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Video game developer Daybreak Games revealed Tuesday a “Franchise First” initiative that establishes three new studios, each set up to cultivate long-term strategies toward the continued development of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) franchise titles.
Veteran Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) designer Jack Emmert will oversee Dimensional Ink Games, working on the superhero-based DC Universe Online and an untitled MMO project, while executive producer Holly Longdale will continue developing EverQuest as the head of Darkpaw Games. Additionally, executive producer Andy Sites will lead the team at Rogue Planet Games, building upon the worlds of PlanetSide.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the new studio helmers shared their goals for their respective teams and plans for the future of the franchises.
Emmert said that since DC Universe Online is an action MMO based on comic book IP, it’s dramatically different than EverQuest or PlanetSide. “It’s never had the ability to assert its own identity, but now by forming our own development studio [in Austin, Texas], we get to recognize that we’re something unique, something different: Dimensional Ink,” he told THR.
There is a story behind the studio name, which Emmert eagerly launched into. “This studio was founded in 2000 to make Star Wars Galaxies. It was the first Star Wars MMORPG. However, Star Wars, which many people might not know, was actually born out of George Lucas’s love for pulp science fiction, in particular Flash Gordon. So really, the inspiration for Star Wars starts in those Sunday comics in the ‘30s of Flash Gordon going to the planet Mongo. So that’s one ink reference,” he said. “Then, of course, DC Universe Online — comic books, comic-booking.” He added that the word “dimensional” comes from the fact that the team want their games “to take people places beyond their imagination. to see and experience things you can’t in everyday life.”
The veteran designer later shared that, on the corporate level, Daybreak had “a couple bumps in the road” in the last couple of years. He added, “When everybody took a look and did some analysis, what we realized was that we aspire to put our players and our franchises first. What that meant was, how can we bring the best possible attention to our franchises? We thought the way to do that was to empower the people who work on it every single day.”
Looking ahead to the continued success of free-to-play DC Universe Online, Emmert emphasized that the team is constantly “mining the world of comic books for storylines and characters for people to enjoy.” The game, which has been around for nine years, launched last winter on Nintendo Switch. “Look at all the streaming services that are underway, the big competition going on there,” Emmert said. “All of those are potential [other] places for DC Universe to land, and each and every one we’ll take a look at and see if that’s the best place for it.”
Along the way, Emmert and his team are developing another game that he describes as a “100 percent action MMO.” He added that every time he makes a game, there is a need to answer the fundamental question: “Why are people playing this?”
Speaking of “why” questions, there was a pause when THR asked Emmert why he built his career around MMO games. “Nobody’s ever asked me that question,” he said before diving into his background in academia. “When I was working on my PhD in Greek and Latin, it’s all about being able to close your eyes and being able to picture what the Roman Forum was or what the Greek Acropolis was, because we don’t know, right? We have to fill in all of those gaps.”
He continued, “In role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you are literally evoking a world with words. You have to imagine. So I think that’s what developing an MMO is: closing your eyes and being able to visualize an entire experience. It’s world building.”
The first game that captivated him was Ultima Online, initially released in 1997. “And I think I’ve fallen in love with MMOs over time, as a developer,” he said.
A second mention of Ultima Online came when longtime fantasy genre fan Longdale — who used to draw sketches of elves when she was a teenager, and spent three years as an EverQuest player before taking it over in 2015 — took the phone, noting that it was the first MMO game she tried. “I spent most of my time dead, because it was safer,” she recalled, adding that she explored most of the world as a ghost. “That led me inevitably to EverQuest, and the hype was pretty real early [on],” she explained. “I was also a huge fan of R.A. Salvatore’s The Dark Elf trilogy, so going into EverQuest was a natural progression.” (Preceding that progression was the time Longdale’s mother introduced her to the adult-themed video game series Leisure Suite Larry on the PC, which seems like a story for another time.)
Speaking about the launch of Darkpaw, a studio in San Diego dedicated to EverQuest and similar MMO titles, Longdale said the move was necessitated by sideline discussions within Daybreak about how the respective audiences for each game were very different. “We started approaching this idea of what if we did do franchise first, where it’s community centered and focused?” She continued, “It’s a bit of a dream come true, because now we can dream big, focus on our audience instead of trying to consider everything for a pretty broad and diverse company.”
As far as ensuring that EverQuest does not become irrelevant, Longdale emphasized that she and her team are looking ahead 10 or 20 years in the future, toward a larger picture. “Can we go beyond video games?” she asked rhetorically, adding that the focus is on making EverQuest known around the world “because it’s so deep.”
The name Darkpaw originates from a Gnoll character within the game named Fippy Darkpaw. “Since the title launched in 1999, he spawns every five minutes and charges the guards of a city and gets killed almost immediately,” Longdale said, laughing. “Fippy’s motto — he’s a popular character — is ‘Never give up.'” She said that’s now that’s the motto of Darkpaw, which represents 20 years of history and the next 20 years.
“In MMO, when you realize that everyone else around you is another human being — that felt deeply personal,” Longdale said of her discovery of the medium years ago. “That was a sea change for me in my life.”
Sites, whose experience includes over 23 years of working in traditional games and MMO titles, as well as a stint at Zynga, explained that his focus at Rogue Planet Games will be on having “a constant stream of new features and new content” to keep players engaged with PlanetSide 2. “We’re preparing one of the biggest updates that we’ve released since the launch of the game,” he told THR, adding that it will be announced in the next couple of weeks. “That’s going to be the first big step forward.”
While the rumored PlanetSide 3 is “always on the minds” of the team, Sites said there are no details ready to be unveiled at this time.
The producer, whose additional credits include Free Realms, Clone Wars Adventures and H1Z1, didn’t aspire to be a game developer when he was growing up, yet he spent most of his time in front of a console or a computer and was well versed in online games. He began his game career in 1996 at a development studio, working part time. Later on, he was given the chance to join the EverQuest team during its core development in 1999. “The late Brad McQuaid gave me the opportunity to join the team as a designer and producer,” Sites recalled. “I was able to learn the ropes and help define the genre.”
Noting that there were “multiple competitors” when EverQuest first launched, Sites said there were virtually none when PlanetSide came to fruition [in 2003]. “It not only defined the genre for a massively multiplayer first-person shooter game, but it really had no competition,” he continued. “When we launched PlanetSide 2 in 2012, we weren’t doing it as a response to any competition. It was really because we wanted to one-up ourselves. We added a lot of depth to the progression and class systems.”
Sharing the significance behind the studio name, Sites said, “The definition of a rogue planet is a celestial body that’s not traditionally bound to any star, and so as out there as that sounds, we feel that that illustrates who we are as a team and the philosophy on the types of games that we make.” He went on, “We’re not bound by convention. We’re always searching for new and exciting and creative ways to push the envelope and create new gameplay experiences that are unparalleled by any other game.”
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