Massively on the GO: Talking MMOARGs with Orna’s lead dev


We’ve talked a bit about Orna: The GPS RPG a few times here in the Massively on the Go column, as this indie game helps define what a location-based MMO can be when compared to the far more simple mainstream success of Pokemon GO. While the latter’s broader appeal and focus on getting people at least outdoors gives it a larger visible playerbase, Orna’s more creative mechanics are a strong reminder that Niantic heavily relies on IP rather than game development ability.

At the end of the day, though, Orna’s Northern Forge Studio better understands not only the genre but also the problems surrounding games played in meatspace. As few developers are open about this outside of highly sanitized interviews that read more like PR releases, I figured I’d poke the game and company founder, Odie, about not only Orna but his thoughts and practices when working in the MMOARG genre.

Accessibility as the pillar

Previous interviews have touched on some of the single-player/asynchronous-multiplayer games that have influenced Orna – such as Dark Souls, Earthbound, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger among others – but I was curious if there were any specific MMOs or other location-based games that inspired the game.

The opposite seems to be true. Odie mentioned that location-based games had always piqued his interest, but none really seemed to capture what he was looking for in a daily RPG to play. In fact, as he put it, “the asynchronous [multiplayer] nature of some of the games mentioned [above] were really the driving inspirations for how Orna’s multiplayer was developed; it’s there, but not in-your-face, so much so that there are players that continue to play the game completely solo/Kingdomless.”

While Odie told me he’s made some single-player games, Orna was a bit of a happy accident. “The location-based nature of Orna was really accidental while making a foray into geolocation technology,” he says. He just happened to make something that was popular with his friends and decided to release it into the wild. But while the game does have real-time multiplayer features, it feels as though it’s more of an asynchronous multiplayer game.

For example, I’ve noted that in the recent update, real-time PvP is supposed to be more rewarding, but at my level, I’ve still yet to be matched up with anyone. “Although it was extremely frequently requested, it’s clear that Live PvP has not been a successful fit for Orna,” Odie told me. “It may not be something we keep in its current form.”

And I can appreciate that. I know I’m becoming a bit of a relic in the MMO genre, being someone who wants less “alone together” content and more systems that drive social play, but finding a bridge between my style and those of players who at least want occasional intersections between solo and group play is an important factor for me in my chosen games.

It’s also a good reminder to players about why devs may sometimes seem like they’re not listening. I love that Orna has chat and multiplayer dungeons I can run in real-time, but I still feel more like a PC guy, so typing on a tiny keyboard while trying to fight is often too sluggish for my taste, meaning I don’t do real-time multiplayer outside of some major events. It helps to illustrate that players may ask for certain features, but what players do is separate from what they say.

This is why I had to ask whether Orna had specific goals in mind about how and why Orna should be played so I could make sure that I’m “playing it right.” Odie suggested the question goes back to that point about his “desire for accessibility of play.”

“To be frank, GPS games have very low accessibility by nature – weather, injury, sickness, global pandemics, prior engagements – everything adds up to add friction to players’ ability to work on their builds, grind for Ornates [the highest tier of loot], etc.,” he says. “Providing enough to do while stationary was paramount to ensure players could invest the time they needed in certain aspects of their character progression.”

And Odie’s right. We’ve seen these issues come up time and time again. Look no further than the recent Pokemon NO campaign, in which players loudly stated their opposition to the loss of accessibility options that had finally enabled mobile-handicapped players to enjoy the game. Heck, even 2017’s weather system, which did help the game for a time, still feels like dangerous design, especially compared to Orna’s far safer randomized weather effects, allowing heat waves in Anchorage and snowstorms in Los Angeles.

There’s a lot that MMOARGs can do in meatspace that hasn’t been explored, but the question I often wonder about is where to draw the line between innovative design and genre ignorance. Orna has a lot of traditional gameplay, but it often feels like a +1 to older systems in that they’re slightly connected to a real-world map, less so than some other titles but enough that I’ll open the game when I visit new places to see what’s different.

That being said, Odie admitted that “the lockdowns also made it a difficult decision to invest in more outdoor play.” He says that “3.2 should bring some of that gameplay back, while retaining the at-home play some players have grown used to.”

As someone who plays location-based games partially to get to know locals, I’m looking forward to learning what those changes may be, but with my history, I’m also concerned. Orna already seems more considerate about privacy than most location-based games I’ve played to date; only Ludia’s Jurassic World: Alive seems comparable. Wizards Unite was safer than most Niantic titles and the first to get the axe, but I’d argue that had less to do with privacy and more about not understanding the IP or player habits.

Odie, however, assured me that “[p]rivacy and safety is paramount in this genre,” and the fact that there’s no good way to use the game to stalk another player “is definitely intentional,” as the studio plans to “continue to respect and protect player privacy and safety.” In fact, Odie specifically mentioned how he is “aware that at least one other GPS game is known for player-to-player issues,” which he would “love to stay far away from.”

Moreover, “Exploration mode was added to allow players to invest in the area exploration part of the game without needing to engage in competitive play,” he says. For those less familiar with Orna, just know that there is area control similar to how it functions in many PvP games where you can forcibly take a region from other players, but Exploration allows you to defeat a local boss to “explore” a region and get similar (but less) benefits than the Control option, except that no one can take and Exploration from you. It’s a small but important incentive that other games trying to push exploration should take note of.

Funding the future

Orna is incredibly generous for a free-to-play mobile title in 2022 – maybe a little too generous. While Gauntlets (raids) and Arenas (1v1 asynchronous PvP) use a key system that could be super-stretched if someone absolutely wanted to complain about gambling, I get so many keys that I really would need hours of singularly playing one mode to burn through them all, maybe even days at this point. I don’t imagine people buying enough of those to keep the game online.

Then there are the paid classes, all of which are about $10 and restricted to the lower levels of the game. I outgrew those classes maybe within the first week or two of play. They’re nice for grinding experience for as someone who enjoys walking, but I very much feel like an outlier here. There are “appearances” you can purchase via the cash shop sprite packs for a similar price as the classes, plus the company Patreon, but I had unjustly written those off too. Turns out, that’s where the money is.

“One of the best lessons of Orna has been [this]: If you make a good product, players will support you,” Odie told me. “Contrary to what may be popular belief, F2P players do understand that we have expenses and are willing to support us in making the best experiences that we can.”

I have myself guilt-purchased a few sprite packs I barely use because even though I don’t play much, I would hate to see the game go under, and apparently I’m not alone in wanting to keep the lights on. I’ve seen guildies with some sweet sprites I’d love to have, and people frequently mention that sprites or Patreon choices were about making sure the devs get money.

To note, while the game’s art is being updated (including new sprites thanks to team artist Covyn), Odie plans to “work with players to find the best way to logistically tackle” how/if current sprite packs are simply updated, include newly improved sprites, or whatever it is the community and devs can agree to do.

Art aside, Odie noted that his “non-P2W vision” is why purchasable keys are also quite farmable. However, there’s no word about the future of paid classes. Odie actually asked if we’d like to see more, including the potential for late/endgame variants, which I’d personally enjoy. I felt like around level 125 (level 225 is needed for the end-game classes, which tend to learn their final skill at level 240 or later) my orn-gaining ability from casual play drastically dropped and the grind felt palpable. I’d be willing to pay real cash for something new to play myself, as long as the classes aren’t better than what’s unlockable with in-game currency. I’m not sure how other players would feel though, so feel free to leave comments below for the devs!

Speaking of classes, I did have to ask why the Deity class line is so expensive. The class -which requires a pair of expensive faction-restricted elemental classes prior to the Deity’s 20 million orns (when all other endgame classes are 15 mill) – is seldom discussed in the online circles I’ve joined. I played with it a bit on the test realm, and while it’s a jack-of-all-trades with a fun theme (energy themes, multiple elemental damage types, lifesteal, and access to magic and physical damage), I didn’t see the kind of damage numbers I’ve seen people get in videos with other classes.

“Deity is meant to be the most versatile, dynamic, and play-how-you-want endgame class,” Odie explains. “Thus, there is an added price tag – and a final goal post from the classline perspective.” As you can hybridize classes, such as bringing a shield skill into a mage class even if you don’t have the stats to support using it well, having a master hybrid class does make sense once you reach the highest levels of the game. And as the game seems geared for grinders, Odie’s explanation feels satisfactory, even if I may never achieve my dream of sprite-godhood.

While tier 11 has been teased before in that previous interview, Odie said that it may be “something that max levels can have exclusive access to,” but before that, the team may be “investing in a new classline or two first – something to cover multiple tiers and offer fresher playstyles.” We’ll stay tuned as he suggests! 5/13 Update: Here’s a small preview of the upcoming 3.2 features, including a simple mini-game players can engage in that requires some walking.

I’d like to thank Odie and the Northern Forge crew for giving us the time to answer our questions. You can check out Orna on its official site, Google Play, and the Apple Appstore.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!
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