Cryptic Studios interview: Reflecting on 20 years of adventures, starships, and superheroes
Cyptic Studios has been around since 2000. It’s home is Los Gatos, California, a small suburb of San Jose. It’s near the heart of Silicon Valley, and for 20 years, it’s been a leader in MMO game development, changing and adapting to the times as it worked with its own franchise and those of other companies, such as Dungeons & Dragons and Star Trek.
This year, the studio celebrates its 20th anniversary. While it continues to release episodes and modules for Champions Online, Star Trek Online (it announced its 21st season today), and Neverwinter, it’s also preparing to launch its first game since 2013 with Magic: Legends, a more action-focused MMO take on the Magic: The Gathering card game.
CEO Stephen D’Angelo has been on the Cryptic coaster for 13 of those 20 years. In that time, he’s seen the studio change and grow, along with the MMO industry around him. While there, he saw Cryptic dodge an early bullet, pioneer free-to-play in the PC and console market, and work on some of the biggest IPs in gaming.
Of course, that’s no surprise for someone who, before he even started working on video games, had a career that dealt with paper gaming.
Over the summer, I chatted with D’Angelo about his time at Cryptic Studios. We discussed the company’s early history, from how it grew from City of Heroes, rebounded from a setback with Marvel, and built the success of superhero games into big partnerships with CBS and Wizards of the Coast for major brands like Star Trek.
This is the first part of a two-part interview, and it’s been edited for clarity and flow.
GamesBeat: I was looking up your career, and I saw you joined in 2007. What brought you to Cryptic?
Stephen D’Angelo: I have a background as a software engineer. I was doing multiple successful startups around the tech industry in the Bay Area. One of things I had been doing, moonlighting if you will, I was doing a lot of work in the paper game industry. I did a lot of work for Wizards of the Coast on Magic: The Gathering, as well as playtesting other pen-and-paper games they were doing. I jumped into the video game industry and joined Cryptic, a very dynamic gaming company, and I’ve been loving it ever since, more than 13 years now.
GamesBeat: I’m intrigued about your work on Magic and with Wizards and how that all relates to what you’re doing now. Cryptic didn’t have a partnership with Wizards when you were starting there, but now Wizards is one of your most important partners. Does that play into the past you’ve had?
D’Angelo: The work that we did with Neverwinter has actually nothing to do with my past. I had to do with Cryptic at one point being owned by Atari, which had the D&D worldwide licenses. But the Magic game we’re making now has everything to do with my long-term relationship with Wizards of the Coast.
We were sitting around one day, filling whiteboards with what we could be doing next, and someone said, why aren’t we doing Magic? I was face-palming myself. Why aren’t we doing Magic? We put together a pitch and I called the Wizards folks I know. I went up to Washington and sat down in the room, and the first thing they said was, Stephen, the only reason we’re doing this meeting is because of our history with you. We get pitches all the time for games, and we’re going to say no to yours like we say no to everyone. Don’t take it personally. All right?
Well, hear me out, I said. We did the pitch, and by the end of the meeting they said, damn, we want this game. Part of it is I got the meeting because of the relationship. Another part of it is, it comes back to this thing — I generally believe this: Know your IP and love it as much as the owner of the IP does, and you’ll make a better partnership out of it, make a better game out of it. We came in and pitched them something that represented the IP, and that got them super-excited in a way a lot of people who didn’t get the IP weren’t able to do.
Above: Stephen D’Angelo is the CEO of Cryptic Studios. He also has lots of cool ships in his cabinet.
GamesBeat: At what point in Cryptic’s history did that love for the IP become such a core part of making MMOs?
D’Angelo: It actually started on a game that never got published, which was the Marvel game we were working on. The team at Cryptic had a deep love of the Marvel IP. One of the founders, Jack Emmert, was hardcore into that industry. He knew everyone, touched everything. We were making a fantastic Marvel game. That’s what I got hired to work on. My first project coming in was Marvel. We delivered our playable prototypes, running through the X-Men mansion using real heroes. It was gorgeous. And the game got cancelled because Microsoft wanted to get out of the MMO business. Champions Online was our pivot on that. We had a whole superhero game, but we didn’t have an IP any longer. That’s how Champions came to be. All of us were pen-and-paper RPG fans as well, so it was a pretty easy transition for us. That’s where the love of the IP started, though. Then we got the chance to do D&D, and who can say no to that? I’d been playing D&D since I was 10. I’m a hardcore D&D fan. That was an easy sell.
GamesBeat: What was Cryptic in 2007? What was the environment there like?
D’Angelo: Let me see if I can tell a bit of the story. Cryptic was started by four guys who had a dream of doing this online game thing in 2000. There was very little that had happened in that space yet. They got City of Heroes out in 2004, and followed it up with City of Villains in late 2005. They were pretty excited, because City of Heroes and City of Villains had changed the view of what MMOs were quite a bit. They ended up having a long legacy in that era of games.
When I arrived in 2007, coming off that, they worked hard and got that Marvel license, and Cryptic was busy reinventing itself from that startup mode — we’re going to make the game we got started for — into, how can we turn ourselves into a company that can turn out games? They were looking for people with a lot more experience. I came with a lot of management experience. That was part of the reason they hired me. They were trying to build a top-notch team of people to go build games, and not just be a one-trick pony. I was in the midst of that transition, from being a 40-person company that made a couple of games into — by the time we got two years in, we were almost 200 people, two years after I had joined. I joined the company when we were about 75 people. It was a transition time for Cryptic, reinventing itself and making games. I tend to call this era two.
I think of Cryptic in four eras. Era one is the City of Heroes, getting that first game out. That experience, for the people who were there, is pretty common for people who make their first game, a new studio making its first game. It’s a lot of wild west, a lot of pouring passion and effort in. What comes out is exciting. That second era was trying to reinvent the studio as a company that could consistently make games. Out of that era, Champions and Star Trek were born. I got to participate in that, rebuilding the studio as — how do you make it not just be because we got lucky? How do you figure out how to make games reliably? Champions and Star Trek are the result of that second era, and there were some good lessons for the studio. We made a lot of missteps in there, as well as a lot of good steps. We learned a lot and built a couple of enduring games. Both of those games still run today.
I’ll do a bit more framework and then I’ll come back to the questions. Era three would be Neverwinter. Inside of that era two period, we brought Champions and Star Trek to free-to-play. We were learning markets and working with a publisher. We were going more worldwide, trying to understand that. Neverwinter was the first game we got to build already knowing what we wanted to make, already having markets in mind. We designed it for free-to-play, designed it for worldwide play. And again, taking that onto the consoles as well. That’s era three, the Neverwinter — going bigger and taking everything we’d learned to make a world-class title right from the get-go. Right now we’re on the verge of releasing Magic. I’ll call that era four. We’re taking the studio to new places.
Above: Champions Online
GamesBeat: I remember City of Heroes being pretty revolutionary with what it was doing at the time. What still carries over from there to what you do today?
D’Angelo: City of Heroes pioneered some gameplay ideas and some technology ideas that — a lot of them have permeated the whole industry since. One of the core things that you’ll see in City of Heroes that made people so loyal to it is they loved to visit the world. People today, anybody who’s played City of Heroes has stories about the world that were important to them. That’s probably the biggest lesson Cryptic picked up about making online game experiences. You have to start by making the world a place people want to visit. We all have real world lives. When we spend time in a video game, we like to spend it in a place we feel has depth and reality and is meaningful. That’s probably the biggest one that City of Heroes gave us.
But there are a lot of technology ideas in there too. The other important one for us that came out of City of Heroes was, they did something called sidekicking, which allowed anybody to play with anybody else. A high level player could bring a low level player to their level and go play content together. We tried to keep that model in all of our games. It makes it far more inclusive for people to play with their friends. It’s something that, forever, you couldn’t do in some of the mainstream games like WoW. A guy who’s level 10 can’t play with a guy who’s level 80. But in our games you can. That’s one thing we’ve carried forward.
GamesBeat: City of Heroes has so much fondness in the MMO community, especially the superhero community. Do you find people coming into Cryptic, working there or fans of your games, who say, you got me with City of Heroes, and I’ve been here ever since?
D’Angelo: Absolutely. City of Heroes has generated an immense fanbase. We have employees who came to work for us because they loved City of Heroes . We have plenty of fans who did the same. They come from that City of Heroes start point and realize, here’s a company trying to something that’s fun, that serves my nerdy, geeky love of fantasy and superheroes.
GamesBeat: How difficult was it for Cryptic to move from paid to free-to-play?
D’Angelo: The free-to-play transition was a tricky one. It’s something Cryptic wanted to do even before we launched our games, but there was less interest from our publisher at the time. When we joined Perfect World, they gave us the green light to do what we wanted to do, which was fantastic. But the free-to-play transition required you to rethink how you approach your customer. Subscriptions, it’s just, make sure you put out something new every month so no one quits. But in free-to-play, it’s different, because everybody who shows up gets to make a choice about whether they want to keep playing your game.
If your game isn’t fun, they’re gone. If what you’re trying to sell isn’t what they want, they don’t buy. In many ways going free-to-play makes you hold yourself to a higher bar. It’s a hard thing to do as a developer, to make a transition there and do it well. We transitioned Champions over first. We did not do as good a job with Champions. We did what a lot of other developers do when they go free-to-play, which is put buy buttons on things, take features people had and put them behind money. We took all of our content and made it act like DLC. All of our players hated it, and we ended up backing almost all of it out to get back to where the players were happy. But in that experience we learned a lot about what the players actually liked.
I was the executive producer for Star Trek when we brought Star Trek through its free-to-play transition. I feel we managed that one really smoothly. We launched all the free-to-play features just for our subscribers, and did that until our subscribers liked it. Then we opened the gates and let all the free players in. Working with the community was critical to getting a free-to-play model that worked. The engineering side is not particularly tricky. Making a new guild UI probably cost us more engineering time than the free-to-play transition UIs. When it comes down to it, a lot of it is just, we need a button here, a switch there, the store is a little different. Pull paid currency instead of astral diamonds or dilithium or something. The engineering side of free-to-play really wasn’t that challenging. It’s the design side that’s really hard.
GamesBeat: Did you think there’d be a lifetime for Champions?
D’Angelo: When we built our games, we had a very standard industry view. Probably an online game has a five-year life. That seemed to be typical of what we saw out there. A bad game typically had a two-year life and a really good one might go seven. We built that way, but we quickly realized that our games weren’t dying off. Star Trek Online is a great example. We’re partway through the 11th year. This year we’ll probably have revenues five percent worse than the best year ever. The worst year ever was only 20 percent below the best year. This is not an industry where you spike big, get your big sales, then everyone bleeds away in 18 months, if you keep adapting your games to your customers. That’s the lesson that is the heart of what makes Cryptic and its games successful. We’re constantly figuring out, from our community, what they want. We’re constantly trying to reinvent the game for them. They’re there because they love the world. You can see that in City of Heroes as well. How many people still will hop on a City of Heroes server — there are pirate servers out there — because they love the world? But the trick is to not let that world get stale, to let it keep growing with the people playing it. As long as we’ve been doing that, we’ve been keeping players. Thousands of people played Star Trek in its opening week who are still playing today.
GamesBeat: Do those player have several ship classes or ships in those classes, and they bounce around, or do they have one ship they stick to? Or is it a bit of both?
D’Angelo: This gets back to that evolution thing. People loved the game so much, and they would reach a point where they said, I still love the game and I want to play, and we’d give them a good reason to make a new character and explore it again, with some cool new rewards. Then we had to go and say, well, half our players have half a dozen cool characters they’re in love with. We have to make the game more alt-friendly. We changed our events. You could play once and get credit on all your characters, instead of having to play it six times. We had to continually listen to our customers as it evolved. But yeah, Star Trek right now, I’d guess the majority of our long time players have half a dozen characters with different backstories and experiences and ships they fight with, techniques. They switch between characters, between what they want to do that evening. It’s something they’ve invested a lot of time in. They’ve made it their own.
GamesBeat: The pivot you made from Marvel to Champions: Did you already have contacts with the folks at Champions? Or was it just that you and others had played the game and decided that was the one to move to?
D’Angelo: We already knew people. Again, that comes back to all the contacts in the pen and paper industry. That was a pretty easy transition. In fact, what we really did is — Cryptic actually bought the whole Champions IP, and now we license it back to the pen and paper folks. Champions, the entire IP is owned by Cryptic. We license it back to them to keep the books in print and keep developing the world. But it’s a Cryptic IP now.
GamesBeat: When you announced you were going to go with Champions, was there a lot of surprise?
D’Angelo: I think they got a good positive response to it internally, because we had a lot of pen-and-paper players, and externally as well. It’s a challenging IP to write for, though, because it doesn’t have as obvious a hook. It’s a great game system, but it doesn’t have as obvious a story hook. It was hard for people to play it and say, oh, I had the Champions experience I was expecting. Especially on that whole IP thing. That was a good lesson for us. The Champions IP, while it was deep and rich, there weren’t common hooks for all the Champions players to say, oh, I got my Champions experience out of this game. Even though they could recognize it as the IP.
Whereas in D&D, people had played in Ravenloft. People had run around Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms. They knew what a gnome personality was supposed to be like. There was so much that we could play off and people would say, yeah, they did a great job referencing D&D and what I love about it. But it was harder to do that with Champions. It was a struggle for the design team.
A new Trek
Above: Who needs science and exploration when you have lasers?
GamesBeat: Going back to Star Trek, at what point in development did you realize that your player characters weren’t as much the captains as they were the ships?
D’Angelo: To a certain extent we figured that out even before we launched. Players were in love with the ships. There were even people who argued we shouldn’t even bother doing captains. We should just have ships. But such a huge part of the IP is the captain and the away team. We kept that in the game and invested in it. But yeah, the real love for the player base is seeing those ships flying around space and being able to be a captain.
GamesBeat: Along the way, Star Trek really changed. The existing IP you had gone to spun off an alternative universe, and then later you had the CBS productions, which are very different from what came before them. How has that factored into maintaining the Star Trek the older people and the Star Trek newer people love?
D’Angelo: That’s one of the biggest struggles we had in making Star Trek. What is it? We would make a piece of content that felt like “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and people who loved that episode would cheer for us, and other people would say, this is terrible, Star Trek isn’t about this funny stuff. We’d make a deep, serious episode, and people who liked the funny lighthearted Star Trek would say, oh, that’s not Star Trek! The point is, Star Trek is a bit of everything. Between the original series and Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and Voyager and then Enterprise, and now we have the JJ Abrams movies and Discovery and Picard, Star Trek is a universe more than a storytelling style. We’ve tried to, like I said, give people an experience in that universe that captures the look, the feel, and the stories, but going for the diversity the universe offers.
GamesBeat: Is that still a challenge? When you take a look at what you did creating stories that take place after Voyager, but before what CBS has done with Picard? Was it challenging coming up with these things and keeping them consistent with what Star Trek is, but different from what’s going on in the novels or the comics?
D’Angelo: Our writing staff knows this IP backward and forward. We had an opportunity to work with CBS on story stuff. It was a true pleasure to carve out a space in the storyline and find all those dangling hooks and finish them off. Where did those 2800 Jem’Hadar ships in one of the DS9 episodes go? They disappeared and never appeared again. Where did they go? Let’s write that story. Those are just joys for us as a development team, because they resonate with the people who know the IP. They resonate with us. We can give them deeper meaning. The trick for us is to hold our writing bar high. That’s one of the things I’m super proud of with the Trek team, how high they hold that bar on the writing. The writing comes first. Art and gameplay are there to sell that story and make it meaningful.
GamesBeat: Does it help Star Trek Online right now to have this rejuvenation we’re seeing, with CBS All Access?
D’Angelo: I told you the game has had a pretty successful financial basis. But a lot of that does — it is helped by the fact that — we released in 2010. We got a movie in 2013, a movie in 2015, a movie in 2017. We got Discovery in 2018. Now we have Picard. The fact that CBS has been able to keep the IP in the public eye means a lot of people are looking up Star Trek and finding us. Our positive reputation as being good Star Trek — we now have somewhere over 200 episodes, more than any single series. It helps a ton that they’re supporting the IP.
GamesBeat: Does it also help you so that you’re not burning out your players with older stuff?
D’Angelo: Absolutely. Discovery was a breath of fresh air in telling different kinds of stories in different places. It allowed us to give a bunch of new threads to our customers and our players that are both new and familiar to them. It’s especially valuable for our newer audiences, who maybe aren’t as familiar with Jem’Hadar or what they are. But they can watch Discovery now and then see stories that are relevant to them. It’s been really good.
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