While at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, News Manager Keith Cross had the opportunity to speak to the folks from Lockpick Entertainment about Dreamlords: the Reawakening, an MMORTS that is waking people up to a relatively unexplored branch of the MMO genre.
One of my first interviews at the GDC this year was with the team from Dreamlords. Dreamlords is one of those games that it's good to pay attention to if you're a fan of MMOs because it's doing something different from the mainstream that will probably make it into the mainstream a few years down the road. If you're unfamiliar with Dreamlords, it's a fantasy MMO from independent Swedish developer, Lockpick Entertainment. If you're wondering what sets Dreamlords apart from the rest of the pack of fantasy MMOs, it's a real time strategy MMO.
So far, developers of MMORPGs and virtual worlds have made up the bulk of the developers who have capitalized on making games in persistent online worlds. As the MMO genre grows and diversifies, many games have found success beyond the standard fantasy RPG. Fantasy is arguably less dominant every year, FPS style game-play is seeing a rise in implementation, but the realm of MMORTS is still more or less virgin territory. Now that I think about it, I don't see why the idea of MMORTSs is still an underdeveloped portion of the gaming market. The concept of transferring an RTS to an MMO space isn't really that complicated. The basic idea behind Dreamlords was explained by describing the formula for an RTS then adding a few MMO ingredients. In an RTS you start with nothing, you build a base, attack your enemies, and finish the game. On the next map you again start with very little, and lather, rinse, repeat. Lockpick wanted to shake up that cycle, so they added the MMO element of making the world persistent.
Dreamlords originally launched in 2007... sort of. I say sort of because the game is in an odd phase in its development right now. Back in October, they decided to go back and re-do areas of the game which they felt could be improved, or areas where they had come up with better ways of handling a particular game mechanic. The folks at Lockpick have been working hard to improve the game from its original version. They described the current state of the game as being part expansion, part sequel, and part re-launch. Whatever you want to call it, Dreamlords: The Reawakening is currently in the alpha test phase of development. One of the reasons for this oddly defined phase of development is simply a consequence of being an independent developer. Lockpick was founded by David Rosen and a group of students, and today the bulk of the Dreamlords team is made up of students from the University of Skövde in Sweden.
But enough background information, I'm sure you'd rather hear about the game improvements and changes I alluded to earlier. In the original version you played the role of a Dreamlord, an ethereal entity that was rarely seen and somehow controlled large armies and towns, looking down on their holdings from a godlike view. Now, players actually get an avatar for their ever-present Dreamlord which appears along with their army. The Dreamlord is still an ethereal being, made up of a humanoid form of swirling energy, for which the player chooses both color and swirling energy pattern. Your Dreamlord avatar can also cover up its swirling nudity with armor and other gear to help it through its conquests.
They've also revamped the game's crafting system for The Reawakening. Crafting comes naturally to an RTS game as one of the basic elements of RTS is gathering resources and converting those resources to goods or upgrades. In Dreamlords there are three types of crafting which each make different goods from different resources: dream forging for crafting weapons and armor from gathered resources, dream weaving for making equipment for your troops from resources gathered from creatures, and dream sorcery for crafting gear enhancements from resources gained on PvP islands.
PvP takes place on PvP islands, which are each at different difficulty levels to help prevent a gross miss-match between a stronger and a weaker player. The management portion of the game, where players managed their buildings, workers and production, was previously accessed through a web browser. Now management is handled from within the client, eliminating the need to alt-tab between a browser and the client. They've reworked the entire management structure, both cosmetically and in terms of game mechanics, by removing unnecessary complexity and giving the interface a makeover. They mentioned that in the earlier version of the game there were a few choices that a player could make relatively early in the game that could be crippling later in the game. By removing some of the complexity and rebalancing they were able to solve these issues.
Another big change is that they have switched from a subscription business model to a free-to-play business model. Players are able to buy items and a premium account but anything that can be purchased can also be crafted or otherwise obtained in-game. The idea is that players who enjoy the management portion of RTS games more than the combat should never need to buy items because they're having fun making them for themselves, and players who prefer to knock down structures rather than building them are encouraged to buy items to minimize the portion of the game that they find least fun so they can focus on the elements they enjoy the most.
Dreamlords isn't the only MMORTS in development out there. I mentioned talking to other developers of MMORTSs in the GDC blog a few weeks ago. I have to say that I'm pretty excited to see the genre begin to take form in these early days as some of the first PC games that I invested a significant amount of time into were RTS games like Dune II and Warcraft. They started a life long love of strategy games, both RTS and turn based. It's nice to see the genre grow into the MMO space and it was a privilege to talk to some of the pioneers leading the way and blazing a trail for the rest of us.