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Creating Persist Online: Insights from CipSoft's Benjamin Zuckerer on the Zombie Survival MMORPG | Interview

Steven Weber Posted:
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On June 3rd, 2024, legendary development studio Cipsoft, the team behind the long-running game of 27 years, Tibia announced they have a new game on the way. Enter, Persist Online, which is their foray into a post apocalyptic zombie survival land where players will take on hordes of the undead in an open-world player-run MMORPG sandbox. Shortly after the announcement we had the opportunity to pick the brain (not in a zombie way) of Benjamin Zuckerer, Lead Product Manager and Managing DIrector of Persist Online, and his answers to where Persist is headed is sure to delight survival and MMORPG fans alike. 

MMORPG: After more than 20 years, why did the team decide to create Persist Online, especially now during a particularly chaotic time in game development?

BZ: The development of Persist Online began as a hobby project shortly before the pandemic started. Thomas Brünger and I are both passionate about MMOs. We also enjoy games like DayZ, Rust, and Escape from Tarkov. Back then, we had the crazy idea to create an MMORPG in our spare time after work. We loved the idea of DayZ and the thrill of exploring the open world and its dangers. However, we often felt frustrated when losing our progress every time we had a PvP encounter that ended badly for us.

That’s where the core idea of Persist Online was born. We wanted to create a game with a persistent world where you keep your progress, but you also experience the thrill of wondering what will happen when you leave the safety of the Stronghold and venture out into the world. Is that player over there my friend or enemy? Did he even notice me? Can I sneak around him? Do I have enough resources to start a fight?

CipSoft has always been a completely independent company with no investors, publishers, or external affiliations. Thanks to Tibia's ongoing success, we have the freedom to make our own decisions and have fortunately not been affected by the recent upheavals in the game industry. The current state of the industry is indeed troubling!

MMORPG: After running Tibia successfully for so long, what have you learned from it that you’re implementing in Persist?

BZ: Tibia launched in 1997, and we've had our fair share of mistakes to learn from over the decades. One of the most important lessons we've learned is the value of listening to the community and addressing their concerns. In the end, it's the players' game as much as it is ours. We've also gained a deep understanding of PvP, PvE, and competitive gameplay.

With Persist, we are not only launching our first new PC MMORPG since Tibia but also returning to our roots. The game shares the core values of Tibia, such as the sense of exploration, ongoing character progression, and the importance of player relationships. Additionally, we benefit significantly from our existing technical know-how in creating the required backend services and in running and operating a large live service game over a long period.

MMORPG: The character models and world are very stylized. What brought you to the inclusion of this art style over something more hyper realistic?

BZ: Several factors influenced our decision to adopt a stylized art style. Firstly, our goal of creating a large open world with fully propped and accessible buildings required some compromises. Unlike in many games where buildings are just empty blocks, ours are fully furnished and ready to be explored and looted. This means rendering many polygons, even if they aren’t always visible.

We also wanted a look that would age well, and stylized graphics tend to do that. Moreover, this style allowed us to reduce the workload for asset creation, keeping project costs reasonable. This was a crucial consideration as a smaller team compared to many of our competitors.

Additionally, we would like to focus on game mechanics and community interaction. Great graphics are, of course, enjoyable, but in the end, it’s the game features and the community that make the difference.

MMORPG: Persist is a sandbox world that seems overrun and almost ruled by zombies. Described as a player-run sandbox, is there an underlying narrative as to how the world got to that point?

BZ: Yes, we have created an underlying background story with key events that led to the current state of the world. In the game, there are multiple NPC factions living in their own strongholds, each with its own perspective and story about past events. Players can uncover these stories while questing and interacting with the inhabitants. However, we do not plan to reveal the complete background story. We believe there is a lot of power in allowing players to fill in the gaps with their own imagination and ideas along the way.

MMORPG: In the trailer we’re told that zombies are a threat, but that you should also be wary of other players. Is the game planned as an Free-For-All (FFA) PvP game? Or will there be options for players who would only like to co-op and build together with their guild?

BZ: The game will feature safe zones, typically strongholds with their own NPC factions and guards. Players cannot attack each other in these zones, but Undead and NPCs will still pose a threat. Outside these safe zones, other players become a constant risk. You can join forces with others in parties and guilds to achieve goals together, such as claiming strategic nodes in the world.

Due to the persistent nature of the game, building directly in the world is not possible. However, players can upgrade their bunkers, and we are exploring upgrades for claims that will be visually represented on the map.Additionally, there are boss fights that will require teaming up with friends or strangers to overcome the challenges. These encounters are designed to test players' coordination and strategy, offering significant rewards to those who succeed. Working together in these high-stakes battles strengthens player bonds and provides an opportunity to showcase teamwork and skill.

MMORPG: What should players expect in terms of classes or strategy? Will players differentiate themselves as medics and assault characters, or will this play as more of a skill-based game where it’s possible to do a little bit of everything?

BZ: There are no predefined classes in Persist Online. Instead, you can customize each character to match your individual playstyle. Our skill system features 25 different skill trees with a total of 250 skills to choose from. You can't unlock all skill trees completely, so you must focus on the higher skills relevant to your build. To level up skills, you need to use them. For example, if you want to improve your pistol skill, you have to use your pistol. Over time, this will generate skill points that you can assign within that specific tree.

Additionally, our item system significantly impacts your character's strengths and weaknesses. Armor comes in two types: Sturdy, which offers higher damage reduction, and Flexible, which provides a higher evasion rating. Each item is available in different qualities, with higher-quality versions featuring mods that add extra capabilities. This adds another layer of customization and optimization for players to explore.

MMORPG: Rebuilding the world after a zombie apocalypse is no easy task, crafting and building seems like a big part of the game. What can players expect to build?

BZ: Persist Online is not your typical survival game; it’s a fully-fledged MMORPG with hundreds of players in the world simultaneously. Due to this, you won’t be able to freely build structures in the world. However, each player has a safe bunker that can be upgraded, enabling new features, crafting, and even offline missions for their characters. Your bunker serves as your personal sanctuary, where you can store your loot, craft, and upgrade your equipment.

Crafting is a crucial part of the game, allowing players to obtain higher-quality equipment that fits their characters and chosen setups. You can create everything from weapons to armor, each customizable to better suit your strategic needs. This system supports your survival and helps you thrive in the post-apocalyptic world by providing constant progress.

MMORPG: Will crafted weapons be about the best you can hope for – and how will that fit into the economy?

BZ: No, you can also loot great weapons in the world. Our item system is complex and offers a lot of variety, so finding the best equipment for your character depends on many factors, such as your skills, playstyle preferences, and what you loot. You cannot craft every item straight away. You will need to dismantle and inspect an item, destroying it in the process, to gain the crafting blueprint. Players can trade items with each other directly in the world, via a letter system, or through an auction house. This ensures multiple ways to obtain that special item you need for your build, supporting a dynamic and player-driven economy. The interplay between crafting, looting, and trading encourages players to engage in various activities, creating a rich and interconnected game world.

MMORPG: A lot of people (us included) are extremely excited for the game. Do you have a timeline of when your fans will be able to try it out?

BZ: It’s great to see that our idea resonates with so many people. During development, you never know exactly how the public will react, so the positive feedback we’ve received is very encouraging and motivating.Currently, we do not have a timeline for the first larger playtests. Players can wishlist the game and join our Discord, where we will inform them about upcoming playtests.


StevenWeber

Steven Weber

Steven has been a writer at MMORPG.COM since 2017. A lover of many different genres, he finds he spends most of his game time in action RPGs, and talking about himself in 3rd person on his biography page.