Interview: Pantheon devs on funding, Unity, and the launch window

Brad McQuaid‘s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is an MMO that’s suffered more than its fair share of drama and setbacks, but even detractors will agree that its creators appear utterly determined to see it made. In fact, this past fall, Visionary Realms acquired fresh investors, produced a new website, hired new employees, and demoed a playable build.

CEO Chris Rowan, CCO Brad McQuaid, and Creative Director Chris Perkins recently answered my questions about the game’s stormy history, past and future funding, playerbase size, and release date.

Massively OP: Visionary Realms has obviously come a long way since 2014, when former employees made accusations about money mismanagement and work on the game slowed down. A lot of our readers have some serious trust issues with Pantheon given that and given the problems that preceded with Vanguard. What makes the current incarnation of Visionary Realms different? Why should they trust in Pantheon and its leadership?

Visionary Realms: Pantheon started in late 2013 as an idea and seat of the pants game development effort. In early 2014 a small team of game designers and programmers was trying to simultaneously juggle game development, a Kickstarter campaign, and running a company.

In contrast, the current incarnation of Visionary Realms has a dedicated, highly experienced business team that supports a talented creative team that is a balanced mix of industry veterans and fresh, ambitious young talent. The creative team builds the game, while the business team runs the company in a highly disciplined manner, enabling the creative team to focus on development.

Our CFO is the only person at the company who holds the pursestrings.
The business team has decades’ experience managing companies from inception through development, growth and revenue. The business team plans, schedules, budgets, reviews and holds the entire team accountable to those schedules and budgets. Process discipline has increased across the board. Over the last eight months, the company has run on a strict plan and has actually spent on average 14% below budget over that period. All spending decisions require the approval of both the CEO, Chris Rowan, and CFO, Tim Sullivan. Our CFO is the only person at the company who holds the pursestrings. Furthermore, management reports progress against the strategic plan and the budget to the board of directors of the company on at least a monthly basis. We’ve received strong praise from our investor for our frugal stewardship of his money and the progress we’ve made since he invested.

Thanks to the seed funding, growth of the team, more discipline, planning and process management, and the incredible passion and commitment of everyone involved, development has been steadily accelerating since Q1 2015.

thronefast-steps

News that Pantheon was bolstered by a round of seed funding was accompanied by a new employee tally: 14. Those are employees, correct? Not volunteers? And why not name the investor?

Yes, our team is now compensated, and has been since receiving seed funding several months ago. The investor is a private person who wishes to remain anonymous.

Every time we cover new screenshots from the game, our readers erupt and claim that anyone can snap pictures in Unity 5 with a default texture pack. Could you explain once and for all how the team is using that engine and how the tech has evolved from stock to now?

It is a common misconception that Unity includes stock assets and/or textures that we are using in Pantheon’s development – Unity does not do the automatic “heavy lifting” that some think it does. Rather, it works as a focal point for third party tools and/or assets, which allows talented artists to create and sell assets through Unity’s Marketplace which developers can purchase and use for prototyping or in the final product. You can see this in many projects currently in development as it’s common practice. For the purpose of prototyping, purchasing assets from the Unity store made sense for us in the beginning of development. It allowed us to research and develop a structured, cohesive art pipeline and direction, while concurrently prototyping holistic aspects of gameplay and level design.

However, our goal has always been to create original, lore-inspired art. Therefore, at this point in development, we are using robust, state-of-the-art software for production of Pantheon-specific art, such as Maya, Zbrush, and Allegorithmic’s Substance Designer and Painter. The images [accompanying this interview] are some recent examples of the original artwork going into the game from our lead world builder, John Diasparra, who is using much of the same technology for our environments as was used in games like Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, Far Cry 4, and many more.

Overall, we use a modular design approach to create customizable construction sets for building highly varied points of interest with racial or faction-based architectural identity. Creating art and building points of interest is just the beginning of the production cycle – various layers of systematic optimization must take place in order to maintain performance in our large, open world setting.

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Games like Camelot Unchained have rather famously maintained that they expect and can survive on a very small, niche playerbase — much smaller than the number of players WoW lost last quarter! Is Pantheon similarly prepared for a niche playerbase? How will it sustain itself against the current field of mega-MMOs and mini-indies?

MMOs have moved away from a social and community-driven focus where cooperative play is rewarded. This has left a significant audience orphaned, and Pantheon is being developed for that audience.
Pantheon is a classically-spirited MMO. We believe the goal of developing MMOs needs to change: developers/publishers need to stop spending huge amounts of money trying to make the next big thing that appeals to everyone. Instead, especially in light of the amount and variety of gamers interested in online gaming, we want to see MMOs begin to target specific audiences. We want to craft games according to the tastes and preferences of a specific audience because we think this will result in better games. Over the last 10 years or so, MMOs have moved away from a social and community-driven focus where cooperative play is rewarded. This has left a significant audience orphaned and Pantheon is being developed for that audience. No one can prove exactly how big this orphaned group is, but with an estimated 400 million people worldwide having played MMOs to-date, or according to ESA’s 2015 Essentials, 45 million Americans who currently pay to play games online, we are confident ours is a significant group. That said, we are a lean and mean team and we are careful and frugal with our spending – no, we don’t need millions of players in order to be profitable.

Does the team have any plans for another Kickstarter or round of crowdfunding? Are Patreon contributions continuing? What about crowdfunding and early access pre-orders directly through the site the way some other studios have done it?

We’re considering the pros and cons of all options for funding the game. We don’t have any funding-related announcements at this time, but we can say that we haven’t ruled anything out. Thanks to our wonderfully supportive community, pledge contributions continue at a healthy pace.

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With proper funding, we plan on releasing Pantheon in 2017.
Sites like VentureBeat suggested that another round of investor funding will probably be required. What will Visionary Realms do if that funding doesn’t materialize? Is Pantheon happening come hell or high water?

Additional rounds of funding will allow us to more rapidly grow our development team. That said, however unlikely, the team we have currently assembled can finish this game. In a worst case scenario, it would take us longer to complete Pantheon without the funding we’re looking to attain, but we will indeed ship this game, come hell or high water.

In April 2014, McQuaid said the game could launch in as little as three years, given the proper funding. Is that still doable?

Yes, with proper funding, we plan on releasing Pantheon in 2017.

Thank you very much for your candor and your time.

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puilamcupcake
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puilamcupcake

tldr:
What was EQ?
– 3d mud. Why is this special? Lore, depth, real world
– remember feelings of playing zork or major mud
– simulated world, not just a vehicle for a video game
How is it different?
– immersion
– consequenses
– pace
– world simulation
– social dynamic
Why did these differences make it special?
– Bottom line: things mattered
– Not watered down, low inflation
– Greater than sum of parts
– People CARED
Why have games gone away from what made EQ special?
– No attention span
– Instant gratification
– WOW clones and economic risk vs reward.
Warning: there is some reminiscing in this post. I will attempt to limit the nostalgia for the utilization of making points.
What was EQ?
Remember your first time playing zork? Standing there at that mailbox, making your way into the house, finding your way into the darkness, getting killed by a troll? No graphics, but you were there. You were sucked in. And then the muds. Your mind was taken into them, you were immersed in the world, the lore, the descriptions, and the gameplay. It was like a fantasy novel or choose your own adventure book that you got to PLAY with your FRIENDS! How awesome is that?!? Need a map? Break out your graphing paper. Lose your gear? Um…got friends? And then came games like UO and EQ. EQ was truly revolutionary in the gaming industry. It was a 3D choose your own adventure novel that emphasized less is more, and it was the best game ever made.
Today what do we have?
– Skill/Spell inflation
– Fast travel
– Micro transactions
– Item/Loot spam
– Social Isolation
– Mini maps
We get mass produced games engineered to improve the bottom line, games with paper thin worlds and nothing but a graphics engine and marketing budget to support them.
How was EQ different and why were those things special?
Pace: Higher time requirements to level/explore, increased severity of consequences, loot being rare all go into making what you do in the game MORE VALUABLE. This goes back to not watering things down. Slow the pace, slow inflation, make the game amazing fun without throwing loot and levels at players.
Leveling was an entire game in and of itself. Because it was slow, players did not simply race to the end game and sit there. Was the end game of EQ at times a cluster anyway? Yeah. But it wasn’t week 2. It took 4-5 months for most servers to start killing Nag and Vox and raiding Fear, and then Kunark was out and a new game was on. There were multiple stages of the gameplay, from leveling, to gearing up, keying up guilds, and then all the day to day gameplay of duoing and small groups.
No instances and the impact on server wide society:
Did the squating on Trak suck? And the competition for sleepers keys? Yeah, for sure. But think of the amazing social dynamic that EQ created. They created a world, we got sucked in, and things were created beyond your normal video game(see: Eve Online). Should we go back to entire guilds camping out for the cleric epic? No, try to strike a balance. But neither is the answer spinning up a new instance of whatever zone or mob everybody wants so everybody can have whatever they want when they want it. When that happens immersion goes out, and what makes a game meaningful disappears. It’s hard, it’s life, it’s unfair, and when you succeed it’s pure joy. Remember when the tier2 guilds would sneak into fear after you’d cleared the zone to garbage collect the respawn? That crap ticked me off. But you know what, it was because I cared so much. Don’t ruin that amazing social dynamic.
Class uniqueness:
No game has ever approached EQ’s level of class/role differentiation. I know some would argue this, but I feel very strongly that EQs classes are the best in any game ever. The whole concept and design of casters/priests/pure melee/hybrids was amazing. Don’t pollute or water down the classes(EQ2). They were so special and so different in EQ. Were there balance issues? Yeah. Was the holy trinity a PITA at times? Yeah. But there’s no gameplay in any other game like an SK fear kiting, a bard doing anything a bard does, an enchanter charming and CCing, wizards quad kiting, monks pulling, etc, etc, etc.
Is this is a real world or is this an arcade game?
Too many games, basically all of them, have forgone the true roleplaying and simulation aspects that made EQ so great. EQ wasn’t just an RPG, it was in many ways a SIM game. You needed food. You need water. You need LIGHT!!! You crossed large bodies of water in a BOAT. Anybody ever play a human? Good grief. Getting that greater lightstone was amazing. Dying and having to make your way back through that cave in traks teeth(?) you are blind as a bat! It sucked! And then you pop out and breathe a sigh of relief. What games these days give that kind of immersive experience? All because of some little thing like night vision. Again, like a real world. Not a pretty facade, but an attempt at realism.
Difficulty:
What happened to death penalties or the risk of losing a corpse and all your gear poofing? EQ was unforiving in its attempt at reality. EQ was an attempt at simulating a real world. Games don’t do that anymore. From instancing, to fast travel, to ridiculous mini maps and pointers and meta stat graphics all over the screen, players are taken out of the world. Lost is the feeling of beign immersed somewhere else. When I died 5 times one day and wanted to rage quit, the reason I was so angry was because it was important to me, because I cared, because the day before I didn’t die a single time and gained 7-8 bubbles and was in heaven. And the day after I died 5 times I didn’t die at all and it was fantastic. And why was it fantastic? Because I knew the pain of death. I knew the pain of losing a level. I knew the pain of losing 10 hours. Knowing that risk, that pain, those setbacks made all the successes in the game matter EVEN MORE.
When you’re scraping up every rat whisker and spiderling eyeball to have money for spells and you’ve gotta give a necro a plat to find your corpse, it makes that money you’re trying to make even more valuable. There’s RISK. And that makes rewards oh so sweet. And when you hit that level and you can only afford 2 spells, you pick the 2 most important one and you cherish them. And a few hours later when you can afford another one, you cherish that too.
Rarity of loot:
If something is rare, IT’S MORE VALUABLE. Games today absolutely SPAM items at players. If you don’t have a new weapon every single level, you’re getting screwed! Right? No! It’s the complete opposite. You’re getting screwed out of meaningful gameplay when games just throw loot at you. EQ was not watered down. Items had such MEANING. Did KSing suck? Hell yeah. But the reason people did it, and the reason it sucked to have done to you, was because we all cared so much. Things were rare. They were hard to get. They were IMPORTANT. Ooh look, that guy has a bone bladed claymore. Maybe one day I’ll have that. Next level I’m going to leave SRO and head to the commonlands so I can be near that zone when the time comes. Today it’s: I don’t look at anyone or care what anyone has. If I want an item I go solo the quest and click the exclamation point and click my reward. Joy. Items have no status.

jawbreaker23
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jawbreaker23

HolyAvengerOne ohforfs Which is why Brad doesn’t have a management role in this title.

LongtimeSkeptic
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LongtimeSkeptic

ohforfs  Bingo. Smed it is.

LongtimeSkeptic
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LongtimeSkeptic

Drivendawn  It’s not about “haters”, it’s about the reality that some of you just can’t seem to accept. Look at the history of this team, of McQuaid in particular. Totally screwed his people in Vanguard, couldn’t even be bothered to show up and face them when they got their pink slips and left them standing in the parking lot. A lot of people said at that point “McQuaid will never get money for a game ever again”.

And then crowd funding emerged, and the suckers and dreamers poured out their hearts to Brad in hopes that he might actually deliver this time. And what does he do? Steals $30,000 in crowd funds “for personal reasons”. Some speculate he’s back on drugs again, others point to his wife’s medical problems. Does it matter? The man can’t be trusted and he is living in a dream world based on his one success in life (if you can call EQ a success, I do) and is trying to sustain his memories in a world that changed a long time ago and left him behind.

Guys. Stiffed employees. Unpaid staffers still owed money after McQuaid took his. $30,000 “missing” that Brad eventually owned up to taking “for personal reasons”, and constant reshuffling of the team and the progress reports. No working demo even at this stage after McQuaid lied and said one existed eons ago.

What more do you need to smell a rat? This isn’t “hating”, this is using critical thinking to evaluate a business proposition.

JohnHolderby
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JohnHolderby

Love the game, am a gamer helping to support it with what little I have.  Want to see group play again, want to see challenge and skill play useful again…. I don’t know who the patron funding it is but whoever it is thanks!

BeckAltarr
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BeckAltarr

sscarthiaasuranknightBeckAltarrjawbreaker23  There was never anything to mend really. I am commenting based on the information we have as it related to the events in the past. 
I don’t follow the project that closely. I keep up on the notable events but our community has soundly stated that Pantheon is not a product our Community supported radio should be involved with. 
We had a host in the past who was very very negative on Pantheorn and he has since gotten back into bed with them for his own profit. AT the very least I have always been consistent and have only changed my opinion when the evidence supports it.
No one at Pantheon has reached out to us since after the Original Dev’s left, but we did stay in contact with a few of them for about a year or so after.

sscarthia
Guest
sscarthia

Khayotix BeckAltarr Exactly was glad to see Ben and Corey back..Go go Good Team. ;)

sscarthia
Guest
sscarthia

EricSantiago BeckAltarr jawbreaker23 with friends like that who needs enemies..right Eric lol

sscarthia
Guest
sscarthia

asuranknight BeckAltarr jawbreaker23 He’s the main guy at K-tam..strange I thought all the fences were mended but it seems Beck has a knot in his face about something again…Oh well, the proof is in the pudding.

sscarthia
Guest
sscarthia

LiamLightfoot been backing them as well Liam.  :)