Some Assembly Required: A Mortal Online interview

Some Assembly Required - blueprint header
I recently had the opportunity to fire off a few questions to Henrik Nystrom, and the Star Vault CEO was kind enough to provide some interesting insights into the firm's Mortal Online fantasy sandbox.

Though Mortal is thus far renowned for its full-loot PvP ruleset, it's also got a number of nifty features that you may be unaware of, with more on the way. Join me after the cut for a lengthy discussion of the new Awakening expansion as well as a glimpse into Nave's future.

Mortal Online - fort in the snow
Massively: Star Vault refers to Mortal as a sandbox world, but when I read through the forums, it seems like sandbox fans and virtual world enthusiasts are drowned out by the hardcore PvP crowd. While Mortal does feature PvP and corpse-looting, do you see that as the game's sole focus, or are you aiming for more of a complete world with many different gameplay options and supported playstyles?

Henrik Nystrom: Mortal Online is designed to be a fantasy sandbox roleplaying game, with full loot and full PvP as one of the core features. Since it requires specific game design for those features to work in such a large scale world with different types of play styles, the development of Mortal Online has been a very long and tough road with lots of challenges for the team.

We were breaking ground with this technology; one very important point to remember about MO is that we have created a non-instanced sandbox MMO. There are no shards -- this is one contiguous world, so you will not have to work out which instance your friends are in they're in the one and only world of Mortal Online! As recently as the start of this year, we actually got some important new functions in place within our technology that allows us to deliver a much more solid solution in key areas such as the AI.


"Right now we are working on the Awakening expansion, and this completely turns that around: We can finally deliver PvE, AI and new GUI systems that we've not been able to implement until now."

Since we have a lot of features that are directly connected to PvP, it has naturally attracted a lot of hardcore PvP players. We understand that since we have been lacking important features in the AI and PVE aspects of the game, the hardcore PvP area has hence been more dominant. Right now we are working on the Awakening expansion, and this completely turns that around: We can finally deliver PvE, AI, and new GUI systems that we've not been able to implement until now.

We will keep piling more and more sand into the other areas, not just PvP, and this will add considerable depth and interest to Mortal Online. We aim to have a fully working world between all of the different playstyles without restricting them into different areas or rules. As you might imagine, breaking new ground like this is not and has not been easy, and it is always a big challenge in Mortal Online to make sure both sides of this equation work as intended. Those who are not interested in hardcore PvP should of course always be aware of the danger and risks out there in the world, so they only use what they can afford to lose if it should happen.

At the same time, the PvPer needs the other playstyles as well to get a working economy and more things to do in the game other than killing and stealing from others. I think all of us are looking forward to seeing these changes when we release Awakening.

Mortal Online - horns and a wagon wheel
Mortal has a fair number of interesting features that potential players may not be aware of; things like the player-written books and notes that are being introduced with the Awakening expansion (or the task system that allows players to create quests for one another) offer a lot of replay value and non-combat options. Are there more "fluff" features like these in the works?

Yes, Awakening is mostly about adding more sand and features into the game. We will announce more of these as we get closer to the Awakening release. It's worth saying that there are already many features in the game that make for interesting exploring and resource hunting, which then ties into other already present systems. For example, cookery -- most in-game vegetation can be harvested from the world, and there is even a full fishing system to give the player a huge number of different ingredients to use in discovering some of the more hard-to-find recipes. We are watching the playerbase make slow progress in this area with interest!

What is your ultimate goal for Mortal from a design perspective? Leaving aside financial and technical concerns and speaking generally, will you explain your ideal vision for Mortal Online in terms of features and functionality?


"We have ironed out most of the technical issues we have had over the years developing it, and I just want to be able to continue developing this game since we are now getting to do some really cool stuff for the players."

Even though it sounds too good to be true, we have today ironed out most of the technical issues we have had over the years developing it, and I just want to be able to continue developing this game since we are now getting to do some really cool stuff for the players. This game has no real ending, nor will it ever stop its development path. We are able to add more and more features over time. We really don't see any limits, and that's our intended plan: to continue to develop the span and depth of our world, layer after layer, new feature on top of new feature.

Everything obviously costs a lot. To market the game and all areas around the development requires a lot of everything. The genre is progressing a lot, and the players want more and more; even the biggest game developing companies in the world struggle to deliver a perfect MMORPG.

If we had more resources, we would be able to develop our features and next continent a lot faster, which I bet the players would enjoy. But we are taking this one step at the time and slowly, incrementally getting there. We are having a blast right now whilst doing so. It will take as long as it takes to get it right, and we are prepared for that journey no matter how long the path. We also get great support and feedback from our players, with whom we have an extremely close relationship. Obviously we can't make everyone happy, but that will not stop us from trying to deliver a unique sandbox MMORPG.

Mortal Online - city life
Mortal suffered through something of a rough launch period. Are you more confident in the game's stability and feature set than you were in 2010? What sorts of lessons has the team learned after nearly two years of supporting a live MMO?

Yes, the launch of Mortal Online was a rough ride for everyone, something we couldn't do much differently unfortunately due to limitations around resources and deadlines. Over the past two years, we have learned a lot. If we knew all the steps and bumps along the road, maybe we wouldn't have taken the chance to build this game, so I'm happy we did it and actually managed to develop MO to where it is today and release the game.

Of course, we would have loved to have more time to polish and work on the game before we released it. The pipeline and assets we worked out to create Mortal Online is a major asset now to Star Vault. Putting the last parts into place now with MO gives us a full scale pipeline to continue developing Mortal Online in a very effective way, and also for future projects with similar technology and game genres, although of course MO will continue to be our main focus. The future looks very interesting for all of us, developers and gamers alike!

What are the team's plans for the trading aspects of the game going forward? Some players in the Mortal player community have suggested incentives and rewards for underused tradeskills like fishing, cooking, and alchemy. Is that something you're considering?

Awakening brings some important tools directly connected to this and to get the player-driven economy going. There are many challenges in a game like this to make a fully working player-based economy, especially when taking the game features such as full loot and full PvP and no safe zones into consideration. We have been monitoring the game and have read a lot of feedback from the players on how to improve this area. The first and most important features to expand on this come with Awakening, and they should allow player trading and interaction to happen a lot more effectively than they do today.

Mortal Online - soldier with a broadsword
What's been the team's greatest achievement thus far since launch?

I still have to say we are very proud of being able to deliver a game with high graphic detail and a real real-time combat system without any zones or instances or any loading at all in the game. You only load one time in Mortal Online, and then you can play it without any interruptions at all. We do have to stream content on the run to make this possible, which can be noticeable in a short lag hiccup when running over large areas at some times.


"We are slowly building up the population in our game, and we are finally getting the last piece in the game that will allow us to take the next step to invite more players."

Mortal Online is a unique sandbox game with its own setting, which we are very proud of, and we enjoy going into the game on our own as well, even though we sadly have little time to play the game. We also enjoy the take on skill progression and the advanced crafting system that produces millions of combinations, thereby allowing the players to be creative and every now and then discover a new recipe for food, potions, or a type of weapon or armor combination to be used effectively on the battlefield.

Watching this unfold has been a real joy; there is an almost subterranean depth to Mortal, much of which has yet to be unearthed by the player base, so we enjoy both playing and waiting for these big moments to arrive for our players.

If we look at EVE Online as sort of a blueprint for indie sandbox success, we see that CCP started with a buggy game and a tiny playerbase and gradually built out New Eden over several years' time. Is that the plan for Mortal, and are you happy with the game's progress and population at this point?

We have followed EVE Online throughout the years, and we have always enjoyed how CCP was doing things and what it delivered, even though it had a buggy release with a very small number of players. Today it is one of the most interesting games out there, and every now and then I even jump in there to switch skills.

We have tried to do some things similarly, with the huge difference being of course that our game is in a fantasy setting with hand-to-hand combat. EVE released in 2003, and we released much later. The MMO playerbase is bigger now, and the demand for perfection is a lot higher, and that makes it tough for any game released today -- if they don't have unlimited resources, that is.

We are slowly building up the population in our game, and we are finally getting the last piece in the game that will allow us to take the next step to invite more players. Remember we have as yet chosen not to advertise Mortal Online, but with the last of the core features about to be delivered, I'm sure you can imagine how excited we're all starting to get after this long and tough road we have trod.

Mortal Online - soldier's silhouette
Can you talk a little bit about the AI improvements in the Awakening expansion? Give us a bit of a rundown about the changes for both new players and veterans that may have been away for a while.

We are rebuilding the entire AI system using more well-known UE3 AI behaviors. We also use something called Navemesh, which is pretty much a next-gen system to handle AI in games today. It is a smart system in terms of how our AI interacts in the world, and we will have a solid AI that will be used on all of our creatures and NPCs in the game. We can now easily add new actions to each creature in the game, and then they will automatically pick that up and use it where they see fit.

Mortal Online - half orc girl concept artWe will be able to generate different versions of a mob, making the specific creature unlike another similar creature. You will finally be able to see our trolls; we had a lot of fun with them in our early prototypes where our trolls picked up a player and could do different things with him if the player's friends didn't rescue him in time.

We had very complex flocking behavior where birds could fly and attack players on the ground or animals in water have different states depending on whether they are in water or on the ground. The AI can see whether the players are in a specific state or not; for instance, if you are sleeping or knocked down, the AI can behave in one way, and in another way if you stand up facing him.

We will finally be able to start the ages in Mortal Online and let bigger things hit the world of Nave -- and let the players start to decide the outcomes that will shape the world's future. I think both new and veteran players will enjoy this AI a lot. Even our hardcore PvP players will want to come and fight some of these mobs.

Any plans for guild management improvements/additions to the GUI in the future?

Yes, with the new GUI system we will have full control over a lot of our features. Today you may see we have a GUI that is not modern, and it may at times feel slow and old in some places. This will be totally replaced with a new fast GUI system that allows players to have much more control and many more options in their personal settings. We will be able to expand on options a lot faster and easier as well when it comes to features such as guild management and war conflicts.

Any plans for new armor sets, spells, weapons, etc.?

We have to rebuild one important part of our armor system before we start adding a lot more armor sets into our game. This new solution we have worked out should remove a specific cap we have on armor parts today.

Our weapon system is a bit different from this; it allows us to add more weapons today if we were ready for it. What we want to have before we start adding a lot more weapons is some further balances in combat/weapons and also some specific weapon group action abilities. Today we already offer a few million weapon types due to the many combinations the players have when crafting a weapon, and there are still a lot of weapons that have not yet been discovered that could be very good on the battlefield. The players have very quickly learned a good base of weapons that many use, however.

There are many discussions about this on our forums, where many people think there are more viable weapons, it's just that they haven't discovered them and learned how to use them yet. Like I said before, we do have plans to add a few more groups in the future, such as mount weapons, lances, and crossbows, to name a few.

After Awakening we are going to work on our current and only magic school to make it a lot more interesting and challenging for the players. We also plan to add a few new schools along with this update. You may get a hint on what schools these are by visiting the magic towers in Tindrem when the gates open up.

Mortal Online - dawn in a forest
What's next in terms of development after the Awakening expansion?

Magic is one of the main areas that is going to get a lot of focus. We have one school now that will radically change, but there are many already-defined schools that we're looking forward to bringing in -- staff magic to mention just one.

Raph Koster, one of the designers on Ultima and Star Wars Galaxies, recently said that he thinks immersion has become an outdated concept in MMOs because of the wider/casual audience. Do you agree? Do you think it's possible for players to immerse themselves in the world of Nave (and is that a design goal)?

Mortal Online - elf concept artFrom inception, Mortal Online followed UO as our playbook, but we wanted a beautiful 3-D world for players to explore and engage in. I can understand Mr. Koster's point of view on this, but Mortal Online is not a casual game. Yes, you can just log in and have some fun without thinking about it too much, but to make real progress in the world, you have to learn and explore and do all of the things that make MO great.

So it is a bit of a shock when a player comes to our shores from, for example, World of Warcraft. That game set the bar very high in terms of quality and polish; indeed that has been one of the key areas of success in its intellectual property as well as its ability to draw in huge numbers of players to the game. And as we have seen, those players are now looking for their next adventure because they have joined the wider MMO community too.

In Mortal Online there are no quests, nor levels like in WoW; that can be and is very confusing for casual players. This doesn't mean the players are dumb like many people say but rather that the MMO genre is getting more and more dumbed down. What I am trying to explain here is that I'm pretty sure that if a casual player gets into MO and learns how the game works, he will experience something he hasn't experienced before in terms of getting an adrenaline rush when getting ambushed.


"We have much more to do in helping these new players, but crucially we need to balance this against the fun to be had in genuine discovery. MO will not hold your hand, give you a quest path, or even give you an in-game map. You have to learn how our world works."

There's also the feeling of loss when you carry and lose valuable items, for instance; that alone is pretty rare in most MMOs today since there is often nothing to lose, so no real risk. There is a hard balance in this and how to make risk worth the reward and also to not scare away new players because taking the step from a themepark is a leap. We have followed the progression of MMOs since the first games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, two of my personal all-time favorite MMOs, and we learned a lot in those games and over the development of Mortal Online.

I am confident that many casual players will enjoy Mortal Online a lot once they get into the game and learn how it works and how it differs from themeparks. We do have a number of players who start the game and last only a few hours, but those who manage to make it past the first few difficult days stay much, much longer, and many are still here from our difficult launch.

So we have much more to do in helping these new players, but crucially we need to balance this against the fun to be had in genuine discovery. MO will not hold your hand, give you a quest path, or even give you an in-game map. You have to learn how our world works. The introduction of in-game paper and ink will see players crafting their own in-game maps (there are already some beautiful player-made maps on our forums), but you can see where we're trying to get with this approach.

So in short, yes, I do think it is possible for the players to immerse themselves in the world of Nave -- but in a way they will likely not have experienced before in an MMO.

Thanks very much for talking with us.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

This article was originally published on Massively.