Hands-On Preview, With Comments From Chris McKibbin

Hero Camp last Thursday offered WarCry the chance to sit down and play Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising and then interview Perpetual Entertainment President and Co-Founder Chris McKibbin about the game. We file this hands-on preview:

WarCry Preview: Gods & Heroes
Based on play time & interview with Chris McKibbin (Pres., PE)
Article by Dana Massey

imageIn San Francisco last week, Perpetual Entertainment hosted a group of game journalists and introduced them to the Elder Game of Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising. For quite some time, the game has been shown without a definite goal in mind. At the event – dubbed “Hero Camp” – Perpetual revealed that a series of epic raids, powered by minion collection, advancement and management comprise their mythological MMO’s end-game.

“The majority of people who play MMOs have never raided,” Perpetual President and Co-Founder Chris McKibbin explained. The sometimes absurd time commitment of raids is why. In World of Warcraft, players need to spend hours organizing dozens of real people. For anyone outside the hardcore, that means high-end raids are a wealth of content that they simply cannot hope to experience. Gods and Heroes turns that dynamic on its ear with its minion system, where a single player can represent five characters on the screen. The result is that a simple five man group can experience raid content in Gods and Heroes, a development that severely cuts into the organizational time required for that kind of epic content.

McKibbin told us that for him the quintessential MMO experience is the time when a player gets into a great group where each member plays a unique role and plays it well. Too often though, he does not find that kind of experience until he’s well into the game. Thus, Perpetual hopes to grab people earlier through the minion system, which replicates this effect from the earliest levels.

imageThe Elder Game raids consist of three segmented instances, which in a perfect world, would take roughly nine hours to complete. To break things up, each of the three instances is broken into either two or three parts, which are analogous to save points in single player games. That way, the group can break off, get some sleep and soldier forward some other time. Nine hours though does not seem like much content for a high level playerbase, but these instances really only represent the end, not the means.

To complete each instance, the players need to collect, customize and perfect their own squad for each situation. Each instance unlocks minions that help in the next and they’re not the kind of epic adventure that players are supposed to be able to plow through back to back. To excel, they’ll need to get their minion selection down to a science and make sure each minion they take into the abyss is perfectly suited for the challenge to come.

For min/maxers, this kind of game sounds like their dream. They’ll spend hours to work out the perfect statistical group and then move forward. But for the more casual types like myself who are more likely to pick a helmet based on the shade of its feathers than its resist bonuses, it left me with an uneasy feeling. What if I just want my pretty hat?

image“Our Elder Game is just an extension of the regular game,” McKibbin pointed out. He explained that even if someone doesn’t care about minute statistical details, the game’s base mechanics encourage players to explore more of the world’s content. Most MMOs allow players to reach the end-game on a route that only exposes them to a tiny fraction of what the world really has to offer. The added dynamic of minions means that players don’t just go through content for their own character, but also for their minions. The hope is then that each individual will be more inclined to try a larger chunk of the game’s overall content. Obviously, this appeals to Perpetual’s designers who know more people see their work and theoretically, if they do a good job on that content, should make for a better player experience where the entire game flows from a central premise, rather than having an artificial grind that leads into an unrelated end-game.

Post-launch, Perpetual also plans to dole out more content. Right now, they’re more or less content complete, but while part of their effort is to iterate on that content and polish the overall product, they’ve also put some effort into what comes next. McKibbin revealed that they planned to add levels 41-50 and the associated content once it met their standards, it’s simply a matter of timing. Obviously, no one will experience it until the game is live long enough for them to achieve those levels, so at this time, there is no rush. Other post-launch highlights include an arena combat system (PvP), extended social networking and browser-based character/squad management and the eventual hope that they can continue to expand the world into other areas like Egypt, Carthage etc. through expansion packs.

imageThe event also allowed for plenty of hands-on experience. At its most basic level, Gods and Heroes does not feel all that different from a regular MMO. The combat system, basic quests and feel are more or less what a fan of World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online might expect. Over time though, things get more complicated as minions enter the fray. In our demonstrations, the minion system still required a bit of polish. Even with just one minion, it could be a bit overwhelming and hard to tell if your minion was behaving as you would hope. Improvements in UI and client-to-player feedback should solve these issues, which I suspect were partly born out of the artificial nature of demos.

Visually, the game remains spectacular. The animations are on a level that no MMO has ever flirted with. The combat mechanics are not altogether unique, but the added visual appeal drew my eye away from the task bar and up to the fight. It’s fun to watch! The world has also come together and leverages the mythological setting wonderfully. The only thing that takes away from the immersive visual experience is the minions who shadow their hero like, well, shadows. With a little bit of tweaking, the minions could look more like a finely tuned squad and less like a computer simulation. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one that is likely necessary down the line.

imageThe game’s UI was once again a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of options in Gods and Heroes, too many for anyone to get their head around in a short demo, but to their credit, every time I asked a Perpetual developer if they had some option or other, they told me they did and showed me how to do it. For example, in one situation, my healer minion kept getting in the way as I clicked. First, they showed me how to turn off the ability to click on them, which was very useful, and then they showed me how to change my formation so she stood to the left, which also helped. Finally, Chis McKibbin wandered by and pointed out some of the camera controls, which once again, helped. The UI is complicated partly because there seems to be three ways to solve each problem. If people take their time to get their head around it, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

In that way, the UI is emblematic of the game itself. McKibbin told us that in his experience, they have had great feedback from most everyone who has spent enough time on the game to get used to it. Their challenge is to get people to give it a chance, if they can do that, McKibbin believes that the game speaks loudly for itself.

imageWe also discussed the company’s goals and relationship with publisher SOE. McKibbin told us that Perpetual is also hard at work on their own billing and support platform and as such will not be part of SOE’s Station Pass. They’re doing this out of their desire to create their own catalogue of games. SOE provides them with expertise in those areas where they are not strong, such as box production, retail placement and marketing. McKibbin says that ultimately, they hope to launch their products themselves, but only when the market finishes moving online. He believes that digital distribution is the future of the genre, especially MMOs and that is a market they hope to explore. With Gods and Heroes though, it is simply too early.

“Everybody at a certain point in time wants to see a new movie,” McKibbin said when we asked how he expects them to stand up in a crowded market. He believes Gods and Heroes appeals to players who might be tired of other games and given its broad setting, which in all honesty, is far more familiar to the average person than even Lord of the Rings, they think they can carve out a solid market.

imagePerpetual hopes to launch Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising at the end of summer or in early fall. They’re going to have a large Open Beta before they launch, but told us that in the current reality of MMOs, long development or polish driven Betas are simply not realistic. Too many people see Beta as a free preview and the product must be essentially launch-ready when the doors open. That means when Open Beta begins, launch is certain to follow soon after.

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