We’ve all grown a little tired of the standard MMO format, where player actions don’t really have an effect on the world. Rescue the princess and guess what, a few seconds later she’s captured once again.
So Phil Blood and a company called MMO Magic set out to change all that. They wanted to create a world where each player got a different story, where monsters didn’t just respawn but instead acted intelligently, where taking on a quest was a huge adventure and where the game was truly alive.
Ten years later, they have achieved that. Citadel of Sorcery is still in pre-alpha stage, but it does everything they promised. In fact, it’s poised to make all other MMOs look weak and simplistic by comparison. The Magic team just needs a little push to get over that final hill to bring the future of MMO gaming to the world.
We sat down with CEO Phil Blood to talk about how amazingly different his MMO is from anything else out there, the challenges of making such a great game without a publisher’s support, and when players can finally start to dip their toes into this new world.
GiN: Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for Citadel of Sorcery, the MMO, and what you wanted to see from the game that other MMOs don’t currently offer?
Blood: Well, the roots of the idea came from creating PnP games. I thought that computers would make those games much better with their ability to create graphics and handle tedious calculations, getting rid of dice and charts. However, later on I never felt that this actually panned out. Sure, there were glimpses of this in some games, but not what I really wanted to see. They are all too much ‘follow the leader;’ we all do the same things as every other player. Worse, the world resets itself to exactly the way it was, quite often within minutes or even seconds. You kill a monster, poof, it’s back. You kill the Lich King, poof, he’s back on his throne. What was the point? How can I immerse myself in a story when I can see that everything I am doing is futile, and that every other player is doing the same futile things? This isn’t game play, its redundant tasks.
Fortunately, I got myself into a position to do something about it. Jump forward twenty some years, and I have made it to the Lead Game Designer position at a game development studio. I’ve made contacts throughout the industry, learned the ropes, sold games to major publishers, and paid my dues. So, I decided it was time to put up or shut up. I formed a new game company, called up a lot of top game industry talent that I now knew, and talked them into working, initially for free, on a project to change the MMORPG genre, hopefully forever.
Here is what we offer that most other MMORPGs do not. First off, a truly living world: NPCs live lives, the world changes (every day), things you do change the future of the world, tomorrow really is a new day.
Also, Personal Stories: Every quest, mission, league action, expedition, every kind of story we offer is personal. You will not do exactly what another player does. We can guarantee this because we alter every story based on that player’s past history and current situation. During a story you are constantly making decisions and taking actions that change the story, and the story is also doing the same thing! You could never write a walkthrough of one of our quests, because it will unfold differently for another player even if they made the same choices you did. This is personal! There will be characters in each story that are tied to you and no other player.
And there is no end game. The whole concept of End Game is odd to us. In life, as long as you are alive and kicking you don’t reach some End Game where stories stop and you start repeating things endlessly. Your life continues. You keep learning and you keep experiencing LIFE! This is how our game works. There are NO level caps, there are NO restrictions to how much you can learn, there is NO end to improving your abilities. Just keep playing, you can even move your character on into the planned sequels, not expansions, sequels, to Citadel of Sorcery, and keep progressing your character!
Finally, there is no end to exploration. We wanted a world so big that no player could ever explore it all. So we built a new engine, from scratch, to create new technology that allowed us to do things no other game engine can offer. A full size, persistent planet, without loading zones, that has completely unique foliage and details. We had to develop new technology to handle voxel to poly transitions, new kinds of LOD systems, new kinds of plant growth algorithms, new kinds of erosion systems and much more. We have spent eight years making this technology, and most of the risky stuff is already done now. Currently we are spending our time using the code to make more diversity in the world, but the code to make a world is already done.
GiN: We assume based on the huge organization that you’ve created to work on it, that the publishers of the game industry were less than energized about your idea? What was the general sentiment towards creating new IP in the MMO field?
Blood: Well, I started this by pitching the paper design to a publisher ten years ago. I was told, ‘This is the most amazing idea we have ever seen, and it can’t possibly be done. The amount of R&D and money/time it would take are just too risky.’
They were mostly right. It has taken ten years (from then until now, though we have only been working on the actual game for eight years), and millions of dollars in time/money to do the R&D. Where they were wrong was the ‘It can’t possibly be done’ part. We just went ahead and did it. Most of the risky elements are now finished.
Our final hurdle is getting the graphics polished and more content constructed with the existing tools. This costs a certain amount of man hours. It isn’t hard, but it costs money. Many people cannot see potential; they can only see what is in front of their eyes. And so, we need to do some polishing before (most) publishers will be able to see this diamond. The first one that has any vision will get what we believe is the largest jump forward in MMORPG games since the first massive multiplayer world opened.
GiN: Working without a publisher or a backer is a hard road. Did you think this was actually possible at first?
Blood: Yes. I had been working with various teams of developers on games and learned how to take a smaller team and make them more efficient. I’d been involved in doing rescue work, coming into other game companies and figuring out how to get their failing project finished. I know how to get games done with a smaller team. This involves using experienced people, generating the right passion in their hearts, spending a LOT of time on the design before you start building, and designing systems and tools that allow you to cut all the waste from a project. You can build a project with fewer people for less money if you do all that.
So that’s the plan we followed, and we didn’t have a deadline, the one benefit of not being funded by investors or publishers. My only question was, ‘could I keep the team donating their time for long enough to reach Alpha so we could convince a publisher?’ I guess I was egotistical enough to believe I could. Eight years later, not one of the original team has left the project, so I did something right.
GiN: You brought a huge team of folks together to work on the Citadel of Sorcery alpha. How did you find them, and what was their motivation to work on an unfunded title, and how big is the team?
Blood: I don’t consider this a huge team. It is running just under 40 people now, though over 100 have donated time over the past eight years. However, what keeps people working on Citadel of Sorcery is the truth. I don’t lie to them, ever. I tell them what we are doing. Then they come and find out that this is exactly what we ARE doing. Once they see this project and understand what we are building, they realize that this is something extraordinary. It has grown far beyond me now, into something in which every person on the team can take pride and ownership. They know they are part of something awesome, how often can you say that? We turn people away now, all the time, who want to work on CoS. The truth is that we can’t take the time to train people from scratch, so we only take on those that arrive with some talent and skill in place.
GiN: How long have people been working on Citadel of Sorcery?
Blood: A few of the core team have been working on it for ten years, but we really started the game part about eight years ago. We have spent years on the design alone, and even more time on the technology to create a living, changing world. We’re only just now getting to the game play parts of creation with large parts of the Enact Tool Set finally working. This tool is literally a game within the game. It runs inside the game world, and lets many Level Designers work together simultaneously to build something live. It’s like partying up in an MMO to take on a quest, but instead we party up and build a quest. This means there is no gap between creation and testing. You can build it with your character standing there or any other player, and have them jump right in the moment you make the change; they can even see the change taking place.
GiN: Assuming Citadel of Sorcery picks up a publisher, how do you plan to compensate everyone who worked on the game? Do they need to be active, or if someone created something five years ago, will they still benefit? Are there official contracts that were signed, or is it all gentlemen’s (and ladies) agreements?
Blood: When we have funding, every person who ever did anything we use to make this game will be compensated based on their contributions. I am not driven by the need to make personal wealth, I set out to make this game to fulfill a dream I had many, many years ago. I will make sure everyone benefits, not just the management. Everyone understands this when they join the team, and I don’t mind putting that down publicly, right here.
GiN: One final money-type question before we get into the game specifically. The trend today seems to be Kickstarter-type campaigns to raise money to fund games. Have you given any thought to crowd funding?
Blood: We did run a Kickstarter fund already. However, it has been slow going so far. This is what we expected though. Players are like Publishers in some ways. They can only see what they see with their eyes, and we’re showing them pre-alpha graphics.
Worse, even though our team is extremely experienced, this is our companies first title, so we don’t have a big mailing list of past players to bring to our KS page. This means that we can only spread through word of mouth, and there are a lot of skeptics out there. They read articles like this and see promises of such amazing things, that they say the same thing as the publishers I showed the design to ten years ago, ‘This is impossible.’ Well, we have already done the impossible, but it’s still hard to convince people.
We just wish players would trust the commitment we have shown in working on this for eight years, and join us in creating something extraordinary by backing the project. Players would send a message that they really do want something better in their MMO games. But reaching the players has proven to be difficult so far. Statistics show that few are actually making it to our Kickstarter page, though of those that do come a high percentage pledge, and the average pledge is currently $180. That shows that once a player understands what it is we are building, they get behind it and pledge.
We’re just having trouble getting players to come in the first place. We’re fighting what other games have done to the industry in the past, by making promises they don’t keep. These broken promises lead players to suffer from ‘The Little Boy who Cried Wolf’ syndrome. So our message is we really are building what we say, please come see.
GiN: So Citadel is different from anything MMO gamers have seen before. One game mechanic you list is that monsters never respawn? How does that work? Won’t the game soon be free of monsters?
Blood: The Enact Tool Set is amazing. One of the tools in there is called simply, NPC Management. This is a very boring title for a very interesting piece of technology. What it does is monitor the population of every area in the world. Each area has a range of monster population that it tries to maintain. It does this by creating objectives within that area, then appropriating creatures (which are constantly being created by Morphael and the Demons) and sending them into an area to accomplish their new goal. Those monsters always have a purpose, and will attempt to achieve those goals. Should they accomplish them, then the world will change because of it. However, players (and NPCs) may stop them. When a mob is killed, Enact sees a drop in the population in that area, and then it appropriates new creatures, creates a new goal, and assigns them to achieve that new goal. They head that way and get to work.
Monsters don’t exist on a grid as in most MMO games, but instead are working toward their agenda. This means that you will not run into them as quickly as other MMO games, since we can’t guarantee your two paths will cross at the same moment. This is handled by tracking. This is one of the most important elements of Citadel of Sorcery. Tracking is a basic Ability given to every player at the start of the game. It is critical. You may not run into monsters as often, but you will cross their tracks. Tracking, depending on your skill level, lets you read lots of things about who left those tracks. You can follow them and discern their probable goal, and try to head them off at the pass to set an ambush. You are also leaving tracks and when monsters cross those tracks they may be doing the same thing to you!
GiN: Quests in Citadel aren’t simple go fetch missions. Is it true that some can take 14 hours to complete? That’s like accepting a quest to go through a full D&D module!
Blood: That’s exactly what it is like! We wanted each of our Quests and Missions to be the same as going through a full RPG game story. These are epic tales in which you will be dealing with things that may change large portions of that Reflected World. They are the equivalent of taking on the epic quest to destroy the famous ring of power and having to go through all the adventures to throw it in Mt. Doom. This was just an example, but all our stories are written by writers from scratch for our game world.
Just remember that although we offer these amazing stories, there are many shorter stories you many choose when you don’t want to take on an massive tale. The world is a changing place and everywhere you go things are just happening, new things every day. You can take part in these even in the middle of a quest or even if you aren’t on one. We call these Adventures, and they generally take an hour or so to complete. There is more though. League Actions are stories that take a couple hours, and there are other things, like Expeditions to ancient ruins, or Bounty Hunting, or Monster Trapping.
But in NO case will you ever get a grocery list task like fetch me ten rat tails or deliver this to Bob. All types of game play matters in these worlds in some fashion, large or small.
GiN: You say that each character will have a unique experience. Do you mean each class, sort of like Star Wars Galaxies, or do you mean each and every character? How would you achieve that?
Blood: Magic. Our company is called MMO Magic, Inc. Just kidding. Alright, I’ll explain a bit about this, though not all. We have to keep some things behind the curtain. What we mean is that every player has a different experience on every Quest or Mission. There is a LOT that goes into this, and it was one of the most difficult things to design, but it was the core of what we wanted to achieve and so worth the work.
First off, it starts with the writers. Our writers have a herculean task. It is easier to write a multi-novel series, than pen one of our quests. Books are easy in comparison; the characters do what you tell them, in the order that you tell them. Players don’t. They do whatever they wish, and we want to let them make decisions that matter. So our writers work within a system that allows for constant choice, both player and game. Each quest is detailed out in a massive flowchart and story document. It goes through a series of stages of approval, development, and then a writing team takes it apart and reworks it again.
Once we have a Quest written, it is turned over to the Level Designers, who use a host of tools in the Enact Tool set that allow them to construct this beast. They start by inputting data into a custom form for the Archetype of that story. Then they go in and hand build certain aspects of the story in the game world, while letting the Enact Story tool take care of other portions. Example, the story wants a possible ambush by a cult involved in this story, if the player travels down a certain road at a certain time. The Level Designer does not have to build this; they just tell Enact of that requirement. Enact will then create an ambush by whatever group is involved in that player’s past history, somewhere along that road, within the designated time parameters.
But we’re not done yet. When a player or group of players takes this Story, they enter a specific Reflected World. These are not instances, but completely different worlds with similar geography. The TrueQuesting Module then comes into play. It looks at the player’s history. Who has he pissed off? Who are his friends? What has he done in the past? It then takes all that data, and the data from this particular story, and modifies it MASSIVELY into a new version of this story for this Reflected World and this group of players. It will not be the same story as on another RW for another group. Think of these as alternate universes, and you’ll have a better understanding.
Places you go change, people you interact with change, objects change, political situations change, alliances and enemies change. It’s a customized story, it’s personal. There is nothing like this in the MMORPG genre, and it is the heart of CoS.
GiN: Does the world itself have a backstory? Who created it and what is the storyline that players can expect.
Blood: I wrote the backstory years ago, but that’s not important. What is important is that it is not a typical game backstory. What I mean by that is most backstories just don’t matter. A few people read them, most don’t, and even those that do soon forget them because they have no bearing on the future. Why? Because the game has no future, it is Ground Hog’s Day in most MMO games, meaning, the same day repeats endlessly. In CoS time really is moving forward, so the day you start playing you will find that the big story of the world is continuing. Eventually your personal story and that Epic Story started in the backstory are going to collide, in a big way. Trust me; it will matter to you personally. You’ll want to read it, and read between the lines. Just like all history, it was written by the victors. That’s all I’m going to say on that matter.
GiN: The game is currently in pre-alpha. Is there any timeline for moving to beta? When can players get their hands on this unique world?
Blood: Our plan is to seek some funding through crowd funding and other types of investment to help speed up the game to Alpha. Once that is achieved, we will seek additional funding through traditional publishers or through more investors, whichever comes first.
GiN: What is the next step for Citadel of Sorcery? Realistically, do you foresee a path to bring this game to market soon?
Blood: Absolutely. We are right on track with the game. We have spent millions of personal funds to get it this far and will continue to spend money until it is finished. The team is personally invested to such a degree that none of us are ever going to quit; this will be finished. Outside funding will speed it up greatly though. Even small amounts donated by the players will help. Here is the path to getting this game to market sooner. First, crowd funding and micro investors: This brings us to Alpha in months. Secondly, Publisher or Major Investors: This brings us to Beta in as little as a year past Alpha.
Should some of these funding options not take place or take longer than expected, then it will take longer, but in no case will it not be finished. This game was said to be impossible, we have already proved it is not. We see it another way; this is a game that must be made. It is the game players want and the future of the MMORPG industry. If you don?t believe us, then go and watch a panel of MMORPG experts talking at PAX. They tell you where the MMORPG needs to go, that they don?t know how to do it yet, and that they think its 10 to 15 years away. We have what they are talking about working right now. Go watch the videos of that panel, just search on: PAX Prime 2012: The Future of Online Gaming Panel, and you?ll see them describing Citadel of Sorcery.
We invite all players to get behind Citadel of Sorcery, come to our Website and see what it is we are creating. We are open about development and talk to our players on the forums. We want you to be part of the team. This game does not just belong to us; it also belongs to the players. Become part of the making of this new kind of MMORPG. Isn?t it time to expect more from an MMORPG?