Developing a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game is a huge risk. Not only are they expensive to create and maintain, but they're entering a market that's constantly expanding, gunning for consumers who only have so much time and money to invest each month.
So when Colony Studios announced at the beginning of the week that it was working on a new MMO, it knew a first impression would have to last. But rather than swamp us with unrealistic expectations and promises, it decided to focus on the past achievements of its team.
The key to success, Colony believes, will be its experienced personnel, which counts former members of the World of Warcraft, EVE Online, City of Heroes, Dark Age of Camelot, Lord of the Rings Online, Everquest and Ultima Online teams among its number.
And while fantasy bucket-loads of start-ups seem to fall over unseen hurdles, Colony is confident and shrewd in its outlook, having learned from its shared past. Having sufficiently piqued our interest, we caught up with Colony Studios boss Mike Wallis to see what will make his game stand out.
Eurogamer: Colony Studios was formed with a different approach to MMOs in mind - are you convinced there's a lot wrong with the current model, then?
Mike Wallis: There is nothing wrong with the current model of MMOs. It's just that the whole "whack monster pińatas and take their innards" model has been raised to a level of excellence that, frankly, we don't wish to compete with.
In order for us to be successful we need to introduce new ideas and new mechanics to the genre, or we'll potentially become lost out there amongst all the noise of competition.
Eurogamer: A particular area of pride for you has been your vastly experienced team, which is made up of members from nearly every successful MMO we've seen. How large is Colony Studios now, and how big will it have to become to develop a full-scale online world?
Mike Wallis: Currently there are 10 developers (those of us actually working on the game). We also have a business/finance guy and an IT admin, so in actuality we have 12 staff at the moment.
The projections for the size of our full production team come in at around 60 full staff, of which 48 or so are actually on the game, with the rest being administrative support, QA, community management, etc.
We're able to achieve the results we are aiming for with a relatively smaller team because the technology we are using allows us to create and add game assets easier and faster, thereby reducing the overall headcount requirement.
Eurogamer: Focusing on the positives rather than the negatives of current MMOs, presumably a certain amount of your game will be familiar to existing fans of the genre? What sort of ideas are you incorporating, or planning to build upon?
Mike Wallis: Well the genre is rather wide reaching. There are games like WoW which are mostly about personal gains and to some extent guild fame and accomplishment. Then there are games like EVE where a more free form PvP centric approach is implemented.
Will our game be familiar to MMO players? Yes, absolutely. We're not going to create something unfamiliar to players, for it would be counter-productive.
As far as ideas we are planning on incorporating, there are just too many to get into at this time, but one constant we keep in mind is that we want our players to feel united within the game world. Our game won't be about keeping up with the Joneses.
Eurogamer: Some observers argue that we're moving towards the end of the first generation of MMORPGs. What's a next generation MMORPG going to look like compared to something like WOW?
Mike Wallis: Well, technology has a lot to do with what is and what is not a "next generation" title. Take a game like Doom for example. It's a first person shooter. Then Quake comes along, it's a first person shooter too, but it's now in a 3D engine. The game mechanics are basically the same but the experience is drastically different because the technology has advanced.
We hope to take advantage of current technologies and base our design around them - our requirement won't be that players have to purchase a new computer and graphics card to play our game.
Do we feel we are creating a next generation MMO? I would have to say yes. Will our game look like WoW? In some ways yes, but in most ways no.
Eurogamer: Where does the inspiration for your new project come from? What style, effect, and atmosphere are you aiming to emulate or create?
Mike Wallis: Our inspiration comes from a collection of very talented and experienced people who want to see the MMO genre pushed to new heights. As far as style, effect, and atmosphere are concerned, we are a tad early in development to answer that question, but we'll definitely cover that in the near future.
Eurogamer: It seems that every MMORPG either has to be science-fiction or high fantasy, with orcs and elves. Why did you pick sci-fi?
Mike Wallis: We did consider basing our MMO on the trials and tribulations of living during the 1950s. The constant fear of being nuked or the earth being attacked by aliens or nuclear waste creating giant insects and the dreaded realization that it is 4:00 PM and you have no idea what you're going to cook for dinner... Just kidding.
We are going with a sci-fi game because the members of Colony Studios are all sci-fi fans and feel that there is room for a great sci-fi MMO out there. We really want to give the players a sense of scale and the sci-fi genre can deliver that scale. Think galactic conquest and huge fleet battles.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned that you're using the same Hero engine that BioWare Austin has licensed for its upcoming MMO. We've also seen many other console games being built on third-party software, particularly Unreal Engine 3. How important is middleware for MMO developers now, and do you think the days of in-house technology are coming to an end?
Mike Wallis: There will always be a need for in-house technology development, no question about it. Some developers feel more comfortable working with a technology they've created.
We did an exhaustive search when looking at various middleware technologies. We looked at Gamebryo, Unreal 3, Big World, and Multiverse, but ultimately chose the Hero Engine. We wanted a technology that would allow our team to hit the ground running, enabling us to have game assets and basic scripts on screen in a timely manner. That was an important factor for us at Colony - we were not in a position to spend months or a year developing our own technology.
There's a place for both production paths. We chose the established technology route because, as a company looking for venture funding, developing an MMO is risky enough, so we made an early decision to help mitigate some of the development risk early on.
Eurogamer: Is your MMO going to be based around statistics, equipment, and levels?
Mike Wallis: It shall be based upon destruction, pwnage, and pie! [laughs]
Actually, it's a bit early to get into the progression paradigms, but we feel we have a cool wrinkle on how a player progresses in the game.
Eurogamer: A big area you seem to be concentrating on is huge PvE and PvP battles. Isn't the fact that the two groups have to be segregated a bit of a problem with modern MMOs? Shouldn't it be possible to incorporate players with different objectives and play styles into one setting?
Mike Wallis: It should be possible to incorporate all play styles into one setting, and we feel that we can pull it off. The trick is allowing players to have the freedom of choice to play the way they want to with or without other players, and more importantly, we as developers telling them what they can and cannot do.
Our philosophy is that MMOs are fun because they offer players the freedom of choice that other games just cannot deliver.
Eurogamer: Some believe World of Warcraft's success comes from being accessible and relatively simple to play - allowing younger gamers to reach and enjoy end-game content. Who are Colony's target audience, and is it unrealistic to ignore the mass market?
Mike Wallis: We feel strongly that if we underestimate our audience we will do a disservice to them as gamers and as thinking people. That being said though, we plan to offer a wide variety of game mechanics that range from simple to complex.
Our target audience is anyone who wants to lose himself or herself in a game whose content is dynamic and alive. If players are looking for a controlled environment, there are a slew of other MMOs out there that offer such an experience.
Eurogamer: Other games have been criticized for having a stagnant and repetitive feel in the end-game, but it's something you've said you're confident you can overcome. How do you plan to keep players engaged and your content fresh?
Mike Wallis: We will allow players to impact the content. This means that content isn't simply spawn timers and NPCs with icons over their heads. Content is the virtual universe the players live in.
If the universe changes because players eliminated last week's threat, consequently making way for an even larger threat to emerge, then... Well, you get the picture. We are investing in AI designs that react to player actions and perform accordingly.
We also fully expect for our PvP gameplay to provide unlimited hours of enjoyment for those players who thrive in that environment.
Eurogamer: When do you think we'll see the first glimpse of the game in action?
Mike Wallis: We should have some very polished screen shots and gameplay video within the next six-to-eight weeks. Stay tuned!
Thanks to Mike Wallis and Colony Studios for chatting with us. You can find out more about the upcoming game on the Colony Studios website.