zOmg Interview: The Updates!

Questions by Vincent Haoson, Onrpg writer
Answered by Developer, Dave Georgeson

Onrpg: It has been years since you announced that Gaia is planning on making an MMO and finally here comes zOMG, what were the reasons why the game took this long to finally take shape?

Well, that’s something of an understandable impression, but the truth is that even though Gaia started talking about building a virtual world for Gaia a bunch of years ago, but they didn’t actually start building it until a few months before they hired me in April of 2007. We went Open Beta in only a year-and-a-half after that, which is a pretty rapid pace for constructing an MMO. Of course, we’re taking our time with Open Beta, because we’re not really satisfied to build the “same old game” that you can get elsewhere. If you think we’re somewhat creative and different now, then wait for version 1.0. We have big plans, and the game is going to get more and more unique as time goes by.

Onrpg: What was the biggest hurdle you guys faced upon development of zOMG?

There were two major hurdles, both of which we have overcome completely now. The first hurdle was the fact that, since a big chunk of our userbase is playing the game on school or library computers, we couldn’t afford to have any download component for the game. Therefore, we decided to build a full-blown MMO using nothing but Flash and Java…which is something that just simply hadn’t been done before. In fact, we’ve had to create code to sit on top of Flash so that Flash can do things that even the Adobe engineers didn’t anticipate because most Flash apps don’t have the enormous scope of an entire virtual world.

The second hurdle we faced was that Gaia Interactive is not a game company. Out of the entire development team, there were only two artists and myself that had ever worked on ANY game before, much less a hugely-involved virtual world. There were lots of growing pains, but I would now match our team against any team I’ve worked with at previous companies.

Onrpg: How about now? With the beta test going on, what can you say is the biggest issue you faced in this stage?

The issue we face now is pretty typical, actually. Like most dev teams, our team dreams bigger than we can implement. As I mentioned before, we’re a small team (only 13 people currently). We need to create systems and features that give us the most bang for the buck, dreaming up things that can be played again and again, always staying fun and continuously entertaining for our players. Lots of other MMO teams just crank out new expansion areas and quests. We don’t do that. Instead, we come up with new gameplay mechanisms, systems that can be explored and expanded by players, and other content that we can create once, but that the players can play over and over again with no two gaming sessions being exactly the same.

 A lot of these sorts of systems will be implemented as we march toward Version 1.0.

Onrpg: What inspired you to use rings as the main weapons for players in zOMG?

Gaia Online is a social community of more than seven million unique and creative players. Because Gaians work hard to get their avatars to look a certain way, we didn’t want to create game mechanics that force them to abandon that look and feel for the sake of gameplay.  

So we brainstormed for a bit. We wanted a system that had a lot of flexibility in it so that players could sample and try the various “skills” before eventually becoming comfortable with their own personal style of gameplay. That led to the decision to make rings that were not visible on the character, but which could be used to trigger lots of extremely visual special effects.

We’re going to be making some changes to this system in the coming months to make it even cooler and easier to understand for players, but those are the reasons we created the rings originally.

Onrpg: Where do you get the inspiration on the abilities of the rings?

We here at Gaia Online are…well…kinda crazy. We come up with more off-beat, crackpot ideas in a day than most people have in a year. We love puns, anime, gameplay, and special effects. The designers on the team came up with a desired set of gameplay effects (stuff like “we want a ring that causes monsters to run away” or “a ring that protects you for a short time so you get out of bad trouble occasionally”) and then we brainstorm those designs with the art team. Thus, for the examples given previously, we ended up with the “Scaredy Cat” ring that shows a black cat hissing at your target and makes it run away, and the “Turtle” ring which creates a powerful forcefield that looks like a turtle shell over you.

Coming up with rings is definitely a fun element of the design and the whole team participates in it.

Onrpg: Where do you get the inspiration for the monsters to be cute and deadly?

The idea of the “Animated” came from two sources. The original concept was mostly an in-joke for the already-existing Gaia players. We had scads of virtual items on the site and the idea was “what if all the items in the stores started coming to life?” But we took it further than that. I’m personally a big fan of anime, and one of the more common themes in anime is that living things in the world are connected via lifeforce (or c’hi). After thinking about that for a bit, I got the idea of “What if there was too much lifeforce in the world and it started creating new life in things that were normally inanimate?”

Those two ideas crystalized into the “Animated” and started the ball rolling to create the background fiction we now have in the game. (And, by the way, we’ve barely begun to tell that full story. What’s in the game now is just Chapter One. There are many surprises still to come.)

Onrpg: What’s the process you guys follow in making monsters?

Design starts out brainstorming new gameplay for an area. Once we know the type of tactical things we want in an area, we go to the art team and describe those “fences” for them to brainstorm within. The art team then goes nuts and comes up with stuff that the rest of us would never come up with, making the whole thing cooler than we originally imagined and adding their own spin to the concepts.

The monsters are created as sketches first, then shown to Design and we adapt the design to the monsters that were created to those rough visuals. The art team then crafts them within Flash and animates them. Once the assets are created, they’re handed over to our lead Flash programmer and he massages the assets so they play correctly within our game engine.

Then Design takes over again and we add stats, tailor out the attacks, and play-balance the monster within the game until it’s in the state that we want.

What can you say is the monster that you most like as of development? Why?

My personal favorite is still the “Tiny Terror”. There was a TV show a long time ago that had a little Zuni hunter doll that came to life and chased a lady around an apartment with a knife, eventually taking over her soul. It was scary as hell, scarred me for life…and I loved it. The Tiny Terrors remind me of that doll a lot. (The show was called “Trilogy of Terror” if you want to look it up.)

Where do you get the ideas for the places you create that are not exactly part of the Gaia main storyline?

Good question! I’d have to say that we lean on all the movies, TV shows, and books we’ve every enjoyed, plus a huge dollop of fertile imagination. We think of different locations and things that would be fun, and then work to integrate it and make sense of it with the existing background and fiction. The end-results are usually wildly different from one another, but still manage to feel like you’re in the same world.

What can you say is the most sought after ring for players as of the moment? Why do you think so?

Currently, it’s probably still the “Dervish” ring. It’s area of effect, centered on the user, so it’s very easy to use and quite satisfying when you swoop into a mob of critters and trigger it, causing damage to them all at the same time. Of course, then all those monsters hate you, which means they’re all going to pound on you as soon as they can, so it’s not always the safest ring to use…but it’s fun!

What’s your most favorite ring and why?

Personally, I like the freedom of Coyote Spirit. I usually keep my character buffed with this speed increase, and then use other rings (like Gumshoe) to slow my targets down, so I can run rings around them. Because I use those crowd control and speed rings, I don’t have room for other buffs…so I’m a bit fragile while I do this…but I like the tactical challenge, plus the ability to get the heck out of Dodge if things start getting ugly.

Onrpg: Is there a connection why G-Corp. was able to release the rings just as the animated attack?

There certainly is! The answer is revealed to you after you play further into Chapter One, but the semi-non-spoiler answer is that the folks passing the rings out are just pretending to be from G-Corp because that’s easily believed by the people in Barton Town. However, they’re actually from another group entirely.

Would it be explained later on in the game?

We explain where the rings come throughout Chapter One, and we do reveal the organization that’s responsible for doing it, and why they’re doing it…but we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on this particular plot line. There’s a lot of new revelations and surprises planned for Chapter Two and beyond.

Do you think zOMG would eventually overshadow Gaia Towns?

If you mean “will zOMG! replace Towns”, then the answer is “no.” Towns (and its housing features) have a very important and different role than zOMG! has and we have no intention of replacing that functionality within zOMG! Towns is a non-gaming area where people can just hang out and yak at each other, taking the time and care to customize their houses, sharing them with friends. zOMG! is all about gaming, action, plotlines, and fun. The two areas serve different purposes and so, they’ll always exist together.

Onrpg: Are you guys nearing to the release of zOMG 1.0? I know you are trying to keep things under wraps can you give us an idea on what are the things you still need to fix come 1.0?

Yes, we are absolutely on the road to Version 1.0. It’s our sole focus right now. On the other hand, we’ve identified a lot of changes that we want to before the official launch so that the game is more unique and therefore interesting to the folks that check it out.

The good news is that by the time we’re ready for launch, zOMG! will be something that just simply isn’t duplicated anywhere else. We’re turning it into a mutli-ring circus where there’s always something new and unusual going on, no matter how many times you play the game.

What’s in store for zOMG in the future?

I can’t reveal too much. Since we’re a small team, we try to stay agile by not tipping our hands to features early in the process. That way, we can alter our plans if a better idea comes along.

However, that being said, our first additions will be a large list of community-goal events that occur around the world on a random basis, helping to ensure that on any two days that you play the game, your gaming experiences will be substantially different. After that rolls out, we have a lot of features designed to help find each other, set up better Crews, make the game easier and more fun to learn…and then some real game changers (big features) that we’ll roll out after that which will fundamentally affect balance and game variety.

It’s going to be a very fun summer.

Onrpg: Speaking of a very fun summer, can you tell us more about the big summer event launching today?

The “zOMG!Fest” begins with a focus on the music and the composers behind the music for “zOMG!”.

We have a very talented composer working with us to create our original soundtrack for the game. His name is Jeremy Soule, and he’s quite the accomplished musician, both in the game industry and in the JPop music scene. He’s extremely talented and busy, yet he’s making himself available to Gaians to discuss what the music industry is like, what it’s like to work with zOMG!, and other cool stuff.

Additionally, the zOMG! soundtrack becomes available for purchase today also, and that’s been something our fans have been requesting for a long time now.

There’s still more zOMG!Fest-ian goodness coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled. This is just the start!

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