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Surviving Early Access

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Like its bubonic namesake, The Black Death seemed to appear out of nowhere. Offering a medieval twist on the survival sandbox, this Unreal-powered indie title grabbed our attention, offering profession based progression, NPC-filled towns, and an interesting take on combat.

After that initial glimpse a few months back, I managed to catch up with two of the 7-strong team from Small Impact Games. Taking a break from sharing it with the public for the first time at EGX Rezzed, art designer Cameron Small and animation expert James Rowbotham took me through the story so far, and what their plans are for Early Access.

Talking about Early Access , The Black Death launches on Steam’s platform today (19th April). Over the course of the next 8 months or so, Small Impact hopes to add a number of new features, the first being horseriding in about a month’s time. Beyond that, deepening and branching the profession system, doubling the world size, and applying player feedback are all on the slate for inclusion.

MMORPG.com: As a quick refresher, can you give a 2-minute intro?

James Rowbotham: The Black Death is a medieval survival game that we’re making, and we’re trying to go a little bit deeper with it; we’re trying to facilitate roleplaying and adding RPG elements. For example, we have professions based on 14th century plague-esque things: Militia, who are more combat focused; Merchant, who have a unique trading system; and Peasant, that can lay crops and stuff. Basically, we’re trying to make roles that people would naturally fall into, but normally they don’t have the mechanics to support how they want to play. We have a few other features as well. We have NPCs – a lot of [survival] games don’t really have NPCs

Cameron Small: Yes, a diverse population. In a similar vein to Skyrim, you’ve got your guards, you’ve got your merchants that you can buy and sell to. You’ve got utilities like a grinding stone to sharpen your sword, and all in a big town to protect players from kill-on-sight behaviour. Outside the city walls, it’s fair game: we’ve got bandit NPCs out there too, but you can also have bandit players, so it’s martial law out there. But in the towns, pacification by NPCs is a big thing.

MMORPG.com: Are we talking 70 players per server, or are we talking massively multiplayer?

Small: We’re launching with 100; we’re in discussions about maybe making that massive, but we’re going to try and earn that MMO tag by going through early access and testing some features. What happens if we put a thousand people in there – is it going to ruin the system? Because it’s quite an intractable world, you can touch and use a lot of stuff – it’s not just fields of nothing. There’re houses to buy – what does that mean, there’s not enough houses? We’ll creep that number up and down and see how it improves the features.

MMORPG.com: How big and diverse is the game world itself?

Small: It’s 8 kilometres squared. A lot of games launch bigger than us. We’ve made it very important that the world’s packed. There’s not running across a field for three hours.

Rowbotham: We’ve actually halved the size of the total map for initial launch, because we wanted to make it denser. We thought that was quite important to have that area, players can have fun and you’re not just walking across a field. You find a ruin and there’s a chest in there, you find a tiny camp with some bandits in it, there’s an overhanging cliff and you find a dead body. A little bit of a narrative story to it in that kind of way.

Small: We’re already in plans to double the world size. I think the fourth or fifth update, so before Christmas, we’ll be up to 16 kilometres squared.

Rowbotham: Bring that section of the world back in and make it just as packed as the other side.

MMORPG.com: So how big is the team working on it at the moment?

Small: Seven and a half.

MMORPG.com: Seven and a half?

Small: That’s not a zombie, that’s a guy just working part-time, so seven of us on the core team.

MMORPG.com: And you’ve managed to build an 8 kilometre square open world experience with 7 and a half people?

Small: [chuckles] Yeah

Rowbotham: We started last July, so it’s been about 8 or 9 months.

MMORPG.com: How do you actually do that? Because that’s a lot of art, a lot of programming…

Small: Unreal Engine is so extendible, I love it. The blueprint system, the terrain system. You can make such visual fidelity of massive and dense areas, with ease.

Rowbotham: The big thing as well, with the Blueprint system, being able to do stuff has gone away from code. We have our guys who code, and they’re really good, but it also lets us who maybe don’t know as much code, make stuff, prototype it out, and then if it needs fixing up we’ll turn it into code. If not, it’s just working.

Small: If an apple is the base code, I can make a bread roll out of that. Done. Now we have over a hundred items that you can make, eat and all that, nearly 200 items, doubled in a couple of months. It’s because of the extendibility of the Unreal engine, and the way we work.

Rowbotham: So for example, instead of having one workbench as a crafting utility that you need, we split into lots of different things that are basically duplicates, that have slightly different functionality. So we have a grinding wheel if you’re sharpening swords, or a tanning rack if you’re making leather. Once you get that first base bit in, you can spread.

Small: Two clicks, make some new art, and you can place it. And that’s like five minutes, with a new feature in there. Every day, imagine seven people doing that, for 8 hours minimum.

Rowbotham: And another key thing is that we don’t do one thing. Because we’re such a small team, we all do a bit of everything. If one area is needs a big boost of stuff we’ve got to do, we’ll jump onto that.

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.