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Studio Visit & Ring Preview

Dana Massey Posted:
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We journeyed half way around the world to look at this innovative expansion

Nevrax believes they can change the way people think about MMORPGs. When the Ryzom Ring launches this fall, The Saga of Ryzom will become the first major MMORPG with significant player created content. The Ring is a tool kit that enables players to craft, test and then launch their own quests and live content scenarios into the live game. Last week, we made the hop to Paris to see their progress.

“We launched the game a bit too early,” admitted Executive Producer Daniel Miller. The game launched in late 2004, not long before World of WarCraft and EverQuest II. The timing was not ideal. Since then, the small development team spent most their time finishing the product, fixing the bugs and consolidating their community.

“We’ve got better since then,” he added. “We figure we have a product that’s strong.”

With all that done, it came time to expand in a new direction. With the Ryzom Ring they’re doing just that. However, it was important to them to do something that would not only grow their playerbase, but also add to the experience of those already there.

“We’re certainly not intending to throw our playerbase out and get a new one,” Miller noted. “That’s not the way to build anything.”

At E3 2006, Game Director Milko Berset showed us these tools and how easy they were to use (click here to read that report). What we saw in Paris was not altogether different. In the two months between viewings they had been polished, but for the most part, there were few major changes.

The Paris demo showed off a story more robust than the one at E3. In this Ring created quest, players must lead an army of NPCs against a bandit camp to retrieve stolen alcohol supplies for the village.

The quest began with a few tasks around the village then teleported everyone to a new map where the bandits were located. Ring players are able to create stories that span many maps. This feature also eliminates unnecessary travel, although Miller insists that many of the maps are more than large enough should someone wish to make a quest in one are.

On the outskirts of the village, two of the NPCs have plans to attack the village. This demonstrated how players can put forks in their quest. In the fork we were shown, the player sent the army down towards the village, while the player hid himself on a hill above the village. As the player walked down the hill, it triggered the army to attack. This provided a distraction and allowed the player to retrieve the stolen alcohol concealed in the bandit village.

Berset then gave us a look at how the tools actually work. Once again, I was impressed with the simplicity of them. You continue to operate as your character when editing; although they did add increased movement speed, teleportation, lengthened camera range and more. The client provides the player with a wealth of visual cues, pop-up tool tips and other information that ensure a new player could likely create a simple quest without confusion in a few minutes. Most everything in the Ryzom Ring can be accomplished with your mouse.

One feature that will not be included is terrain editing. Players must choose from over 200 pre-generated maps of varying styles, including: lakes, jungles, forests, deserts and prime roots (which are underground areas specific to the Ryzom lore). Miller explained this decision as a development priority and an attempt to reduce the amount of patches. Terrain files are large and while it may take only a few seconds to load someone’s quest, it would take significantly more time if you had to download unique terrain. It is also a balance issue, as Miller is leery of the effect on their AI should a player do something entirely unexpected with their terrain. However, long-term, Miller refused to rule it out.

“It’s something we will do though if there’s sufficient demand,” he added.

Nevrax hopes that the Ring inspires a large community of quest developers and content sharing. Players can export and share their quests with others outside the game. Berset also noted that one reason he was looking forward to the Ring was that it also enabled players to easily create movies using the game engine. They demonstrated this with their Ring trailer.

One plan change since E3 is the decision to make persistent scenarios – ones that stay active when the player is not online – a post-release addition. They had originally intended players to pay a small monthly fee of approximately $4.95 to keep scenarios online 24/7. This would have been especially conducive to using the Ring for guild housing, for example. However, in the interests of doing things right at launch, they decided to push that aspect back a few months. Thus, initially, only the free option of having your scenario active when your client is active will be available.

As shown by their MMORPG.com 2005 Reader’s Choice Award victory for “Best Story”, The Saga of Ryzom is heavily centered on an evolution of the game’s lore. The immediate question raised was how does player created story fit into the game world.

Miller promised that there would be a direct explanation in their ongoing live story, but refused to elaborate lest he ruin it for the players.

On a more technical level, players on any server will be able to access any active Ring scenario through terminals placed in towns. Players can also rate the scenarios to help future gamers sort through them by quality.

In terms of rewards, players can offer items they physically have in the world to others, but what is new is that players also earn consumable experience gain catalysts. While player skills do not go up in the Ring, these no drop items can be used in the regular world to increase the rate at which a player gains experience for a fixed amount of time.

Miller explained that the core idea is that if a player spends an hour in the Ring and then an hour in the regular world using the catalyst they earned, they will more than two hours worth of experience in the hour the spend in the regular world.

“We have a good control on the rate of consumables you get out of the Ring,” added Miller in response to a question about exploitation.

This idea should help make the game, which has a notoriously slow rate of character development, more accessible.

The Ring also encourages players to play the regular game by making them unlock the items they can use in their scenarios. Simply, their character has to see something in the regular world before they can use it in the Ring. This doesn’t mean they need to be high level, in fact the hope is that this will encourage higher level players to show newer players the world and rewards simple exploration.

Both these changes truly tie the Ring to original game. My original concern was that the Ring seemed too artificial and separate from The Saga of Ryzom. Experience catalysts and the exploration elements encourage players to participate in both worlds and while assuredly some Ryzom players will ignore the Ring and some Ring players will ignore Ryzom, the plan Nevrax put forth should bind those two communities together in significant and interesting ways.

In terms of policing the content, Nevrax intends to rely on a simple player reporting mechanism. If a player is offended they can report a scenario to the GM staff who will investigate and take action should the scenario violate their user agreement.

“If no one complains we wont know,” admitted Miller. This means that players can potentially make more adult scenarios and so long as they only invite their friends – who are OK with that kind of experience – there will be no problems. “It’s like having a very adult conversation as long as you do it in tells.”

The Ryzom studio itself is an impressive former glass studio only a few blocks from Bastille and the Louvre in downtown Paris. Their modest sized development team operated in a rather open area with only a couple private offices over the two floors of the complex. They decorated with a combination of photoshoped movie posters that inserted the team into the action and Ryzom banners. It is easily one of the nicest small studios - and definitely in the most interesting location - I've seen.

Notable in her absence from the press event was Jessica Mulligan. This industry heavyweight joined Nevrax as an Executive Producer last year. Miller explained that she continues to work with Nevrax on a consulting basis, but was not in Paris at the time of our visit.

Once again, the Ring looked very impressive. Nevrax will not share subscriber numbers, but did note that their modest player base – currently spread across three servers – has been growing despite their launch timing and original distribution issues. With the Ring, Nevrax seems poised to grow some more. From what we’ve seen so far, they’re definitely on the right track.

A special thanks to Sébastien Daniel, Milko Berset, Daniel Miller and the entire Ryzom team for playing host to us.

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Dana Massey