Indie Interview - Adam Maxwell Revival Storytelling

Published: February 19, 2015 9:00 AM /


indie interview adam maxwell revival

Welcome back to our Interview with Adam Maxwell on Revivalthe MMO currently in development by Illfonic Studios. Adam is one of the Lead designers on the game, and last time our interview talked with him about many of the mechanics in Revival.

This part discusses politics, housing, and storytelling in Revival!

TR: Player politics is an interesting idea – are you planning on using the guilds and the players to often build your stories around and letting them set up design decisions and such? Beyond organized player groups like that there’s the talk of neighborhood votes and such – how do you plan on ensuring people who don’t end up in a power bloc aren’t completely marginalized and feel forced out of where they spent money to virtually live?

Adam: We live in a really interesting time. I admit I haven't done the research, but it seems like more of the planet is participating in politics than ever before. That's definitely something to be proud of, but it's worth pointing out that this hasn't always been the case. In fact, in a lot of our history, most people had no way to be involved in politics, let alone a desire to do so. It was "their lot in life" to live at the whims of (mostly) men and women who they were likely never to see or meet in person. I think that for the folks without homes or citizenship in a specific nation-state, Revival will be like this. There's a whole world of adventure out there that has nothing to do with what's going on in the cities, and I think many players will devote themselves to the wandering adventurer lifestyle, caring about the local politics only so much as it interacts with their own experience of going from place to place in search of arcane knowledge, ancient power or fame & glory.

The players that do own homes or have otherwise gained citizenship will have to decide for themselves how much they want to be involved. At the neighborhood level, most decisions are going to be things like "should we repave the lane, so wagons can come through, potentially bringing new business?" rather than things like "should we outlaw necromancy?" Some players won't care even though they own their houses and they'll coast along, much like the average American today, while others will campaign and debate and act politically. Depending on the city's political structure, that might expand out into larger issues in the royal court or the parliament chambers, which I think is more the politics you're really getting at, though.

Serving in government isn't for everyone, and in any place that practices democracy, power blocs will be a real risk, but that's sort of the stakes of the game, right? The intent is for politics to be a dangerous game and one of its challenges will be figuring out how to break apart those blocs, or manipulate them to your ends. That said, our intent isn't to allow for political changes that will drive folks out of their homes. Especially since they'll have paid for them with real cash. A player may decide they don't like the way the town has changed, but that's different from being forced out. That's more like "this neighborhood used to be great until they put the highway in, now it's all drive-thrus and strip malls!" and there's no way we're keeping everyone happy when stuff like that happens, so in truth, we're not going to try. If it matters for a player, our hope is that they'll be involved and be an agent for change so things don't crumble around them.

TR: For players who don't like the way things have changed or want to leave will there be ways to sell their house, and possibly acquire a new one? Also, will it be possible to transfer houses from say a free to play server to a gold one if they want to upgrade or vice-versa?

Adam: We've discussed several potential plans for stuff like this, but there are some issues that have to be worked out before I can really discuss them. Transferring houses, for example, is very likely going to use something like a voucher system where you can redeem it for something of similar value, to avoid the issue of the same housing already being occupied on another server, etc. We’re definitely still working it all out.

TR: You are planning on player housing being something bought for with real money to help support the game over time, and in the shorter term let it speed up the amount of funds you can invest on the project. How will that work, and why do you believe that handmade houses are an important part of building Revival?

Adam: It's worth noting that we're not funding Revival with house sales. As you said, we'll put the money we make with house sales to the purpose of speeding up development, but even if we sell no houses at all, we're still making Revival. I might spend a night with a bottle of vodka if we don't sell any houses, but I'll be back to work the next day… or the day after that, at any rate. ;)

In truth, the decision to sell houses came after we decided how houses are going to work. A bunch of us played a lot, I mean a lot, of UO and many of us tell a similar story: We busted our chops to earn the scratch for a house, only to discover – after we bought the deed – that there was no place to put it. Worse, the world itself took a turn for the absurd in this era of UO because there was a house EVERYWHERE. There was no real wilderness left, just castles and towers and cottages, as far as the eye could see. We wanted the awesomeness of owning a house, but we absolutely didn't want either of the two outcomes I just mentioned: We can't accept a world that is nothing but player houses and we certainly can't abide a housing system that allows a player to sink money (in-game currency or real cash) into a house only to discover they can't use it. Both cases kill a player's immersion in the game world.

In fact, when you get right down to it, we can't even build the type of world we want – a world that feels like it is alive – if we don't control the way that it expands its houses, because we want cities to grow and shrink based on economic and political conditions, not necessarily player locality. This led us to the idea of controlling how many houses a city can support in its initial state, which led to the idea of neighborhoods and eventually to the realization that what we wanted meant that players would have to buy and sell houses like real-world real-estate: From pools of pre-existing housing lots. On top of that we have a strong desire for the world to make sense, which means things like Skeletor's tower next to a church were a no-go, so the idea that we would build the houses and players would purchase them became sort of obvious.

When we decided that we'd focus on building a city as our first real chunk of production since so many of our living world systems focus on them, the idea that homes would be the first thing we offer players sort of just fell into line, and since we didn't have a way for players to earn any in-game currency yet, the idea of real cash being used wasn’t far behind.

So, what will be coming soon is our real-estate site, represented by the fictional in-game company of Dunwich & Innsmouth, Land agents. On the site, players will be able to see every house for sale in the town of Crown's Rock, the first city players will experience in the game. Each house listing will show players the features of the house, the layout and a gallery of interior shots of the home, along with descriptions of what the player will get and, of course, the price. The houses will range in scale and price from cheap and simple tenement apartments up to sprawling estates with huge mansions and in addition to the houses themselves, players will be able to purchase furnishing packages and room renovations so that they can customizes the houses available to their own purposes.

The other thing we'll be offering is protection plans. Revival is an evolving world and it's not a safe one, either. That means there's a real chance, however slim, that a home could be destroyed or that the items inside could be stolen or lost. Protection plans offer players a way to recover from these rare, but terrible, circumstances. Or, more dramatically, if Cthulhu steps on your house or Azathoth floods your town in blood, protection plans offer you a way to rebuild or relocate, so you don't lose the value of what you had.

TR: Ya, you guys make that clear there that the house sales are more a bonus for development funds. With the houses you have available, why is only one of the base template styles able to do things like shops or such that players would presumably be interested in?

Adam: It's actually a concession to the layout and design of the town, to ensure that Crown's Rock feels like a real medieval town of its size. In truth, multiple home types can be converted into stores in the world of Revival, but in Crown's Rock, the only properties available to players that could realistically be converted into shops happen to be of one particular type. Other cities will have different constraints and thus different arrangement and architecture, but for now, Crown's Rock being the type and size of town that it is dictates the constraint that only one type of house is convertible that way. Of course, nothing stops a player from opening a shop in their home regardless, we're just talking about houses that are purpose built to be used that way, in nice prime locations for commerce.

TR: Live Storytelling is an interesting concept to use for the premium servers – seeming like a game master from a roleplaying game sits down. How do you plan on executing that in practice, and in making sure that players who buy special events don’t influence things too much with having a bit of cash?

Adam: There's really two different concepts at work in your question, live storytelling and commissioned content. Let's talk about storytelling first. One of the catchphrases we throw around in the studio is that Revival is a game that plays back. Even on a free to play server, the sandbox and living world systems we have in place will make sure that's true, but this concept really shines on the gold servers, with our teams of live storytellers. That's because our STs (storytellers) work in teams to provide an experience as close to being the character you imagine in a table-top RPG session as we can get: They are the game's DMs in very real ways. They take over NPCs to play their parts when it's necessary, author and manipulate events behind the scenes and sometimes even masquerade as fellow players to get there to push the world along and to react to the actions of the players.

At the risk of scaring some players away, let me confess that we are going to NSA the hell out of players. We're going to spy on everything, all the time. It's critical to what the storytellers do, because it's not enough for the world to track the outcome of pre-scripted events and adjust accordingly, if a truly responsive world is your goal. You have to understand what the players are thinking, how they feel about aspects of the game, and you need to know the hidden "player lore" of the game before it becomes memes on the forums. It's the only way you can stay ahead of the game and produce the content the world needs to play back. So, when someone entertains the crowd with a rip-roaring impression of Obama's state of the union in a tavern for fun, we're not only going to be there, watching, we're also going to writing a critic's review and circulating it through the world. We might approach the player as a king's chamberlain to invite the player to perform his jester's antics at the next feast, or we might create an NPC groupie who can't get enough of him and now stalks him across the countryside. It all depends on the mood of the moment, the state of the game, and what we know about the players. The point is, our storytellers exist for that reason above all else. They're not just Disneyland cast members, they're imagineers and improv artists, building the world as you explore it.

Now, the other half of the question involves commissioned content, which admittedly is a very scary idea. It works something like this: If there's something you want in the game, and you're willing to finance it, we're willing to consider it. As you can imagine, this could be a serious problem if it's not done well. The Mount Dick Butt Memorial or the Doctor's TARDIS showing up one night could ruin Revival's ability to present a real living world to players and commissioned content seems to open the door for stuff like that.

The good news is that we're keenly aware of this. It's more than a "pay and get what you want" system for sure. Every request gets reviewed, not just by the storytelling team for that server, but by folks like myself and Chris Holtorf, too. Anything that will disrupt the world in an undesirable way will be rejected and even the things we accept are going to be implemented through our lens. We'll iterate back and forth with the folks commissioning content to make sure that, when we do pick an idea of theirs and take their money, they're getting what they paid for, but if what they want is bad for the game, we'll happily reject the idea, or if we realize it half way through, abandon the idea and return the money. Nothing goes into the game that will make the game worse. That's rule one.

TR: Every Game Master who's ran a game wishes they could know what the players were thinking before they do the one thing you were sure they wouldn't! So, how will the living world and sandbox work on the Free to play servers? More like planned updates that react to that particular server on a story board with less indepth detail like critical reviews of things like Obama impressions?

Adam: Very much so. There are several systems that work together in the background automatically to sort of gauge the state of the world and spin up, spin down or modify elements of the game's content based on those measurements. The result is that the game's content is still evolving and reactive, but as part of a longer loop that changes things more procedurally than the live storytellers can. The systems in the background, for example, can still move cultists through the world and work towards agendas, but capitalizing on player-centric content that recognizes the more subtle social nature of the game community is a bit out of reach. That said, those servers will see the live storyteller's work in other ways: the events that these servers spin up as part of their reaction to the game state will be authored by the same designers. It will be more akin to running through modules from the back of dragon magazine than it will be sitting down to your DM's hand-built campaign setting, though. Without the personal touch of the storytellers, that's inevitable.

TR: With the storytelling you have a goal of choice and consequences at the heart of it – how do you plan to achieve that and manage to keep an ongoing story that is relevant to potentially thousands or more of players?

Adam: I'm actually surprised this question doesn't get asked more often, honestly. It's definitely the core of the challenge we've set out for ourselves. Part of the answer is just "hard f'n work" for sure; gold servers will have teams of storytellers working 24/7 in shifts, but they'll also be run a lot like a TV show, with a group of folks architecting story every week based on the conditions of the world. In this way, they'll never produce content that doesn't matter to the world, because they'll be responding directly to what has already occurred, while at the same time pushing a larger story arc based on the agendas of the major powers of the world and the gods. In a way, the gods are the characters the storytellers play that players can't and as they perform, they create situations that players respond to, which in turn change the options open to the gods, helping to steer their next actions.

Storytellers will work to advance agendas every day and how players respond will dictate what actions can be taken next, but it's not discrete. We're never going to say "hey players defeat Cthulhu or next week he's going to eat Crown's Rock." Instead, it's more like Cthulhu's cultists will be out and about in the world and if they aren't stopped, then it opens the possibility that their preparations will be completed and they will be able to wake slumbering Cthulhu, which in turn will present a serious challenge to the folks in his rampaging path. On the other hand, if the cultists are stopped, Cthulhu might remain asleep, but in the meantime, other dark powers have all been working on their own agendas unnoticed.

It's like a game of whack-a-mole, with the major powers of the world popping up all over and which moles get whacked by players determines what happens next.

TR: So its very much a concept that the players are part of the world and a power in it, but far from the only driving force on things that happen it seems. Was the use of interventionist deities and such, a plan to help make sure that even if characters end up in positions of power over a region due to politics that the storytellers have a force that can interact with them from power?

Adam: Absolutely; the idea is that the storytellers, and even the game's internal AI-GM, will always have the tools they need to make sure the world stays interesting and fun, no matter where the players take us. It actually helps to sell the mythos of the game, too: We wanted to do a game with the Lovecraft mythos, with a heavy dose of Robert E Howard shot into the theme, but one of the take-aways we had in regard to the mythos is that the insignificance of humanity is a running theme: What makes the cosmos scary in Lovecraft's work is how incapable we are of understanding it. We realized that for that to be something we could sell to players, our gods were going to have to have the advantage in the relationship between the cosmos and players. I suppose I'm saying "the STs are OP!" ;) Still, it's no different than the relationship between a tabletop DM and his party, so hopefully we're all pretty comfortable with it. :)

TR: Standing Points seem to be something of a debatable point right now on your forums about how much they are pay to win or not. How will they be done in a way to make sure that its meaningful but not overly aggressive? One of the points mentioned is with the live storytellers – but on free servers those aren’t around so how will that work there?

Adam: Yeah, SP are definitely a hotly debated topic right now, for sure. They're meant to be a gauge of how much any given player participates in the world. So a player that takes a more active role in the world, either through commerce, politics, or adventure, will earn more of them naturally than a player that, say, does nothing but mine iron all day. Knowing how much a player participates means that we can estimate how involved they'll be if the storytelling team engages them, and so for us that's the most important element of SP. However, if you stop and think about it, that's fundamentally unfair: Two equally invested players may have wildly different amounts of SP banked up based solely on how often they can play, if one of them is home all day with nothing else to do and the other works 12-18 hours every day.

So how do you overcome that? How do you let the guy that can't play all day stand equally with the guy that can? One way to do that is to let players show their investment, to acquire SP, in other ways and the most obvious way to do that is to let players purchase it. Of course, the obvious answer has its own problems, the worst of which is the perception of pay to win in using money to acquire SP.

It's a hard perception to fight, for sure, but in-game, I don't think that SP works the way most people expect. It's mostly used by the world, in something we call "story transactions," which don't make it easier for anyone to "win" so much as they open up the potential for different content. For example, you might use SP to bribe a court official to give you a letter of Marque, allowing you to attack enemies of the nation-state without fear of reprisal from the nation's guards and army. That's the sort of high-ticket items you might be able to get with SP, but you can get those other ways too, and of course, every player will earn SP, even those that never pay real money for it.

Now, there are things you can purchase with SP that smack of pay to win: Blessings from temples to protect you from PVP or from pickpockets, for example. However, these items are cheap. Cheap enough that players with SP earned in regular play can purchase them and not feel like a fortune was wasted. They also aren't permanent, which means if you want pay your way to PVP immunity, you'll be using your SP constantly to do so, limiting your ability to spend it elsewhere. Finally, those things can be obviated by other players. The temple that sold your blessing could be corrupted or destroyed, with a lot of effort, for example.

At the end of the day, I suppose whether you think SP is pay to win or not is a personal opinion. We're dead set against the idea of those who pay the most being somehow "better" than those that don't, however. Hopefully some of what I've illustrated here makes that clear, but regardless, I hope that folks at least give us the benefit of the doubt for now. We have no desire to jeopardize our game to make a cheap buck, and I hope that folks will see that and take it as a sign that we won't let SP get out of control, either.

TR: I know its really early in development to ask stuff like this, but what sort of goals are you aiming at in player's earning standing points from a couple hours a day doing quests and such? At that level would the person be able to get those blessings on a weekly basis or something if they wanted some time each week away from PVP ?

Adam: Definitely. I don't have numbers to discuss, but as far as a proportional relationship goes, that's exactly the sort of rate of gain vs. expense that we're thinking of: We want active players, say players that play 5 or 6 hours a week, to be able to buy blessings to make at least one of those sessions protected in some way, if that's their goal. They may opt instead to save up and burn the entire week's SP on a minor story transaction instead, say to pressure a librarian to let you have access to the restricted section of his library, but in truth the relationship is the same: One or two blessings or one minor story transaction a week for an active, "contributing" player. A mule or a miner will gain, if we've balanced it right, at about a third or a quarter of that rate, depending on how they go about their day.

TR: The release schedule you have is an odd one, and perhaps the only close comparison I can think of is Star Citizen’s module rollout. Were you inspired by the fact that part of your team is working on that to set up this long release schedule? What is the hope with a longer release schedule?

Adam: I suppose we are sort of inspired by Star Citizen, but can you blame us? :) If nothing else, they're proof that slow and steady wins the race and you have to respect how uncompromising CIG are in pursuing what is best for their game.

Still, I think we may have gone this route even without our contact with that project and that team. We've been talking about Revival internally for years and one of the things that always came up was how best to make such an ambitious project, given how unlikely it would be to finance it traditionally. In the end, we realized that we didn't really care if it got a ton of funding; we were going to make it anyway and that led us to consider how best to do that.

Phases that start small and ramp up with each new goal we meet seemed an obvious choice. After all, the more success we show, the easier it will be to finance a bigger production push down the line. So, our plan with its six phases is definitely based on that idea: Start with small goals a tiny team can reach and then build on them, reaching a little bit further every time until, one way or another, the game we all dream of making has been made.

Star Citizen definitely showed us that the phased plan can work and I would be lying if I said that didn't encourage us to finally pull the trigger, but at the same time, we're not pushing for a massive crowdfunding campaign like they did because that's not really why we're using this strategy. We're doing things this way to ensure they can be done no matter our funding situation, basically.

TR: Is there anything else you care to add?

Adam: Not really, just thanks for the opportunity to talk about Revival. Revival is a passion project and it represents what we think is a major necessary step in the right direction for MMOs, but we recognize that the players who will appreciate it may not be the typical modern MMO player. So, for me, every chance to talk about the game is another chance to make those more elusive potential players aware of us and that means more of them can get involved early. Yeah, we want to make Revival because it represents what we want in a fantasy MMO, but we don't think we're alone in wanting it and we want to hear from everyone else who shares the dream, as early as we can.

I'd like to say thanks again to Adam for talking to us about Revival and the MMO genre in general.

What are your thoughts on MMO's? Do you think Revival can reach its lofty goals? Share your thoughts below!


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