Bazgrim returns with a guest post on the complexities of crowdfunded MMOs and Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.
Guest Post: Where the Rubber Meets the Road for Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen
Last year, we ran The Pantheon Series, a popular series on crowdfunded MMOs with a focus on one we have particular faith in, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. As well as interviews with their CEO, feature deep-dives, and Q&As with the "fantheons", we ran a series of guest posts from those most-in-the-know.
It's been about a year since we caught up on Pantheon's progress so we reached out to one of those guest authors for an update. So a warm MMO Games welcome back to content creator and Pantheon faithful, extraordinaire Bazgrim.
Bazgrim is not officially associated with Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen nor their developers, Visionary Realms. Yet as you'll see, his remit covers more than standard fanhood. And his insights on when and why to have faith in crowdfunded MMOs have relevance far beyond Pantheon:
In fact, it works so well that other studios have purchased licenses to use it!
"Imagine you want to build a car from the ground up...a car unlike anything out there. You've drawn up the blueprints and they're gorgeous. But you don't have the money to build it. My friends and I, however, do if we pool it together. And we want to drive that car when you're done. Deal? Deal.
Although we're not sure you even know how to make a car from scratch. So we'd like you to prove you can get it running. After all, not everyone is going to give you money on just the promise of a cool car. It might end up being a heap of scrap metal.
Let's say a few of my friends give you some money to get started. You quickly assemble a frame, engine, transmission, axles, and wheels to get it in motion. Great, you've got a car! Kind of. It doesn't look great or have all the features you planned, so you better finish it. But my friends and I, who are funding this, want to make sure it still runs because that's most important. So you'll have to build the rest of it while it's moving. Don't stop! We can't wait to drive it!
Oh, one more thing... Please explain what you're doing as you're doing it so we can make sure our money isn't wasted. But we're not mechanics, so put it in terms we can understand. Ready, set, go!
That is essentially what crowdfunded MMORPG development is like.
MMORPG's are already the most complicated type of game to develop. They're virtual worlds where the landscapes, structures, inhabitants, items, economies, backstory, systems, etc. all have to be delicately woven together. Even well-established studios with full funding from the get-go can run into trouble making an MMO. So you can imagine how the crowdfunding model only makes it more complicated.
This is especially true with grassroots crowdfunding where the developers truly rely on community donations to move forward, like Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. That process is markedly different from a studio that starts off with a large amount of private funding and just uses crowdfunding to supplement it, like Ashes of Creation. Limited funds typically mean smaller teams, and smaller teams typically mean slower progress - all while many people watching have staked their own cash on the future of the game.
Neither cars nor MMORPGs are intended to be built while moving in front of an audience. Normally, developers stay behind the closed doors of their "factory". Need to swap out the engine? No big deal. They'll pause and do what they need to. Fans will be none the wiser, regardless of whether or not the game has even been announced yet.
Crowdfunding is a blessing and a curse. It allows smaller studios to make games people want to play that might not immediately get picked up by publishers. However, it requires the studio to keep their community in the loop by taking the complex topic of MMORPG development and presenting it in a way the layman can understand.
Following a crowdfunded MMORPG's development is not easy. It can be disappointing when the future takes longer than expected to become the present. That disappointment can eventually turn into frustration and despair. If you follow too closely, it can sometimes seem like progress is moving at a crawl. But if you don't follow closely enough, you can miss out on important info. And let's be honest, most gamers are more interested in playing a game than learning how it's made.
As understandable as that is, I am not one of those people. Pantheon has been in the public eye since 2014. It took Visionary Realms a while to get the hang of building their car while it was moving and also keeping their community informed. That's why I and some other Pantheon fans banded together to launch a new site called the Library of Pantheon, which compiles all the information the developers have shared about Pantheon since it was first announced. Having everything in one place makes it a lot easier to keep track of it all.
It's been about a year since my last guest article on MMOGames.com, and a lot has happened with Pantheon's development since then. So allow me to fill you in. The last 18 months have been all about getting Pantheon ready for its long-awaited Alpha testing. You've probably heard the term "Alpha" in the context of other games, but what does it mean for Pantheon?
Alpha in Pantheon shouldn't be confused with "early access." Pantheon's Alpha is about finding bugs, providing feedback, and gathering data. There will be character wipes as needed, and a lot of content will be added throughout Alpha and beyond. But at the same time, there are over 8,000 people who have already pledged to test Pantheon's Alpha and have been waiting for years to log in. That means expectations and scrutiny will likely be high.
If you aren't already aware, Pantheon's codebase underwent a major overhaul in 2020. In other words, the car frame they quickly put together at the beginning of the project was not built to last. The design plans didn't need to change much, but it needed to be built better. As of March 2021, the code architecture was much more future-proof, but there was still a lot to do. Visionary Realms released a list of what they deemed necessary to get Pantheon ready for the Alpha floodgates to open.
The team started by tackling the biggest tasks on the to-do list. Pantheon is made with the Unity engine and the first big task was converting to Unity's High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP). A rendering pipeline is basically the thing that takes data from your computer and displays it on your screen. The HDRP is Unity's latest and greatest. Not only has it improved the graphical quality in Pantheon, but it also paved the way for gameplay systems to come online, like the day/night cycle, underwater system, weather system, and terrain streaming, which removed the need for zone lines. In other words, the overworld now seamlessly loads around you as you move, without being inhibited by loading screens. If you can see it, you can get to it. All of these updates are crucial for a game like Pantheon that aims to feel like a real world waiting to be explored.
Once the HDRP was complete, focus shifted to integration of the Visionary Realms Inc. Network Library (ViNL), which is like replacing the transmission of a moving car. The Unity engine is usually used for mobile games or lobby-based games, not full-scale MMORPGs like Pantheon. MMORPGs require an immense amount of simultaneous network traffic to run smoothly. Previously, there weren't any pre-packaged network solutions for Unity that could handle that much traffic. This is one of the main things that has prevented Pantheon from entering Alpha. If thousands of Alpha playtesters had logged into Pantheon with Unity's native network library, uLink, it likely would have been a laggy, crash-filled disaster. Fortunately, when Visionary Realms hired Lead Programmer Kyle Olsen in 2019, he brought the expertise to create and integrate a network library now known as ViNL, which is built specifically to support massively multiplayer Unity games. In fact, it works so well that other studios have purchased licenses to use it!
HDRP and ViNL were largely the work of the Visionary Realms' two programmers. Although that number recently increased to three when they hired Steve Clover! Steve is a bit of an unsung hero in the genre as one of the Co-Creators of EverQuest, so having him as a Senior Programmer on Pantheon is a huge boon. But there's a lot more to game development than programming, and Steve is far from the only person to be hired by Visionary Realms recently. Since March 2021, Visionary Realms has hired 12 new developers, for a total of 35 now on staff, although many of those are still part-time. Most notably, seven of the new hires have been in the art department, which more than doubled the size of their art team.
With both the game and the team growing, investor confidence in what Pantheon is becoming has clearly gone up. Most recently, Visionary Realms secured $2.4M from a group of private investors, one of which was CohhCarnage, who has been a longtime fan of the game and wants to help make the vision a reality.
These are monumental shifts in Pantheon's development. And I haven't even mentioned the countless other milestones, like banking, the death system, combat improvements, world building, and more. With all of these moves, it looks like Visionary Realms now has the momentum needed to roll through the rest of their to-do list, and make a strong debut with Alpha testers. You can follow the devs' progress on that to-do list with the Library of Pantheon's Alpha Tracker."