At last weekend’s PAX South in San Antonio, I got a chance to try Dauntless, Phoenix Labs’ upcoming free-to-play giant monster hunting MMO, currently in development. It’s one of the bigger titles in the free-to-play space that gamers have to look forward in 2017, cracking the top 10 in our most anticipated upcoming games list for the upcoming year.
After taking a run at both of the behemoths the demo had to offer – dying spectacularly against one and grimly overcoming the other – I had a chance to chat with Dauntless Executive Producer Jesse Houston, posing questions related to just about every system in the game.
MMOBomb: Our match took about 10 minutes. Is that typical, or will there be ones that are a lot longer or lot shorter?
Jesse Houston (JH): Early game, we want to keep it a lot shorter, so 10 minutes is about what we want. Later on, we’re going to want a bit more variety, but keep it capped at about 20-25 minutes.
MMOBomb: How does progression work in the game? Is it like a typical MMO, where you just get bigger numbers and more power, or is it more skill-based?
JH: It’s a combination. Later behemoths in the game will have different abilities, so you’ll have someone like Shrike [the owlbear from the announce video that was available to fight at the convention], he’s very physical, has fewer number of abilities and has much clearer tells. Later behemoths will have more abilities and have more and different ways of expressing them.
That’s one axis, and other axis is simply that they will do more damage and require more damage. So you’ll want to upgrade your armor and your weapons so you have the capabilities to withstand the blows.
MMOBomb: What about level adjustments or scaling? Like, if there’s a level 30 behemoth, can you go back and level 40 and wipe him all over the map?
JH: If you’re fighting lower-level behemoths, we have a system that we’re playing with right now that will keep it from being trivialized, but without punishing players. If you want to go and level up and get a bunch of new gear and come back to fight the really hard thing, we want it to feel a bit easier, but we don’t want it to get to the point of triviality.
MMOBomb: How many different behemoths are you intending to have at launch?
JH: By the end of the year, we hope to have in the range of dozens.
MMOBomb: What is “end of the year,” in terms of your launch schedule?
JH: We’re going to go into open beta in the fall.
MMOBomb: The combat is fun, but a lot of MMOs have that “Here’s our best content! Now spend 50 hours grinding our meaningless tasks until you get to do that!” What else do you do in the game besides kill behemoths?
JH: The way the game basically works is you go into the main city, Ramsgate, you group up with your friends, and then you go out on these hunts. Right now, the current thinking is that these hunts are always based around killing a big behemoth. We really don’t want it to be a “gathering quests” kind of thing.
[Writer’s note: Houston stumbled a little bit with the “right now” part of this statement, which one could mean that the system is in flux and other activities are in the works besides the behemoth hunts. Pure speculation, of course.]
MMOBomb: So it’s not like a big open world? More instance/session-based?
JH: Yeah, each one of these islands is instance-based. That said, we’re also going to have gathering and smaller monsters on the islands as well as the big ones. That’ll be kind of what you do as an interstitial between each of the phases of the fight.
MMOBomb: Is that a typical session (the demo I just played)? Is there any more in terms of tracking and hunting, or is mostly about the combat?
JH: The size of what you played is a little smaller than what we’re currently thinking. It’s just short of about a half mile by half mile. We’re still working through just how tracking and the initial “hunt” feel. So there’s going to be an element of an “active hunt” mechanic, and we’re trying to figure out what that’s going to look like.
MMOBomb: Tell us a little bit about the story of the world. Why are we going after these giant behemoths? For sport, for loot, glory, what is it?
JH: The world of Dauntless is based around the Shattered Isles, islands held afloat by this stuff called aether. It’s like the fifth element our world has. It enables islands to float, behemoths to exist, and it’s the core element from which your weapons are crafted. The behemoths basically spend their lives trying to consume aether, which then will cause these islands to collapse. Society has created this cast of mercenaries called slayers, and they go out to these islands and kill these behemoths before they consume all the aether and thus stop you from colonizing the islands.
MMOBomb: Speaking of the islands, the website says “Explore a majestic world of floating islands that shift and change with time.” How do they shift and change?
JH: The current thinking is that we’ll have that central city. Then, we have this idea of a “celestial rotation” of islands. Like, this week there would be some number of islands that you can go and do missions, and then we’ll bring new islands in, every couple of weeks we’ll introduce some new islands, take some old islands away, so we’re constantly introducing new play spaces to gain mastery.
MMOBomb: We had four characters available in the demo. What kind of variety will there be in terms of character classes, weapons, builds, and so on?
JH: Characters in Dauntless are primarily defined by which weapons they use, not so much by which class they have. When you use the sword, you’ll have combos, that sort of thing, an axe will have its own play style and combos, and players can switch to whatever they want. And then armor is there to allow you to have abilities that can bolster the weapons that you’re choosing. So you might be playing an axe and wanting to take heavy armor so that you can stay in the fight a little longer, or maybe you’ve got a nice ability on your armor that plays well with swords. All the progression is based on building better weapons, better armor, and some of the other miscellaneous stuff.
MMOBomb: Is gear crafted or does it come from drops?
JH: It’s 100% crafted. We really want the system to reinforce the idea that you as a player were able to best this beast and therefore you’ve earned your armor. As a slayer, you don’t actually craft your stuff, though. You go to a weaponsmith or an armorsmith to do it. We really want to focus the fantasy of being a slayer – your eyes are purely set on the prize of killing behemoths. Your group and your guilds will potentially have the ability to augment how crafting goes, but that’s more in their relationship with the smiths.
MMOBomb: Speaking of guilds, what kind of functionality is there going to be for guilds? Maybe a guild hall where you can display your trophies?
JH: We’re still working that out. We recognize that playing together with friends is the most valuable way to play an MMO. So we really want to ensure that whatever systems we wrap around guilds really reinforce that loop.
MMOBomb: All right, let’s get to the really important question: If it’s a free-to-play game, how are you going to make your money?
JH: Our free-to-play model is 100% no pay-for-power and no pay-for-progression. Cosmetics and different avenues of self-realization are how we think about the free-to-play modeling. But we really want to ensure that people feel like when they see the dude wearing the black dragon armor, they know that that guy killed the black dragon and he’s super-badass. [I followed up for some clarifying statements there and was assured that while non-stat-affecting cosmetic options will be offered for sale, nothing stat-based will be.]
Dauntless will be in open beta later this year, with a full launch scheduled for 2018.