This week, I had the chance to chat with Lukasz Blaszczyk, Lead Content and Story Designer for Otherland, about how the game ended up with Drago Entertainment, the game’s relationship to the novels that inspire it, and exactly what the future of Otherland looks like.
Magicman (MM): Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about what the Game Designer title means as far as your day to day work goes?
Lukasz Blaszczyk (LB): Hello, my name is Lukasz Blaszczyk and I’m the lead content and story designer for the MMO Otherland. This means that I have the best job in the world. But seriously, I am responsible for designing the story and the way it is presented in the game. Quests, cinematics, dialog are all created based on my ideas and guidelines. My typical day at the office starts with a “Hey guys! Let’s do X! It will be amazing!”.
MM: What’s the story with Otherland? It was developed initially by RealU under Gamigo, went away and then Drago ended up picking the ball back up and running with it, how did this all shake out?
LB: Most of the team is used to creating games from scratch so it was definitely something new for us. We spent a lot of time simply playing Otherland as it was when we first got it. We found an enormous amount of content already created but, as you might guess, we had a lot of our own ideas on making the game better. I think that the process is more about making it more up to date with the current MMO market and adding the features we think are cool or necessary to have instead of just reusing what we got and making something completely new. I myself like the challenge. The engine is not the most modern one and it has its downsides but also has a lot of potential that was not used before.
MM: Before we get into the game itself, you’re currently running a Closed Beta test. Have you been able to keep a lot of the original assets and develop on top of them? Seems early to be in beta for just taking over isn’t it?
LB: Even though we haven’t had the game for a long time we have tons of new content we want the players to see. The beta has several purposes. First of all, as we mentioned several times, we want to push our servers to the limit. We are not an enormous team and thus testing it internally was not really an option. Hiring people to test it for us is possible but that means they will test only what we want them to. Players are a lot more chaotic, in a good way, and I’m sure they will and are testing the game a lot harder than any paid tester will be able to. The second reason for the beta was to show our players that the game is still here and we are working hard to release it. We know that the game survived through the years mostly because of the community surrounding it and we think that allowing them to influence the production with their ideas and suggestions is just the right thing to do.
MM: Your team opted to skip having a cash shop type interface in the beta tests. Not a lot of companies do that. Was that purposely done by design?
LB: We felt like opening a cash shop before the game is in a state that would make both us and the community proud would be unfair. The support we are getting from the people around the world is already enormous, we don’t need them to prove it by giving us their hard earned cash. Additionally, as I said before, the beta is here to allow the players to participate in the development process. For this beta, however, we actually have a highly “work in progress” cash shop in the game, but we did not allow players to spend real money in it. Every account in the beta right now has some in-game currency given to it during creation. If players want to, they can enter the shop and buy items. For now however the number of items in it is limited to cosmetic gear. We just want to test the system, nothing more.
MM: Otherland is based on the Tad Williams novels bearing the same main name. Does that mean, story wise, if I’ve read the 4 books I know what will happen in game? Conversely, if I don’t know anything about the books will I be lost in game?
LB: This is one of the first things we, as a design team, asked ourselves. On one hand we didn’t want to alienate the players that haven’t read the books and go with the “Read the books!” approach but on the other hand we wanted to “reward” the part of the community that did read them. The approach we chose is a combination of both. The story we are using in the game is completely new and introduces the players to the world in a similar way the books did. Additionally, as a nod towards the readers, we added elements that they will recognize but are not very crucial for the game. The goal is to have the player that didn’t read the books go “I like the story/world and I want to learn more about it. I will read the books” and the player that did read them to go “Hey! I recognize this character/zone!”. If we can get that reaction from our community I think we did a good job.
MM: Let’s talk about combat. Otherland will be leaning more towards an action based combat according to the game’s site. Can you talk about what that means for gameplay and the feel of each class in game?
LB: We are still in the process of redesigning the combat system. We have many ideas for it but you will have to wait and see for yourselves. After picking up the project we tried several approaches known from other MMO titles. We’ve decided to go with action for several reasons. First of all we want the game to feel more dynamic. We think that standing in one area and pressing buttons just doesn’t fit the dangerous worlds of Otherland. When that was decided we started thinking about skills. Most MMOs focus on the unique abilities a player’s class has instead of the weapon he is actually holding in his hands. In Otherland your weapon is your main source of power. The players will notice that most of the damage and healing they do doesn’t come from using his abilities but from the swings of their swords or bullets from their rifles. However, that doesn’t mean that we want to remove abilities from the game! They are and will be there but with a different approach. Looking at our warrior class, if you find yourself surrounded by a lot of hard hitting enemies your abilities will be very helpful in your survival/damage output but using them just to bring a typical enemy down will be mostly a waste. High cooldown, powerful abilities that require good timing and skill from the player. I think this approach will allow us to make the combat in both PvE and PvP feel a lot more dependent on the player skill instead of just the gear and level.
MM: Customization plays a huge role on the website whether that’s the player’s character or even player housing. Does this level of planned customization, while nice, provide any development challenges you didn’t foresee?
LB: It does and most probably always will. Let’s talk about the U|Space for a moment. In Otherland players get their own apartment quite fast. It becomes one of the best sources of crafting materials and also has a big focus on high level PvP. Since the apartment belongs to the character we don’t want them to feel like it’s a generic zone in the world that looks exactly the same for everyone. Let’s start with the apartment defenses (turrets, mines and even guard NPCs that the players create from the eDNA of the enemies they defeated). This part of the customization has a great impact on the gameplay itself so we can’t just give the players predefined slots that they can be placed on. If you are a good strategist you will place your mines “here” and your turrets “there” but keep the rocket launcher ones further away so it’s harder to destroy them. Designing those features felt amazing but actually putting them in the game is a lot harder. Giving the freedom to defend your home the way you want to was really hard to implement but I think it was worth it. The other part of the customization of your U|Space was the visual part. We want to give players furniture, wallpapers, plants and more. The way one apartment feels should really be up to the player, not us. This however creates challenges. We most probably will never be able to satisfy everyone with the options we will offer but we try to give as much variety as is possible. At this moment we really don’t know how it will end up but I’m happy that we took the time and effort to really give the apartment to the player.
MM: How will monetization work in Otherland? Cash shop with microtransactions? You know us MMO fans hate pay-to-win, especially in games like Otherland that will include PvP. What are your plans to avoid that impression?
LB: We get that question a lot. We are all players so we know how frustrating pay2win can be. We aim to avoid that kind of microtransaction model as much as we possibly can. Our cash shop will focus more on giving the player what they want a little faster. The example items would be the timed experience boost and “gold income” boost. The items will allow you to get to the max level faster or earn gold faster but it doesn’t mean that players not using the cash shop can’t achieve the same. The other part of the shop will give the players the opportunity to change the way they look. We will have a wide variety of items you can buy from the shop but they will never have any stats assigned to them. Next to those two main sections we plan on having other paid services like character transfer, name change and maybe class change.
MM: Will you be self-publishing Otherland or are you working with other publishing companies?
LB: We are working with a lot of people at this time. Whichever way is chosen both of them have their pros and cons. For now, I think the main focus is bringing the game to a state that will make both us and the community happy and then publish it.
MM: What makes Otherland different? It’s a small following right now, but a universe and setting that are a bit unique. Why should our readers be excited?
LB: The possibilities. Otherland is so vast and almost anything fits into it. Like I told the community, I always smile when I can shoot a rocket at a fantasy knight. I think anyone, regardless of if they like fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk or cyberpunk will find something they like in Otherland and that is very unique for MMOs and games overall. I often get asked if there are any hidden simulations in the game. Some refer to them as the Otherland “pony levels”. I’m not saying it’s not there but the fact that the community suspects those kinds of things to appear in the game only shows the enormous potential we are holding in our hands.
MM: Any idea on a release date yet?
LB: I think we will manage to release it before Half-life 3 🙂
Thank you very much to Lukasz for sitting down with us! For more information about Otherland, check out the game’s official site.