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.
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.
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.
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.
— John Smedley (@j_smedley) January 19, 2016