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Massively Interview: Masthead Studios' CEO on Earthrise and freedom of choice

James Egan

There is a slow but steady shift in direction in the MMO industry from being dominated by fantasy titles to one where gamers have other options, namely in terms of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic games. The smaller game studios producing these titles have some big challenges ahead of them, not the least of which is whether or not MMO gamers will embrace settings and gameplay elements that depart from the fantasy MMO paradigm. One of those newcomers to the MMO scene is Masthead Studios who are developing the post-apocalyptic Earthrise.

This first title from Masthead Studios will present gamers with a futuristic, dystopian setting where two major factions struggle for control over the island of Enterra, the last refuge of humanity after the burn. Continoma are the technocratic elite; they hold the keys to genetic immortality and enforce their ordered societal views on the population they've resurrected. The game's other major faction, Noir, is a shadow government -- the resistance. Earthrise's setting and factional struggles aren't limited to simple right-and-wrong scenarios, though, and this carries over to the gameplay. Players or guilds may align with one faction or another for their own benefit, but the game's numerous sub-factions provide other options for allegiances, or even the possibility of shifting those allegiances.

We had the opportunity to see Earthrise firsthand at GDC 2009 but we've always got more questions. Fortunately, Masthead Studios was willing to oblige. We've had another chance to speak with Masthead Studios CEO Atanas Atanasov about some of the core concepts and lore behind Earthrise, and how their approach to the game and the genre should allow a great deal of freedom for players.

Gallery: Earthrise | 83 Photos

The post-apocalyptic setting of Earthrise is quite different from the more typical "Mad Max" or "Terminator" style vision of a burned out world. From what we've seen thus far, Earthrise will have areas on Enterra with crumbling, blasted out buildings but others that look to be a futuristic paradise. Why did Masthead Studios take this approach to the post-apocalyptic genre?

The simple answer to that question is to keep the science-fiction and the post-apocalyptic genres fresh and original. We have put a lot of thought and development into a setting that merges several genres together – a post-apocalyptic environment which gives birth to a post-humanistic society with new-wave social engineering thrown in for good measure. Players will face in their explorations the vast monolithic expanse of Sal Vitas, the City of Hope, and the ruined remains of the urban past in the far reaches of the island. With the variety of settings comes a multitude of questions; many of them answered in unexpected ways which adds to the richness and variety of Earthrise's setting.

In what ways might the storyline struggle between the Continoma and Noir factions affect gameplay? It was once mentioned that there would be the possibility of defecting from one faction to another -- is this something simply tied in with game mechanics or switching allegiances or is this something players can simply do in the sandbox?

We wanted to make it possible for players to make the most of the political intrigue and switch sides from Continoma to Noir and vice versa. However, by doing so players will risk not only facing their past brethren as enemies on the battlefield, but also being named a traitor and having to work to clear their record before they can ever think of switching back again.

Will the world of Earthrise be divided solely between Continoma and Noir, or will there be other options for players to join or form sub-factions?

Continoma and Noir are the two largest Factions on the island of Enterra, but they are not the only two political organizations. Players will find out that the island of Enterra is home to many small, affiliated or independent organizations, each with their own agenda and goals. Completing missions for each of the organizations will allow players to use their reputations to gain access to special rewards and monopolized technologies that each organization guards for themselves.

Will the faction or alignment choices that players make individually, or collectively as guilds, affect the game world when they're dominant in Enterra and effectively tapping its resources? And will Earthrise be open enough to allow for flexible 'player politics' or will such interactions be tied into game mechanics?

In Earthrise, a player or group can choose to affiliate themselves with a particular faction, but being a sandbox world, it won't feel artificial to do so in order to accomplish your in game goals. While Continoma and Noir draw close to an all-out conflict, individual opportunism is taking place all over the island slowly shifting the focus towards complex individual player politics rather than bipolar propaganda that both Factions use to attract members on their side. That said, there's a large incentive for guilds to be close to Continoma or Noir in order to make most of the defense of their territories, but it will not require them to limit their guild politics in any way.

On that note, another prevalent sandbox MMO out there, EVE Online, began small and did well for itself by providing a setting that allows the players to do as they choose in the game world. This has given rise to all manner of interactions and involvements, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. What will Masthead Studios' position be on running the sandbox?

Every feature of Earthrise's gameplay is built upon the interaction between players on many levels and varying ways which allows them to choose how they approach every facet of the game. We will provide players with incentive to join the political struggle for dominance which will in turn manipulate the player economy that directly affects the condition on the game server. When we create the features in Earthrise we strive to make sure that various aspects of the game remain balanced when used in new ways thus encouraging players' creativity. In that manner, Earthrise is taking a similar approach to EVE Online.

Do you feel that Masthead Studios is taking risks by departing from the standard (but often successful) fantasy MMO? And what are the challenges in creating a game and setting like Earthrise, as a relative newcomer to the massively multiplayer online game industry?

There are always risks associated with developing an ambitious, big-budget MMORPG title in any genre. While fantasy MMOs draw from a rich legacy of successful titles, popular stereotypes and universes, science-fiction faces the challenges of a much more demanding audience. Players in the sci-fi genre often demand complex game settings and a richness of possibilities far removed from the stereotypes that fantasy games are built upon.

The biggest challenge ahead of Masthead is creating a polished, complete product that stands on its own among the popular titles. It is very important to us to deliver Earthrise with all of the exciting features we have announced so far, but we want to make sure they are polished and balanced. As we move slowly, but steadily towards our release at the end of the year, we focus a great deal of our attention on refining even the smallest details.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with Massively.

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