PAX East 2016: Brad McQuaid on Pantheon’s startup, development focus, and old-school nature

How am I supposed to remember you if you won't let me forget?

The development history of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen could be generously described as “checkered.” The title went through several forms of failed crowdfunding and repeatedly seemed as if it might go the way of the dodo… but it pulled through and is still going strong. And at PAX East 2016, I had the chance to sit down with Brad McQuaid and ask him some questions about the game’s development as well as what led to the game’s early crowdfunding messes.

The short version? Startup companies are hard. McQuaid explained that he was a bit more ambitious than he should have been, expected things out of a Kickstarter that he should not have expected from a point in the game’s development that was far earlier than it should have been. That was his mistake, and in the long run, he sees that as something that can be fixed, that no one will notice the earlier issues if the team at Visionary Realms works together to make a great game when all is said and done.

Pantheon started the year with its first major milestone: creating a bare-bones MMO that worked and was fun to play, even if most of the new ideas weren’t in place. By his estimation, if the team couldn’t make that fun, there was no point in trying to add more stuff on top of that. The basic version of the game had internal testers, five classes, ten levels, and just enough space and stuff to work without frills. Fortunately for fans and for the future of the game, it was fun to play.

It lives!

That means the team can move on to the next major objective, which is putting in the new stuff. Simply making a basic game that’s a throwback to 2001 isn’t going to work in 2016, McQuaid says, and the game does have to feel modern, even if it’s using a lot of older design principles. Among other things, that means putting in ideas like really expanding the principle of player vs. environment to include dealing with environmental hazards like regions covered in darkness, places draining your mana, places preventing players from using any sort of magic, and so forth.

He also told me that advanced NPC AI is also one of his big development goals; Visionary will be creating something more interesting than making enemies just hit harder or last longer to up encounter difficulties. The plan is for AI that’s reactive and better able to gauge and react to threats, using different tactics when facing a party full of spellcasters instead of a party full of melee fighters. Ultimately, behavior should be varied, and the resultant tactics should engage both veterans of older games and newer players.

In addition to both of those major projects, the team is trying to bring in a healthy dose of content to support early testing late in the year. You can’t test a game with no game to test, after all.

Expounding further upon Kickstarter, McQuaid explained that players are quite skeptical now, and that simply stating a design team’s ideas isn’t enough to convince people that a game will actually exist. Players want to be able to see the game and know that it’s a reality. The early stumbles for the team were mistakes and lessons learned, and it’s taken a great deal of effort to regroup and keep going; with Sigil he had the money to seed the company himself, but that was not the case with Visionary Realms.

Despite this, he’s confident that more support will come in as people see both the passion and the continued efforts being made by the team. The game being real and getting made will cover a multitude of early mistakes.

Of course, first players will have to want to play the game and take part in its decidedly older approach. McQuaid fully acknowledges that the MMORPG environment has shifted, and while the original EverQuest could launch to just let players figure out that the game was meant for groups over time, Pantheon can’t get away with it. No, the game has to convince people to group and give them experiences that are more fun; they have to want to group up.

Do you... want to hang out, man?

The goal, then, becomes giving players incentive to find and make friends, something that’s going to start with something of a matchmaking system for players who start up the game. Players are given a profile to fill in which includes not just playstyle and play time preferences but also interests, hobbies, and so forth; the idea is that the game will help introduce you to other players with similar interests and goals. It’s not just about balancing things around groups; it’s about helping players find one another and make friends over time.

Above all else, it’s important to have a multi-layered approach to allow people get in and have fun, making grouping entertaining and cooperative rather than just a chore. The game will have a mentor system as well, and pick-up grouping is meant to be a regular thing as well, with lots of ways and means for players to form groups together. Most of the game will be meant for a single standard party size, which is currently planned to be between 6-8 players; once the game starts testing, that party size can be adjusted up or down as necessary.

We also had an interesting discussion about the concept of “designed downtime,” a term that he knew sounded pretty mockable due to some pretty bad abuses throughout the genre. The idea, as he sees it, is to give players moments of inactivity, a chance to socialize, talk about strategy, bond, and so forth. Without any need to sit and wait (and talk), socializing is diminished. The problem is that was players go through more and more content, creating longer and more artificial stretches of downtime was an easy way to make the content seem larger. It turned players off for being excessive, which prompted later designers to remove it altogether, leading to much less socializing within a group.

Properly, McQuaid sees downtime as a tool to encourage socializing, not as a way to slow the game down. Grinding and tedium are bad, but they need not go hand-in-hand with the idea of having some time for a group to talk amongst itself. Similarly, making leveling and content tedious and repetitive discourages socialization and play in general. His goal isn’t to take an older game and remake it, but to take the principles and bring them forward into a modern framework shaped by the genre’s success stories without overreacting to problems.

Work it over.

Considering the group-based nature of the game, we also talked a fair bit about classes, roles, and party structure. As it stands, the game is being designed around what he calls “the quaternity,” with tanks, damage dealers, control, and healers as the four main roles to be filled. Hybrid classes provide an inherent struggle with that, since you want the hybrids to not be so good that there’s no reason to play a purer class, but not so much weaker than the purer classes that no one wants to bring them along. It’s a balancing act, but it’s one that helps define the game and give each class its own distinction. In short, the pure classes become ideal for people who only ever want to do one thing, while hybrids are for players who like more variety.

The roles also require careful balancing. In most games, more damage dealers wind up being more useful than more tanks; a single tank will probably be enough to handle most challenges. That winds up tying into the improved AI, however, as the goal is to create challenges which don’t reward a certain disproportionate presence of a given role. If enemies are all challenging because they soak huge amounts of damage, there’s reason to bring more DPS than anything else.

Overall, the goal is to make it so no one group of roles (once the core four are filled) is more or less powerful in every situation. You learn an area and the tactics that work for you over time, and changing how you manage things is important.

Change is also important when it comes to your characters, so that you don’t wind up stuck needing a tank with your character only able to heal. Several systems are being proposed, such as a system allowing you to bring your alt to the same area as the rest of your party if, say, you need a Rogue to disable traps rather than your half-healing half-tanking Crusader for a while. There’s also talk about a progeny system, allowing players to make new characters based upon retired higher-level characters. You should be encouraged and supported in making alts through more than just a shrug and the game allowing you to do so.

It’s always interesting to sit down and talk about the principles behind an indie game, especially one that’s trying to be something of a modern throwback. It’s clear from the interview that Pantheon is channeling a great deal of old-school spirit, but it’ll take the actual testing to see how well it succeeds at its stated goals of bridging the old principles and more modern sensibilities.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2016, bringing you expert MMO coverage from NCsoft, Daybreak, Square Enix, and everything else on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!

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