Max Schaefer is the operations chief and co-founder of Flagship Studios. Flagship was created by Max, brother Erich, Bill Roper and David Brevik after they all left Blizzard North, where they had worked together on the two Diablo games. Its first game, the anticipated online action-RPG Hellgate: London, released last year to mixed reviews. Flagship is now working on Mythos, a colourful free-to-play MMO with very Diablo-style, fast-paced, top-down action, which we rather liked when we tried the beta.
Though nearing completion, Mythos has undergone some major changes in recent months, not least the re-engineering of its "Overworld" into a single online space shared by all players on a server, bringing it closer in design and feel to a traditional MMO than its action-RPG roots. We spoke with Schaefer about the reasons for the change, the prospects for the game, and what Flagship has learned from Hellgate's difficult birth.
Eurogamer: I keep hearing that Mythos started out as a network test for Hellgate: London, but it's odd that you'd hired Travis Baldree [creator of the similar Fate] to work on it, if it wasn't going to end up being something like this.
Max Schaefer: We actually did conceive the idea as purely a network test for Hellgate. When starting Hellgate we were starting from scratch - no tools, no graphics engine, no network technology, nothing. And we wanted something to do a dry run just to prove our technology and make sure that we'd ironed out as many of the kinks as we could. However, the status of Mythos being just a network test was relatively short, it was pretty early on in making it that we realised this really should be a game on its own.
Eurogamer: When did the decision to make it in the mould of Diablo and Fate come about?
Max Schaefer: That was right away. We decided that we wanted to go back a little to a gameplay style that we were very familiar with, so we could pretty quickly and easily generate a compelling experience for people to actually test this stuff, and in a way that was efficient to make. A lot of Mythos is about efficiency of production. Computer games, especially MMOs, cost so much to make and take so long, so anything that you can do to increase the efficiency of the process is just going to help you out. So since it was just going to be a test first, we thought we'd stay relatively simple, use a Diablo-style camera, relatively simple, cartoony graphics and concentrate on gameplay and features, more so than complex graphics and the latest technologies.
Eurogamer: Are there likely to be significant changes before it's released, something on the scale of the Overworld, or are you now sure this is fairly much like the shape of the game?
Max Schaefer: I think as far as things you can look at and can point at the Overworld is going to be about as significant a change as there is. However we do want to flesh out several areas that we feel the game is fairly thin with right now, particularly social features, guild support, group play and social things like that.
Eurogamer: Interesting you talk about the social aspect, as when I'm playing it I do get this sense that, though I'm aware of other players on the server, it does feel somewhat like a single-player game.
Max Schaefer: We kind of want to ride the fine line on this one. A lot of people prefer to play a game that's a social MMO but to play on their own, so what we want to do is have a reason to be social, a feeling that you're in a crowded world, but maintain the ability that if you just want to go out and do some quests on your own and not group up you certainly have that ability as well.
Eurogamer: Presumably the social aspect behind the game was the thinking behind the Overworld update?
Max Schaefer: Yeah, like you, we got the feeling when playing it that it was sort of a Massively Singleplayer Game. So we started thinking, do a contiguous overworld since we had the structure anyway - there was a town and then there was an overland and a dungeon. We figured we could take the overland area and make it work the same way, but put everyone out in it.
It actually frees us up in a lot of ways. It lets us do more explicitly exploring quests, we can refer to more cardinal directions like "go west from the lake", and it lets us do some things that we really couldn't do before. The main thing is that it puts you out in the world with a lot of people. And it doesn't seem to feel as fractured to go into the dungeons if you've walked all the way across a big continuous world to get there. I really can't wait to get the Act II and Act III versions of the Overworld in. I think they'll look spectacular when they go in.
Eurogamer: Has there been any hostility towards the Overworld? For instance, I noticed the instant travel stuff wasn't as instant as it was...
Max Schaefer: Yeah, there are mostly little quibbles. People say "I like it but there's this one little problem I'm having", and a lot of those things we've been able to fix. Overall the response has been wildly positive to it. Obviously when you've got hundreds and thousands of people playing a game there's going to be some who don't like it, but generally it's with respect to travel times. Eventually we'll also have mounts and things like that to reduce travel time. We don't want it to be a game where you have to walk 20 minutes across the ground to get to where you're going.
Eurogamer: That brings me to what I wrote about in the preview - that tagline of 'Mythos is fun.' I was curious that you felt you had to specify that your videogame is fun.
Max Schaefer: Yeah, it's a strange point, but I think it's kind of an accepted fact that a lot of MMOs are not fun. It's fun to build a character and it's fun to be in a social world and it's fun to meet your friends, but the play isn't very fun. And people kind of view the monster-killing and levelling as a grind, as something that you have to do to get your guy built up. The treadmill to get there is not generally fun in these games. So what we want to do in our MMOs is make that part of the game fun, make it fun to go out and kill monsters and find loot.
Eurogamer: There's really something of a buzz around Mythos now, and presumably for that reason. Is it likely to eclipse Hellgate in importance for Flagship?
Max Schaefer: I think there's always a little bit of mystique to a game that isn't released. You always get a bit of boost by not being out yet. But I do think that Mythos is probably more in the middle of what gamers want - it's a little bit more broad-based to market, it appeals to more people. Hellgate is a little more hardcore. You have to be a real gamer to be really effective and play it. Almost anyone can play Mythos. Your mother can play Mythos, your grandmother can play Mythos. As such, it has such wide appeal that I wouldn't be surprised at all if in the end it was a bigger product than Hellgate.
Eurogamer: Speaking of that broad appeal, while I know there's also a lot of Fate in there, it's hard not to make World of Warcraft comparisons in terms of the art style. Is that part of being calculatedly aimed at a large audience?
Max Schaefer: We have a principle of 'familiar novelty'. So you fire up the game and it looks comfortable, it doesn't look intimidating, it looks approachable, it looks like you don't need to crack open a manual to find out what's going on. But it has enough new stuff to it that it feels like it's a new product. So we need to strike that balance - it's comfortable but it's new.
Eurogamer: Do you ever find you're batting off attacks saying that it looks too much like WOW or it plays too much like Diablo or another game?
Max Schaefer: Actually the general reaction we get is that people are relieved by that. It's a little bit of a chore when you fire up a game and you have to learn a whole vocabulary for it. People play these games for a release from reality, for recreation, to relax. And yeah, there's a place for tons of kinds of games, but I think in the end the vast bulk of people want to play something that's fun and they can just understand.
Eurogamer: But is there any concern about scaring off a vocal minority who demand endless novelty?
Max Schaefer: Certainly there is - you don't want to be too derivative and you want to have enough new exciting stuff that people are interested. We have no interest in remaking Diablo, or remaking WOW, or Fate. We want to come off as something new with new gameplay experiences. What you're playing right now in the Overworld is the first act that we've made, and it's probably the most derivative of previous games. As we go with the game, we're going to be able to get more off the beaten path.
Eurogamer: Is there stuff you've learned from the Hellgate launch you're going to be able to bring to bear on Mythos' development?
Max Schaefer: Oh yeah! [laughs]. If we made a mistake with Hellgate, it was trying to do too many things for too many people. We wanted a cutting edge graphics engine, we wanted multiple business models with subscriptions and free play, and single-player, we wanted to combine third-person play with first-person play, we wanted to do random 3D levels, and when you're starting with a brand new game studio with very limited budget and no existing technologies, that was probably biting off too much. We ended up rushing it to market and not keeping it in the oven long enough, just out of necessity.
We learned from that, and going forward as a studio, it's a new emphasis of ours to do things that are more efficient and better-planned, and smaller teams on smaller projects so we can get more ideas out there. With Mythos we're definitely taking our time, we're well within our budget and our means to make it. It's a little bit of a turning point for us - don't try to do everything for everybody. Just be more realistic about your design goals. Bring it back to nine tenths instead of ten tenths and things will go much sooner.
Eurogamer: At least you've only got one payment model here - free with optional micropayment items. How are you going to make these items appeal to people without granting them a major advantage over non-paying players?
Max Schaefer: We do make a reason for you to buy items, but we don't want it to be necessary to have them, nor will we take the fun out of finding items. So we're not going to sell the best sword or the best armour - we're probably not going to sell any swords or armour. What we're going to do instead is cosmetic things - funny hats and cool shirts, that sort of thing. We're going to provide service-orientated things like being able to buy bigger Stashes or shared Stashes among your accounts, but then for gameplay itself what we're going to sell to people is things like maps to dungeons that have more luck. So you'll get slightly better drops in that dungeon, and maybe 15 per cent more experience.
What's cool about that is you can bring your whole party there, but only one person has to buy that map, so you can have a bunch of people benefiting from the purchase of one guy. Part of the free and item sales model is that you have to benefit both the free players and the paying players at the same time. The map model is really good for that. You still have to go out and find your items - you still have to kill the monsters and complete the quest. We give you a little bit of a boost in doing it, in the item drops and the luck, and that's the sort of thing we want to concentrate on - indirectly benefiting your character.
The item sales rely on it being a compelling free experience, because the free players support the paid players, by providing the community, by providing the items that the paying player wants to buy from them. We expect there to be the majority of people who never buy anything, that's just generally the way it goes with these games.
Eurogamer: Do you think it could ever be the biggest MMO in the world, given all the buzz and that it's free? Does it have a hope of taking down the big boys?
Max Schaefer: You always hope that something like that will happen, but it's so unpredictable. What we really want to do is come out and provide a solid alternative to these games. We're under no illusions. WOW had ten times the staff we did, took three times as long, had twenty times the budget - and those are pretty talented, hard-working guys as well, so to think that we could go straight head to head is probably unrealistic. However, what we can do is target it better and we can find out what the core gaming experience that people want is and really try to hit that. I think that the free model and the item sales model give us the potential to capture a lot more of an audience than if we had gone with a boxed product and subscription model.
Can we take down the big boys? I think we can take down some of them. And I'd like to put a dent in the others.