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J ON SHADOWBANE AT E3 [Author: Lum the Mad]

“Ah, people asking questions, lost in confusion
Well I tell them there’s no problem, only solutions
Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry
I’m just sitting here doing time
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go”
-John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels”

“They’re going that way — we think!”

A small crowd had gathered outside lot number 2128 in the West Hall of LA’s Convention Center, in the middle of a T-junction in a room mostly filled with presentations of console games. E3 2001 is the occasion, and most are probably wondering what

Hiding in plain sight is the “booth” used by Wolfpack Studios, complete with several dead trees draped with viny wooden curls surrounded by fake grass, a large tent decorated with a crest of a golden lion on a red field, several spotlights on the floor and a “campfire” at the center. It looks more like part of the background than someone’s game presentation.

And, to one side, a few guys in white t-shirts with logos on the back look like they are having a bit too much fun rolling up t-shirts into a leather sling and winding the arm of a trebuchet to fire towards the crowd. Nearby booths shudder as fans “go long” to catch the prizes and nearly knock them over.

“Shadowbane is coming!” shouts the one with “Everett Lee” on his nametag. And some of the crowd responds.

“SHADOWBANE IS COMING!”
“SHADOWBANE IS COMING!”
“SHADOWBANE IS COMING!”

For most people who came by, this is what they’ll remembe. For those who stuck around, they might have noticed that these people were actually promoting a game, one that many thousands of people have been waiting to hear about, and likely one that thousands more will flock to check out, win lose or draw. Competing developers stopped by to ask questions, or in some cases, give a cursory glance and breeze right on past. Media from inside and outside the mainstream stopped by to pick brains or just check up on what they were sure would one day be worth a full story.

They would soon run out of t-shirts.

Besides the outward appearance, Wolfpack was one of the few public presentations that included actual game developers, actually talking about the game. In that sense, this year’s presentation was pretty much like last year’s, only there were a lot more developers to go around.

People like Sam “Meridian” Johnson, Wolfpack’s staff writer, whose staff members worried was skittish around crowds. For most of Friday, however,!
he held court in front of the campfire, talking about more than just his own writing. He has to know most of the plans, if nothing else, because he has to feature them in story.

Among the bigger stories was that Shadowbane would be doing away with all player-based trade skills (even though they only ever had three trade-based Disciplines, and the Alchemist, Blacksmith and Forgemaster remain on their lists.) Instead, it’s all going to be left up to NPC tradesmen.

“So let’s say you get a blacksmith,” Meridian says. “You go to his shop, and you say, ‘Gimme five of these, and two of these.’ And he says, ‘OK boss,’ and a timer starts. You come back later and he says, ‘I’m almost done, are you sure you want these?'”

Depending on the skill of the blacksmith, the original order could have changed — instead of a simple longsword, the blacksmith could have got creative and made one that was better than ordinary; “magical,” “golden” or any other Diablo-esque adjectives that make it more special. At the point where the tradesman asks “are you sure?” the player may say no, in which case the order is discarded, or say yes, and pay whatever it cost to make the item.

The player becomes the tradesman’s boss, Meridian explains, and can micromanage in a number of different ways, including setting the profit margins for guild members as opposed to total strangers or enemies, who might have to pay a higher rate or not get any service at all.

What’s still needing work is how the resources will be gathered, and how the tradesmen “learn” how to ply their trades. Thomas “Dreadflame” Sitch says it’s most likely going to involve a “recipe” of sorts, but it’s not set in stone how resources may be gathered or how players could add or subtract from the system by visiting other towns and learning new recipes or checking up on competitor’s prices in other towns.

Resources are not going to be a matter of concern for the guild towns, however. The Tree of Life, long known by Shadowbane fans as the respawn point for all guild members, will also play a role when its town is under siege. Instead of with bricks and mortar, damaged town buildings within the tree’s circle of magical influence will be “healed” at a certain rate relative to the Tree’s magical power levels.

The guild leader (or leaders, depending on what sort of government system is the one at the controls of the ToL, Meridian says, choosing whether the city wall gets more healing power than a badly-damaged essential building. If the leader dies during the siege, the control is temporarily disrupted, unless the government isn’t a Monarchy, and other people may control the ToL.

“The benefit of a Monarchy is that nobody tells you what to do,” Meridian says.

However, Shadowbane’s main attraction up until now hasn’t been its plan to revolutionize how players can make stuff, it’s been how they can break stuff — something Wolfpack’s well aware of.

James “Scorn” Nance explains that in-game trebuchets will fling more than t-shirts, but will be only as mobile as the real one. Sieging a town will involve setting up a “war tent” within range of the target and getting an Engineer to build the siege engines from there.

Scorn says he’s taken over as lead designer from Patrick “Varios” Blanton, one of Wolfpack’s four partners. Varios is doing more operational work for the sake of the business, Scorn says, but he’s still an essential part of the design team, for the same reason he’s always been.

“Patrick’s a reformed griefer,” Scorn says. “He’s still the guy I’ll go to and say, ‘Here, try this out,’ to see if he can break it.”

Scorn adds that the first phase of beta was quite the learning experience for him and the rest of the team; just documenting everything was no small task, and even with as few testers as the first phase had, the phase took two months, and the second phase another month before it started. “We were barely able to handle 50,” he says.

Keith “Zyzebo” Brewer, online rollout director (whose job for the past few months, besides getting the second phase of beta ready, has included writing customer-service and quality-assurance policies, both of which Wolfpack still declines to discuss on the record) says he knows some fans have been thinking Shadowbane’s focus has changed, but he points out that the town building is ultimately about giving people something worth fighting for. “It’s all about player conflict,” he says.

Zyzebo explained more about himself than most people (not including me) would care to know, over dinner — his professional background includes several years in infrastructure management with EDS and Sprint, after which he became a business consultant with a startup company called Reliant Data, where he met Warden, Arcane and Wolfpack’s CTO Robert “Naarsin” Marsa.

Unlike last year, however, there weren’t any demonstrations of the working game, something Wolfpack’s top brass wanted to avoid. Instead, there was a bank of 16 monitors featuring in-game engine movies in much sharper quality than anything that’s been seen in videos released over the Internet.

Josef “Arcane” Hall, Wolfpack’s president, said those videos were still below the sharpness of the “Chaos” client milestone, the one that represents the last phase of pre-release development and reportedly has four times better terrain rendering, among other things. These movies were still on the “Apoc” version, the one that testers from beta phase 1 had tested and phase 2 will probably still test.

Another movie of interest shown on Friday (which also might be released over the net soon, if Wolfpack figures out how to release DVD-quality flicks without killing their servers or their fans’ Internet connections) was a documentary-style promo featuring comments from various team members, narrated by Meridian.

Setting all that up was mostly Warden’s task; his mission was to find a way to get it done without taking up too much of the dev team’s time. That meant, unfortunately, that a demo wasn’t in the cards, and Shadowbane’s fans joined that of Max Payne and Duke Nukem Forever, all long-anticipated games that had to make do at E3 with videos.

Arcane said that during the 2000 E3, he and Todd “Warden” Coleman had been stuck in a trailer parked in GODGames‘s “Promised Lot,” giving nonstop presentations of their client.

“I made up my mind that I was going to have fun this year,” Arcane says. And he was having fun, along with the rest of the staff, who alternately took off to visit other booths and check out other games.

But the tent had its share of visitors, including representatives from publishing entities, those interested in a piece of Wolfpack’s Shadowbane pie. Arcane politely declines to comment on the record about who actually has a chance, if anyone does. At the end of E3, a new publisher still has not been announced.

“I’d love to sit down with you sometime and talk it all out,” he tells Lum the Mad, who’s curious about who will replace GODGames, still unofficially out of the running as Shadowbane’s publisher, especially after he’d met members of Wolfpack at GOD’s semi-exclusive party in the Promised Lot on Thursday night.

“Harry is still good friends with us,” Arcane says, referring to GODGames president Harry Miller. “He invites us to all their parties.”

The Big Finish

If nothing else, Wolfpack’s presentation succeeded in presenting one thing: progress. Not immediately visible progress, but progress nonetheless.
It’s hard to know many things except what’s been repeated again and again, that Shadowbane is coming, even though when, how and in what package it’ll come still torments fans the world over. Wolfpack is holding fast to the schedule it should have announced from the beginning, that of “It’ll be done, when it’s done.”

And it will be done.

J.

Video transcript

Title Screen:
“Shadowbane” is a registered Trademark of Wolfpack Studios, Inc. The images and information shown on this video are to be used for public viewing only and sould not be distributed without prior written concent (sic). All video footage was taken in-game, however changes may occur prior to release such that images may differ significantly from those present in the final release. All content (c) Wolfpack Studios, Inc. 2001.

“Become a Hero”

Sam “Meridian” Johnson, staff writer (narrating) : “With the advent of the Internet, a new breed of game has emerged. Where traditional multiplayer games top out at dozens of simultaneous players, these so-called ‘massively multiplayer’ games are different. Thousands of players can log in and connect to the same game server, to adventure and explore strange and fantastic worlds.

At the forefront of this development trend is Shadowbane, a fantasy-genre, massively-multiuser RPG currently under development by Wolfpack Studios.”

(Several fight scenes in the background; a centaur fighting a lizard man in the swamp, then another fighting a scorpion in the desert, an elf lord doing the tai-chi-like Sword Dance.)

James “Scorn” Nance, lead designer: “We started Shadowbane over two years ago, and it’s been a fairly massive undertaking. We’ve got 10 different races, over 20 classes and with dozens of disciplines, the combinations for creating characters is into the hundreds and thousands. What sets Shadowbane apart from other games that on the market is that the other games are fairly static. You don’t have to play them very long before you figure out that your character can’t actually affect the world in any way. With Shadowbane, we’ve striven to change that as a paradigm.”

(Rotating camera view around a roofless building, through which an Elf lord with two swords walks, then comes outside and goes into the famous “sword dance”)

Jason “Tangent” Durall, associate designer: “Shadowbane is full of conflict, but it’s conflict with some meaning to it. Um, it’s conflict in which there is — like there’s a purpose. Why are we fighting? We’re fighting to gain something, to build kingdoms, to make, raise empires, to defend what we’ve earned.”

“Raise an Army”

Ragnar “Psyklone” Scheuermann, programmer with a cool wrought-iron candle holder in the shape of a cross behind his head : “Ah, the guild system is very very cool. It’s completely run by the players, ah, in the entire game, and all of the, the city structures and everything resolve — revolves around players banding together in guilds.”

Patrick “Varios” Blanton, VP of product development, designer: “Yeah, anybody in the game can create a guild. All it takes is a little bit of money, some friends, and that’s all you need. Well, we give the players a lot of ability to, I guess I think (?) by themselves. You have a motto, which is unique to your guild, your guild crest, background colors — basically, I think there’s millions of different opportunities for players to create their own sigils that are unique to them.

There’s lots of guild choices for each player tag: Military Legions, Barbarian Clans, Wizard Towers — basically any kind of type of player you are, you can have a guild type that you can choose from.”

(Guild Charter creation window in background, with commander designations and crest designs.)

Psyklone: “Guild leaders have control over the overall policies, and the way that the guild works. They, they hire underlings or they have a select inner council, um, that controls the, you know, everyday runnings of the guild. Um, it’s completely player-driven, and it’s much more in-depth than just a collection of players who just wanna hang out together. There’s, ah, there’s a lot of infrastructure built around, around the actual guild.”

“Rule an Empire”

Thomas “Dreadflame” Sitch, programmer with several posters on his wall, including one for “Dark City”: “Towns are built according to the decisions made by the players in the guild that decides to found the town, and those players even who do not belong to the guild that are permitted to build within it. Really, it’s ahh, entirely driven by, ahm, the player and guild motivations, built around the Tree at center of the town, and um, whatever kind of tactical defensive structure the guild decides is a wise way to lay out ah, the plan.

There’s a significant variety of buildings that are available. Ah — Ideally speaking, we wanted to have all the buildings that were available to the world builders also available to guilds, and, and, that’s pretty much the case. You have access to, ah, weapon shops, magic shops, item shops, inns, taverns, and barracks to house guards to defend your city from marauding bands of players.”

Jeff “Ashton Kai” Toney, 3D artist reclining next to a cutout of a centaur wearing red boxing gloves and a large Pikachu doll: “Each type of building has seven ranks to it — there are three visual ones. And what we have is, at each type of building you get certain products or services, ahh-attached to it. For instance, the magic shop has — you can supply potions, you can buy, ah, magical scrolls, things like that.”

(A character holding a lance stands outside a building with a popup window identifying it as a “Barracks (Rank 1)”. The pointer selects some kind of upgrade.)

Dreadflame: “We weren’t super-fond of the whole tradeskill-based economy. Um, it had some issues, and see what we really went about doing was moving it to a different level, to a production-level economy. And basically what that means is that the players, the characters of the players, hire NPCs — ah, hirelings and thralls — that really do the dirty work for them. A player can in fact be financially successful in the game without hunting monsters all day, or double-clicking a tree or pile of ore all day.

Essentially, ah, a player goes about, ah, building a place that produces items, let’s say for the sake of argument, we’ll say a weapon shop. The player takes a contract for employment on a smith, drops on the shop and is able to get a smith that ah, produces items. He or she then sets the agenda for that hireling, as to what kind of items they want made, whether they’re magical or so forth, and then can go offline. The NPC goes about building the items and then selling them according to the specifications given by the player.”

Ashton Kai: “When you get a building, what you do is ask your hireling to make products and services for you. For instance, at a forge, you get a weaponsmith. He’ll make either a bastard sword if you tell him to, or if you want him to make a dagger. You can even tell him to make a magical dagger, aor magical broadsword, a magical lance, things like that. Uh, basically it’s based off a random chance, and how good the rank of the weaponsmith is. Um, the higher rank of the weaponsmith, the better the magical quality of the lance, or the dagger, whatever weapon you, you decide to make.”

(A character stands in the middle while a pointer brings up a window for a “Forge (Rank 1)” and selects several options including a contract and lists of various classes of weapons available to be made.)

Dreadflame: “We set it up so that players can honestly have access to all the major shops and ah, buildings within the game and build their own player-run cities. They’re not, ah, they’re not permanent, they can be destroyed in a guild siege. But they really build the center of ah, commerce and the, and for the economy in the game.”

“Change the World”

Dreadflame: “The Tree of Life is really the center of any given city. It is what keeps the city safe and stable ah, under the watchful eye of the guild leader. It’s the point players use to respawn from, and it really is, exists as the heart of a city and the central tactical target in a guild siege.”

(The camera zooms in on a high-level Tree of Life)

Scorn: “The goal of any siege is to of course, destroy the opposing city, or better yet to have them surrender. The best way to do this is to bring as much heat to bear as possible on the Tree of Life. Um, you can do this by, of course, bring your guildmates in, setting up war tents, constructing siege engines, and attacking the city directly. There are also a variety of spells and powers in the game that effectively poison the Tree of Life. Once a Tree’s ability to heal has been negated, the city can be much more easily taken. Thus, the Tree stops healing buildings that become vulnerable, the walls will fall, the siege engines can deal a lot more damage out. Once a city’s in this position, it’s not too hard to get them to surrender.”

(Shows several trebuchets lined up next to war tents, followed by Tree of Life power levels and allocations to building heals)

“But in a defender, the best way to defend your city is to knock out the opposing siege engines, destroy their war camps and try and drive the attackers from your walls. Hope they don’t come back. Um, at any rate, it takes several days to affect the siege of a city. Um, another nasty tactic that attackers can use is to employ assassins. You can get somebody into the walls and strike out a guild leader or a council member, they lose their ability to manipulate the Tree of Life. That means they can’t shift healing to different buildings. That leaves parts of the city vulnerable to attack.”

Tangent: “As guilds conquer more and more territories, the um, the guild crest is going to show and each guild crest will represent like, an outpost or a city. And you’ll see that um, the world map will be updated in real time. So instantly, as your guild expands in um, influence and power, everyone on the network is going to see that your guild is really growing. Everyone will be watching to see as their kingdoms are rising, or, you know, they’ll start getting scared when they see their kingdoms falling and crumbling into dust.”

The original version displayed at E3 included a credits page with all the featured developers listed, and had much less scratchy audio.