The Repopulation Interview – Sandbox is back
The wind is shifting in the MMORPG genre. After an era of World of Warcraft clones (which had stolen Everquest’s formula in the first place), all belonging to the “theme park” subgenre, more and more games are being developed with sandbox elements. I’m not talking about the Minecraft influence, mind you, though there is some of that (for example, in Everquest Next); I’m talking about the sandbox foundation of titles like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, which enabled players to truly be whomever they wanted to be, shaping the world itself with their actions.
The Repopulation follows in these legendary footsteps, with developer Above and Beyond adding their own twists for an impressive feature set. We have talked with Lead Designer/Programmer JC Smith in the midst of their second Kickstarter campaign, which is supposed to help them improve the game with new features and polish it before release.
Q: First of all, how does it feel to be one of the most anticipated MMORPGs, especially by sandbox fans? Initially, The Repopulation was just a little known indie game, but now with the hype, getting the Greenlight in just a few days and two successful Kickstarter campaigns, are you feeling the pressure?
A: It’s pretty overwhelming when you think about how this game began: as a proof of concept for an article I had written on what would become the games generated mission system. From there it grew into a small project with a few core people, to where it is now, where the game has really begun to pick up steam and gather a lot of support. Some pressure obviously comes along with that attention, and with players contributing money to the project. But we’re all very confident in the game we’re creating. It’s been a wild ride these past 18 months, but we can see the end in sight, and that’s really exciting.
Q: Before going in the specifics of the game, I have a couple of questions regarding polish. I feel that this is one of the reasons that brought down previous attempts at sandbox MMORPGs, forcing them to stay in niche spots that didn’t mind their lack of polish.
A: Polish (and bugs) has been a big issue for most indie titles. You don’t generally have the budget to hire enough people to focus on each individual task. So you wind up in situations where your people are stretched really thin. I’m a lead programmer, and I also wind up translating a lot of the content ideas into the game, as well as doing a good amount of the special FX. It’s like that across the board, and I’d imagine it’s the same for most indie projects. That’s where KickStarter really helps. You often hear comments from end users wondering how $10k can really help you build a better game, but to an indie developer it helps a ton.
That’s money that can be spent outsourcing artwork, or allowing you to hire 5-6 employees for a month. Nobody gets paid much on these products, even your key people are making less than the majority of the games backers. They do that because of budget constraints and due to their belief in the game they are creating. Indie developers are always going to be at a disadvantage here. But crowd funding is helping a lot in that regard. I think when it really comes down to it though, as an indie you know you have a limit budget to work with and you stretch it out on the most important things first, and then try to polish with whatever is left over. A larger budget leaves more room for polish.
I think when it really comes down to it though, as an indie you know you have a limit budget to work with and you stretch it out on the most important things first, and then try to polish with whatever is left over. A larger budget leaves more room for polish.
Q: For instance, I noticed that while lighting in outdoor environments during daytime has significantly improved, the same cannot be said for indoor environments and nighttime. Do you intend to upgrade lighting in these conditions as well?
A: We’ve experimented quite a bit with outdoor lighting techniques. We tried to make night realistically dark, forcing players to use light sources at night. And we did similar things in dungeons. The tester feedback though was generally negative when we did, so we wound up going with a more moonlit style to night/cave lighting. It’s still darker, but players can get by without a light source. Light sources are still available though.
Night time still feels different. Spawns are often different. Some shops will close, while some pubs will open. Lights in the city will switch on or off, etc. You just won’t have the pitch black appearance. In this case though, that was a design decision based on tester feedback, and not polish related.
Q: Also, while character animations have improved when compared to the first demonstrations of The Repopulation, they still don’t seem really smooth. Do you plan to have another full pass at animations before release, or should players expect only minor improvements from now on?
A: We’re constantly improving animations. NPC animations are one of our primary focuses right now, a few species have already received the revamp, with more on the way.
One problem we had though was the distance animation scalar was enabled in all of the older video footage. This causes objects to drop animation frames the further they are from the camera, and was causing some of the distant mobs in larger scenes to appear choppier than they needed to be.
Q: Speaking of the combat system, there has been a lot of talk in the past couple of years regarding the “Trinity” of roles (TANK, DPS, HEALER), with games either trying to set themselves apart from it or embracing it. Will The Repopulation feature these roles, even loosely?
A: We’re a bit of a hybrid in that regard. Weapon lines still generally fall into those categories. There are medical and aggro management abilities, and players will generally settle into some type of a role due to the time penalty for switching weapons (and thus roles) during combat. There is no penalty for swapping out equipment outside of combat though, so I’d expect you will see a lot of situations where there are characters who can fill multiple roles based on a groups need.
Q: You’re offering the opportunity to choose between a third-person “RPG Mode” and a first-person “Action Mode”. I have a question for each one: as for the former, are you going to limit the number of slots available on the action bar so that players have to choose carefully? As for the latter, do you plan to introduce controller support to The Repopulation, maybe after launch?
A: Weapon lines will generally have roughly 15 or more abilities that they can perform at gradmaster. You can currently have up to six action bars open if you wish. You will also be able to bind your actions to a joypad, if you wish. In action mode it will also cycle between special abilities automatically based on which action button you used (Normal, Momentum or Defensive). I’d guess most users with joypads would simply bind those to a button, as well as maybe a couple special purpose abilities.
Q: Vehicles and even mechs will be featured in the game. While these things are always exciting, there’s also the need of balancing them – how many characters on foot do you expect will be required to take down a mech, for example, or an armored vehicle?
A: It will take a few characters to take down a good siege vehicle such as a mech. Siege vehicles are also less effective vs. players than they are in dealing with other vehicles or structures, however. Those vehicles primary purpose is to take down shields, take out opposing structures, or to defend against enemy vehicles, and not as anti-infantry vehicles. Vehicles with lighter weapons will generally be more lightly armored. Siege vehicles will also also need to be deployed from a vehicle garage, meaning they will need to travel to the siege, giving defenders a chance to cut off their lines of access.
Q: Amongst the many interesting features of The Repopulation, there’s one particularly worth of discussion. One of the most underveloped aspects in gaming is surely that of AI, while physics and graphics are improving constantly.
A: I feel like AI has made a lot of strides in single player or small group games, but it’s definitely an area where MMOs have lagged behind. That’s primarily out of necessity. MMO servers are dealing with tens of thousands of mobs at a time, so they generally try to keep as many of them in “sleep” mode as possible. Even when there are players nearby and they awaken, you generally use a much more simplified form of AI than you’d get in a single player game. It would certainly be easier for games to improve AI, but it would also require a lot more hardware, and would cut into their bottom line, and make it harder to make a profit.
I do think MMOs are getting better in this regard, and we’re certainly going to be doing our best to try to mix things up AI wise. But there’s only so far you can go. For example, our NPCs can seek cover, they can move around a little bit in combat, and things of that nature. Some boss mobs which can issue commands to their minions, where other types of mobs will run and get help rather than attempting to fight. There are other ways we can continue to improve AI, and I think in general MMOs will see a lot of improvements in that regard in the coming years. They’ll always lag behind single player games, however.
Q: You stated that NPCs can speak about things that have happened to them, and they also remember players actions. Would it be possible, then, to have an NPC give you a quest about killing a certain player because he/she raided the NPC’s property, or something like that?
A: It is possible. There are two NPC traits (Cause and Dilemma) which work together in that regard. If you help an NPC you might give them a trait that makes their Dilemma Grateful and their Cause being you. If you helped another NPC X wrong NPC Y, and NPC Y happened to have a vindictive Personality, then you might wind up setting their Dilemma to be Vengeful and the Cause to be the NPC X (or yourself).
Engagements and missions can use the Dilemma as a filter, and then use the Cause to set specifics. It is more commonly used to provide some history of things that have happened. You may walk through an area and hear two NPCs talking about how Grateful one of them is because <causing npc/player name> aided them in their troubles, or how they were wronged by <causing npc/player name>.
Because Dilemmas, moods and other personality traits are used as mission and inquiry filters, those can be cues to knowing when certain opportunities are available. You can also inquire to the majority of the NPCs in game, and ask them questions about other NPCs to try to extract those personality traits manually.
Q: The Repopulation is being touted as the closest MMORPG to Star Wars Galaxies since years, mainly because of the strong crafting component. However, personally I have always found crafting terribly boring – are you doing anything to address this issue, maybe in the form of some sort of minigame?
A: We have crafting events that will can occur while crafting. These events will give players the opportunity to take risks in the creation process with how they respond to those events. You could make a risky move that has a chance to improve the quality of your reward for example, but if you fail then you might wind up with a significantly worse results. Ingredients can also generally be substituted with different types to create very different results from the same recipes.
We have talked quite a bit internally about mini-games. In general we like mini-games because they help to break monotony. We do have some ideas for mini-games for several skill lines. But we view them as post-launch features, unless our programmers get far ahead of the content team.
Q: Obviously, one of the great attractions of the game is the ability to build cities and form an independent Nation. However, this in itself requires a large world, not to mention that a sandbox game with FFA PvP needs a lot more space than the average themepark MMO, where everything can be cramped together because players of your faction can’t harm you whatsoever. This leads me to the question: how large is the world in The Repopulation, when compared to other MMORPGs? Are you going to use verticality (both above ground and below) a lot?
A: The world itself is decent sized. If you walked from the southeast tip of Plymouth City to the Northwest tip of Freedomtown your talking about roughly 24 kilometers if you flew in a direct line (which of course you can’t). There are is also ocean space, and some very large cave networks underneath the surface, some being so large that they needed to be comprised of several seamlessly linked zones. Player created cities will likewise be able to dig underground levels, to provide additional space. We anticipate that players will generally place defensive structures above ground, and move most of the housing or shops below ground where it is safer from attack.
Q: You also mentioned a Hardcore server ruleset. I totally support this idea, and as a gamer who would like to play on such a server, let me ask: will it be available at launch, and will you employ full or partial looting of defeated players?
A: We plan to support both the Normal and Hardcore rule sets at launch. Looting is one of the real sticking points at the moment. There will be looting on Hardcore servers of course (not on regular servers). Over the past six months we’ve been in communication with many large guilds seeking their feedback, including running a series of polls where we give players a chance to chime in one what features they want to see on the hardcore servers. Where most of those results were pretty cut and dry, looting has been split pretty evenly among players who prefer full or corpse loot. We’ll most likely do is experiment with both methods during beta testing, and use the feedback we receive to make a final determination.
Q: Are you planning any type of alerts if your city/house (non-instanced) gets attacked? Maybe an app, or something like that.
A: When your city goes under attack the entire nation will be notified and there is a panel on the Nation window that modifies the progress. There are no plans to use an app for it currently, though it’s not a bad idea.
In order to damage a home you’d need to break through the defense systems of a city first, which will require a siege to be declared. You get quite a bit of warning before that can begin. Cities area pretty big deal in Repop, and we didn’t want players to lose their cities in a late night raid, or anything of that nature. So nations will generally have plenty of warning and opportunities to negotiate peace before shops or housing become vulnerable to attack.
There’s a more detailed description of the siege system here: https://therepopulation.com/index.php/game-features/siege-system
Q: Finally, I’ve read in your FAQ that you’ll develop for Windows only, at least for now. I’m guessing this has to do with the Hero Engine, however that must be a bit frustrating as most engines are supporting every platform right now, even consoles. In fact, more and more MMO games are being developed for next-generation consoles, so I have to ask – is there any chance the engine will be adapted to work with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (which are already very similar to PC in terms of hardware) and if so, will you consider porting The Repopulation?
A: There are a lot of possibilities out there and we’ll certainly explore them. Cloud computing, for example, is platform independent and can get your game running on just about anything with a fast internet connection. But for now our focus is entirely on getting the game launched on the Windows platform.
Thanks for your time!