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Trials of Ascension Interviews: The Unique World of TerVarus

By William Murphy on February 27, 2013

MMORPG: Trials of Ascension has a very strong grass roots history. Can you give us some background on the game?

Don Danielson: The roots of Trials of Ascension's design are ancient in game years.  In fact they go back to the heyday of Ultima Online.  As other MMOs such as Everquest, Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot came onto the scene and even as UO matured, we started noticing a trend where it seemed designs were being changed so as to remove any challenges and losses for the player. It somehow became OK to let everyone win. Also, they removed consequences for negative actions and replaced them with artificial barriers in the way of consensual PvP toggles and the like. As a result, the games started to feel less immersive to us. We felt the MMO genre, a genre we fell in love with, was headed in the wrong direction and we took it upon ourselves to do something about it.

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We formed Shadowpool Studios (our former company), and designed ToA.  We designed it to be exactly what we wanted to play. Turns out we were designing what people would call a sandbox MMO today, but we were just focused on making the most fun game we could imagine.  We found some talent and put together a prototype on nothing more than a shoestring budget and the team's sheer tenacity.

Throughout this time we managed to attract a rabid following of thousands, all without spending a penny on advertising, and before social networking was as big of a thing as it is now. We let the design speak for itself and made no apologies for our design choices.

We pitched our design and prototype to countless investors and publishers and got a few offers but nothing we could bring ourselves to accept. We were consistently told that while they believed in our ability to bring ToA to market, our designs didn't mirror the other MMOs that were meeting with success. ToA wasn't "mainstream" enough.  Our little kid wasn't cool enough.

We never considered compromising our design, so once the funding options dried up, we closed shop.  That was a very hard time for us all.  We poured everything into ToA.  We lost a lot - time with our families, friendships, money, the list goes on.

Even though we didn’t make it to launch, we achieved more than many others who have tried and we did it at a fraction of the cost. We learned what it took to take an idea of a game from concept to design, to development, to prototype. We learned what works and what doesn't: always avoid scope creep or reach a zero-sum solution if creep can't be avoided, iterate often, develop on agile philosophies, never forget to pay tribute to the developer gods, etc.

Years later - and still receiving emails on a weekly basis asking when we were going to try it again - we learned of Kickstarter and thought ’let’s give it a shot'  ToA fans were consistently saying they would do anything to make sure ToA sees the light of day and now we're holding them to that.  We dusted off the old design, trimmed it back to a much more realistic scope and have started limited development. In the near future we will post our Kickstarter campaign and if the world deems us worthy, we'll move into full development.

MMORPG.com: TerVarus is a unique world. Give us some information on the lore surrounding the game?

Don Danielson: A big part of ToA is the idea that players will be making their own history through their actions in the game, but the world of TerVarus has a rich backstory and players will be discovering tidbits about it as they explore and interact. At the time players enter the game, the world of TerVarus has just entered into the Age of Ascension.  This new age was marked by the defeat of the raknar – a race of very large, spider-like creatures that erupted seemingly out of nowhere and attempted the complete annihilation of mankind. The war with the raknar has cost the humans nearly everything, forcing them to rebuild their lives, from the ground up.

MMORPG.com: What are some of the game mechanics you have in mind for players? Is there something you feel is very strongly needed in Trials that is lacking in other MMOs?

Don Danielson: The list is long and varied but here are some of the big ones:

Innovations.

Anytime you're using a skill (ToA is skill based - no classes) there is a chance that you could have a moment of discovery and learn a new way of doing or making something that only you will be able to know how to do or make.  Imagine being the only one on the server that can craft a particular item!

Combat.

Combat in ToA will be non-consensual, meaning you will be able to attack anyone without them needing to be flagged for PvP. Be careful though because we are taking away the ability to 'con' a target.  Is that lady in the tattered robes an easy kill or a trained killer?  We’ve also got a death system that will make you think twice about picking fights all willy-nilly.

Magic.

While ToA is a low-magic game, those who conquer the arcane will have incredible power at their fingertips.  The drawback is the journey.  Most who will try their hand at the arcane arts will never see their first spell cast.  It's a tough life. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Crafting.

Crafting items will not use the tired old 'combine, click, create' method. Nearly every item will require a multi-step process, each of which may offer the crafter options to enhance the item based on the techniques he has learned.  Collaboration between skilled specialists will be key to creating items of the highest quality.  We just did a podcast that goes into detail about this.

Perma-Death.

This isn't the "one kill and that's it!" type of perma-death.  In ToA you will get 100 lives. Perma-death is a cornerstone of our design and it's not being implemented because we have some sort of twisted pleasure in seeing you lose a character.  Its benefits are truly incredible once you can move beyond the initial 'no thanks!' reaction some people have. It forces players to think about the consequences of their actions in-game, and adds a level of intensity and meaning to things like siege and exploration. It also creates an ever-changing flow of powerful characters meaning nobody can stay on top forever.

We wrote an entire article on the benefits of perma-death.  I highly encourage everyone to read it, whether you think you agree with the concept of perma-death or not.

Housing and Settlements.

Houses and settlements will be built by you.  When we say built, we mean it.  You will have to build each house and section of your keep's wall by having the resources and crafters with the right skills.  There are no NPCs to help you build.

MMORPG.com: Can you talk about the changes in scope you have made to the game design?

Don Danielson: It was painful to cut some features from the old design but we knew that it had to be done if we wanted to keep the budget down and launch the game in a reasonable amount of time.  That said, I think the decisions we made really do preserve the core ToA experience and even make it a tighter game out of the gate.

The biggest change is that we've reduced the race line-up to just humans.  Loads of people loved the diverse player-races we had planned in the old design, and we certainly hope to re-introduce many of them at some point. In the meantime, we think humans will be a great starting point for launch.

Beyond the race cuts, we removed the religion system, mounts, ships, and shrank the size of the starting world.

Again, we intend to revisit some of these features down the road through content updates and introducing Innovations, but for now we’re focused on getting the core game ready for launch.

MMORPG.com: What type of feedback are you getting from your fanbase? How can players impact the design of the game?

Don Danielson: Our fanbase rocks!  They have been nothing but supportive and I'll bet you won't find a friendlier gaming forum!  They have accepted the scaled back design knowing the priority is getting the game launched, which is just the beginning and post-launch design growth will be perpetual.

We read just about every post on the forums and are always open to listening to anyone's ideas and comments. We never want anyone to be afraid to approach us and their fellow fans with their suggestions.

Should we succeed in our Kickstarter campaign, our plan is to open a private access forum. Those accepted into the private forum can expect a considerable increase in access to the development process and status as well as the amount of impact they can have on the design.

MMORPG.com: Can you tell us a little about what classes or skills players will have in the game?

Don Danielson: ToA is strictly skill based, so you’ll have a lot of latitude in making your character unique.  We currently have 35 skills slated for launch.  The majority of skills will have techniques, meaning that in addition to getting better at a skill by practicing it, you will also be able to enhance a particular aspect of that skill for added specialization.

An example would be the swords skill.  Gaining in swords itself will improve your aim and allow you to do more damage.  A technique of swords would be disarm. The better at disarm you are, the better chance you have at ... you guessed it ... disarming your opponent with each strike.

MMORPG.com: What are your plans going into 2013? Do you see a beta in the future before the end of the year?

Don Danielson: Our immediate plans are to continue development on ToA while raising as much awareness as we can before launching our Kickstarter campaign.  If our Kickstarter succeeds, we will transition into full development.  We're constantly surprised at how fast things are coming together but even so, I wouldn't count on seeing a beta by the end of this year.

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