Lost Continents interview

We talk to VR1's Keith Baker about the upcoming massively multiplayer adventure role-playing game.

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Colorado-based game developer VR1 recently announced Lost Continents, its upcoming massively multiplayer online role-playing game with an adventure theme. We had a chance to talk to lead designer Keith Baker about the game. Baker explained the game's premise, its unusual private zone system, and how the game's adventure setting will tie-in to the gameplay.

GameSpot: First, can you tell us a little more about VR1? When was the company founded, and what other games has it developed?

Keith Baker: VR1 was founded with an online gaming vision in late 1993. The company realized that vision with the successful launch of Fighter Ace in December of 1997 on the MSN Gaming Zone. During that journey, VR1 acquired its Conductor technology through a 1995 merger with a Toronto-based company, Gemsoft Corporation. In the next two years, VR1 expanded its focus to the console space with the acquisition of Devils Thumb Entertainment (Boulder, Colo.) and POW games (Tokyo, Japan). During these years, VR1 shipped products on the PC and PlayStation. Additionally, MMP products were deployed worldwide on services including AOL, MSN Gaming Zone, Wireplay, Deutsche Telekom, Samsung, Dacom, So-Net, and France Telecom. VR1's upcoming releases include Nightcaster, a first-party title on the Microsoft Xbox; the next installment in the successful Fighter Ace franchise, Fighter Ace 3.0; the online strategy game Evernight (recently deployed on RealArcade); and, of course, Lost Continents.

GS: Where did the idea for Lost Continents come from?

KB: As a company, VR1 has always had a focus on online games, ranging from Fighter Ace to Evernight. A little over a year ago, we decided to develop a graphical role-playing game, and we came up with a huge list of ideas. Most MMPOGs on the market or in development are based on fantasy or science fiction. Our goal was to come up with a unique setting that was still accessible to a wide audience. The pulp era incorporates elements of both fantasy and science fiction--mummies and mad scientists, just as an example--but it also has a distinctive flavor of its own.

GS: The game announcement said that Lost Continents was inspired by King Kong, the stories of Jules Verne, and adventure serials from the 1930s. How will these adventure elements tie in to the game?

KB: In all sorts of ways! We are trying to capture the mood of the pulp era--both the literature of the time, such as the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, or characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow and also the mood of the movie serials like Nyoka and the Tigermen. Our central theme is that you are the hero and that you are part of an ongoing adventure. Using our private zone technology, we can capture the cliffhanger action that characterizes the movie serials, and your victories and decisions will have a critical effect on your future. You should also expect to see dastardly archvillains who turn up time and again to try to thwart your plans, lost civilizations, time travel, mad science, and beasts from myth and legend. Our secondary goal is to capture the mood of the serials. Life is exciting, heroes never die, and adventure is always lurking around the next corner!

GS: Will character development be the central focus of the game, or will Lost Continents be more focused on adventures and quests? Do you envision players fighting an endless series of monsters in order to gain experience?

KB: You will be able to gain experience and improve your statistics through combat, and some players may choose to make this their primary activity. But our goal is to provide a more interesting experience than camp-kill-level-repeat and focus more on expeditions and exploration. Completing expeditions (our term for quests) will be as lucrative--if not more so--as pure combat, and it will provide access to new areas and opportunities. And while many expeditions will involve combat, there are multiple answers to every situation. Where the burly hunter may try to fight his way past the guardians of an ancient tomb, the clever archaeologist may slip past the guardians, dodge the traps, grab the treasure, and escape without firing a single shot. We want to make sure that you can get on with an hour or two to play and have something interesting and meaningful that you can accomplish in that time--as opposed to just wandering around looking for something to kill.

GS: Can you describe some of the quests that players will encounter in the game?

KB: Our goal is to take online storytelling to a new level in Lost Continents. While there are small tasks to help draw players into the gameworld, most expeditions are evolving storylines of cause and effect. To begin with, you can make decisions about the outcome of the task--if you manage to steal the plans from Doctor Necropolis' hidden base, do you turn them over to the heroic men and women of OMNI or to the nefarious scientists of SKULL? These choices will be reflected in the world itself. If you blow up the altar of the Mummy King, when you return to his pyramid it is gone--but now his followers are working to construct the Hourglass of Horror!

As for overviews of the quests you will encounter, there are six major power groups that are struggle for control of the world of Lost Continents. SKULL and OMNI are scientists battling with advanced technology, the Knot and the Shadow are mystical cults continuing an ancient war, and the Institute and the Triad are mysterious power brokers lurking in the shadows. As a character in Lost Continents, you can work with up to three of these groups. Will you help OMNI put an end to SKULL's dreams of world conquest? Or will you ally with the Shadow as they work to raise their dark gods from millennia of imprisonment? Aside from these major story arcs, there are also hundreds of lesser expeditions. Reporters searching for stories, spies seeking information, shady agents of the black market, scholars and archaeologists looking for the answers to ancient mysteries--all these characters will be looking to you to help them accomplish their goals. And as I hinted at before, many of these non-player characters will evolve and grow as you do, and your actions can win you valuable allies or implacable foes.

GS: One of the game's new features that you're promoting is the use of private zones. Where did this feature come from, and what problems is it designed to address? Do private zones limit player interaction in a massively multiplayer game?

KB: In many ways private zones are the cornerstone of Lost Continents. We came up with the idea while trying to find a way to make a single player feel like a hero while sharing a world with thousands of other people. When you enter a private zone, the game spawns a separate iteration of that zone for you and your group. The precise nature of the zone will depend on the nature of your character, your past achievements, and the level of your group. A private zone will always provide a challenge, even if you've completed the specific storyline for the zone. This allows us to address a host of problems, notably storytelling, limited content, and antisocial behavior.

As I said before, private zones are the key to storytelling. A private zone allows us to put tension into the game--to introduce challenges we know you have to overcome. When you get to the bottom of the Great Pyramid, the Mummy King will be there--there's no chance of finding a pack of other players camping the spot and waiting for the King to respawn. It also allows us to make puzzles and traps a more serious part of the game, something that is also difficult when you are sharing a dungeon with hundreds of other people. In short, it lets us take the most successful elements of small-scale RPGs and apply them in a MMORPG.

Another aspect of storytelling is the ability to have your past actions be reflected in your current environment. If you kill the Mummy King, he's not going to respawn--he's gone. Of course, when you return to the zone, something else may have risen to take his place, so you'll have to deal with the possibly unforeseen consequences of your actions. This is what really makes you the hero of the game--the game remembers what you have done and alters itself accordingly. And as I mentioned earlier, because a zone can take your level into account, we can adjust its difficulty to keep it a challenge. So you'll never run out of content in a private zone--there's always going to be some sort of challenge to come back to.

The final issue private zones will address is that of antisocial gaming. This ranges from actions that can be unintentionally annoying, like camping the best spot in a zone and preventing other players from using it, to behavior like kill-stealing or verbal abuse. Private zones provide you with a place to get away from grief players--you'll never have to worry about someone running in, killing the Mummy King, and stealing his loot at the last moment.

As for whether private zones will limit interaction, they would if the entire gameworld were composed of private zones. But about half of the world is made up of public areas, which are shared by all players. It is in these public areas that you will make friends, learn to play the game, and boast of your exploits. Private zones are where you will go with your friends to face unique challenges.

GS: With all the other massively multiplayer games available and in development, how will Lost Continents stand out?

KB: We are trying to stand out from the crowd in a number of ways. To begin with, we are offering a setting that is distinctly different from that of every other game we've seen. We are then focusing our game on providing players with a sense of purpose and individuality. You're not just another person with a sword, wandering around looking for a monster to kill. You are a hero with a story of your own. And even if you only have four hours a week to play the game as opposed to 40, when you enter a private zone, it's all about you, and your actions and decisions will make a difference. And, of course, we believe that our use of sound and art will create an intriguing world that will pull you in and keep you coming back for more.

GS: How far along is the game at this time? What specific elements is the team working on right now?

KB: Our technology and game designs have gone through several thorough reviews and modifications to streamline and solidify them. With our most recent milestones, we have completed a sophisticated suite of content creation tools and are excited at seeing our ideas come to life. We are very confident in the stability of our Conductor server technology (it has been successfully deployed in other MMP products for more than four years), and our graphics engine is gorgeous (stay tuned for some stunning screenshots early next year).

GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

KB: Another one of our major goals is to eliminate the tedious and frustrating elements that are found in many games. For example, food. What's fun about food? Sure, it's a money sink, but there are lots of ways to accomplish that effect without forcing your players to starve to death. For that matter, what's fun about death? There's nothing I hate more than getting online, playing for a few hours, and because of a run of bad luck or a few link deaths, ending up worse off at the end than I was when I began. In Lost Continents, there is no death. You're a hero--you'll always find some way to make a daring escape to a safe location at the last minute. You'll have to make your way back to where you were before, and you may be a bit winded, but you won't actually lose experience or objects. Instead, we have added the concept of heroism. Heroism provides you with a bonus to all earned experience. You gain heroism by overcoming difficult challenges, and lose it when you make an escape--the amount of the loss being determined by the difficulty of the challenge. This also encourages players to push themselves to their limits, as opposed to tedious bottom feeding.

Other things we are trying to do: We are working very hard to allow players to express themselves as individuals. Our character generation and advancement system is simple, but it allows you to develop a unique skill set over a period of time. We are also using a component system that allows you to improve your equipment by enhancing it with mystical charms or bizarre technology. Instead of having one piece of armor be the best defense in the game, there may be one magical component that can be added to any clothing object to improve its defense--so you can choose to wear a leather jacket, a lab coat, or even a chador, if that's the image you want for your character.

But while we are working to allow people to express themselves as individuals and putting our focus on private zones and personal stories, we are also trying to provide interesting options for player organizations--or adventurer's societies, as we call them. Membership in an adventurer's society will provide you with more than just a chat channel. To begin with, when a society is created, it can choose to align itself with one of the six power groups in the game. Do you want to be heroes? Then align yourselves with OMNI, and the NPCs will respond to you accordingly. Societies receive a number of other benefits. Members can acquire special trophy items that will provide benefits to all members of the group, so long as they are maintained. Through their adventures, members of a society also earn favors, a unique form of currency that can be traded for special goods or services or used as an award for player-generated quests. Finally, societies can carry out large-scale quests that can have an effect on entire zones or regions of the gameworld, like blotting out the sun over Egypt to empower the forces of the dead!

These are just a few of the features that we believe will make Lost Continents stand out from the crowd. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about it, and I hope you'll stay with us as we move toward our release!

GS: Thanks for your time, Keith.

Lost Continents is scheduled for release in 2003. For more information, visit the official Lost Continents Web site.

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