Imagine an MMOG with actual roleplaying, where players determine the direction of the game itself, and where human interaction and scheming are far more important than beating fuzzy animals senseless. From the beginning, Runestone’s Seed was built around human interaction – the game didn’t even have a combat system – and roleplaying was at the forefront, emphasized in an age when roleplay has devolved into “You can play an elf, if you want. Or, you know, an orc.”

Rather than the utopian fantasy daydreams or dystopian science fiction nightmares, Seed’s story was all too human: A millennia ago, ships carrying carefully chosen DNA that would later birth a colony of people departed Earth in search of new worlds to populate. One ship arrived in the Beta Hyi system and began terraforming a planet within the solar system, but the terraforming went awry. Nonetheless, the ship’s computer began hatching colonists. The “seeds” were trapped inside the colony’s tower, unable to visit the hostile world outside, and in the meantime, more and more colonists were popping out daily, straining resources. Seed was going to be about classic office and governmental politics as much as it was about being a futuristic space colony simulator. To survive, the colonists would have to band together and determine how to overcome a new world of challenges in both the short and long term.

That was the idea, anyway. Runestone’s star burned brightly over the summer of 2006, but a troubled and buggy release (and a lack of external financial backing) laid the company low. On September 28, 2006, Runestone CEO Lars Kroll Kristensen posted a heartfelt farewell to his community. His departing words contained no hint of regret:

I am still fully convinced that a role play-centric game is not only a good idea: It’s a great idea. It just needs to be better executed. Seed has many of the right qualities for such a game, and I still firmly believe that, given sufficient funding, we could have created a great game. Unfortunately, we will never know.

The servers went dark, and the lawyers and creditors came in and dissolved the company, leaving the Runestone team to disperse or find work elsewhere. A compelling concept like Seed deserves more of a eulogy than a few scattered web pages and some forgotten fiction. I was able to talk to Lars – the last gunslinger from a world that’s moved on – once the men in nice suits finished their grim work.

Lars’ background is in roleplaying and artificial intelligence, he says. “I have a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Aarhus. My thesis was about swarm intelligence,” which is the collective behavior of individuals in self-organized systems like ant colonies, swarms of nanobots and, if one stretches, players in an all-roleplaying MMOG. “Indeed, my main interest in computer science is about artificial intelligence.” He’s also a lover of roleplaying games, which he’s “been playing on and off since high school. I’ve also been rather active in the Danish roleplaying community, helping [with] arranging conventions and stuff.”

When it came time to develop a product, an MMOG was “really a no-brainer, since what we wanted to do was make an innovative roleplaying game, focusing on the social aspects. So a single-player game was out from the get-go.” He cited the business model of MMOGs as, “more innovation friendly. With an [MMOG], you need not necessarily go for a mass market product. You can build a nice business around fewer customers, if these customers are paying subscription [fees] directly to you.”

Developing the non-combat side of the game required more time, he says. “The non-combat thing took quite a lot more thinking. The thing is that combat takes a lot of focus in a game. Indeed, if you have a combat-based game, the other gameplay (craft, trade, etc.) tends to be about combat. You craft weapons and armor, and trade them. You need to fill the game-world with monsters to fight, and these monsters drop loot as rewards for the players. This loot is typically better weapons and armor. This model, while very entertaining and definitely effective in attracting customers, is also pretty much the model everyone else uses.” This created a problem. It meant “that before we could get going on innovating, we would have to do what everyone else does [first], and on top of that, innovate.”

The design feels very European, especially with the emphasis on politics and collective action versus the rugged individualist ethos of other games in the genre. I asked Lars for his thoughts on it. “I definitely think that there’s a very European, maybe even Scandinavian thing about Seed and the way it was about being part of a society, rather than just looking out for number one. Obviously, the strong focus and cooperation and belonging to a society was also designed to make people want to roleplay.” He cited the politics as another nudge for roleplayers, saying, “As soon as people have something to vote about, they also have something to argue politically about. I definitely think that the fact that Seed was made by a Danish team meant a lot in terms of how the game was designed. I also think the fact that our main story writer was a woman played a role.”

I asked what led them to that focus on the collective whole, and if they thought it wound up being a detriment to the game in the end. “Well, again, when people are encouraged to cooperate, rather than compete, they have a lot to talk about,” he answered. “That is a good basis for roleplaying, as they could also have very different attitudes toward different questions, based on the persona they have chosen for themselves.” However, he cites the game’s “pseudo-economy” as a problem. “In Seed, you could barter all you wanted, but the in-game currency, APs, could not be exchanged from person to person. This was designed to keep all trade going through the elected people (that could exchange APs).” While this was an interesting way to create economy in theory, he says, “it basically just made a lot of things difficult for us, and made it impossible for players to ‘set up shop.'”

The state-building dynamic centered on “rings” – guilds – players could join. Rings could vote on issues and try to install their members into the game’s budding government, which was going to be an important part of the game. The players managed to get started before the game’s demise, Lars says. “People made rings and voted for their ring members. This would, I think, have evolved into something like political parties. We were planning to include voting for ‘issues’: voting for or against proposed changes to the game world. Once such change could have been introducing a real currency. Another could have been changing the way the political system worked. We were hoping to eventually have the players define a political system for their own game-world, maybe a ‘president’ with a short term, or a representative democracy (like we have in Denmark). The players were beginning to exploit these ideas a bit, but didn’t get a chance to take it very far.”

That led into my next question: What happened? They had a unique concept, they had a core of players and they had some buzz. “What happened, or, rather, what went wrong, was that we released a game that quite simply wasn’t sufficiently finished. This caused way too many of our beta players to leave us, and this caused us to bleed money too fast.”

In the meantime, “we were [too] thinly stretched to operate and develop the game all on our own. We tried to fix those too big problems by searching for a publishing partner to help us out and to buy us some extra time to finish. While I think we were getting close to a deal, we ultimately didn’t.” I asked if he felt Seed‘s demise was inevitable. “I don’t think it was inevitable,” he answered. “I think we made some mistakes along the way, the biggest one being that we released too early. We had to, for financial reasons, but we probably shouldn’t have, even if it seemed like the only possible option at the time. It is definitely a mistake I will never make again. I [would] rather simply fold a game and a company than release too early again.”

As he’d said in his farewell post, he still didn’t think a roleplay-centric, non-combat MMOG was a bad idea. I wondered why. He cited their buzz before E3, as well as “a community of 25,000 people and 15,000 signups for the open beta test. This was before E3, and this was without spending one dollar on advertising. … I’d say that alone speaks volumes of how much a roleplay-centric MMOG is in demand. And there aren’t any of them out there now that Seed is gone. All the others focus on other things, typically combat.

“I still believe it is a good idea to focus an MMOG on roleplay. Whether that naturally means you must eliminate combat or not, I’m more in doubt about, but I am sure that roleplay is worth making a game about.” Looking at Seed, he says, “I think it takes a game with more broad appeal gameplay [styles] than the ones we had, and I definitely think it takes a lot more testing and fine-tuning than we had money for. I think the basic idea was sound. I just think we failed on the execution of it.”

The atmosphere in the office around that time was “rather sentimental and sad the last week or so. We had been walking on the razor’s edge for quite a long time, holding our breath and hoping one or more publishers would ‘bite’ at the last minute, so [when] we finally got word from the last ones, we were sort of relieved. We had internally agreed that we didn’t want to limp along. We would either have a solid long-term solution or go out quickly. So the last couple of days were quite sentimental, saying goodbye to the community and reading their postings.”

Runestone was a company built with a strong emphasis on storytelling. Other companies with a similar focus tend to have track records similar to Runestone’s. Is there something about the industry that eats those who focus on story? “Yes, there is something about the industry that eats storytellers,” he answered. “It’s called ‘gameplay.’ Gameplay has a tendency to overshadow the story aspects of many games: Stuff like accepting in the name of fun gameplay that the hero of a shooter game can easily survive multiple headshots, etc.

“There’s also something in the industry that eats game designers. It’s called ‘storytelling.’ This is often seen in so-called interactive movies: ‘games’ where the interactivity is very limited, in order to be able to tell a convincing story. … There is a natural opposition between gameplay and storytelling. It’s annoying the living daylights out of me, but I think that the ‘story’ and ‘fun factor’ elements of a game [are] almost always in competition and opposition. I think the perfect MMOG would be the one where some brilliant game designer/storyteller figures out how to tell a strong, engaging story with the gameplay. Not with cut scenes, not with quest logs, not with NPC dialogue trees, but with the core gameplay of the game. I don’t have the formula, and I don’t think the formula is necessary to have a very good game, but if someone cracks it, I want to play the game.”

As for what’s next for Lars and his team, he tells me, “Runestone is getting split up as a company. We are planning a Christmas lunch, which is a big deal in Denmark; [it’s a] traditional company party.” The team is “keeping in touch via mailing list. Some of the Copenhagen-based game developers have hired some of the guys, while some others are getting jobs here in Aarhus, in gaming or otherwise.” Lars himself is “taking a little vacation and, after that, I want to work somewhere in the industry.” What happened to Seed and Runestone haven’t stopped his MMOG dreams, he says. “At some stage, though, I want to make an MMOG again. Probably roleplay-based, if the competition isn’t too stiff when I get around to it.” For roleplayers worldwide, his return can’t come soon enough.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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