Mike Wallis Talks About His Sci-Fi MMO Company

Mike Wallis, formerly of EVE Online fame, has founded his own studio in Nevada. Announced a couple weeks ago, Colony Studios was originally formed to try and make a Battlestar Galactica MMO. When licenses failed, they decided to go their own way and do something original. We caught up with Mike to discuss his studio and his plans.

WarCry Q&A: Colony Studios
Answers by Mike Wallis, CEO
Questions by Dana Massey

Mike Wallis, CEO Colony Studios

Mike Wallis, CEO Colony Studios

WarCry: Resident cranky old man J.R. “razor” Sutich blogged in response to your announcement that he’s tired of seeing games define themselves for or against World of Warcraft. You guys came out swinging and proclaimed you were not making another WoW. Why do this and not, as he suggests, try and stand on your own merits?

Mike Wallis: Based on our team’s MMO development experience, we feel strongly that our philosophy and design model will be a big hit with people who like games; we will stand on our own merits. As for why we mentioned WoW, well we are making an MMO and comparisons to other MMOs are inevitable and expected, especially to the 800-pound gorilla of MMOs.

WarCry: Your press release says you’re heading down the “virtual world” side of things. In recent years, games trying to tackle “virtual worlds” have defined themselves by what they don’t have (instancing, static quests) and not what they do have. How are you going to make sure your game does not fall into that trap?

Mike Wallis: We aren’t after a “virtual world” per se. We want dynamic content. Content that reacts to the status of the play areas. We’re not talking about increased mob density, but instead missions and content that flow out of what’s going on. The big difference here, though, is that we can provide this on a personal level to the player.

Here’s an example. You come upon a trade route that sees around two to four cargo ships running goods between points at any given time. As you approach it, you receive a transmission. You get a distress call from one of the transports asking you to protect them from a pirate who is threatening to destroy them if they don’t hand over their goods. You also get a transmission from the pirate stating that he will split the haul 50/50 if you help him overtake the cargo ship. The player can do one of three things: help the cargo ship, help the pirate, or go on his merry way.

These incidents can sometimes start additional mission lines, but the player does not ever need do them in order to progress. There really is no mandated linear mission progression. The player makes his own choices and none of them are the wrong choice, but are absolutely his or her choice.

WarCry: You told RPG Vault you originally came together to build a Battlestar Galactica MMO, but that things didn’t work out. Now you’re working in your own IP. Talk to us about some of the advantages of having that kind of freedom? Some of the disadvantages?

Mike Wallis: An obvious advantage of owning our own IP is not having to renegotiate usage rights or anything like that. Using our own IP also helps with balance and it precludes the need to shoe horn in elements that may not work well in an MMO. For example, there are only 12 unique human looking Cylons in BSG, so it is difficult trying to make them into a player race. Things like that can eat up a great deal of production time.

As far as advantages of using an established IP, the biggest one is that you get a built-in core audience who immediately become potential consumers. That is very enticing to investors and publishers.

WarCry: Personally, Mike, your background is with EVE Online. How much influence is what you did and they have done there going to have on this project?

Mike Wallis: Yes, my MMO development background is with EVE Online, but it is certainly not my entire game industry background. EVE is unique among existing MMOs because the dev team knew what they wanted to make; they weren’t driven or coerced by the “casual gamer” mandate publisher execs love to throw around today. We knew EVE was going to be hardcore, and we decided to go all out in achieving that goal. EVE’s success today is a testament to the team’s tenacity and vision.

Colony’s goal with our sci-fi themed MMO isn’t primarily to go after EVE’s audience, however. We aren’t aiming to be as hardcore as EVE, but we acknowledge that EVE does a lot of things right. Will we borrow from and possibly include some of those features? Perhaps. Our project is too early in the development to reveal any specific features at this time.

WarCry: Why a sci-fi setting?

Mike Wallis: Scale, scale, and more scale. The sci-fi setting also allows us to ratchet up the power settings and make a truly epic feeling game. Players can create worlds or destroy them, and players can manage an entire system of trade routes and starbases. We feel that no other MMO is currently offering that level of grandeur.

WarCry: Your press blast mentions a wealth of experience on the team and while you have a fair amount, you do not personally have each of those titles on your resume. Can you talk specifically about the people who are working with you, what they’ve done and what they bring to your table?

Mike Wallis: No single person could have all of those titles under his belt! To do that would be quite the achievement. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but we’re not ready to out the rest of the team at this time. However, everyone on the team has MMO development experience, from a senior engine programmer on UO to our systems designer on Dark Age of Camelot. Some of our guys have even contributed development work on multiple MMOs. They bring to the table not only MMO development contributions to some of the top games in the genre, but also years of game industry experience as a whole. The team averages nine years of experience in the industry per person-not too shabby by any measuring stick.

Colony Studios Logo

Colony Studios Logo

WarCry: More games are moving towards more open and transparent development processes. How much input do you want the community to have in your development?

Mike Wallis: We do like to follow and review what game players and potential customers have to say about the design-sometimes they make some great points and very insightful observations. We cannot make any promises as to whether we’ll use any ideas presented by the community, but there is a strong likelihood, over the course of development, we’ll end up using some of the ideas put forth. The thing we need to be wary of, though, is that the “community voice” can sometimes come down to a very small vocal minority, and we need to be able to filter that input to ensure features that are being asked for make sense in the overall game design.

WarCry: When people bring up innovation, some say they want to clone other games, others say they want to throw everything out and do something totally new, while most seem to think the Holy Grail is emulating something familiar, but innovating in a few core places. Where do you fit?

Mike Wallis: We want to take our experiences of playing and creating not only MMOs, but all games we find fun and see what designs are of value. We look at and learn from what isn’t practical (why isn’t it practical?). Being able to understand why something works and doesn’t work is the key-it’s easy to simply copy or clone a game feature, but understanding why it works in the game is so much more valuable to development. Something that is familiar to players is a starting point, and from there we will iterate on those features.

WarCry: You’re on the Hero Engine train, like BioWare Austin, Virgin Games, Stray Bullet and more. What sold you on the Simutronics package?

Mike Wallis: We knew we didn’t want to develop our own technology due to time to market and cost factors so we sought a middleware solution. We evaluated quite a few, such as Big World, Unreal 3, Multiverse, etc., and came to the conclusion that for the price and performance, the Hero Engine not only met with our parameters budget-wise, but far more importantly it allowed us to rapidly put content and design elements into the build quickly. Their client-side toolset was, if I can quote my creative director, “A designer’s wet dream.” Beside that, the Hero Engine incorporates a full suite of powerful QA and GM tools for testing, character, and account management-saving us from having to develop those needed tools internally.

WarCry: Finally, when should we expect more details on this project?

Mike Wallis: We’ll be releasing concept art first, followed by screen shots. As we have a playable build and up and running, we’re currently working on polishing up some aspects of the space visuals and playability in order to be able to present it in the best possible light to interested potential publishers and investors. Look for more details on the project within the next 30-90 days.

We invite players to visit www.colonystudios.com to follow our development progress. Thanks for letting us talk with Warcry readers.

What do you think? Let us know.

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