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Interview with Chris DiBona

RPGamer recently interviewed former Slashdot Editor and co-Founder of Damage Studios about Damage Studio's recently announced MMORPG, Rekonstruction. This ambition project is set to launch in time for the 2004 Christmas season.

RPGamer: The goals stated for Rekonstruction, such as incorporation of weather statistics and the inclusion of real-world landmarks, let alone support for 1,000,000 concurrent users are quite lofty. Do you believe you will be able to include everything you want in the first release, or is it more likely some features will have to wait until an expansion pack/service release?

Mr. DiBona: Well, there are certain things that we can get away with supporting later and some that we cannot. For instance, the backstory dictates that we don't have to model many structures as the planet was hit by a big planet killing asteroid. The resulting devastation would be similar to that caused by Lake Shasta dam being rendered asunder, or the wash from a Pacific Ocean strike. There will be some landmarks and geographical features in our starter cities. Another thing we plan to do is to offer, inside the game, quests to design and build certain iconic structures. We're calling this the "Preservation Trust" that the Rekonstruction Corp. inside the game will sponsor.

A place where we have some room is in the scaling of the world, since we don't expect all 1m players to come until later, we don't need 5 game clusters all over the world from day one. Nor will we need every species or every model done. In fact, it would be a mistake to do so. The great thing about MMORPGs is that there is an economic incentive to keep the game fresh and new as time goes on, so as we turn on new species and features in the game, it will keep things fresh.

We do have plans for expansion packs, but honestly those are 3 years down the road at this point, so I don't see any good reason to go into them. A good MMOG doesn't need expansion pack revenue to survive. I'd rather make an experience so compelling that users continue to play it and thus we can afford to keep on making it better.

The weather stuff and the rest are easy when you compare it to the economic and psychological issues such a large game represents. I say this as a programmer with a long background in large systems. I mean, if you look at a stock market like the Nasdaq, that's a capital letter H hard computing problem, this game is not, it's an execution problem that our team is more than up for.

RPGamer: Regarding the stated goal of over 1,000,000 concurrent users, approximately how soon after release do you expect to reach that number?

Mr. DiBona: We expect to hit that number within 3 years of global launch. We plan on launching globally 9 months to one year after domestic launch. Since we plan on December of '04 as being our launch date that means we expect those kinds of numbers in the 2007-2008 time frame. It's worth pointing out that Rekonstruction will not be a bifurcated world. There are no separate PK/non-pk worlds, no shards, no east coast/west coast servers. This is one world. We have a cool way of dealing with the pk/non-pk problem so that shouldn't turn people off from playing the game.

We feel that the shattered worlds are a big barrier to the large-scale adoption of these games. We will not have this problem and thus we will grow faster and larger than any current game.

RPGamer: Rekonstruction will pit your company against some of the largest entertainment/video game companies in the world, like Sony, EA, Square, NC Soft, and Lucas Arts. What do you think will help Damage Studios survive against such established companies and their franchise titles?

Mr. DiBona: Well, I don't belong to the "Sony has to lose for us to win" school of MMOG creation. I see people like EA and Sony as potential partners rather than as competitors. As far as competing for the hearts and minds of gamers, I think that the established franchises are getting stale and will be played out by the time we debut. This is not to say that Sony and EA and the rest can't come out with new, cool titles. I have every reason to expect they will. I just think that when we release, ours will be better and will remain better, and thus the question will be, in 2004, what will Sony, Microsoft and the rest be doing to challenge us. It should be fun to find out. There is a saying that I heard many years ago "If you have no competition, you have no market".

RPGamer: MMORPGs and especially RPGs set in a future world that has been "destroyed" have been quite popular for a number of years now. What features of Rekonstruction sets it apart from other, similar games?

Mr. DiBona: The approach we are taking is actually a little bit different. Rekonstruction is not a destroyed world. No one actually died when the Asteroid hit, they are simply in personality stasis in the Orbiting Personality Repositories.

Regarding other post-apocalyptic event MMORPGs, I haven't found them to be very compelling honestly. Nothing personal against the folks who created Anarchy Online, I just did not find it to be that enjoyable to play. Currently, the narrative threads in MMORPGS are universally pretty awful. I understand that we have to embrace some cliches in the genre, but there is a dearth of creativity in gaming.

As an industry, we've been able to keep selling games based on technological advancement alone, a prettier Quake or UT, a slightly more complicated Civilization, but now we are at the point where the graphics and sound are so good that we actually have to start making better games now. Damage is up to that challenge, and seeing what is on the gaming horizon, I'm not sure most of our colleagues are.

While the scale of Rekonstruction is a nice selling point, it is in the service of the story, not the other way around. Earth, for me, is -the- compelling platform for a MMORPG. I don't want to get too new age here, but the Earth itself tells a story, a glance at the history and geography of the Salton Sea, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon tells you that. Those are the proper backgrounds to put a game in, a proper place to live an epic story. To put a game like this in a fictional world means that fictional world must be as compelling, and I haven't seen that yet.

Also, the big problem with any MMORPG is satisfying the different kinds of players in a way that is fun for all of the players. For instance, some players of Rekonstruction will want to take part in the very fun backstory and political and strategic arcs that we've created, others will want to go to Montana and hide in a shack and have fun that way. Creating a world that works for those (and other) constituencies is not easy.

I don't know that I've answered your question so much as rant about narratives, but you get the point. At launch we will be a compelling game, and every month will make it that much more compelling.

RPGamer: Another stated goal of Rekonstruction is have players from every country on planet playing the game. How do you intend to handle the language barriers?

Mr. DiBona: The short answer is, we won't. If an English speaking player ports to Japan, he or she will have to find a translator or rely on the very simple phrase book that his or her implant will provide.

I can see a good way of making money in the game is acting as tour guide, actually.

It's worth pointing out that when we launch in Japan (or China, or wherever) we will have a culturally appropriate client, one that provides a native experience. But if a Japanese player ports to America, he or she will have to learn some English as well. That's the nature of things. Hell, if a guild wants to start an Esperanto colony, they are welcome to it.

RPGamer: Finally, nearly every MMORPG has launched with some sort of flaw or unexpected problem, from bugs, to auctioning of items for real currency. From observing what problems other companies have encountered, and how they have dealt with them, what do you feel is the greatest potential problem for Rekonstruction, and how do hope to avoid or minimize the impact of said problem?

Mr. DiBona: Two words define my greatest fear: "Empty World". I have every confidence in my engineering team to be able to make the world work, and our Homesteading (beta) period will be a shake down cruise for the back end, but honestly, the biggest fear I have is that the vastness of the world will overwhelm the players. We have a plan for this that I think should minimize the impact.

Regarding the auctioning "controversy". I think that game companies that get in the way of these transactions do a great disservice to their players. While I am completely against a gaming company who sells pre-leveled characters, I find that to impede the auctions on ebay is a mistake on two levels. The first is in game quality: if a person buys a weapon on ebay, that person can be ripped off, never receiving what they pay for. In Rekonstruction we will provide both an auction and an escrow system in the game through which a customer can sell a character or an item. We are working out how we will want to do this. At launch, we will at least have an escrow system that will allow players to verify that the item/character exists and is available. The second is that we just don't see why Sony and the rest give up the auctioning revenue, honestly. It does impact gameplay and makes it possible for class differences in the real world to impact the virtual, but it is going to happen, so we might as well preserve the game quality as much as possible by controlling the transaction.

Finally I'll ask that those who are interested in learning more and would like to be kept up to date on our progress to visit our site at damagestudios.com and sign up for updates via the contact form at www.damagestudios.com/contact.php3.

RPGamer would like to thank Mr. DiBona for taking the time for our interview. RPGamer will continue to provide you with more news of Rekonstruction, as it is released.

 
by Martin Drury    


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