David Adams TradeWars: Dark Millennium Interview

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IGN.com Trade Wars: Dark Millenium Interview February 21, 2002


At any given time, there are probably hundreds of commercial game titles in development, but the vast majority of the media's attention is typically directed towards a select few. As an example, when Realm Interactive showed Trade Wars: Dark Millenium at last year's E3 trade show, the company's small booth always seemed to have people in it, but certainly not the kind of crowd gathered to see various higher-profile titles. Those who did take the time to look and to speak with the team members who were there saw and heard about a colorful persistent state title set in space and on various planets, with gameplay centered on strategy and trade. As a result, even though what was on display was impressive, the game didn't really seem to fall within the scope of our coverage on this site.

A few weeks ago however, the team revealed that the game's RPG layer is much more substantial than previously shown, with a system of customizable avatars, an extensive quest system and other elements. Obviously, this news piqued our attention and immediately caused us to want to know more. To this end, we contacted Realm, and while the team was hunkered down working toward a milestone, we did manage to extract the promise of information as soon as this goal was completed. That time has now arrived, so we are pleased to present this substantial and very informative Trade Wars: Dark Millenium Interview in which Lead Designer / Lead Programmer David Adams discusses this intriguing game in general, the RPG elements, other design aspects, the company and more. And as a bonus, he has provided eight new screenshots.

Jonric: As an introduction to Trade Wars: Dark Millenium, please give our readers a summary of how you see it. How would you categorize it in terms of its genre or mix of genres?

David Adams: Dark Millenium is a massive online science-fantasy role-playing game. It combines Diablo-like gameplay with the persistence of EverQuest and a dash of StarCraft. The player assumes the role of hero extraordinaire in a dark futuristic world where technology and mysticism intertwine. The hero's adventures will take them to alien planets, uncharted sectors of space, deep into the bowels of ancient catacombs and through the ruins of derelict space hulks.

Primarily, Dark Millenium is a role-playing game. This means that the player experiences the world through the eyes of their avatar, which grows and improves through the course of play. In addition to standard RPG play, Dark Millennium also has elements of an RTS, which are experienced through the game's robust quest system.

Jonric: What kind of game universe are you creating for the game? How will it differ from other persistent world environments? How large is it, and how will players be able to move around?

David Adams: Dark Millennium is a science-fantasy universe full of spaceships, alien worlds, and the bleak void of space. One of the primary differences between this universe and others is that players will be able to travel across space, fight strange space-faring creatures, and land on other planets.

The size of the universe is still up for grabs, but we plan to continue adding new planets and space sectors long after the game is released. We also plan to expose the player to different environments (initially land and space) by adding new vehicle types and new environment types as the game progresses (cloud cities, under-water worlds, etc…).

Jonric: What kind of backstory have you developed to set the stage for players as they begin? And what are your plans with respect to the storyline within the game itself?

David Adams: Nine millennia ago, there was a cataclysmic event that plunged mankind into a massive dark age. For thousands of years there was chaos and anarchy until mankind finally united under an imperial banner. For nearly seven millennia, the empire ruled mankind, maintaining relative stability, and allowing it to grow and prosper among the stars. Now the empire has crumbled, leaving Terra in ruin, and leaving mankind in utter strife and chaos.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, a pesky little prophecy was brewed up which said that another cataclysm would come at the end of the tenth millennium. It is towards the end of the tenth and final millennium in which we place our scene, fondly referred to by some as the Dark Millennium.

The story of mankind's final hour will be played out over the course of several years. We plan to integrate the story into the game as much as possible through player prophecy, in-game events, story line driven quests and missions, etc… Of course, fate holds no assurance, and that which drives men to ruin can easily drive them to greatness. The cataclysm may not be a certainty after all….

Jonric: Will it be possible to play characters of different races and classes? What are the primary character attributes, and can they be modified or customized to any extent?

David Adams: When creating a character, players will be able to pick race, gender, physical appearance (facial features, hair color, color of clothes, etc…) and character class. We currently have four different playable races in the game, and plan to add more as time permits. Each race has four unique character classes, for a total of 16 different character classes.

The primary attributes for a character are Strength, Agility, Toughness and Power. The character class dictates starting values for these attributes. Players can add points into these attributes each time they level.

Jonric: Will the character development be based on skills, levels or a combination? Will any or all skills and abilities be limited to particular races or classes? And to what extent will this system allow or encourage unique characters?

David Adams: Character development in Dark Millennium is both skill-based and level-based. Levels are used to track progress and reward players with skill points, which are then used to develop the character's skills. Some skills are available cross-class, but we are trying to give each character class its own unique set of skills. Our goal is to make each character class as unique as possible.

As a character develops, the player is able to dictate their progression through skill selection. Many skills have prerequisite skills, forcing players to choose different paths of development. In this way, it is somewhat similar to Diablo II in that skill-prerequisites form "skill trees" from which the player chooses their skills.

Jonric: Please tell our readers about spaceships. What types will there be, and in what ways will players be able to customize and upgrade them? How expensive will they be?

David Adams: The player starts the game on their race's home planet. At some point, they will earn enough money to purchase a space ship, which can be used to explore space as well as other planets. Each race within the game will have a number of space ships available exclusively to them, in addition to a number of generic ships that are available cross-race.

Players will be able to get a bare bones ship pretty early in the game, since much of the universe is in space and on other planets. As they progress, they will be able to purchase ships of varying size and power, selling their old ship at a substantially discounted rate. Ships also have pre-requisites that prevent players from cruising around in spaceships that are out of their league.

Equipping a spaceship with custom components is almost identical to equipping your avatar. Weapon Systems, Shield Generators, Power Cores, can all be purchased and equipped. In addition, multiple hull-upgrades exist for each ship, which increase armor points, equipment slots, and cargo holds for the ship.

Jonric: To what extent will the gameplay in Trade Empires focus on combat? What kinds of major activities will there be aside from fighting, and how important will they be?

David Adams: As with any RPG, there will be a healthy amount of combat. Players will be able to fight monsters on land, in dungeons, in space and in quests. A large majority of a player's skills will therefore be combat related.

Another major activity in the game will be inter-stellar trade. This form of alternate money making will be similar to games such as the original Trade Wars, Privateer, or Elite. Player's will be able to take advantage of price fluctuations between spaceports to turn a profit.

Jonric: How much variety are you planning in terms of different weapons, armor and other equipment, and will there be any rare or unique items? And how will such apparatus come into players' possession?

David Adams: There is going to be a wide variety of equipment available to the players, both non-magical and magical. Since Dark Millennium is science-fantasy, these items will range from swords to power armor, from magical staffs to cybernetic implants. Items will also vary in rarity, from common to artifact (artifact is our version of super-rare).

Much of the equipment in Dark Millennium is power based (power armor, power sword, laser rifle) and requires energy to operate. The player will equip cybernetic implants to power these devices, and will have to manage energy much like a spell-caster manages mana.

Items can be bought from merchants in games, or found on the corpses of slain monsters. The items dropped by monsters are pretty random, meaning you never know what you are going to get. In order to get the really cool items you will have to go on quests - the more elaborate and important the quest, the greater the reward.

On top of this is all the equipment that is used for space ships. There will be a whole host of weapons, power generators, shield generators, etc… which can be bought and equipped on space ships in the game.

Jonric: In addition to these types of items, will the game also include others like potions or jewelry? And what other kinds of science fiction equipment will there be?

David Adams: There will be a number of secondary items in the game. All the standard fantasy stuff will be there (potions, jewelry, etc), plus an added lot of sci-fi related items (stim-packs, cybernetic implants, etc…). These items will improve your characters base attributes, or give them special abilities. Some items will even be required in order to equip other items. For instance, power armor and power weapons will require a power generator implant to operate. These inter-item dependencies create interesting combinations among the different types of items.

Jonric: What range of computer-controlled adversaries can players expect to face? Do you have any plans to vary the AI or to do anything else to reduce or prevent camping of specific opponents?

David Adams: There will be several NPC races in the game, which you can kill for experience and treasure. One advantage of building RTS game play into our world is that we are going to reuse the RTS AI to control the creatures in the RPG world. Creatures will have their own private agendas, and goals that will drive their actions (not all will of course, some are just stupid wandering monsters). Through the course of carrying out these objectives, the structure and location of these NPC races will dynamically change. If you wander through a zone and find a Whisker camp (Whiskers are one of the NPC races in the game), proceed to slaughter the whiskers, burn their camp to the ground, and salt their fields (ok, maybe a little over dramatic), there is no guarantee they will be in the same place next time you return.

Jonric: What is the role of player vs player combat in Trade Wars: Dark Millenium, how does it function, and how important is it?

David Adams: A player will never have to participate in PvP combat unless they choose to. This includes PvP zones and a PvP switch. In addition to standard RPG PvP combat, we are also working on open RTS zones where players and groups can try to conquer and hold territory in a completely chaotic massive RTS game.

Jonric: Please expand on your earlier mention of quests. How much variety are you aiming for, and how important will they be within the overall gameplay?

David Adams: Quests are one of the most important aspects of Dark Millennium. We plan to have a wide variety of quests available to the player. Some of the quests are similar in scale to a single player RPG. Others are less grand, and can be completed in a single session.

In addition to standard RPG quests, Dark Millennium will also feature a wide range of RTS combat quests (missions). These "missions" range from simple squad-based RTS missions to full-blown StarCraft style RTS combat. Often RPG quests and RTS missions will be woven together into single more epic quests which the player can take part in.

Throughout the lifetime of the game, we plan to continually add new quests and missions for the player. In addition, quests and missions will be added, the outcomes of which will affect the storyline of the game.

Jonric: What kinds of roles will friendly NPCs play? Will there be very many, and where will they be found?

David Adams: Towns and space stations within the game will be filled with friendly NPCs that the player can interact with. There will be merchants, starship dealers, and a variety of NPCs ready to send intrepid adventures on a wacky quest or two.

Jonric: When a player's character dies, will there be penalties such as lost items or experience points? Will there be any difference if you're killed by an NPC or another player?

David Adams: We are still hashing out the death penalty for our game, but our general plan is to err on the side of what is most fun.

Jonric: Will Dark Millenium be oriented more towards groups or players who prefer adventuring on their own? How will communication with other players work?

David Adams: We are building the game to support both individuals and groups. To facilitate this, we are building all of our quests / missions to work both solo and with groups. The quests will dynamically change to accommodate the number of players in a group, changing the nature of the quest, and making it interesting for any number of people.

In order to help groups, and people in general, communicate, we are building a full-featured instant messenger into the game. We are even toying with the idea of making a separate instant messenger executable, so that people not playing can chat with people currently playing the game.

Jonric: Please describe the major features of your game engine and server technology. Are they completely proprietary? What points of view are supported, and how much camera control will players have? What do you think the system requirements will be for good game performance?

David Adams: All of the technology for Dark Millennium has been built in house. Since we are going to have both RPG and RTS elements, we have had to build our technology in a way that supports both types of play. One of the major decisions we had to make early on was point of view. We eventually chose a third-person camera since it supports both RTS and RPG. We are experimenting with different third-person cameras, and have yet to finalize which ones will be available. A traditional ¾ view camera will most definitely be available, since it is the preferred camera mode for RTS combat.

The game engine will most likely require a T&L 3D card, such as the GeForce or Radeon, in order to achieve smooth performance. We have run the engine on TNT2 generation cards, and while not perfectly smooth, it does run fairly well.

Jonric: Is it your intention to have one large universe or multiple iterations? Do you have a target server capacity, and why did you make this choice? When players move from one area to another, will there be long load times?

David Adams: The universe is going to be divided into multiple shards of approximately 3,000 players per shard. We picked 3,000 because it sounded like a good number, and because we didn't want any more people in a single universe (for game-play reasons). Each universe will then be divided into multiple zones. Moving between zones will involve some amount of load time (we are trying to keep this to a minimum, but sometimes it's inevitable).

Jonric: How much focus are you putting on sound? What format are you planning to use?

David Adams: We plan to use sound as much as possible to enhance the environments and the sensory appeal of our game. The music format has yet to be decided, but there is an even shot that we will use MP3s. If this happens, then there will most likely be a built in MP3 player.

Jonric: What are the key design goals and features of the game interface? What is the recommended input device or combination likely to be?

David Adams: The control interface in Dark Millennium is point and click, similar to Diablo. Interaction with NPC's, trade, conversation, and inventory management will all be done through a standard mouse click interface.

Jonric: In the critical area of community, will there be any in-game support for guilds or other types of groups? And what kinds of things are you planning for out-of-game community support?

David Adams: Community is key to any massive online game. Even before online games had any support for community organizations such as guilds, players formed their own. We plan to support the Dark Millennium community as much as possible, both in-game and out of game. Players will be able to form groups within the game universe and build a group presence. Groups will also be able to build a citadel - a towering headquarters for their group that grows in status and appearance over time.

Jonric: What is the current status of development? Do you plan public beta testing, and when do you expect this will begin? What would you consider a safe release date? Can you say anything about your pricing plans or a publisher?

David Adams: The project is currently in alpha, but we plan to start our first Beta phase shortly. Each beta testing phase will have a publicly announced signup. The game will be released sometime during 2002. ;)

We plan to charge a monthly fee similar to the current crop of MMPOGs. Of course, this depends a lot on which publisher we sign with. We haven't closed a publisher yet, but are looking to close one within the next couple of months.

Jonric: Why will Trade Wars: Dark Millennium to stand out from other persistent state games? What kinds of gamers will want to play it instead of or in addition to other online worlds?

David Adams: We are building Dark Millennium to appeal to those gamers who are intrigued by massive online games, but find the gameplay a little lacking. To this end, we are putting heavy emphasis on quests, missions and general RPG / RTS gameplay. Our ultimate goal is to make a game with all the excitement of a first-person game, but set in a massive populated online universe.

Jonric: Please tell our readers a bit about Realm Interactive. Where is it located? When and how did the company get started and what key goals have you set for yourselves?

David Adams: Realm Interactive is a new startup game company that was formed to produce the most entertaining MMPOGs on the market. We started our company over a year and a half ago based out of Phoenix.

We are setting our marks far above and beyond what the MMPOG market currently offers in gameplay, usability and visual appeal. The proof is in the proverbial pudding, and we believe our game will speak for itself.

Jonric: What are some of the main gaming interests among the team? Are there any that you'd consider particularly influential with respect to the design of Trade Wars: Dark Millennium?

David Adams: As gamers, our interests are all over the place. We have super-avid hard-core role-playing gamers, to bleary-eyed stubborn 8-bit Nintendo players (yes, there's no substitute to blowing dust out of a cartridge in order to play a game).

I myself play the full gamut of games - from computer to pen and paper to tabletop - from role-playing to action to strategy. In addition, a few of us older chaps played the original Trade Wars back in the BBS days of yore.

I would say that initially the original Trade Wars influenced the majority of our design. Trade Wars 2002 was an old BBS game that involved interstellar-trade, empire building, player vs. player conflict, space ships, and mass homicide (you could eject colonists into the vacuum of space). As time went on we found it increasingly difficult to take all of the same concepts and put them into a modern game that had a wide audience appeal (problems with competition, fairness, etc…). At some point, we pulled our heads out of the Doritos bag and decided that we had to take some elements of the original trade wars, and make a totally new game. So we picked and prodded, and picked… and then picked some more until we had distilled Trade Wars down to its most primitive elements (our interpretation of course, these elements are open for debate). What we had left was spaceships, exploration, combat, and trade. We then added role-playing (because we felt it was a necessary element for any persistent world), planetary environments (the original TW took place strictly in space) and a dash of secret sauce.

Jonric: What are the most important lessons you've learned, both as gamers and as designers, from other online games you've worked on or played?

David Adams: What we have learned from other online games is that you can take a rather simple concept, add thousands of players, and out comes a game that is strangely addicting. With any new genre, however, there is plenty of opportunity to improve gameplay and evolve the genre. Anyone who has played a massive-online game could quickly give you a list of changes they would like to see to their favorite game. This tells us that there is still plenty of room for growth. We plan to capitalize on this fact by making a new type of online game that takes the genre to a new level.

It's always a pleasure for us to see new companies and new games that aim to bring their own twists to the online world category since thinking outside the box is critical to the evolution and growth of the genre. We look forward to watching Trade Wars: Dark Millenium as it moves forward into beta and into commercial release, and we thank Realm Interactive and David Adams for this highly enlightening and very interesting look ahead.

Richard Aihoshi - "Jonric"

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