ECTS 2001: First look: Midgard

Funcom shows us the next-generation graphics engine in development for its upcoming online game and talks to us about how the world of Midgard is progressing.

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While support for its sci-fi online role-playing game Anarchy Online is far from slowing, Funcom is already at work on developing a new online game that combines character and community development with resource management and strategy elements. The game was first announced at E3 earlier this year, and since then, the development team has been hard at work on a new graphics engine. The engine is being targeted at a GeForce3-level graphics card and is capable of believably modeling the complex waves and weather of the open sea and of incorporating the dense, vertical terrain of Scandinavia with its deep fjords, caves, and glaciers.

The dynamic water system is very impressive, calculating waves based on ocean depth and weather as well as the interaction between waves and the wakes of boats. The water surface is naturally foamy at sharp wave crests and glassy in calm weather. All these effects will have a real effect on the game, since many of the inhabitants of Midgard will spend a good deal of time on or near the sea. Plus, rough seas have a material effect on boats of varying qualities and sizes. Also, players will see fish and other creatures refracted through the water, and other lighting effects on the sea bottom if they swim below. We saw the wave tech demo in action in real time and also saw a trailer with in-engine footage. One brief scene from the demo was a dense village of long houses. The surface of the houses looked as if it used bump mapping or other per-pixel texture effects.

Midgard is a world imbued with the rich mythology of Norse history. The game's name, Midgard, refers to the Norse term for the known world or the land of the living. And the game also includes the opposite, Valhalla, where warriors go to fight and feast eternally after they die. Except in the game, when players' characters die, they only need to spend as much time in Valhalla as is required to fulfill a quest to gain the approval of the gods and return to Midgard. Players who have cultivated a good relationship with a god may even return immediately back to Midgard. A fast-paced, combat-driven plane, Valhalla is a dramatic change from the rest of the game, where combat is a relative rarity.

Midgard's game development is being led by Ragnar Tornquist, the designer of acclaimed adventure game The Longest Journey, so it's no surprise that it will have plenty of story elements within the open-ended design. The back story that Funcom is weaving from Norse mythology will inform many details of the world, including items and some nonplayer characters; plus, there's constantly some drama or another brewing between the gods themselves. Players' chosen gods may be aligned with one god or another depending on the week, and they'll get skill bonuses to match. They'll need to consult a character specializing in the wise-woman profession to follow these godly chronicles. There will also be various quests they can undertake that will reveal other story threads. Finally, there's a very strong man-vs.-nature theme that ties together with the strategic component to the game, as nature will resist overextensive resource exploitation.

Midgard will be a very open-ended game, with few absolute restrictions on what players can do, but there are always consequences to player choices. This design philosophy is at the heart of the strategic resource gathering, in which players collect materials to support villages that are expected to group together 50 to 200 players. The players use trade skills to create all of the items in the game--there will be no NPC-operated shops. So the wealth of the human settlements is directly tied to exploiting nature, but nature will fight back. For example, when players are overharvesting, forest-fierce bears will appear to dissuade them from being too greedy. The richest areas to the north of Midgard are also the most hostile. One of the things that will always keep the economy going and growing at a steady collective rate is that all items in the world wear out over time. Careful players will repair their items to slow the process, but eventually even the best sword will break. New players aren't restricted from using very precious weapons and items, but they won't have the skill to use them properly and will greatly hasten the irreparable wear process.

Midgard is a particularly ambitious and innovative game that could provide a new model for online gaming that doesn't rely on linear character advancement based on combat. The social and economic focus will hopefully be implemented in such a way as to make the game more accessible for players that don't have the time or focus to level characters up in a conventional online RPG. One of the most promising factors here is that Funcom is taking lessons learned in its development of Anarchy Online and pairing them with a world concept that's at least as interesting.

For more information about Midgard, take a look at our previous coverage of the game.

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