Launching a new massively multiplayer game is a task fraught with difficulty. Apart from all the usual concerns about quality and stability, there's also the question of server hosting, managing payments and user accounts, and of course the bigger problem of keeping thousands of gamers simultaneously occupied without allowing the fantastical veneer to crack and flying shards of unreality to pierce the experience.
Honestly, we'd probably expect anybody taking charge of one to wind up a jibbering wreck, cocooned in a foetal position beneath mountains of over-eager forum thread printouts and barely capable of muttering word likes "NPC" without shaking uncontrollably. After all, it doesn't just need to work - it has to be different enough to stand out from the likes of EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, Asheron's Call and countless others, all of which are vying for continuous payments from the same core market.
The Saga of Ryzom, however, seems to be having little trouble. At present, creative director David Cohen Corval reckons there are 70,000 players contributing to its current run of beta test, and with the game now due out in September, we quizzed the man (who also doubles as CEO of developer Nevrax, no less) about what makes the difference.
Eurogamer: What would you say sets The Saga of Ryzom apart from something like EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot?
David Cohen Corval: Although it has a few similarities, Ryzom has a very different character to those two games. Ryzom is really about a story and a world in motion, it's not a static world that you just visit and consume and then nothing more happens. The world is always evolving; it's not predictable like the world in EverQuest. It has a bit more in common with Dark Age of Camelot in the way the game pits realm against realm, but in Ryzom the story will play out differently on each server depending on the decisions the players make, the missions they take on and the alliances they make with the two powerful factions in the game: the technologically superior Karavan and the magic-using Kami.
The world of Ryzom keeps expanding, but it remains being about the same big plot: 'Who are the Kami and the Karavan?' And 'Who do you want to support?' You will have different kinds of missions and means, and little by little players will see that they are having a real impact on the story evolution and the shaping of the world.
Eurogamer: How long have you been in development now?
David Cohen Corval: The game has been in development for over 4 years now but the first year and a half was really dedicated to research and development. We had to start everything from scratch and by 2000 we had a mini pilot game called Snowballs, which allowed us to validate our technology choices and come up with more design ideas. This allowed us to get more financing (because we're venture capitalist backed) and then we could progress with developing what we now have today.
Eurogamer: You've stated that each server can follow a different path in terms of story progression - how will this actually work in practice?
David Cohen Corval: The world will physical change depending on the actions of the players on each gaming shard. The amount of resources they gather will have an impact on their local environment and the beahviour of the creatures that live there. Also the missions they take on and how successful they are will dictate the skills and technology that is unlocked on each shard. When players complete a quest and uncover some secret knowledge they will get the opportunity to share that knowledge with others, and thereby get lots of 'fame' points or keep it for themselves for a certain length of time and try to profit from it.
The Game Masters on each shard will also be able to set up specific missions for the players and help craft the story and world a little differently.
Eurogamer: Given that players will be facing hordes of monsters at once, is it safe to say that Ryzom is a game best suited to grouping?
David Cohen Corval: Yes it is. Ryzom is very much designed for groups. You can become a high level mercenary who hires themselves out to groups to take part in certain missions, but you won't get access to many of the quests and missions if you aren't in a guild. Players will be able to join guilds for short periods of time in order to get access to these missions, but we expect about 90 per cent of players to have full-time guilds, because that way they can invest time in them, maybe help set up research and development or even have a bar.
Eurogamer: What sort of artillery-class weapons can we expect to see?
David Cohen Corval: We have a lot of distance weapons that fighters can use like machine guns and rocket launchers, these are quite heavy but can be operated by just one player. Later in the game we will be putting in other weapons that have to be used by several players at once. That's the cool thing about Ryzom; at the start it resembles a Medieval fantasy but later you start to have the strong influence of technology and also the presence of magic, so it offers the players a wide range of experiences.
Eurogamer: We like the sound of the Modular Action System [note to readers: it allows you to build up your own custom Actions by using a combination of component actions like spells, special attacks, crafts, etc] - presumably that was a difficult thing to balance out? How many combinations do you think there are in total?
David Cohen Corval: The Modular Action System has been a true challenge in terms of production and balancing. It's like a box of Lego and we have to make sure everything fits together properly. There is still a lot of testing that's being done at the moment because we don't want players to be able to create overpowered actions. At the moment it's hard to tell just how many actions are possible in the game, but there are thousands!
Eurogamer: Players will be able to achieve a sort of hero status by performing certain exceptional feats, and access certain storyline missions this way. How will these missions differ to the average day out in Atys?
David Cohen Corval: Well one example of a storyline mission might be that your guild is called to the main city of your race and told by the Elders that they want you to go on a quest to recover a box containing ancient knowledge. You will need to gather together a group to form the convoy; maybe hire mercenaries and also build the big extracting equipment that you'll need to dig the box up.
Then it might be wise to set up a decoy convoy because there'll be certain groups trying to stop you getting hold of the knowledge. Once you've traveled to the area, probably during the hours of darkness to avoid being seen too much, fought your way through the creatures on the way (crafting ammo on the fly) you'll have to extract the box and get it back to your capital city. Then when you've got it back you'll have to assemble magic users who will be able to cast the right spell to open it! Then when you get the knowledge you can choose whether to share it or keep it for a certain length of time.
Eurogamer: Will players ever be able to control characters from races other than the four homin races? In an expansion pack, perhaps?
David Cohen Corval: Yes they will be able to do so. There will be other civilizations to discover in expansion packs and also spin-offs of the core civilizations such as nomadic versions.
Eurogamer: What form will the various ongoing updates you've mentioned take, and how regularly can we expect to see them?
David Cohen Corval: We will be releasing big patches for the game twice a year and bringing out a new expansion annually. We will also be giving GMs different features to allow them to set up in-game events every month using the instantiated territories.
Eurogamer: What sort of degree of character customisation is possible in Ryzom beyond simply changing clothes and so on?
David Cohen Corval: In the game players will be able to unlock the skills that allow them to change their hair and tattoos (which you can only normally do when you create a character at the start of the game). They will also be able to shape their character quite individually by the skills that they buy and develop throughout the game. You only get a few basic skills when you enter the game, because we didn't want players to be hampered by their initial choices. So if you train as a fighter and then decide you want to learn magic you can just start doing it, you don't need to make a new character.
Eurogamer: It's obviously a very impressive game, visually - what sort of system spec would you say you need to get the most out of it?
David Cohen Corval: The recommended specs are: 2GHz Pentium or equivalent processor, 512MB RAM, 5GB of hard drive space (the game installs some temporary files at the start but when it's full installed it takes up 4GBs) and top notch graphics card. Also a broadband, cable or ADSL Internet connection is recommended.
Eurogamer: Will there be any time-specific events in-game? For example, special festivals or holiday celebrations, which have proved popular in other MMORPGs and online games?
David Cohen Corval: Yes there will be but we still have to give our GMs the tools to be able to do this. We've looked into the real-life celebrations like Christmas or Halloween, which will be different depending on the country you live in, and there will also be game-based celebrations that commemorate the great battles of the past.
Eurogamer: You're currently in open beta - how is that going? How has the game been received so far?
David Cohen Corval: We're happy with the way things are going, we've currently got 70,000 people worldwide subscribed to the open beta and about 30 per cent of those are playing it all the time and that figure is growing.
Eurogamer: Your website mentions servers located in Germany, the UK and on both coasts of the US, each capable of supporting 5000 players simultaneously. Will you consider adding more servers if it proves very popular?
David Cohen Corval: Yes, definitely. At the moment we have two US shards, two German ones, one French and one English and we have two more standing by.
Eurogamer: Will you consider making servers with specific provisions for PvP and so on?
David Cohen Corval: Yes there will be servers for PvP and for role-playing.
Eurogamer: When is the game due out by current estimates, and have you finalised a monthly fee yet? If not, do you know roughly what people can expect to pay?
David Cohen Corval: The game is scheduled to be in the shops in September. As far as price goes we haven't decided an exact figure yet but we're going to follow the trend which is about EUR 49.99 for the box copy and EUR 12.9 per month subscription.
Eurogamer: Finally, do you have any plans to license out the RAID engine technology to other developers?
David Cohen Corval: We have open source technology which covers things like the core 3D engine and some of the AI, but that doesn't in itself make a game. We also have the Ryzom software itself and it is possible that we open source the client of the game when we are sure that it's clean. We would like in the future to be in a situation where we might be able to offer commercial help to those who want to build games based on our technology. The RAID engine is totally engulfed in the game itself so it's very difficult to separate it from the game because it's tied into things like the magic and combat systems, so it would have to be the whole package.
The Saga of Ryzom is currently scheduled for release in September.