The Game Archaeologist: Everyone loves a good origin story -- how did Shadowbane come about?
It pre-dates Wolfpack, actually. Josef and I met back in college, where we used to run a text-based game called ChaosMUD
. There was no money in online gaming back then; people just developed and ran these things because they were fun. We actually got in trouble for running it on one of the COSC lab computers, and the professors did everything they could to convince us to "stop screwing around this game stuff and get back to computer science."
After college we started an enterprise software company called Reliant Data Systems -- really, really boring stuff -- but the entire time, we not-so-secretly harbored the dream of starting an online game studio. Other companies, with games like Meridian 59
, Ultima Online
, and EverQuest
, were just starting to find a way to make MMOs commercially viable, so after we sold Reliant to Compuware, we decided that it was time to follow our dream. We started Wolfpack Studios in my apartment at the end of 1999, and from the beginning we wanted to build something very different, something unique.
was going through a kind of identity crisis at the time, with the community polarizing into two camps. There were players who wanted the game to be more civilized, sort of like a renaissance festival simulator -- affectionately known as the "carebears." And on the other side, you had the "PKs," the playerkillers, who were basically looking for Mad Max in a fantasy world.
was struggling with this, for a couple of reasons, in my opinion: The "Mad Max" idea didn't really fit with Britannia, it just didn't feel right, and games like this -- on this scale, and with a fully graphical front-end -- hadn't really been done before. The development team didn't have the benefit of seeing dozens (or hundreds) of past MMOs try out ideas to see what worked and what didn't. The safeguards that we have in place now (PvP flags, safe zones) had to be invented, which means EA was constantly playing a game of catch-up against a very smart, very motivated playerbase.
So at some point, they started banning those players and changing the game rules to make it a more player-friendly environment. This left a large portion of their community disenfranchised with the game and looking for a new home.
Our text MUD back in college was very competitive, as we were constantly doing tournaments and free-for-all events with great names like "Hell Night" and "Circle of Blood." And since we were competitive players ourselves, we decided to build a game for the PvPers! But once we started talking about it, we came up with an even better idea: Rather than a PvP free-for-all, where the conflict has little meaningful context, we wanted to create Game of Thrones, the ultimate sandbox where players can declare themselves king, build castles, raise armies, and try to take over the world.
It was a really, really cool idea... still is, actually: a real-time feudal war simulator. But remember, we had no professional game development experience and no idea of what the cost (not just in terms of money) would be. And the MMO industry was still in its infancy, so there was no real standard for predicting a game like this. But we were young and stupid, so we just jumped in with both feet.
What were your responsibilities on the team?
At the beginning, Josef's title was President and mine was VP of... Sales and Marketing, I think? Which is odd, given that I spent most of my time working on design.
Todd and I essentially ran the company together. We both took turns at the helm at various points, and we both spent far too much time simply trying to keep the company afloat instead of focusing on building the game that we had dreamed about.
That's absolutely true. What most people don't realize is how little money we spent building Shadowbane
. Considering the amount of visibility the title had -- it debuted as a top 10 best-selling PC game -- you would have throught our budget was huge. It was probably 10%-15% the budget of EverQuest
What did you love most about Shadowbane?
The team. I can't describe what a tight-knit group we became in our struggle to release such a huge indie MMO. We had many months of crunch, and to this day many of us are still friends. Some still work with us at our new studio, KingsIsle Entertainment.
As far as the game, I really loved the depth and challenge. There were literally millions of class combinations (with the various discipline runes). With so many interesting races, classes, and specializations, figuring out the best combinations was a game in and of itself. Also, the strategic elements of the game were pretty ambitious. I'm a strategy game fan and an MMO fan, and this was a blend of the two.
What I loved about Shadowbane
the most -- and what kills me the most -- was the vision. I don't know how to explain it because it feels now like I was in four years of straight crunch. It was brutal because coming from a text-game background where you can add a new race or class in a weekend, we over-scoped and over-promised the game at every turn. So we were in this constant struggle to keep our publishers happy, keep our playerbase entertained, keep our team motivated, keep our bills paid, and of course, finish the game. It seemed like every day I would log in and something else would be broken.
But then there was this one day, right in the middle of alpha, when we staged a large PvP battle against a castle that was still under construction -- literally, two of the walls were still going up, so they had a gap in the defenses that was only going to last a few more hours. I remember I was playing a Centaur in black plate mail (that's how clear this memory is) and for that three-hour session, everything just... clicked. The client didn't crash, the server wasn't laggy, everything was smooth, and it was just awesome. It was like the sun had broken through the storm clouds, and for a brief moment I was able to experience the game as we intended it to be. To this day, it was the most fun I have ever had playing a game.
When you had time to play, what did you enjoy doing the most?
Assassin hunting. I remember the first time in beta that I experienced nerve-wracking PvP. On one particular encounter, my group wasn't too far from our guild city, and we were resting and chatting as we recovered from a recent NPC battle. Suddenly a roving band of assassins from a rival guild appeared out of nowhere and attacked.
We all jumped up and started calling out orders, trying to fend off the inevitable. We lost, but it was a very close thing and we gave as good as we got. We spent the next week tracking them down and exacting our revenge. It was a great game-within-the-game, and that was ultimately one of the coolest things about Shadowbane
-- it was such a wide canvas for rivalries, guild politics, and large-scale strategy. Of course this was both a strength and a weakness. You couldn't really opt out of this type of game play, and so no matter how unfair the situation, you were forced to participate.
Typically, the most fun I had in the game was usually at the Campaign level; the skirmishes were great, but I'm not a great twitch player. The top end of the game, the endgame, was an enormously deep system that allowed you to flatten the 3-D terrain, build castle walls in whatever configuration you wanted, and place guard barracks and archer towers and siege equipment. We also had a political system: Guilds could declare fealty to other guilds or break ranks and change sides in real-time. The tactical stuff was fun, but it was the foundation. The strategic layer was incredibly cool and extremely engaging.
What were the expectations for how the game would proceed with player involvement, and how closely did reality match those expectations?
We knew that we would face challenges with player-driven content. For example, if one guild became too powerful, then the entire equilibrium of a world might be thrown off. And, indeed, we had some shards that basically became police states under the jurisdiction of the most powerful guilds. While this is definitely interesting from a gaming theory perspective, it's not so fun for the players trying start a new empire.
I'd say that was the single biggest design challenge, and it was one that we never figured out to our satisfaction. MMOs are inherently persistent. That's why people pay you money month after month. Strategy games are almost universally cyclical: they begin, players make their moves until one side grows overwhelmingly powerful, and then the game ends. Then the board resets for the next game.
If the board never resets because persistence is an inherent "must have" for your playerbase, how do you balance that? We still have some ideas, but quite frankly we ran out of time to try them. It's certainly a difficult problem.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview coming next week... same Game Archaeologist time, same Game Archaeologist channel!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.