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GDC 2011: Massively takes on TERA's Smuggler Hideout, and Brian Knox teases the political system

Jef Reahard

Ah TERA, you're such a tease.

And we're not just talking about your skimpy outfits, oh no. Your political system, your endgame, your Westernized (whatever that means) makeover... all of these have conspired to leave us breathless with anticipation.

Fortunately, we were able to take TERA for a spin at this week's GDC 2011. Along with help from a PUG comprised of En Masse Entertainment staffers, we ventured deep inside the game's Smuggler's Hideout, battling BAMS (En Masse shorthand for big-ass monsters) and checking out the title's streamlined UI and spiffy combat mechanics. Join us after the cut for a brief recap of the demo as well as an interview with producer Brian Knox during which we (politely) demanded a definition for the much-discussed concept of Westernization.

The demo

This wasn't our first rodeo when it comes to hands-on time with TERA, and while we'll stop short of proclaiming ourselves experts, it does bear mentioning that the game's combat is at once familiar and undeniably fun. Our GDC avatar was a Berserker, and those of you who've played already know that the class is a heavy DPS variant that had us building up our blue mana bar with abandon (which allows the firing of specials and is charged by the use of a left-click attack). En Masse's demo crew made sure to educate us on TERA's whip-smart AI and the way mobs can become enraged, the way they hint that they're about to unleash a larger-than-normal can of whoop-ass, and how they split up into roles much like players do (some mobs will tank, others will heal, etc.).

The takeaway was that TERA's AI is quite advanced and results in dynamic PvE encounters across the board, with the bigger/smarter/faster design mandate adding up to a combat experience unique among MMORPGs.

Paired up with the new combat digs is a user interface that aims to focus the player's attention squarely on the happenings in the center of the screen. The En Masse team mentioned the fact that most MMO players end up staring at their hotbars for long periods of time and miss a good bit of the actual action they're trying to dictate. TERA's efficient UI is designed to eliminate this peripheral focus and make sure that players are able to appreciate the game's visuals and atmosphere even in the midst of hacking away at the nearest BAM.

TERA's UI is also completely modular, meaning that players can move it around and generally customize it to their liking without resorting to hacks that violate the EULA or throwing up their hands in frustration. This is a far cry from previous Korean imports (*cough* Aion *cough*) that handcuff the player to a couple of presets and force him to adapt to module placement that may differ from that of previous games or his preferred setup.

Finally, we spent a bit of time practicing our TERA combo skills while working our way to the Smuggler's Hideout boss. You can chain together the game's combos by hitting the spacebar at opportune times, and the resulting attacks are triggered much faster (and do a lot more damage) than the average special attack in your average MMO. En Masse also explained how it has done away with the random die rolls that determine the outcome of most encounters with little to no input from MMO players.

Your player skill -- and your decisions regarding when and where to dodge, block, or approach from an angle -- will determine your combat success as opposed to the traditional behind-the-scenes RNG element. As a result, every character (and every counter) is unique.

The Brian Knox interview

After successfully surviving the Smuggler's Hideout run (of which you can see two videos at the end of this piece), we sat down with En Masse producer Brian Knox for a Q&A that strayed off the beaten path and away from TERA's exhaustively analyzed combat system.

Massively: Much has been made of TERA's action combat. What can you tell us about the game's non-combat activities? Are there any aside from crafting? Is TERA a traditional MMO with multiple gameplay avenues or more of a combat-heavy game like Vindictus or DCUO?

Brian Knox: We always try to talk about certain pillars of the game, what are we better at, what are we different at. The action combat is by far one of those, and of course we've talked, and talked, and talked about it. I think community is really our other big differentiator; we're not a faction-based game. You're not forced onto a specific side. You're all part of a united federation, but within that, you can have your own political intrigue and drama. You'll be able to run for office, elect your peers, compete in battles to earn points to help put yourself into office -- and with that comes certain responsibilities.

So I think our political system/community is going to be really strong because it's going to be determined by the players. It's a lot more of a sandbox environment. You're going to have servers where everyone knows who this person is or "oh did you hear, that guy defected out of the guild and now he's part of the enemy guild," so there's not a pre-determined enemy that you have to run against. That's going to be a really big part of the game.

Many of our readers have mentioned the fact that En Masse has yet to actually define the term Westernization despite giving many interviews on the subject. What, specifically, is Westernization, aside from text and context translation issues? Does it involve any reduction of the progression grind from the Korean client?

It's an interesting term. It can be a lot or it can be very little. In the end, is the game going to appeal to the Western gamer, and what aspects of that are going to or not going to [be appealing]? So, it could be that Bluehole makes a completely Westernized game from the beginning and we don't change anything, but there's going to be certain aspects where we have to go through and say, "Is this going to fit our audience?" There are a lot of easy examples, whether it's text or localization, but there are more difficult ones when it comes to how people play the game.

People play the game differently in Korea than they play the game here. A lot of that has to do with the social situation; they're at cafes and we're all at home by ourselves, and that affects the gameplay in a pretty big way. Then there's also art and style. We have one of the more controversial races, the Elin, which is the cute little girl, so we're going to be modifying the art on that to make it more appealing to the Western audience.

So it is a hard term to define; we struggle with it here. We keep talking about Westernization, well what does that mean? Let's put out the bullet points, let's do this and that. In the end, we just keep working on stuff. A lot of the things that we do end up just being integrated into the client in general. The game just launched in Korea, and there are lot of things in there that we've added that are now in their game. They have controller support, for example. It's not like we're holding specific things for the Western market. It is a hard term to define, so I can understand why that might be frustrating, but in the end, Westernization is making the game fun for a western player. That's probably the best definition.

We were at G-star in November, and we wanted to see the game, but the Korean team said, "Well, don't see our version -- it's not really the same, and we don't want you to report on that." Massively's not an "American" website per se, but we are English-speaking, and that was kind of a concern. So there is definitely a distinction between the Korean client and the English-speaking client?

Yeah, they're so pumped to get the game here and make it successful. It just hasn't been done here -- there hasn't been a Korean game that's just been a breakout success. Yeah, there have been some games that have launched and done OK, but over time, people have realized that they just weren't for the American market. So they're really motivated to make that happen. That's part of the reason I took the job -- their enthusiasm for being successful here.

A recent dev interview intimated that En Masse came up with the idea for controller-based functionality and then presented it to the Korean devs, who approved it and began the implementation process. Are there other examples of the American team influencing game design in this manner?

The achievement system is a big part of that. There have been a lot of little things here and there, like what if you did this or this. Simple things that [Bluehole] may not have considered because they've played the game a little bit more or because we play it in a different way... whether it's reducing the cost of this or that or making travel on foot a bit faster. The major ones for now are the achievement system and the controller support. Those are the big things that people see. There are a lot of little things, though. I've got this giant spreadsheet that has all the pieces, and we're at about 30% of those implemented into the game, signed off, and done. You'll start to see more of those come out later.

Are you concerned at the short amount of time it took for Korean players to hit the level cap once the game released?

Not really. I think the people that are playing here in the West already are really the hardcore audience. That's not the general populace. You want the game to be great for the hardcore players, but that's such a small subsection of the entire audience. We really have to go through our betas and our processes to see what happens.

If you're going to take the time to get on the Korean servers, play in Korea, and go through the hassle of paying a foreign currency, then you're kind of in a hardcore minority. There is some concern about [the speed], but I think the bigger concern is the endgame and what's going to be happening at endgame. We've got some big things coming up for that, and you know the way they launch games in Korea is completely different from the way we do it here. For them it's a gradual process whereas with the western market we have to have everything done from start to finish, so they can roll things out a little bit slower. So that will come over time.

Do you anticipate a short North American beta phase given the fact that the client has already undergone extensive testing prior to the Korean release?

Our beta will be a different focus. It will be a lot about raising awareness and hype for TERA, making sure the word gets out about all the cool stuff we have. En Masse is also building an entire platform, and that's all the stuff behind the scenes. It's the data centers, the customer support tools, the forums, the website, the billing integration, all of this stuff that we have to make sure works for day one, and you don't really think about it until it fails. So there's a lot of that type of testing that will go on.

At the same time, we'll be gathering feedback, and when that feedback is implemented, whether it makes it at launch or a month after, that will kind of depend. We feel like we've got a lot of solid feedback from our previous focus group testing, but the game doesn't end, so we've got to continue taking feedback over time.

Sounds good! Thanks for your time, Brian!

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