What's Obsidian Entertainment - the respected single-player role-playing game maker - doing dabbling in Russian free-to-play MMOs?
There's Skyforge, a fantasy MMO, and there's Armored Warfare, a tank MMO. And both are partnerships with powerful Russian online company Mail.ru.
"Mail.ru and Obsidian had a working relationship around Armored Warfare ... that relationship was up and running. And it was out of that relationship and that discussion that the idea of collaborating on more than just the one project came about," Eric DeMilt told me - he being Skyforge development director at Obsidian.
He joined Obsidian from WildStar developer Carbine about a year ago, though he knows Obsidian leader Feargus Urquhart from high school, "a million years" ago, he joked. DeMilt helms the Skyforge project from Obsidian's end.
But whereas Armored Warfare is a game developed at Obsidian (bizarrely enough), Skyforge is a game developed in Russia by Allods Team - the studio that made the big budget and shimmering but shallow Allods Online (see our review).
"We want to make sure we're accurately representing our role on the project," stated DeMilt. "[Skyforge is] being developed by the Allods Team. They're the primary developers, they're doing the heavy lifting. It's definitely an Allods Team game in collaboration with Obsidian."
So what's Obsidian doing for Skyforge?
Three things: providing a gateway to the American public and industry; helping Westernise the game; and creating actual game content.
"When you invest this much in developing titles you want them to be a success worldwide," DeMilt said. "You can't just look at your home territory and say 'this is all we're doing'. Allods was a huge success for Mail.ru and the Allods Team in Russia, and in many other territories, but it wasn't the success they'd hoped it would be in the West.
"There were a lot of factors for that, some of them to do with development culturalisation; some of them to do with miss-steps on the publishing side. So when they were looking at doing this new project, they wanted to take steps to ensure it would be a success worldwide."
Being a gateway means leveraging the decades of accrued experience the Obsidian team has, and using that to hook Allods Team up with US talent, or to advise the team about what kind of game content works in the US. Having those culturalisation conversations early in development is far easier than when the game is proverbially boxed and ready for export.
The five people in-house at Obsidian are also helping build extra game glasses and instanced content as well. The rest of the Obsidian studio is there for occasional feedback and to bounce ideas off, too. "It's not like we're just operating in a vacuum," DeMilt said.
Some of those five were hired especially, some were already at Obsidian - a studio with a lot on its plate (Pillars of Eternity, Armored Warfare, Skyforge and another Kickstarter project we don't know anything about yet).
Ultimately, DeMilt would like the team to grow to "15 or 20" and the project to run for years and years. This isn't a fire and forget job - not a typical work for hire gig. It's a serious commitment for a 140-person studio - an independent studio with no owner to pay the bills. And clearly paying the bills is large part of this, because which independent studio wouldn't want a reliable recurring paycheck for years to come?
So what is Skyforge?
A bright and colourful, active F2P MMO. It's heavy on the action, easy on the number-pressing hotbar genre stereotype. "It's very immediate," said DeMilt. And you can become a god. Doing so will apparently bestow more than a fancy title, and there will be progression from younger gods to elder gods as well as god activities to do - and followers to impress. "It's not 'you reach a cap, I'm a god, now wait for the next expansion'."
Another interesting feature is the thoughtful time-saving one-stop portal to game content called the Divine Observatory.
Skyforge is free-to-play but it's been designed that way from the start, which usually means the business model makes a lot more sense than if it's shoe-horned in after launch. F2P is no longer the place were "MMOs go to die", DeMilt said.
So when's it out?
Good question! Russia will be first and that territory is "really close" to closed beta. DeMilt preached a "when it's ready" mantra and was reluctant to stand by specific dates, but said he'd "love" for the Russian Skyforge to be in open beta by the end of the year. "Yes that's possible but no we're not committed to anything right now."
What about the West - will we be able to play Skyforge in some form this year? "Again, that's a goal, that's something we'd like, but it's not something we're saying 'yeah we're solid, we're locked in, we can guarantee it'. We'd like to get there - we're pushing hard to get there," he said.
Oh, and before you ask, consoles aren't yet part of the plan.