I’ve been playing MMORPGs for almost as long as I’ve been PC gaming. My first experience was with RuneScape back in 2002, as I hid in the back of my CADD class with my actual assignment just an Alt-Tab away. It was the first time I’d ever experienced an open multiplayer world of that scale (with Diablo II being the largest beforehand) and the idea of being able to steal from other players or lose your items permanently was exhilarating. Moreover, I didn’t have to follow a set story; I could pick the order in which I wanted to do the quests. There was finally risk in a videogame besides simply losing a match or having to restart a level, and I had never felt that much freedom before.
Since then, I’ve dabbled in almost every major (and many minor) MMORPGs that have been released. I’ve played World of Warcraft and every supposed “WoW Killer,” which generally made terrible game design mistakes and ended up killing itself instead. It might just be nostalgia or rose-colored glasses, but no other game has sucked me into its world like RuneScape. I was beginning to think that every new game would either be the same old themepark or a barren sandbox… until I was shown Hero’s Song.
This past weekend, at PAX West 2016, I had the opportunity to discuss Hero’s Song with CEO John Smedley (former president of SOE) and creative director Bill Trost. The plan is to take everything we know about what makes an MMORPG and throw it out the window. There will be no quest hubs, grinding or cookie-cutter experiences. Instead, it will just be players experiencing a world that feels alive.
Experience a Unique World
While no game has quite enamored me the way RuneScape did as a teenager, there have been a lot of really good MMORPGs to come out that cater to both the masses and niche groups. However, there is a sameness to many of them. In most theme-park MMOs you simply go from Point A to Point B, and a majority of the game population follows a similar experience from start to finish. Conversely, sandbox these days means a barren world until the players create everything, which usually results in a lot of half-constructed or destroyed settlements.
What’s great about Hero’s Song is that it’s not a theme-park experience, but it doesn’t follow the traditional sandbox style gameplay either. Alternatively, the individual who hosts the server has control over the size of the world and the deity’s that govern its rules. Pick a certain deity and there will be dwarves, another introduces humans or elves. These choices also affect the landscape by creating mountains, caves and bodies of water.
That’s just the beginning, though. After these choices are selected, a unique experience is crafted. Hero’s Song will then generate 10,000 years of game progression, which dictates what races have flourished, faction rivalries, and even where precious loot will be. Players then select their character based on the ancestors of the great houses that have emerged through the simulation.
Once you log into your server, every action the player makes has a consequence. NPCs aren’t just static quest holders and can actually roam around the entire world. Monsters will fight each other, civilizations will fall. Even when you log out of the game, the world will still be shaping itself.
Even with all of this randomness in place, the game isn’t completely devoid of a meaningful story. Pixelmage has teamed up with fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles) to shape the world and create an interesting backstory. Every time a new world is created that backstory will be modified, but parts of it will always be present.
Kicking it Old School
Hero’s Song is going to be a hardcore game. If you don’t like the idea of permadeath, PvP, or getting completely lost in a world without some sort of teleport mechanic, then this is probably not the RPG for you. However, Hero’s Song might be what you’re looking for if you want something that feels like the great MMORPGs of old (Ultima Online, EverQuest, RuneScape) with updated technology and an improved combat system. There will also be a small degree of control over exactly how hardcore a server will be. Things like friendly fire, PvP, and death mechanics can be turned off or modified.
One of my favorite hardcore mechanics, and one that is extremely polarizing, is the idea of permadeath. It’s exciting to know that if your character dies that you could lose everything. This creates an attachment with that character, or your gear, that you don’t get with graveyard respawns.
Conversely, it also sucks when you lose hundreds of hours of work because you were ganked or overestimated yourself in a fight. But the first time you die in Hero’s Song isn’t necessarily the end. Depending on which deity was chosen to oversee the underworld, players can fight for their right to be alive.
In addition to the traditional hardcore mechanics, Hero’s Song is going back to the roots of the class-based RPG. With 22 classes already in the works, each one is going to have a specialized role and not all will be perfectly balanced. This will lead to classes that work great alone or fill a niche role in a party. An alchemist, for example, will specialize in creating potions but not at tanking powerful enemies. Likewise, the Warrior will be great at smashing but probably won’t have many (if any) healing abilities.
The Quest for Epic Loot
In pretty much every MMO on the market, loot is obtained from grinding mobs until the RNG loot table decides that you win. From a lore standpoint, this doesn’t make any sense at all. Overlord Bigboss isn’t just going to leave his Might Staff of Death at home when he goes for a stroll. It should drop, or at least a damaged version, every time you kill him.
This mechanic is only necessarily because it extends the life of a game and most MMOs exist on the idea of stepping-stone progression. The only reason to play, besides seeing new content, is to obtain strong enough gear for the next fight. After so many years, we’ve accepted this as commonplace and real content has been replaced with grinding.
It isn’t going to be like this in Hero’s Song. The 10,000 years of history based on the player’s game choices will create random, powerful magic items around the world. In order to obtain these items, players will need to go on a scavenger’s hunt of sort to track down the dungeon or boss that contains them. There will be lore scattered around the world that provide hints, or players might just randomly stumble upon them.
But if a specific enemy is carrying around that magic item, it will drop. To expand upon that, other creatures in the game can actually pick up items and will hang on to them until killed. If another player is fighting a horde of goblins with his Flaming Sword of Ascalon and dies, it’s likely that one of those goblins will pick it up. Furthermore, if you happen to kill that specific goblin then you’re going to end up with that shiny loot.
Big Changes on a Small Scale
Despite all of the great things that Hero’s Song is promising, and has demonstrated for the most part, the game is still going to exist on a small scale as far as MMORPGs go. Servers will be hosted locally, which means that the number of active players will be limited by hardware. It’s likely that most servers will only be able to support a couple dozen players, as opposed to thousands. If there are a larger number of servers, this might not be a problem. Players will want to try out all kinds of different worlds, and a server might have 1000+ players but only a few will be active at any given time.
Although, there is also the possibility of massive servers with paid hosting that can actually support thousands of players simultaneously. Smedley mentioned that it could take years to explore the largest worlds in the game. Just imagine playing an MMO where every day you see something new for years at a time. Most current MMORPGs have a few weeks of content and then gate the rest behind a gear score.
I’m excited to see the game in its finished state, but I’m more interested in its success. If Hero’s Song does well, it’s possible that larger studios will look to create a similar experience. I, for one, am excited to see a new type of MMORPG succeed that isn’t the typical streamlined, recycled content we’ve been given during the last decade.
Recently, Hero’s Song launched its crowdfunding campaign and Smedley took to Reddit to clear up a few concerns. According to the timeline, early access should begin later this year and an official launch is expected by 2017.
Stay tuned to MMOGames for more information on Hero’s Song and please let us know what you think of the game so far in the comments section!Related: Hero's Song, John Smedley, MMORPG, PAX West, PAX West 2016, Pixelmage Games, Sandbox