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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Repopulation

I’m going to be honest, I was never really big into MMORPGs. My friends all tried to  get me into World of Warcraft, and I promise I tried. But a couple hours into foraging  plants as a Night  Elf something, I realized it just wasn’t the game for me.I wanted  to be excited for a BioWare-made Star Wars MMO, but I still couldn’t get into it.  I  even  got  mega-hyped  for Champions Online, being the comic geek that I am, but by launch the spark had already fizzled. I guess I just like to keep my RPG experiences single player. But perhaps all I really need is something that captures an aspect of my gaming persona that no other MMO has yet to engage. If The Repopulation has anything to say about it, this sci-fi themed MMO will be the one to change my mind.

While the general setting may feel like something that’s come before, the studio is dead-set on proving they have something unique to offer the MMO space. Concocting an intriguing mix of gameplay features and storytelling mechanics, Above and Beyond Technologies is developing an experience that will truly feel self-reflective of each individual player, something few massively multiplayer games can attest to. By the time The Repopulation is ready for launch, players will be immersed in a world that is both tailored to their playstyle and exceptionally customizable.


But what is it specifically that sets this MMORPG apart from the rest? According to Lead Programmer and Designer J.C. Smith, it’s a complicated, in-depth answer. One that starts with the way The Repopulation generates content for its player base. “Our generated mission system is unlike anything else on the market,” Smith pro claimed. “While missions/quests are optional, they are an easy way to provide players with content. Our system works very different from mission generators, in that NPCs automatically generate job offers for your character from any place in the world. The offers you receive are based on where you’re at, past actions taken, skill levels, etc. The offers are customized based on your character, and the NPCs, steps, and items can also be randomized.”

Including missions that are tailored to player characters and their previous actions is certainly an engaging dynamic, but its not actually something brand new to the genre. In fact, dynamic quest generation is included with a number of RPG games already. The previous Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, used generated missions, albeit to a smaller extent. Where The Repopulation looks to set a new standard, however, is in the level of engagement and interaction players get out of these quests. 

“Unlike generated missions in other titles, our missions can be extremely complex. We have generated missions with 15+ different goals, branching outcomes, etc. These job offers are mailed to your character, and you can accept or deny them from anywhere in the world using your PDA,” Smith explained. “All of our NPCs have different personality traits, some which are static and others which can change. Those traits are used to determine who qualifies for different missions.”

When asked for more specific information about how the system constructs these quests, and particularly how it builds them based on the player’s current position, Smith told me that “first, it eliminates things that you don’t qualify for, or which aren’t available in your area. Qualification checks include things like personality traits (how you’ve previously responded in missions), skill levels, reputation, items you may or may not have, previously completed or currently running missions or achievements, past relationships with the NPC, knowledge bits you know, missions you have recently completed, etc.” He added that “it then randomly rolls between the ones you qualify for to select a new offer. Then it finds suitable NPCs for that mission in the local area.” As you might imagine, programming such a complex system for the benefit of players is no small feat. But Above and Beyond feels that it will be worth it once the player base realizes just how unique their individual experiences will be.

Another major mission system in The Repopulation is something known as “Engagements.” The team describes Engagements as being “similar to public quests, but the system has been improved in a number of ways. What happens in one location can affect other areas. You can inquire with NPCs and ask them about local events or events in other areas to hear about recent and past events in those places. The World Event system extends this to allow NPCs to choose locations based on what players are currently doing.”

Describing a particular, low-level Engagement players will come across early on, the team said “the Lesoo Murderer event, for example, will only occur in one place at a time, and will pick a spot where there are many newbie characters passing through. There’s another event where an NPC who offers a hidden skill will spawn in hard to find locations, but he will not spawn any place where there are currently many players nearby.”

It sounded to me like Engagements really were just public quests, indistinguishable from other commonplace MMO questing. Smith was quick to reassure me that, “the system is pretty advanced though, and allows us to do some pretty cool branching and expanding variations.” To that end, he detailed the following example, which I’ve left in its entirety for the sake of clarity:

“To give an example of some of the things we can do, we’ll take the Ammann Village Engagements. They are a good example case because even though there are many branches and forks, it’s simple enough to explain.

The village shares a rocky relationship with a group of Faugea that have a lair nearby. Faugea are intelligent and speak their own language. The colonists want peace with the Faugea, and the feeling is mutual. Players sometimes have their own ideas though, and use the Tikt Tunnels as a dungeon.

There is a long-term Engagement in this area which tracks how many Fauge a have been killed over the period of a couple hours. It uses that to determine how to mutate the Engagement to the next stage.

In times of peace, the Faugea aren’t an issue. They are rarely seen outside of Tikt. An ambassador will visit the village with missions, which will eventually allow the players to learn the language and befriend the Faugea. During peacetime, the Engagements are pretty lax here. Occasionally, you’ll have Elkar issues in the area, lightning strikes can start fires which need to be put out to prevent the village from going into a rebuilding state, etc. But it’s generally pretty lax and easy during those time periods.

Where things get interested is if players decide to slaughter the Faugea. Doing so pushes them more towards the confrontation route, at least until players back off, in which case it starts going back to the friendlier options. First, the Faugea will start appearing in higher numbers. Next, players will notice some vindictive ones who are more aggressive, including new bosses. Eventually it will get to the point where they have had enough, and mount a large scale attack on the city. If successful, they will set it on fire, and if players can’t stop the fires quickly the village goes into a rebuilding state, which is a crafting variation to help rebuild the town.

This is the type of approach we plan on having in many parts of the world prior to launch. Currently, there are only a handful of variations of the longer term area-wide Engagements.  But in the future, we want them all over. What we like about them is that we can mix in many different types of roles: Combat varieties, non combat, trade skill-related, or mixed. And because some of those Engagements, such as this one, have things that happen over hours, not minutes, it allows areas to progressively change so that your experience when you visit the same location may be significantly different. The combination of Engagements, camps, and dens which are currently active in an area should provide a lot of replay value to areas once all is said and done.”

After learning about how players will uncover quests and go about adventuring across the planet of Rhyldan, I inquired about the combat mechanics themselves. While The Repopulation does contain a commendable amount of non-combat options, it also includes two distinct combat modes to accommodate gamers who may be a bit outside their comfort zone when it comes to the MMORPG genre. Those two modes are called RPG Mode and Action Mode. According to Smith, “RPG Mode is the core of the game, and is basically like most other MMORPGs. Ability bars, cooldowns, etc. Action Mode is an optional wrapper on top of that, which allows the game to control like a first/third person shooter. Under the hood, both modes are using RPG mechanics, but Action Mode has a feel more familiar to shooter fans.

When asked to further detail how Action Mode would make shooter fans feel at home, the team said that “you just aim and shoot like you’re playing a shooter. The client then takes into account what you were trying to hit at and the type of action performed to automatically generate the appropriate action or ability.” They also mentioned that “you can still use action keys to directly perform a specific action on your last hit target if you wish. But for shooter fans, it just makes it feel more like a shooter, even if the underlying mechanics are all still an RPG.”

With gameplay firmly established, Above and Beyond is bringing The Repopulation to life through a bustling ecosystem. Including mechanics that range from a diverse set of jobs to customizable housing and equipment, all threaded by a symbiotic relationship between players, the world is intended to come off as lively, if not vivacious. One of the earliest ways players are encouraged to work together is through the crafting system.

“Crafting drives our economy, and our crafting system is very feature rich and built on the idea of interdependence. It’s not designed to be something where one person creates all the components they need to create a complex object. That’s certainly possible, but it’s not how the system was designed to be used,” Smith admitted. “Instead, the system is designed so that the end product is made from numerous components, which may be made by other crafters (or yourself if you really wish). Each recipe type has its own mastery levels, meaning that a player who had less time and simply wanted to be able to create the highest quality of a certain component type would be able to do that type of component as well as anyone else, and find a niche in the marketplace. Crafting is a lifestyle in Repop.”

Dialogue is also a central component of bringing worlds to life. Specifically in regard to NPC interactions, the team is using “an inquiry system.” This means “you can simply walk up to most non-generic NPCs in-game and right click them to start asking questions. The questions you can ask them include starter questions like, “Where is…”, “Why…”, “Tell me about…”, etc. that then allows you to either type in a subject or to select from a list of topics that both you and the NPC are knowledgeable about.” Once players progress further and discover more of the world, NPCs can be revisited to unlock additional discussions. “As you adventure, you’ll gain new bits of about different topics. There are hidden missions and opportunities through this system, and the system is also used to provide background information and detail to the NPCs and world.”

When it comes to customization, Above and Beyond is going, well… you know. As opposed to other MMOs that often make use of limited gear slots by adding a passive buff or two, armor and equipment take on a much more important purpose in The Repopulation. “Item-wise, we employ a fitting system; which isn’t something really new to the genre, but it’s something we’ve taken quite a bit further than other titles,” Smith began. “The basic of the system is fittings and shells. Shells are the base stats and cosmetics of equipment. So Peacekeeper Body Armor is a shell which defines it as Heavy Armor, and also defines its appearance. The bulk of the stats of that armor though, come from the 5 fitting slots. Most of our items have 5 slots,” he confirmed. “Robots can have up to 10, vehicles up to 5. Abilities and Implants can also be enhanced with their own types of fittings/enhancements, which allow 1-3 slots in implants and often 1 or 2 for abilities.”

Further dissecting the importance of the fitting mechanic and how it stands out, Smith told me that “what fittings/enhancements/sockets are is similar to augmentations or sockets in some of the other MMOs out there. They allow you to add stats to an existing item.” This differs from the traditional MMO model because “in most games. those are late-game items and you may have 1-3 slots on them. Most items in Repop have 5 from the very beginning. It allows for a very high degree of customization that includes adding stats, activated effects, and altering existing functionality of the affected objects.” As an example of how much diversity these slots allow for, I was told that “Vehicle Upgrades are things you can attach to a vehicle to either improve its base performance (max speed, brakes, steering) or to grant new special abilities, such as the ability to lay mines, deliver an EMP Blast, or grant a temporary shielding.”

The final piece to any MMO puzzle centers around social engagement and encouraging interactivity amongst active players. Often the toughest nut to crack, the team heavily relied on inspiration from some of their favorite games when deciding how to proceed. That inspiration led to the creation of Rest areas. “One of the things we liked in Star Wars Galaxies was the fact that players needed to visit the Cantinas every now and then to restore their mental wounds. While we weren’t huge fans of the wounds system because we felt it forced players into it we did want to encourage players to visit these locations.” Reinterpreting the original idea of encouraging players to gather around a communal area, Above and Beyond came up with a new twist on the formula. When asked about how the team indirectly guides players to certain locations, Smith said that “the primary way we do that is with entertainer buffs. These are longer duration buffs, which grow in potency based on the number of entertainers in an area. If players visit a Rest area (or a player-created camp), they can stand and watch for a while and earn buffs which will aid them in combat. We also have some random spawning missions in these areas where an NPC will spawn, offer a time-limited mission (through just listening to them talk) and then despawn.”

Speaking of player-created camps, Smith told me that there will also be generated camps that players will have to watch out for, as they control “a lot of the mob spawns in the game.” These will often lead to some spontaneous questing. “Camps sprout up and grow if left unchecked. Players can inquire to get missions to destroy them, and markers to them. Points of Intrigue also sprout up in this fashion, and give players special buffs if they can clear out the mobs around them.” In addition to these generated camps, The Repopulation sports a PvP variant on this idea, “which spawns faction specific NPCs, vendors, and mission NPCs, giving a higher chance of generation to the less populated factions.”

After making mention of PvP for the fist time, another staple of the MMORPG genre, the team revealed that “the core system is similar to Dark Age of Camelot; it’s purely opt in, but there is a good-sized area of the world set aside for it. There is vehicle-to-vehicle or mount-to-mount combat, Sieges, automatic and player controlled turrets, etc.” The Siege match type sounded most intriguing to me, but alas I was told “the Siege system is disabled currently, but we plan on reintroducing it soon, and adding a special hardcore server for players who prefer a less structured game with looting.” The team also reaffirmed that PvP is totally optional, stating there’s no penalty for either participating or choosing to ignore it. But those interested will likely be excited to hear that The Repopulation will “also have a player-created tournament system, which allows players to create and sponsor tournaments which can be viewed by other players.”

Before letting the team get back to work, there was one final MMO staple I simply had to ask about: Loot. Smith confirmed that “loot is also personalized. If you see swirling stars over a corpse, just loot away; this is your personal loot.” Harkening back to the idea of coming up with ways to encourage social engagement, Smith also mentioned that “there is a bonus for [loot] based on how many players contributed to the kill. So while your chances may be smaller individually, with the bonus there is far more loot that is rewarded overall if you are playing with other players. There are also significant skill gain bonuses when grouped.”

It’s going to take a pretty radical reimagining of the MMORPG scene to convince me to invest time into it. After multiple failed attempts to peak my interest, I have all but given up on the genre. To its credit, The Repopulation is doing more than a fair few things to capture the attention of gamers like me, who typically avoid the space altogether. With a balanced distribution of combat and non-combat options, dynamic quest generation for both individual players and area-wide Engagements, and an exceptional amount of character customization, this is one experience gamers should keep an eye out for. While there is no official release date yet, the team expects the game to ship in mid-late 2015.

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