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Some Assembly Required: Community dictates development path of Neo's Land

MJ Guthrie

Sandbox aficionados, are you ready for another contender in the fight to be your next virtual world? Well, ready or not, here one comes! And now that the cat (or Kickstarter, as it were) is officially out of the bag, we can take stroll through this new development project and see just how things are shaping up. The name of this virtual playground-to-be? Neo's Land.

With the number of crowdfund-hopefuls coming and going, you might be wondering what -- if anything -- distinguishes this game from all the others also vying for your attention and support. What exactly makes this project different and worth a look? It's not the various sandbox features like skills, an open world, and building homes; you can find those in other games that are out there or in the works. No, what sets Neo's Land apart is the different approach to development it is taking. Instead of building a game using the studio's ideal features, NeoJac Entertainment is quite literally soliciting the feature set directly from the players before implementing. In this case, Some Assembly Required also refers to the game itself!

Can it be done -- can a game truly be built to honest-to-goodness player specs? During an exclusive interview with CEO and President Jacques Rossouw, I got to walk along the development path of Neo's Land and see what the game is about.

Gallery: Neo's Land | 14 Photos

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Neo's Land of the lost
It's no secret in the gaming community that there are a number of sandbox fans who've lost their virtual homes for one reason or another and are left wandering around looking for a new one. NeoJac aims to make a high-fantasy home utilizing the Atavism Online Engine and Unity3D for those poor unfortunate souls.

Although you may not have heard about Neo's Land until recently, it's not some new concept just gracing the MMOverse; Rossouw told me that the studio has been working on the server engine and the backside of the game for nearly five years. The game development actually came in a round-about way. When Rossouw's team first wanted to make a game, they found that there was no server technology that would do what they wanted, so the focus switched to building that technology. Neo's Land then became essentially a way to demonstrate the capability of the server to others who were interested in the technology. So what prompted Neo's Land's reveal to the public now as opposed to before? Rossouw's answer was because the server is pretty much completed: "Now that we have all of the tools here, let's see what game we can get out of it." And that game is Neo's Land.

Ultimate player-generated content
Even though the game has taken a circuitous development path, that's not even close to ranking as the top unconventional aspect of the game. That distinction goes to the entire development process itself, which is backwards compared to the industry conventional thinking. Instead of making the game first and then asking for feedback, Rossouw preferred the route of getting player input first, then developing. He said:
"What better way to do it than literally asking the players what they want? The players can design what they want to put in it and then all we do is use our server, which is very flexible, and add the plug-ins [for things] like a combat system or a crafting system or whatever they want."
A chance to get what you want instead of what devs just think you want (or believe you should want) -- that makes sense to me! Of course, giving players a direct say over the development of the game also provides an additional form of ownership to players above and beyond simple in-game housing property, and this sense of ownership can make players more vested in the game.

You win some, you lose some
It's one thing to say players have input, but it's another to actually hand them the reins. So just how much influence do players actually have on the game? Well, players have the ultimate say in everything; in fact, players actually even named the game!

How does the process work? The devs hold roundtables on Twitch with the community where discussions about features take place and players give their input. Rossouw noted that the developers themselves, however, are not invited to attend these roundtables in order to avoid influencing player input. The events are actually hosted by Marcus Eikenberry, better known as Markee Dragon.

Each roundtable is a brainstorming session with a specific topic; the devs send ideas that players can debate, veto, request modifications on, and build upon, and players can also present new ideas of their own. Of course, the devs can ultimately veto a request if it will break the game or is just plain impossible to do. Once a feature is decided, it takes only a couple of weeks to implement it. But what if the community becomes split on a decision, divided nearly 50/50? Rossouw answered that if that were to happen, someone would have to make the decision, but so far the community has been pretty set in what it wants and there haven't been any close calls.

Gimme, gimme
So what are some of the features of Neo's Land as determined by the players so far? For one, it will be only one world, and it will be open. Also, PvP will be possible anywhere. Stealing will exist, but players will find safer areas in player-built cities where the elected mayor has placed guards. Did I say player-built cities? Yep -- and that means housing.

Housing will be non-instanced, placed out in the world where players have found and purchased one of the limited build-able plots. If the desired plot is within a city, it can be designated residential, commercial, or industrial. This leads to the specialized buildings of houses, shops, and forges. Players can own more than one property, and since the building is piecemeal, each one will be customized and unique. On another note, players will also want to invest in protecting their property (spikes and such). To help keep plots available for those who actually play, each building will have a monthly tax; abandoned plots that have degraded from lack of upkeep will be reopened.

Some Assembly Required Community dictates development path of Neo's Land
Cities can also grow and expand, and as they do, the elected mayor (yes, there will be a voting and diplomacy system) will have access to more features for developing the city. Ultimately, if a city grows enough and combines with others, a player can literally became a king of a large realm.

Another interesting feature related to housing is the ability to build instanced dungeons. Not only will there be dev-built dungeons, but players can design their own as well. The world is voxel-based, like other upcoming titles, allowing for the land to be manipulated in certain areas. Players can dig holes, tunnels, etc. while building their dungeons and then attract mobs to those dungeons and open them up to the public via things like trap doors in their houses. And if said public dies in your dungeon? You might get some loot!

Where the money is
Players also decided that Neo's Land will be subscription-based but that subs can also be paid for by in-game currency. The only other monetization chosen for the game is directly related to housing and the real estate market: Properties can be bought with real money, but everything else will be with in-game currency. (Those bought with real money will have the option to sell for real money or in-game currency.) To keep a few players with big wallets from buying up all the properties at once, prices will escalate for each subsequent property that is purchased.

Neo's Land screenshotEconomy is a big deal in Neo's Land. To facilitate a social and player-driven economy, the devs have decreed there will be no universal auction house. Instead, the following system has been proposed: NPCs who have a limited number of goods available will have to be restocked by players before any more items can be bought. For instance, if a sword merchant has 10 swords, once all 10 are bought he'll need more swords before he can sell again. Players can then craft and then sell swords to this merchant until he replenishes his stock and accepts no more.

Players will be able to earn currency through participating in the economy via crafting, but they will also be able to sell the blueprints to special building features they have designed. These crowd-sourced 3-D assets will be brokered through the Unity Store and can garner in-game and real-world profits for the creators (think NeoJac's version of SOE's Player Studio).

And finally, an interesting tidbit on skills: Rossouw explained that skills players develop for crafting will not be beneficial only for crafting. He said, "We want to incorporate professions and crafting into combat." For example, a player can learn certain skills for doing better at blacksmithing, but that same ability will allow the player to find where the weaknesses are in an opponent's armor. Current crafting professions include alchemy, blacksmithing, carpentry, and farming. Of course, more might still be on their way if the community decides on it. Additionally, another proposed idea is the ability to transfer skills to books so people can learn skills from a library system.

The future is Neo-w
If this game sounds interesting to you, you can expect to play it come spring 2014. But until then -- and even after, for that matter -- Neo's Land will continue to develop and grow. Devs have contests in mind that will help further world building, like a competition between guilds to build the first seaport. And future roundtables include the topics of mounts, pets, and a player-created quest system (Rossouw described the system devs are going to offer for discussion -- namely, players will be able to program an NPC to offer a quest and dispense rewards to those who take it.)

If you want to become a part of this Build Your Own Game, be sure to participate in the ongoing community discussions on Twitch and/or hang out on the official forums. Of course, there is also the option to contribute via the Kickstarter campaign for those so inclined.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of 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!

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