I was lucky enough last week to take part in the City of Steam Alpha preview event, offered by the guys at Mechanist. I came out pleasantly surprised by it. Even in such an early Alpha state it shows polish and potential, so I thought (in true investigative journal fashion) to shoot some questions to the Mechanist crew about City of Steam. We discuss the game, optimizations and frank views on elves and fantasy.
Mike Wallace, eat a bee.
– Let’s go ahead and start at the very beginning and talk a bit about the genesis of City of Steam. We know it’s based off The New Epoch RPG sourcebooks. At which point did you guys realize the material would translate well to a MMO setting? Did you juggle other genre alternatives at first?
There wasn’t ever a question as to whether we would use The New Epoch RPG sourcebooks as Dave made many changes to both as the development progressed. I can remember playtesting early versions of The New Epoch and we were always joking about making it into a computer game. He wasn’t joking.
From there the idea grew and as we were working at another game company at the time, we realized it. We could do better. That’s when Joey and Dave quit and started on the beginnings of City of Steam.
The idea was to launch both as one towards the 3rd or 4th iteration of The New Epoch. Dave struggled to make both paper and digital version sync for a long time, but eventually it was clear that a table- top game and an MMORPG were just too far apart… And those two games walked away from each other some two years ago. They’re cousins in fiction only now, with some ties back to a dusty ancestor manuscript.
– Having David Lindsay on board and as Lead Designer for City of Steam seems to me to be a “Gospel according to Jesus” scenario, where you have the definitive authority on the source material right there. Tell me a little about the opportunity of having David’s input so readily accessible and how it affected the development process?
When you’re the one running the show, you get to call all the shots. That’s an awesome advantage for us, because he can get everything made to exact specifications.
But it’s been a tough ride for him. What you have to remember is that the team was only 4 guys in the beginning. Dave spent several years learning all the roles of the various positions: modeling, animation, effects and such. And then we scaled up.
So it’s a little bit more than “accessible”. He plays the role of producer, lead designer, art director and general manager (amongst other things). One of the great things is that when someone has a problem, he can provide very qualified input.
How does it affect development? He knows exactly what it’s got to be like, so it gets redone. And modified. And then tweaked until it’s right. And when it’s finished, everyone’s like… oh yeah, duh! And then he still tweaks it.
– What made you settle on Unity as a toolkit to develop City of Steam as opposed to other alternatives?
We saw it as an opportunity and actually started using it the day it came out for Windows. We remember debating getting a slew of Macs at first so we were definitely relieved. We went with the gamble that Unity would grow as we did and are very pleased that it has!
– How large is the team working on City of Steam right now?
A huge majority of the game was worked on by a team of just 11 but due to the expanding scope of the game and the complete re-writes we’ve been making as result have pushed the team to 30 developers.
Nobody but us will know the difference this has made to the game. Let’s just say that, some of the overhauls done this last year will be the difference between a niche favorite and a public spectacle. From a tiny rented attic without potable water to a real office space, it’s really come a very long way.
– Mechanist is based in China and there seems to be a nice blend of Asian and Western influences that I noticed during my playthrough. Do you feel the two approaches meshed well or was there a bit of a clash during design?
The most crucial western staff on the team, myself and Dave included, have spent almost decade in China. After you reach a certain point in language and culture acquisition, you start to realize where you can dovetail these two worlds into each other.
Developing in China worked perfectly for us when developing the setting. It’s a smash of cultures as well as layers of different histories… umm, the game, I mean. So walking around the game you see Victorian styled houses next to gothic towers, across from huge towering gears in a garden. In what other country can you see dozens of dynasties all built on top of the last? Without a doubt, China is a big inspiration for us.
– What made you decide on designing City of Steam as a browser-based MMO instead of a client-based, downloadable package?
Since the beginning the vision has been to develop a high-quality game in a web-browser and we just worked and worked at optimization in order to jam it all in there. The idea was accessibility, we want anyone and everyone to be able to delve in the City of Steam world and that’s where the browser comes in.
The other thing we get for free in this arrangement is the… “Holy crud! This is in a browser?” You’d be amazed how often we get this, and just that alone is worth all the additional challenges that come with browsers (streaming assets, browser compatibility, window sizes, etc.)
– Let’s talk a bit more in depth about City of Steam itself. I noticed how smooth the game performed during my time with it and we talked a bit about the optimizations you guys have been working on. Let’s expand on that. What’s the target hardware platform? Have you tested it in other platforms like iOS or Android tablets, for example?
Target specs are based on average user specs for Steam and the Unity3d install base. If you’re a gamer on one of these great platforms that provides its data for free, thanks for helping out –this game was made with you in mind, literally! The game will be very scalable and friendly to different configurations, so we don’t think anyone will have a barrier into the game based on hardware.
What really took the effort was the compression of assets. We didn’t want anyone to wait. Waiting sucks. And so the asset downloads had to be microscopic. The game launches with only 2Mb, and after that it’s all streamed. Each dungeon is a 1 Meg download, each character is 0.3 Megs, each monster is 0.5 Megs and these are all stored locally so they are reused, scaled, switched and used intelligently so that the user never needs to wait.
We’ve talked a lot about different builds on iPad and Android and such. All possible, but that’s really not the focus right now. If the main PC & Mac version isn’t strong, what’s the point? But once we get there, there’s definitely going to be a companion app and other games that will extend City of Steam’s reach into these platforms.
– Tell me what can players expect from City of Steam at launch. I wish I could have spent more time with it, but I did get to see a variety of classes, gear and particularly locales. Do you have an estimated number of different zones and dungeons that will be available at launch?
During our Alpha test weekends, players can expect to explore 4 immersive suburb areas (zones), each with their own flavor, quests, specialties and dungeons; initially there will be around 80 dungeon instances. There will be 4 classes (Warder, Channeler, Arcanist and Gunner) to play, and 9 races to choose from. The first alpha weekend will have 4 different human races (Aven, Heartlander, Ostenian, and Stoigmari), followed by the addition of elves (riven and draug) in the second weekend and finally greenskins (goblin, hobbe, orc) in the third.
From there, each weekend will get additional content, too, so come on back and check often!
– For a browser-based game City of Steam seems to incorporate quite a bit of familiar MMO genre conventions. Was that intentional in the design from the beginning or was it something that evolved more or less organically during its design? What do you think was the hardest thing to “translate” into a browser-based game?
City of Steam was really a community driven development process. We started with a great tech demo in which players could team up and kill mobs. But the quality we were outputting was way too high, giving players the expectation that we would support a full range of MMO features. All those beautiful hand-crafted assets pushed expectations for every other aspect of the game. Heck, half the people out there still compare us to Diablo and other AAA titles! That kind of got the developers really fanatical and driven to deliver. So yes, the hardest thing for us was to meet the expectations of MMO players, who have craved a steampunk-styled MMO for so long.
– Tell me a bit about City of Steam’s business model. Will it be supported by microtransactions? And if so, what sort of items will be available for purchase?
We will be using the Free-to-play model (F2P) with microtransactions. Now, I know what some may be thinking. Actually, many of us in development have previously worked in other gaming companies that pushed more of a pay-to-win model, which we’re determined to pull away from. In City of Steam, items you can purchase with social currency will be for aesthetic features, convenience and earlier access to extra content, which free players can still access with enough effort; the general idea is that everyone can get a chance at getting the best of items without limiting them to paying players only.
– It’s an exceedingly crowded market; what sets City of Steam apart from other games? The game’s setting jumps at me as the most obvious example as there seems to be quite a lack of steampunk titles when compared to other genres.
True, the graphics and the style are something we’re proud of. But yeah there’s more.
Sometimes players go nuts about tiny little features. We have those. Like switching weapon stances on the fly during combat, and all those amazing weapons you can simultaneously equip, and the socketing of gear modifies the base model for the item, etc. But those are things you can only appreciate once you start playing.
Although most people don’t realize it, we think the game world is what sells us. This is some original and painstakingly detailed stuff. This isn’t some cookie-cutter elves-in-trees dragon-riding bullshit. I think I’ll puke if I have to endure another friggin’ enchanted forest level. We’re breaking fictional barriers here, and giving people something new to explore. Yes we have swords and magic and guns, but guess what? We actually thought up reasons why they can co-exist. That’s the difference.
As for gameplay, combat, looting and modifying your arms and armor is what it’s all about. But we’re not light on story. The whole game is crafted around the tale of immigrants or refugees, and what they endure in their new home.
We don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel, but we do bring a new level of polish and quality to the browser game market.
– Is there any way I can tease some information out of you regarding the other projects Mechanist is working on?
There’s not that much we want to state publicly yet, but at this time, we are at least looking to expand City of Steam with even more stuff, stuff that won’t be seen in Alpha yet. We also have another project in mind for the future, but as of yet, we can’t say too much about it. We have some big stuff in the works! Stufffff…
– The final fun multi-part question:
Your most favorite thing about City of Steam
David: The scenes, the art, the world.
Jeff: The scenes, the art, the world.
Greg: Upgrading weapons.
Daniel: The expansive possibilities of the world’s story, especially ability for the game to confound expectations of standard MMOPRPG genre gameplay and content.
Ian: How the design and history of the world shines through every NPC, mob, and piece of equipment.
Brian: In my mind, the best aspect of the game is the original setting. Games so often fail when their characters and worlds appear bland. City of Steam has a rich history that draws on a
pantheon of genres and succeeds in creating an entirely new one.
Frank: The city environments.
Your least favorite or the one that has given you the most headaches to implement
David: The monster AI.
Jeff: The current mobs display in the minimap.
Greg: Limited dungeon variety
Daniel: Color palette similarity. When zoomed out in view, it is easy to lose track of your character in the rich background details.
Ian: Navigation UI – getting lost in dungeons makes me sad.
Brian: The smaller levels and lack of UI direction interface.
Frank: The focus on dungeons.
The one thing you would like to see one day in City of Steam.
David: Airships and house system.
Jeff: Guild PVP.
Greg: More options for player customization.
Daniel: Base building for Guilds/groups and the ability to build one’s own personal airship/headquarters with option to personalize the look with special decorations, items, and furniture.
Ian: More ways to customize your character, so everyone will know where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished.
Brian: Longer quests, direct feedback for player choices.
Frank: Guilds. Or a way to be more connected with other players.
Tell me three of your favorite games (could be past, present, computer, board game… any game)
David: Old: Baldur’s Gate, New: Skyrim, Non-digital: Settlers of Catan
Greg: Anachronox, Terraria, Half-Life 2
Daniel: Mass Effect series, Dungeon & Dragons, Small World (board game)
Ian: Star Control II, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Star Raiders (Atari 800)
Brian: Legend of Zelda: A link to the Past, The longest Journey, Final Fantasy 6
Frank: Call of Duty, Skyrim, Mass Effect
(obligatory nice screenies and my thanks to the cool people at Mechanist!)