What would happen if you took a top-down dungeon crawler like Diablo, and transformed it into a socially active free-to-play game? Sounds like a nightmare, right? Don't be too hasty - The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot contains a truckload of personality and tactical play that could satisfy even the most traditional of gamers.
Set in the sprawling kingdom of Opulencia, players register for a castle with which they can decorate and modify as they please. It all seems a bit like The Sims at first - until you realise that such tweaking has a more satisfying benefit.
Other players will try to raid your castle in hopes of winning a large sum of money. Your job is to make sure that nobody who enters your abode gets out alive, by laying traps and monsters all over the place. All the while, you must build up your own wealth by attempting to ransack the castles of other players.
It's a colourful yet engrossing take on the free-to-play model. But more surprising is that the game is being developed by Assassin's Creed
studio Ubisoft Montreal. I had a chat with script writer Matthew Zagurak to learn more about this new direction.
SPOnG: Ubisoft Montreal has been known for working on boxed titles such as Assassinís Creed. This is quite a bold new step for you guys - what was the decision behind going free-to-play?
Well for sure, the writing is on the wall, as it were, in the gaming industry. The free-to-play model, and the online world in general is getting a lot more... the quality of experiences are getting better and better every day. Being a studio which has never shied away from challenges related to quality, we saw this as the next logical evolution.
We donít want to be left behind as the relic of a bygone era... not that the console format is a bygone era by any means. What I mean is that we always want to be future proof, and we want to be reactive to that. We saw the online world as a perfect opportunity for us to jump into something new. Especially since we have a lot of very experienced people who have been doing very similar work for a long time.
SPOnG: It must be an interesting challenge - you talk about making a free-to-play game for core players. But there seems to be a lot of resistance from traditional gamers. How do you tackle that negative perception of free-to-play?
What weíre hoping, for one thing, is that the pedigree of our team and our studio will at least intrigue people. But of course, the proof is in the pudding at the end of the day, right? The proof here is in our product, and we made a lot of effort in making this a very high quality game. Both visually, and in terms of a strong IP. The universe that was set in the launch trailer
... that really sets the tone well. We hope weíre creating an offering that will intrigue people of a certain age - a gamer that has been exposed to the industry for a long time. Someone whoís looking for new experiences, but knows quality when they see it.
SPOnG: What do you say to people on forums when they have such negative reactions towards free-to-play? They might look at these games and say that they donít like where the games industry is heading. You just said that the writing is on the wall, after all...
While I was saying that the writing is on the wall, I think itís important to reiterate that I donít mean that everything is going to be free-to-play, and death to consoles. I wouldnít be on record to say that by any means.
But what I would say is that, maybe why those people feel the way they do about free-to-play - and I canít speak for everyone, obviously - is that there has not yet been an experience in this model that speaks to them. At the end of the day a business model does not dictate if a game is fun to play or not.
SPOnG: How challenging has it been to introduce something that, at first glance, looks like a dungeon crawler like Diablo, includes all sorts of social elements at its core?
Itís not been easy. Itís quite a challenge to have two types of gameplay [social, action] that can gel well together. What we hope is that we manage to make them feel very cohesive and feed into each other. So giving the player building tools that are flexible enough but not too overwhelming. Having attack and defence mechanisms be mutually rewarding. Itís not a simple challenge for sure. It took a long time to find a loop and balance that weíre happy with now.
SPOnG: What about balancing? Players create a castle, place X amount of creatures in there, other players try to beat them to reach treasure. There must be a limit to the amount of defence mechanisms you can place in the castle, right?
Yeah, sort of. Each creature has a score, and you spend points by placing various obstacles down in your castle. One creature may cost 20 points - a dragon costs 30 points, so you can only place those in the final area. Weak creatures might be worth 1 point while slightly more powerful ones could be 3 points. Thereís a tradeoff there - you can either choose to place a small number of powerful creatures down, or a tonne of weak ones.
SPOnG: Your role in the gameís development is the script writer. What does that entail? Is there an overarching storyline in the game, or is it more about maintaining a look and feel?
There isnít an overarching storyline in the traditional sense, in that youíre going to go on a quest with a full story arc. At least, not in the scope that we have right now. I principally write all the character dialogue, community communications via marketing channels (like Twitter, for example) and I essentially ensure that all of these different things follow the same universe and Ďvoiceí.
I guess my main job is to create a universe with its own rules, characteristics and meanings that feeds into all of the content that you see in the game. This is a kingdom that has its own rules to it, with multiple regions. Heroes have a logic to them, and a personality. The main themes of the game are those of conspicuous consumption and suburbia.
All of the heroes that move into the Kingdom of Opulencia are essentially immigrants to this ultimate, rich, gated heroic community. The most successful heroes from all over the world have come to live in, what is essentially the equivalent of Upper Manhattan. The only prevailing values in this kingdom are showboating, bragging and wealth. So all of that feeds into the design of the heroes and creature personalities.
SPOnG: Say you build your castle, and it keeps getting ransacked by multiple players. They obviously win loot for completing your challenges, but do you lose anything in that situation? Have you made it too punishing for those who simply suck at making awesome dungeons?
Nothing is actually going to be taken from you, per se, when your castle gets raided. So if I attack your castle and I succeed, youíre not going to lose anything. But what you will lose is... you lose what you could have gained, if that makes sense. If you had defeated me, your castle would be giving you many rewards. And those rewards would be the spoils of my heroís defeated corpse. You can ransack his gear and...
SPOnG: Can you hang his corpse on the wall?
[Laughs] Not quite to that level of darkness! [Laughs] But I totally hear you about that - especially in a game like this. Youíre not going to enjoy the experience if you lost something every time your castle gets raided. Particularly if it happened thousands of times a month. It would get quite depressing. So thereís no punitive aspect, itís just the fact that youíre just leaving treasure on the table, as it were, by having a castle thatís easily defeated.
SPOnG: Finally; what does it feel like to be working on a free-to-play title?
Honestly, for me itís super-pleasant. When working on a boxed title (which Iíve done my fair share of) thereís this tremendous, constant pressure. The content has got to be in the box by deadline day, or itís gone forever. Maybe the ideas will return in a sequel one day, if youíre lucky.
Whereas with a game like this, no idea is really off the table. Development is only really limited by priorities. Itís not a matter of Ďneverí, not a matter of Ďnoí. Thatís very cool. It feels like the skyís the limit here - within reason, naturally. But thereís a very nice sense of freedom and creativity that comes with working on a title like this.
The other consequence is that it makes the work days a lot more humane. Sure, there are always going to be periods where pressure rises and so on. Thatís natural in any line of work. But thereís not the tremendous huge crunches that you have in traditional games.
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.
My pleasure, thanks!
The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot is available now and is currently in Alpha.