We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with James Hettinger, CEO of Icarus Studios, and talked with him about their upcoming and highly anticipated MMORPG, Fallen Earth.
GamerGod – Thank you for your time today Jim. Can you tell us a little about yourself and Icarus Studios? You have an extensive reputation in the telecommunications industry. Why the switch MMORPGs?
J. Hettinger – Icarus was founded in July of 2001 by me and fellow co-founder Charles Tyson to take advantage of a unique convergence of market opportunities. The aggressive growth of broadband Internet access and the explosion of next generation game consoles, computers and mobile phones have occurred simultaneously with the expanding demand for IP owners, broadband access providers and video game publishers to deliver trans-media content and experiences to their customers.
First and foremost is our passion for playing MMO’s, both individually and as a team. Our history is in MMO’s. We’ve worked on several titles, including: Warbirds, The Kingdom of Drakkar, and online versions of board games, war games, and parlor games. Our skills and energies have been focused on MMO’s. We feel that, done right, an MMO offers the ultimate gaming experience, adding interpersonal play to well-crafted online worlds.
Icarus has been the first company to integrate expertise from several industries with the design, production and business experience to create and operate massive multi-user entertainment experiences where the consumer seamlessly interacts through his computer, game console, and mobile phone.
We have developed a wide array of proprietary tools and technologies based on our team members’ collective experience and achievements since the eighties in developing and operating games on multiple platforms, from computers to mobile phones.
Currently, as you know, we are developing an original game which is already regarded by game industry executives as “one of the hot new MMOs of 2005”, FALLEN EARTH.
GamerGod– It seems you are making a game that brings many new things to the table in a genre where it is becoming more and more difficult to have a truly new idea. How would you describe what type of game Fallen Earth will be?
J. Hettinger – Action and more action! We’re trying to make it as realistic as possible. You are defined by your actions, and only your actions, acquiring skills constantly and growing your character organically. It is very mission based, with a very rich storyline. What we’ve tried to do is improve the online game experience in as many ways as we can, putting a great deal of effort on multiple fronts – game-play, of course, but also sound, music, art quality and animation, an attention to detail and cohesiveness to approach every aspect of the game from our own perspective, and to develop them in ways that makes them distinctive.
As far as game-play specifics, we’re particularly proud of having created a game that doesn’t straightjacket the player into a class-based system. The players themselves pick and choose the ways they grow their characters, rather than being inserted into rigid classes. We’ve worked to make our creatures more intelligent, to add levels of strategy and tactics that keep the game from becoming formulaic.
The world of Fallen Earth is rich, complex, and expansive. The terrain can also be deformed by players and events in real time, adding to the ongoing, constant sense of exploration and discovery we want to create – and taking the player away from the “sandbox” environments of other online games.
GamerGod– The obvious guess would be Mad Max? Where has the inspiration for the game come from?
J. Hettinger – There’s a whole body of post-collapse, post-apocalypse media that influenced us – and that we feel we’re adding to. In films, not just the Mad Max series, but also their precursors, the Planet of the Apes movies, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man, as well as some recent films such as The Postman and Waterworld. Of course, there are the lesser known ones like Le Dernier Combat, Luc Besson’s first feature, and a million B movies from the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties.
But it’s more than post-apocalyptic movies. The Matrix (which has post-apocalyptic underpinnings), X-Men – in short, the whole group of films that deals with questions of what comes next and what can come next, the way books like The Stand, Lucifer’s Hammer, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, the novels that The Postman, The Omega Man, and Logan’s Run were based on. Let’s not forget Comics such as Judge Dredd (not the movie!) or Jeremiah (both the comic and the Showtime series.)
In games, there’s Fallout, of course, Gamma World, and some obscure titles from the Eighties and early Nineties, board games like Car Wars and so on.
In short, there’s a variety of thought and speculation about the nature of post-apocalyptic futures. From the beginning, our goal has been to create our own take, molding our vision of the world to come by studying today’s world trends and adding our own insights and approaches to the question of what comes after.
GamerGod – You are boasting some impressive stats (zone-free environments, unlimited players, worldwide servers). Can you tell us a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the game? What will character generation be like? Will there be multiple races to choose from? What types of skills are available?
J. Hettinger – We will have Humans for starters, with release and the first year. Afterwards, who knows what lies beyond?
We chose a class-free character development system because we felt that class-based systems inevitably constrain what players can do. And there really is no reason to do this. In a lot of ways class-based systems are holdovers from the original D&D; role-playing game. They have a lot of history but they carry a lot of baggage – they are virtually impossible to balance. A single ability can alter the balance of the entire game. Trying to seek equilibrium becomes an endless process of chasing a moving target.
As far as players go, a class-based system restricts them to a specific character type. Our goal is for players to define their characters by their actions – what they have and what they want to pursue, rather than a pre-defined template.
The result is that players develop their characters themselves, and make them as individual as they, themselves, are. Their characters’ skills and abilities will be developed naturally within the game itself. The only thing the players define for their characters is initial appearance – actual character definition comes from game-play (the appearance of characters can later be altered over the course of their lives).
Our ambition led us to feel that unconstrained characters deserved an unconstrained world. Fallen Earth is zone-free because, bounded play areas are not only highly artificial but they artificially constrain game-play and game-flow. We wanted, and we created, a large world that was open and seamless. And huge: Fallen Earth takes place across an 83 kilometer by 83 kilometer area in real-world terms. Such a region naturally encompasses all manner of terrain, towns, underground complexes, the ruins of the world, and so on.
GamerGod – Can you describe some of the trade-skills being made available for players of Fallen Earth?
J. Hettinger – Trading and crafting are important elements that players can choose to pursue. Again, as with other elements in the game, trading and crafting not only function as aspects of rich game-play, but reflect the sorts of challenges and needs that a post-collapse environment would impose.
Bear in mind that this environment is harsh, dangerous, and that sooner or later everyone will face combat, but trade skills do offer a fruitful approach to the game. Resources, refined goods, virtually everything is rare providing a variety of needs for players to fill. There will be many, many skills to choose from ranging from the obvious, like hunting or metal works, to the more sophisticated, like gene manipulation. A more precise list will be revealed next year.
GamerGod – Will there be a niche in the world for those players who wish to become 100% merchants or crafters, rather than warriors, or will they still have to kill in order to support their craft?
J. Hettinger – You can pretty much do what you want in Fallen Earth. Scavenge things to build your house, build it, set-up shop and trade, if that’s your thing. You’ll have to defend it though, with other players or NPCs you can hire to guard it, for example.
GamerGod – Will we see any sort of magic in this post-apocalyptic world or will it be strictly science-based?
J. Hettinger – Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So, yes, there will be powers and abilities deployed in the game, but they’re the result of technology, engineering, mutation, rather than supernatural magic per se.
GamerGod – More and more, players want to be as different from the person next them as possible. Can players customize the look of their vehicles?
J. Hettinger – Yes. They will also be able to earn tattoos, skin tinting, makeup, etc. in missions, or buy them from a tradesman.
GamerGod – Can you describe some of the specific vehicles, which will be available to players? How many will there be to choose from?
J. Hettinger – All I can say is that vehicles will be hard to come by and hard to earn. But once you have one, you’ll want more… 7000 square miles is a vast place. It’s the entire Grand Canyon area.
Keep in mind, though, the world of Fallen Earth is just beginning to rise from a near-complete collapse – any kind of advanced technology is rare and expensive. Knowledge & parts need to be re-discovered, but there are land vehicles that players will be able to fix and acquire. They are scarce resources that will take time to recover, assemble and re-fit before hitting the roads.
GamerGod – Will there be any organized PvP in the game. If so, how open-ended will it be?
We will have a PvP server and a non-PvP server. In some instances, we will have PvP in the non-PvP world, but it will be organized and staged as an event.
Our commitment to player-driven character development is matched by our commitment to offering the various types and styles of game-play that different players prefer, and doing each at the highest possible level.
GamerGod – On your website, you talk about players creating their own towns and outposts. Can these towns be placed in hostile zones, providing safety and supplies to those adventuring?
J. Hettinger – Yes, with certain limitations of course.
GamerGod – Are there plans for integrated voice communication between players?
J. Hettinger – There will be pre-recorded voice commands you will be able to choose from and “send” for all those around you to hear, unless you are whispering to someone. For more, you’ll have to wait. We might do more, but I can’t say for certain at this time.
GamerGod – Will characters have restrictions to a certain number or a certain set of skills in the game, or will they be able to choose anything and everything they want to be?
J. Hettinger – Pretty much anything you want to become… you decide on which missions to do, hence how you will earn new skills and become different. Certain missions will require certain skills to accomplish…
GamerGod – Can you describe for us how creatures will use their AI in reaction to players’ actions?
J. Hettinger – Flanking, flock behavior, evasive maneuvers, random creatures attacking each other, etc… Creature AI will be very complex and rich. It’s something we want to put a lot of effort into.
GamerGod – You mention that the terrain is changeable ‘on the fly’. To what extent can you modify it? Could we see a bomb explode in an area and create a large crater? How will you handle these changes to the client side of things?
J. Hettinger – Yes! You can throw a grenade and create a crater in real time, then hide in it. Other players will see this in real time.
You will also, for example, be able to dig a hole and create a trap! This type of addition should be a major hit, especially in co-op missions, which we will have lots of.
How we do it is part of our secret sauce. It’s not easy as you can imagine.
GamerGod – Which 3d engine are you using to allow these fantastic changes at a moment’s notice?
J. Hettinger – Our own. 90% of all our tools and tech are in-house developed and we have quite a few. They’re modular and very upgradeable. We’ve been there before using other people’s code, more control is more flexible and extensible.
GamerGod – We see the plan is to have one world for all players. How will you handle allowing players to own property? Can the world fill up some day or do you have the ability to add more land when necessary? If so, will it come from a store-bought expansion or from a free downloadable add-on?
J. Hettinger – We can expand the world quickly, either via download or add-on retail pack. It’s a shardless world, so indeed everybody’s in the same world, but not at the same place. When and if we run out of space (7000 square miles takes a lot of folks to over populate), we know how it will expand and how to do it. We can go far…
The precise nature of our expansion pack strategy depends on our publisher/distributor, which we will announce in the future.
GamerGod – What stage is the game currently in? Are you planning on starting the beta sooner rather than later? *wink*
J. Hettinger – Beta will be early next spring… Closed beta for starters, then open. Release end of 2005, probably Christmas.
GamerGod – Any ETA on when we can expect the official forums to be open, so that we can all start talking more about FE?
J. Hettinger – Maybe early next year, but don’t quote me. We just don’t want to frustrate people and start active discussions before WE are ready to answer questions and have the resources and time our fans will deserve.
GamerGod – Sounds great! Anything else you’d like to add for our readers?
J. Hettinger – Be patient, spread the word. This game will be worth every penny.
GamerGod – Thank you very much for all this time today Jim. We appreciate all the insights you have given us all on Fallen Earth.
Special thanks also to Christophe Watkins, VP of Business Development over at Icarus.