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Interview: Masthead Talk Earthrise

Since its announcement in 2008 things have been quiet at Earthrise towers. Bulgarian devs Masthead have been quietly working away on an apocalyptic sci-fi MMO, which has long been sounding like one of the more interesting prospects from Eastern Europe. A free-form, sandbox approach, a player-driven economy, politics, PvP and PvE conflict over resources, and a claim to be doing things in an "old school" way that belies a love of UO. Well, it's certainly interesting, if a little mysterious. But now it seems things are hotting up as Masthead are beginning to work on their closed beta, which you can sign up for on the site. We spoke to Atanas Atanasov at Masthead Studios to find out a bit more about the game, and see how things are coming along.

RPS: Can you tell us a little about Masthead Studios and how you came to be working on such an ambitious-sounding MMO?

Atanasov: Masthead Studios was formed in 2005 with focus on development of online games and technology for online games. Earthrise is our first MMO, which from the very beginning was planned to return the sandbox and open world experience of the old school MMOs. At the same time graphics and overall user experience will be at par with the best MMOs on the market.

RPS: What is the basic philosophy behind Earthrise? What sets it apart from other MMOs?

Atanasov: From its early days Earthrise has been designed to differentiate from the traditional MMO games on the market with a unique setting that contrasts post-apocalyptic future with science-fiction society that has risen from the ashes of destruction to shape into a unique society. To the survivors of the Continoma Project, that have managed to preserve humanity in its underground complex, the Librarium, the brave new world brings new challenges: a mutated and dangerous environment to conquer, and technology advancements that have not been even thought of before. Facing danger of unimagined proportions, humanity conquers death by mastering cloning, but in return sacrifices its freedom. The control-hungry government controls whoever gets cloned back to life and who doesn't, and this is the point of turmoil between the authorities and a shadow opposition called Noir that seeks to take down its regime. While many elements ring close to popular science-fiction ideas, it is the way they are executed together in a believable and immersive fabric that makes Earthrise different from many other games.

Along with the unique story, the freedom sandbox approach to the MMO gameplay places players in control of the fate of not just their character, but the world itself. Player-based economy means everything that exists as a usable object can and must be made by the players themselves. Resources have to be won back from the natural dangers of the game world and unique rare resources must be mined and fought for in a world-wide territory conquest. In a game that pits players against each other on many levels such as Earthrise, PvP combat has a new meaning and is the most important aspect of the game.

RPS: Can you explain a little about how the skill system works? How does the lack of class systems work in practice? If there are no levels as such, how do you decide which enemies are too tough for you?

Atanasov: Earthrise allows players to develop their character as they desire without class constrains. Instead of forcing players to accept an archetype of gameplay, we let them experiment and advance their character without limitations to what they can learn. What limits player's capabilities is his gear, as certain armors and weapons will contain the required electronics and systems needed to execute the knowledge of a skill. This means that while players may eventually learn all skills, it will not make them more powerful, only more flexible. There are no levels either, and what measures the player's abilities is what gear they have collected and put in use. This means that a new character may spend their accumulated points into exactly what skills they need to become experts in combat as fast as possible, but it will not make more powerful as combat in Earthrise will require tactical considerations that will always benefit those who have more flexibility and know how to execute it on the battle field.

RPS: What led the team to develop a title that is very PVP focused?

Atanasov: Our early market analysis showed that the PvE MMORPG market is highly saturated with many games that cater to exactly the same type of player who enjoys pre-constructed gameplay, predominantly filled by repetitive even if rewarding tasks. What we decided early on was that Earthrise has to be different and target a different breed of players: those who seek freedom, those who seek cooperation and competition, and those who want to see real consequences to their actions. Earthrise could not have become reality without the strong support of our fans that have shown us that this sort of PvP focused gameplay has great potential. Today's MMO players are looking for real challenges – the very kind that Earthrise can provide.

RPS: What sort of challenges are there in PvE?

Atanasov: From the very beginning of the game Earthrise will involve players in the growing tension between Continoma and Noir, learning each side's political ideals and agendas and finding out how they can aid their cause. Many of the quests that players will be offered will put them in dangerous locations that offer low or no security and where PvP factor will become of crucial importance. Minor organizations who support one of the major factions but have their own plans will offer players hard tasks that will open access with exclusive rewards offered for their reputation as a supporter. Despite their political affiliation, players may help out the economy of the island by protecting mines from mutant invasion, which not only causes larger amount of resources on the market which forces prices down, but also will earn them free resources they can use in crafting or sell on the auction. Many of these mines will be target of attacks of extremely powerful creatures angered by their operation and players will have to gather together to bring the threat down.

RPS: What benefits do territory conflicts give to players?

Atanasov: Controlling a territory is not just a prestigious feat to brag about, but also a source of extremely lucrative profits. Territories owned by Guilds will be the only main source for rare resources that are required for the crafting of the most powerful items in the game, as well as designs that augment armors and weapons capabilities. It is safe to say that guilds who own a territory will have both control of the distribution of the resources on the market but also decide whether to keep powerful arsenal to themselves, making sure they remain superior in combat, or trade them to earn as much as the market can bear. This seemingly unfair advantage will be hard to maintain as guilds will rage fierce competition among each other for the control of those important resources.

RPS: It sounds like you're aiming for a player-driven economy, can you explain a little about the processes in involved in that?

Atanasov: Simply put, players will be able to craft every item in the game, as well as design augmentations that modify the item's properties. When the game launches, players will have to first build the game's economy and technology advances by learning crafting skills and establishing a market based on their own rules. While players may actually buy items via vendors, these items will be significantly weaker than player-crafted items, and vendor-bought items will break considerably faster compared to those that players have crafted. Player-crafted items can also be repaired and taken care of, extending their longevity. Players will also be able to dismantle any items to its ingredients and use those ingredients to craft a different item, of course, not without risk for damaging the quality property of the resources. Quality is the most important factor in crafting and it measures the bonuses that the item (weapon, armor or a device) will receive from using superior ingredients and modules in its crafting process. A functional market and auction will be in place to make trade simple between players.

RPS: Can you tell us a little about combat: how does it work? How much is based on skill?

Atanasov: Combat in Earthrise is presented through third-person perspective shooter where the player has to control his character movements and target his opponent in combat to make sure his attacks are successful. This sort of control and gameplay requires as much player skill with shooter and action games as much as tactical placement and execution of character's combat abilities. We have broken player control into two modes - Battle and Exploration Mode. They are both differentiated and balanced - players move faster and able to run away from opponents in Exploration mode but take more damage if hit, players will be slower and easier to shoot at but will have the complete protection of their combat suits. Entering combat is not a fire and forget action, it requires players to balance out the need for mobility and protection in combat all the time, and will make them think and act fast in the face of danger. This means that combat in Earthrise will be faster, more dynamic and more memorable especially in mass combat or against a powerful foe.

RPS: Science fiction MMOs have traditionally not done all that well, does that worry you?

Atanasov: How a game will be executed does not depend on the genre it decides to establish itself with, but the skill and dedication of the development company. It is true that sci-fi games are a risky endeavor, and it is also true that smaller companies such as Masthead Studios are more likely to take risks to earn the attention of the niche audiences that love that sort of games. For Earthrise, we made sure that we do not repeat any of the fallacies of the genre and that the game will be as fresh, rewarding, and addictive as many of the fantasy games out there, only aimed for a different crowd.

RPS: Can you tell us about your plans for release, and beta?

Atanasov: It is still early to tell when the game will be out on the market. Earthrise is currently in its closed beta stages. During the summer months we will keep sending more beta invites to players who have registered for our beta.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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