WarCry’s Interview with James Hettinger


While the mythical character’s wings quickly burned away as he neared the sun, Icarus Studios appears to have learned the fable’s lesson. Avoiding hype and focusing on the fundamentals of game design, the creators of the under-the-radar Fallen Earth have a new method of leaving a mark on the world.

We had a chance to sit down with Jim Hettinger and Christophe Watkins of the Cary based design firm and take a look at their post-apocalyptic view of the future. Hettinger, the CEO of the company, founded MPG-Net, the highly successful multiplayer gaming network, as well as previously worked on Kingdom of Drakkar. He and Watkins, the Vice President of Business Development, are old friends and previously worked together designing and producing mobile games, before venturing into the MMOG design field.

Fallen Earth is the first of many possible games being built with the tool set Icarus has created. Rather than focusing immediately on gameplay elements and design, Hettinger and company have instead opted to create specific tools to make content creation easier, and most importantly, people without computer science degrees will be able to do it. Towns, underground establishments, weapons, quests, and even other games can be designed using the tools they’ve developed to this point. According to Watkins, the tool system is nearing the 90% completion mark, with the next year being spent on “polishing” the gameplay, content and tools.

Icarus is adopting a mentality similar to id’s: the game will be released “when it’s ready.” According to Hettinger, he feels the industry suffers from developers jumping the gun in the late stages of development. “Almost every failure [in the MMOG industry] can be traced to a game released before it was ready,” he said.

While at least a year from being ready for beta, the current version of the game runs well, with graphic quality already equal to that of second generation MMOGs. Icarus boasts both 5.1 and 7.1 Dolby Surround support. They’re also working on a physics engine which will influence grenade trajectory, as well as how vehicles react on terrain. Additionally, terrain and some buildings are destructible: we were shown a weapon (for demo purposes only, we were assured), which produced a particle beam that dug a large hole into a road. The actual technology will probably be used for trench digging, as well as blast patterns created by explosives. Hettinger said, “You want the players to affect the world… many games feel like you’re playing in a sandbox.”

Hettinger and Watkins say Fallen Earth was inspired principally by the way Mad Max and other movies like it made dark futures seem real. When it was created, Mad Max played on the fears of the oil crisis in the late 1970s, fears every member of the western world experienced, which gave it both believability and mass market appeal. Icarus is using that concept, marking today’s inklings into genetic engineering and viral research as a starting point for Fallen Earth’s universe.

Set 150 years into the future, Fallen Earth has a very “Falloutesque” vibe. Technology from the past has been forgotten or lost, and players are charged with rediscovering the majority of it. The first year of the game, according to Icarus, should remain rather low tech; shotguns, pistols, and low grade genetic manipulation will be the norm.

The game blends the RPG and FPS genres rather well. While the traditional aspects of hit points, skill sets, and experience are there, combat is very similar in theory to Neocron: firing through a target reticle will hit anything within that range. Gun shots aren’t limited to combat, however. Players can fire freely into the air, or in general directions, without being actively engaged in combat, which provides a realistic feel to the game’s anarchic sentiment.

Fallen Earth gleams with personality, even in its early stages of development. The game world is a topographically accurate Grand Canyon, and the stars in the sky are based on a map of what the sky will actually look like in 150 years. Of the starter towns we witnessed, each had a distinct look and feel, and every town felt “alive,” with NPCs and other inhabitants moving about freely. Some towns positively radiate with grit and anarchy, while others are more controlled and high tech, inhabited by those portions of society able to hold on to the mysteries of the past. Towns and regions are controlled by NPC factions, or “affiliations.” Icarus listed five affiliations, ranging from scientific organizations to new age spiritualists to anarchists similar to those in Road Warrior.

What really caused our eyebrows to perk up were the genetic modifications planned. While certain basic DNA mutation was available on the development server (facial reconstruction, body modification, as well as sex changes), Icarus plans to allow players to discover means of splicing their own DNA with special attributes exhibited by animals. Players can have the leg strength of a grasshopper, or the eyesight of a cat, or even the ability to “manipulate electricity, like eels.” It’s not necessarily safe to inject a character with random or black market DNA samples.

The game world will have a full ecosystem, complete with seasons and specific ambient sounds depending on the weather. Icarus feels sound is an element not utilized enough in the current MMOG crop. Certain creatures will react to sounds players make, and in order to sneak up on animals with good hearing, characters will need to take specific care in not making too much noise as they move. VoIP chatting will also be integrated into the game, and standard voiceovers from NPC dialog will be lip synced.

Of course, it’s important to bear in mind a game so far from release can change any and everything they have planned at the current moment. However, given the complexity of the tools at their disposal, it would be incredibly surprising if Icarus’s journey to the sun relies on beeswax and feathers.

by Joseph “Orson” Blancato

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