Drago Games has been hard at work on Otherland, an MMO based on the widely acclaimed novels by Tad Williams. Recently, the team announced the Fire Isle expansion, a new, related short story by Mr. Williams and more. We chatted with the team about those things as well as the challenges of rebuilding both the game and the Otherland community.
MMORPG: How long has the development of Fire Isle been going on?
Jörg Hoffmann: Our initial plans from years ago were to have the Fire Isle content as a part of the game at the end of our Early Access phase. We even had a very early prototype implemented in the game back then and several players manage to bypass our blocks and have a peak at it before we removed it from live servers.
Since then we kept working on Fire Isle as a somewhat side project. Whenever anyone from our team wasn’t busy working on other aspects of the game, he or she would head to the isle. It’s hard to say how much time was spent on it in hours, but our guess would be – almost as much as we spent on all other content combined.
MMORPG: In comparison to the rest of the game, how large is the new location? How many quest hubs will be present?
JH: The Fire Isle itself might not be the largest zone we have, but when it comes to the amount of content, it’s surpassing many of them.
Like we mentioned, we spent a lot of time working on it and by that we mean not only adding more and more, but also improving on what we already have in the game. Currently the Fire Isle has 6 chapters with an average of 10 quests in each. Unlike the rest of the quests in Otherland, these focus on one main story that spans across the entire isle and focusses on Fire Isle only. A beginning, middle and end with a couple of plot twists along the way. Our fans can also expect to see some faces they know from the earlier parts of the game as well as some new memorable characters.
Overall players can expect a more coherent story driven experience.
MMORPG: Can you please give us the “thumbnail sketch” of the story behind Fire Isle?
JH: Given how story driven Otherland is, that’s not something we are keen to do as to not spoil things, so only very brief. Players head to the Fire Isle in order to find the legendary Fire Army and save the 5Isle simulation. They find a land in a state of civil war and when the isle burns in the fires of hatred only a small group of soldiers seem to understand that Fire Isle is bound to fall to the relentless Neo-Grail unless they unite their forces.
MMORPG: What other new content and / or improvements to the game will be coming with the expansion?
JH: Due to our focus of fixing issues and improving things the players like to see improved, we don’t plan any particular improvements with the release of Fire Isle. We keep those two separated in order to be able to roll out fixes and improvements right away. There is however one massive improvement that while not bound to the release of Fire Isle itself, is scheduled not long after and that’s the revamp of the entire UI, both in terms of visuals and usability.
MMORPG: You mentioned that Tad Williams had a new story coming out. Is it directly related to the expansion? How involved is Mr. Williams with the game?
JH: Although the game is based on the four novels of Otherland, the plot of the game was created to take place shortly after the original story concludes. New worlds had to be created, some of them not mentioned in the story before, but fitting nicely with it. 5Isle is one of the worlds you won’t find in the novels. This new world actually raised so much interest with Tad Williams, that he decided to write a short story playing exactly there. It’s remarkable how it now goes full circle with the game being based on the books and then books coming back to the game.
The new short story and the expansion of the game will be published at the same time, play in the same world, but again written story and game-plot won’t be joint directly. Tad Williams and ourselves are thinking about some surprises for the publishing in summer, so it will be cool to follow the news we give on this. Tad Williams became very involved and active with the game since last autumn which opens new avenues we have not thought possible until recently.
MMORPG: Many fans of Mr. Williams’ work are concerned with the lack of a large, robust community for Otherland. How do you respond to those concerns?
JH: Give it time. A community and player base isn’t built quickly and the truth is, we are actually starting the process from scratch now.
Due to the history of the game, especially over the last two years, the community didn’t like developers suddenly disappearing for two years and abruptly ending any communication with the community. Especially as the then just starting to grow community was getting used to communicating with developers directly rather than being given prepared statements from the PR guys. Suddenly becoming silent wasn’t our choice, but that does not change how the community feels. This resulted in a lot of negativity towards the game itself and also gave the wrong perception of the game being somehow abandoned, despite us constantly working on it.
Now we have no restrictions anymore, but we also have to start rebuilding the community. We are now going back to the way it was in the game’s Early Access where developers communicated directly with players. We already see from various responses that we are on the right track and we plan to go further to strengthen that relationship, do events of different kinds, but first and foremost be there and answer.
MMORPG: Another broad critique of the game is that there are gameplay and technical issues that hurt the game and that those should be solved before adding new content. What are your plans for addressing these issues?
JH: I guess people voicing that opinion make the classic mistake of not understanding how development teams work and that a development team consists of different types of developers. Dealing with fixes and improvements of technical nature is something that mostly involves programmers, while designers or graphics artists are of no use there. They instead can spend their time working on new content. We also have to at least try to keep the bigger picture on the radar and that bigger picture is: once the technical issues are resolved, the focus of the same player that complains now will switch to demanding new content which obviously makes sense. However, creating new content is time consuming and we won’t be able to meet demand later on without starting right away.
MMORPG: Since retaking the project last summer, what have been the high points in the development of Otherland?
JH: There were quite many, but two spring to mind right away.
Gaining the full creative control over the project. The impact of this one, for us, is something we surprisingly feel especially in the smaller things rather than in the grand decisions. Take an annoying bug we feel we should make a priority. Now we just make it a priority and postpone other tasks a bit. Earlier, we had to spend a lot of time negotiating for that time requirement, making a strong case for why it makes sense to fix it now and if things went well, wait for approval. The irony is that the process often actually required more time to prepare than it took to fix the bug in the first place.
And most recently obviously Tad Williams’ involvement in the project. That has been a big surprise for us and then how much he got involved. That makes things possible in the future that make our heads spin a little and is something we are looking forward to so much.
MMORPG: What have been your biggest challenges?
JH: Definitely dealing with all the technical quirks of the project and those many unfinished areas in the game’s code. There is nothing more annoying than having to deal with features that have only been partially implemented and their partial implementation turning out to not being well enough thought through to build the rest of the feature upon. What you end up with is having to re-implement the entire feature from scratch where you actually have expected to have at least a large chunk of the work done and only need to code the missing elements. Each of those situations wreaks havoc on the planning of the project and there have been so, so many of those.