Questions by Michael Sagoe (mikedot)
Answers by Jeromy Walsh, Creative Director of Soulbound Studios
Now a lot of MMORPG projects these days are always pushing themselves as the next big thing. With the genre being completely stagnant as it is, it’s very easy for people to believe such a claim, but in truth, a whole lot of them generally do not offer much in the way of new ideas, or ideas that sound good on paper but are lackluster when executed.
However, a new indie studio, Soulbound Studios, is looking to change all that with their newest title, Chronicles of Elyria, and as such they wanted everyone to truly believe in their vision for this title. Proof is in the pudding, and so they pushed a working prototype to coincide with their Kickstarter campaign, showing off many of the features they already have up and running. It’s a straight forward gut check to any doubters ready to jump on the bandwagon of claiming the game is only a pipedream.
With that said, I got a chance to chat with the head of Soulbound Studios to learn more about the game, and the already successful Kickstarter.
Mikedot: Hello there! So as I introduce myself, my name is Michael Sagoe, but you can call me Mikedot. For those that don’t already know: Could you introduce yourself for our viewers and tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi Mikedot! Sure. My name is Jeromy Walsh. I’m a long-time gamer, game programmer, software engineer, role-playing game fanatic, and lover of fantasy literature and ancient mythology. But, for the sake of this conversation, I’m the owner of Soulbound Studios and Creative Director for the in-development MMO, “Chronicles of Elyria.”
Mikedot: Tell us more of the development team behind CoE.
Jereomy: The development team on Chronicles of Elyria is still small as game teams go, especially for an MMO, sitting at 17 people right now. The core three team members have been working with each other about a year and a half now, with the rest joining within the last 3-6 months. But, one of the great things about the team is aside from a few superstars we hired because of their outstanding work, the majority of the team members already knew one or more of the other team members from previous companies.
So while we’ve only been working together for a short time, the team meshes really well and we spend not only our days working together, but a lot of the evenings hanging out, going to dinner, and playing games as well. This creates a really strong synergy.
As for as the team’s composition, we’ve got a couple programmers, animators, concept and character artists, an environment artist, a composer, a sound engineer, and then our outreach team. In total, the cumulative experience on the team totals more than 40 years of experience in and around the game industry.
Mikedot: For those that haven’t already checked out the Kickstarter campaign for Chronicles of Elyra, give us a brief overview of the game.
Jereomy: Wow. A brief overview of the game. Ok. Take everything you know about MMOs, and then turn it upside down and you’ve got Chronicles of Elyria. It’s a skill-based MMO with aging and permadeath, where your soul rather than your character is the important part. It’s got genetics and player-ran families, and instead of quests there are player and NPC-created contracts. There’s a dynamic story engine that follows you around instead of having quest hubs, and there’s enough sandbox elements to support player-ran kingdoms made up of potentially 20,000 players.
Mikedot: So recently before launching the Kickstarter campaign, you guys showed off a preview of the game during PAX East 2016. What was the overall response to the game from the public?
Jereomy: The overall response was really good. People really appreciated that we showed up to PAX East to give them a hands-on look at our combat system, even in a pre-alpha state while preparing for our upcoming Kickstarter. Of course, there were a lot of questions about whether the combat system would include other weapons, whether or not it could handle latency, and whether or not we’d iterate on the mechanics or leave them as-is. But those were all questions we were prepared for. So I think we represented ourselves very well and we had a great time at PAX meeting and interacting with the players.
Mikedot: What has been the overall response to the game’s ongoing development from your Kickstarter backers? How much of their input has been noted and how much of their input do you plan to implement into the game’s development?
Jereomy: The response from backers on Kickstarter has been extremely positive! We’re just over one week through and we’re already at 86% funded. Kickstarter aside, we’ve already developed a reputation for being extremely transparent with our community and open and receptive to feedback. There’s generally at least one person from the team in our IRC channel, and many of us are on Discord. We also do weekly live Q&As where I answer questions, sight unseen, and it’s our hope that players feel like they’re getting to know us, and recognize that we listen to everything they’re saying.
As for how much of their feedback do we plan to implement into the game? That’s hard to quantify. We liken ourselves to artists in a way, and we recognize that game development and mechanics are extremely subjective. So rather than try and please everyone, we’re trying to stay true to our original vision for the game. Periodically someone says something that makes us question our vision, but whatever path we take forward it’s always because we’ve improved on our vision, and never made a change to cater to a particular audience.
Mikedot: Was there any other hardships and/or difficulties faced during the game’s development or with organizing the Kickstarter campaign?
Jereomy: At the moment, things are running really smoothly; aside from a notable lack of funding. I think our biggest obstacle to overcome at the moment is the belief that a small, independent company of passionate developers can’t achieve something amazing – even with the right leadership, workflows, and best practices. We hope to overcome that in time as well.
We hope to be an example for other small studios. Passion, determination, and a willingness to defy conventional wisdom and go all in on your dream can make all the difference.
(Editor’s Note: Chronicles of Elyria had not yet funded at the time of this interview. At the time of posting, they’re now at 109%!)
Mikedot: While this game seems to be the exact opposite of just about every fantasy MMORPG out there, what do you feel is the most innovative feature presented in the game so far?
Jereomy: Innovative? It’s hard to say. Back in the mid-2000’s I was at the Austin Game Developer’s Conference and while there someone made a remark that all the good ideas had already been had. The general feeling going around the conference, and really the industry at the time, was that there were no new ideas. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but one of the reasons we chose now to act on our vision for CoE was that we were starting to see more and more of our ideas tried in other games. So I don’t want to claim innovation on any single system. I think what makes CoE stand out the most is the way all the systems work together to create a seamless, cohesive design.
That all said, for me, the problem with theme park and sandbox MMOs is ultimately the same thing. While theme park MMOs have a story, the story is the same for everyone and is always present. That takes away any sense of urgency or fluidity. It’s like a river that isn’t moving. No matter how exciting the white-caps may look, because there’s no sense of urgency; it all seems fake.
Sandbox MMOs often don’t have a story at all, or if they do, they give you the ability to completely ignore it. So I think the most innovative aspect of CoE is that we’re trying to create a story that’s constantly in motion. So players have a reason to log in every single day.
Mikedot:: Could you tell us a bit more about the game’s combat system? Is there any particular video games or influences that inspired CoE’s combat?
Jereomy: The combat system is actually pretty straight forward. There are a wide variety of weapons and weapon sets (think long sword vs. long sword plus shield), and for each weapon (set) there are techniques that can be learned. These techniques can be placed into combo trees in certain locations in order to create sequences of attacks. The attacks themselves are initiated with left and right mouse button clicks.
Simple. Of course, what we were aiming for with CoE was a system that’s simple to learn but difficult to master. While you can throw attacks into a combo tree, what makes CoE different is the need to parry and deflect in order to stave off enemy attacks. Likewise, there’s feints and dodges, each of which can change the flow of combat in different ways.
Add to that fatigue and the fact that different types of weapons are more effective against different types of weapons and armor and you’ve got a combat system that requires players to be knowledgeable, prepared, perceptive of the situation, and responsive. Shortcoming in any of those areas can cause a fight to turn against you.
As for what games inspired us? That’s virtually impossible to say. Many of us have played a wide array of fighting games, modern MMOs with different combat systems, as well as single-player RPGs. We ultimately just iterated until we found a system we felt was fun, challenging, flexible, and engaging.
Mikedot: Tell us more about the aging system.
Jereomy: Not much to tell here. Your character starts at around age 15, grows old, and eventually dies. Of course there’s the cosmetic elements of that in place, but more than that there’s the mechanics involved. As your character ages, both their attributes and skills are affected by the process. As you get older it becomes more and more difficult to maintain your physical attributes, but it becomes easier and easier to develop your mental and social attributes.
Similarly, as your character ages he/she becomes more efficient at learning through study and research, rather than practice, and also becomes better at instructing and teaching others. As they say, the best way to learn is to teach.
Mikedot: How big do you plan to make the world of CoE?
Jereomy: That’s really open-ended at this point. We haven’t told people how big the world is. All we’ve said thus far is that we’ll start with one continent per server and then allow them to expand/explore over time as technology allows them to sail further distances at sea.
What we have said is that we plan for the starting continents to be 256km x 256km maps, with somewhere between 30% and 70% being land. At 50%, that puts the land roughly 256km x 128km.
Mikedot: What are the advantages (and possible disadvantages) to CoE’s business model compared to F2P, B2P or P2P?
Jereomy: The Free-To-play model generally relies heavily on cash-shops, micro-transactions, and the creation of new cosmetic art assets. Because the business is contingent upon people buying stuff from those stores, that naturally becomes the focus of the development studio. That means that as a small studio we’d mostly be focusing on cosmetic stuff, instead of the really meaningful stuff, and would have less resources to focus on the part of the game we want to focus on. Also, there’s a tendency to want to release better and better items in the cash shops to encourage purchase, which tends to encourage an eventual transition into “pay to win,” as players begin to demand more valuable stuff.
Buy-to-play is a great model, but generally requires the release of additional expansions and boxed copies of the game to continue to generate revenue. There’s nothing wrong with that, people buy the game, play or not, and if they enjoyed it they buy the next expansion. The problem for us is that it creates a static world that seemingly only changes with the addition of new expansions. Our game is really about having a dynamic, constantly changing world. So, if our world is constantly changing and expanding, how do you monetize or rationalize the purchase of an expansion?
Finally, Pay-to-play is really just a way to amortize a B2P model over a longer period of time. The problem we’ve encountered with P2P is that the cost to play is a sunk cost. Meaning each month, 6-months, year, etc. the players have dropped their money and so how they play, how they interact with others is of little concern. This tends to encourage griefing and other negative behaviors.
What we’ve done with Chronicles of Elyria is to take the B2P model and made it so people buy Sparks of Life instead of expansions. That has the effect of disassociating what people buy to play from our ability to constantly release new content through our dynamic story engine. At the same time, by associating a Spark of Life with a player’s behavior in the world, it encourages intelligent choices in how people play. Overall, we feel like we’ve created a new business model that we’ll likely see adapted to other games in the future.
Mikedot: With a handful of underwhelming crowdfunded games released in the past years, many people have become somewhat cautious when it comes to crowdfunding campaigns.
Jereomy: Yep. More and more we’re seeing funding fatigue, and this hesitancy to back new projects. It’s understandable. It’s the crowdfunding equivalent of what publishers started to do when they realized there were for more unsuccessful games than successful ones. The only way to combat that is to develop a solid relationship with the backers and to be extremely transparent throughout.
Mikedot:: What kind of audience are you hoping to achieve with CoE?
Jereomy: Well, while we’re certainly not trying to exclude anyone, and we’re happy to have all players, we recognize that some of the mechanics might be a little off-putting to a less mature audience. Primarily the fact that the game is fair, but not equitable. Also, many of our Kickstarter rewards are things like land, castles, noble titles, etc. which to some audiences would seem like a “pay-to-win” reward system. Really, Chronicles of Elyria isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about participating in a living story, and there are many different roles in a story. There’s nobles, champions, merchants, crafters, etc. Really, CoE requires an audience that recognizes there’s no single definition for success, winning, or victory. Likewise, we’re integrating systems that cater to an audience that may have less free time due to responsibilities such as families and jobs.
And admittedly, a lot of the systems and ideas harken back to the early days of online gaming with Ultima Online, MUDs, and even table-top role-playing games. All of that combines, and we assume most of our players will be in their late 20’s, to mid-50’s. Again, we want to welcome everyone, but in general, we’re building a game we believe is likely to appeal to a slightly older audience.
Mikedot: When will CoE be ready for testing?
Jereomy: As soon as possible! Seriously though, we want to get players into the world as quickly as we can so we can begin to get player feedback. So as soon as we feel it’s stable, secure, and capable of having a couple hundred players in the world, we’ll begin letting people in.
Mikedot: Any closing comments?
Jereomy: Nope! Thanks for talking with us and we hope everyone has a chance to dive in at some point and experience a completely different type of game.
Mikedot: Be sure to check out this game and others in our monthly Kicktracker Report, focusing on current and past funded Kickstarter campaigns!