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Understanding the Approach

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Alexander Zacherl is a crazy man. Not in the tweed-wearing, eccentric billionaire sense, but in the ‘I’m going to make a sandbox MMO with only four staffers’ sense. When you hear about studios with hundreds of people and millions of dollars, the difference in scale is astonishing. And yet, for Zacherl and his team at Fairytale Distillery, it actually makes sense.

Das Tal, the sandbox MMO currently in early alpha, is a passion project. As we spoke during Gamescom, it became clear that there’s no other way this game could be made. By focusing tightly on the experience they want to create – small-scale conflict-heavy worlds that last 3 months at most – the studio can pick its battles, yet still provide those alliances and betrayals that the sandbox genre is renowned for.

MMORPG.com: To start off with, can you give me the elevator pitch for Das Tal?

Alexander Zacherl: It is a sandbox MMORPG, but a very small one. What we do is we drop you, as a player, into a dark-fantasy prison valley, and your job is to get out of this valley as the strongest. The game is all about player interaction and fast-paced PvP.

What’s important about it is, whereas the big-time sandboxes that have thousands of concurrent players and run basically forever, they force you to grind a lot because you have to play for 5 years just to be in there. We cut that out – we make our games so small that, actually, the world has a lifespan. It might be a month, it might be three months, and there’s a winner and loser at the end. And then the game starts anew. Because it’s so short, we can cut out all the stuff that makes it grindy – slow skill progression, grinding resources by hitting trees – all of that gets cut out.

What we focus on are player versus player events. A treasure just spawned – who can reach it first, who gets the thing? You have resources, I want those resources, I’m going to invade your territory. You have a nice city, I want that city, we’re going to siege you on the weekend. That’s what our game is about. And because the game worlds are so small, and they’re so short, we can start a lot of them at the same time.

And each of those game worlds are unique in some way. One of them might be permadeath. Another might be one where there’s no swords, but everybody can shoot fireballs. The next one is a world that is similar to the irst, but has a different terrain. What we’re trying to do is make each of those worlds feel completely different just by changing small things.

We don’t want the game to get stale over time. You’ve played a lot of MMOs in your time; in World of Warcraft, you reach endgame in time, and then you’re stuck there. At some point there will be a major content pack, but until then it’s the same.

Every time you start a new MMO - this is the feeling we want to have in our game a lot. I’ve played games for 5, 6 years, Shadowbane was my game, and then I’ve MMO jumped a lot. Basically played every game that has some PvP in it. And I liked the part where you start anew and learn new systems, and we want that in the game.

MMORPG.com: Does it force a change in the meta and so on?

Zacherl: It allows for a change, that’s the thing. Yes, we force it, but also it’s not us who make the server rules – in the end, it’s going to be the players. We give them a set of modifiers – stuff they can pick for the servers – and if they want to play the same server over and over again they can do that, but we allow them to change it up all the time. And since different players are going to choose it, it’s going to change.

MMORPG.com: What’s the state of the game at the moment?

Zacherl: It’s in very early alpha. We’ve recently gone from pre-production to production, and we actually have alpha servers running now, with a very limited scope. We’re talking 20, 30 people, it’s an hour long test, and it’s mostly focused on small-scale PvP – controls, targeting, skills, that’s what we’re doing right now. But yes, people are playing it right now.

We have an alpha signup, with a couple of thousand people signed up, but we only picked a hundred so far that we play with weekly.

MMORPG.com: What inspired you to make this particular MMO, rather than anything else?

Zacherl: To be honest, to me there is no alternative. I’ve only been playing sandbox MMOs for my formative years, like Ultima Online, Shadowbane, some Darkfall, some EVE Online. I was never big into the themepark, so this the kind of game I always wanted to make. This is why I started making games 5 or 6 years ago, and there’s not really an alternative to that.

What I hear a lot in comments is like ‘You’re just making a sandbox because it’s easy, and making content is hard.’ Yes, making content is hard, making content is super expensive and we could never do that, but we do the sandbox because we like it, that is the kind of game we want to play. That’s why we’re making it right now, because there’s nothing that really does that for us.

MMORPG.com: If you’re changing the game every month to three months, what’s the point creating a load of content that’s just going to be thrown?

Zacherl: Exactly. To me, and there’s players like me, content is boring. We’re not really into doing the quests, doing the story. I actually prefer it in a single-player environment – I do like single player RPGs. For an MMO, I don’t actually need that; what I want is to know that there are other people out there, and there’s people that are with me (and that’s nice), and there’s people against me, and that’s where the fun part starts. Battlegrounds, arena, PvP, this is what I want, and I want that all the time, but I want it to also be a little more impactful on the world. This is what I’m trying to balance – riding into PvP every day, but still having an impact on the world. That’s the plan.

MMORPG.com: Have the players created any big stories themselves, just from the alpha?

Zacherl: No, I haven’t seen any bigger ones. We’ve created a little bit of a storyline for the first alpha test that started three weeks ago, which was the story of two groups of people who land in this prison. At first they don’t know about each other, but they slowly find out that they’re in this thing together, and then conflict starts to brew, and let players resolve it.

MMORPG.com: Is that the kind of thing you’re aiming for?

Zacherl: Yes, although I’m not as much into the written stories. At some point the player maps are going to come out. This clan has this area, there’s the big alliance, then comes the betrayal, that’s the stuff I like. What makes EVE a good game to write about, this is what I like, although it doesn’t need to have the EVE scale for me – it also works with a hundred people. But that’s the kind of stories we want to hear in the end, and we’re trying to give them the tools for that.

MMORPG.com: What’s your own inspiration? How do you find your own quirk?

Zacherl: The game that inspired me the most is Shadowbane, which I think was closed down in 2007 or so by Ubisoft. It inspired me because it had all of that – the player driven stories, the world that people fight over, it was fairly small, you knew the people you were playing with. It was changing a lot because they merged servers, because they weren’t big. They were forced to restart a lot. And that got me thinking ‘why is that a bad thing? Let’s do that more often’

Besides that, inspiration comes from a lot of different stuff. There’s a German RPG called Gothic from 2001, never really made it outside of Germany, but it’s a dark fantasy prison story, super interesting. There’s games like Guild Wars or Bloodline Champions who aren’t big in the sandbox MMO part, but had really nice combat systems instead that worked so well – that’s a big benchmark for me.

Some inspiration comes from Escape from New York, a John Carpenter movie. It’s a pretty trashy movie, but they basically turn New York City into a high security prison, like a police state, and I think President or something gets kidnapped in there, and the hero gets dropped in – ‘You’re the hero, you’re the only one that can get him out.’ I like the setting where there’s rules and guards outside, but inside it’s your world, do with it as you please. The people have to find out how they structure their tiny new world.

MMORPG.com: Are you going to be supporting things like guilds and alliances?

Zacherl: Yes, no question. Guilds are important, alliances between guilds are important. Guild management, so you can set up who can do what, it’s all definitely needed for that.

MMORPG.com: So are you expecting for players to create factions?

Zacherl: Definitely, there’s no dev-made factions at all. The one part I hated about PvP in World of Warcraft was ‘these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, you play with these guys you can’t talk to those guys.’ I don’t like this part. There are no factions by us, but you have the tools to make them. And that’s the sandbox part in a sandbox MMO for me. It’s up to me to make those structures and make those factions.

MMORPG.com: How big is the team that you have working on it?

Zacherl: Tiny. It’s about 4 people working full time on it now, and about 4 who are doing work as freelancers. There are going to be 3 more who support us in the next couple of months, but it’s super tiny. I’ve seen teams of 400 people fail to release an MMO with $200 million of funding.

The first question people ask when you tell them you’re doing an MMO is ‘How crazy are you? I’m sure you are crazy, but how much?’ The thing is, we try to make each part of our game so small that it actually works. We’ve been sitting together for three months to find an art style and a pipeline that actually works for us, that a small team can do. We didn’t have a lot of 3D resources at that point, so our art style is often compared to Ultima Online, because it’s very hand-drawn, and it came out of that. We had a really good 2D artist, and we still want the perspective depth of a 3D game, but we didn’t want to make all these 3D models – it’s a huge amount of work. And we did that cut in a lot of places. Of course we could do worlds with 10,000 concurrent players and super-complicated server architecture and clusters, but why? We’re just cutting it down to 150 players, and run it all on one server, which makes it so much easier to make the whole game for us. I’ve been doing a lot of these trade-offs.

MMORPG.com: Would you recommend this route to anyone else? This style of creating an MMO?

Zacherl: Doing a year of pre-production is always recommended, but actually I would recommend making it shorter, because you often don’t need it – we got a little sidetracked protyping and stuff, because it was fun.

I think it’s very much possible nowadays. I notice a team in Berlin – Albion Online, Sandbox Interactive – is making a sandbox MMO. They’re 12 people full-time, and are making it based on the same technologies we picked, so I know it’s very much possible, even for a small team. But you have to pick your fights. You can’t be like the biggest simulation, the biggest world. You have to pick this one thing you’re good at.

MMORPG.com: What are you using?

Zacherl: Unity’s the client – we’ve been working with it for 5 years, we like it a lot, we stick with it. We’re using Photon from Exit Games for the server backend, C# framework for realtime MMOs. That’s most of the tech stack. We use other stuff for account management and tracking and so forth, but these are the main middlewares we’re using.

We’re not building tech, because the tech that exists is good enough for what we want to make. We don’t have to do new stuff, we focus our programming on actually making the game.

MMORPG.com: What kind of model are you going for?

Zacherl: We are going for the easiest for us, and doesn’t hurt the players, and doesn’t hurt the game. Which, at this point, is probably a Guild Wars-like pay once model. If this works out for us and we make enough to support the game, then it’s awesome because our fans are like ‘this is a simple model.’

There were always, since the project started, talk about ‘can we do free-to-play? Can we make this a free-to-play game?’ The thing is, none of the existing models work with it. We’re not selling any sort of in-game power – that’s out, because it’s a PvP game for the Western market, and I personally would not play a game like that. It’s very hard to sell skins for a game that is very much about recognizing what the enemy does, so that’s hard too. We’re thinking about models that give you extra guild features, extra account slots, or even the ability to create a server with stuff that hasn’t been released, like earlier access to content. That is stuff we’re thinking about, but not set in stone at all. In the end, it needs to pay our bills, but can’t destroy the game.

MMORPG.com: When are you hoping to go into beta and possibly launch?

Zacherl: No launch date. The launch date, I think I announced was ‘not before 2015.’ We don’t care much about launch – it’s not a thing to us. Right now, a couple of people play, then more people play, then more people play – it’s going to evolve from out of there. We have a timeline that’s till the end of Q1, where we want to have most of the MMO functionality in there, like persistence, a little bit of cities, a little bit of resource management, that is what I’m aiming for. Whatever we define as a 1.0 version is time out from that.

MMORPG.com: Do you have a vision for beta right now?

Zacherl: I honestly don’t know if we will have a beta version, because beta is defined as ‘this thing is totally feature complete and we’re just fixing bugs.’ We’re not going to be at that point, ever. We’re just going to have these features, and this part of it will be bug free, and this is the new stuff we’re planning. I don’t care, maybe we’ll do something like an open or closed beta, but it’s words, it doesn’t apply as much to the game we’re making as it does to a classical box product, where you have fixed milestones and fixed definitions.


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.