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Guest Interview: Talking Embers Adrift With Stormhaven Studios

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Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by our friends over at MMOZG, who we have worked with in the past to host English-language versions of developer interviews. The MMOZG team has members from different countries, including Russia and Ukraine, and unfortunately due to the circumstances surrounding the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia, it was impossible to host the interview on the original site. We're proudly hosting the interview here, which will be split into two parts due to length. Please make sure to check out part 2 tomorrow and all credit here goes to the hardworking team of our incredible colleagues over at MMOZG. Stay safe friends. - Joseph Bradford, Managing Editor

This interview was planned before the war, started just before the war started and was finished while it was still going. It was planned to be published at mmozg.net, the site made by a team from different countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Today it is suspended as it’s impossible to discuss games at the time of war. However, it took a lot of time and collective effort by Stormhaven Studios to answer our questions and it would be unfair not to publish it at all.

That’s why we’re publishing it here at MMORPG.com so players around the world who are not yet affected by this war can read and enjoy it. And if you can influence your governments to help Ukraine more, please do it. It is very important not only for Ukraine but for all the world as this war won’t be just between Russia and Ukraine and will spread through Europe and the rest of the world if Ukraine is left alone in the fight. Just as it was at the beginning of WW2 and Germany attacking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

It was a Stormhaven Studios team effort, and while these answers were shaped into text by John Gust, the team’s executive producer, there were 8 people from Stormhaven Studios in this conversation and they all contributed. So enjoy!

Rigeborod: First of all, we want to thank you for your position on two fronts: the focus on social interaction in MMOs and the monthly subscription business model. In one of your last videos on Youtube, you also have noted that cosmetic items can be equally important achievements for someone, thus winning, for which for some reason many developers are not ashamed to ask for pay. And you are almost the only ones who said it clearly and loudly: this is also unacceptable. So thanks a lot!

John Gust: Thank you! We appreciate that. We feel a lot of people have been looking for an MMO like that and we are too, haha.

Rigeborod: Still, it seems you're an exception in this crazy world and other developers ignore the obvious. Why is there so much misunderstanding between players and developers today?

John Gust: Great question. I think this question has a multifaceted answer:

  1. When creating an MMORPG with a social and community focus a big part of executing that well comes with being attentive to your community and open to their feedback. There needs to be a dialogue between the developers and the testers. This can be difficult though because that means you need to show your unfinished work to them and open yourself to criticism - it may even mean you need to change your designs to ensure the people you are making your game for will actually like it. It takes a lot of time and effort to create something and then iterate on it to create the best version of something. It is much easier to have your vision, create it, and sell it, without having to change it due to community feedback. If you're making a community game it's important to involve the community. We have worked hard to build rapport and relationships with our community and interact with them on a daily basis. We are a small company which has its drawbacks, but also it's advantages, like the way we can interact with our community so closely.
  2. Another way disconnects may happen is in revenue model choice. The key here is that MMORPGs are a longform gaming experience, not a short term one. We are using the subscription-based revenue model, because we want to build a long term relationship with our customers who are the ones playing and paying for the game and investing their time. We want them to be able to trust that if they are giving us their money, we as developers, in line with our company values, are going to use that money to put more content into the game for them to consume. We believe sub-based is what is best for our game. A disconnect may occur if you're using a revenue model that might be best for a different kind of gaming experience. For example, a cosmetic shop might be really valuable to players in a short-term gaming experience like a battle-arena where you don't have time to earn gear or differentiate yourself from other players. We want Embers Adrift to reward players for investing their time and money with us and not ask them to spend their in-game time in a store.
  3. I think sometimes developers get a bad rap. Game devs are some of the most passionate and creative people out there. Most of them just want to make fun games that serve everyone well. However, companies have needs too and this may cause them to create games that appeal to the largest number of people possible so they can make enough profit to keep the door open and investors happy. This often has the effect of leaving many players with a feeling that their needs aren't being met. That isn't the developers fault. There are often many layers between the players and the developers. Or, even decisions made that the devs know aren't going to turn out well, but they don't own the product and they don't pay the bills so they need to do the job they are asked to do. These things can certainly cause a disconnect between devs and players. We are very excited with how Embers Adrift is coming along, with the size of our team, and the scope of our game. Sure we'd love to have a few more people and some more resources, but those things will come with time. We aren't trying to target the whole market. We know our game won't be for everyone, and that's okay. We are happy to serve the niche we are targeting and to give them an indie MMO game that serves their needs.

Rigeborod: Wow. Great answer! Trying to make everyone happy will leave all of them unhappy. So true. I have one other idea on this subject. Game developers often do not play any games themselves due to lack of time or for some other reasons. What do you think? Is it necessary for a game developer to play games?

John Gust: I think it is highly beneficial for developers, especially designers, making a multiplayer game to play that game with their community. I'm really glad that many of our devs play our game with the community on Wednesday nights. I can say that our game is much better for it. The feedback has been great and we've built some awesome relationships. I think it's important to have devs that play other games too, or even don't play lots of games, but are super passionate about their craft, because then you've got at your disposal a wealth of knowledge of how things are 'usually done,' as well as new ideas coming in that aren't as biased from the status quo. It really helps with innovation and in testing the game with the community you get a finger on the pulse of how players are feeling about those choices and designs. It's a natural result that most people who want to work on games have played a fair number of them, but it's not a requirement.  It could be argued, however, that the team as a whole should have knowledge of norms and expectations with regard to the discipline of game design, but as it pertains to individuals, a diverse set of experiences often results in more creative work.  In fact, depending on the role, it can be far more useful to have an understanding of game design in general rather than having played a wide swath of titles. I think these factors have really helped Embers Adrift differentiate itself from other MMOs either on the market or approaching it.

Rigeborod: Why do you think all the high-profile finds of the last decade (Minecraft, DayZ, Valheim, etc.) were made by non-professionals?

John Gust: I think it goes back to what we almost touched on previously, which is that AAA studios, having devoted so much money to the games they develop, are less inclined to take risks with their designs.  Smaller teams, like ours, are much more free to experiment with their designs.

Rigeborod: That makes sense. But it still makes me sad. Cause teams like yours could probably use some additional money AAA studios have. Anyway, I forgot to ask what games all of you have played in 2021. Embers Adrift is one of them for some of you, I understand that. Anything else?

John Gust: Lol, get ready for a loooong list.

At this point the team provided an enormous list in a file. The most popular within the studio was Valheim (3 people were playing), also leaders (2 people) are: Among Us, Diablo 2: Resurrected, New World, Warhammer - Vermintide 2, World War Z. Here’s the full list.

Rigeborod: Those are impressive lists, thank you. And do you remember what games you were playing 10 years ago? What have changed in your preferences?

John Gust: So far the general consensus is other MMOs, competitive games, and that we're much more relaxed then we were back then.

Rigeborod: Can you describe what the game for a grown up should look like?

John Gust: Do you mean for someone of age 30+?

Rigeborod: Being grown up is more about decision maturity rather than particular age IMO.

John Gust: Agreed, I was thrown off a bit. Games, like all other forms of art or entertainment, are entirely about what you personally get out of it.  A lot of folks are just looking for something to make them feel better in the moment by catering to their need to feel accomplished, which is something many games are good at providing.  Perhaps the mark of a more mature approach to games, and other art, is: does it provide new insights or challenges to your life and your preconceptions? Does it enrich your life in some way? We think a focus on the social aspect of Embers Adrift is one way we are hoping to enrich people's lives as well as having depth to the game wherein decisions need to be made and the right choice isn't always clear, such as in our branching quests, helps increase a game's value. We also have to look at who our games are targeting. MMORPG players these days are an average of about 35 years old and have jobs and perhaps families.  I can say that we are trying to make Embers Adrift both challenging and respectful of players' time.

Rigeborod: What does "respectful of players' time" mean? Should a book (or a movie) for a grown up be shorter than for a kid? 

John Gust: For Embers Adrift it means not wasting peoples' time unnecessarily. Let's face it, when we were kids, we had time to sit around and play games after school, then there was summer vacation where we played games for months. That doesn't come as easily as an adult. We understand that camping raid targets for hours upon hours may no longer be appropriate for the demographic playing our game and so we are trying to engage people in a new way, like encouraging dungeon crawling rather than mob camping.

Rigeborod: That sounds to me like something not age related at all. Like "we understand doing boring stuff (like actually doing nothing while waiting for a mob) may no longer be appropriate for the demographic playing our game and so we're trying to engage people in an interesting way like actually doing something meaningful". It was never appropriate and always was a bad game design, just players were willing to play anyway because of a bunch of reasons (a lot of free time among these reasons). 

John Gust: Lol, true. I think the point is time is limited, even more so as an adult, and we understand that.

Rigeborod: On the other hand, "compressing" gameplay will leave no time for making new social connections. Like while you were camping for a mob, you had a lot of time to talk and get to know each other. Isn't not providing these "boring" opportunities bad for making friends? 

John Gust: Pacing and giving the space for players to engage with one another is vital. We absolutely have that time and space built in for socializing, but it's not to the extreme that we saw in older MMOs, we are trying to be intentional in these designs. Other factors support this with strong role-based combat to build trust and respect between party members, as well as having common gathering points like the Ember Rings. The wound system encourages players to head back to the Ember Ring where a lot of socialization happens. 

Rigeborod: That sounds reasonable. That's the last question not about the game. Let's imagine the whole MMO genre was a person with a lifespan of 100 years. How old would they be in terms of their maturity and overall development? In your opinion. 

John Gust: Well, that is a tough one. After talking it over I'm going to say about 37. We've seen some good MMOs get big and then cool off, but we've also got quite a few new indie MMOs coming down the pipeline with new ideas and innovations and we live in a world that is increasingly socializing online. I think the genre has a solid/promising future ahead of it.

Rigeborod: Pretty positive answer. As a gamer without an actual MMO to play right now I'm a bit skeptical. Ok. Now let's move to the questions about the game and your team. Whom would you call an ideologist of this game? Is it you or someone else? I do understand your team is more on the cooperative decision making side, but still there's always someone who is more focused on the strategic decisions.

John Gust: The company has six owners, has investors, has advisors, team members from around the world and industry, and a very active community. We value input from every level, especially from those who have greater expertise in certain areas. We always want the best idea to bubble to the top after being carefully considered. I'm honored to be a part of a studio with these fine people in a company that operates in such a way. At the end of the day, design decisions need to be made and the studio needs to be directed. There are people in place in our company who make those decisions after carefully considering the input from various team members and listening to advice from the different advisors and experts we have relationships with. For example, game design decisions are headed up by the lead designer, as the executive producer I handle the company operations, art decisions are made by the art lead, and so on... we've developed a company culture where if someone is unsure on a decision (even at the highest level) no one is afraid to ask the opinion of others to gather more input. We really try to let the best qualified person do the job they are best at doing. I typically rely heavily on Bob Brown who was the VP of Global Sales for Blizzard until about 2018. For me he offers a wealth of knowledge and experience that is invaluable when I need advice or have decisions to make on the commercial side of things.

Rigeborod: I'm trying to define this fine border. I understand that game design decisions are made by the lead game designer. But on top of the game design decisions there are more strategic ones (like the overall direction the development should go). Who is in charge of them? 

John Gust: We've built a culture of trust in our Company and we rely on each other to make responsible decisions and to be open to discussion if there are questions about those decisions. Each sector of development has leads who make decisions. We all understand the vision and discuss cool ideas that come up as we are developing that vision. As a direct answer to the question, at the end of the day if there is a conflict over decisions the 6 owners have the final say. We've put specific people with specific expertise in charge of specific aspects of the development of the game & company and we trust them to do their jobs.

Rigeborod: Thank you. I probably understand the idea. There's mostly no need for one ideologist if the team is really on the same page. Is it correct to say though, that in the past, when there was no Embers Adrift yet, Tim Anderson was an ideologist for Saga of Lucimia? I'm asking that in order to explore the path your game and the team (as they both are tightly connected) traversed, how they have changed over all this time.

John Gust: Tim was the lore and story guy for SoL as he had written books based on a D&D campaign he’d run, and he was handling marketing at the time too so was often seen as the “face of the project”.

Rigeborod: And the game concept was very different at the time. Can you list some of the key changes the game faced while adrifting from Saga to Embers?

John Gust: While our core philosophies didn't change regarding the kind of game we wanted to design and deliver, the change to the Embers Adrift IP is distinct. The most notable change is that the switch allowed us to change the way we operate and design things. Our process is much more democratic and iterative. Many of the changes come from discussions with the community. We've also had some additions to personnel, including one coming from our testing community, Jonathan Zink.

The new systems and aspects in the game are built on the principle of "the best idea rises to the top" no matter where it comes from and if we find those ideas aren't fun then they get cut. Just because something sounds cool on paper doesn't mean it's the best in practice or best for our particular game and community of players. 

Aside from creating a completely new IP, the Embers Adrift product has undergone a complete overhaul in Stormhaven's quest to give players the best game we possibly can. We've got new creatures, new player models and character creation system, a new modular dungeon system, new environments and environmental props (like ember rings, emberdrifts, hallows, and more), new armor and equipment, a new crafting system, new roles, combat overhaul, and a whole slew of new tech & tech advancements (like the HDRP upgrade, among others). The list goes on. Besides the game there were also a number of new accomplishments and changes made to the company side of things as well. When I look back at what we've accomplished together over such a short period of time I'm extremely proud of our organization. 

Rigeborod: That immediately brings up at least 3 questions. ??

The first one: Saga of Lucimia had an idea of finite story-telling based game progress/development which was supposed to have an end. And after that there was no development planned. Is it still true for Embers Adrift.

John Gust: No, the world/lore is designed to expand as players explore more of the world.

Rigeborod: The second one: Saga of Lucimia had a concept of caravans - some kind of mobile bases of operations for a group of adventurers to go on an expedition. Is it still planned  for some future updates?

John Gust: This is not something Embers Adrift ever planned to do. The initial concept for this may have looked good on paper but did not pan out in practice - especially in a persistent environment with many players.

Rigeborod: The third one: can you give some additional details about the modular dungeons you've mentioned?

John Gust: The modular dungeons are a system that was developed for devs to be able to (relatively) quickly assemble new unique dungeons for players to explore. Throughout the game there will be static 'world-dungeons' that are persistent (though access to all parts may be restricted to certain temporary entrances). There is more to this, but we think we've said enough to answer the question sufficiently.

Suffice to say that we have bigger plans for the modular dungeon system to afford players a greater variety of content to access. Exploration, communicating with other players, and working within set time frames, will play a role in that.

Rigeborod: Right. The mighty "content". I want to discuss your priorities in this never ending battle for the developers' time between new content and new mechanics. It is always a mixture of both at the end, but still... Should we expect more content or more game mechanics in the future updates?

John Gust: As we move into beta our primary focus is shifting towards adding new content and improving existing content.  That's not to say, however, that mechanics will not continue to be implemented and iterated upon.

Rigeborod: That is to be expected for the beta phase. But I was wondering about that mythical "life after release". There will be bugs, which you will fix, and then everybody will expect some major update at some point. It may be either something like WoW update, where there is mostly content and a tiny portion of new game mechanics. Or it may on the other hand be something more like Eve Online (when it was not free to play yet): a lot of new game mechanics with little content. Which is dearer to your ears? ??

John Gust: Our post-launch plan is to continue to put out new content in the form of new zones, creatures, quests, equipment, and other content on a steady schedule. I'm sure there will be some mechanics included in that as well.

Rigeborod: Got it! How do you see a player who has been a devoted fan of your project for five years? What is on the list of their gameplay options (like special high level mechanics for example) and is there anything they can still be looking forward to achieving? Of course, as Embers Adrift is still in development, this question is not necessarily about the specifics (will be greatly appreciated if any is given though), but the overall vision.

John Gust: That's a great question. Obviously continual content and mechanic updates are a big part of what a long term player can expect. New creatures, quests, equipment, and zones are planned to release on a steady schedule. Aside from that, there are at least four major story arcs that we will be expanding as time goes on so it isn't just the world they will get to explore more of, it is also these story arcs and hidden lore. Why is there a giant Old Wall, but no humans or civilizations? Who are these dark creatures watching you, but you're unable to interact with? How is Ember affecting the surrounding lands and its creatures? Why is the town of Newhaven only half occupied and will it survive or fall apart? What about where you came from? Has Newhaven completely forgotten about the past and is that due to their time in the Darklands before they arrived here? Why even cross the Darklands at all? This is why you don't see a ton of in depth information on the lore in our website, these things are being saved for discovery in the world. We want to give players a sense of mystery that they can unravel during their time in the world instead of spoiling it all. 

Aside from that, we are very excited to run unique GM events for our players. This is something we plan on doing intermittently so keep an eye out for strange messages about what is happening in the world around you. 

We of course want to expand the game, and for long term players who are active in the community that means they will have an opportunity to participate in how the world and the lore are unlocked. We are building a strong foundation on which to build a very extensive world and we want the community to be a part of that and to feel connected. We have no intention of withdrawing from the community once the game launches and want to build a real sense of relationship and trust with our future players.

Rigeborod: I've seen a lot of MMOs. Some had (or still have) much more resources than you have. Nobody (really, nobody) was able to produce content you're describing at fast enough pace to keep up with players consuming this content. What do you think?

John Gust: It's no secret that even at studios with the most resources, players can consume content faster than devs can release it.  You can never really stay ahead of the most diehard of players, so I don't think that's necessarily the hurdle to try to overcome. It's about producing high enough quality content that people think it's worth staying around for, and keep coming back so that they can keep digging deeper into a world that hopefully they'll have fallen in love with.

Rigeborod: Ok. Let's talk about leveling up then. There are different implementations for players' progress in MMO games. The most popular among developers is one with levels. You've also incorporated this approach. But what about the level difference between new and old players? Does this difference mean new players will be useless for veterans? Isn't it a huge problem for a socialization focused MMO?

John Gust: In some ways yes. In others, no. Certainly combat will offer some restrictions between high level and low level players. The current split is -/+ 5 levels, so a level 10 can group with a level 1 if they are fighting a level 5 mob. Low level players can still gain some experience with higher level players, so, a lower level healer could run with a higher level group and heal the party members while receiving some experience, but that is obviously not ideal. We have very large zones which offer a wide array of content in which high and low level players can both fight in which can offer its own dynamics of social interaction. One thing outside of combat that we love about Embers Adrift is that all crafting materials are relevant at all levels of crafting. So, a level one gathering copper or pine logs can be extremely helpful to higher level players who don't want to go back to lower levels to gather those materials while at the same time high level players may want to hang out in lower zones to gather certain materials that can only be found there. So while we are using the old school leveling system, which we think fits right in, we are trying to offer ways of interaction and value between veteran and new players. We also have a mentoring tag for veterans who like helping out newbies. It's a small way for those who like to focus on the community to make that clear to those who are new.

Rigeborod: I'm not trying to say the leveling system is bad, but level difference was a pretty big problem for a small guild I'm in. Small guilds cannot realistically play together (not alongside, but actually together) if their levels differ. Anyway, why levels? Leveling system must have some super positive properties that you have chosen it over other ones, mustn't it? Or was it used just because it's the most common and classic approach?

John Gust: Levels provide a sense of progression and a sense of growing in power to players. Honestly, we tried alternatives to the leveling system, but it misaligned with our gameplay objectives so we switched to a more traditional approach. In previous iterations of our game we had a "use-based system" where abilities leveled up individually as you used them.  This was incentivizing players to use abilities for the sake of leveling them as opposed to using them for tactical reasons - we do not want our players to mash buttons for the sole sake of leveling abilities up, that takes away a lot of the fun and strategy of our combat system. Saving certain abilities for when you really need them (like you would save a spell for the right time in D&D), or conserving your stamina, is just as important as using other abilities more frequently. We always want to promote strategy and decision-making in Embers Adrift and a leveling system lines up best with the game we are building.

Rigeborod: Sounds reasonable. There's a lot that can be explored around this topic (so much more it deserves almost a separate interview, lol), but let's discuss one last leveling system aspect and then move on. Where levels are, the dreaded endgame comes to play. What do you think about it, is there a place for an endgame in a MMO? If there is, what's that place?

John Gust: We are approaching this with great caution in Embers Adrift. We don't want our players to rush to the "end game." The journey, those you meet along the way, and the memories you make, are more important than the destination. We aren't exactly providing raid targets in the traditional sense. We want all of our content to be as enjoyable as "end game" content. I love MMORPGs, but I've played some, where 90% of the time you are doing mindless things that involve no risk just so that 10% of the time you can actually be challenged. I think that is why we keep saying Embers is focused on "challenging, group-based gameplay," because players should feel challenged at every turn and overcoming something with allies that you could never hope to overcome on your own gives one a great sense of accomplishment. Each combat should feel as though a poor decision could turn the tide of battle in favor of the enemy and each victory feels good.

Rigeborod: Will Embers Adrift have one single world or a system of parallel worlds, shards?

John Gust: One world. That is the goal.

Rigeborod: Interesting. And what will be the maximum capacity (cause of scaling limitations) for this one world? Are there any estimations at this moment?

John Gust: Not at the moment. We are hosting a "World-Breaker" event in April with the goal of stressing our servers enough to give us a better idea of those numbers.

Rigeborod: Cool! Lag me to death events are funny sometimes. 

John Gust: Haha, and it comes with a special commemorative title as well, the "World-Breaker" title.

Rigeborod: Embers Adrift is focused on group gameplay for up to six people (maximum group size). Will there be some kind of goal or activity in the game that can unite more than one group? Or even potentially the entire population of the server or at least a big chunk of it?

John Gust: We definitely have ideas for world events and GM events and our goal is to provide that kind of content, but it is not currently in the game.

Rigeborod: The game is not ready yet. Yes, we all remember that! 

John Gust: Whew, good.

Rigeborod: I will tell you more. We understand that Embers Adrift won't be ready at the release. And not all planned features will be there at the time. But any player who is offered to invest a lot of their time into a game will be much more inclined to do so if there's an understanding between them and developers. That's why I'm asking you about your plans even more than about the game in its current form.

John Gust: Thank you

Rigeborod: Will there be guilds in the game? And, if so, what is their function?

John Gust: Yes, the major function of guilds is social in nature, they will be there to bring large groups of people together so they can work together to accomplish all kinds of different goals in the game and create a community for people to offer help to each other with their individual goals.

Rigeborod: The part about different goals is extremely vague. Can you please (without providing any guarantees it will make its way into the game) give a couple examples of guild goals to accomplish?

John Gust: There will be plenty of rare mobs in the world that guilds may want to find and fight. There will also be rare dungeons that guilds may want to explore and conquer. We have other ideas of what we might do, but we aren't ready to talk about those things quite yet.

Rigeborod: Thank you for the clarification. Initially, the game had a clear emphasis on taverns as a gathering place for players. Now there are fires. Will the concept of places for socialization evolve at some point?

John Gust: As you said, the plan was originally to create taverns as a hotspot for starting adventures as this is a common trope in D&D and other RP games. Community and socialization are obviously a key focus of ours and as we began to take a hard look at the game from a design standpoint, we recognized that the fires our designers had created to serve as places to heal battle wounds were also naturally fulfilling the role of a location that players were meeting to start their adventures - they would often just sit around them and talk for extended periods of time too. 

This was very inspiring to us and because of that, when we began to consider rebranding we looked to these as a source of inspiration: embers, light and dark, a sense of wonder, a place of gathering. For myself in particular, being a huge fan of Tolkien, the spontaneous result of the campfires becoming a place of gathering for adventures pointed me to thoughts of the pages in The Hobbit where, in An Unexpected Party, Bilbo is listening to the dwarves sing their song of stolen treasure, the fire is burning low and crackling - casting long shadows, and he desires to wear a sword instead of a walking stick and to hear pine trees, explore caves, and see mountains, and then he sees embers from a fire flair up in the distance - he desires adventure. 

I'm paraphrasing, but these types of inspirations, different for all the team members, led us to Embers Adrift, and ember rings are the manifestation of that. You could say that, thus far, they are the evolution of that concept of socialization. They are a natural phenomenon of ember energy in the world, they heal battle wounds and serve as a highly visible anchor for players as they explore the world. Given that these are such a focus of our IP, ember rings will continue as a main point of socialization, but there will be more reasons for players to gather at Ember Rings beyond healing battle wounds, battle fatigue, and increasing regeneration rates.

Be sure to check out Part 2 tomorrow here on MMORPG.com. Again, all credit to our brave colleagues at MMOZG.net


Guest Writer