When I met Frostkeep Studios’ CEO Jeremy Wood and crew at GDC earlier this year, I walked away impressed. I finally felt like I understood why other MOP staff are so excited about this flying-under-the-radar title. And this year at E3, I not only saw a more finished build of Rend but got some hands-on time with the game. I can’t say the floor demo did the game any justice, but what I heard from Wood and co-founder Solomon Lee sounded like the kind of forward thinking that only comes from developers who know the history of the genre and their playerbase.
Although I think I could start a hype train, I’m going to try to try to reserve judgment for a little longer. Rend may not be an MMO (it’s a moddable survival game with factions), but it has the potential to feed that MMO hunger we know you’re craving.
Taking the tour
While the developer-guided demo wasn’t multiplayer or online, it was a copy of a player-inhabited build, so we could explore a game world actually lived in by players, blemishes and all (remember survivalists, don’t put your storage outside your buildings!). Again, E3 is notorious for terrible internet connection issues. I’m not sure how some companies can pull it off while others struggle, but it’s also why I wonder why small pieces of the world aren’t chopped up and packed as demos.
At any rate, as the game’s still not in a buy-to-alpha state, what Frostkeep brought to E3 was more than fine for a developer-led tour. And oh, my, what a tour! The first thing that I got to see was the pets/mounts in action. Previously there were only a few. I was shown a boar, but it was kind of simple. There were shades of ideas in the GDC demo, but not fully fleshed out.
The E3 pet system was much more complete. I’d already been told before that all the pets would have small differences, like maybe holding more stuff or having special abilities, but that’s been really developed since. Their actual functionality seemed quite, well, natural! Pets start harvesting and guarding you as soon as you summon them. I’m told they’re fairly programmable too, though when I later had hands-on time with the floor demo, I couldn’t see it. Frostkeep did offer to send someone to assist me, but my schedule this year was quite full, so we couldn’t arrange that. Besides, normal players and E3-goers don’t get that kind of treatment, and I wanted to keep my assessment grounded in something similar to what average players experience.
In the dev demo, though, the pets really popped. The animals all have their own personality before you get to their abilities. Not all of them are in-game right now, but I could see signs. The turtle was pretty slow, but it had an impressive amount of pack space. As a hardcore gatherer, I could see myself using one in some situations where I’m in a relatively safe location and don’t want to constantly go back and forth to the bank.
The ideas for other pet abilities are numerous but practical: special mounted abilities, speed varieties, the ability to gather unique materials players can’t, and more. Every creature you find should have some unique features. Something like the dinos in ARK or even Pokemon. Finding “the best” beast shouldn’t happen. Rather, it should be about finding the best one for specific tasks. Maybe I seem naive for believing in a developer, but so far they’re delivering on their promises, which are fairly well grounded in what’s possible. More on that later though.
While they can be mounts as well, pets aren’t exactly meant for mounted combat. They may have an attack or two, but you can’t use your own weapons while mounted. Mounts don’t turn on the dime, so someone could just get behind you and rip up your mount, which you don’t want because they’re quite expensive to revive. In fact, people let the floor demo mounts die and that character seemed to lack enough money to revive them.
Then we looked a bit at the potential for property damage. Explosives were on the list for today’s demo. Community Lead Evan “Scapes” Berman was on hand again and behind the wheel for the demo and dropped a bomb by a player’s house. The resulting explosion blasted open the wooden doors but barely made a dent against the stone structures. Having various levels of durability is good since it means it’s harder for a new player to take out a whole long-standing building easily, but at the same time, the team is looking into ways of reinforcing doors so they aren’t always so vulnerable.
It’s also important to note that the game is using some simple physics. Nothing on the level of Worlds Adrift, as Frostkeep’s engine isn’t able to track all of that without making some huge sacrifices, but if you take out the first floor of a building, the second story isn’t going to magically float. It means players have to carefully build their homes to ensure that can withstand an attack.
Seeing housing, mounts, and siege tools was cool, but again, this was all without players. Especially because of how recent games have been taken not only by MOP readers but the MMO-sphere as a whole, I had some really specific questions I wanted to ask the team while they were present.
Learning from past PvP
A lot of teams say this, but Frostkeep really does takes feedback well. Co-founder Solomon Lee constantly mentioned that the team takes player feedback seriously, and it shows. As they’ve said in the past, the original plan for The Reckoning – when faction towns’ shields drop and become vulnerable – allowed players to potentially kill off an entire faction. While that’s cool for some of us, a lot of players disliked it, which is why you steal the enemy faction’s collection of souls instead.
However, even though the team’s dream of high moddability probably won’t make it to launch, they do want the elimination option as something people can turn on for private servers. It’s not just that though. Ideas come from everyone: players, staff, and yes, the CEO. That means that, yes, the team knows some people don’t want PvP at all, so private servers will have the ability to do PvE only. You can simply put everyone on the same faction, turn off the reckoning, and let people build and raid.
That’s not the game I want to play myself, but I’m thrilled it’s something people can do if they want. Wood told me, “It doesn’t make any sense to make the game that’s perfect for me. […] It’s egotistical and counterproductive.” It’s just so… factual. I get that a small team can’t always be flexible, but clearly Frostkeep has been building the game with moddability in mind, and that allows it to be flexible enough to give players that kind of freedom. I probably will want to mostly stick with official servers since I trust random player mods less than corporate ones, but again, player freedom is important, especially these days as every game seems to try to fracture our MMO specific communities with some kind of online play.
Speaking of the Reckoning, it’s not currently up on the test server, but will be before players can pay for the game. However, we recently covered the control point plan for the game’s region-based PvP objectives. The current reward mechanic discourages the usual “faction flipping” we see with a lot of open world PvP objectives in other games by increasing rewards based on how long an enemy’s controlled the territory. In theory, this design encourages defenders to defend what they’ve taken, and attackers must debate whether or not a point is worth taking. As a veteran of several PvP MMOs and survival games, it’s an elegant solution to a longstanding problem.
The team’s not one to sit on its laurels, though. Wood mentioned how one faction’s lead could snowball out of control early on, which is basically what happens during the launch rush of many games, so the devs are looking into reducing rewards based on how many objectives a faction controls.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s a change that makes the dominant faction a bit weaker and gives the other factions motivation to stay in the game, keeping everyone involved longer, as I’ve seen “winners” on PvP servers leave once they feel there’s no threat left to challenge them. Granted, Rend’s worlds, like Crowfall’s, are supposed to be round based, but this still ensures that the round isn’t decided too early in the game.
Perhaps by now some people are noticing that PvPvE is a kind of the buzzword being used for simple PvE in PvP games, but the PvPvE experience in Rend is very conscious. It’s not just about dropping a boss out in the world, or even adding certain abilities to make an encounter “griefable.” It’s about placement. For example, a lot of the high-end bosses are in difficult to reach areas, sometimes where just standing in the area is life threating, making certain encounters “safer” from griefing. That being said, encounters are also placed with things like openness and chokepoints in mind, so a player could potentially sneak past a raid and jump them at an opportune moment. It’s not something everyone wants to deal with (hence the goal of moddable servers), but there’s certainly an audience for it.
In theory, Frostkeep really seems to have learned from PvP in past games. It’s listening to the community, even when it’s at odds with the developers’ original plans. Building the game with modding involved seems to really be a great way for them to give players a Plan B in case they don’t like the base game.
Update: In light of the Fortnite port and other developers name-dropping the console, I’d followed up on our GDC discussion of how Frostkeep might potentially develop Rend for the Nintendo Switch. Executive Director of Communications Michele Cagle revealed that the main priority is getting the game not only out, but moving through early access and beta within a year of an EA launch, so console ports are taking a backseat to that.
Update #2: CEO Jeremy Wood added, “we are monitoring the success of more modern traditional console games on the platform. We know there’s a market for us with XBOX and PS so our efforts will start there, but we will investigate the Switch if it makes sense.”
Trying to Rend
On paper, it all looks good, and as this is the second time I’ve met the developers in a few months, the rapid progress they’ve made makes me feel as if I can trust them to deliver. The only issue I have is that the floor demo I got to try was lacking. Single player demos of huge empty worlds are, frankly, boring. Without a proper start and finish, the game can feel intimidating, but worse, with a survival game, having the character constantly need food or water is annoying to a veteran and wholly frightening to a player first entering the genre.
Like MMOs, these games can also start rather slow. Being solo does mean I didn’t have to worry about being ganked, but also meant I couldn’t get any assistance from chat. It could just be that I’ve been bouncing around genres a lot, but parts of the game’s UI and control scheme were confusing. For example, Z is used to summon your pet and to mount it if you approach it, rather than “F,” which is used to check pet inventory and “other” uses.
Some features from the developer led demo also seemed broken on the floor. My mounts all refused to walk, but Berman had no issue with this during our meeting.
Update: Apparently mounts need to be leveled before they can walk. Step one only allows for mounting, meaning the demo character hadn’t worked on that.
That being said, I did see plenty to love. While there’s no climbing as in Conan Exiles (which really upped my personal enjoyment of that game), and no physics-damaging falling pieces like in Worlds Adrift, building is still cool. You put up a skeletal frame and then choose what material to use to reinforce it with. It’s a small design choice, but it let me build a frame of reference before heavily investing in that structure. In fact, the system was enjoyable enough that I had to pull myself away from it once I started to notice I was working on a second story for a rather wide house.
Learning certain skills seems to require one to get back to civilization, so it keeps players moving and tied to a social hub, something I never thought I’d be writing about in terms of survival games. As Rend is faction-based, that limitation acts as a way to ensure that players bump into their faction mates. Remember, there are only 20 people per faction playing at any time, so having a system that encourages the meeting of your allies in a safe place is critical. It’s also something I’ve never really experienced in a survival game because, well, I’ve never had a safe zone to meet people in.
It doesn’t end there, though. Meteors crash down to indicate possible loot. Combined with player housing, faction capitals, and PvP objectives, the game tries to create lots of PvP hot spots, static and dynamic. However, by focusing on a diverse number of open-world opportunities in clearly defined locations, the devs hope PvP players can be funneled into areas they know they’ll find action, while also telegraphing to less PvP inclined folks (who aren’t on private servers) that maybe there’s an area they should avoid for the moment.
We’ll see how all this translates when we see the general public enter the fray, but at the moment, I’m optimistic about what Rend brings to both the MMO and survival genres.