This past weekend at PAX
2009 the Ten Ton Hammer ground
crew had the opportunity to speak with Lee Hammock, lead designer for
upcoming indie MMOG Fallen Earth
to discuss the recent open beta as well as what the studio has planned
for the game after the official launch later this month. We covered a
wide range of topics, so whether you’re a seasoned beta vet
or simply looking for your next great gaming fix there’s
plenty of great Fallen Earth
info to be found in this exclusive interview.
Ten Ton Hammer: Faction choice can play a fairly large role in Fallen Earth. Have you been seeing any unexpected trends through the open beta in terms of certain factions being more popular than others?
Lee Hammock: So far it does seem to be leaning towards the Enforcers and the Techs which was surprising to us. If you took a poll a few months ago, the Travelers were always the top faction and now it’s changed to Techs and Enforcers which tend to be fairly equal, so we have been noticing that people have been skewing that way. They are kind of the easiest to get your head around.
The Enforcers are all about law and order, so that’s good, and they shoot guys – who doesn’t like that? Compared to the Chota, their arch nemesis who are the crazy guys with mohawks who hit people. So obviously one of them is really heroic, so you want to be that dude. The Chota do have some really heroic qualities in that they hate people being enslaved and they always hate people being pushed around, so you can play a ‘good guy’ Chota and it would be a really interesting character, it’s just not the character that’s evident when you look at the faction. You look at the faction and you see crazy barbarians, not the guy who champions the downtrodden because he doesn’t like people being pushed around.
Ten Ton Hammer: When we spoke earlier this year, you mentioned that each of the factions is even somewhat of a ‘gray hat’ – that there’s no clearly defined good vs. evil absolutes.
Lee Hammock: Every faction has its good guy / bad guy elements to it. So with the Enforcers, everyone seems to look at them and go, “wow, they’re law and order – they’re the police” There also can be fascists – so there are Enforcers who think our way is the best and if you disagree we’ll shoot you, and tough shit. So just like the Chota who are anarchists who tare everything down and just do whatever they want, there are enforcers who try and control everything. So every side does have that good and bad element to it. It’s just that with some factions it’s harder for the player base to see.
Ten Ton Hammer: Sector 1 essentially introduces players to what those different elements of the factions are. Have you added any new content that might help make that path selection a bit more evident as players advance towards Sector 2?
Lee Hammock: We did introduce some more content. Each of the factions has a starting town, and we’ve also added some stuff in Watchtower and Trumbull – the towns in the northern part of the sector – that also have members of every faction in the town. So you can talk to them all, get their missions and gain more of a perspective on what each faction does. So by the time you get to Sector 2 you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they’re about.
Ten Ton Hammer: For some of our readers who might not be familiar with some of the terminology in Fallen Earth, could you give us a brief overview of what the various sectors are and how they fit into the overall structure of the game?
Lee Hammock: Sector 1 - which is levels 1 through 15 - has 20 or so towns in it so it’s the largest in terms of town population. Its overall theme is sort of an old mining area. It’s not well developed, there’s a lot of heavy industry or mining, and some toxic waste dumps. Before the apocalypse it was sort of the underdeveloped area, so there wasn’t a lot of commercial or residential space. It was primarily just mines, toxic waste dumps and facilities like that. There’s an abandoned missile silo, a lot of water tanks, chemical vats – so it’s not a very pleasant place. It also is flat out desert.
Sector 2 is more grasslands – it was the more residential section that Globaltech, the company that bought the Grand Canyon Park, used to house all of their people or at least their upper-crust executives. So it’s got a lot of mansions and subdivisions, a golf course, a zoo, and county fairgrounds with a rollercoaster and all that kind of stuff. There are movie theaters, bowling alleys – all kinds of suburban stuff you’d find. The sector is mostly grasslands with some treed areas, so it’s much greener than what you’ll find in Sector 1.
Then Sector 3 is Kaibab Forest which is the wooded area of the game. Previous to the apocalypse it was a heavy logging and industrial harvesting area. Now it’s under assault largely by a group called the Human League – who are not an 80s band – but are in fact a group of anti-mutants that are basically racists who try to kill all the mutants in the world.
It’s very different because our forests are really thick, it’s a very big sector and it’s very easy to get lost. At E3 we met some guys from Russia who saw that sector and said, “wow, that looks like our country with all the broken buildings and stuff!” I was like, “wow guys, that’s kind of depressing!”
Ten Ton Hammer: And then the PvP areas are also somewhat broken down by sector as well, correct?
Lee Hammock: In Sector 1 most of the PvP areas are more free-for-all where you’re fighting over a specific resource. In Sector 2 you start getting introduced to conflict towns, and large swaths of the sector are PvP zones instead of the more limited areas found earlier. In those you fight over towns to take control of them for your faction and unlock new content by doing missions and doing stuff in the town. So that’s really the focus of PvP from Sector 2 onwards.
Ten Ton Hammer: Last time we talked you also mentioned that you were in the process of tweaking the design of the conflict towns because you wanted to make it a bit more balanced for melee. Has that process been successful in achieving the balance you were aiming for?
Lee Hammock: We added more difficult terrain, more blockers and that kind of stuff. Also, previously to take control of the towns you had to complete missions. The way we set it up originally was that those missions would send a faction to go get a certain resource, and then we’d send another faction to go get the same resource. But since it wasn’t specifically telling you to go kill the other team both sides would just go get the resource and not shoot each other.
It was kind of like, OK we tried to get you to PvP but you didn’t actually shoot each other which is kind of the goal here. So we added missions to all the conflict towns so now you can actually get rewards just for killing other players.
Ten Ton Hammer: So would you say there’s a good mix of PvE elements even in the conflict towns to make the two aspects of gameplay fit more seamlessly together?
Lee Hammock: Right. If you enter a conflict town and there are no other players there, it’s effectively a PvE zone. So you can still do missions and stuff like that.
Ten Ton Hammer: Were there any other surprises that came up during the open beta in terms of certain types of content that players naturally gravitated to more so than others?
Lee Hammock: It was really about what we expected. We were surprised by how militant people got about liking the game which is kind of funny. It skews to more hardcore players than most games, and when hardcore players find something they like they really hang on. So that was kind of surprising.
Otherwise it was kind of surprising which towns people would go and hang out in. Even some of the higher level players would go back to sector 1 just to hang out. So it was interesting because it was like, there’s nothing really for you here – there’s no resources that would be particularly useful and you’re not going to earn anything, so why are you here? But, that’s what they did.
Ten Ton Hammer: So players have been artificially creating their own social hubs?
Lee Hammock: Yep. So one of the things we’re looking at now is increasing our ability to have social hubs to give players more places to hang out and we’re also looking at possibly doing some stuff with camps kind of like Star Wars Galaxies used to do. So we have a lot of things we’re looking at that would increase the social aspects of the game.
Otherwise we had a lot of fun just interacting with the beta players. We’ve run into a bunch of them at the convention so far, so it’s been really nice getting to meet those folks and get their feedback. We’ve been trying to be as responsive as possible to people on the forums – I read the forums every day. Actually I read all of the worst posts I can find just to find out the worst opinions of the game so that I can see if we can do something about addressing those. So we really do try to make sure we’re being responsive so we can ultimately give players what they want.
Ten Ton Hammer: What are your plans for Fallen Earth post-launch?
Lee Hammock: We’ve started work on Sector 4, the Grainway. There’s going to be a 15 level expansion that hopefully we’re going to do a few months after release, and we’ve talked about doing a boxed expansion about a year after that in addition to regular content updates. We’re going to be doing some flash mini-games… we’ve basically got a whole bunch of stuff on the horizon.
Our game is fairly complex compared to some games and there are certain things we didn’t cover in the tutorial, so we’re actually adding a stage two tutorial. Our tutorial exists as a completely linear experience, but then you get out into the world and its like, “do whatever you want!” You can go anywhere you want, you can get a mount, go out and kill people, do missions – and that’s just too much for some people.
So we’re adding something in between that we’re calling the trainer town which is a small area with 10 or so missions that you can do in any order you want to sort of bridge that completely linear to completely open experience and not have it be so jarring. Plus, it will teach players more about crafting, how to use their mounts and how to use their special abilities.
Ten Ton Hammer: So at the end of the current tutorial would all players end up in the trainer town? Currently players exit the tutorial and have a number of options on where they want to start in the world, so how will this fit into that experience?
Lee Hammock: Right. Currently you basically go to that converser to talk to the computer terminal where you can choose which town to start in. This new content will be about fixing that terminal so that you can talk to it. So you’ll have to do all those missions to get the terminal to work and then you can talk to it and go where you’re supposed to from there.
Ten Ton Hammer: What is the live team working on right now as you head towards launch later this month?
Lee Hammock: A lot of it is bug fixes. We’re trying to clear out all the bugs that we have before launch so we can go in with an empty queue. We’re also working on the tactical map changes that I mentioned, some work is going into the sector 4 development, we’re working on the training town and even adding some unique drops to boss mobs. Currently we have a lot of boss mobs that wander around the world that are part of a mission somewhere, but if you just come across them and kill them you don’t really get anything for it. So we’re look at adding some unique items and rare drops so that if you come across a boss mob you’ll get something for killing it even if you don’t have the mission for it.
Ten Ton Hammer: Would you say your content focus moving forward is primarily going to be on adding in new sectors, or will you be expanding any of the current sectors as well?
Lee Hammock: We’re going to be doing both. We basically broke the content department into four teams. We have two dev teams currently working on sector 4. Then we have a systems team which handles all the crafting, weapon balance and special abilities and supports the dev teams working on sector 4 in terms of all the new items you’ll need for 15 more levels of play. And then you have the live team which fixes bugs and does live events as well as expanding content in sectors 1 through 3. So we’ve already got some plans for new encounters and new levels we’re going to add. So we’re not only going to be adding new things at the end and raising the cap, but we’re also going to be adding some content back towards the beginning as well.
We also have some plans for a long term PvP system where you can effectively play a “bad guy”. Early on you can basically decide that you’re going to play an outlaw so you can go through this outlaw play and will have a whole set of towns that are run by the bad guys, but you’re PvP flagged all the time. So for people who want that hardcore PvP experience, they can choose to go and do it.
Ten Ton Hammer: And this would on the same live server?
Lee Hammock: Yep, it would be all on the same server. Then other non-outlaw players can flag themselves as sheriffs or deputies to get involved in the system, and then they would also be permanently flagged for PvP but they would be kind of the “good guy” side of things.
Ten Ton Hammer: That almost reminds me of the old Priest of Discord in EverQuest that you could turn the book into that would perma-flag you for PvP, only a more advanced version of that system.
Lee Hammock: Exactly. For a whole PvP server there are so many little things you have to look at. For example we’d have to make the Lifenet pods non-PvP zones because rezzing in a place where you can be killed is just ridiculous. So there are all these little things we’d have to do to make a full-on PvP server, but we think we would do a better job integrating the ability to be fully PvP flagged into an existing server rather than try and make it into a separate one. Also it’s better for us in terms of maintenance to be able to just focus on the one server type.
Ten Ton Hammer: Do you have plans for any live events scheduled for after the official release?
Lee Hammock: Totally. That’s part of the live team’s job. We’re planning on having some holiday events – probably 6 or 8 a year – most of which are going to be based around the factions. We’re probably not going to hit Halloween because it’s too close to launch, but we’ll be doing Thanksgiving which I think is going to be a Vista holiday. Each holiday is going to have a particular faction that’s associated with it so it should be a lot of fun.
Ten Ton Hammer: What’s the mood at the studio right now? Is it the launch crunch or are things pretty laid back?
Lee Hammock: Actually it’s pretty laid back at this point. There’s definitely stuff that we’re trying to get in, but we’ve done all we can for the most part. We’re still working on patches and we’re doing all that we can to get things like fixes in, but really there’s not that much stress.
We’re a fairly small company; very much an indie game developer. We’re not part of a huge studio, but rather independently financed. I think the running joke was for a while – I’m not sure if this is still true – but for many years WoW’s cinematic department had more people than our entire company.
So it’s the sort of thing where we don’t need to launch with 500,000 players to be profitable. If we launch with 50,000 we’re actually very profitable. If we launch with 100,000 we’re extremely profitable. So we are confident we can hit the launch numbers we need to stay in business, and we’re very much shooting for the EVE model of realizing we’re not going to be the biggest launch and we except that. But we are confident that over time we have enough depth of gameplay to really pull more people in.
So overall we’re good. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback lately, and I think we’re starting to find our audience in terms of the beta testers and all that kind of stuff. It is very true that this is a very niche game, it’s not for everyone. Folks who like an easy experience who don’t like having to learn how the game works – I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – but this is a complex game. It’s not a simple thing to just pick up and play without any real thought or effort. But there’s a real audience of people who want that. The audience I think we’re going to end up with are the people who would play EVE if it wasn’t so much a spreadsheet in space, or would play WoW if it there was more depth to what you were doing. That’s really the audience we’re shooting for.
Ten Ton Hammer: We wish you all kinds of luck with it!
Lee Hammock: Thank you!