Eskil Steenberg is the sole creator of LOVE, which is one of the few indie efforts on the broad range of MMOs currently in development - check out an X-Play video preview for a good idea of the game's engine in action.
It is almost entirely procedurally-generated, and features a very distinct art style and mood that has already set it apart. From what's been said of the game so far, it is almost entirely focused on the community rather than the individual, so expect to be building cities rather than harvesting loot from special monsters.
Talking with Eskil just before his Indie Games Summit lecture at this year's GDC, Gamasutra found out about the challenges of making such a massive game on your own, how much you have to rely on your community when you don't have a big publisher with bottomless pockets, and why procedurally generated content is the way forward.
Can you explain about your background in game development?
Eskil Steenberg: I have worked on some crappy games I had very little control over in the past, but as a programmer I have mostly developed tools, like my 3D modeler Loq Airou, my asset management tool Co On and the network protocol Verse. These tools where developed to increase the productivity, and in part, LOVE is a project that tries to prove that they work.
How far along is LOVE now?
ES: This is always hard to tell, but my feeling is that with the things I'm showing at GDC, I'll have one system left to implement before the game is "complete". That doesn't mean that it is done, it will mean that every piece that needs to be in the game is there. After that point it will be a matter of polish and adding more stuff. As any subscription gate the development doesn't really stop.
Endeavoring to create an MMO almost entirely on your own is a startling undertaking. Why did you decide to go it alone?
ES: I didn't have much of a choice, it was either get a job and have very little control over what I do, or go at it alone. I don't have the funds to hire anyone. With all the press I have gotten I'm now stuck with it.
Why are you making a procedurally-generated MMO?
ES: First and foremost, out of necessity. Working alone, you simply just can't build a massive world all by yourself, so you need to do something smarter. Given that I am forced to solve this problem, I get some added bonuses like being able to constantly generate new content while the game is running.
As it turns out I think this could be the key to gaming in the future, as the game is able to develop and change in response to the player's actions. Rather then having a few binary plot choices, the world becomes far more dynamic and responsive to your actions.
By going with procedurally-generated content, youíre obviously avoiding large headaches of getting enough world in your game, but how have you managed to keep it looking fresh and interesting when itís entirely generated by a computer?
ES: This is the very hard part, and all you can really do is experiment until you get something you like. I look at a lot of concept art, and then I try to implement systems that can do the kinds of things I see in the images. Sometimes the things you generate surprise you -- and that's when you know you are on to something.
As time goes by, you add more and more code that lets you generate more diversity, and eventually you will get a very diverse environment. A big part of my development has gone into being able to art-direct the look of the content being generated. I do things by hand-modeling very small parts of the environment, and then have the engine use these fragments to build a huge, complex world.
What are your expectations for LOVE? How many people are you looking to get playing the game?
ES: I have fairly low expectations. You never know if something will stick, so it's best to keep them low.
The art style of LOVE is, at the moment, one of the key aspects that people seem to focus on when mentioning the game. How important do you think art style is to a game in general, but also specifically for an MMO?
ES: I don't think it is very important when you play it, but it does draw people in. I think it goes for all types of games. In some games, like Flower, that's all there is, but my hope is to create a game like Counter-Strike that people play long after the graphics have lost their edge, or even meaning.
I have a background in graphics programming, so for me graphics is just the most fun part to develop, and that is why I tend to over-develop it.
How do you see the MMO genre evolving in the next few years?
ES: My feeling, and I am in no way an expert, is that MMOs haven't developed much at all, other than becoming more polished over the last few years. So I'm not so sure much is going to happen. MMOs have become so expensive to develop that it is less likely we will see big risks being taken.
Do you think indie efforts like yours will become more common?
ES: No, I don't think you will see many indie MMOs, I don't even think my game would qualify as an MMO, but then again I don't think it qualifies as any ofter genre either.
How much of the game have you outsourced or collaborated on? Was it easy to find people to work with?
ES: None has been outsourced, its 100 percent me. Outsourcing, to me, is very stupid because you don't get to keep the talent in the building. If what you are doing is so boring that any sweatshop can do it, you should spend time developing tools that do the job for you. Anything that isn't crucial for what the game is should be done by automated tools.
With the rewards of making your own MMO quite far off and intangible, do you find yourself making the game mostly for yourself? While it may seem slightly paradoxical, is the development of LOVE quite insular?
ES: It is very insular. I'm a social person, so that part of it is hard, but I try to find joy in the very act of game development rather then just the results. If you know any nice girls who would like to date me please, send them over.
Are there any particular conventions of the genre you particularly dislike and have avoided putting in your game?
ES: My game is different enough not to be compared to most MMOs, but if there is one thing I wanted to avoid, it was the character focus. Rather, I have a focus on the communal aspects of the world. People are very adaptable and will behave according to their surroundings, so to create a game where everyone is driven to care just about their own stats seems counter-productive to a multiplayer game.
Likewise, is there anything (beyond the obvious player to player interaction) that youíve deliberately tried to implement?
ES: The things I have mostly been inspired by is the simplicity and agility of early FPS games like Quake. Having said that, I still try to innovate at every step of the way. It's the best way to fend off boredom when developing. I recently gave my game to a few friends, and found that it is much more different from other games then I thought.
Has the rise of awareness in indie games affected you at all? Do you think the gaming community is now more open to something like LOVE then they were before?
ES: Possibly. I don't feel LOVE has too much in common with other indie games. Indie game development should be about making something small, simple and fun that doesn't compete with the big boys. My game is not small in any way, it is not simple and it is going head to head with some very big games.
I don't want to be the poster child of indie development, because if people think they need to do what I do to make an indie game, they are
missing the point.
Without a large budget, are you going to be relying heavily on fans for beta testing?
ES: Yes. It is a very scary prospect, because I will need testers very early on while the game will be very rough.
Do you think the contribution of the community is important in the development of lower budget games?
Eskil: Often I think they are, mostly to get the game out there. Fans can be very good, but they can also easily represent a very narrow view. So as always, it's good to listen to others but not always do as you are told.
Are there any particular indie developers or games that you pay particular attention to? Do you have any games youíre looking forward to?
ES: I don't have time to pay very much attention or hang out in communities and forums, but I am good friends with the guys and gals over at Introversion.