Since its announcement, Embers Adrift has never been shy about its desire to return to the genre's roots. An emphasis on group gameplay, exploration, and cherishing the journey over the destination, the indie MMO being developed by Stormhaven Studios just entered the next phase of its development: Beta testing.
Embers Adrift has also seen its fair share of growing pains, with arguably the face of the studio, Tim Anderson, and his brother Joey leaving the project in 2020. Since then, however, the studio has rebranded the MMO, steadily updated its alpha for backers, all with the target of release in the coming years.
Now that the NDA has lifted and beta started, the studio is opening up a bit more on what players can expect from Embers Adrift. We were able to chat with Jonathon Gust, executive producer on Embers Adrift, learning a bit more about Stormhaven themselves, how they view the fallout with one of the more visible members of the team, and their philosophies behind the MMO they are building. While the answers to our questions are attributed mostly to Gust, the developer stresses the responses really were a team effort.
MMORPG.comFirst off, can you tell us a bit more about Stormhaven, how development has gone andwhat the journey has been like to get to this point of finally dropping the alpha NDA and moving into beta?
John Gust, Stormhaven Studios: Stormhaven Studios was founded in 2015 by a group of long-time MMORPG players. Our goal was to make a game in our spare time as a passion project and see how far we could take it. In 2017 we showcased our prototype at the Austin Game Developers Conference and received some great feedback from industry veterans. At that point we decided as a team that we might have something worth pursuing as more than just a passion project.
After some research and hard work we started receiving investments in 2018 which allowed us to start bringing people on full-time. Giving team members the opportunity to take their work from a late night passion project to a full time gig was exciting. Naturally, this accelerated development and led to the blooming of a wonderful community.
In 2020 the company experienced some challenges for various reasons that had us re-evaluating our direction and making some tough decisions to realign with our values. After taking a serious look at our short term and long term goals we ended up rebranding the game to Embers Adrift. It's been a long difficult journey, but development has really found its stride in the last year and a half or so.
Getting to the beta phase and removing the NDA was a huge milestone for us and I’m extremely proud of our team for getting us there. We are very excited to get more information out about the game, and to spread the word about Embers Adrift.
Can you talk a bit about the studio itself, your origins, the team around the MMO, and what it’s been like to build an MMO with an indie budget and team?
Stormhaven Studios is, as you mentioned, an indie game dev studio. We work remotely from all over the world. Our origins come from a desire to have an MMORPG to play that the market hasn’t provided since the early days of the genre. We wanted an MMORPG that had no cash shop or micro transactions, that gave us similar experiences to what you’d find in tabletop adventures or in early MMORPGs playing with a group of friends, and had modern graphics and some quality of life features without breaking the previously mentioned experiences. After hopping from MMO to MMO and waiting a long time for the industry to put this type of product out we decided we’d give it a shot ourselves (yes, we were crazy and naive).
Fast forward to today and you’ll find a team of 11 passionate and hardworking devs, some expert contractors, partners, and advisors, as well as our investors and community members who’ve been extremely supportive. It’s been very eye-opening to build a game studio and see all the different facets of this kind of business unfold. Building an MMORPG on an indie budget is definitely a challenge, one that we are overcoming with passion and teamwork.
Everybody pulls their own weight, no one needs to be micromanaged, we’re all unified on the overall vision and trust each other to make responsible decisions in our areas of expertise. It’s really a beautiful thing to be a part of and I’m extremely proud of our team. As an indie studio building an MMOPRG on a small budget I can say there is a certain kind of excitement that comes with overcoming such a monumental task. We are looking forward to launching this year and players can look forward to our indie MMORPG getting even better as we grow the team and the game.
Obviously last year there were a lot of questions surrounding the studio when it became public that Tim was no longer associated with Stormhaven. Can you speak to this at all, as well as what it was like in the studio to deal with the fallout that ensued?
While our team has moved on from the changes that took place last year, we certainly understand why people have been asking about it. We have had several members of the team leave since we started working on the game, which is probably no different than what you would find any time a group of people are working together for over 7 years. What made this change different was that one of the people leaving was viewed as the “face of the company.”
In terms of “fallout” from these changes, there really hasn’t been any with the remaining team. This really allowed us to evolve as a company, as a game dev team, and helped us to move in a more positive direction overall. It also gave us permission to view the game through a different lens in terms of design and content. While we still own the rights to make an MMORPG with the previous IP, we felt that transitioning to Embers Adrift offered us greater creative freedom as opposed to being locked into existing lore.
Our team is very passionate about building this game and sharing it with other MMORPG gamers; that is what has kept the group charging forward together. Now we can take the players’ experience in new and exciting directions together with our community.
How was the feedback from backers when that news broke, knowing they were likely not getting the same world they had invested in already?
There were some initial questions about if we were still going to stay true to our design philosophies in building Embers Adrift, and the answer was, “Yes, of course.” Once they knew we were still committed to bringing them the kind of MMO we had always been promising, the questions stopped - the IP was ancillary to why they were there, it was the design philosophy that people cared about. Things like no cash shops, earned gear, balancing of convenience vs. challenge, a focus on community and group-based gameplay in a fantasy world, an old-school feel; these are the reasons people are supporting Embers Adrift.
Overall, I’d say the feedback was very positive and backers could tell that production speeds had greatly increased. The community was having a really positive response to the new brand and direction. Moreso, the team was fully unified behind the vision for the product and the new IP; one that is designed around the gameplay, the players, and has the potential for growth that we knew a successful MMORPG would need. We’re all just trying to stay focused; we’re having fun with the community, listening to their feedback, and moving forward to the launch of Embers Adrift.
Switching from Saga of Lucimia to Embers Adrift – how much of the old DNA is still present, and have there been any major design changes and vision adjustments since the departure of Anderson and the IP?
We set out to build an MMORPG that was inspired by tabletop RPGs and classic MMORPGs based on our experiences with them. We wanted to focus on community, to appropriately limit convenience, and immerse our players in a new fantasy world. We’ve always promised a challenging, PvE game with no
cash shop. None of that is specific to the old IP and none of that has changed. The IP is simply a setting in which to place these design philosophies.
Over the past year or so we have re-evaluated nearly every system in the game with two questions in mind: "Is this fun?", and "Does it respect the player's time?". This became our new "smell test" for how we approached the design. Coupled with feedback from our community, we have been through numerous iterations for most of the major systems and have settled on something that we feel hits the sweet spot that we are aiming for.
Can you explain a bit about the world, the story and some of the inspirations behind Embers Adrift?
The player enters the game with the edge of ‘The Great Chasm’ behind them after having crossed a bridge, finding they’ve arrived in a peaceful valley called South Newhaven ahead of them. The fog begins to clear from their mind - they are a “drifter” who has spent an unknown amount of time drifting through the horribly disorienting Darklands after having fled war in the Southern Kingdoms. These wars were started over a small bit of Ember that was once thought to be a myth. The war ended with no victors; resulting in marauding warbands roaming the lands and ruined cities taking what they can to survive while vying for control of the few remaining habitable regions.
The first people to cross the chasm were able to do so because they stuck together through the Darklands and made a bridge to the valley beyond. What they found was a world that seemed more lush and somehow more evolved than what they were used to in the south - they soon discovered what was causing this - Ember.
At the head of the valley they found the “Old Wall,” as it is now referred to, but they found no people - not even as they explored north of it. What they did find was extreme danger, Ember, mysterious ruins, and creatures all around. They decided to secure a foothold behind the Old Wall and thus founded Newhaven. As more people drifted across the bridge the group grew into a community, which continued to grow until they eventually built a walled city with the aid of some skilled crafters who formed into the Consortium faction we see today.
It’s now been about 100 years since Newhaven’s founding and at a certain point the people wanted to expand into the northern wilderness and found new communities. This was not supported by “the Circle” faction and it did not go well. The supply routes couldn’t be maintained and the furthest outposts were eventually cut off from Newhaven. Newhaven began to dwindle in their attempts to regain contact with the outposts and explore further into the north. Now they are stuck between the Old Wall and the Darklands with their only hope seeming to be a new influx of drifters crossing the bridge whom they happily welcome into their community. Welcome to Newhaven!
As for the inspiration behind Embers Adrift, we wanted something that revolved around community and one of the cool things about our campfires was that we were intending to have them be for players to heal their battle wounds while out adventuring and have taverns be a place of gathering before and after adventuring. Instead, players began to naturally use campfires as a gathering place as well as a recovery point. We observed players sitting around the fires and often talking for much longer than it took for them to heal up; kind of like in real life. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire with friends, talked at length about life and memories, and watched the embers rise into the night sky it is an extremely satisfying experience. This became a jumping off point for Embers Adrift; after all it is a game where you gather with your friends to have adventures and make memories. Now people sit around the ‘Ember Rings’ and share their tales of adventure with each other.
Embers Adrift means different things to different people on the team, and it will mean still other things for our players, but for me it reminds me of the pages in The Hobbit where, in the chapter “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, to hear pine trees, explore caves, and see mountains - he desires adventure, and then he sees embers from a fire flair up in the distance. I'm paraphrasing Mr. Tolkien, of course, but these types of inspirations are what led us to Embers Adrift, and ember rings are the manifestation of that. We really wanted to lean into this concept of light and dark, of gathering with friends, and of wonder and adventure. We had a lot of fun coming up with the concept of Embers Adrift and there were many jokes about “embergy,” “embears,” and other plays off the word ember. The creation of the IP was a team effort and that is very important to us as a company.
What would you say is the defining feature that would draw players in with Embers Adrift?
I think the slow-paced strategic gameplay and the friendly community will be the major draw. Of course, there is great music, a beautiful world to explore, a great feature set, and a tremendous feeling of growing in power as you obtain more abilities, equipment, and levels… But, whether you're exploring a new zone, encountering new creatures, or dungeon crawling through "The Veins", hanging out with a group of friends is what it's all about. Making great memories with people while overcoming difficult challenges is what gives Embers Adrift the “feel” our players keep talking about.
The game development is focused on the people. We find that to be paramount. If players come away feeling that Embers Adrift is fun, fosters relationships, and respects their time, then we will have done our jobs well. We hope Embers Adrift offers an environment where people can encounter each other, in big or small ways, that are meaningful and memorable.
Building an MMO isn’t easy for a large studio, let alone an indie one. What have been some of the development challenges you’ve had to overcome during this process?
There are a lot of challenges that come with running a small remote studio - as I mentioned before, our devs are extremely self-motivated which helps to overcome one of the biggest challenges any small business faces - your people are your company and our people are truly exceptional! Everyone on our team wears many different hats and that has been a challenge at times; it can take our focus off of development tasks when non-development issues arise or a higher priority task presents itself and efforts need to be shifted from one development task to another, putting the former one on hold.
Another issue is there are a few bottlenecks that form with a small indie team. Our devs are juggling a lot of different things and there is never enough time in the day. Sometimes work may be finished and ready to be integrated into the game but it ends up being backlogged due to other more important tasks on the technical side. We have to be very careful with what we prioritize. The budget itself is also a challenge - do we wish we had more resources and devs? Sure, I think a lot of small companies do, but those things will come with time as our company grows. For now we are confident that we can launch a great experience for our players with the team and the budget we have.
I’ve had a chance to dive in, albeit not nearly as much as I’d like, but one thing I’ve noticed is it’s very methodical, very deliberate. It’s not an MMO where you can just jump into a combat situation or a dungeon and just hope for the best. It requires planning and preparation like it would in the real world. How do you balance this type of gameplay with the fun? Do you fear that having more deliberate systems that require a bit more from players could be a turn off, especially in the market nowadays
that sort of demands instant gratification?
We don’t see it as a problem so much as we do a solution. Keep in mind that we are not building this game for the masses, but to give core MMO players an option within the market where they can experience a new game with more deliberate gameplay and design principles reminiscent of classic MMOs. We are a niche product, but we hope to introduce this kind of gameplay to the larger audience so those who’ve never had a chance to experience similar designs in the past can see how fun it was, but in an MMO featuring modern graphics and quality of life features that don’t violate the “fun factor.”
How does progression work in Embers Adrift and what are some of the gameplay loops players can come to expect when they dive in for the first time?
Progression in Embers Adrift happens through experience gained when defeating enemies. As your character levels you unlock new abilities, abilities increase in power, and new equipment upgrades older equipment. To supplement adventuring players can choose gathering and crafting professions - both of which progress when performing an action (gathering, refinement, or crafting) of that profession.
The average day for a player in Embers Adrift will likely start off with stocking up on supplies, repairing, and stashing goods in a nearby bank. They can then set off on an adventure that may be solo, with a small group, or a large group. They could simply be out gathering materials, exploring a dungeon, hunting for named enemies, or questing to learn more about the world. Over the course of their adventures players will accumulate battle wounds that will eventually require them to return to an Ember Ring to heal - at which point the process starts over again: stocking up, repairing, and maybe a bit of crafting with the goods that they have gathered. Many of these loops can be done as shorter adventures that serve as a preparation for larger, more riskier adventures.
The main classes at first seem somewhat vanilla – tank, DPS and Healer. Yet as you level up you start to realize there’s a bit more depth there than meets the eye, especially with the subclasses. How did you approach designing these and are there any plans to add more playstyles and such?
We wanted each role within the game to have a unique identity and to really feel as if they could contribute to the group dynamic. We took a step back and thought about D&D and early MMOs characters and what made them feel important; this brought us to our three basic roles of Defender, Striker, and Supporter and we began to imagine what these might look like in the world of Embers Adrift.
We then took each of those roles and split them into one of three specializations at level 6 whose abilities lean towards one of the other roles -this is also where we introduce our crowd control abilities. A Striker, for example, allows you to choose between a Warden (Striker/Supporter), a Berserker (Striker/Defender), and a Brigand (Striker/Controller). Abilities granted by each of these specializations have flavorings of the secondary role - a Warden will never be a replacement for a base-role supporter - they simply have additional tools at their disposal that augment the group in a supporter-like fashion.
At the moment we have no immediate plans to add additional roles or specializations. With the branching framework in place however, adding new roles or specializations would just be a matter of coming up with designs that fill gaps in the group dynamic.
Crafting – how important will it be to craft, or could players just rely on the market to prep for dungeons and more?
Players can rely on the market, but crafting is where you will find gear, provisions (like ground torches and arrows), and consumables that are arguably the best in the game. Rare mobs, chests, and quests offer great gear too, but they are not as quickly obtained. Common gear will usually be worse than crafting gear. It is very important to craft, but not required. Crafting can be thought of as an alternative route to obtaining gear that runs parallel to adventuring.
Right now, as you’ve mentioned to me, the alpha is more a build with systems, not necessarily content. Now that the alpha is done and your core game systems are, by and large, solidified and ready to be iterated on, how often do you expect to update the beta, especially with more content for testers to complete?
We have been providing weekly patches since July of 2019 and will continue to do so until launch. Each week we introduce some form of new content in the form of new equipment, new abilities, new creatures, new quests, or new zones. Our fourth overland zone was recently released and we will be iterating over its content in the coming weeks.
Will there be multiple servers for the different regions, or just one large shared shard?
Our goal is to have one global server, but before we make any final calls on that we’ll need to see how things go with our “World-Breaker” event that will stress test the servers in April. Once that is done and we have the proper data we will finalize our server architecture.
What will Embers Adrift endgame look like?
It will look much like the rest of the game. We want to put an emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. The whole game should be engaging and interesting, not just the end game. We don’t want to encourage players to rush through the early levels, but to focus on the “here and now” with the group they are in or the adventure they are on. We don’t want people to feel like they aren’t challenged for the majority of their leveling experience just so they can have fun when they reach max level. So, while there will be plenty of new zones to explore, rare mobs to hunt, rare dungeons to explore, and top level questing, we want to make the whole journey just as engaging as the end game content.
While the MMO has always been billed as a return to the genre’s roots, especially with the “pen and paper” feel, one thing that more MMOs are doing today is making it so players can solo content. Will that be possible in Embers Adrift? Do you worry that might hurt its longevity or appeal to players?
We feel as though there is room for both solo and group-based content in an MMO, especially in the interest of respecting players’ time. For us the difference comes down to how we incentivize players to group up. Groups allow for players to tackle more difficult enemies yielding faster experience gains, better loot, and a more well-rounded experience. We believe that our game is best experienced in a group, but understand that some players may not always have the time to make that happen.
Solo players should be able to enjoy plenty of combat and exploration if they are careful, and be able to harvest enough materials on their own to create crafted gear equal to group-players, but they won’t be able to delve into the deep dungeons and higher level POIs in some overland zones.
Our challenge rating system features level indicators (colors) and difficulty indicators (chevrons) to help players identify appropriately tuned solo, small group, and large group content. White colored chevrons indicate that a mob is equal to a player’s level and blue, green, and gray chevrons are progressively lower level while yellow, orange, and red are progressively higher. The number of chevrons tell players what difficulty they are tuned to: A 1-chevron mob is for solo players, a 2-chevron mob is for small groups, and a 3-chevron mob is for large groups. We don’t worry that it will hurt the game long term, so far we have plenty of both kinds of players in our game and it hasn’t caused any problems.
What’s the mood like at the studio now that the alpha phase is finishing up and the veil is finally being pulled back?
We are pretty excited about it. It’s obviously a bit tense when you work so hard to build something and then invite the world to take a critical look at it, but our community has prepared us well for that. Our testers seem to be having
a ton of fun and are very helpful so I think newcomers will have a fine time integrating into the player base. If people pay attention to the key bindings and read through the tutorial they should be fine. So far, the shift to beta has seen a lot of positive feedback with people saying they are liking the new designs and are impressed with the progress; the “feel” is there and the feature set is a lot further along than expected. So, it feels really good to hear those things from new players who haven’t experienced the project already. For us at the Studio the move to beta is an indication to fans that we’ve made some serious progress on the game and we can't wait to get more exciting new content into their hands.