The MMO market has become increasingly tough arena to fight in for small, independently funded start-ups like Masthead Studios, but these Bulgarian entrepreneurs are undeterred as they develop Earthrise.

“[Earthrise is] a game that is about freedom,” said Technical Director George Petrov. “[It is] not the usual fantasy MMO.”

Their vision is most definitely a throwback to an era when there were many schools of thought in the MMO genre. Since World of Warcraft, companies have gravitated towards level based games that closely direct the player’s experiences and they’re almost universally fantasy. Earthrise rewinds the clock and is clearly inspired by Ultima Online, which rose to prominence a decade ago with a completely open skill-based system where players improve through using individual skills, rather than experience earned by killing monsters and completing quests.

It’s a subtle difference and a much harder system to balance, but when done correctly can provide a more organic and diverse virtual world for its inhabitants. Repeatedly throughout the interview, Petrov and Art Director Nikolay Stoyanov mentioned freedom as a core of their game.

They prefer the open skill system – where any one character can use any skill in the game rather than being limited by a class – because it allows players to experience the game and its story from different angles. For example, in WoW, a player really only has one incentive to do a quest: the reward. The experience itself is the same each time. In Earthrise, players could theoretically run through the story in different class roles, which increases replayability.

As fans of Ultima will remember though, an open skill system can create chaos where players are just too powerful. Theoretically, Earthrise allows a single player to master every single skill in the game simultaneously. They’ll prevent “tank-mage” syndrome through equipment. The equipment players wear limits their ability to use other skills, this means that if a player is wearing heavy assault armor, they likely cannot also use the technological skills that stand in for magic in the game.

They also promise that those quests will have more to them than most games of this type. “Not the usual fantasy story,” insisted Petrov. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future where one corporation has risen to prominence as the last refuge of humanity after World War III. As civilization broke down, a cooperative developed the Continoma Project, which stores the genetic information of everything on Earth; a neat way to explain the lack of permanent death.

The game is set on the island of Sal Vitas, now run by a corporate government that has the power of eternal life and death over its citizens. The rest of the world is presumed ruined and the fallout of its destruction roams the nights in the form of mutants. Naturally, the excess of the Sal Vitas government has inspired a reactionary insurgency called Noir. The players enter the struggle at this point and are free to experience the story from either perspective (government or Noir).

Masthead has been careful not to reveal too many details too quickly and want to avoid promises they cannot keep, a lesson no doubt learned from the dozens of independent MMOs that have come out swinging with promises they really couldn’t keep. Unfortunately though, that left a lot to the imagination. For example, they claimed a deeper story that is more significant to the players, but exactly how that would happen is not yet available.



The end game is another of those currently vague areas. Petrov mentioned a focus on PvP, guild content and master crafting. All three are continuations of themes that will likely run through the entire game. Crafting, especially in skill based games, can become quite interesting at higher levels since players essentially become masters and in a player-driven economy like Earthrise, that gives players the potential to become an integral part of their world, their faction and their community. Curiously, Petrov also alluded to tools for players to entertain each other, but wouldn’t elaborate.

The world of Sal Vitas is a large, continuous area. Masthead wants to limit instancing to the absolutely necessary and does not like zones. This means a player should be able to run end to end without loading.

They also hope to become one of the first land-based MMOs to exist in a single world, without separate shards or servers. However, they do not guarantee this as a feature. Instead, they will ultimately decide during the Beta process. It also, of course, depends on the popularity of the game. If they get a few million subscribers, it likely won’t be a realistic goal, not that they’ll complain. In Beta, they’ll get a better handle on the optimal number of people in their world from a design perspective, their potential popularity and, of course, what level of abuse their servers can stand up to.

Artistically, the game is – as the screenshots show – a fully 3D game with a photorealistic style. They do though want to make sure it is accessible and plan to have extremely scalable graphical options so that machines that run World of Warcraft can run their game smoothly, but the boundaries can be pushed for high end users.

The challenge of being an MMO start-up is huge, but for Masthead they also must face the suspicion that comes with being from Bulgaria. Traditionally not a hotbed of game development, the Eastern European country has also been the home of a few tech-based scams. They told us that really the most they can do is let their work speak for itself. A good game will overcome trust issues, but he assured us that security is a huge focus for them.

Petrov previously worked in the financial security software industry, which obviously is a good place to learn how to protect information. As Technical Director, he believes his unique experience should help them create one of the more secure games of its type, both in terms of the protection of personal information of customers and in the fight against gold farmers and scammers. Masthead is strongly against the secondary market and intends to fight it vigorously.

To go with that, they are also not a fan of the microtransaction business model, so one should expect subscription fees. Distribution – online or retail, free or paid – has yet to be decided.

Earthrise remains in early development and they hope to launch in 2009.

Editor’s Note: Earthrise is represented by TAP Interactive, a public relations company owned by Themis Group. Themis Group also owns the WarCry Network.

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