North Carolina start-up Neogence Studios announced Immortal Destiny: Edge of Empyrean late last year. This new fantasy MMO that hopes to carve itself a niche in a crowded genre. CEO Robert Rice took the time to answer our questions at great detail and thus we bring you his interview in two parts.
Answers by Robert Rice (CEO/Exec. Producer, Neogence Studios)
Questions by Dana Massey
Editor's Note: This is part one of a two part interview. For the second half click here.
WarCry: Having written a book on MMOs, you've clearly studied the genre. Talk about your influences and things you've seen done well and not so well in this genre.
Robert Rice: Hrm, I would have to say it all started in the early-mid 80's when I was exposed to games like D&D, Star Frontiers, Paranoia, MegaTraveller, Twilight 2000, and others. At the time the Atari 400 and 800, as well as the Apple IIe, were available in schools so I had some early exposure there. All of this together opened up my imagination quite a lot, and a few of my friends and I were endlessly designing our own games, making house rules for the RPGs we were playing, spending hours and hours poring over the source books and modules, and of course being fascinated by computers and what they could do. Over the years things just got better obviously...the incredible Amiga, kick ass games on the Commodore 64, and so on. I remember wishing I could play games like Bard's Tale with other people and how awesome that would be. Anyway, I got my first break in the early 90s with a company developing virtual reality arcade games and then someone introduced me to William Gibson's Neuromancer and a sourcebook for Shadowrun called Virtual Realities. They blew my mind. I realized at that point that I wanted to build immersive worlds. I decided to go for it in 1994 and launched my first venture into online games and MMORPG development in 1995. That failed miserably for a lot of reasons (long story for another time) but I learned a hell of a lot.
To answer the second part of your question, I think that our industry has come a long way with visuals and graphics, and definitely scale. Games like Eve Online and World of Warcraft are amazing accomplishments when you compare them to the state of things ten years ago. On the other hand, it seems that even while the industry is growing, it is also stagnating and in some cases declining. Innovation and originality are the rare exception, and the rule seems to be generic clones with little or nothing really new. I saw a comment on a blog the other day that said that CRPGs weren't worth making or playing anymore because they were the same thing as MMORPGs, but those were multiplayer. I realized that the commenter had it a little backwards...CRPGs are awesome in their own right, and you can do a lot that just wouldn't work well in an MMORPG, but it seems that most MMOs are nothing more than CRPGs with a fancy networking backend. I would argue that the industry is still stuck in a primitive state like a hunter gatherer society...you kill stuff and you collect loot. That pretty much sums up the majority of gameplay. Is the industry afraid to leap into the agrarian age or the industrial age? The one thing that is so utterly appealing and awesome about MMORPGs is the potential of what you can do with thousands of people in a shared environment. High level content, raids, quests, sure that is all fun, but you can have the same thing in a CRPG or even a good old lan based version of an RPG. There is SO much more that can be done, but everyone with money is afraid of the risks of innovating, so we end up copying other things that have already been created with minor variations. I would even go so far as to say that MMORPGs hardly have anything to do with role-playing anymore.
WarCry: Since UO, many games have tried open skill systems. How do you hope to balance it and avoid "tank mage" syndrome?
Robert Rice: What is wrong with a tank mage? While this goes against the grain of the typical Tank/Caster/Healer stereotypes that we have become so used to that it would shock a designer to even contemplate something new, there is nothing wrong with the idea, provided that it was designed properly. In a skills based system, you deal with individual skills, not classes. A class could be defined as a set of skills and abilities that are specific to that class and are usually balanced. Designers that try to make a skills system and create it around a class concept (unintentionally I would assume) will end up with templates that are overpowered, imbalanced, and that everyone copies (or "flavor of the month"). In other words, they remove the class, but still have "tank skills", "mage skills" and "healer skills". These are then balanced the same way they would balance the classes, which opens up opportunities for the min/max crowd to come in and create a legitimate character type, a tank/mage, and obliterate everyone they come into contact with. Another problem that usually occurs, is adding a bunch of relatively useless "fluff" skills to the game that have little impact and really aren't worth learning unless you are bored, or you got tired of the "high level" content and want to start over and try something new.
Instead every skill in a game should be useful and important. The player must really consider whether or not they should focus on a few areas and excel in their specialities (sacrificing competency in other important areas) or try to generalize and be fairly good at many things. The tank mage might be able to hold off 200 orcs and cast fireballs all day long, but they probably couldn't navigate their way out of a barn with no walls, or a snakebite could kill them in a few seconds. With all of the focus in MMORPGs on killing creatures and other players, and collecting loot, the only skills that people are going to be interested in are the ones that are directly useful in doing both. With a better and more holistic approach to building a world, making all skills useful, and a host of other things, a open skill system has a lot of potential to work, avoid imbalance, and open up a tremendous amount of other gameplay possibilities.
Fully answering this question would take a lot more space and would involve talking about a variety of other design issues and game systems. Maybe I'll blog about it in depth.
WarCry: You also promote unfettered PvP and full looting. This again has been tried a few times. How do you hope to balance your desire for open PvP/looting with your ability to reach a wide audience?
Robert Rice: Ah, good question. Most experienced gamers are familiar with the old enmities between PvP players and Role Players (usually referred to with the unflattering name of "care bears"). I think the big problem here is that it is a real pain in the neck to get ganked out of the blue by some player much bigger than you are, and not be able to do anything about it. The power disparity between characters of different levels totally makes things unfair for the smaller guy, and they usually have very little recourse to do anything about it, unless they belong to a militant guild that will go on a manhunt at the slightest provocation or drop of blood spilled. The two common solutions that comes up frequently to deal with people complaining about harassment or whatever, are 1) separate servers...one for PvP and one for Role-playing, or 2) a "opt in" PvP mechanic (or PK flags, whatever). The first is a ludicrous solution in my opinion. Both elements are necessary in a ROLE-PLAYING game. Splitting them apart is like giving someone the choice of eating a plain pizza with no toppings or cheese, or a plate with the toppings and cheese, but no sauce or crust. The second case isn't so bad, but it tends to terribly penalize players in some situations. Imagine hanging out with your girlfriend in some game or another and a guy comes up and starts talking smack and generally being rude. Sure, you could ignore him but he is still dancing around and giving you dirty emotes, or you could report him for harassment (great way to make friends), or you could ROLE PLAY and defend your woman's honor by teaching him a lesson at the point of a sword. Uh oh, you are now marked as a PvP player and fair game for a bunch of other hoodlums, or you suffer a PK penalty (watch out for the city guards). All lame.
The answer here is to implement mechanics that give players a chance for revenge (hiring bounty hunters for example...also a good case for player created quests), filing a grievance with NPC police (resulting in a short term jail sentence or a fine?), or maybe some non-combat actions...why cant I silence the guy for a few minutes (no chatting with anyone, no emoting either), or simply tie him up and drag him into a nice quiet corner where I can pummel some sense into him. Of course these sort of things bring in some other issues in terms of balance, power disparities, and so forth, but we have some really nifty solutions here (sorry, can't talk about them yet). Characters also need to be able to make their own safe zones. Simply saying "no offensive magic allowed in town" is a rather lazy way to address the problem. I would much rather have spells that can temporarily create a magic sanctuary for a limited time in a limited space where nothing offensive can occur, or introduce other ways to avoid or get away from attacks. Being able to hide or camouflage (no auto targeting...if I can't see you, then I shouldn't know you are there) is one thing, another is changing how combat itself is done. If everything is decided by who attacks first, or who has better gear, then that is not good enough for me and really limits player options.
Anyway, to answer the question, any player should be able to attack any other player anywhere and at anytime, but players need to be able to get away or get revenge fairly though game mechanics, working with other players, or simply avoiding it to begin with. Implemented properly, open PvP should enhance role-playing opportunities, not ruin them.
This is part one of a two part interview. For the second half click here.
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