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Q&A: Colony's Wallis On Why Space Is The Place

Q&A: Colony's Wallis On Why Space Is The Place

July 3, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

Reno based Colony Studios was co-founded in late 2006 by CEO Mike Wallis, an industry veteran with 17 years of experience and credits on titles like Sonic the Hedgehog 3D Blast, Star Trek Deep Space Nine: The Fallen and EVE Online, which he produced at original publisher Simon & Schuster.

The company is staffed by other long-term MMO developers, and though Wallis has not announced specific names, he has confirmed that members of the team have contributed to titles like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, City of Heroes, Everquest, and Ultima Online.

The company has been set up for the purpose of developing an MMO; in this case, one based around a original "space-based sci-fi" IP. In announcing the title earlier this year, the company noted that the game would not be a “safe” MMO – “meaning it won’t be a World of Warcraft clone with a new IP skin” – and that it would attempt to “breathe new life into what is often described as a somewhat stagnant increasingly generic genre”.

Additionally, it was announced that the title would use Simutronic's HeroEngine, which has been billed by Colony as “an MMO developer's dream come true” for its simultaneous live, online, real time content and game world editing abilities.

Gamasutra spoke to Wallis recently and asked about the genre, the HeroEngine, and the challenges associated with making a new IP stand out in what is becoming an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace.

Why do you believe the MMO genre is becoming a "somewhat stagnant increasingly generic genre"?

In our opinion, in order to pull in as many subscribers as possible, the modern MMO genre is being filled with games that do their best to remove player choice and player freedom, while at the same time dumbing down the overall experience. We don’t agree with that philosophy.

We feel that the MMO genre only truly works when you challenge players and afford them the freedom to play how they want to. We would much rather see the community handle players who “don’t play nicely” than for us to shoehorn in draconian game mechanics in order to ensure everyone has exactly the same game experience.

Do you feel that the opportunities that exist in the MMO market have resulted in overcrowding?

If you mean genre overcrowding, then yes. Look at the saturated fantasy genre; there is clear overcrowding there. Players can typically only have active one, or at most two active MMO game subscriptions. There just isn’t time for additional subscriptions. According to, in June of 2006 the fantasy genre accounted for 93.5% of all major MMOs.

If you are referring to player overcrowding, then no. The market is expanding as more and more players are becoming familiarized to MMOs, and who are gaining access to play the games - such as gaining broadband access when they previously lacked it. The upside of potential players is huge and is only limited by our ability in the development community to make appealing games for them to want to play.

How important is it for you to work with your own IP?

Ultima Online has thus far shown that MMOs have the fantastic benefit of having an incredibly long life cycle. UO is approaching its 10th anniversary this fall!

The benefit of working with our own IP is that we own it. If we licensed an IP, those terms are typically only valid for a fixed period of time and then must be renegotiated. Let’s use this example: say a developer licenses a hot Hollywood IP for a period of five years for an MMO game. Assume the game becomes incredibly successful.

At the end of the license agreement, in this case five years, the developer can either close down the MMO or attempt to renegotiate the license for the IP. The Hollywood company, seeing big dollar signs, now wants to re-license out the property for much more than the developer was previously paying. The developer, therefore, becomes beholden to the licensor.

Some advantages of working with our own IP is that we created it, we own it. We develop the lore behind it, have full creative control, and don’t have to wait for approval from any licensing department.

How is it possible for a new IP to stand out in a crowded genre like the MMO genre?

The same way a well known IP makes it in the genre: By making a great game that players identify with and are hungry to learn about and shape.

How difficult is it to for Colony's game stand out when working on a "space-based sci-fi" project?

Not any more difficult than making any other MMO stand out. We have to identify what makes a “space-based” game fun and interesting and then make sure we deliver on those points. When we think about what would be fun in a space-based game, we think about classic space battles akin to the Death Star trench run or the Kirk vs. Khan capital ship battle, so we are designing our game to provide these types of experiences for our players.

If a player enjoys the visceral fast action that piloting a fighter brings, then he will be provided with that experience. If a player enjoys the more tactical experience of a large capital ship then he can take full advantage of that form of gameplay. Our ships play very differently based upon the size and type, so we are looking to afford players of all kinds a great game experience.

Who would you consider the primary audience for the game?

I won’t bore you with demographics.

Our core audience will be those who are looking for an open player vs. player combat system in a sci-fi setting. These will be a mix of hard core and more casual players, as we have some evolutionary game mechanics we are planning on incorporating in order to allow the casual players to keep up with the hard core players. Our audience will be those who have moved on from WoW and are now looking for the next compelling MMO to play.

What lessons do the Colony team members bring on from their pasts in the genre, and how important is that kind of experience to what you're doing?

One of the most important lessons we learned was what not to do in development, which is do not start development until you have a very good idea of what it is you want to make. It sounds simple, but how many developers have fallen into, and continue to fall in, this trap? Far too many would be my guess.

Our team knows exactly the kind of game we are going to make. We have our major game mechanics scoped out and know how they all fit together into a seamless design. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Our design features were created because they are fun to play, not because they are different.

What's the attraction to Simutronic's HeroEngine, and what possibilities does this open up for you technically and in terms of gameplay possibilities?

The Hero Engine enabled our team to hit the ground running. After a short training period with some of the Simutronics development and support team, the Colony team was creating assets and coding in the Hero Engine scripting language almost immediately. In a very short time we had assets in - ship models and textures - as well as customized code running. Had we tried to do this by developing our own technology, my guess is that we’d barely have anything on screen, we’d have a dire shortage of tools, and the team would be frustrated at the lack of progress.

Our biggest challenge using the Hero Engine was that the tech was really made to do terrain-based worlds. It does them very well. However, because we are creating a space game, we needed volumetric 3D space flight. So our first tasks were to proof out the Hero Engine to see if we could use it to create a space area and for us to develop ship controls to control our character. We completed both tasks in a very short amount of time and now have ships flying, shooting, and destroying targets in 3D space. We can support multiple players already, and because of the tech, have all the backend infrastructure already working: login protocols, client-server interfacing, network handshaking, interfacing with our database.

Therefore, from here on out, we can focus on development of the game itself, rather than on the server support and backend infrastructure work.

What will the "dynamic, living world" offer to players, and how does this relate to your use of the HeroEngine?

It will offer players unique play experiences that change and evolve based upon their and other players’ actions within the game.

Our content reacts to player actions, so instead of a linear quest progression that all players follow, our game flags players as they do things within the game. For example if you own a business, the game will create obstacles and rewards for you based upon how you run it. If you are a military guy, the game will keep you in the heat of all the important battles in whatever campaign you choose to be a part of.

The Hero Engine allows us to create and create, test, and polish this new form of content delivery real time and its server technology allows us flexible server load stability and load balancing.

What are you doing during development and design to ensure that user generated content is effectively integrated into the gameplay?

When a player terraforms and colonizes a planet, he or she has effectively generated content. Their planet is now part of the starmap and is open to NPC assault and potentially player assault if it is created in a PvP area. If a planet is destroyed it becomes part of the game content, as more than likely there will be serious repercussions for that action both from NPCs and players of opposing factions.

What thought have you put into in regards to financial models for the game? For example, would you consider a subscription based model, or a microtransaction model, or something else?

We are looking into both options currently.

Our thoughts on microtransactions are: when we think of casual players we think of players who have far less free time than traditional hardcore players do. But casual players typically make up for their lack of play time with increased disposable income. Our way of catering to casual players is allow them to use some of that disposable income in order to get to where they want to be within the game.

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