Face of Mankind Interview with lead developer Christopher Allford
Face of Mankind is a game with a turbulent history. The MMO has been around since 2006 and has gathered a dedicated fanbase around its open, sandbox-style gameplay. A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway to raise at least $50,000 USD for an “expanded relaunch” of the title, under the subheading Fall of the Dominion.
To find out more about Face of Mankind, and the challenges of creating a truly ‘sandbox’ MMO where all player actions have consequences, IncGamers put some questions to lead developer Christopher Allford. Here’s what he had to say.
IncGamers: First off, what’s the relationship between the original Face of Mankind and FoM: Fall of the Dominion? Could this best be described as an expansion of sorts, or a relaunch of the base MMO, or something else?
Christopher Allford: It’s probably best described as an expanded relaunch. Almost all of the gameplay elements have been redesigned and are changing dramatically. This milestone has been built upon the experiences learned over the last ten years and aims to go much further than any milestone before it. Face of Mankind: Fall of the Dominion will provide an experience that, while similar, is completely different than anything seen in the game before.
IG: The Kickstarter campaign is pursuing a target of $50,000 USD, which presumably means you can’t be overhauling the entire game. What aspects of FoM are you targeting for a redo, or an improvement?
CA: Our goal of $50,000 is aimed at redesigning all of the gameplay elements and adding a number of new features to the game. Due to using the existing technology and art assets, we are able to stretch this money relatively far. For the rest of the game, we have stretch goals to add additional features and art assets. Our highest stretch goal of $250,000 includes an entirely new game engine and creating new art assets to take advantage of the newer graphical technologies. That said, we do feel that most of a game’s entertainment value lies in the gameplay, and that our $50,000 goal will still deliver a fantastic product.
IG: It seems like you want to switch over from the faction system found in FoM to a player-created faction system. Can you go into a bit of detail about how that will work, and how it changes the game?
CA: Immersion in a video game requires that players are given the opportunity to form a connection to the world. The faction system is one of the most integral parts to immersion in our game then, due to the deep investment it requires to sustain and grow. The benefit of allowing players to create their own factions is that they gain a deeper attachment due to it being their own. It will grow based on the effort they put into it, and we think that’s an experience that can be very rewarding to those that pursue it..
This enjoyment of course reflects down onto the rank and file, who are then encouraged to invest more of themselves into the faction to help it. The kind of friendships that are created in this type of organization last for a very long time. Players will always think up new ways to increase their faction’s power, and the death of a large faction will leave a power vacuum that will surely create even more conflict. Although it may seem like a subtle change, this added instability means that the gameplay can never truly stagnate and that something new is always on the horizon.
IG: A lot of your pitch appears to centre around player agency and putting players in control. Specifically, what kind of freedom does this refer to? What will you be able to do in FoM: FotD that is not possible in more traditional MMOs?
CA: Typical themepark MMOs place players into a role; the game is designed to lead them down a set path. They are able to choose what order they go down this path, but ultimately they are unable to truly make their own unique path through the game, and their actions are irrelevant. They do not truly make much of an impact on the game.
We feel that this goes against what an MMO should be. As a game that encourages constant investment, players should be given a deep freedom to choose who they want to be, and what kind of impact they would like to have on their universe. In a sandbox with no rules, this dream becomes reality. It isn’t necessarily about the mechanics themselves, but how you can make use of them that is unique. Our economy is entirely player-driven, and if they desire, it will collapse. The result of your actions can directly impact the long-term stability of the game world.
If you’d like to be a criminal, it is up to you to decide how to go about it, using the in-game tools we have provided. If you’d like to be a mercenary, a medic, a trader, a police officer, the story is the same. It is our job to create a wide set of tools and features that facilitate player interaction. As players, it is up to you to decide what to do with them.
IG: The Kickstarter summary claims that “everything you do leaves a lasting impact on the game world.” That’s rather a bold claim. Are players really going to see a consequence for every single in-game action they take, or is this a touch of hyperbole?
CA: When someone kills you and takes all of your belongings, do you forget them? If someone helps you out of a hole and gives you the push you need to succeed, would you return the favor? A better way to explain this would be that everything you do affects other players, which in turn leaves a lasting impact on the world. Decisions can change the society, and literally anything is possible in that regard. We’ve seen governments overthrown, factions overrun, underground drug rings, espionage, manipulation, love, and so much more. What we as developers have done is create an environment where, much like real life, everything you do affects someone else. This is where the truest consequences of the game lie. You have a reputation, and you cannot escape it, only change it.
IG: Another theme that crops up a lot throughout your Kickstarter page is the refrain of “start with nothing, end up with everything.” This is intriguing, but obviously it will be impossible for every player to undergo this journey – some will surely have to fail for the others to succeed, which, for many, may turn the game into a fruitless struggle. How do you intend to mitigate that problem?
CA: This ultimately is an issue with the way life works, rather than a game design problem that we need to overcome. There are some systems in place that will allow players to survive to some extent in the rawest of circumstances. We’ve made an effort to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity at success. Your potential success in the game relies upon the risks you take, just as your potential failure does. If you are not a risk taker, you will not rise quickly, but you will not fall quickly just the same.
IG: Your combat system will be based on third-person twitch shooting, rather than (for example) hotkeys and auto-aiming. Will player levelling and skills affect this combat at all, in terms of assistance with aiming or higher damage, or will players always be on an even skill footing in a fight?
CA: Although skills will not directly give you a higher damage output, they will give you access to weapons which deal higher damage. The trade off here of course is that the more advanced weapons are balanced for specific purposes. You might choose a sub-machine gun which has a faster fire rate, but punishes those who miss their shots.
The opposite of this of course would be a slower firing gun that doesn’t deal as much damage, but punishes you less. The damage variation in best weapons versus worst weapons is not so vast that it trumps hand-eye coordination. If you are matched against someone of lesser skill but better equipment, you will be relatively evenly matched, depending on the gap in skill and gear.
Group combat is where the game really shines. We’re aiming to build a system that encourages teamwork, with the greatest opportunity for success being given to those who use tactics and can think on their feet. This is ultimately an MMO and to rise to the greatest heights in combat, you have to be willing to work with others.
IG: If skills don’t really affect combat at all, what kinds of improvements do they make to player characters instead?
CA: Skills will allow players efficiency and advancement in certain ways. It might give them access to additional production schematics or give them the ability to use advanced mining tools. Almost every element of the game will be tied into the skill system in some way, giving a lot of customization options to the players.
IG: When you say that the game has ‘Open PvP,’ does this mean Player vs Player combat is ‘on’ throughout the entire game? Are there any safe zones whatsoever?
CA: The problem we’ve encountered with mechanical safe zones is that they create an environment free of consequence. While this is something new players need, the rest of the game suffers as a result of it. If there is a place where users can go to escape others and hide with no threat of ever being killed, it will be abused heavily. We are currently working on a system for new players to safely acclimate themselves to the gameplay, but by and large, there will be nowhere safe not created by the players themselves.
IG: Are there any circumstances under which you, as developers, would step in and take direct action; say if the economy was being gamed, or one faction is totally dominating the entire server to the detriment of everyone else’s enjoyment? Are you happy to let a server naturally devolve into chaos if that’s what the actions of its players are leading to?
CA: As developers of a sandbox game, we feel it is our job to create something that is nearly self-sustaining. If it is possible to abuse the economy, or one faction has dominated everything, then we have failed. In the case of a single faction dominating the entire game, the economy itself is actually designed to deal with this. When one faction owns too many territories and has grown too large, it will be impossible for their income to sustain the faction and it will collapse. If this happens repeatedly, the entire economy will collapse, and the society will rebuild from the ashes of the previous. We feel like this potential death adds a lot to the nature of the gameplay and really embodies what we mean when we say player freedom.
IG: How does the jailing system work in practice? If your character is imprisoned for crimes against a certain faction, do you just have to stomp around a cell until your team busts you out?
CA: We’ve experimented with a few different methods for the prison system. The biggest thing that is considered with the latest is that being arrested literally removes you from normal gameplay for a time. This is a detrimental thing, and can potentially cause the user to log out from frustration. The new prison system aims to mitigate this in a number of ways. Once arrested, you are free to explore the entire prison, not confined to a single cell. We’ve discussed a number of interesting things to keep them entertained once inside, such as gambling and prison weapons through a special crafting system available to prisoners. Your sentence is a static timer based on your bounty and will automatically release you once it has been served. If you are not broken out an optional method of escape will exist, but require some effort to achieve, perhaps even a little bribery.
IG: At the time of writing you’ve raised around $38,000 USD of your initial goal, but this has come from relatively few backers (just over 200.) That shows dedication (it’s $190 USD each on average,) but is it enough people to sustain an open MMO structure like yours which would appear to benefit from a high population?
CA: We’ve been paying attention to a lot of the traffic that has been visiting our website and we are confident we will have the kind of population needed to sustain the game at launch. We have also allocated a portion of the Kickstarter funds to advertising, which will help grow our community as well.
IG: As you’ll be using a free-to-play model, how do you plan to attract paying players without offering them skills/items/features that would give them an advantage over those who play for free?
CA: One thing that we’ll acknowledge is the value in convenience and customization. Many users will pay for the ability to make a character unique to them, and even more will pay to make their lives easier. While we will not be intentionally designing the game around inconveniencing free players, we will be adding features that allow premium players the ability to do certain things faster and with less effort.
IG: If you meet your funding goal, when can players expect to see Face of Mankind: Fall of the Dominion being (re)launched with its new features?
CA: Our current conservative estimate is for February of 2014, but we’d really like to see it out before the end of the year!
The Face of Mankind: Fall of the Dominion Kickstarter campaign can be found here. Images in this piece were taken from the Fall of Mankind Tech Demo video.