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Warm In The Shadows: Darkfall Interview

It's a year since we last really seriously looked at Darkfall. It's a year which has seen the game released in North America, continue its expansion and has recently opened its gates to the world with a 14-day free trial. We thought it was time to speak to the Darkfall team about what they've been up to, their aims and the big misapprehensions about their game. Tasos Flambouras agreed, and after gathering to discuss matters with Producers Claus Grovdal and Kjetil Helland, returned with answers...

RPS: Starting from the most recent news - you've just started offering a 14 day trial. Can you explain the thinking behind it? Why was now the right time? Why not before?

Tasos Flambouras: We’re obviously doing it to make it easier for new players to try Darkfall out, and easier for existing players to recommend the game. We also have improved the overall game and newbie experience quite a bit so this is a good time, but it’s not the reason we didn’t have the trial before.

We wish we could have had a free trial earlier. However we wanted to have done as much as we could to protect the existing player base before we offered it. Our trial doesn't take place on a secluded island or on a separate world; it's the full game so a free trial was a concern in a competitive game like Darkfall. We had to do lot of work before enabling the free trial to ensure there would be no incidents of trial accounts interfering with the subscriber experience.

We tested the waters with our 1euro/dollar trial, where you had to pay a symbolic price to try Darkfall and it went very well. We’re very happy with the way our free trial is going too.

RPS: You grab someone in the pub and have to explain Darkfall to them in a couple of sentences. How would you do it?

Tasos Flambouras: It’s a big game, and you can’t really sum it up efficiently without sounding like an advert. Still, if I were to explain Darkfall to a friend of mine in a couple of sentences this is probably how I would do it:

Darkfall is an MMOG with real-time FPS gameplay, skills rather than levels, full loot, an alignment system, the largest battles ever, clan warfare, sieges, mounted combat, naval battles, and you can actually do more things in this game than you can in any other MMOG. It's not for everyone, but those that enjoy it swear by it and often mention that it's the most fun they've had in any game.

RPS: What's been the biggest changes in Darkfall recently? The majority of our readers will be familiar with Darkfall around the time of the coverage at the mid-point last year. How has the game grown since?

Tasos Flambouras: We’ve had two large free expansions and more than thirty content patches since then. The biggest changes have happened gradually with the exception of the total revamp of the siege / conquest system. We did that because we felt we could do it better and we believe we’ve improved it significantly.

We added player housing that we’ve kept adding features to and have incorporated it into the Village System, where clans fight to control each village.

Through a series of changes we’ve balanced PvP playstyles in a meaningful way, we balanced mounted combat, and we introduced several large PvP elements like Sea Fortresses and villages, and we also added trade routes which aside from giving another PvP opportunity, also help boost the economy.

We’ve slowly started differentiating Darkfall’s races. This is a major project and quite the balancing act. We’ve added character specializations, which are leading to Darkfall’s prestige classes, a deep character specialization system, and major upcoming Darkfall feature.

We’ve done a lot of work on character progression, making it less tedious. We’ve made it much easier for new players to catch up to veterans, at the same time making new players more viable. Brand new players now also have 12 gameplay hours of protection from attacks which is ample time for them to learn the basics.

We’ve added a lot more naval content, like more ships, we’ve made the ships more accessible by making the materials needed to craft them cheaper and more common. We’ve added Sea Villages, Sea Fortresses and sea monsters.

We’ve introduced dynamic lore events where players or clans not only become part of the lore and the world events, but they can change the actual course of events, the history and the future of the game.

All the things I mention above are all being improved continuously, we don’t mean to sound as if we’ve solved everything or that we’re satisfied. We never are.

Also, as cliché as this may sound: the best is yet to come. We have another free expansion coming soon, and what we’ve code-named Darkfall 2010 towards the end of the year, our largest post-release project to date.

RPS: Describe your ideal player. Do you have an ideal player? I kind of feel you do. While many developers seem to design to be malleable to players, it strikes me that Darkfall is a game which demands the players to be malleable.

Tasos Flambouras: We keep saying that Darkfall isn't for everyone but that’s unfair to the work we’ve been doing to make it more appealing to a wider base without compromising what we feel makes the game special. We don't really have an ideal player, but the players who would get the most out of Darkfall are intelligent players that enjoy freedom, action, more options, more challenges, don’t need or want constant hand-holding, don’t need constant direction by the game, and can look past the first few hours of trying to learn the ropes.

When you play any MMOG, you're making an investment, these are not casual games and they continuously evolve. The potential of the game is very important. Our most loyal players are ones that can appreciate the work we’ve been doing since release, and see not only what we have to offer today, but also what's coming in the future, and what’s possible.

Some of the game's most vocal critics have multiple accounts on both servers and have been playing Darkfall since day one. There’s a lot of passion surrounding this game, and this is very much true with the fans of the game. It’s almost as if they don’t accept that we created Darkfall and that we know what we’re doing, but that it’s their game and they’ve entrusted it to us. And you know what, they’re actually right. It is their game and we take our responsibilities towards them very seriously because without them, there is no game.

RPS: Can we talk about the fundamentals for a second? What's the core of the game for you? As in, what do you think is the absolute core philosophically with Darkfall which everything else grows out of?

Tasos Flambouras: If we have to choose one, we all agree on player freedom. It’s what we continuously strive for and it guides everything we do. The amount of things you can do, the freedom to develop your character any way you want, freedom in movement, no artificial barriers, no zones, no instances, as little gameplay restrictions as possible, no prerequisites or limitations before you can start having fun.

We think that our answer to the next question also applies to this one...

RPS: The MMO - like any genre - changes over time. What do you think changed in the 6 years you took to make it? How has it changed since your launch? How do you think it's going to change in the near future? Or do you consider Darkfall a singular proposition which exists more to one side?

Tasos Flambouras: It’s pretty amazing to us how little the MMO genre has changed over time. It seems to be the same successful basic recipe with little variation. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good games, but they don’t really bring many new things to the table. Everyone wanted to make the Everquest killer and now they want to make the World of Warcraft killer. To do that they probably have to make a variation on the theme rather than innovate and dare to be different. It’s too risky to try new things in a long development cycle and most of the major development efforts are very conservative. One of the very few things we’ve seen change is PvP finally entering the MMO mainstream. When we started out PvP was something you almost had to apologize for offering. We would get hate-mail about it. Now everyone wants to attach some PvP element to their game because there’s obviously a market for it.

When we started designing Darkfall we looked at it from a player perspective, and we were actual players and had invested heavily in the games we were playing, not just developers checking out other games. We started asking a lot of questions:. Why can’t we do this or that? Why don’t they do it this way, questions players ask of their games every day. We set out to answer these questions, learn from the mistakes other games had made, and to actually make our wish list game.

Of course Darkfall is very different, we went off in a different direction and we keep following the wishlist, adding to it, and we’ve been listening to our community and playerbase very carefully. We made mistakes because we tried a lot of new things but we’re constantly learning from our experience. The monumental effort that went into making Darkfall is dwarfed by the effort that is going into its evolution. We’re not just supporting the game, we’re engaged in full-blown game development.

I’m not trying to suggest that we’re doing things better or that we try harder. What I’m saying is that we took a lot of risks in an effort to make an innovative game and we keep taking these risks by staying true to course. Whether what we did pushes the genre any further, only time will tell. In the meanwhile we have players of ours leaving Darkfall for the next big thing, and shortly after returning to our game because, so far, they can’t get what we offer anywhere else. We’re not talking about millions of players here but the fact that we’ve actually launched this game and it’s successful to the point that we can continue doing what we love, makes us successful. Who knows what we could have accomplished with more resources, but we’re grateful for what we have right now.

RPS: What's the biggest misapprehension about Darkfall?

Tasos Flambouras: Darkfall is not the strictly hardcore game it’s made out to be. We have numerous casual players who enjoy the game as much or even more than the hardcore players. We were also surprised to find a healthy population of role-players during our events. For reference, our average player age is 27.

New players are also generally amazed that there’s so much good will towards them in-game and they are helped a lot more often than they are attacked. There exists a perception about the game that is very flawed and probably has to do more with some forum experiences rather than actual in-game experiences.

RPS: Okay - this is the thing which confuses me about many MMOs, and PvP MMOs with a unique end-game most of all. The best things about Darkfall are things like the Sieges and ship warfare and similar. They're stuff which you have to go through the early game to get to. Why not bring some of this stuff forward? Is there a necessary part of the design which demands a character starts virtually powerless?

Tasos Flambouras: The same thing confuses us about MMOs and this is why we didn’t make Darkfall that way. Take a brand new character, have him learn the basics for a few hours, join a guild, and go participate in a massive battle, a naval battle, or a siege. It is conceivable that by his actions, he could become the MVP for his side. A new character in Darkfall can go anywhere without restriction, he can use any equipment, man cannons, warhulks, sail the largest ship, resurrect or finish off any incapacitated player, scout, use a mount, deter with his presence (nobody knows you’re a newb), destroy a structure, capture a village, a city etc. Take a group of 10 new characters in Darkfall: they can fend off and even kill a veteran. Take as many new characters as you like in most other MMOs and they can’t even make a dent on one high level character.

Starting characters in Darkfall are far from being powerless. I believe that they’re probably the most powerful starting characters in any MMO with character progression.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Darkfall is available to play now, complete with a free 14-day trial.

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