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GDC 2011: Grey Area's Shadow Cities redefines mobile MMORPGs and immersion

Jef Reahard

How does being the main character in a techno-cyberpunk fantasy MMORPG grab you? And when we say "you," we really mean you, as opposed to a digital avatar or a pre-made character archetype. While we're at it, how does playing said MMORPG in the real world, specifically your home town and any cities you may visit, sound?

If you answered "pretty freaking awesome" like we did, keep reading.

We sat down with the guys from Grey Area at last week's GDC to talk about the firm's slick new location-based iPhone MMO called Shadow Cities. We came away with the feeling that while many MMO companies talk a good game when it comes to innovation and driving the genre forward, this small Finnish startup is actually walking the walk.

Grey Area was founded in 2008 by Ville Vesterinen, Mikko Hamalainen, Andreas Kalrsson, and Teemu Tuulari. The company's focus is something called mobile city gaming, which uses real-world locations as backdrops for epic clashes between player technomages, NPC spirits, and other player technomages.

Shadow Cities, initially released last November via the Finnish App Store (where it shot to number one, dethroning Angry Birds in the process), departs from conventional MMORPG designs in a number of ways, chief among them being that you are your character and your borough is the battlefield. The game's backstory involves both the return of magic to the world after a centuries-long absence and the ongoing battle between the two distinct factions that seek to control it.

"You're casting spells in this magical world with this device [your iPhone]. You're a technomage. Magic has been gone for hundreds of years, and now it's back, and you see this parallel world through the device -- it's a dystopic world," explains Gray Area CEO and co-founder Ville Vesterinen.

Players may choose to be a part of either the Architect or Animator factions, and mission-based gameplay, as well as PvP, ensues as the player moves throughout his local environment. Spells are cast via the touchscreen in a novel and fairly immersive mechanic involving the drawing of runic symbols. Shadow Cities features all of the staples that traditional MMORPG gamers have come to expect, including XP, levels, hit points, mana, and spell unlocks, but it also features something entirely new thanks to the way it layers the game world on top of real-world locations.

"We want to change the way games are played in urban settings and take the games to a larger context," Vesterinen continues. He tells us the story of a Shadow Cities user who teams up with his son to play the game as they drive to various locales necessitated by their daily lives. As they enter different neighborhoods (which players of opposing factions battle to control), the son implores the father to slow the vehicle so he has time to fire off a few quick spells at enemy players in the vicinity before the pair go on about their day.

Vesterinen tells the tale of another Shadow Cities player who has gotten into a bit of trouble with his girlfriend due to the length of time he spends walking their dog. The game invites exploration, as you never know what, or who, is going to be lurking around the corner, and the Grey Area team is enthused over the intial reaction to a game that it originally envisioned as being played in bite-sized two-minute chunks.

Users are instead playing it for hours, Mikko Hamalainen tells us, and it taps into that feeling of adventure and an unseen world that he experienced as a child while traveling through various urban environments. Potential players who live outside the world's biggest cities aren't left out, though, as the game allows for jumping between conflict zones in cities around the world via player-created beacons.

Building your Shadow Cities character involves specializing in certain magic abilities, and the Grey Area team mentions that fire, lightning, and regeneration are a few of the options available to the player. Gamers can also allocate stats, and the example given is a choice between high willpower (which will increase your damage output), or high endurance (which will increase the hit points of constructs you build).

Aside from traditional PvE quest missions which drive the day-to-day gameplay, Shadow Cities is about territorial conflict and control, and to that end, weekly campaigns occur between the two player factions (with unique medals and achievements up for grabs, awards that define your character over time). Grey Area says that certain achievements will only be available for a limited time, an example of which would be "I participated in the battle of London in the winter of 2011."

If it all sounds rather ambitious for a mobile MMORPG, it is, and in fact Grey Area doesn't think of it as a social or mobile game in the traditional sense. Rather, Shadow Cities is intended to be a full-blown MMORPG that you can dive into, and the dev team, which has been immersed in multiplayer roleplaying games since the days of the text MUDs, says that it is just scratching the surface of the platform's potential. Plans are also in the works to expand Shadow Cities to other mobile platforms, beginning initially with the iPad.

Vesterinen explains that due to the iPad's larger screen size, the design will need to be optimized rather than simply scaled up, and Grey Area is toying with the idea of different player classes depending on which device you use to connect to the game.

Social networking functionality also plays a role in Shadow Cities, with Facebook integration allowing for players to call on their friends for help if their neighborhoods are being attacked. Players can also network to discuss previous campaigns, share war stories, and display achievements.

Ultimately, Shadow Cities is one of the more unique titles in the MMORPG space, regardless of platform. Grey Area is aiming to create an entirely new type of game world, one that exists concurrently with the real world and offers players a window into the fantastic via their mobile devices. Additionally, immersion and identification with your character play a big role. As Vesterinen says, "You're not controlling some character -- it's you." You may walk past a house that was the site of some huge battle the night before, and normal people aren't aware of that, whereas you know there's something here, he says.

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