Total transparency was the theme of our two-hour-long Skype chat this week as the Behavior Interactive studio head talked to me about everything from pleasing 40K lore fanatics to avoiding the "public quest curse" that plagued the original Warhammer Online MMO.
Caron assured me that there is no marketing firewall with this game; he wanted to make sure that anything I ask would get answered instead of redirected as usually happens with large-IP games. So I started off with probably one of the biggest questions on the minds of potential players: Are you looking to cater to current 40K lore fans or looking to bring new players in to the 40K lore?
"Yes, we want absolutely for the 40K fans that might not be the best video game player to be completely satisfied with the respect we will have towards the IP," he stated. But the problem comes with certain MMO staples, like respawning. Caron said that vehicle respawning is easy, as a Thunderhawk transport vehicle will drop down a new tank like it's nothing. But respawning characters is a different story. How can you respawn a Dreadnought which is basically a reborn Space Marine in the first place? And wouldn't a dead Space Marine come back as a Dreadnought? Though the team members wracked their brains trying to stay true to the lore with an allowable character respawn explanation, Games Workshop gave them the OK to do a bit of stretching.
But when it comes to the basics of what makes an MMO, Caron used the example of his previous project, The Secret World, which he felt had too many innovations in one place, causing its own set of problems. "What we're doing [now] is to focus on just the right innovation that will really overwhelm the player, but they still know what PvP is and some of the normal mechanics."
Caron explained to me that the game was announced during E3 in 2013 only days after he'd talked with Games Workshop about securing the IP because he wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that the 40K fans heard about this. From there, he's hoping the game would grow to include any one else interested.
The Behavior team has also signed on Graham McNeil to write the game's background story, which is another point in the lore fans' favor. This got me interested in how much his team is actually allowed to stray from the written lore, so I asked Caron how much creative freedom he has been given by Games Workshop.
"We have no flexibility on the actor," he said. "What is a Space Marine? How does he talk? How does he walk?" Caron explained that while the foundation of the lore must be solid and secure with no straying, what the developers and players do with these characters is 100% up to them because "everything is excused in war."
We've all heard it before: Our game will be the biggest and best with the biggest lag-free battles you've ever seen! So I asked Caron how we can be sure that he's going to be the one to deliver us from the large-scale-battle hype syndrome.
The new technology basically works in the same way that cell phone towers work with handshakes and distributed computing. Caron says that Eternal Crusade will be the first (or one of the first, depending on actual launch) triple-A MMOs to be hosted from the cloud. This means that characters will be loaded into cells. "Each time your character comes close to a cell, that other cell takes ownership of your character." The studio has the technology on the back-end now but is still working on polishing the client. In addition, since line-of-sight plays heavily into latency, the devs plan to use cover in the terrain to block a bit of what you see, allowing more players to be present but not really show up all at once when they're behind cover.
But what about when there aren't thousands of players together at the same time to take full advantage of that mechanic? Since this was an issue in Warhammer Online, I prodded Caron on his back-up plan in that case. Caron is hoping that the single server and cloud technology will allow all players worldwide to play together at once, eliminating many of the problems that the first Warhammer MMO had. This, coupled with the fact that there are already thousands and thousands of players organizing guilds and coordinating in the official forums, means that there's an assumption that this established fanbase will be in on day one. From there, it's up to the Behavior team to stay dedicated to maintaining that community as a number one priority. Game mechanics can only work so far toward keeping people in a game.
Asymetric balance is another element that Caron says will help fight low population battles. "Warhammer Online had only two factions. That's the first mistake because with only two factions, you can't have asymmetric balance. You need at least three because the third one can always link and do deals with the underdog."
Since there's a hierarchy of leadership in the game, all commanders are elected by players. "Think about this scenario," Caron proposed. "You have a squad of four to 10 people and they will elect a squad commander. The squad commander will have different tools and can eventually be elected to the position of a strike force commander, in charge of 10 squads. This guy has the leadership of 100 players. From there, strike commanders can be elected to the war council, which controls the whole faction for a campaign on the whole continent."
Caron explained that these commanders can approach newbies who are just starting out to recruit for their squad by enticing them with new weapons, tanks, or whatever. The commander gives the newbie a mission that pops up on her screen, complete with rewards and XP set by the commander. Think of it as the opposite of those games where the veterans spend their time ganking newly created characters until they're all scared away and the game fails.
So when that commander gives bonus missions to brand-new players, and the player does well, it's a symbiotic relationship. The new player is thankful that she's part of something real that matters (player-driven content), and the commander is happy to have another satisfied new recruit who may vote him into a higher position when the time comes.
But can elected leaders be overthrown? "Of course," Caron laughs. "You can be overthrown, and you can be killed. If you don't perform, you can be rooted out by your team. We have a lot of different safety nets in place to make sure that you perform as a leader." Commanders also earn a bonus salary that they can choose to spend on their squads as a bit of incentive to keep them around.
Even Orks have elections? They can, for now, but the team is thinking of having more of an arena scenario to decide leadership just for the Orks.
How high can we fly?
While there won't be a separate space combat set-up as you'd find in other space-based MMOs, Caron assures that any vehicle type that is on the ground or hovers just above the ground will be in the game. The problem comes with the vehicles that fly higher in the sky, like Thunderhawks. "This is something we haven't confirmed yet," he admitted. "A Thunderhawk flies at 1,000 kilometers an hour, so how to embed that mechanic within the game... that's the thing that we need to look at."
When asked about multi-person transport, Caron said that vehicles will all be true to lore: "A Rhino has 10 Space Marines in it, including the driver. Everything you see in the lore will be in the game."
Since there are four factions (currently) that can all play with or against each other, this means that the dev team had to set up a special area to get each continent's faction leaders together, face-to-face, and work out any deals. But it's not as simple as it may sound.
"It's an instance," Caron explained. "It locks in for 15 minutes, and you can't leave until the 15 minutes is up. The five guys who control the Space Marines get with the five guys who control the Eldar to coordinate a special attack. You can make that deal in five minutes, but you're locked in for 15 minutes, so tensions can rise and things can happen. Most likely things are going to get dirty really really quickly."
At this point, I asked what exactly is used to make deals. Will there be item trading? Certain cross-faction buffs? "It's really about strategy," Caron told me. "In terms of exchanging items, that would break the lore. No Space Marine would ever use xenos money or weapons."
This answered another of my prepared questions as I was curious about the use of another faction's items, but there are apparently exceptions. "It depends," Caron answered with a smile. "If a Space Marine has no more ammunition and he's in the middle of a very large battle, and there's an Ork gun on the ground, then yeah, he'll pick it up. He can use it until it has no more ammunition, but he will not bring it back with him. You won't be able to equip it in your inventory or add ammunition to it or anything like that." Apparently this would be possible only if the weapons didn't require psychic powers to shoot, which gets into a whole other aspect of weapon power.
One particularly interesting game feature that Caron explained to me concerns a deal worked out with Razer through its Razer Comms software, which will be embedded into the game. This feature includes everything you'd want with in-game chat and voice chat but goes way beyond that via Razer's own hardware (think the Nabu smartband), which allows players to communicate in and out of the game at any time.
On top of this voice chat is a modulation element that Caron is particularly excited to talk about. No longer will you have to worry about being completely taken out of the heat of the moment by a pre-pubescent young lad barking orders at you because he will now take on the gruff voice of a Space Marine or grunt like an Ork. So you can literally be sitting down to a peaceful dinner with the family when your Ork commander starts grunting orders at you to get your green butt onto the battlefield and kill some tin can 'umies!
How does the free-to-play part work?
This, to me, was the most interesting part of our interview. It's well known that the game's free trial will consist of just one sub-faction of Orks. As a free player, you can run around as this Ork type, exploring the entire universe to your heart's content, engaging in battle and doing almost anything anyone else can. You just can't be a leader as a free player.
As Caron explained, when you're a free player, you just want to jump in and explore, like a child. So this free version of the Ork will be the Ork Boyz -- the warrior grunts of the clan. Since Orks spawn like crazy from spores, it makes sense that there will be so many of them. And as a member of the Ork Boyz, you'll find your strength is in numbers. You can join the Waaagh war effort, receive psychic buffs from being around other Orks, and generally cause havoc. And if you want to step up to a more "advanced" Ork sub-faction, you can pay for the game and play whatever you want.
From a bit of market research, Behavior is estimating that 40% of the population will be Space Marines, so these free trial players, utilizing quantity over quality, will help balance that.
Consequently, the dedicated paying players will closely mimic the dedication of the Space Marines or Eldar or even higher-ranked Orks, while the Ork Boyz will closely mimic the chaos of a bunch of people jumping into a game to try it out. As Caron put it, "If you look at an army of Orks, with the leaders all being premium players and all the fighters being free players, you'll see some solid hubs of them together with people coming and leaving, coming and leaving. This is exactly what I would see if I was looking at a battlefield of Orks."
Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade is set to launch in 2015 with reveals scheduled on the official site from now until then. Be sure to stick with Massively for more on the game as it approaches launch.
When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!