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An interview with City of Steam designer Ian. Ian talked about the game and more!
Posted by CoS_Ethan on Jan 29th, 2012
Mechanist Games is a small developer located in China but with a team from all over the world. Does this help in adding different ideas and perspectives into the game more-so than a ‘local’ development team?
Answer: I think it has its advantages and disadvantages but overall it pushes us in a new direction. Take goblins for instance: You’d expect them to be evil, dirty, cave-dwellers. But after the first few concepts were transposed through New Zealanders, Irish, Chinese and Canadians, we came out with cute, cunning and really lovable rogues. This kind of new spin on the traditional fantasy trope would never have happened in a mono-cultural workplace.
This is Mechanist Games’ first foray into online games. Do you feel you have the advantage of not falling onto the same ‘cookie-cutter’ designs as previously published titles? What made you decide to delve into the MMO genre?
Answer: Well, naturally, ambition played its role in motivating us to tackle such a large project. But to be honest, City of Steam wasn’t designed to ever be a huge MMO-type giant. It’s personal, light and aims to satisfy the solo user just as much as the social player.
There are lots of systems that just need to be there, like chat, messaging, teams, etc. Those things make it an MMO. But what’s really different about City of Steam is the quests, the personal journey of you and your family. It’s a story about your character, not a linear narrative that you just happened to be involved in. The other characters in the game aren’t just quest givers, either –they’ve got story.
City of Steam is set in an Industrial Steampunk world, where players struggle against political powers, vile creatures and the World Machine. How did the world end up this way? What is the backstory for this game and what is the World Machine?
Answer: As far as anyone knows, the world has always been a gigantic, mysterious system of gears. City of Steam takes place on the largest of these gears, the Major Plate, in the ancient city of Nexus. The sun and moon are embedded in a ring that makes a full rotation once every day, while the seasons are carried by four smaller gears that orbit around the Major Plate. It’s easier if we show you:
Life on the surface of a machine — kind of a contradiction, right? Much of the Mechanism’s history has been driven by the tension between life, in all its chaos and creativity, and the cold logic of steel. Almost a thousand years prior to the game, a great and ingenious race called the Paragons ascended to the top of the Spire and founded an empire that spanned the entire world. Their mastery of science has never been matched. They created intelligent machines, like the mysterious Oracle at the heart of Nexus, and entire races, like the draug and riven. They also made the dwarves, a perfect fusion of organic and mechanical components. They even bent the Mechanism to their will, essentially remaking the world in their own image.
Eventually, though, they fell, and the World Machine rebelled against the countless modifications the Paragons had made to its inner workings. The nations (both great and…less great) of the Mechanism arose from the ashes of the Cataclysm, and many of the technologies that the Paragons pioneered have only just begun to be understood.
Nexus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the capital of the Heartlands, a nation composed of six city-states that united in part to resist the colonial ambitions of the other three great powers: Avenoss, Stoigmar, and Ostenia.
As for backstory, each character in City of Steam will have their own reasons for traveling to Nexus. While we have a good idea of the overarching plot that each character will participate in, City of Steam is really a story about families and friends moving into an unfamiliar place and making their way through the challenges that meet them there. You might play as an Avenian, brought to Nexus by your parents to save the family business by way of an arranged marriage, or a Stoigmari, joining an old friend as part of a cultural exchange program in your home country, or a goblin using their adventuring skills to help their uncle and cousins get by. Everything will come together in the player house system, where each character from your account will hang out when you’re not using them, and where the aforementioned friends and family from each character’s storyline will also be accessible.
Suffice it to say that none of the racial backgrounds will be nearly as straightforward as they appear, and players that pursue these storylines will find themselves caught up in a conflict that will change the world.
How did the concept for City of Steam come about? Where did the team draw inspiration from when coming up with the world and concepts for the game?
Answer: The initial idea for City of Steam was teams of people logging into instanced based dungeons, with turn-based combat. We knew it was going to be a browser game using new 3D technology so we didn’t want landscapes or massive downloadables. So, it was to be a city. Small and compact, shops next to the dungeons, no transit time.
But from there, with the world lore being drawn from the New Epoch books, the details of Nexus City State (the suburb of Ebonwax especially) really blossomed into a fantasy of industrial ingenuity. There were so many ideas we wanted to explore, so many cool avenues for fiction…
And then people found our prototype videos on the net, and gave us more money. We were only too happy to take this dream and do it justice. Looking at it now, it’s almost been completely redesigned from the ground up! And oooh, boy… it’s an amazing change.
City of Steam has been able to do something very few can, and that is making a visually stunning MMO all within a web browser. How have you been able to achieve this and why did you decide to go browser based?
Answer: The time we spend researching ways in which to limit the downloadable assets is significant. In fact, if you knew how many trial and error changes we made, you’d say we are insane. The extra time spent making the level assets tiny went against everything that our budget said we could do. But we did it anyway.
And glad we did. Our levels are part procedural, part tile-based, part hand-crafted, tied together in a streamlined assembly. One megabyte download for 10 levels of gameplay… I mean, you gotta love that, no matter what type of connection you have.
Do you think you have reached the limits for what can be currently achieved with graphics in a browser? With enough time or money, can they become even greater? (We’re looking at you, City of Steam 2)
Answer: Yes, the techniques we’ve developed for microscopic streaming assets are extendable. I wouldn’t say money is the requirement –just time. And if City of Steam can provide the revenue support to development new games… that will be a very cool day for us.
City of Steam 2? Too early to even think about that. We’d like to make some different kinds of games and cultivate experience in other genres. Then we could bring it all back together for a another industrial age game. But why limit ourselves to one city?
Does the fact the game is entirely browser-based affect loading speeds or fluidity of gameplay? We don’t download a client – will we be waiting 10 minutes between areas for the new level and monsters to load?
Answer: We’ve tested on both web client and a built downloadable client. There is absolutely no difference in loading times, level assembly times, nor login times. It’s the same game in a different shell.
I think the longest load time I’ve ever experienced was about 15 seconds. Our desired benchmark was 30 seconds. But I guess on a slow connection it could take up to 45 seconds to enter the game for the first time. Maybe more? Don’t worry, the game can live in your cache if you want it to –so you don’t wait the next time.
Sound is often a minimal part of browser games due to the extra download/streaming required. Will City of Steam feature sounds that can rival or even surpass its downloadable brethren?
Answer: The difficult part of City of Steam was not the quality or bit rate of sounds, but the in-game mixing of all the ambient noises you might hear in a city.
There are just so many varied things you can hear in a city. Distant horns, steam whistles, zeppelin propaganda broadcasts, radio announcements, train arrivals and departures, and more. Yes, we went there. And again, it’s procedurally done, with persistent randomization and variation. It’s pushing the limits of browser gaming for sure, but we’re squeezing it to be as small as possible.
As a developer, do you feel that the industrial steampunk setting limits what you can design?
Answer: Actually we think the opposite. An industrial fantasy has everything that traditional fantasy has, and technology too. It’s the blending of them that’s difficult. All magic has got to have a little tech in it. All tech has got to have a little magic. In this way, magic and technology can achieve exactly the same results. Compare a giant phlogiston airship and a levitating fortress: equally cool in their own right.
How does magic fit into your Steampunk world and industrial setting?
Answer: Arthur C. Clarke said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and as far as the setting goes, we’re running with that. When an Arcanist calls down a Thunderbolt, it’s because he has tuned his wand or staff to manipulate elemental fields in the world just so. When a Channeler pronounces a Benediction to heal his allies, he’s using a musical spear or scepter to play a melody, refined over centuries of study, that nudges the regenerative features of the Great Mechanism into action. And all of these implements are mass-produced, to a certain extent. So even though there are fantastic effects, they’re grounded in a world driven by investigation, ingenuity, and industry.
Character classes are loosely defined as sword, magic or science types. What exactly is a science based character? Can we make potions out of plants we find laying around or construct a fire-breathing robot to help us fight?
Answer: Well, the classes we have now are the Warder (inspiring melee character with summons), Gunner (ranged attacker with sniping, explosives, and occult debuffing effects), Channeler (healer, buffs, and ranged offense), and Arcanist (elemental mage-type with a variety of effects themed to each element).The Gunner’s ability tree has some elements of a mad scientist archetype — grenades with unusual effects, specially-made rounds that can poison enemies, et cetera. We have other classes with some heavier industrial/scientific flavor waiting to be implemented, and we’re eager to see how players respond to the current four.
Crafting is something we’d really like to implement. Right now, we’re working on an item upgrade system that will allow players to customize their weapons with steam gauges, power cells, and other sorts of cool items that they find while adventuring. In this way, all classes can participate equally in the scientific flavor of the setting. What’s really exciting is that these upgrades will actually appear on the weapon model, so if you’ve added a couple of nasty bladed hand guards and a jeweled pommel to your sword, nearby players will be able to see.
I have seen mentioned that players will struggle against political powers in the game. How does this political side of City of Steam work and who are these political powers?
Answer: Since each character interacts with the world in a different way depending on their background, their experience of the political environment in Nexus will be pretty varied as far as quests go. Some, like the Stoigmari and Ostenian backgrounds, will be political from the very beginning; players will find that the Great Stoigmari Cultural Exchange is far more than a means to disseminate propaganda, and Ostenian characters arrive in nexus fleeing political unrest in their homeland. Others will be more subtle — goblin, hobbe, and orc characters will have to deal with the regressive attitudes and policies towards so-called greenskins that extend even into the cosmopolitan Heartlands.
As far as simply walking around goes, the political and economic climate in Nexus is pretty clear — Nexus is a city in decline. While there are large, safe neighborhoods throughout Nexus, step outside of one of these hubs and it’s clear that the place is crawling with dangerous creatures and criminal gangs. With the power of the Triumvirs on the wane and the Nexan Guard struggling to maintain order, many groups have emerged to exploit the power vacuum in the city. Written materials and NPCs from the other great nations can be found throughout the city, and you’ll begin to get a feel for their old rivalries and current ambitions.
Eventually, players will begin to encounter each of four secretive factions currently vying for control of a powerful artifact somewhere in Nexus. They, are, briefly,
- The Neruvites, who serve the Oracle, and who intend to ascend the Spire to the former capital of the Paragons’ empire and install her as the true queen of Neruvia City. It is rumored that their members are somehow linked with each other through the Oracle.
- The Regenitors, who believe they have the means to return a Paragon to life, and will stop at nothing to do so.
- The Ecliptic Order, who seek to eliminate all knowledge of the Paragons’ deeds and technology, and to destroy all myth artifacts…including, it is presumed, the Oracle.
- The Successors, who believe they can transcend their mortal limitations through strength and skill, and that fierce competition with each other will eventually allow them to surpass the glory of the Paragons.
How and when these factions emerge in each of the background storylines will become more clear as we move towards beta.
What is your favourite thing to do on City of Steam? Once players get into the game what do you recommend that all players try ingame at least once?
Answer: You know, for most of us, it’s just being in the city scenes. These scenes are just saturated with flavour, oozing the setting. Swing your camera around a bit, listen to the bustle –this is just one city, but you can definitely feel the vast world beyond, encroaching on all sides.
I guess we all love the combat and looting too. Gotta get those upgrades, right? And some of the dungeon and underground levels are very cool to explore. Take your pick?
With the announcement of testing coming up in the very near future for City of Steam, can you give us any information to let the interested crowds know where or how to sign up to get in on the testing?
Answer: This is truly a sneak peek at the game so far so we don’t want to raise expectations too high. We’ll be giving out a limited amount of keys for this test. Those interested should head on over to our website and sign-up to our newsletter to for priority in receiving keys. Cityofsteam.com
Is there anything else you would like for our readers to know about City of Steam?
Answer: We’d urge people to come to our forums and join the community. We love answering questions about the game and what we’re up to. I think some of our development journals are really entertaining and shine a lot of light on what we’re all about and how the game is shaping up to be. There’s a lot to talk about with such a diverse background and setup. WE’RE INDIE AND WE LIKE IT!
Source: Gaming Climax