In celebration of Ether Saga Online‘s open beta debut today, WarCry takes a first look at ESO and talks with Product Manager Craig Beers. ESO is in development by Perfect World Entertainment and we also have a trio of never-before-seen screenshots from ESO. Keep reading!

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Please introduce yourself and give us your game development history.

Hello, I’m Craig Beers, the Product Manager for Ether Saga Online. I began my career on the opposite side of the videogame industry – journalism. I worked at GameSpot for seven years covering videogames and working on the website as a product manager. More recently, I was with Curse where I led production on tools and services for MMO players.

For those unfamiliar with ESO, what can you tell us about the game overall?

Ether Saga Online is a free-to-play MMO that’s very story driven. ESO has a rich, vibrant world to explore with an anime art style. It has a ton of content and deep gameplay layers for experienced MMO players, yet is accessible to people new to the genre. All classes in the game have pets; in fact, you start with a pet at level 1. There’s this Pokemon-like aspect to the game where players are encouraged to capture new pets and use them in combat. Some unique aspects of the game are an auto-route system with smart path-finding, mounted combat and a transformation system to adopt a monster’s appearance and gain attributes & abilities.

Has ESO been released elsewhere? If so, how has it been received?

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Yes, it was originally released in China as KDXY about six months ago. Its release was well-received and it is very popular. We are still producing new content for the game, so we are committed to supporting and expanding the game in its US release.

What is ESO’s setting?

The mortal realm is at peace. However, the mortals are becoming lethargic and are losing their religious ways. A banquet for the Gods in Heaven is called to find a solution to this mortal problem. During this banquet, things go terribly wrong. A powerful and feared General is banished from Heaven to Earth and then disappears, a holy chalice is broken and its pieces scattered to the mortal realm and a sacred ark that protects the heavens goes missing. Each of the game’s races is assigned a task to resolve one of these problems to set the world right again.

Why was this setting chosen?

The story is a prequel to the Chinese classic, ‘Journey to the West.’ It is a well-known piece of literature in China, so it was something that was easy to relate to when it was first developed. Characters not only solve one of the heavenly crises, but also join the legendary Journey.

What is the background of the name “Ether Saga Online”?

It’s the localized name we chose for the game. Ether/Aether is a term for heaven, so it fit perfectly for our game since Journey to the West’s story focuses on the interaction between Heaven and the mortal realm.

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Do you plan any cross-platform development?

Not at the moment.

What classes and races are included in ESO?

There are three races in Ether Saga Online: the Ren, who are the stereotypical human race; the Shenzu, the demi-god race; and the Yaoh, the animal race who evolved into human-like form.

9. Which of the above is your personal favorite and why?
I’d have to say the Yaoh. They are like the red-headed stepchild of the races. They are looked down upon as inferior, so their storyline has fun text to read.

Are there any ‘rideable’ mounts in ESO? If so, what are they?

Yes. There are three types of mounts in the game:

  • The first type is a cloud, which you can obtain early in the game. It is a flying mount and increases your movement speed, but it also requires mana to ride.
  • The second type is ground mounts. We have everything from a horse to a motorcycle that players can ride. Mounts purchased from vendors can be upgraded to increase their movement speed. The fully-upgraded form is combat enabled, meaning that players can fight monsters while mounted.
  • The third type is flying mounts. These mounts can fly in the air without consuming mana. They can also temporarily get a boost in speed. However, you cannot engage in combat while riding flying mounts.

Your FAQ indicates that ESO is ‘free to play’. Will it have a ‘cash shop’. What types of items will be available in the cash shop and what is the price range?

Yes, ESO is completely 100% free-to-play. We will have a cash shop that will fashion items, mounts and inventory expansions, amongst other things.
Mounts purchased in the cash shop will already be combat-enabled.

What is your favorite premium item?

It’s definitely a toss-up between the boarcopter (a helicopter that looks like a giant pig) and the motorcycle inspired by Ghost Rider. We are only limited by our imaginations since this is a fantasy universe.

Many MMO players complain about the “grind” in games. How much “grind” is involved in ESO?

People complain about grinding when you have no clear character progression and are forced to kill countless monsters to gain EXP. We have been very careful to prevent this negative experience in ESO. There are over 12,000 quests in the game distributed across the level range. You’ll never find a shortage of quests when playing the game. There’s even a bulletin board in all the major cities that list repeatable quests. These are quick tasks (deliver a message, kill a named monster, etc) and yield some experience and rewards. So while players will need to go out and kill monsters like all MMOs, we are giving players purposes and rewards for doing so.

Are there adequate challenges for high-level players?

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We’re confident that there will be enough content to keep high-leveled players challenged. First of all, some players will focus on the pet melding system. Players can meld two pets together to receive a new pet with enhanced stat growth, so they will be trying to get the ultimate pet that compliments their class. Other players will be looking to improve their character. We have two instances that are suitable for high-level players to get better gear. We also have a crafting and weapon upgrading. Lastly, players will be looking for appealing content to test their skills. We will be releasing arenas for players to engage in PvP combat for rewards and bragging rights. We are testing these now and they will be available after the game’s release.

We’re not resting on our laurels though; we’re very well aware of the need for fresh end-game content. We already have new zones ready to open up, as well as quests and instances to support a higher level cap.

What would you estimate the learning curve is for new players to ESO?

The learning curve isn’t steep; it is a very accessible game. Players completely new to MMOs will be able to get the hang of it very quickly by just following the training quests.

Is there a PvP component in ESO? How would you compare it to other games and PvP systems?

There is PvP combat in Ether Saga Online. Players below level 45 are immune from being killed by other players. Once you hit 45, you can attack other players. Additionally, we will be releasing arenas and battlegrounds for players to organize player vs player combat and get rewards.

The PvP system in ESO has a self-regulating feature. As you kill players, your karma decreases and your name changes color from white to red. Once you hit a certain point and your name turns deep red, guards will attack you on sight and you will drop items and lose experience when killed (white named players will not drop items or lose EXP when PK’d). Your name will turn back to white after a certain amount of game time has passed.

I say it’s self-regulating because if you kill a player much lower level than you, your name turns red much quicker than if you PK someone near your level. There’s a strong disincentive to gank lowbies. We want players to concentrate on fighting other players who are equal to themselves.

What is your favorite aspect of the PvP system?

I would have to say the penalty for the red-named players give PK’ers and non-PK’ers incentives to join in the system. PK’ers can feel a sense of excitement as you’re always pushing your luck when you kill a player. On the flip side, PK’d players can form posses and hunt down red-named players to take their gear.

Is ESO geared more to the hardcore player or the casual player? What are the best features for each type?

Really, it can appeal to either type. It has a gentle learning curve and a charming visual style that can appeal to a casual gamer, but there are many systems like pet melding, crafting and transformations that hardcore players will want to play and utilize.

What is your favorite in-game area? Describe it to us please.

I like the haunted areas. The landscape gradually changes to this dark, eerie area. Each region is huge and there are no loading screens between areas in each region, so the transition is fluid.

What have been your most rewarding moments in ESO’s development?

I have to give a cop-out answer and say the entire time we spent with the game. ESO had very few bugs when we started with localization, so we’ve had the luxury of devoting our efforts to polishing the game and having fun with it.

What have been the most challenging moments in ESO’s development?

The development team is actively adding new content, sometimes too fast for us to keep up with them. At times it’s like a never-ending pile of things to test and improve. It’s a good problem to have though.

When do you expect ESO to go into retail release?

We are launching the game on March 17th as Open Beta. We expect to designate it as “released” shortly thereafter.

Does Perfect World Entertainment have any other games in development? If so, what can you tell us about them?

After Ether Saga Online’s launch, we’re going to start work on our third game, which is yet untitled for the US release. Its title in China is Zhu Xian. Keep an eye out for more news!

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