Friday, December 21, 2012

Developer Perspective: Mizz Smarty Pants

 Most of our readers dont have the backstory of our attempts to get an interview with former Zipper Dev Mizz Smarty Pants. Trust us when we tell you we have literally tried for years to get her to sit down with us. When she was still working for Zipper, she wouldn't budge in regards to giving us an exclusive or inside info. Having moved on to brighter pastures, she finally agreed to sit down with us to talk a little about MAG, but mostly about the forthcoming experience we call Dust 514. In this piece shares her early opinions on spawning in Dust 514, why communication and chain of command could play a more pivotal role, and how giving commanders real gameplay tools could truly revolutionize the tactics of the game.

1. You were listed as a software engineer, but what exactly did you do at Zipper?

Basically I wrote C++ code all day long.  Specifically I designed and developed the code that made the matchmaking system work the way the game designers specified.  I also worked on the party/group system and implemented the code that tracked the Shadow War scores and awarded the contracts, as well as assigning and enforcing the bonuses associated with the contracts.  My days are spent thinking about how to write the code, writing the code, then testing and re-writing until it works as intended.
 2. To the community you had many unofficial duties as well. Tell us about them.

Well, my community involvement started during our early beta phase.  Since I was working on the matchmaking system, I was heavily invested in making sure the players could get matched into a game smoothly.  This was prior to Jeremy Dunham getting hired on at Zipper, so we didn't have any official community management people in the studio.  Any time someone posted something about a problem they were seeing, I really wanted to talk to them and get more info so that I could have a better chance of getting the issue fixed.  So I requested the ability to post as a developer on our forums, and surprisingly it was granted.  From there, I began to feel a strong connection to the MAG players.  I'm a gamer too and I know how frustrating it is when some stupid problem gets in the way of having a good experience.  Then once my name was out there, I started getting messages or forum posts pleading to me to help with character deletions and things like that.  I really hated telling someone I couldn't help them, so I would do all I could to fix the problems or forward the problems about map issues to the level designers.  This led to the creation of some admin tools to fix user problems, including restore deleted characters, which was the most popular request I fielded.

I also played the game on a regular basis and would often talk to the players and just listen to the complaints about the game.  If I heard an idea for a change that I felt would truly make the game better, I would take it to the design team and figure out if we could get the change made or some variation of it.  Some of these ideas made it into the game, for example, the multi-queue feature was added so that a player could pick a few game types to queue for and get placed in the one that came up first.

3. What are some of your early thoughts on Dust 514? Have you played it yet?

There are actually a couple ex-Zipper people working on Dust 514.  I first heard about the game when the first of them took the job.  His comment was something like "I'm moving to China to basically make MAG for CCP."  I laughed at the joke and thought he meant that in a much looser sense.  I finally hopped into the game a few weeks ago and seriously thought it felt a lot like MAG.  More so than any other game I've ever played.  I had a blast and played just as terribly as I always did in MAG and laughed just as hard as some of my best MAG games.  A couple days later I messaged my two former co-workers and told them I was very jealous that they got a second chance at making MAG.  

4. You had to have noticed how similar the Dust and MAG control scheme are. Do you think MAG influenced Dust in some fashion?

My opinion is that MAG is one of the primary influences for Dust and that the control scheme is just one piece that is similar.

5. Have you ever played EVE? Do you intend to?,

I played a trial account, but didn't get into it at all.  I was hooked on WoW for many years and since I've gotten clean I've had a bit of an aversion for MMOs.  :)

6. You had to laugh a little inside when you saw how early CCP developed a tutorial [MAG was often criticized for not showing new players how to play].

Absolutely.  But it also made me happy that they seem to be addressing the things that MAG was lacking.

7. Dust 514 has a serious learning curve when you compare it to contemporary shooters. MAG was also a game ahead of its time. Can this sometimes work against concepts that try to push the envelope?

I feel like a lot of gamers want a game they can pick up and already know how to play.  And there's really nothing wrong with that.  I've been guilty of this many times myself and in fact, I used EVE's huge learning curve as an excuse to avoid actually giving it a fighting chance to hook me.   And teamwork in a game is not really the norm.  So a new player hopping in and playing lone wolf can easily get frustrated and blame their poor experience on the game itself.  I would hope that the training in Dust will help prime the new players to understand how this game is different from all those other popular shooters on the market and how the play experience can be much more rewarding overall if they make the effort to play together as a team.

8. There have been early reports of a large number of redline fests in beta. What do you think CCP can do to improve the matchmaking in retail?

With MAG, we had always talked about having some skill-based or at least level-based matchmaking in the game to help make matches much more fun for everyone involved.  And that was part of the reason why we had the level limits on the game types.  It was intended to keep the solo lowbies out of the more advanced game types until they had a chance to play some of the "easier" game types and gain experience.  We also had some logic we referred to as "squad matchmaking" that at one time was planned to put the lower players on one side of the map together against the lower players on the other team.  But once we saw how the 3 factions and the multiple game types split the population up, it became clear that trying to do anything that would further split up the matchmaking population would only lead to people waiting longer to get into a game.  Also, the parties threw a monkey wrench in the works as well, since they could consist of a wide array of levels and skills.  With the size of our game types, we felt it was best to limit the number of moving parts as much as possible. Ideally, CCP would figure out a way to make that work in a way we chose not to try.

9. The spawning in Dust leaves much to be desired at this stage [especially in Ambush]. Do you think sometimes its best to go with the standard 'safe' spawn area?

That has certainly been one of the most frustrating experiences with my Dust game play so far.  I really am bad at shooters.  In a one-on-one fair fight, I can very rarely come out on top.  But when I spawn somewhere and am getting attacked before I can even get my bearings, I have no chance whatsoever.  I found myself wishing for MAG's nice safe spawn areas.

10. How important is marketing to a game like Dust 514?

Marketing is important for any game.  Single player games have the benefit of being able to be purchased a very long time after release and still provide the same gaming experience as it did at release.  A game like Dust or MAG depends on having a solid player base online to make the game play rewarding.  So, these games really need to have a strong marketing campaign well before release so that even day 1, there is a good population playing.  The sooner players can truly see the fun, the more they will pressure their friends to play with them.  But you need to get those day 1 purchasers to know about your game and to give them a reason to want to buy it on release day.  Also, I strongly believe that MAG would have done better if we'd had our demo version of the game out when we first released, rather than a year later.  

11. There's so much revisionist history when it comes to MAG where people remember the game being better than it actually was. While its potential was awesome often the execution was lacking. There were also a number of flawed mechanics many players miss because they'll never see them again: knifing, sniping with LMGs, poor weapon and map imbalance. We find it refreshing that none of those are issues in Dust. Whats your take?

Well, I agree that there were a ton of things that we could have done better with MAG.  There were a ton of things that we didn't prepare for.  For example, at launch we didn't have any way of patching a map without forcing the player to completely re-download the entire 1GB+ map.  Many of those issues we faced would require massive changes to our code to fix.  And anyone who's ever worked in software development can tell you that making a change can often have a ripple effect that causes other problems.  So by the time we discovered some of these things, we really had to pick and choose our battles.  It also didn't help that we had 2 games in development simultaneously, so we didn't always have engineers available.  I was one of the lucky ones -- I was dedicated to the MAG team, even after release.  We had some engineers who went from crunching two years straight on MAG to then go crunch for another year on SOCOM 4.  

All that being said, I know that we learned a lot from MAG and I think every one of us on the MAG team would have done a few things differently had we known what we knew by the end.  So I'm really glad that Dust is using MAG as an example of how NOT to do things just as much as they are borrowing from the things that worked well for MAG.  I'm looking forward to playing and having just as much (if not more) fun with fewer of the frustrations.

12. With that said, MAG's player counts, grouping, friendly fire, chat system, chain of command, talking indicator and vehicle handling were almost perfect. We find ourselves hoping CCP emulates many of the things Zipper did right. What about you?

I'm intrigued by the chat system that Dust is doing.  I like the ability to text chat, that's super nice.  And I like that they offer the UVTs so that you can create your own voice channels.  To me, that's simply brilliant.  But from my dozen or so games I've played, I didn't notice being able to chat with anyone else in game other than those in my party.  I hope that's not going to be the case when the game comes out (or I was just grouped up with the only people with mics.)  I loved being able to taunt someone via prox chat.  And even the really annoying OICs who never shut up made for some interesting stories.  

I also think so much more could have been done with the chain of command.  One of the things I would have loved to see in MAG was the ability for OICs to be able to direct a squad to a different spawn point.  How awesome would it be if an OIC could take one squad each from 3 platoons and direct them to spawn in the same quadrant of a Dom map with the platoon that wes already spawning there?  Each game would be truly different from the last, depending on how the attacking OIC chose to deploy the squads.  The defending OIC would need to constantly adjust and re-deploy people to cover the problem areas and the game would truly be a test of leadership skill.

13. Our real excitement comes from the implication that we'll be able to login to Dust and do much more than shoot people. The MMO elements that will allow us to talk strategy at our corp HQ, organize practices in our virtual trainers, check the Corp WarChest for good assets, visit the gladiator arenas or even just visit a tavern on the other side of the galaxy blows our mind. Do you think aspects like this can change shooters forever?

I don't know.  I'm just happy that there are companies like CCP that are willing to take chances and push the boundaries of shooters. I'm always interested to see innovation in gaming, even if it it doesn't turn out to be successful.  The game industry is pretty small, so innovative ideas that don't work in one place often end up getting improved on and included elsewhere.  Without taking risks on things that may sound crazy or too difficult makes the market get pretty stale.

14. How important is the ability to follow friends and corpmates into matches?

I think this is vital.  We didn't have it in MAG for a while, although I honestly can't remember if we implemented it in time to be in release or if it was added in a patch.  I was playing Guardians of Middle-earth (which is a super fun game and everyone should try it!) recently and was frustrated that I couldn't follow my friend into a match.  I understand why the limitation is there for that type of game, but I still just wanted to be able to do it!

15. What does it say to you that Dust 514 will probably be in closed beta for longer than a year?

I think it's fantastic.  I owe a lot of MAG's success to the length of our beta, which was long by most standards.  I know that CCP has a lot of extra complications with Dust 514 since there is the whole EVE side of things, so it's encouraging that they are taking their time to make sure everything is done right rather than rushing the game out. 

16. For those interested in shooting you in New Eden, how can they find you?

The name I'm using and suspect I'll continue to use whenever I have to re-create my character, is Smartia Pantzia.  I'm in the Pink Fluffy Bounty Hunterz [PFBHz] corp, which is part of the Rise of Legion alliance.  I've not had a lot of time for gaming lately and I have a lot of games competing for my attention, so I'm not playing on any regular schedule right now.  But I would like to point out that people have always enjoyed killing me, like it's some sort of badge of honor.  But, trust me, I'm easy to kill.  The real bragging rights belong to the ones who play alongside me and manage to keep me alive a little bit longer.  That's the true test of skill.  :)

17. In some sense Dust 514 seems like the virtual successor to MAG. Whats your opinion on some of the things CCP is trying to accomplish overall?

To be honest, I've been impressed with everything I've seen and heard about Dust 514.  I think they set themselves a very ambitious goal and from what I can tell so far, they are kicking ass at achieving it.  I'm honestly jealous I'm not involved with it.  But then again, I'm ok with not moving to China.

18. You work in the gaming industry, what one thing would you offer to players of the shooter genre as a better way to understand the developmental process?

Game development isn't an exact science.  There are a lot of things that seem like a good idea on paper and sometimes even work well during internal playtests.  But when the game gets out into your hands, all hell breaks loose and strange problems that were never encountered in a playtest show up.  Seriously, you people are crazy with some of the things you tried to do in MAG, especially with the vehicles.  We game developers are passionate about what we do.  But, no matter how much fun the job can be, it is still a job with sometimes insanely long hours and impossible deadlines that someone several levels above your head has committed to for some insane reason.  Things fall through the cracks.  Sometimes very large, game breaking things, sometimes little annoying nit-picky problems.  There is nothing more annoying to us than finding these problems after release and not being able to fix them right away.  

19. Say CCP comes to you regarding features to add. What three things do you make sure Dust 514 has at launch?

Well, to be fair, I haven't played it a ton nor have I been reading up on their plans.  And I know this isn't CCP's first rodeo.  But, in no particular order:

Voice chat in game, including proximity chat.  

Good server/replay logs of games and lobby activities and tools to be able to get at them easily.  When a report comes from user Tommy2Tall that he was running past a vehicle, shooting his AR just as a grenade was tossed behind him and then suddenly everything froze up, it really does help to be able to locate the logs and replay file from that game, pinpoint the event, replay the game in the debugger at that point and squash that bug.  Time spent upfront on those types of tools really pays off in the end.  

A good customer service plan.  How do players report problems with their accounts?  Can deleted characters be restored and how?

20. In shooters we still see a large number of players that play solo and completely ignore the objectives of certain game modes. How would you address this?

Well, I'm not sure there's all that much that can be done.  I think having the ability to kick someone from the game is a good fallback option that should be present in any multiplayer game.  MAG offered some carrots (bonus XP, run speed bonus, passive healing) to those squad members who were near their leader or objective.  In theory if you can make those carrots juicy enough and make it obvious when and why you are missing out on getting them, then I'd think there would be less of the lone wolf mentality.  But there are always going to be the players that just don't care about the rewards and would rather do what they want. 

21. If you could offer any advice to CCP what would it be?

They seem to be doing just fine without any input from me.  :) 

22. We like to end all our interviews giving you the opportunity to share anything you'd like. The floor is yours.

I'd like to thank you and all the other MAG fans out there for making my experience working on MAG so rewarding.  I currently work with a few other Zipper people and we all look back quite fondly on our days working on MAG, but I usually have some of the best stories to pass on from my time playing with so many of you and exchanging forum posts or PMs.  I hope to go on to make other games I can be equally proud of, but since MAG was the first released game I worked on, it'll always have a special place in my heart.


  1. good read!!! give em hell MSP!!!

  2. she make a good point on letting the PL change spawns. give leaders the tools to be effective.

  3. anyone who plays this game knows prox chat and better spawning are needed. GG CCP.

  4. notice she said this gm needs prox

  5. had no clue a few zipper guys went to work on dust

  6. she also said we need to be able to follow friends into matches.

  7. ambush spawns are still bad

  8. Great read...Thanks to my favorite dev, clanmate and good friend, MSP. PSN chats FTW

  9. prox chat, better spawns, bigger groups and customized sights FTW

  10. going to need a better clan than PFB to keep u alive vs EV.

    1. LOL at EV...The buffet of Corps

    2. I'm sure PFBHz would be more than happy to vs any of your alliance clans ev they always are up for a good fight.

    3. Already handled STB once this month and happy to pick up any other EV corp contracts.

    4. in the words of Dougie fresh...Its on like donkey kong! *prepares spear*

      Is this anon from another EV corp then STB? Hope so for your sanity's sake :)

    5. From the words of an EV corporation "We don't corp battle anyone unless they are in our alliance"


    6. EV still exists? How many loony twenty page manifestos does it take to not suck at a console FPS?

    7. Why fight a buffet... Apparently EV corps are not even an alliance anymore, but think they are some kind of buffet. lol

    8. The Entropy Virus is NOT an alliance.
      The Entropy Virus is NOT a coalition.
      The Entropy Virus is DEFF a buffet.

      But yes, confirming they refuse to fight other corps unless they are part of their..... well. buffet. since they claim to be nothing else.

  11. kick from squad FTW!!!

  12. Smartia Pantzia bounty incoming :)

  13. Very informative interview MSP :)And yeah hit on good points on what can enrichen Dust more, especially proximity chat (make a game more vibrant/living when you are constantly reminded by voices around you that you are playing/bantering with other people). But also yeah something as simple as follow friend into a game is such a practical must in MP games.

    And was fun playing withya for sure, especially cuz keeping one self alive around you was lolsy *shudders at remembering your ninja TKing knifes*

    1. Lol. I was just talking about that with someone! We were talking about controller layout and the subject of what to put on the plungers came up and I mentioned how I often accidentally hit those, especially the right one. To back up my claim I mentioned how I had a reputation for knifing people after I rez'd them. A former MAG team member was there and made sure everyone knew I wasn't kidding.

    2. thanks for all you did Mizz Smarty Pants! we have our fingers crossed for prox and some of the other things you mentioned.

  14. How 'bout that. I learn a little about software engineering today. I didn't know you had to redownload an entire map just to change one little thing.

  15. Good stuff MSP.
    DUST will still suck though. CCP can't make a good SHOOTER.

    1. Sure... I bet you think CoD is a good shooter. lol

    2. Well you're an obvious fanboy. LOL
      CoD is rubbish. Somebody can't dislike DUST, justifiably, without
      being a CoD fan? k.

    3. No, it just tends to be the case that those who do not appreciate something of higher class, prefer the lower class.
      This is of course not always the case since those who prefer higher class things also tend to be more particular.
      Maybe you are part of the second camp. The odds though would make one put their money on the other if one was betting.

    4. Understood. Second camp then.
      Don't get me wrong, I don't outright hate DUST, I want it to succeed.
      It's simply not up to par as a AAA shooter though, so it will never
      be successful, playerbase wise. Here's hoping CCP can prove me, and a significant portion of FPS players wrong.

    5. u dont represent a significant portion of FPS players. most of them like the game. its not easy but F2P will help.

  16. Domination > Dust514, not even close to mag at all!

  17. Proxy chat! Please listen CCP, she is one of the people who actually knows what she is talking about.