Exclusive Gatheryn GDC '09 Interview - Creating an "Advanced Casual" MMO

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Whenever a developer for a multi-million dollar smash hit like The Force Unleashed packs up her things and moves to a different development company, people perk up and take notice. That’s exactly what happened when former-LucasArts employee Isa Stamos joined up with MindFuse as the studio director to help create the upcoming “advanced casual” MMO Gatheryn. While at GDC, the Ten Ton Hammer staff was able to chat with Isa about the finer points of Gatheryn and how this game may be a gateway for players not exactly familiar with the MMO experience. Read on!

Ten Ton Hammer: For those gamers that aren't incredibly familiar with Gatheryn, what is the game all about?

Isa Stamos: While Gatheryn is an immersive 3D experience like most MMOs, the meat and potatoes of Gatheryn is casual gaming. If you look at the top casual games on the market, we’ve been able to get gameplay into Gatheryn for the more popular titles and launch them inside our game. What players do in Gatheryn is play these casual games that have RPG elements tying everything together.

The experience is definitely unique. It will hit players that are more used to casual games, but have an interest in MMOs. I think it will draw those players in and serve as a gateway to a more immersive gaming experience.

Ten Ton Hammer: How are new players entering the world?

Isa: The context for players that are entering the world of Gatheryn is that they are “outworlders.” Elymia is a chain of islands in the middle of the ocean and is experiencing a very prosperous era. This land has technology that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.  Outworlders are very motivated to come to Elymia to seek their fortunes, because elsewhere doesn’t have that level of tech.

So that’s why players find themselves in Elymia in the game world.

Ten Ton Hammer: I've heard that character creation in Gatheryn is unique. What can you tell us about it?

Isa: The character creation system we have in Gatheryn is pretty advanced. I would guess that it’s something that casual gamers haven’t seen before. Even folks who are playing 3D MMOs haven’t played around with something like this either.

We’ve added a lot of details that players can change. Details on their faces and bodies are adjustable and there are a lot of clothing options available right at the start. The style is very Victorian / steampunk, so the clothing fashion definitely plays a role in the gameplay.

Ten Ton Hammer: A quick question on character creation and customizability. Are casual gamers going to be really motivated to make these really stylized characters? That’s not something I’d associate with casual gamers, normally. But you think so?

Isa: Yes I do. Our character creation is very simple and very focused on the look of the avatar. We’re not asking people to make a lot of decisions about who they want their character to be right away. We want them to have a chance to play the game first.

You’re not selecting a class. You’re not selecting a profession. You’re not making decisions on your alignment. You’re really just deciding what you want to look like.

Ten Ton Hammer: What kind of tutorial do you have in place for new players?

Isa: Once a player creates their character, they’re then sent to the main island of Elymia where the player goes through the main tutorial of the game.

The tutorial actually takes place on top of an airship. They’re large, slow vehicles with a deck, and there are a bunch of different activities players can do that will teach them basic controls and chat to get around in the world.

After arriving at the main island, the players are immediately greeted by a clockwork robot named Bella Donna that has their first quest.

Ten Ton Hammer: Like the clockwork monkey!

Isa: Yeah, the cool thing about our world is that we can have robotic characters in both human form and animal form. It really allows us to draw a thin line between science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction.

So then the player is off and running on their first quest, which is to find shops where they can purchase more clothing, hats, accessories, and footwear. We even have mechanical arms and legs for players.

Gamers can also accept quests to meet various NPCs to get a sense of the world through the NPCs flavor text, which also may include “mystery” quests for players to unravel. Players can also find quests that help them learn about the various casual games they can do.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you tell us more about the casual games?

Isa: The casual games are really a lot like jobs and professions.

Ten Ton Hammer: The jobs and professions from other MMOs?

Isa: Yeah, a little bit. There will be skills that you actually build while you’re playing mini-games and micro-games.

An example of a mini-game is going to a chemistry lab and making potions. Basically, you walk into a chemistry lab and see a station with a bunch of different beakers on it. When you click on one of those stations, it actually launches a mini-game.

While you’re playing that game, you can still see your character and your character is animated and actively making potions. She’s reacting to the successes and failures in the mini-game itself. So as you’re making potions, you can be increasing your alchemy skill at the same time while still giving you an immediate reward and keeping you connected with the rest of the world. The potions you create might also be required to help you complete a quest and things like that.

Ten Ton Hammer: At launch, how many mini-games are you going to have?

Isa: At launch, we’re going to have fifteen in the game.  In addition to the mini-games, we’ll also have what we call “micro-games.”

As you’re exploring the world, whether you’re in the city or in the countryside, you can interact with the world. This is something that, I think, players will have fun with. It’s very simply stuff, like picking items up off the ground.

For instance, you can go to the beach and pick up seashells. You can go to the apple orchard and pick up apples, or maybe you stumble across some scrap metal or equipment that you can piece together or sell. You can also take these items and use them as raw materials to craft other items.

There are other activities out there, like what we call…*laughs*…tree-shaking. Basically, you can walk up to a tree, hit or kick it, and loot will fall out of the tree.

Ten Ton Hammer: *laughs* Awesome.

Isa: It ties into the lore of the world in that airships are flying over all the time and people are accidentally dropping things! So of course you might find a fancy new pair of boots in a tree! It’s definitely a lot of fun, and it has some whimsical qualities to it and awards players for exploration.

We have a lot of machines and contraptions that exist throughout the city and the island. By interacting with these machines, you’re launching a casual game to try to repair these machines. Fishing, mining, farming, lots of things that are manifested throughout the world as micro- and mini-games.  Players will definitely be inspired to explore the island and check things out.

Ten Ton Hammer: What about player housing? The Sims is obviously a big game in the more “casual” marketplace.

Isa: There’s definitely a lot in the game that will keep players come back over and over again. We’ll have player housing, and the way it will work is that free-to-play and micro-transaction players will be able to save up silver so they can afford an apartment or house, and subscription players will actually be granted ownership of an apartment as part of their “citizenship.”

You can decorate your home with furnishings that you can craft or purchase, and you’ll also be able to assign roommates and have other people live with you or visit you. You basically have the ability to assign permissions to other players.

You can also choose to designate areas of your home that are public areas. Some people may want to open up a player shop that way, while others may want to just show off the things that they’ve purchased and other things that they’re working on. Or you could purchase and set up the various mini-game stations in your home. Basically, you could just set up your own workshop.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will housing be instanced?

Isa: It will be instanced space, yes. But once you're in your city district, there will be very easy ways to teleport yourself back to your house.

Ten Ton Hammer: What about other things casual players love, like pets?

Isa: Pets will be in the game, although they'll be starting off rather simply. At first, they'll probably just follow the player around, but they will need to be cared for and played with. There will definitely be lots of items that you can buy for your pets.

The one thing that's unique about our pet system is that our pets will range from normal animals to robotic pets like monkeys and chickens and...we even have a ferret.

Pets are definitely a huge outlet for mini-games, and there lots of things you can do with your pet.

Ten Ton Hammer: It's always been MindFuse's goal to release Gatheryn in segmented pieces and not release a giant game. Are you getting close to beta?

Isa: We are getting close to beta, especially since we're planning to release the game in 2009. The island idea really works well for this type of release system too. Just to give you a sneak peek, the main island of Elymia is already built and done. We're just working on some additional content before we open it up to gamers.

The others islands are pretty well planned out, but eventually we'd like to expand out even further and reaching the outworld. And by outworld, I mean other lands that exist outside of Elymia but still are a part of Gatheryn. These lands could have different looks; it might be goth or western or anything else that could parallel the steampunk genre.

Ten Ton Hammer: Gatheryn has been touted as a very social game. Are you developing any sort of mechanic to promote socialization in your game? Or is it a "you build it and they will come" sort of idea?

Isa: We're definitely going to have all the standard features of a standard MMO: chat, in-game mail, etc. But I really think that is the standard stuff. For us, we're really hoping to make activities that are fun for players to get together and do as a group.

Dances, talent shows, fashion shows, all of these things are things that we're working on putting into the game. We also want to have hosted events from MindFuse where players can all gather together for an event for a pre-scheduled meet-up....a party basically.

Ten Ton Hammer: Are there ways to reward players that participate in these events without having a billion GMs?

Isa: Yeah, and we actually want to have a system of achievements to point out the players that have earned particular social achievements in a given month. Of course, the achievements wouldn't be limited to simply social stuff, but giving out prizes to those players that have attended the most public events is definitely something we're looking at.

Ten Ton Hammer: What about guilds? Are they going to be a part of the game? Will they have things to do in Gatheryn?

Isa: Players will be able to form their own guilds, but they will probably focus around gamers that either enjoy a certain activity like dances or playing cards, or a certain goal like raising money. We may also see guilds form around particular mini-games. In that sense, they may be more like social groups, rather than the normal version of guilds.

Ten Ton Hammer: Finally, is there anything that players can do to become a part of the Gatheryn community at this point in development?

Isa: Absolutely! We actually have a community manager who is working on setting up our beta program, and I think the community is going to start there. Forums are also on there way, and a fansite kit is coming together for anyone that wants to put together a fansite. We welcome a lot of interaction with the different communities; we want to hear from everyone and talk to them!

Ten Ton Hammer: Great! Thanks for your time, and we hope to talk to you again soon!
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