I recently had the honor of spending the day with the developers of Hero's Journey at the Simutronics studio in St. Charles, Mo. I approached the day with a bit of curiosity as to what I would find, having never been in an actual game studio before. As I approached the front doors I found an artist sitting upon the steps, his sketchpad in hand, enjoying the nice weather the St. Louis area has had recently. He didn't seem to notice me, and why should he? It was very obvious that he wasn't in Kansas anymore, but in the far off world of Elanthia. In this world, the reporter does not exist. This is a world where only Heroes are to be found. Not wanting to force him to leave such a happy place I walked on past without disturbing him and entered the building.
When I entered the studio, a very pleasant woman behind the front desk and the Simutronics guardian hound named Xena greeted me. I am pretty sure both were elite mobs and I wasn't about to go any further without their permission! Lucky for me that they were non-aggro, and instead of being attacked, I was quickly introduced to Developer Eric Latham, and soon after met Lead Designer Stephanie Shaver.
Eric and Stephanie gave me a tour around the studio allowing me to meet the staff and snap a few photos. I quickly spotted the concept art on the walls across from the artists and took a picture. If you look closely at this picture you will find the muse behind it all. Yes that's correct! You are indeed seeing David Hasslehoff! From hanging out with hot babes on the beach, saving Sponge Bob, and helping to inspire great video games the man is one of worldly value indeed!
Now on to the juicy tidbits that I was able to find:
I sat down in the conference room with a group of the top dogs around the building, and might I say they are a very relaxed and fun bunch! They were pretty easy going with my questions, but they weren't shy to say if there was something they couldn't answer as well, so I will go over what it is that they were able to tell me, and hopefully it will be enough to feed your gaming hunger for a bit.
What is the game about?
The game takes place in the world of Elanthia, where magic gone awry has torn the world apart. There are four factions that are working to put the world back together. Three of these faction hate each other, and that is where pvp will come in, and well the fourth is a neutral faction that does not dislike or like the others.
The world of Elanthia boasts six races: Human, Ilvari (elf), Burian (dwarf), Silvan (half-elf), Dranaar (half-dwarf), and the Qwi. There are nine classes, which consist of: bard, cleric, gear knight, healer, necromancer, ranger, rogue, warrior, and wizard.
Starting at the beginning, which generally means character creation, if you put any thought into it at all, you can expect to spend no less than two hours on your character creation, or if you are like me it will probably take you three to complete the process. The options are endless when it comes to creating your character, and I am told that if you take enough time, you could make an exact replica of yourself.
The creation system is very much like EverQuest 2, except that each body part has multiple sliders. There looked to be around ten for the forehead alone. You will also be able to customize the height, body type, and skin color to very exact definitions.
I was stunned the most by the hair choices. The hair actually looked real. It had a sheen all of its own that created a silky smooth finish. The clothing was just as stunning. It looked and moved like cloth, and I had the feeling that if I were to reach out and touch the screen, it would have been soft to feel. I also found out that you are not stuck with anything in this game. If you decide you want to change your hairstyle or color later, then it's your right to do so! This is a huge plus as I myself tend to get tired of looking at the same hairstyle on my toon after months and months of playing.
When you start out in the game you start as a hero. This being the case you will not find yourself wearing the rags that are common to first level characters in most games. You are born a hero and you are going to dress like a hero! The outfits you can choose from are pretty spiffy as well! Oh yes, I said outfits. There isn't one outfit that everyone starts off wearing, and the color selection to choose from is enormous! The amazing outfits continue through your game play and it will be very unlikely to see multiple people looking the same. In fact if there is a robe, chest piece, or pair of boots that you can't part with, you don't have to.
Hero's Journey has something they call a wyr. This little magical item can go into your armor, weapons, or abilities, and change the properties that those items have, in other words, you can use a wyr to enhance an item so that you don't "outgrow" it. You can also add multiple wyr's or change them up to upgrade an item. What this means for the players is that they don't have to change anything they adore, and can change the stats of an item or ability to make it more pleasurable for them.
The gameplay is simply amazing. It will consist of a leveling system with 50 levels at launch, going up to 100 with future add-ons. The questing, I am told, is so expansive that you could create multiple characters and never have to do the same quests! You will also find yourself re-visiting areas at higher level that you first explored when you were a younger level. The quests will return you to these places, and thank goodness they do because you never know what options have opened up to your character since you last visited. This also keeps away the "ghost town" effect that certain areas of games often acquire.
The quests in this game are organized in a kind of branching system. Hero's Journey is all about choices, and the choices you make will affect the future of your character. As I mentioned before, there are four factions and you can't make everyone happy. Obviously, not saving one faction's town and helping another could have dire consequences. You can indeed fail a quest, but of course only by your own choosing. For example, if you decided to help some baddies plunder a farm instead of save it. That would be your choice, and you couldn't then go back and save the farm. There will often be more than one way to complete a quest. It is easiest to think of the system as a type of chose-your-own-adventure book. Who doesn't love those?
Good news for all you solo players out there; you haven't been forgotten and this game will be perfectly playable for you.
"We love our solo players!" Stephanie Shaver said, "We love grouping, but we know there are times when everyone wants or needs to play solo."
Don't worry, they love their group players too, but to keep everyone happy, a large portion of the quests will be dynamic instances that scale to the level and size of the group. There will be some open areas of play, but concerning the instances, the solo players will be able to zone in and have the mobs scale to fit their level. In the same sense, those who enjoy grouping will also be able to zone in with a group and have the zone scale to meet their group criteria. These is a huge plus when you have those quests that in other games might sit in your journal until they are gray because you can't find that group to complete them.
In terms of guilds, I have also been told that they adore guilding, and because of the importance of friendships and guilds that are created in online gaming, there will be a lot of support inside and outside of the game for guilds. I would love to elaborate on that, but that is all I could get out of them at this time.
You may have heard that NPCs will have unique reactions to you depending on what you have done in the game, and if you read our site, I am sure you know that you could possibly be ambushed, but there is going to be a bit more to it. I can't tell you much, as they are pretty tight lipped about the subject at this point, but when I asked if we could expect a random NPC to run up to our character and ask for help I was told "Don't be surprised by anything, and expect the unexpected."
If you have heard of EQ2's guide program, you will be pleased to know that Hero's Journey will also have a mentor system. In fact, according to them, Simutronics created the mentor system and Sony borrowed it. Expect the mentor system in Hero's Journey to be a lot more in-depth as their mentors will have a lot more power than the EQ2 guides, and I am sure that this will add to a whole new level of fun for us players.
The graphics in this game are absolutely beautiful and that isn't even saying enough to truly express how nice they look. I have never seen such beautiful colors and blending in one game. It is stunning. Pretty much any color you can imagine is there, and those colors can be applied to your armor as well. When it rains, it pours, and it almost seems as if you could reach out your hand and feel the cool trickle of the water. I asked if the weather itself would have an effect on your character, and was also told it depends on the circumstance and that anything can happen. The game runs on real time as well, and the sun sets and rises just as you would expect it to. The sky gradually changes shades as both dusk and dawn approach. There is nothing dull and gray about this game world at all. The hair looks touchable, the clothing looks snuggly, and the world looks to be painted by a world famous artist. Of course this is due to a fantastic art team, but is also made possible by the Hero Engine.
The engine is very unique and is a huge part of what will set this game apart from others and set in motion a huge change for the world of online gaming. If you have ever played The Sims then you have built houses and landscapes, and created your own little virtual world. When building in Hero's Journey it looks very similar to a game of Sims. They can pat down and build up hills just like you do in The Sims, or put in a tree, chair, house, or mob with a simple click of a button. Anything in the game can be changed on the fly, and the GMs can leave GM notes in the world that only other GMs can see. This means less wading through bug reports and emailing back and forth to find out what exactly needs to be done. What does that mean for us? Less downtime! The Hero Engine works in such a way that patches won't be obsolete, but they will be needed far less often. Most bugs and game changes will be able to take place while the game is live, and players won't even know it happened. They may see a random house or tree pop up when they are out adventuring, or perhaps that cow that was missing a leg might suddenly be healed, and you could see a random chair slide across the room. If you do indeed see something of this sort, it only means that you just witnessed the devs working hard making the world a perfect place for you to live.
So this sounds great, but you are probably wondering what all this high tech business means for your machine. What will it take for you to handle the Hero Engine? I asked this question, and was told it was too soon to give minimum requirements, but expect the game to require a decent system to play. Those who aren't keen on keeping their computers up to par will be able to turn the game settings down low, but there could be a few people with low end systems that are left out. Although technology is always changing so nothing can be really said for sure.
I also asked the developers if they thought that fantasy was done, and there would no longer be a market for the genre when the game released. Their answer was a big fat NO, and I have to agree with them. There will always be room for fantasy. It is a world of heroes and magic that has no end and remains timeless. Hero's Journey is going to be a game that sets itself apart from other MMOs, and could make a huge impact on the world of online gaming as we know it. It sets a new bar for upcoming and so-called next generation games. If all goes well, this could be the game that finally brings us to the next level of play. It sounds to good to be true? Maybe. Only time will tell. I can tell you that while I walked into Simutronics a gaming journalist, I left as a Hero.
*I would like to give a special thanks to John Ratcliff and Eric Latham, and the rest of the Hero's team for taking so much time out of their day to have me out.