New Friends and Why WildStar’s Best Innovation Isn’t the Game Itself

Hello.  My name is Jean Prior, and I have a confession to make. I never heard of WildStar until late last year, and even then, it was just in passing. I saw a couple of posts about it, but it didn’t really pique my interest. Back then (as now), my gaming mostly revolved around Star Wars: the Old Republic, with a splash of Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft. I was also interested in Marvel Heroes, but back then, it was just starting closed beta, and my entry into that party was a couple of months (and $200) down the line. Most of what I knew about WildStar revolved around the fact that one of the folks I knew and liked from SWTOR had joined Carbine’s team (Hi, Scooter!), and I do try to check in on games that hire my friends and acquaintances.

As time passed, I saw Scooter’s posts about the game, but it still didn’t twig to me. Then the first few trailers went up, and with only the vaguest of interest, I clicked on the first one. Then my jaw dropped as the cheerfully bombastic and belligerent narrator told us to buckle up, cupcake, and off we went. However, I was also terribly busy, having just signed on to be a writer for SWTOR fansite, so I added it to my list of stuff to check out as more things came to light in the future. Then I saw the two faction videos. Not to offend our Dominion friends, but I have the same reaction to the Dominion that I do to the Empire in Star Wars, I have little identification with them. Other than my severe problem with altaholism in video games (please don’t make me show you the spreadsheet I have for keeping track of my WoW, TOR, and LotRO characters), I’m not likely to play a Dominion character as my main, but I will play them.

Now, the part where I got seriously hooked on WildStar was watching spunky little Kit Brinny in the Exiles video, and I laughed when she punched out her camera operator. The Exiles strongly remind me of the nascent Rebel Alliance from A New Hope, not the established and somewhat polished military force from Return of the Jedi. That never say die attitude tickled my fancy so much that Kit has become my favorite Carbine-created character so far and has inspired my own still-being-generated WildStar roleplaying character that you can read about at @WildStarPhoenix on Twitter.

Having heard that Carbine would have a presence at PAX East, I made a mental note to stop by their booth and say hi to Scooter and check out their demos and stuff. I’d heard of events called Arkships, mostly via Twitter acquaintance Geldarion, but didn’t truly grasp what it was all about. I mean, who the heck actually pays for fans to come to a weekend event and talk to the devs and play the game? I’ve heard of invite-only events or public events that you had to arrange your own expenses, but this was the first I’d personally heard about where the company in question actually paid for the fans to show up. That’s not a tiny chunk of change either, since it involved airfare and hotel rooms and such. Still, I went to PAX with the notion of simply connecting to someone who was a friend of the family and perhaps getting a little bit of hands-on with the game, and I had their big panel on my schedule (which I missed, but I had a great reason for it, honest. Yes, there was alcohol involved).

Wait, did I say friend of the family? Yes, yes I did. I should probably explain for full disclosure’s sake. My half-sister Donna is in the industry, even though she’s currently between jobs, and she knows nearly everyone in community management. To make things very very strange, there are people in the WildStar community who know her that I’ve known longer than I’ve known I had a sister (hello, Packetdancer!). Still, one of the many times I stopped by the WildStar booth and watched the videos, Scooter was busy at their main computer station, so I left him alone because he was working. One of his colleagues came up to me and started chatting, as one would expect to see at these things. Spot someone interested, chat them up about the game, do a bit of a sales pitch, have you signed up for beta yet, etc. etc. etc. Given that I keep a moderate eye on how male game reps approach female gamers (particularly ladies who don’t fit the definition of ‘conventionally attractive’), I was pleased to see none of the behaviors that I’ve witnessed (or been subject to) at other booths over the years was present here. This gentleman whom I’d never met before was enthusiastic about his product, asked me questions that didn’t insult my intelligence or assume I was interested in the buying the game for a male member of my family, and it was a pleasant conversation to start off with.

Then a most hilarious thing occurred. Scooter practically leaped out of his chair as if rocket-propelled and bounded over to us like an overeager puppy. To his colleague, he gleefully said, “You’re not gonna believe who this is!” while pointing at me. Since most of my experiences at PAX tend to involve hanging out with people my sister either worked with or knows from the tightly-knit community manager circles (I joked I should have my business cards printed up to say I was her sister), I guessed aloud that this had to do with her, since there’s absolutely no reason for anyone else at Carbine to know who I was. Scooter’s colleague burst out laughing as I wearily noted that yes, I was Donna’s sister, and asked how he knew her (since it’s a running gag between she and I that she knows everyone I know in some other fashion). Come to find out, Scooter’s colleague and my sister go way back. Apparently, he’d hired her for her first gig in community when he was working for Flying Labs Software on Pirates of the Burning Sea. He proceeded to invite me to their party that evening and offered goodies and told me about the playable demo at the party and just went on gushing for awhile.

And that was how I met Aether.

Now, there’s a point to all of this. So far, WildStar has been riding a cresting wave of good vibes. The PAX party was a success even though Aether still owes me a drink, and a whole bunch of us got our grubby little mitts on the game during the party and played the hell out of it, Datix far more than I did (and indeed, that’s where I met Datix too!). Mostly the game press has been positive and the majority of fan reactions to the negative press postings have been mature. Still, now that the game is starting to surface on more people’s radar, we’re starting to see the negative aspects of video game fandom show up in greater numbers (although to be fair, they’ve been around as long as the first fansite, WildStar Central, which launched in 2009 – waiting four years now for this game). Some people complained when Aether posted a bunch of pictures of the Carbine staff acting a bit goofy, complaining that they weren’t slaving away at the game. Others are handwaving it and calling it ‘too cartoony’. Already, people are dismissing the game as being a ‘WoW clone’ after perhaps seeing a couple of gameplay videos (if that), or calling it ‘too cartoony’ for their tastes. On the other hand, I honestly don’t care if the game is innovative in and of itself, although we already know via official releases that the game has some planned features that no one else has and Carbine has quite frankly created a rather ambitious set of goals for themselves. If they make even half of these goals, it will be a most excellent game.

I’ll admit to some worry that when the game finally launches, there will be a backlash if things already previewed aren’t in the game, even though I understand more than most that sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Gamers are a rather fickle lot by and large, and even a small thing can set people off. There are certainly no small number of truths to the fact that many gaming communities are rather toxic places, with a vocal minority often overriding the quiet and reasonable majority, and the official forums are generally the last place one would go to find information. So far, we’re not seeing that here, and I can’t honestly imagine as swift and savage as the reversal of the overall tenor of fan commentary like happened to Star Wars: the Old Republic shortly after their launch. For one thing, WildStar has the benefit of not being as overly hyped as SWTOR was, and the bigger issue is simply the fact that it isn’t a beloved 35-year-old franchise with a rather volatile fanbase to begin with.

Still, it’s my belief that this game, even if the launch goes poorly, will do very well for itself. The greatest innovation I see out of this studio is one that will win them fans more than anything else, even more than the quality of the game itself. The sheer amount of interaction with the community is amazing to me, and I’m interested to see how Aether, Scooter, and their colleagues continue their work once things get closer to launch and more of the inevitable negative press happens. I say this is amazing to me because despite the fact that Aether and Scooter are both friends of my sister, we never really discussed them, and I still see this more objectively as a fansite writer who has had call to gently point out problems with other games in past publications.

We’ve seen a glimpse of how Carbine has let them off the leash that most game companies keep their dev teams on. When someone shamefully posted the entire beta patch notes in direct violation of NDA, Carbine’s reaction was very classy. They turned it around and made it clear that such behavior wasn’t cool. They understood that once information gets out, there’s no real squelching it on the internet, all you can do is own it in some fashion. They’ve also made comments that begging for beta keys isn’t cool (even if we’ve churned out the euphemism of using ‘bacon’ in place of ‘beta’) and that people who beg for keys are going to be added to a list of Naughty Nexians, implying that folks who are chill about it are more likely to be rewarded. They’ve launched a Pay It Forward campaign where fans can nominate themselves or other fans for their positive behaviors in and contributions to the community to possibly get beta keys. I like the gentle reminders that good behavior gets rewarded and that bad behavior will be punished, either by bans from beta or a lack of the highly-desired beta key.

Carbine also lets their devs talk to players directly, rather than filtering everything through Community like most other games do. I’ve had more chatter with composer Jeff Kurtenacker than I have had with any previous game’s composer (and in fact have his Soundcloud page in the background as my writing music). The fact Carbine lets him publicly post his compositions in advance is a tremendous boon to those of us who appreciate a game’s soundtrack. We see Jeremy Gaffney posting all the time on the various fansites. The folks were actively courted by Carbine at the EU Arkship, and I can’t honestly remember any time a major MMO went out of their way to have their devs talk to the roleplayers. As much as I adore SWTOR and give them more of a benefit of the doubt than most, they didn’t actively encourage the RPers, even though they have officially-designated roleplaying servers.

Perhaps what MMOs need more than features that other games don’t have yet (and will eventually copy) is a different way of running the business of making a game. By being more open with their players, actually proactively going out and posting on fansites and reaching out the way Carbine is doing, that sets a rather high bar for other games to match, but I think it’s a good thing. Anytime a game makes an effort to lessen the feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the hard line between fans/players and devs, that’s very much a positive for this community and it will only serve to strengthen the loyalty of the players and increase the maturity of the fanbase itself.

Written by: Jean Prior

4 Responses to "New Friends and Why WildStar’s Best Innovation Isn’t the Game Itself"

  1. Geldarion says:

    You are exactly right that they are turning the tide and making devs allies of the players. I have never understood the “us vs. them” mentality, but I think it will be practically non-existent in Wildstar.

  2. BlackWolf says:

    Excellent post! I truly enjoyed reading this and I wish everybody could see how awesome Carbine is towards their fans. I can only say you nailed it with this article.

    I talked to Troy at Arkship EU myself and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he loves their fans! Wish every fan could see this.

  3. JarNod says:

    As someone who was lucky enough to get into NA Arkship I can say that what keeps me interested in WildStar isn’t just that it looks like a fun game. It’s the community surrounding it. Now, we won’t always get along or like each other, but we’re respectful to each other and that’s what’s important.

    I firmly believe that the reason the community is so good is because of Carbine. We, fans, get our pointers from them. We learn how to treat each other through their good graces. Troy is infectious with his exuberance for the game. David provides that oh so needed troll attitude. Everyone else plays just as hard as they work (and they work HARD). I can’t wait to see what happens.

    • Packetdancer says:

      Exactly. Carbine’s built that rarest of things: a genuinely good community.

      In general, I’ve noticed that even people who post giant screeds on fan-site forums about “what I don’t like about what we’ve seen so far” have generally done so in a polite, even constructive manner. Which just kind of blows me away.

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