This week we turn our gaze to Fallen Earth, the widely underrated post-apocalyptic MMO which was recently acquired by free-to-play network, GamersFirst. We spoke to Marie Croall, Lead Designer, about the evolution of the game, the challenges of making those changes work, and the basic challenges of running an MMO at the smaller end of things.
RPS: First, quickly, you've said in earlier interviews that you're a fan of 'Y: The Last Man'. Are you the same Marie Croall who writes comics?
Croall: Yes, I am. I haven't done anything in a while. I did a lot of kids's comics, which was really weird to spend all day desiccating corpses and then... like, I did a Finding Nemo comic for Boom comics and lots of graphic adaptations for Learner, educational stuff, trying to get kids hooked early. I've worked for Marvel and DC on small projects and self-published some stuff. But I sorta got sidetracked by this whole Fallen Earth thing.
RPS: So this wasn't part of the plan?
Croall: It was NOT. I was doing really well as a writer, and then the first game designer found me and my writing partner at the time at a gaming convention and he was like 'you guys come up for an interview, you'll be a good fit, and thing's snowballed, and they kept moving me up and up and up in the ranks. When Lee left, I ended up as the lead game designer and I was like 'wow, maybe there's something to this whole video game thing.' It's a whole new way to write-create. I kind of fell in love with it. It's kind of top to bottom.
RPS: Yeah, it's the wrong way round. Most people come in from in from the fan side.
Croall: I've always been a gamer. The thing about writing is there a lot of thinking time. 'Okay, so I've got to think about this story, so what I'm going to do... think I'll hop online and level my shaman.' And then two days later I'm like 'oh, yeah, that thing I've gotta write.' We were always gamers, we always played so much, just in our downtime, so we came at it as a fan and really had to learn the professional side of it, all the background work that goes into making a game. It was really cool to flip-flop. I worked with people who knew, from when they were little, that 'I'm going to be in games, I'm going to be in games'.
RPS: Obviously, one distinctive aspect of Fallen Earth is that dark humour, futuristic Westworld, semi-theme park. Is that something you introduced yourself or something that you find when you got there?
Croall: The writers we have here, we have a similar sense of humour. The different towns you go to have the flavour of the writer that was working on it. I worked on a lot of the conflict towns early on and we knew that this was a place for people to kill each other, so a lot of the missions ended up being really thinly veiled insults. Then I worked with the CHOTA who were really not the most sophisticated of our factions, and I had a lot of fun with that. Really engage in some low-brow stuff. A lot of our humour comes from us being assholes with each other. We have this one mission and there’s this running joke that the guy pulling aggro is the guy wearing meat pants. So we made this mission where you have to put meat in your pants and run across this field. It really took way, way too many resources and way too much time. I went all the way and called the item Trousermeat, which we snuck under the ESRB.
RPS: It doesn’t sound like you regret it.
Croall: No! There’s a lot of places I’m looking at now going ‘I coulda gone farther. I coulda...’ We really always want to push the envelope as to what is acceptable and funny.
RPS: The engine is quite old and clunky these days, but the humour and the charisma and the game comes through.
Croall: It's everything. We have this fantastic scripting team, who do the brains and mission types, but relly involved in the design too. one of the scripters Neverender. He came up with this brilliant item, a way to grief other players. If you kill somebody in PvP, you pull out your little faction dancers and three guys basically mock your opponent right behind you. Everyone's like this, everyone thinking how do I put life into this; it's not just in the writing, it's who are we are, really.
RPS: Is there a gameplay payoff to that, a negative one?
Croall: Yeah, you have to carry around, it's got an hour cooldown. It was a reward for our anniversary event... giving them the ability to be jerks to each other.
RPS: Do you think it got the chance it deserved the first time around?
RPS: Do you think it's going to get the chance it deserves this time around?
Croall: It never really got a good solid look in. There's a couple of reasons for that. First, we have to admit, we're a mature-rated game about post-apocalyptic society. Not something that your average casual gamer is going to go 'hey, I want to unwind from a stressful day, I'll go look at a ruined world. It's a more sophisticated concept, you have to be a certain type of player to really get involved in it.
So we're a niche game, first of all, from a small company. We were doing things by the skin of our teeth always. So, that's what you get when you launch like that. We didn't have the marketing budget that a lot of games get. I sit down and think 'woooo' at their ads - wow, that would have been nice but now it's, like, in such a short amount of time we've expanded who's aware of us.
I've gotta give a little love to GamersFirst, and Darek and his team. They get us in front of people and I see... I'm a bit of a stalker. I have a character no-one knows about and I'll go and watch help-chat or global, and I PvP a lot... and I sit down and I'm watching a new player going "wow, is this a new game?" and I'm like "aw, sweetieee... Yeah, brand new. Let's go with that." So they're really doing this amazing job; different countries that have never heard of us.
RPS: So, where else are you getting new people in from?
Croall: A lot more people from... Germany? We looked at 'where are we going to be a good cultural fit?' There are certain countries that are lot more receptive to post-apocalyptic next-gen and others who are 'uh, not for us'. That's really nice to see.
RPS: How many of the dev team are still working on the game? You were quite a large studio back in the Icarus days.
Croall: There are 12 of us.
Croall: Yeah. We're a gang. We've got a good number for the things we want to do, and the projects we want to work on. That 12 is just the dev team. We don't have to work about agency work and marketing, and all the other things that came of us being our own entity, where the 12 of us had to do everything.
RPS: I didn't realise you'd got that small when you were standalone still.
Croall: We've been 12 people since basically May, since the layoffs. We've always had to work for Icarus (the former owner) in terms of engine development but... I think we learned a lot being 12, as we learned what we can do better, faster. We don't waste time on projects. We've had to do things in small chunks. We were working on Alpha county but we had to do a proof of concept, so we did Terminal Woods, to see how we could do terrain faster, how we did buildings faster, so we ended up getting twice the content just as part of the dev process. 50 missions, which is basically a town. And we did this with two content people. I have the most AMAZING writers. It's been interesting making the transition from being a writer to being lead game dev. I have a dev who got five minutes of training time and since then has just been ripping it up. She's great. Then I have my man Fafnir, one of the original devs. He and I have been on this project for like five years. I don't even tell him to do stuff any more. It really helps when you have these people.
RPS: Before you went to Free2Play, the world was getting quieter and quieter; I was looking at the forums and people were saying that they were having difficulty getting enough people together for a raid. Now that the critical mass is back with free2play, are those old players coming back?
Croall: We're seeing them creeping back in, it's really funny. There's a player who shall remain nameless; he quit saying I'm never going to be coming back. He played in another game I was playing at the time, and I saw him on there saying "I'm so glad to be here, I hate Fallen Earth." Then the other week, I was running around the game and he ran right by me... I was like "heyyy... you were never coming back..?" And he's trying to get other people back in the game! That's so nice to see.
RPS: Schadenfreude, eh? What has been the biggest challenge and the biggest boon about changing to free-to-play?
Croall: There are so many different ways to go free to play; are we going to go freemium and so on? We sat down with Joe Wilmont and he had a very clear vision for what monetisation for Fallen Earth was going to look like. It's been released now, with the Commander, Scavenger and Wastelander levels, laid it out, talked about complete open access. As he was explaining this, you could see the team going 'yeah, yeah this is what we want'. There were other directions we could have gone and because we're moving so sandboxy that putting in those freemium velvet ropes would have been less organic and obviously bad for our world. The biggest challenge was therefore conceptualising who we were going to be at the end of it. The greatest thing is that the GamersFirst guys just love the game; we've been it through some good and not-so good times, so we're looking at it through these cynical perspective and they come in and they're like 'omigod you have the greatest game in the world' and we're like 'oh yeah, we do.' Readjusting our mindset so we weren't looking at the baggage of the past five years instead looking at this new fresh start, Fallen Earth Reloaded. Having the space to do a lot of this stuff - it sounds bizarre, but getting out of crisis mode is an adjustment.
RPS: So it's the biggest challenge and the biggest boon. When I played it, for a little bit, ages ago, crafting was a huge thing in the game. How do you integrate that with NPC vendors *and* a F2P marketplace?
Croall: Sort of... really easily. The crafting system is still the crafting system it was. If you subscribe to the game, you can craft things faster and have more available hours of crafting, you can harvest faster. We're not cutting out the crafters; there's no cash shop where you can buy crafted goods. The cash shop sells convenience items; there's no armour, no weapons, because that's what our game is. It's building and killing and scavenging for resources; the second we start start selling those resources, we're undercutting who we are.
RPS: It's very hard to maintain a dynamic economy when there's no natural resources or supply and demand.
Croall: There are other games that works really well for, and that's awesome for those games. I hate to see players saying 'Game A does this, so all free to play games...'. I'm, like, no! You gotta look at each one as its own entity, and that's what Gamersfirst does well. They look at what players do and what they want to do, and they don't want to buy guns; they want to buy ways to make guns... faster.
RPS: What's sexy in games has changed quite a lot since you started working on Fallen Earth; five years ago, everyone was throwing money at them. Now the focus is on social, is it a relief for you that the pressure's off.
Croall: Oh, the pressure's never off. We're always still competing for the same person, that person who wants to game. And, y'know, the thing about F2P is that there are other F2P games around and we're competing for time. Taking it out of the realm of imaginary worlds, we're not competing for dollars any more, we're competing for something even more precious. The pressure in that aspect is to make a game that's engaging for five minutes, for 15 minutes... is there something you can log in and do real quick? We have to make sure that the casual person who wants to scavenge and make and sell stuff, that person can subsist next to the guy who'll spend 18 hours playing all the bloodsports and missions, who knows all the lore. They have to subsist side-by-side. How do they interact with each other? The iPhone is the world's greatest and worst device. It's so easy to put a game on. It's such a great device for distraction. I could be playing a game right now.
RPS: If this wasn't such a fascinating conversation you might be.
Croall: (laughs) Yeah, and that's who we have to compete against. We want to get his attention and say 'come into our world, don't sit on your sofa, and mess around with your iPhone while you watch the game. Shoot somebody!'
RPS: (laughs) There's also a difference in that to make a game that's compelling on social, mobile or even F2P MMO isn't that hard, as there are established tricks of the trade that have been talked about for the last five years, but to make something that works long-term and retains people long-term, isn't something we've seen evidence of F2P design producing. It sounds like GamersFirst have the right idea, bringing you, APB and your depth of content in.
Croall: They've had some games that have been going for a while too. Look at their catalogue like Knight Online isn't exactly a new game. They're really good at ferretting out longevity. There's a big difference between a game like APB and Fallen Earth. I think we get compared because we came out so close to each other. I think APB has longevity for different reasons - Fallen Earth has longevit because you can become invested in your character. APB you get invested in the action you're doing; driving around, shooting people, causing a ruckus. There are things that you can change about that scenario but you're always going to be invested in 'this is fun'. APB is fun right now. Fallen Earth is fun, because you can develop and grow. There are lesson you can learn from games that have only been around for a couple of years, cos that's starting to be long for MMOs. It's going to mean different things for different games; the more we can add social activities, the more we can bridge the gaps between different types of longevity... does that make any sense? Did I just go off the rails there?
RPS: It kinda makes a weird late-night London sense - but it's the afternoon where you are (North Carolina), right? What do you think started making the MMO player less sticky; the smorgasbord of niches or something else?
Croall: This goes back to longevity. I think games stopped being immersive. Disclaimer: these are my opinions, not representing Fallen Earth. There's a lot of games out there, you get in, you get to max-level, and that's nice. But they're becoming solo or limited-group experiences. When you have a game, and you're only about playing with the same six people, and you go 'we're going to log in, try this thing, and if we fail we'll try again tomorrow.' Well, I can do that in Call of Duty. I can do that in a lot of different types of games. That's not necessarily like an MMO. A MMO should be something like whenever you get in you're like 'what's going to happen? Am I going to discover something new? Am I going to meet new people? Am I going to run screaming from a horde of blightwolves?' That's to me what the MMO experience should be brought back to, that sandboxy thing, where you can create a world and that world can change, and should change. It should change in its politics, dynamics, who's in charge, who's running it, who the powerbrokers are - that's what I'd love to see. That's where you get people who are in it for twenty years. It's because they don't know what the experience is going to be from day to day. That's immersion, stickiness. When games started plodding out 'well from levels 10-20 you're going to be in this zone, doing this thing, etc', so it'll be the same thing when I go to level 30-40, except I'll be on a pony by then.
RPS: When I worked in PR, I worked on a lot of MMOs, and a lot I couldn't hold my hands up and say anything changed as you levelled up. But I've been playing variants of Team Fortress since 1998 and every time I go into that world, something's changed.
Croall: That's why I'm such a fan of sandbox MMOs. These days I only ever play sandboxes. I keep going back to them for some reason, even the ones that were so grainy and repetitive and had no animations... I kept coming back and asking myself 'what can I bring back into Fallen Earth from this'? Because when we launched we were a lot more theme-parky than we are now, and one of the reasons is that you can't sustain theme park people easily. The more features we add, the more ways for players to drive themselves, it makes the world better, it makes it feel like what we saw it as. That's where our focus has been for the past year and a half; what player-driven features can we put in? We did the Progress Towns (PvE) and now we're looking at what we can do for PvPers, cos I hate to leave those guys out. They really have my heart. We have this major faction Territory Control, step one. Hopefully, this'll give some impetus to drive ALL the members of a faction into fighting and get people excited about their factions, get them excited about killing each other. That's really what I want.
RPS: (Laugh) In the perfect world everyone kills each other?
Croall: They do. In my perfect world. We're still building.
RPS: One thing that was an issue when I first started playing Fallen Earth was finding out what to do. If the game didn't explain something, it was hard to find out anywhere else; the wikis weren't great and people didn't talk much in game. It really came down to exploring stuff yourself, which was both great and enormously frustrating.
Croall: One of the things we've excelled at lately is the Hazmat team. This is an active community of players who help out in the game. They're experts in Fallen Earth. They know things that even I've forgotten. They're not GMs, they're volunteers, guys who love the game. They take the time to sit down and help players. There's also a help channel you can scroll through, but everyone generally has the same questions. Yeah, I know. We've looked at streamlining the starting experiences and making more direct mission pop-ups, like 'you are now level 5. You can go and do this thing that will help you out immensely. Go do this thing.' Paraphrasing! So when you're ready to start crafting your ATV it will tell you. One of my dev's jobs is just to go through and streamline all this. At least giving players an idea of the things they should try so they can figure out what they like.
RPS: Are there vehicles that can be purchased?
Croall: There are a couple of vehicles that can be purchased, but they're vanity versions of the crafted ones. So, there's the Flamerider, a version of the motorcycle that you can paint flames on. That's it. You can paint the normal motorcycles, so it's only if you want to go that extra bit to be hardcore.
RPS: If you want your sparklepony, yeah.
Croall: That's something I think the players responded really well to. We had the cash shop before we went to GamersFirst, when we just testing the waters, and there was the sort of inevitable backlash, but once players got the gist that we weren't going to be selling consumable items or ammo or components or cash, they were okay. There's a dog. He'll run beside you and very Max Maxy.
RPS: Very Fallout 2, yes. Are the world events and territory control in there yet?
Croall: That's coming soon. That's going to be awesome. I was looking at that right before I got on this call. Basically, resources are what everyone is fighting for in our game. You want to be the guy who controls the oil or the carbon steel or the plastic, plastic is very valuable. Faction control lets you take a territory over and get control of those resources, and impact the world that way. We've made changes to PvP overall, so that rare resources are primarily available in PvP zones. To reward that risk.
RPS: Going slightly towards the more Eve model of more dangerous areas being the areas that reward you better? What are the world events going to constitute?
Croall: Yeah, you need that risk-reward thing. World events, because it's going to impact players across the entire game, it's gotta be spot-on. World events are basically random things that happen throughout the world. It's this amazing system that Aff(?) has been working on, we can do a billion things with it. THe first iteration might be you're just hanging out in your town and a message will pop up 'your town is under attack, kill the rampaging apes'. The apes are vicious-looking and really horrific and they will own the guards in the town. So you show up, and the apes are slaughtering guards, ape bodies everywhere, guards fleeing and you're like 'yeah. This is the wasteland. This is post-apocalyptic.'
RPS: Planet of the Apes. Brilliant.
Croall: I feel bad for the apes because their town fell. They had monkeytown and... yeah, it was really tragic. The Earthbound came in and killed all the monkeys and burnt their bodies. We had to rename monkeytown to Quarantine. A lot of players weren't going to Monkeytown, it was not a very utilised place, so we figured that since there wasn't a lot of people in there, maybe something bad has happened so we did this great live event and the monkeys all died. So, yeah the apes are really pissed.
RPS: That's very strict of you, with the content you've got in the world. Would you ever do that with a player town or unpopular or loser faction?
Croall: We've thought about it. I mean, yeah... I blew up a starter town. Um.
RPS: I hope my character's not still there.
Croall: It'd better now! It was not good. We looked at it and thought 'we can do this better'. We can do it better and make it part of the story. So we have this villain, ah, Alec Masters, part of the lore and he dies in the tutorial. But he didn't actually die and (spoilers) at this point in the story, he's returned and since the CHOTA killed him in the tutorial his reaction was 'fuck you guys, I'm going to blow up your town.' So we put this huge missile in the middle of Boneclaw. It was leaking radiation and then we had another live event, where his men invade, and there was a bomb they had to deactivate, and they couldn't deactivate it.... and we triggered a huge explosion, the screen went white, and everyone died. We killed off all the players that were there, all the NPCs, and left it as a radiation zone for a good two months, while we made the new town. We flat out nuked it because it wasn't doing what we wanted it to do. Boom!
We really try to incorparate the players when we add a new feature. One of the first things we did after the layoffs - one of the Icarus programmers came in and said "do you guys want weather?" We said, sure. So we did this whole plot where the outsiders, my favourite villain group, were trying to activate this James Bond weather device and flood the canyon and the players chased us around Deadfall, and killed us, and as a result the weather device didn't go off, but it sort of worked, so now we get rain time to time. At one point, we were all playing bad guys, and I was the head bad guy, always introduced myself as Carter 'fucking' Wyatt, and we were waiting for the players to show up and Maenad, our head of systems, is watching and says "guys, there's some cars coming." And Neverender runs out and then we hear "shit... I think it's all of them!" It was something like every level 50 player driving their interceptors towards us. Standing Room only in office park; one of the bigger PvP battles we've ever had. Hopefully, we'll have some time to do a really good solid live event and get some roleplaying going.
RPS: It sounds like, despite becoming more cynical as the years go by, you really enjoy playing the game and doing the roleplay, and working and playing together.
Croall: We do play the game a lot now. I'll come back from lunch and people are playing the game. Maenad and I have been levelling up characters, and comparing notes since the combat changes, which is hilarious. She's much better at builds than I am. She said I have a crappy build. I mean, I did it deliberately. I set out to prove that you can make any build work. And you can! You just can't do everything. I purposely do not tell people what build I have because I don't want anyone to be thinking 'oh, I have the crappy build' and because it's actually quite powerful in a lot of aspects. I can do an amazing amount of things that I've been told are not possible. We do like to play together though. It's an unspoken rule that if two of us are in the same place at the same time, someone is going to get shot in the head.
RPS: Thanks for your time!