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Interview with James Hettinger

Dana Massey Posted:
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Icarus Studios CEO discusses their MMORPG project

James Hettinger is the CEO of Icarus Studios, the company behind Fallen Earth. They are hard at work on this post-apocolyptic sci-fi MMORPG and today we catch up with James to discuss the project.

MMORPG.com: Not too long ago, the industry was shaken by the semi-surprise “delay” of Imperator Online – a game the superficially seemed to be similar to your own. Some cynics have suggested that a non-licensed, non-fantasy MMORPG will never have the mass market appeal in North America necessary to be a smash hit. Does this concern you with Fallen Earth and what steps will you take to ensure it is friendly to the average player?
James Hettinger:

When we first decided to make an MMO we thought long and hard about what kind of game we wanted. There are certainly great strengths in basing a game on established intellectual property. It certainly helps when consumers are aware of the product and are excited by the universe. On the flip side, it often restricts what you can do with the brand and limits much of the gameplay that will go into the product. We just felt the best way to make a really incredible game was to have no preconceptions and no limits.

I would also contend that almost every great game has been original intellectual property and that it is the exception rather than the rule for branded content to be a break through product. There are tons of examples of break through products such as Doom, Half Life, Civilization, The Sims, Grand Theft Auto, Mario Brothers, EverQuest, Halo, Age Of Empires, and the list goes on and on. These were all smash hits and none of them were based off of branded content. We think of them as branded content now because they have been so successful but they all started as original games.

As for the steps we’re taking to make sure it’s accessible to the average player, that’s pretty easy. Most of us in our company fit the description of “average player” so every concept we have comes out of the basic question “would this be fun for me to play?” If it passes that test for everyone else on the team, we’re pretty sure we’re ok with mass market appeal.

MMORPG.com: Gamers, like all people, are notoriously short of patience. If it doesn’t look good right away, they’ll give up. What will Fallen Earth offer to ensure players are sucked in right off the bat?
James Hettinger:

First, we’re taking a lot of time making sure the look is right. But in our opinion good artwork won’t make people want to play, it just makes sure people don’t want to leave right away. So if you can get past the “ARGH! This art stinks, where’s the uninstall button?”, then it’s all about game play.

Hopefully there will be a number of features that will get players addicted. What we believe will be most compelling is the faster paced game play associated with an FPS. We want the gaming experience to be action oriented and heart pounding, from the get go.

Another way we think we have an edge over traditional fantasy games is Fallen Earth is about our planet, our home, a very plausible future...

And it’s all screwed up because of us. When players enter their future, they are immediately hit with a real plea for help. They have a chance to make a difference in fixing what went wrong; in building a society the way they think it should be. Or, if they so choose, they can try to break it down even further. But either way, it’s about our world. And we believe if we immerse them in a future that’s not all that unlikely, we will have that hook you’re asking about; because we all care.

MMORPG.com: Many games have moved towards the instanced, small, utilitarian worlds, while other games that have tried the massive seamless world have met mixed reactions. Why did you decide to go that route with Fallen Earth and how will you ensure that this is a positive thing for your game?
James Hettinger:

I don’t think instancing is a black and white issue. We have the functionality for it built into our system but we want to use it sparingly. The reason for instancing is to relieve overcrowding issues, which is certainly a major problem. The disadvantage with instancing is it fragments your user base and you pay a price for it in community. If every group is in their own instance then you aren’t really playing an MMO, your playing a LAN based game. The key is to have enough content so that there is not a giant waiting line but at the same time you have enough critical mass of people to encourage interaction and competition. The challenge is balancing these two needs.

MMORPG.com: As an original property, you face the challenge of educating people about more than just your game, but your world. Can you give us a run down of what the Fallen Earth world is and why people should stop and take notice?
James Hettinger:

Imagine if our world were simply to continue on its current path and social trends. We have the potential for pandemic viruses; chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, nanotechnology, natural disasters, genetic manipulation, and radical politics.

Extrapolate all those factors another 100 years. We might be able to manage them all just fine… but if a couple of factors happen to occur at the wrong time and to the wrong people… you get Fallen Earth.

Now that’s all well and good. It’s a basic post-apocalyptic scenario. But then what if it’s real and it REALLY happens and YOU are thrown into it after the Fall. What would you do, how would you rebuild or re-organize society? We think that’s reason enough to stop and take notice.

But then, just for fun, we throw in the last curve. All the factors that caused the Fall also gave us the way out. They made us different. Our human genetic core was altered over three generations and gave us more potential. One of the biggest “hooks” we hope players will explore and enjoy is finding out how to uncover and realize that new potential…

MMORPG.com: Budgets have soared in recent years as mega-productions have taken the MMO market by storm. How do you, as a small company, keep up and compete?
James Hettinger:

We were blessed from the start with a small, really brilliant group of developers. They allowed us to stay lean and grow slowly as the game has grown. Our business model has always been based on the assumption that a small, highly focused team working in unison is a great way to create an exceptional product.

Since we haven’t had a huge budget we have had to be smart in how we spend our money. First and foremost, we aren’t based in California so that cuts our costs in half. We don’t have flashy offices and we don’t have three layers of management. We have hired people only when they were needed for the project and we have scaled up over time.

We have spent a majority of our time on infrastructure and tools to allow us to create content quickly which makes us more efficient. In the end it comes down to doing more with less. I can tell you that I have heard from a number of industry people that they have seen games with 4 – 5 times our budget that aren’t as far along as ours is.

MMORPG.com: If you had thirty seconds to convince me to try your game, what would you say?
James Hettinger:

In short, Fallen Earth has the fast paced game play of a shooter with the growth and depth of an RPG. All set in a “very plausible” rich and immersive near future, when most of humanity has been wiped out, and you are struggling to emerge and rebuild society, reactivating lost technologies, learning about the past...and how it all happened in the early 21st century…

MMORPG.com: Narrowing it to one feature, what would you say is the most important – or defining – thing for Fallen Earth and can you tell us about it?
James Hettinger:

FPS/RPG hybrid combat. There’s nothing to date quite like it. I don’t want to go into any detail because it’s a constantly evolving thing. But it will define us, that’s for sure.

MMORPG.com: Most MMORPGs are in some way reactionary, in that they try to fix what was perceived to be broken in the previous generations of MMORPGs. What are some of the main issues you’ve addressed?
James Hettinger:

Grinding, ganking, camping, ninja-looting, death that’s too easy, death that’s too hard, travel that’s too easy, travel that’s too hard, pvp/evp incompatibilities, alternative character advancement, boring combat, player ability to affect story progression, class limitations, instances, multiple server clusters, and broken economies. Those are some but the list goes on and on.

Each one of these issues we have been working through and hopefully we have made some smart decisions. I don’t really want to get into details because frankly we don’t want to broadcast our decisions.

MMORPG.com: To what type of player is Fallen Earth aimed? Do you think your game will appeal to the solo or group? The casual or the hardcore? The PvP crowd or the PvE crowd?
James Hettinger:

Well, we feel that in the best of all worlds you can cater to all these groups and that is our goal. If you want to solo play, you will be able to. There will be other content that is designed for group play. We certainly want the casual game player but we also want to have content that will appeal to the more hardcore audience. We have some areas that will be designed for PVP and others that are PVE. Again, we feel the best answer is rarely at one extreme or the other. Our watch word is choice for the player.

MMORPG.com: At this time, can you give us any estimation as to your production timeline. Where are you now, and when do you anticipate hitting key milestones (alpha, beta, launch)?
James Hettinger:

We really don’t like to give out times because they invariably set up expectations for customers. When the game is ready we will make an announcement. We are as excited as anyone about releasing the game but we want it to be right.

Many thanks for taking the time to do this James.

You can let everyone know your thoughts on their hype meter or in this comment thread.


Dana Massey