earlier than you did? Or was the tech not ready yet?
D’Angelo: It was something we wanted to do even from the launch of Champions. Champions had full controller support in it at launch. But we couldn’t get either of the two major console vendors to go with either subscription — they weren’t comfortable with subscription models and they weren’t comfortable with microtransaction models. They wanted buy once and then DLC packs only. That didn’t work for the games we were making. It took us a few years of working with them before they gave us a green light to do what we wanted. Neverwinter was the first game we brought to the consoles. It blew both Microsoft and Sony away with the amount of money it made for them. Suddenly they were far more interested in free-to-play games. They invited us to bring Star Trek there as well. We’re still working with them, because they’re very much committed now to those models, in a way they really weren’t prepared for in 2009.
GamesBeat: What about Cryptic? Are you interested in player subscriptions?
D’Angelo: I’ve come to the conclusion, and as a studio we’ve come to the conclusion, that the subscription model is not in our interest or the player’s interest. It’s asking the player to pay — if we’re going to release content three to four times a year, which is typically what we do, it’s asking players to pay for months that they don’t need the subscription, or to get into some weird on/off model where it’s asking us to try to build content in a “try to keep you” approach, which is not making us make the best game. It’s making us figure out how to keep you. We’ve found that shifting away from subscriptions and saying, play as much as you want for free and challenge us to make something you’re ready to spend money for.
GamesBeat: Do you find it odd that you went away from subscriptions, and now so much of the industry is coming back to season passes and subscriptions in other areas?
D’Angelo: It’s quite a bit different, though. The subscription push that you’re seeing across the industry is more like what television went through, where — you’re not getting subscriptions for a single game so much as buying a subscription to get access to variety. We’ll see. Anybody who’s doing subscription on a single game is going to find that it’s not going to do well for them. Subscriptions for a bundle, for people who want variety — I want to play this game this month, and another game next month — that’s a viable market for a different kind of person than plays our games.
GamesBeat: With MMOs that have been running for so long, you have IP that attracts new players, but how else do you attract new players to keep those games fresh?
D’Angelo: A good part of it is trying to understand who are the players that play your games and build marketing campaigns that reach them. In the current era a lot of it comes down to working through influencers. If someone is streaming Neverwinter and getting lots of followers, start talking to them. Who are your followers? How do we support you so that you can get your streaming business to grow, so more people see Neverwinter on the stream, and they’ll come try our game if they think it suits them? The magic of free-to-play is — with a boxed product, you buy the game and you don’t even know if you’ll like it. With our games, try it. If you like it, stay, and if you don’t, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with leaving. But discovery is the real challenge for all the game industry. Part of it’s just figuring out how to be seen.
GamesBeat: From your point of view, what is more important? Getting a new player or bringing an old player back on a more regular basis?
D’Angelo: I don’t know if I could make one more important than the other. If we do a good job — I view what we call the reacquired player to be pure gold, because any time a player gets reacquired, that says to me is they didn’t leave our game because they hated our game. They left our game because they had something else in their life, or something else they wanted to pursue, or they felt we just didn’t have enough content at that point. They’re coming back because they still believe in the game. The reacquisition rate is a critical vote of confidence from our player base as far as how they think we’re doing.
GamesBeat: Are you going to be bringing these MMOs to the new consoles when they come out?
D’Angelo: I’m trying to remember exactly what our NDAs say. But no, we definitely intend to work with the console vendors on the next-generation hardware. You should look forward to announcements. A lot of it right now is I don’t think all of us are 100% certain when the new consoles are going to hit the market. There’s a bit of wait and see in our space.
GamesBeat: Is it weird saying, OK, here’s Unreal 5, here’s some other documentation of new engines, let’s read up on some of the best practices people are already doing, while also maintaining the best practices you have?
D’Angelo: Both vendors have made it very easy to go to the new consoles. Our teams are just focused on making the best game possible right now, as we work on getting Magic out the door. I don’t think we can do a lot of speculating on the super go-forward space, except for our top secret next project type of discussions.
The Atari breakup
GamesBeat: Could one say that the best thing that happened to Cryptic was parting ways with Atari and becoming part of Perfect World?
D’Angelo: That would be a pretty safe thing to say.
GamesBeat: When you joined, you were still dealing with Atari, correct?
GamesBeat: Was there ever sense of, oh my gosh, this is all going to implode during the Atari days?
D’Angelo: Atari/Infogrames, as public history can show, was not the most stable company, financially. And so yes, it was a challenging place to live. They did struggle a bit on what their vision should be. They changed direction several times during the period when I was with them. When you have a company whose vision is changing and is struggling a bit financially, yes, it’s a far more challenging publisher to work with. Perfect World has a very clear vision, amplified by excellent support. They truly believe in supporting the creative vision of the developer. We haven’t been forced to do anything. They work to support us. As a developer I can’t imagine a better publishing partner/owner.
GamesBeat: Did you help out at all with Torchlight 3? There are times when I play it that it feels a little Cryptic here and there.
D’Angelo: The Torchlight folks did spend a lot of time with us. I love Max and Tyler and the whole team. They’re fantastic people. But yes, we spent quite a bit of time talking about where games are going and sharing ideas back and forth. Showing them some of what we’ve done that works and what we’ve done that hasn’t worked, the technology side, the gameplay side. There’s some cross-communication going on.
GamesBeat: Are you going to get a Magic statue to go with your dragon statue for Neverwinter?
D’Angelo: That’s a really good question. You know about the dragon statue?
GamesBeat: I’ve been to Cryptic a couple of times.
D’Angelo: Yeah, the dracolich is awesome. It was done for the trade shows for Neverwinter. I pretty much think we’re going to end up getting something good for Magic to put up in the studio. I’m not sure what yet. But we did something for the trade shows, for PAX East in April. It wasn’t something we really wanted in the studio. We’ll get something cool. Not sure what yet.