In 2001, NetDevil got their start on the MMO scene with Jumpgate. While the game continues to run to this day, it has always existed quietly in the background. It never caught on like CCP's EVE Online, nor did it suffer a public meltdown like EA's Earth and Beyond. Jumpgate was always just there. Now, six years later, NetDevil returns to the space genre with Jumpgate Evolution.
Since Jumpgate's launch, NetDevil has built Auto Assault with NCSoft. It too was a commercial failure but unlike Jumpgate, it didn't survive. The game was shut down earlier this year. Undeterred, NetDevil promptly announced the acquisition of the LEGO MMOG license and a PhysX driven online FPS, Warmonger. Jumpgate though remained close to their hearts and so, six years after the original game went to market, they have decided to give it another try.
"The more we thought about it the more we thought we could probably make a really good space game," explained Producer Hermann Peterscheck. "What would it be like if we could do it again with the knowledge and resources we have now?"
Jumpgate Evolution is not an update or patch to the original game. Technically, it's more like a sequel. The original game runs smoothly for its small but devoted fanbase, and the development and eventual release of Evolution will not change that. NetDevil has taken what worked in Jumpgate and hopes to mould that into a modern, AAA MMOG experience.
The new game sets itself apart from games like EVE Online through its emphasis on action-oriented space combat. Where EVE Online's combat is more analogous to naval battles, Jumpgate aims to corner a brand of combat derived from aerial dog-fights.
"The thing we're trying to nail is that it's a space combat action MMO," Peterscheck said. "[Our combat] is skill based combat, certainly."
Make no mistake, Jumpgate Evolution is an RPG. Player characters/ships advance, but the actual combat definitely requires active player skill. Players need to advance and level up to buy bigger guns, shields and other ship upgrades. That doesn't mean they don't still aim their own guns.
"If I hit you it's because I actually hit you, but how much damage I do is based on the equipment I have," he explained.
In some ways, that is the epitome of a true RPG experience. Like real life, people need the proper equipment to excel and Jumpgate Evolution is no different. They want to give people the chance to be a space pilot in a science-fiction universe, just as they did in the original game. Peterscheck admits, though, that they often took that too far.
"It's ok if someone plays the game, doesn't like it and then doesn't play anymore. It's not ok if they cannot learn how to play."
That's why the emphasis is now firmly on accessibility. Take for example the flight mechanics of Jumpgate. They created realistic physics, a virtual simulation of space that was so exact that a joystick was practically the only way to play. This is something many die-hard fans loved, but obviously this time, they hope to attract a few more subscribers. To that end, they've put in two versions of space flight. There is a simplified version for the average player and an advanced engine for those who really want the full experience.
Unlike the first time, they're now a company that has created a number of products and this has changed how they approach development. Like many companies, they see the value of a constantly playable version of the game. Right now, Peterscheck says, the game can be played and if a patch breaks it, they fix that before they move on. They want to get a handle on how everything works together, rather than stitching it together at the last minute as is so often done.
This allows for a greater emphasis on accessibility and play testing. He told us that they frequently have people into the office for what he called silent focus tests. They just give them the game, let them go and tell them nothing. Then, they analyze where people got lost, bored or stuck and make sure to fix it. Real gamers don't have designers over their left shoulder when they first play.
NetDevil also has the advantage of their six year old game to go back to as an example of what was good and what was not. For example, players frequently complained that the universe just seemed so devoid of life when there were not many players around. As such, a centerpiece of the new project is an advanced, reactive AI system that makes Jumpgate's universe active, not just a series of spawns for players to farm.