We’ve had our eyes on HeroEngine since 2006, when Simutronics’ banner release for the versatile game creation suite was set to be Hero’s Journey, a self-developed title that was never released. Instead, Star Wars: The Old Republic turned out to be the engine’s claim to fame.
Today - thanks in no small part to a startup friendly, royalties-driven licensing model, - HeroEngine can be found in thousands of development projects worldwide that cover almost the entire gamut of online games, from 3D MMORPGs to MOBA games to tactical CCGs. And then there’s The Repopulation: part city builder, part political manager, part action RPG, and all MMO.
The setup: humanity has fled Earth because something terrible has happened - finding out exactly what happened is part of the mystery players have to solve Â and it’s up to players to repopulate the (somewhat hostile) garden planet they’ve crash landed upon. To do so, players will have to build cities that can support the ever-growing demands of a burgeoning population while fending off threats from aliens and other players alike.
The Repopulation's world is beautiful, varied, and hostile.
The Repopulation's Nation System and Cities
Core to The Repopulation is the Nation system. Nations are comparable to guilds or alliances in other games, and are comprised of two or more player cities. A ruler of a nation coordinates the military operations of the cities and takes a cut of the tax revenues and resources from the mayors he or she controls.
Both mayors and rulers will have to deal with pressure from their computer-controlled citizenry (i.e. unhappiness), from power struggles between mayors, and from military incursion from other nations, cities, and alien factions. Mayors and rulers can also set up five different levels of alliances with other cities and nations, as well as set up demilitarized trade zones where goods can be bought and sold.
In their role as mayor, player’s primary duties include positioning buildings and defensive structures and setting policies to help their city survive and thrive. Cities can be conquered, but even when players aren’t online, turrets, defensive structures, and your own populations will rise to protect what’s yours.
However, these populations have needs (for defense, basic needs, and luxuries) and provide resources and tax revenue. As these needs are fulfilled, the city grows.
“There are 20 levels to a city,” lead designer Josh Hall explains, “and as a city grows, the needs of the city grow as well. At level 0, your citizens want food and water and protection, but as the city grows, your citizens will want better food, better water, and luxuries.” Cities have about a dozen attributes that are deterministic, meaning that as you concentrate more on crafting, for example, more crafting attributes will be open to you.
City building sets The Repopulation apart from other post-apoc MMOs.
Missions and Engagements in The Repopulation
While the Nation system is what Josh refers to as the “sandbox” side of the game. For the “theme park” (where players are experiencing the fun rather than building it), in addition to the usual trappings of an action RPG, The Repopulation has some tricks up its sleeve here as well.
For starters, there are no levels in The Repopulation. Instead, players can work at over 100 skills ranging from combat to communication to crafting. Missions also detect players’ skill sets, meaning you might get a crafting mission to produce rifles if you happen to be good at producing rifles, for example.
Missions will also give you the option to shape the morality of your character. Josh explains: “If you decide to go down the shadier path, maybe making some arms runs, before long you’ll have the ability to run slaves and kill people in the middle of the night.” Josh was quick to add that this works the other way too Â if you opt instead to free slaves, you might reveal your own John Carter-type storyline in time.
Josh also demonstrated the “Engagement System” Â a close adaptation of the Public Quest system originated in Warhammer Online and developed further in Rift. As I watched, when enough players entered an area, a wave battle ensued where AI-controlled enemies rushed forward to kill a hostage. The experience was rudimentary, nothing like the environment-altering histrionics that accompany a similar event in Rift, but promising.
Pets, Vehicles, and Crafting in The Repopulation
Continuing our tour of The Repopulation’s expansive set of features, Josh showed off the pets system. First up was pets, which come in three varities Â 1) robotic pets which heal, do damage, and buy things for you. 2) Genetic pets Â these are combat pets you grow from extracted DNA. And finally, 3) tamed pets Â pets you capture as babies and raise to become combat pets.
To get around in The Repopulation’s expansive world, John plans on offering multi-occupant vehicles Â i.e. a driver, a turret operator, and two passengers. Vehicles will allow players to break down walls, attack other players, and be upgradable for different weapons and armor.
Last but not least, crafting is predictably central to a game set in an undeveloped world. While some salvageable goods remain on the crashed colony ships, most crafting materials must be extracted from the environment, which (you guessed it) ties into the skill system. “If you’re trying to extract a claw and you’re not good at extracting, you’re going to make a mess of it,” Josh explained, and was also adamant that there would be no such thing as junk loot in the game Â everything can be salvaged somehow.
Rather than offering crafting recipes that unlock at a skill level, crafters purchase a recipe once, get better at a recipe as they use the recipe, and can make better goods the more practiced they are.
The Repopulation: Our Outlook
The Repopulation was one of our biggest surprises of GDC, and looked better in pre-alpha than a number of beta MMOs we’ve seen. MMO developers have never been shy about fusing seemingly disparate genres Â shooters, TCGs, strategy games (both real time and turn-based), action RPGs, and much more have been thrown into the mix Â but this is the first time we’ve seen a CivCity-style city builder fused with a 3D MMORPG. Better yet, the concept seems to fit nicely with the design, and (from what we saw) the scope seems to be within The Repopulation team’s reach.
The Repopulation isn’t without its blemishes, though. Coming from a small studio (Josh Halls is both Lead Developer and Co-Owner), means that this game might have a lot of indy developer-heart, but will fight an uphill battle to gain the kind of graphical and animation polish that mainstream gamers expect nowadays. Even with an AAA budget and a talented team, SWTOR proved that HeroEngine's character models and UI are a bit of an acquired taste.
That said, we’ve seen similarly well-conceived though niche-y concepts grow to pre-eminent status (Josh mentioned EVE Online several times throughout the interview). With The Repopulation currently in pre-alpha and slated to go into alpha in June, we look forward to seeing how Josh and company bring The Repopulation to life in the months ahead.