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.

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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.

https://twitter.com/j_smedley/status/689470772893495297

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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.