Exclusive Interview: John Smedley reveals Hero’s Song, his new open-world OARPG

Today, we finally learn what John Smedley has been working on since he resigned from his decades-long role at Daybreak.

The industry veteran has founded indie studio Pixelmage Games and is hard at work on Hero's Song, a buy-to-play, fantasy-based, pixel-art, open-world, PvE-focused action RPG that can "host thousands of other players" but will boast a solo campaign and allow private servers as well. The sandboxy feature set -- housing, character development, crafting, a world in flux -- sounds remarkably like an MMORPG, at least in its largest form. The studio has raised a million dollars in private investment already and brought together MMORPG industry veterans like EverQuest Lead Designer and co-creator Bill Trost and wildly popular and widely acclaimed fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. The game's Kickstarter launches today, and the game itself launches in October -- that's one year of development time from start to finish.

We spoke to Smed in this world-first interview on the game. Read on for Smed's thoughts on game funding, business models, permadeath, graphics snobbery, DLC, and just what genre this game really belongs in.

Massively OP: Can you talk briefly about your departure from Daybreak, what you've learned about yourself and the industry in the interim, and what you've been up to aside from this new venture?

John Smedley: I loved my time at SOE and then Daybreak. The team over there is really talented, and I miss them terribly and I still love their games. They are my friends and always will be. It was tough to step down, but moving on was the right thing for me. I've been doing the same thing for over 20 years (and in the business for 26), 15 of it while running what's now Daybreak. That's a long time to be in one place. It was a great time in my life, but I have other games to make that I just couldn't do while at Daybreak. I have a lot of confidence in the team running Daybreak and I stay in touch all the time. A big takeaway for me was exactly how hard it is to leave a place you helped to build, but what I've also found out is that there are great opportunities I can now chase that I couldn't before.

hero's-song5

I know you have some private investments lined up, but $800,000 in Kickstarter funding is still very low in a world where Star Citizen is setting an insane pace. How much are you expecting that budget to swell in the lead up to the October 2016 launch? If the money runs out, what gets cut first? How will you fund the game's completion if the Kickstarter doesn't fund?

We raised over $1M in private investment, and we have commitments for more if we need it. The entire game is going to cost around $1.8M - that's not a lot by a AAA MMO standards, but it is more than enough for us to make a really awesome game we think people are really going to like.

You're still planning a buy-to-play business model, right? Why go that route instead of subs or F2P? And what about your no cash shop rule? Do you think you'll make more money this way, or are you sticking to this model on principle's sake, never mind the revenue?

We are going with buy to play instead of any kind of microtransactions. To put it simply: I play a lot of games. I understand full well how people feel like we concentrate on the monetization too much. I just want to make a game. I want it to be simple. I want the business model to be fair and for our players to agree it's fair and I want that to be the end of the discussion when it comes to monetization because we just aren't going to budge on this. Life's too short to be arguing with people who want nothing more than to play a fun game and pay a fair price for it. You have no idea how liberating it is. Will we make less money? Who cares. Of course we will, but we're happy to go this way and aren't looking back.

You've said you'll have a core online game and allow hosted servers too. The servers hold "thousands" of people simultaneously and follow a lot of MMO tropes like deep character development, PvE questing, housing, world persistence, and crafting. Yet you've been careful not to call this an MMORPG. Could you talk about your thought process there? How is the game like and not like an MMORPG we're all accustomed to? Do you see OARPGs and MMORARPGs as the next phase in MMORPG and MMO development?

Our multiplayer allows for people to join a server, or host one on their own machine. It can hold thousands of players total with hundreds being able to play at any given time. What separates this from being an MMO? Not a whole lot really... except for one critical thing. What we've really made is a fantasy world simulator where the AI is moving the entire population of the world around in "smart" ways as opposed to a ton of hand crafted content that gets experienced once. The way we're making the game is to focus on that AI and making a believeable world that makes sense as opposed to creating storylines of quests that players go on. Players experience the open world sandbox nature of it the same way they would go through any MMO, but if they log in from day to day the same stuff isn't happening all the time. Monsters have been killed, NPCs have died or moved. It's just an entirely different experience. It's also a roguelike game and the entire point is to live and try to Ascend to Godhood after level 50.I really think we've seen a big expansion of what defines an MMO. By all normal definitions what we're making would apply to being an MMO, but what it really is is an entirely new kind of online game where it's really a fantasy sandbox world.

What would you say are Hero's Song's core differences in comparison to popular OARPGs like Diablo, Marvel Heroes, and Path of Exile?

We love those games and particularly Diablo III and Path of Exile were real inspirations to us. The core difference is simple - our world and history generation give us a unique fantasy sandbox world that has Gods, monsters, magic and everything is blended together as a part of this cohesive fantasy world.

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I'm a giant fan of pretty pixelart, and I know it's faster and cheaper to create - your turnaround time on this game proves it - but let's face it: Gamers are graphics snobs. How are you planning to overcome the natural instinct of gamers to snub 2-D games?

Gameplay rules all. Games like Terraria, Starbound, and many others prove just how amazingly deep a pixel art game can be. They are also incredibly successful games by any measure.

Permadeath is usually the kiss of death for a persistent online game. You've found a clever way to include it that won't make your players ragequit. Can you talk about your permadeath mechanics?

Our game is a roguelike game. The entire point is about the experience of living your life... hopefully you ascend after hitting level 50, but more often than not you're going to die an ugly death. That's entirely by design and the way we want it. We want this to be a hardcore game for hardcore gamers. When you die, it's not the end. You get to go to the Shadow world where whichever God you decided should rule it will give you different trials to earn the right to live again. That means in some cases fighting your way out, or a long exploration of the Shadow world to hunt down some arcane relic your God demands.

What's your plan for game support after the game has launched in October? Can we expect DLC or expansions? What sort of game might your indie team build next after this one's shipped and secure? Think you'll ever go back to AAA development again?

We'll be supporting the game with regular free content and we do plan on expansions down the line. Will I ever go back to "AAA" development? I'm having a ton of fun right now and who knows what tomorrow will bring, but this is just too much fun doing nothing but focusing on gameplay.

Thanks very much to Smed for speaking with us, and stay tuned later this afternoon when we'll be bringing you our conversation with fantasy author and world builder Patrick Rothfuss. The Kickstarter for Hero's Song is live today.

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215 Comments on "Exclusive Interview: John Smedley reveals Hero’s Song, his new open-world OARPG"

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dragoon0705
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dragoon0705

This seems like a good chunk of the ideas they showed off for Everquest Next are making it into this game. Especially the AI and how it interacts with you and the world. I am all for it and I'm pretty excited for the Pixel art style as it makes this game seem actually achievable instead of what Everquest Next is turning/turned into.

Jalek
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Jalek

Smedley was the evanglist for cash shops and F2P in 2005, so much so that it seemed entirely reasonable to lay the whole F2P shift of SOE on him.  Interesting that he's singing a different song now.

Gylnne
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Gylnne

Nice interview. I have never played 2d games much but am open for trying them. And it seems like some in the gaming industry are realizing not all folks want a f2p or cash shop game.

Randeth
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Randeth

It's sort of crazy how appealing this game is. Can't wait for it now. Gotta go do something else and stop thinking about it until October. :)

Caerulei
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Caerulei

Union Jack There have been a tonne of highly successful 2D releases in 2015 and there will be more in 2016.  2D is never going away, and neither is pixel art.  Furthermore, a lot of modern MMOs are missing a tonne of features that used to be commonplace, it's not a linear path of improvement, just change and expanded technical capabilities.

WandaClamshuckr
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WandaClamshuckr

Tizmah1 I don't mind 2D at all, if it's engaging, has depth, and is fun.  If he were offering this with a robust Cash Shop, it would definitely go on the "Do Not Touch" pile, but he's not so I guess he's trying something different.  I think he is targeting the Steam crowd, as there is a well developed niche community there that really digs this sort of thing.  Rogue-like and ARPG are right up my alley, so I'll keep an eye out on how this fleshes out.

MarkHanson1
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MarkHanson1

I enjoy the heck out of rogue like games such as ToME. To see this alone has me interested, but the fact that there are multiplayer aspects and that it can be PVE all the way is very intriguing.

Tizmah1
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Tizmah1

It's a shame a lot of people in the comments here dog games made with 2D or pixel art.  It's a timeless style and has perfected itself for years.  So many great games have come out with these styles that I guess people missed out on.  I mean it's cool, like what you like and all. Just seems like there is this mentality out there that is "If it isn't 3D, it's automatically a game not to be taken seriously".  At least give them a chance sometime, you may surprise yourself.

Union Jack
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Union Jack

Really a 2D game in 2016 wtf is he thinking, why would I have a TOP PC to play 2D crappy looking game on. While the game play may be deep and varied his track record on AI does not bold well. He will be lucky if he does not get his website DOS attacked daily from his friends over in Europe again.

Personally I predict his kick starter will fail what he is offering is nothing new and he is going to have to do better to win fans from the MMO world as we are some of the hardest people to please as you can see from the last decade. Whilst he claims it's a PC game which will hit the Mac and consoles later, I bet you now this baby will be heading for your smart phone on the Quite!

In my opinion this game will do nothing to improve the MMO world at all it's just going to pull it down and reverse all that's been done in the past. He's not offering nothing new or unique, it just shows the lack of talent he's been able to muster but only time will tell. This game may well appeal to the lady gamer's but as Ironwu said below the word [Cupcake] is spot on.

cursedseishi
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cursedseishi

@Breetoplay
Aye, far from any typical strategy. They have added in a new $15 tier that ISN'T limited that gives the game. They didn't need to do one cheaper than retail, but it's definitely a step in the right direction...
Bad news is, they've more than likely wasted their momentum. Lots of articles yesterday talked about the game, pointed towards the Kickstarter, and that is what all those people have seen. Had it been set like it was now, yesterday, they might of actually gotten much closer to 100k then.

Ironwu
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Ironwu

Well, reading the Kickstarter page...
"Hardcore",  "Permadeath", and so forth.

Have zero interest in going down this road again, Cupcake!
Will keep an eye on it to see how it develops, but for right now, no $$$ for you, Smed, sorry.

DPandaren
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DPandaren

Not going to lie, but that's a cute looking game.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Saerain libertylion7 (It's not a platformer.)

karmamule
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karmamule

DCMonkey breetoplay Nice catch, Monkey!

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

cursedseishi Yeah, I gotta say I don't understand this strategy. This is not the usual KS strat at all.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

padreadamo PC at launch, with Mac and consoles planned for later.

AlexSmithWI
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AlexSmithWI

padreadamo Based on the fact they don't specify.  I would only guarantee Windows at this time.

AlexSmithWI
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AlexSmithWI

PaganRites Rothfuss was what did it for me as well.  Went threw the page thinking I'll just hole off on this one then see Rothffuss at the bottom.  Backed at collectors edition :P.  Love the guys books so the story won't be lacking and should be worth the money on that alone.

WandaClamshuckr
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WandaClamshuckr

I'm a big fan of ARPGs, so this gets my interest.  That Smed is involved throws a bit of a wrench into the gears, but, meh..I'm interested to see how it pans out.

One thing that kinda makes me cock my head a bit is the very PVE game concept, and then the tossing in at the end with the permadeath mechanic.  I just don't understand his persistence with that whole "hardcore" thing.  He tried it with Wizardry Online, and it completely flopped because you could just use the Cash Shop to buy your way out of character death.  While there isn't a microtransaction with this new game, you still get to compete a quest to get you out of the weeds.  So, same dif really, but you don't have to open your wallet.

I think that if you are going to make a fun, retro-style 2D game that centers around PVE, crafting, housing, etc, then the hardcore permadeath crowd isn't your demographic.  It seems like a tacked on marketing ploy that has a history of being the opposite of what was intended, and something the community didn't really want.

Estranged
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Estranged

melissaheather Estranged I have some leather... oh never mind, you meant gaming RP.  LOL

Jacobin
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Jacobin

Uhh no thanks, smed has done enough damage and I am not buying this 'indie' act. Going to KS five seconds after leaving a AAA studio he ran into the ground.

PaganRites
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PaganRites

ROTHFUSS and Smed? Backed!

Necro Mage
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Necro Mage

I'm not too keen on the lowest Kickstarter Tier actually being higher than the cost of the game.
Every other Kickstarter I've supported has given you value for supporting them, this one actually gives you less value if you support them. O.o

Utakata
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Utakata

breetoplay ManastuUtakata squidgod2000 DugFromTheEarth 
Well that's disappointing. :(

Defector1980
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Defector1980

Celestia Anything that remotely resembles Ultima Online, I'm interested in.

Defector1980
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Defector1980

Well that seems neat. I like that the kickstarter rewards don't include in-game items.

padreadamo
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padreadamo

What platforms is this being released for?

Saerain
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Saerain

Avarius Ten10K Not to mention the remark being referred to was obviously for humor.

Saerain
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Saerain

libertylion7 Platformer?

cursedseishi
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cursedseishi

Ehhh.... Call me pessimistically optimistic about it. There is a MASSIVE misstep in the pledge tiers--the lowest 'shown' one being $25 while retail it's $20. It's always a mistake to force people to pay more than what they want in a kickstarter, just to get the game out of it. a $1 "Thanks" tier is pretty much... expected, and while I can understand why one wouldn't put it in there, it doesn't hurt to have it in either. Likewise, even more confusing and downright idiotic is that they have every single tier set as "LIMITED". Again, that goes back to forcing people to pay more for less, because if... say, the basic tier sells out completely (amounting to a pitiful $75k), they either have to add another tier in, or force everyone to back at $50 just to get some sort of reward.

I don't want to say this campaign is doomed... But yeah, it's doomed. There is a completely arse-backwards setup to the entire campaign with every tier limited, forcing their potential buy-ins to pay more than the actual cost, just to get the game itself, and... Well... Yeah... I feel like I'm kicking a dead horse here, but it feels like they haven't glanced at any other Kickstarter campaign, and just figured "limited demand sells, so limit everything".

Celestia
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Celestia

I'm a little nervous about their invoking the "H" word, but I like the no malarkey approach to the business model premise.  Smed's decision to do a hard reset and scaling back his first project with the new studio was a wise decision.   If they can provide engaging game play and a good sand box experience supported with modern tech and design, I'll definitely give it a whirl.  Ultima Online was my first MMO and that's one book you can not judge by its cover.

Saerain
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Saerain

So the pixel art terrain we saw in that Periscope tease months ago was for the game. Looking better, though. At the time I thought it looked like RPG Maker assets.

Avarius
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Avarius

Ten10K Considering server owners can choose whether they want to enable PvP or not, calling it PvE-based is a bit of a misnomer..

Captain Electric
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Captain Electric

Well, in between newer games I still play Ultima Online, so I don't see why I shouldn't be open to this. More than a little surprised to see this coming out of Smedley though!

Ten10K
Guest
Ten10K

So let me get this straight .. The man that called all the PvE players carebear and whiney lil b*tched .. Has made a game that's PvE based ..
Mmmmm k
*double take
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaa

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

Radfist Polyanna For what it's worth, I don't agree with Smed that it's not an MMO or an MMORPG. I think it's simply not popular to use the word nowadays. (Though you're right - we've been covering OARPGs too for many years now.)

Radfist
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Radfist

squidgod2000 Zycor They could still do expansions or content packs.

Radfist
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Radfist

Polyanna There is an entire question dedicated to why they don't call it a MMORPG.  Essentially it is not.  Massively cover online RPGs as well these days.

Dystopiq
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Dystopiq

Zariarn Gameloft games suck ass.

DCMonkey
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DCMonkey

breetoplay 

Interestingly, Dave Mark is listed as the Senior AI Programmer for Pixelimage. He subcontracted with Storybricks to help them with EQNext AI design work from 4/2013 to 2/2014.

Qarran
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Qarran

schlag sweetleaf  Heh.  Schlag=brilliant.

TheGremmel
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TheGremmel

I was looking forward to someone pushing the MMO genre out of it's themepark rut.. but did it have to be Smedley? The king of having bad ideas. He had Star Wars, Everquest and Planetside as his IP's and still the studio didn't make any money for a decade...

Feydakin
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Feydakin

Interesting... Going to have to keep an eye on this one. I'm very much a fan of 2D pixel art styles as I come from Ultima Online and it's very similar. I remember doing pixel art for UO as a fan and it being lots of fun and I know how good it can look if done right.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

Our multiplayer allows for people to join a server, or host one on their own machine. It can hold thousands of players total with hundreds being able to play at any given time.

If "hundreds" means ~200 online at the same time, in the same server, then we might as well start covering Minecraft as an MMO.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

ManastuUtakata breetoplay squidgod2000 DugFromTheEarth Not listed. And tbh, I'm glad. I mean, I love mobile games, but... Terraria is a mess on mobile. So is Minecraft imo. You really need a mouse for these when they go even a tiny bit beyond combat clickfests, and this is way beyond.

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

breetoplay squidgod2000 DugFromTheEarth 
What about mobile platforms? I think this where this game could shine.

Tandor Shadewalker
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Tandor Shadewalker

breetoplay squidgod2000 DugFromTheEarth Oh, he didn't deny it was a PC game then? Shame.

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

Karl_Hungus 
...and a didgeridoo? o.O

Michael18
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Michael18

Like the art style in the two dungeon pics, but the town looks bad to me. Reminds me of those amateurish tile sets you get for free everywhere on the internet.

Aside from that, overall design sounds interesting. Interested to hear more details. Good luck to Smed & team!

ManastuUtakata
Guest
ManastuUtakata

Veldan Skyewauker 
/eww :(

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