SOE’s got three games in the works right now (that we know of, at least). Landmark is already out in public, being streamed and talked about by everyone. EverQuest Next is far enough away that it’s only a tantalizing glint in players’ eyes right now.
That leaves H1Z1 in the semi-awkward state of being mostly ready for public consumption, but not really “done” enough to be let loose to the masses. The H1Z1 panels at SOE Live 2014 were a kind of smorgasbord of questions and answers — fitting for a sandbox game with no pre-planned objectives other than “survive.”
Development is proceeding along a vertical track of providing one or two types of a bunch of different gameplay styles and elements — such as guns, vehicles, crafting, construction, and so on — and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Stuff people like, they’ll do more of. Stuff people don’t like, they’ll do less of or eliminate entirely. That’s SOE’s game plan these days, of going to the community for a lot of advice and feedback and “treating it like an indie project.”
So the game might seem a little thin when we do finally get early access, but most of the basic systems should be there. “We need to get the building blocks right,” said Senior Game Designer Jimmy Whisenhunt.
One way the team hopes to expand in is in different types of zombies. Right now, the game just has your basic shamblers — though the dev team is always tweaking attack speed, damage, movement speed, and so on, and the art team is always playing with their looks, to “gore them up” a bit more — but there are lots more planned. One that came up was the notion of a “shrieker” zombie, which would serve as a kind of “zombie magnet,” drawing others to your position.
So when exactly is early access, anyway? Yeah, right, like you thought they were going to tell me that.
“I play our game every day,” Game Designer Adam Clegg told me in an interview after the panel, “and we just see things the players don’t get to see, and we know it’s just not ready yet. We do have an itemized list of things that we want to get done in the game — it’s not a “feature creep” thing where we just keep adding and adding. When it’s done, we’ll release early access and then the fun really starts!”
Besides releasing too soon, another thing that plagues early access titles is their lack of accessibility. Because the focus is on getting something merely playable out the door, games can be a little unfriendly to new players. Part of the reason for that is because EA players are the most devoted fans of a game, they’re willing to “power through” unfriendly mechanics. People who aren’t as dedicated might be more likely to have a bad early experience and never return.
This happened to me in my first play session. As I was looking around right after spawning in, two zombies approached me and “introduced” themselves. A few seconds later, I was already down to 50% health. Now, I’ve been following H1Z1, so it didn’t perturb me too greatly, but getting beaten down the moment you enter the game qualifies as a bad time, no matter what your experience level.
Clegg assured me that the “insta-zombie spawn beatdown” was a bug, but I wanted to know what else the team might be doing to make the new player experience a wee bit less stressful. It is a hardcore survival game, sure, but players should at least be allowed to find their footing before being ripped apart by zombies (or other players), right?
“That’s something I’m always aware of,” Clegg said. “I’m always trying to make sure the first five minutes of the game is a good experience for the player. I want to make sure the player at least figures out what they’re doing when they get into the game, and if they die, it’s not because they had no idea what’s going on. They know why they died.”
“You’ve got to have that feeling of being in control,” Technical Director Tom Schenck added. “No matter how new you are, you got to be able to get into the game, you know you did this, did that, and that caused you to die. As long as you don’t feel out of control, you aren’t going to really hate it.”
“I see this happen all the time in early access games,” said Clegg. “There’s a difference between making it think that the game killed you or you killed yourself, that you’re the reason why you died. It’s a huge psychological difference.”
Other than the usual bug fixes and polish, the dev team is also looking to increase character creation options — you currently can’t play as a woman, for instance — and figure out what kind of rules sets they can implement. “What I’ve been telling players is that we have a hardcore tuning knob,” Clegg said. “Let’s say we have it at seven or eight right now. With the different server rule sets, we can turn that all the way up to 10 and make it to where you lose everything and when you log out, your character’s there forever… we can do all kinds of things.”
In case you’ve missed it, servers will all be hosted by SOE, but they will have different rule sets — “three or four” at launch, Schenck said, with usual suspects like PvP, PvE, RP, and maybe “super-hardcore” — and players will be able to vote to open new servers with new rule sets.
Finally, with all the different options for rules sets, I brought up the notion of e-sports or tournaments in H1Z1, similar to DayZ’s Survivor Games, which are loosely based on the Hunger Games books and movies. “I love making different game modes,” Clegg said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, really, and once we have a good core game, maybe we have the Hunger Games mode, and maybe the Hunger Games mode turns into something bigger than that. I’m really looking forward to that.”