Bulgarian developer Masthead Studios considers its PC MMO Earthrise to be different. The sci-fi setting is not space-based but rather post-apocalyptic, and there are no levels or pre-determined classes, but a free-form skill system. Quests and story have also been pushed to one side; more than half of the world will be given over to open player-versus-player combat and fierce, strategic wars for territory and resources. Being different makes all the difference - at least, that's what Masthead chief Atanas Atanasov told us when we sat down for a chat with him recently.
But we've heard this all before, and we've seen braggers like Tabula Rasa open and close in the blink of an eye. Can a newly-formed Bulgarian developer with no track record really hope to launch a subscription-based MMO and stand a chance against the Blizzards, CCPs, Turbines, Funcoms, NetDevils, and BioWares of the world? Atanasov believes he can when Earthrise (hopefully) launches later this year.
Eurogamer: Sci-fi MMOs don't seem to do too well. Star Wars Galaxies struggles and Tabula Rasa sank; only EVE Online has made a really significant contribution. What's going wrong?
Atanas Atanasov: There's lots of ground for improvement in the sci-fi genre. It isn't the IP, but game production problems. I don't want to comment on specific titles, but it's important for fans to see a game stick to its original promises - the game they wanted to play.
Eurogamer: And what are your promises?
Atanas Atanasov: We're not going to release Earthrise before all the promised gameplay features are included. We're designing a skill-based game, we will have crafting in a much more advanced form than other games, and we'll have PVP action. Once those gameplay features are in place we will release the title. We don't want to skip any of those things because we've promised them to our fans. And that's the first thing we're planning to do differently.
The second thing is that the game design and concept is a bit different. For example, the skill-based system and the crafting are not very popular at the moment, and they offer a different approach for an MMO. Then there's the post-apocalyptic setting itself with some sci-fi themes, which is also very unique in the genre; most of the sci-fi MMOs so far have been space-based, with spaceships and planets. The action of Earthrise is based on the planet Earth after the apocalypse.
Eurogamer: A bit like Fallout 3?
Atanas Atanasov: Yeah. Fallout but with more technology, and, I would say, more creatures which are not just humanoid mutants.
Eurogamer: And who was responsible for your apocalypse? Was it those mean Americans?
Atanas Atanasov: Haha. It wasn't America, it was our writers! They came up with the idea by saying there will always be a super-power on Earth - the Roman Empire, the British Empire - and that around 700 years from now something goes wrong and causes everything to start again. Our Third World War happens and only a handful of people manage to survive on Earth, and everything starts over. That's where the title comes from: Earthrise.
Eurogamer: My old history teacher used to say the Third World War will be fought with sticks and stones. He was a bit crazy - or maybe he meant we'd blow ourselves back to the Stone Age. Is that what you mean with "everything starts over" in Earthrise? Will I have to throw stones at aliens?
Atanas Atanasov: Ha! When designing the title we wanted to add more technology than typical post-apocalyptic settings because it brings more fun to the game. And we're designing a game, not writing a movie or a book. We want our players to have more fun with big weapons and blow up things, and use all kinds of special attacks.
The sticks and stones that you mention are very limited.
Eurogamer: I've read that there will be both online and offline advancement in Earthrise. How does that work?
Atanas Atanasov: The offline advancement has been misunderstood. It's not the EVE system where skills and abilities advance offline. We had a completely different idea. The whole character advancement is done online, and the offline gameplay is compensation for those people who haven't got much time to stay online; those people who have to skip a week sometimes. We don't want them to lag behind.
It's a more advanced version of the rest system in some MMO titles, and we've added more material benefits for those people who don't have the time to play too much. For example, they will earn money and some items while their character is offline. But that money and those items will not affect the gameplay too much.
The player skills and the player abilities will advance online.
Eurogamer: Is your skill-based system a bit like Ultima Online's?
Atanas Atanasov: It's similar in some ways, but we've also added game design from more recent titles. We've added the possibility for players to learn all the skills in the game, so the limitation is not a pool of skill points, but the gear the character wears. For example, if you have a Medikit with you, you can heal; if you have a big gun you can use the abilities for a big gun. And pistols can use those abilities, too.
Eurogamer: So the skills go up as you use them? And what about levels or classes, are there any of those?
Atanas Atanasov: There are no classes in Earthrise. No levels, also. And we have taken a different approach to the way the skills advance, which I cannot comment on too much because we're still in beta. We will try to offer a very interesting approach based on character actions, because skill advancement through use gets very repetitive and boring. We wanted to make it more fun and more attractive for players to advance their character.
They will be able to do all sorts of actions, but they will have to make some decisions while doing those actions to advance their skill. It's up to the player to decide on what skill to focus rather than the system choosing based on skill usage.
Eurogamer: Won't that confuse people used to the level approach of World of Warcraft? Are you worried this might scare them off?
Atanas Atanasov: I don't think so. Actually, it's much easier to advance in our game because they don't have to pick the class from the beginning. Players who don't know the game or the genre can be very confused when choosing a class.
Eurogamer: Another key area for the game is PVP. Who's your game for, the hardcore or the casual crowd?
Atanas Atanasov: The PVP system is not designed for hardcore players only; actually a lot of casual players enjoy PVP. The problem comes when the hardcore and the casual players collide. We've got an insurance system to help with this and there are some secure areas on the island for those who don't want to take part, or want to learn the game more first.
Those players who don't want to PVP have their part on the island. They can be crafters and they can fight with monsters if they stick to the big cities. If they stray into the more dangerous places they will have problems if they don't know how to react. But both casual and hardcore players are welcome.
Eurogamer: How much player-versus-environment content is there, then? Is there a big story, are there lots of quests, will we be raiding later on?
Atanas Atanasov: There are hundreds of types of monsters, and lots of humanoids and robots in the PVE content. The quests will be focused more on the zone itself. There will certainly be one main quest or storyline, but we won't focus much on this subject. Players in Earthrise can switch their affiliation at any time and go to any zone and do quests for different factions there.
Every single faction has a different outlook on the world so the story of Earthrise will be told from lots of different perspectives. Earthrise is more of a sandbox game. The limitation will be how much time you have and what direction you travel, not what level you are.
Eurogamer: What's the endgame vision of Earthrise?
Atanas Atanasov: We're designing the endgame as a more PVP-oriented experience with territory conquest. Almost half of the island will be a very dangerous zone where only the strongest players and guilds will survive. It will be a place for those who are really looking for the endgame, where territory ownership changes overnight, and where the most precious resources are. It's a kind of strategy game where you build your own base and then go and conquer the base of the enemy.
Eurogamer: And is the focus on group play or solo play?
Atanas Atanasov: A single player cannot take over a whole base! But if you want to be the most successful player killer or the most wanted bounty hunter or if you just want to be famous, you can do it yourself.
Eurogamer: The economy and crafting system are other big areas for Earthrise. What's so special about them?
Atanas Atanasov: It will be very different to the games where crafting and player trade is not that importan because the best items come from raid monsters. We have designed the economy in a way where crafters will be the most important production team, and the monsters will only drop the resources for items. Everyone will need to either be a crafter or have a crafter as a friend - or just have a lot of money to buy those items. We expect that the players will run the economy themselves and decide what's precious and what is not on the market.
Eurogamer: Is Earthrise going to be subscription based?
Atanas Atanasov: Yeah. We're planning for a subscription-based game because we want everyone in the game to have the same experience. We don't want to limit content with restrictions. [The price] will be similar to other games.
Eurogamer: Is the MMO market quite frightening to launch into, given how quickly a game such as Tabula Rasa can come and go?
Atanas Atanasov: This is not a real threat because, firstly, the market keeps expanding, and secondly, there are always players looking for something new. If the new title is attractive to them they can either pay for both MMOs, or leave the other one.
Eurogamer: Have you got a publisher for Earthrise?
Atanas Atanasov: We're negotiating some terms at the moment. There's no single publisher we're talking to, but we've had talks with some interested parties. But I can't give information on that.
Eurogamer: How long have you actually been working on the game?
Atanas Atanasov: This is the third year right now. We started at the end of 2005, so a little more than two years.
Eurogamer: And you're scheduled to launch this year, is that right?
Atanas Atanasov: Yes, that's right. But it wouldn't be in the first half.