Inside Earth Eternal – Q&A with CEO of Sparkplay



Q&A with Matt Mihaly, CEO/Creative Director, Sparkplay.


Here at MMOHub, we love the New Year. We feel that it the most exciting time of all; a time when we not only reflect on past triumphs with nostalgic

indifference, but also, gaze blindly into the future, and wonder with all the eagerness of a five-year-old boy on Christmas morning having just unwrapped his first present,

what next? Because we love it so much, we like to start it off with a bang, and this year we’ve cooked up something truly special — a Q&A with Matt Mihaly, the

Creative Director behind the new upcoming browser MMO Earth Eternal, and former founder and CEO of Iron Realms.

color=”#4169E1″>Matt, welcome. It truly is an honour to have you with us here today. To get things started, would you mind filling us in a little about your role as Creative

Director, and how that affected the development of Earth Eternal?

Well, I’m both the CEO and Creative Director, so

I’m not able to devote all (or even close to all) of my time to that role. The business side of my job is constantly interfering with the fun part. What I do as Creative

Director though is oversee the game on a big picture level. I wrote our back story/history, worked with our original art production house —œ we used an outsourcer initially-

to set the art style for the game, decided on the high level type of gameplay EE would have, and I work with the lead designer on refining some of his final designs. On a day

to day level, I can’t dive into the details of the design, but I try to be involved in all major game decisions.

color=”#4169E1″>Sounds like a lot of responsibility, but a lot of fun, too! For those of us out there with similar aspirations of greatness, could you tell us a little about

how you started working in the gaming industry?

Greatness? That a little extreme,

but thank you anyway. I started in the games industry when I started my first company —œ Iron Realms. I began playing text MUDs in the early 90s in college, and founded Iron

Realms in ’95 to develop and publish MUDs. In retrospect, it seems a little bit crazy to release a commercial MUD —œ Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands – in September 1997, the

same month that Ultima Online launched, but things worked out really well and Achaea is, I believe, the most successful MUD released to date, and we pioneered the virtual

goods model there which was the real secret to our success early on. We released another three MUDs at Iron Realms before I promoted Jeremy Saunders to President and turned

over day-to-day operations to him so that I could concentrate on Earth Eternal. I’m really proud to say that Iron Realms released its fifth MUD last month —œ Midkemia

Online. It the company first game based on someone else IP. The Midkemia books by Raymond E. Feist have sold something like 20 million books worldwide, and had a

couple of really good games in the late 90s, particularly Betrayal at Krondor.

color=”#4169E1″>Incredible. Pioneered the virtual goods model? Greatness feels like an understatement. So, what excited you most about working on Earth Eternal, and more

importantly, what inspired you to push through the tough times and come out on top?

What excites me most is the

opportunity to try to create a best-of-breed product. There no way a company our size can effectively compete with, say, the good folks at Blizzard, but I think we can and

do compete favorably with other web game developers. That really exciting to me. But in the end, we just need to focus on getting more things right than wrong —œ and we

definitely have some problems with Earth Eternal that we’re working hard to fix. called us the best web

MMO available recently, and while I find that flattering, they’re a lot less harsh on the game than I am. I do not think it the best web MMO at this moment. I think itâ

€™s one of the best, and I think the Sparkplay team has the passion and skill to make it the best, but I don’t want to be one of those CEOs that glosses over problems with

their games. Our loading times are too long, we need more types of quests, PvP needs to get in, etc.

color=”#8B008B”>There have been times that were tough and pretty dark. I’ll be honest: There were mornings, particularly during the run-up to open beta, where I woke up

thinking, “I can’t do this. This is too hard.” I’m positive I’m not the only person on the team who had those thoughts. We had a brutal crunch, especially for the

engineers, and that really got to me, as extended crunches are a failure of management, and I manage the other managers at the end of the day. We had to cut features for open

beta too, such as PvP and Groves, and that also was somewhat less than pleasant.

What kept me going though is three things in no

particular order: I love making games regardless of the occasional bad times, our team is fantastic and I could never let them down, and I feel like I owe a great game to our

players. Some of the players spent literally years participating in the EE community pre-alpha.

color=”#8B008B”>Today (vs a few months ago), things are a lot rosier. We’re getting great reviews, our player community is slowly growing despite minimal marketing spending,

and we’re working towards getting the features in that will take us out of open beta (PvP and Groves). We’re also hiring, and I enjoy the chance to augment the team with

new talent and a fresh point of view. The surf is up and morale is high at Sparkplay Manor.

If that isn’t inspiring

to the budding game developer, I don’t know what could be. And, what are some of the key features and innovations we should be looking forward to in Earth Eternal; and if

you don’t mind, what is your favourite feature?

You’ve probably already guessed this from my previous answers, but

the things I’m looking forward to the most are PvP and Groves. You know what PvP is. Groves is a system that lets players customize their own social areas. Individuals or

clans get entire islands or valleys that they can build out as they wish, and then embed various features within. I can’t be specific about all the features that can be

embedded, but think of things like the ability to turn your custom Grove into a PvP arena, or being able to embed various mini-games in it.


Groves will actually use the same world-building tools that our employees use to put together the world of Earth

Eternal, just re-skinned to be more friendly. Our builders do everything in-world, from creating mountains and deserts to populating it with monster spawns and loot tables. We

haven’t decided yet which tools players will get and what additional features we’ll create, so I don’t want to speculate too much.


Groves sound amazing; I can’t wait to try them out. Would you consider Earth Eternal a game designed with a younger, more casual audience

in mind, or one that can be enjoyed by the hardcore gaming audience, too?

We’re finding that EE is drawing users from

both ends of the casual-to-hardcore spectrum, although we don’t expect to attract people from the far ends of that spectrum. For example, the hardest of the hardcore

gamers are probably not going to find what they’re looking for in EE. Our biggest group of players is between 19 and 22.

color=”#4169E1″>Fair enough. And finally, with Earth Eternal acting as the first real MMO to be contained within a browser, what impact do you think this will have on the

future of browser gaming?

I think that in-browser MMOs are only going to get better and

become more mainstream, and that is by no means solely due to us. There are a lot of pressures in terms of competition and evolving audience desire that demands an increase in

quality. We hope to be the company that at the forefront of that wave, but there will almost certainly be others right alongside of us.


Matt, once again, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today; your journey through the video game industry, and likewise, your

impact on Earth Eternal and the future of browser-based MMOs as a whole truly is an inspiration to us all. And to you, the reader, thanks for listening. We hope that you’ve

learned a few things here today, and too, are as excited as we are about the upcoming Earth Eternal, and everything else 2010 may hold. Until next time, game on brothers and

sisters; and from everyone here at MMOHub, see you in-game!

Cody ‘Neramaar’ Hargreaves


Don’t forget to check out MMOHub’s Preview of Earth Eternal

(posted yesterday).

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