Gamescom 2016 with J. Todd Coleman & Jess Mulligan
Gamescom is its own beast. The halls are huge, the distances vast and the work can be draining. Early Friday morning I sat down with Jess Mulligan from Travian to talk about Crowfall while we waited for J Todd Coleman to find his way to us. It was a lovely informal chat, slightly ruined by the fact that it was Friday and I was only slightly better than a zombie. Jess on the other hand? She's been in the industry a long time. Quite possibly she has more experience in the industry than I do at playing the products of the games industry. With that, we rambled on...
MMORPG: So Crowfall isn't actually on the floor this year, will we see you there soon?
Jess: So this year we're just doing a get out the word effort. Like "Hey we'll be in Europe!" It’s in pre-alpha. It depends on your package. Right now we have people from the Alpha one through three groups in testing.
MMORPG: I think I'm in Alpha 5 ... or Beta 3... I can't remember which.
Jess: It's hard to tell sometimes, at one point I think they had something like 60 packages out there for pledging. Keeping track of all that is very interesting. We have to basically take over those packages and make sure that everything gets to the players on time.
MMORPG: Most of our usual questions are the simple ones. When's it going to launch? How's it going?
Jess: Bear in mind this is still in development, we promise no dates. That's the only way you can be honest about this. We hope to be in closed beta by the end of the year, as well as feature and content complete. So that means open beta will occur sometime early 2017 and then it launches soon thereafter as it makes sense to launch. Testing changes everything.
MMORPG: And you're planning to be back here next year with a booth.
Jess: Yes! Because one way or another it'll be out, just about or soon. Will there be any other events you plan to do before the launch?
You know maybe. We're looking at maybe having a launch about this time next year, so it may make sense to hold events until launch.
MMORPG: How is the Voxel Farm system working for the destructible environments?
Jess: Yeah you haven't been able to test! It's working. I was doing a test last week where were testing the siege engines against the castle walls. I was standing on top of the wall and thinking "Nah there's only two siege engines, I probably have some time". One landed right beneath me and the block popped right off.... I survived long enough to hit the ground but I didn't survive long after that when the rest of that team came forward. You know what? The destructible environments are working really well.
I don't know if you're following any of the Twitch guys. Pumped Up Pixie has some great siege footage on one of her streams. She's not a defender, she's an attacker and she's following the siege engine. .... Just watching the bolts hitting and the magic spells hitting the walls, it was really interesting.
MMORPG: I know that there have been a few games trying to do more with the Unity Engine. I've just been wondering if it's been working out well for ArtCraft
Jess: Oh yeah, hell yeah. It really all depends on what you want to do, what your feature set is going to be and how good your people are. When you look at the ArtCraft development team, those guys are the most experienced MMO development team in the history of our industry.
The litany of stuff that they've worked on is amazing. I'm talking about in terms of actual experience, the number of years working in the industry is ten, tens of years.
Among 30 developers with that much experience at MMOs? Gordon and Todd know everybody in the industry. Gordon has been doing this for 30 years, Todd has been doing it for 20 years. They've worked with all the best people and they know who to hire.
MMORPG: Just for yourself, what other MMOs has Travian covered?
Jess: So this is like a new experience for Travian as a company. Normally what they have done in the past, what we have done in the past, are browser based strategy games and mobile games, and mobile companion apps for our browser games; Travian, Rail Nation, Goal United. We've been around for 11 years. We're one of the most successful game companies in Germany that you've never heard of. This is a new experience for the company, but we have experienced people working here. Like I said I've been doing this for 30 years making and managing the games. We've just hired a senior community manager, Aidan Taylor, who has been doing this for like 12 years. He was working for HTC on the Vive...and I stole him. I make no apologies.
MMORPG: What was it about Crowfall that made you think "Yeah we'll take them then" if it's so different.
Jess: I liked a couple things about it before I recommended it to the CEO. The first thing that I liked is that I've worked with half the people on the team. So it was like "I know they'll turn out something that is stable and fun to play". I like Todd's philosophy about the whole design, he's so tired of the grind and aren't we all?
Free to Plays in some ways really hurt MMORPGs, because without the grind they have no special time savings to sell. There's always that temptation to twist the knife just a little bit more every day.
MMORPG: I miss subscription games myself. It felt like there was more to do in them or ... less pain involved.
Jess: The problem is Free To Play gets a better look. So people really think about if they want to play €15 a month for a subscription game. They really do think about it. Maybe you have to pay €40 for a box. It is quite an investment off the bat. That's why they went with the Guild Wars model, buy once and play forever.
At this point Todd arrives to many happy greetings.
Jess: They were just asking me what I liked about Crowfall or what Travian liked about Crowfall. What I liked about it was the motto "The End Game is the Game". That's the internal development model. That's like "oh great, I can be competitive from my first minute in the game". If I want to grind more skills on my character to add a little more capability to my character I can do that, but I don't have to grind. We liked the business model, buy once and play forever, and the fact that there were subscriptions and micro-transactions can be put on top of that but nothing that will affect combat. Cosmetic items and bits for your Eternal Kingdom, just wait and see what you can do with your Eternal Kingdom. It's the part of this game that I am really excited for myself as a player because I love to build cool stuff.
When our CEO Lars visited these guys in Texas, he went out there about a year ago and visited the office. He was like "Oh my God you're right, we have to figure out a way to get this game".
Todd: And from our standpoint we had a lot of offers from large companies. We got a lot of interest, we had a successful Kickstarter, we've got a team with an epic level of experience quite frankly and we have an innovative and new idea in a particular genre that has been for a decade mostly been putting out the same game with a new skin. We've all been remaking WoW. I did it, Gordon did it. We've all been making WoW for the last ten years. So the idea of a fresh game, we got a lot of attention. So changing course from why Crowfall and turning it around to why Travian... Gordon and I have both been down the road of dealing with large scale traditional publishers and it hasn't been the beautiful dream that most people would expect. Both of us have been through it enough that we eschewed the idea of going with someone who didn't understand development.
Our worst nightmare is we sign with somebody who at the first meeting with us tells us we need to make something like WoW. Take Crowfall and make it like WoW.
And it has to be out in three months.
Todd: Yes! So for us here's an opportunity to work with somebody who isn't a traditional publisher, they grew up as a game developer. They started with an online game company with an incredibly rabid fanbase. Is that a good word?
Jess: Oh yeah! Fanatical perhaps.
Todd: Hardcore, fanatical fanbase. So there was a nice synergy there that we really liked and of course you (Jess) and Gordon go back a long long time, that helps a lot as we knew who we'd be working with. We knew what we saw was what we were going to get. It resonated in a really interesting and great way.
Jess: The first question that players always ask in the forum is "Well what changes are you going to ask for?" Features and game mechanics we're completely hands off, we like the game they're making! We don't own them... they're paying for development, we liked that a lot too. We pay a licensing fee to publish in Europe obviously, but we wouldn't have gone that far if we didn't like what they had.
So there isn't any difference between the two versions, EU and NA, so like some games where the European development is a few cycles behind.
Todd: Not only is there no difference, we're running a centralized service so you'll get to log in and see a list of servers and just pick.
MMORPG: We'll get to play with North Americans from Europe?
Todd: Yep! Seamlessly. No "I need to go through a process" to transfer a character. Just a list of servers and kingdoms.
Crowfall being what it is we did of course get interrupted at this time by another passionate backer. Todd and Jess were incredibly approachable and friendly but our own time was up and it meant diving back into the crowds of Gamescom.