‘Igniter of fun’ industry veteran John O’Neill worked with MicroProse, Trilogy Software, InstallShield Software, Vicious Cycle Software, Synopsis, and IBM before founding Spark Plug Games in 2008. Their published games include Witch’s Workshop: Open for Business and Plight of the Zombie, a puzzle game which asks you to ‘help end zombie hunger’. Currently he is the Technical Director for Firefly Online, a strategic online RPG based on Firefly, Joss Whedon’s cult-hit television series produced by Twentieth Century Fox TV.
Thanks for joining us, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a part of Firefly Online.
We’re all really big fans of the original Firefly series and it’s always wonderful thinking about brands that you’d love to work with. As Niska would say, “reputation is everything” and from our history of working with many people in this industry between developers and publishers, we had the chance to build relationships with a number of wonderful people out in Hollywood. Through word-of-mouth, we were recommended to meet Andy Gore who is the CEO of Quantum Mechanix and the real driving force behind convincing Fox what a wonderful idea it would be to build a game based on this beloved brand. We all hit it off really well, between Spark Plug Games, Quantum Mechanix, and Fox Digital, and the rest as they say is history.
Those familiar with Firefly might be better equipped to see its potential as an online RPG. Were you interested in creating a game that would appeal to the core fans while finding ways to reach gamers who might not have seen or necessarily had any interest in the show, or has the focus always been on the existing fan base?
The fans are definitely the driving force behind our design . They’re the reason this brand has continued on through the years, and in many ways become something much more than where it started. I have to give Adam Cogan, the design director of the game, the real credit to staying true to the essence of what makes Firefly great, and how to do it justice by bringing out those elements in a game form. We’re game developers professionally, but fans through and through. Our goal is to build something that the fans will be proud of, and in doing that we feel we’ll certainly attract gamers as well.
Most games that use ‘online’ in their title use it to imply that there will be a focus on a multiplayer experience, but Firefly Online is a single player game with some peripheral social aspects. Was that the original concept, or were there ever plans to make an MMO?
Actually, there is a very significant multiplayer component, just not necessarily the type of multiplayer that you might be used to. I remember when we first made the game announcement at San Diego ComicCon back in 2013, we had a bit of a skeptical reaction from people that this would just be another Facebook “-ville” game because of the words ‘social’ and ‘online’ in the description. I’d just like to point out, we’ll certainly have cows in the game as you never know where the job is going to take you, or the cargo you may be holding. But the social element is more to the essence of what Firefly was from the beginning, and the story of you building and managing your crew — your family — and what we’re bringing out in the game. The online component has to do with the fact that you’re not the only captain flying out there in the black, and you’re bound to run into other ships who have their own agendas. Some interactions will go smoothly, others might not go so shiny. But it’s up to you to decide what kind of captain you want to be, and how you’re handle those interactions with others in the Verse. It’s not to the scale of other MMOs that are out there, but we’re giving you the ability to interact with others in as much or little as you would like.
Firefly Online seems like it was created with portable devices in mind, but it is also being ported to PC and Mac. Are there obstacles in regards to play-style and player engagement to overcome when creating a game available on both platforms?
The technical hurdles are certainly there whenever you talk about supporting multiple devices and trying to create a seamless experience for the player, but selecting and implementing the game with the right toolset (such as Unity3D, Kii, and Stormpath) has minimized those barriers and let us focus on the content development. As game developers, it’s always wonderful giving players the ability to enjoy the game regardless of the platform they are on, and to do it in such a way that you have continuous play from one device to the next. We’re making it as easy as we can to let you pick up and play on PC and Mac, and then over on your Apple and Android devices continuing where you left off depending on your preferred play style.
Firefly Universe Online was a fan creation by DarkCryo that was eventually abandoned when an official release was announced. Were you aware of that project when you joined Firefly Online, and if so, did it have any influence on the current product?
No, we had not heard of their project before starting this game, but certainly respect the passion that many people have had in building fan creations. All of our concepts and designs were built from internal discussions with only collaboration with our partners at QMx and Fox.
Give us an overview of how the game works. In your opinion, what are the most interesting features of Firefly Online from both a development and player perspective?
That’s an easy one to answer. Find a crew, find a job, keep flying. You’ll have multiple game modes when playing, from hiring and managing your crew to equipping and decorating your ship. You might find a job on a distant planet and spend some time exploring the Verse, or maybe take a more cunning route and post a job to have someone else do the work for you. There will be interactions and combat on planet-side landings, encounters with the Alliance, and who knows you might even run into a reaver. That is, you should probably run FROM a reaver. I do hope you can run fast, and not a good time to have skimped on the maintenance of your ship!
From a developer perspective, it has been wonderful working with the source content and the knowledge wizards at QMx. It’s giving us the chance to build the type of game we would want to play. From a player’s perspective I think we’re taking some bold gameplay mechanics and doing things in ways that aren’t often seen in games. One thing in particular is the character customization system and the NPCs you will encounter in the game, in that they will be more representative of real people and add a diversity in character design that is not always expressed in games.
Firefly Online is currently in development by Spark Plug Games and Quantum Mechanix. It will be available on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android in Spring 2015.