(Prairie) Chicken Little Be Damned – An Exclusive Fallen Earth Interview

As an active member of this nutty world we call gaming media, I can understand the desire to be the first to break a story. Even if the same information is bound to be spread paper thin across the ‘net and beyond mere minutes after being published, that desire can still be a powerful motivator all the same. After all, bringing news about the industry to the fans that make its existence possible in the first place is one of the things we journalists are most passionate about (or at least should be in my opinion), so being first on the scene with breaking news is just icing on the virtual cake.

Only sometimes, in the epic rush to disseminate information as quickly as possible, wild inaccuracies and rampant speculation get thrown into the mix. While most self respecting journalists tend to shy away from such purposeful behavior, it inevitably happens with certain hot news items all the same. While this is to be expected to happen on occasion, it can also have an unfortunately negative impact on those same people we’re here to serve in the first place – the gamers and fans who simply wish to know the bottom line truth when breaking news happens.

Members of the gaming media who are fans and gamers themselves no doubt understand how crushing it can be to read doom-filled headlines about a favorite title. The restructuring at Fallen Earth officially announced late last week was one such case, and boy were there some pretty extreme headlines floating around out there, some even going so far as to claim, “Fallen Earth Developer Icarus Studios Closes Up Shop”. Even if you eventually track down the truth of the situation and edit in an update to correct such a bold statement, the damage has already been done.

As a result, Fallen Earth fans have spent much of the past week in a state of confusion, and to a degree I don’t necessarily blame them. Nearly every online gaming outlet has covered the story, but few have dug deep enough to provide meaningful insight into the heart of the matter. Knowing this and having been a long time fan of the game myself, I set out for Icarus Studios to find out exactly where things stand for the Fallen Earth team today, and their plans for the future.

So this one is dedicated to all the Fallen Earth fans out there, past, present and future. The sky is certainly not falling on Fallen Earth – far from it in fact.

"I don’t think anybody here is in survival mode. Everybody here is in “make the game awesome” mode."

Pulling up to the Cary, NC offices of Icarus Studios and the Fallen Earth team, it was hard to ignore the fact that the parking lot was packed to the point that had there not been a visitor’s spot open, I’d have been hard pressed to find someplace to park. This was hardly the exterior one might expect to see for a company about to shut its doors as some of the rumors floating around out there might want you to believe.

While the team inside may indeed have been notably smaller than when I’d made my inaugural visit to the development home of Fallen Earth last spring, it was no less buzzing with activity and excitement for the release of the game’s newest beast of an update, patch v1.4 which is due to hit live servers this Friday and contains not only Deadfall and the awesome new Blood Sports maps, but a robust achievement system and much, much more.

Details on what makes patch v1.4 an awesome jumping-in point for new players and plenty of reason for current players to be excited will be coming to a Ten Ton Hammer near you in the very near future, and we also have an excellent dev journal outlining each of the Blood Sports maps in the meantime so be sure to check it out. Blood Sports and patch 1.4 certainly offers players plenty to be excited about, but I was also keenly interested in speaking with the team on where the company stands today in light of the recent restructuring announcements, and where they aim to take the game in the future.

Sitting down with Senior Game Designer Marie Croall, Lead Scripter Michael Broadwater, and Marketing Manager Jessica Orr, I found myself facing members of a development team who were as passionate as ever about Fallen Earth, and more than happy to share their thoughts with me on recent events. The resulting discussions filled in many of the blanks and addressed many of the concerns players might currently have about the future of the game.

"We're sharks, we keep moving. I don’t want to make light of what happened or to trivialize the fact that there are fewer of us, but we’re awesome so we’re going to make it work."

One of the recurring statements you see whenever an announcement of this type occurs is that the remaining team is simply in “survival mode”.

Senior Game Designer Marie Croall explained, “Here’s the thing. We have always been a scrappy little startup. Our philosophy is “make it work with what you have” and that has not changed. When we had a full staff we’d come in and ask can we do this? Well, we have the tech so let’s make it work with what we already have.

We had our first big “what’s next?” planning meeting on Monday. You know, things went bad and we came in ready to work and ready to figure things out, like patch 1.4 is on Friday, so what’s next? Because we’re “what’s next?” people. 

There’s no such thing as survival – survival is dead. We’re sharks, we keep moving. I don’t want to make light of what happened or to trivialize the fact that there are fewer of us, but we’re awesome so we’re going to make it work. Every company goes through this. It’s never easy to hear, and MMO fans are fickle and they panic. I know because I’m one of them.”

Lead Scripter Michael Broadwater also noted, “I don’t think anybody here is in survival mode. Everybody here is in “make the game awesome” mode. Nobody in this company that I work with that I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to everybody, wants to maintain stasis. That’s not what we want for this game; we want to continually improve it, not just sit around and say “well we’ve got bugs so let’s just fix the bugs.” We want to add new features. You can’t just “survive.”

A big concern with many current players seems to be, I’m paying a monthly subscription fee but is there going to be something new for me in the game 3 or 4 months down the road? In other words, is my subscription fee going to be contributing to further development on the game, or simply helping to maintain the status quo for as long as possible?

That said, with the release of patch 1.4 this Friday, a question on many player’s minds is what’s next for Fallen Earth?

”The first thing will be [the Blood Sport map] Assault” said Marie, who continued, “After that there are a couple of things on the table. We do get to sort of look at all the features we had planned and figure out what is best for us. Endgame content for us is obviously not going to look the same as it does for other games. We have some plans in place that would require minimal time, or maximum time with minimal people is probably a better way to put that.

Here’s the thing: we went from 110 people to 35. So I can tell you honestly that everything is still on the development schedule, but that schedule just got a lot longer. We’re still trying to figure out who we are, where we’re at and what we can do with the core staff. The game is still here, we promised a lot and we still want to deliver it. Our intention is to deliver it, but we’ve got to do what we can with the people that we have."

Blood Sports may be the newest addition to Fallen Earth, but it certainly won't be the last

Marketing Manager Jessica Orr went on to explain, “The other thing about it too is that every time we make a major round of changes that could potentially affect the entire dynamic of the game – like before we sat down and said ok I know we’ve changed some things with PvP - we need to address some issues that people have with these parts of the game. At that point it was very obvious to us through some of the reviews we were getting, through forum posts, and what the clans were telling us, that a change needed to be made. And I think one of the things we’ve done really well is after each change we have a time where the team reflects on what’s just happened. We figure out how did that change the dynamic, what’s missing, and what’s left.

So I think like what we’ve done in the past it’s still pretty normal for us to regroup and figure out if there are things that stem from this that we didn’t expect that we need to readdress. Or, can we go ahead and proceed with what we have on the schedule?

I think in all evenness I know we’ve talked about what’s next on the schedule and how we’re going to handle it with the team size, and obviously that is something difficult to consider in terms of planning. We obviously have to be even smarter with our resources than we were before, but we also know that it’s a huge concern for our community right now, that they’re afraid that we’re going to let this patch go and that we’re going to sit on it. Or that we’re just going to go into maintenance mode and we’re just going to keep cruising and that the servers are going to stay on as long as we have subscription numbers adequate enough to hold it. And just for the record that is not the case.

It’s the kind of thing that’s more difficult than it was, but that doesn’t mean that we’re any less determined. And rightly so I don’t blame players for asking that question at all. It’s going to be difficult with resources, but I think that we’re a smart team and we’re ready for the challenge.”

“We have the right people for the challenge” Marie added. “Everybody that we have is really good at identifying what the core issues are and making it work with limited resources. Plus we’re awesome.”

"There’s something worth watching and looking at, and I think Icarus is down but not out so we’ll see what happens."

Later in the day, I also had the opportunity to sit down with Scripter Michael Bacigalupo, one of the team members recently let go who offered to work for free this week to help complete his work on the latest game update, which to me speaks volumes about the drive and dedication you’ll find with those developers who are truly passionate about what they’re doing.

When asked about his continued work sans pay this week, Michael explained, “Most people in my personal life think I’m crazy because I’m coming back in and working for 3 or 4 days for free. The thing is, we’re so blasted close on Blood Sports and I was writing a significant portion of the code and I knew we had about three days left. I was committed enough to the project and to the company and wanting all of my friends who are still here to have the best chance possible moving forward.

I think all the people who caused the situation to go poorly are gone. So trying to point fingers or scream doom for the qualified team that still remains is insane. Given the release coming on Friday it’s pretty clear they didn’t do this out of maliciousness or a plan to dump everybody or that kind of thing. They just got kind of screwed by the situation.”

Jessica also noted, “And one thing too which I think hasn’t been released but a lot of people, especially on our forums have said, “It’s always the case where the execs get to keep their jobs and they’re full salary still and they still take all the pay” but that’s totally not the case. Part of management was cut with this and the guys who stayed here were prorated the same way the rest of us were. Our CEO is in that mix – I mean he actually chose to withhold pay, so he didn’t get paid at all. So he’s not your typical corporate schmuck.”

“No, it’s definitely not a “golden parachute” situation where somebody wrecks the company and then leaves with all the money. Their part in it is done and they’re gone.” Michael added.

Above: Fallen Earth Marketing Manager Jessica Orr introduces me to one of the devs. (And no, you shouldn't believe the rumors that the team is really this small)

I was also curious to hear what Michael might have to say to those players who are concerned about the future of the game. “It clearly still has life left in it.” He went on to explain, “This came at what seems like a ridiculously poor time with the relaunch and everything else that’s been happening. If anything is going to boost our numbers it’s going to be the stuff that’s coming out this Friday. Blood Sports is awesome, and for a free patch the thing coming up is absolutely enormous in size.

So I definitely think there’s a future. I mean, if we had investors working with us when we had four times the staff that we currently have, now that we have a quarter of the people it seems like profitability shouldn’t be all that difficult.”

I also couldn’t help but ask what Michael thought about Blood Sports. “I actually prototyped it initially, so it’s kind of my baby. Each one of them came out better than I think we expected them to, including Assault. We were in a panic about [Assault] on Thursday morning because it was so confusing and nobody knew what was going on since we hadn’t communicated clearly what the rules were. I was here until 10pm that night and you would not believe the change in the feedback we got in that one day of work. It’s absolutely fun, although I don’t think we’re going to be able to get that out on the 7th like we were originally hoping to, but it looks like it’s not going to be too far behind. I should know, that’s what I’m finishing today!”

So while the downsizing has obviously had a direct impact on many of the individuals who worked on Fallen Earth previous to last week’s events, it’s not all doom and gloom even for some of the team members who were let go. Michael concluded, “It’s just an unfortunate situation where they had to do what they had to do. I did want to officially say though, that if I’m crazy enough to continue working on it, there’s something still here. There’s something worth watching and looking at, and I think Icarus is down but not out so we’ll see what happens.”

And there you have it folks. While the Fallen Earth team may be smaller, they are no less determined to continue making the best possible MMO experience they can for their players. Everyone that I spoke to during my time at Icarus Studios had the same passion and drive as ever. So no, the sky certainly is not falling on Fallen Earth anytime soon. In fact, earlier this evening Ten Ton Hammer even broke the news that the game will soon be available through Walmart, which is pretty big news for the indie developer and a sure sign that wastelanders need not fear for the game’s future.

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