Interview: Stray Bullet Games


Once upon a time, a company named Wolfpack Studios made an MMO called Shadowbane. Fast forward a bit and those same guys are back under the guise of Stray Bullet Games and they’re working on a brand new HeroEngine-powered MMORPG. We talk to them about their new company and whatever it is they’re working on (they’re not saying yet!).

WarCry Q&A: Stray Bullet Games
Answers by Stray Bullet Games (various, identified within)
Questions by Dana Massey

Concept art from new project

Concept art from new project

WarCry: Shadowbane has a mixed history among MMO fans. While it continues to run, it never reached the potential so many saw for it. Why do you feel this is and why do you feel your next project won’t have the same problems?

Mike Madden, Creative Director: Shadowbane, for all intents and purposes, was the first truly massively multiplayer game with its gameplay. It was one of the first games, if not the first to really push players to look beyond the simple goal of individual character advancement. Up to that point, even guilds existed primarily to max out their membership – the ultimate goal was still a personal goal. Shadowbane gave players the chance to build nations, and something concrete to fight for beyond gear and experience points. This was a great concept, and is still praised, but the implementation fell a little short. Technical issues bedeviled the game in its early months, and ultimately limited bandwidth kept us from adding the content and systems needed to build an entire community beyond PvP death squads. As we move forward, we’re taking necessary steps to make sure that our next game will give players higher goals (even higher ones than Shadowbane had!), however we are being very careful to ensure that players have what they need to do it without making it a job.

WarCry: Mike Madden, your Creative Director, said that the two guiding principals of the game were to “rely upon the familiar and be bold”. To many, that would sound like a contradiction. How do you hope to achieve this?

Mike Madden, Creative Director: Heh, not surprised this one came up. This is actually something we apply to all aspects of the game. Another way to put it would be to call it “targeted innovation.”

The basic idea is this. There are many things that MMO’s, as they exist now, do very well. Conversely, there are lots of things MMO players know how to do – they’ve been trained to do them. So, as far as basic gameplay goes, we want to hew to these “standards” with only minor usage adjustments, rather then an overhaul or redesign. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel to take a Porsche for a spin. That’s what we mean when we say “Rely on the Familiar.” But that’s only half of it.

Our game concept also incorporates several elements that MMOs haven’t fully realized yet, and a few that haven’t even been attempted. In these areas, we are being very bold. We’re looking beyond traditional RPG influences for new kinds of gameplay, and opening doors to other game genres to see how they can positively affect MMO play. In our early applied tests, this is working out very well for us.

WarCry: Your original announcement mentions middleware from a third party developer. We now know this to be the HeroEngine, by Simutronics. Why did you choose this and what advantages does it give you?

Ala Diaz, Technical Director: After evaluating multiple engines for their suitability to an MMO project, we decided on HeroEngine because it gives us the most comprehensive set of tools and the best infrastructure for development. The power of HeroEngine lies in the collaborative real-time development model with a fantastic suite of tools and systems. There are too many individual features of HeroEngine to list and has an overview for those who are interested, but we have found that the overall sweep of the tools provided with HeroEngine allows for a level of rapid development and iteration that we have not seen with other engines. For example, imagine tweaking combat logic or fixing a bad texture and having it update dynamically during an internal playtest. That kind of instant feedback without any outside recompilation or data crunching steps has proven invaluable.

WarCry: While, it’s safe to assume that this won’t be a $100 million project, is the new game securely funded at an adequate level throughout the development cycle?

Mark Nausha, President and CEO: Not something we are ready to discuss at this time.

WarCry: Reading between the lines of the release, it sounds like the new game is not that far off some of the original goals of Shadowbane, such as group based meaningful PvP. Do you envision this as a successor to SB?

Mike Madden, Creative Director: Successor? No. Influenced by? Without question. SB did some things very well, and others…well lets just say it did some things very well. We are certainly influenced by some of Shadowbane’s systems and play dynamics. At the same time, there have always been ideas and things we wanted to address in SB but never had the time or resources. This is our chance to do just that. We get to build a new game and a new IP from scratch, and while it’s a daunting task, nothing is more exciting.

Concept art from new project

Concept art from new project

WarCry: The art style was highlighted and the image in the article seemed to show a mix of fantasy and technology, reminiscent of something like Warhammer. Can you talk about art direction and what you’re doing there?

Thomas Jung, Art Director: In many ways this question speaks to the lore of the game. It’s difficult to be too forthcoming on this one since it deals with some things we’d like to keep close to the vest right now. I can speak about the reasons behind some of our decisions. The goal was to build on one of our basic philosophies, which is to rely on the familiar (the well know convention of fantasy) and still be bold in our innovations (adding in a sci-fi element).

If one were to ask where we were headed with the art we would answer “iconic”. Strong silhouettes and bold shapes are important to melding such differing genres as fantasy and sci-fi. More importantly, iconic imagery and bold visual design choices will make the art style more accessible to a larger playing audience. If you look at the image we released, you’ll notice that either character can be understood from a distance with a clear visual read. That’s our goal with each and every asset in the game. Warhammer has become something of catch all to describe that type of iconic art because they’ve done such a great job of it in the past. Will our game look like Warhammer? No. Will it be visually memorable due to the iconic nature of the assets? Yes.

To sum it all up we’re shooting for an art style that is timeless versus a look that chases the “tech of the day”.

WarCry: Jumping back to your original product, Shadowbane was taken over by Stray Bullet Games and continues to be free to play. How then does the game make money?

Frank Lucero, VP of Product Development & COO: Actually, Stray Bullet Games maintains Shadowbane for Ubisoft. They continue to own the product; we are under contract for maintenance. Ubisoft can answer this question for you.

WarCry: Is it safe to assume that the new title will not follow the same business model as Shadowbane currently does?

Mike Madden, Creative Director: Although we have not made a final decision to our business model, it is safe to say that.

WarCry: The market is looking crowded for potential PvP MMOs. With Warhammer, Age of Conan and others on deck, how do you hope to set yourself apart?

Mike Madden, Creative Director: We are going to give players excitement and thrills they’ve never experienced in the MMO space. Its one thing to call something a PvP game, and another to deliver a War-like experience. That is the larger aspect of how we will separate ourselves. We will re-introduce the Massively Multiplayer back into MMO. We want to give a varying range of group-size experiences. We want large battles, PVE or PVP. We want players to experience the benefit and struggles of banding together large groups of players, building empires and civilizations, in a game world where their activity has palpable results.

To put it in the term we use: “A Player Driven World”

What do you think? Let them know.

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