GDC09: Massively previews Earthrise

The futuristic game Earthrise is one of the upcoming sci-fi massively multiplayer games that we can see on the horizon. It's the first MMO developed by Sofia-based Masthead Studios and features the post-apocalyptic setting of a world divided between utopian idealism and revolution. Massively had a chance to sit down with Masthead Studios CEO Atanas Atanasov at the Game Developers Conference 2009 where he gave us a walkthrough of Earthrise, shedding some light on what this new title may bring to the MMO world.
When you think of a post-apocalyptic setting, it's likely the first images that will come to mind are a barren, burned out wasteland. Masthead Studios is putting their own spin on the genre though, with some areas being technologically advanced while others remain lush and green -- places of natural beauty unspoiled by the global devastation beyond Enterra. Of course you can't set the tone for a world after the burn without ruins, and Earthrise will have those areas as well. They aim to deliver on a large, seamless world with no loading screens, where players will be able to move quickly from location to location. Atanasov says, "The map is quite big compared to most current MMOs. It's as big as World of Warcraft with all its expansions and there are even some smaller islands which add to the size of Earthrise."

Masthead Studios plans to continue expanding the world as time goes on. Atanasov estimates Earthrise will release one expansion per year, each adding more content to the current territory while opening up new areas for exploration. In true 'sandbox' style (where players are given free reign to explore and conquer the world), territorial control and sieges is a defining feature of Earthrise. Guilds will hold regions and make land grabs for what their rivals occupy. You'll be able to establish your guild in a location with economic and military advantages and dig in, because it's certain that opposing guilds will want to take it from you.

Skills, Abilities, and Tactics

During the walkthrough, Atanasov showed us Earthrise in its current stage of development, with particular emphasis on the interplay between skills, abilities, and "tactics." There are 27 core skills presently, he explains, with specific abilities linked to each skill for a grand total of 270 abilities that players can try to obtain. In broad terms those abilities center around damage and damage-over-time, defense, and healing, but Earthrise's use of skillpoints is a different twist on the standard MMO system of leveling up. Indeed, Earthrise doesn't actually have levels or classes for that matter. The game uses a mix of real time skillpoint gains and offline character advancement.

Skillpoints are earned through killing monsters (mutants) and completing quests, and players can then pump their earned skillpoints into abilities within skill trees. Once a player spends those points, abilities become active but go into a type of 'abilities container'. This is because you can customize or modify your skills with tactics, Atanasov says.

There are 50 tactics in total, in 5 categories with 10 tactics per category. Tactics provide additional effects to your skills. For example, increased damage, faster cooldown and use of skills, and healing bonuses. While the extensive skill (27), ability (270), and tactic (50) choices could seem like a mini-maxer's wet dream, Masthead Studios doesn't want the combinations to become too powerful and are reigning in some of them for the sake of balance.

"Stances" are another dimension to gameplay, particularly in combat. Once chosen, a stance becomes a permanent aspect of your character, non-upgradable because it's powerful in its own right. A battle stance will impart combat advantages but there's a tradeoff, such as being unable to call upon other abilities while the stance is active. A healing stance would come with the drawback that the character remains stationary while healing up, adding to the risk of being attacked.

While Earthrise doesn't have a standard class system, the skills and abilities (complemented by tactics) will allow for different roles, akin to classes, but a character won't be bound into a particular role. Atanasov mentions a few of the possibilities open to Earthrise players: skills related to support and supply will be used in healing, while drone control will allow players to control pets (*violent* pets). He adds that ranger skills will allow for stealth, cloaking, and disguise. Solo players rejoice!

Simply possessing the requisite skills isn't enough to perform all tasks, though. It's really about the gear. If you're a skilled drone user and are geared up for turning your steely pets upon your opponents, you won't be able to heal others even if you possess the skills needed. Likewise, if that same character is equipped for a healing role, their drone control skills won't come into play. You need to choose your gear carefully because that determines what you can accomplish out there.

Earthrise's system of pairing your gear with your skills means that players don't necessarily need to roll specialized alts, as the game's system doesn't restrict players from gaining abilities in different skill categories.

This article was originally published on Massively.