Phil Shenk exposes Mythos
Intrigued by talk of an online action-RPG revolution, Thomas Ryan lured Flagship's Phil Shenk, Creative Director for Mythos, onto his sofa for something of a heart-to-heart...
Firstly can you fill us in on the back story and the land of Uld?
I wanted to create a fantasy world that felt familiar, but was also unpredictable... something that could be anything we wanted it to be. I always believe that it's good to use certain archetypes that people will easily understand, particularly in the fantasy genre. I'm not a huge fan of fantasy games that make up weird races out of thin air. I'm not saying it can't work, because one of my favorite fantasy novels breaks that rule (Perdido Street Station by China Mieville), but for the most part I think fantasy is so popular in the mainstream because everyone already knows the archetypes. We "know" what an elf is, a goblin, a giant, a dragon, etc. We don't have to work and take time to learn about a "Hurfalump" or a "Bogwando" (I'm making stuff up). Fantasy archetypes are right there in our minds, ready to play with. But I also like to take these familiar archetypes and run with them... use them as a starting point, and then do something unexpected. Uld came about, out of this desire.
I think this was part of what made Diablo so successful. The world seemed familiar, a medieval Scottish town, a church above a dungeon that was infested with demons. But then we took it and ran with it. We never mentioned real religions, angels were similar to what we think of, but they were also different. We deliberately didn't set it on "earth", or in a real historical context, so that we could use all those strong, familiar archetypes, but not be a slave to them. This is my favorite way to create a game world. It's familiar, yet different.
Anyway, the story of Uld takes place after a long, dark period that covered the whole planet. I don't mean dark literally, although that was part of it, but magically, spiritually, physically, everything basically broke down. The land became corrupt, and warped. Nothing was reliable. For example - crops wouldn't grow at all, or if they did they grew wildly, to enormous size, sprouted legs and thorny tentacle-arms, and went on a killing rampage. Everything was wonky. Nights would sometimes last for weeks, and then suddenly it would reverse and it would be high-noon for days at a time. Magic and technology were completely unreliable. What used to be relatively straightforward and predictable was now random and incredibly dangerous. Simple things like wheels still worked (most of the time), but something more complicated like a blunderbuss was just as likely to spew forth acidic ooze as it was to fire a bullet. The land itself would warp and twist, as if in a dream. A road that lead through a forest one day, might shift and lead through a wailing cavern or a vortex to a demonic underworld the next. As a result of all this chaos, the previously great Kingdoms of the civilized races crumbled. It was almost impossible to travel anywhere, and only slightly less dangerous to stay put. People lived in uncertainty, fear and little hope.
As the Kingdoms fell, the forces of Discordia grew. These were the chaos races, the malformed progeny of distorted reality. They seemed to thrive in the warping landscape... some appeared out of nowhere, some were always on Uld, but grew stronger, and some seemed to arrive from some other time or another place, through the tears in the thinning boundaries that define reality. The once-great and ubiquitous gods of Uld mysteriously vanished, and over the centuries, were forgotten. The Dark Age lasted so long that history was lost. Something as simple as writing didn't even work, the very words on the page would fade, or fail to even come forth in the mind of the scribe. The centuries of the Dark Age were like a shifting, warping nightmare. Whatever life was like before was largely forgotten and only the faintest recollections remained, passed down unreliably through oral myths and legends.
No one is certain what caused the Dark Age, but there are some prevalent theories held by both the races of the Kingdoms and of Discordia. Some say it's a planetary thing, that there is a great astral cloud that engulfs the Uld every few millennia. Some say that the old gods had a great war, and as a result the fabric of reality was torn apart. Some say that it was the result of some enormous metaphysical engine gone haywire, some kind of cosmic device that powers the cosmos. Some speak of an ancient underground race of hideous demons that found and corrupted the roots of the world. There are almost as many theories as there are theorists, and discovering the truth will be one of the things that we'll explore in the game.
In keeping with the Diablo experience players will control the game via an isometric view and a point and click interface, will players be stuck in a single viewpoint or will they have the ability to zoom and rotate the camera?
The game controls are almost exactly like Diablo. Right now, you can zoom the camera in pretty far, but it stays in the same overhead perspective. The game is designed to look at the world from that view, and that's the way it will stay. It would be easy to add in camera rotation if we want to. The topic has come up, and there are different opinions on the matter. My own opinion is that some option to rotate the camera might be good, if it looks like we need it. Right now, it doesn't feel like it's needed.
I have read that Alpha tests have been in action for some time, how are these tests progressing and what kind of reaction has the community had towards Mythos?
The tests are going great, and are turning up a lot of good technical information. The early stages of Mythos Alpha were specifically designed to test our whole back-end server technology that we're also using for Hellgate: London. As we grow Mythos over the coming months, we'll stress that tech even more. Mythos is its own game, on its own track, but it's blazing the path for Hellgate.
The community reaction has been really enthusiastic. We have a lot of fans already that say they're addicted, and they can't wait for the next playday. I find this both surprising and not... On one hand, I know it's a really fun game. I feel like we got the basics down pretty solidly. On the other hand, there is so much more content coming in during the next few months... what's in there now is only the barest start. It's good to see them enjoying it so much, with so little actual material.
With a lot of MMO titles, 'grouping' is a very important aspect of the game, what have you done to accommodate large groups and people that wish to go solo?
I love solo play, and I'm not a big fan of games that force you to group in the late game, or that make the late-game solo experience incredibly boring. At the same time, I think that large-group gameplay is pretty fun. We're an action game, so the typical MMO raid style thing won't really work, but there's lots of room for other types of large-group experiences. We have lots of ideas, and we'll try them all. I'd love to see huge dungeons that require a large group to split up and handle many tasks at once. A coordinated assault on a Giant's fortress, for example. One group has to plant charges, another group fights in through an infested tunnel. Another group fights down from the rooftop, and they all meet in the storm giant's throne room for a huge battle. I'm just making that up here on the spot, but stuff like that I think would be cool.
With the dungeons being generated to suit the group that enters it, will the loot also take on the same principles or will there be a pre-defined loot pattern in place?
All our loot is randomly generated, and the loot you see on the ground is the loot you can pick up... you can't steal someone else's drop, in other words. We may implement special preset drops for certain quests, or certain bosses, but right now, they are random, based on things like dungeon difficulty, monster level, and so forth. I do like the idea that you go to certain dungeons to find certain items, or at least have a chance of finding them, so you will probably see that in the game at some point. I think it would be cool to find a map to a certain rare dungeon type, and be excited because it you know that there is a boss at the bottom, that has a good chance of spawning a specific helmet that you're looking for.
What is the limit to the number of players that can enter a dungeon?
Currently, there is no limit. We will probably implement a cap at some point, based on the dungeon type. The way we do dungeons, we can build a lot of different types. For instance, we could have solo-only dungeons, five-player, ten-player, "epic", twenty or fifty-player raids, PvP, etc. We really want to provide a lot of different possibilities for dungeons... something for everybody! Our system is great, because we can just experiment and tweak, and do crazy fun stuff. In that way, it's a game-designer's playground.
Presumably experience will be garnered through questing and slaying beasts, are there plans afoot for any new ways to gain experience or will the aforementioned be the only way to achieve higher levels?
Questing and killing monsters will be the main way to gain levels. I can't think of any other clever way off the top of my head, but if we come up with something cool, we'll probably try it.
Will battles be carried out in real-time or be a turn-based affair?
All the combat is real-time, just like in Diablo. The pace is high, there's no combat "mode" as in a lot of MMO's. We do want to encourage tactics and multiplayer dynamics, so we're designing lots of interesting classes, and making it easy to hotkey multiple spells and abilities. But all combat is totally real-time.
How are you planning for the world of Uld to evolve? Do you have ideas in place regarding new content?
We plan to update the game continually throughout its whole life. Right now, we have a pretty aggressive pace of doing an update every week or so. This is proving to be too tough on the team, so we're going to try out a two-week schedule. Part of the issue is that we're both building the game and adding new content. Once most of the game systems are in place, adding content will be slightly easier.
The goal is to keep it always feeling fresh, like something is happening. This is good for the players, but it's also good for us... it keeps the creativity alive, and we aren't ever working away in a room for years and years without seeing what people think. It's nice to put stuff in, and see people's reactions to it almost immediately.
The pace that we're adding content is getting ready to drastically ramp up in the next months. At some point, it will probably level out a bit, to a more steady rate. We're in growth phase right now... it's exciting.
Lastly, is there any news on an expected release to the general public?
We've just implemented an "invite" system, to let testers invite their friends. Probably in the next month or two we'll open it up to a larger audience. We are still taking info on www.mythos.com, and we're sending out invites from that list every playday. That's the best way to get signed up as soon as possible. By summer, if all goes to plan, we should have quite a large population.
Thanks for your time Phil, best of luck with the growth of Mythos.