E3 2015: Life is Feudal isn’t just another gankbox

[AL:LIF]I’m standing with my PR contact at the Life is Feudal booth when suddenly a guy with a thick Russian accent walks up to me, picks up a toy of a wooden bear at a computer, and starts to move it so the bear paws at the keyboard. “This is how we make games in Russia” he laughs.

This was my E3 2015 introduction to Vladimir Piskunov, CEO of Bitbox and friend to veterans of ShadowbaneDarkfall, and other PvP games (or at least, the guy inviting the veterans to Life is Feudal‘s alphas).

After being burned a bit by unfinished products, I had at one point decided to sit out Life is Feudal’s non-MMO release. I’m a grumpy old vet who remembers when alphas were super secret and bound by NDAs. Naturally, this led me to ask Piskunov about the open nature of LiF’s development and how he’s been taking some of the criticism. His response? “I kinda expected worse.”

Without a doubt, Piskunov knows he’s got a niche title. When I interrogated him about why he’d spend time building in something like permadeath, which is rarely enjoyed even among PvPers, his response was similarly laid back: “I’m not a fan of permadeath, but some people are, so we made that mode.”

That being said, there are no current plans for a permadeath server when Life is Feudal approaches its MMO release. The alpha for the more limited early release game (Life is Feudal: Your Own) kicked off last year; it was originally built back in 2011 as part of a tech demo. It has terraforming in a large, seamless world that takes about three hours to traverse, and it shares the same code, assets, and gameplay, so with any luck, we should see a beta test for the MMO version by March 2016, and the games should be nearly identical except for all the MMO bits. If the future MMO’s players wind up wanting permadeath, Piskunov says he’s open to a hardcore server, but players would really need to petition hard for one. Currently, his main focus is to fix things up in the current game so the MMO can be released with all its promised features.

Among the promised features is decay on tunnels and support beams, which doesn’t currently work. Terraforming of structures, hills, and other non-tunnels is currently already in the game, but the old tunnel system apparently wasn’t up to graphical standards and didn’t feel “smooth,” so Piskunov says it will be reworked. Maybe this wouldn’t be a huge deal for a singleplayer game, but in a multiplayer one, it’s something players could exploit, and that is something he’s not comfortable with. In fact, he became quite upset with another reporter who apparently got a story about exploiting in Life is Feudal wrong. Bitbox has worked very hard to keep out most serious hacks, like flying and speed hacking, though some, like moving through walls, are still possible.

At this point in the interview that, Piskunov revealed his PvP nature; he’s practical about what evil acts players are capable of, which is something I can’t say for the Sword Coast Legends devs I interviewed the day before, who expressed surprise about having an adversarial dungeon master. Piskunov’s focus on fair play, at least in terms of keeping hackers out, is also something players rarely tolerate but some developers seem to ignore. Even when I mentioned LiF’s formation system possibly needing to allow leaders to grant someone else the “center position” so a tank leader can lead from the front, he reminded me that leading from the front is a romanticized element of combat as well as a poor one since it means your army is risking its brightest tacticians. Reflecting on past PvP experiences where my group leaders died and couldn’t see what their troops were doing, I had to concede the point.

Our conversation shifted to community in a PvP MMO. Many gamers suspect that a certain contingent of PvPers consist of borderline psychopaths who can’t function in normal society. Even as a PvP player, I’ve had my own suspicions about my fellow players, especially in the survival genre, which LiF slightly resembles thanks to its hardcore settings. When you have a game with permadeath and characters that can stay in the game world “sleeping” when you log out, there’s a huge risk for griefing and a big temptation for hackers. And yet, on the ground floor at the LiF booth was Bill, the same superfan Massively OP’s Larry Everett met at PAX South, now at a trade-only event by invitation from Bitbox for his passion for the game, explaining it to people who are less versed in what LiF is all about and demonstrating in the flesh the kind of mature, community-minded player the game hopes to attract. Bill’s a teacher and PvP fan just as I am, so I can immediately relate to him.

Given the fact it’s a niche title with a small following, I was surprised at how many stories I heard about new players logging in for the first time, finding help, and sticking around. I’m told that there’s the usual streak of smacktalk, but there’s clearly also a community of people like Bill teaching less-skilled players how to keep surviving.

That doesn’t mean everything in the game is rosy. People often flip to a game’s Steam page to get an idea of how a title really plays, and when I checked LiF’s, I noticed complaints about the slow pace of the game, both in updates and content. While the development cycle just takes time, the content end seems to have a solution: Play with other people. Many of the complaints are about how it took a long time to build something, and while Piskunov confirms that playing the game solo is an option, it really is intended as a multiplayer game. “It’s about cooperation,” he says, and there’s no current plan to change this, especially since the game’s development is supposed to lead to the MMO.

Right now, though, the game still comes off to me as a survival game with medieval flare. The difference, according to Piskunov, is that LiF has a claim system that has more protection for owners as well as an alignment system, the latter of which is something I understand is a bit immersion-breaking but in the current survival genre seems like the easiest fix for preventing anonymity from allowing players to see others as nothing more than slightly more intelligent loot piñatas. Both of these design choices come from Piskunov’s own experiences in PvP, especially when it comes to the dreaded middle-of-the-night “player vs. building” experience in other games that have player territory and housing systems.

Again, the game’s not perfect. Piskunov says he’s building his dream game, and while that does mean LiF is a niche product, it’s one that being built by someone who’s experienced in the genre, not someone looking to cash in. Development is slow, and the mechanics may turn some people away, but if your own gameplay style is similar to Piskunov’s, you may want to at least keep an eye on LiF, either in its current state or future MMO release. If you do decide to pop into the game, though, remember, bring a friend.

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Los Angeles, California, for E3 2015, bringing you expert MMO coverage from NCsoft, Blizzard, Ubisoft, BioWare, and everything else on display at the expo!
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