Levelsave Editor Raven Poplar recently caught up with game developer, Mark Jordan, who helped make Armada, a space-shooter action/RPG for the SEGA Dreamcast. Let’s see what he’s up to these days, yes?
Hey Mark, tell our readership who you are and what you’re doing.
Hi, I’m Mark Jordan. I do art and design. With me is Roger Fang. He is a game programmer. We have been working together for 16 years or so. We are currently working on Armada Online.
That’s a new MMORPG still in alpha, isn’t it? What is your role in that development?
Roger does all the programming. I do the other tasks. I work in excel and photoshop a lot. I create comma separated data files (.csv) that the program interprets to build an area and define what entities do. Roger wrote the entire game engine and server on his own in C++. It is a very modular system.
Is it just the two of you, then? Are there other staff or contracts that you’re utilizing to give AO wings?
Just Roger and me.
You two are busy. Can you tell us a bit about AO?
Basically, you control a single starship and fight huge biomechanical aliens, with friends. I wanted to make science fiction fun and organic. I loved studying extremophiles growing up. The Armada are giant spacefaring life forms. They present a mystery. To me, they are a beauty to behold. They are sculpturally interesting in terms of geometry and because they instinctually register as pure survivors.Play is about layers of gameplay that you can choose based on your interests. The way aliens behave and move, the way your ship moves and what it can do vary wildly and create a series of interesting moment-to-moment choices. There is also large scale choice in terms of how you want to engage an entire area. For example, an area called Delta 3 is where you can hunt elite aliens with a group, Neutral Zone is a faction-split DotA battleground, and The Burn is coop tower defense. The story missions we are working on are about survival and evolution (and enhancing the solo component).
The game looks to me like a cross between SubSpace Continuum and EVE Online. What influences sparked this MMO version of Armada?
Our experiences as kids playing Starflight drove us to develop games. Roger didn’t play Star Control 2, but I keep encouraging him to. Roger and I met playing Warlords while working at a computer lab. We both got into Magic the Gathering in the early days, and I think that game influenced many designers to examine modular play, and facilitate user creativity in a cleaner way.
What do you mean when you say that the system is modular?
For developers, it means interchangable parts you can cleanly rearrange in different ways to produce wildly different experiences. For players, you can combine powers, tactics, ships, and items in creative ways. A full deckbuilding game like Magic the Gathering is an example of a modular game, where you can design how your build might play out from a large pool of components.
Would you classify AO as an MMORPG in the traditional sense?
It feels like one, and plays like it, but the server structure is different. We spawn instances: when Delta 3 hits 16 players, the next player to warp to Delta 3 goes to a new instance. We are all on one server, and can PM, warpto, see status, trade, and join up, but some instances fill.
At this early pre-alpha stage, how large is the scope of AO? Tell us a bit about the plans you have for future development.
We’re a solid alpha. Casual play (like hunting with a group in Delta 3) can be fun because in all elements of the game, we gave players tools to creatively solve problems. You can immobilize enemies, summon stations or fighters, teleport ram into enemies, cloak, aid allies, or control enemy biomechs. Many of the current biomechs were designed to pose a simple spatial gameplay challenge, like you have to hit them from the rear to avoid having your attacks be absorbed by a large frontal armor plate, or you want to place a station to absorb a repulsor push, or disintegrate or move around enemies that might split or explode for damage on death. Sometimes you want to kill one target that is strengthening all surrounding aliens, or shooting down your missiles, or is briefly uncloaked. Other times, you want to leave certain targets for last because they are powered up and reflect damage or have a temporary energy shield.We made Neutral Zone open since late 2005, so it has evolved into a polished DotA game and is currently there for you if you’re into that. Pro NZ matches are my favorite thing to play. We need more players so we can get more matches. There are a good number of coop challenges in the game. Burn is fun, and accessible to new players (NZ is open to level 1, too, but it can be a harsh experience). The main tasks ahead are adding the new high level player ships, a new coop zone called Origin, and the story missions.
DotA-style gameplay and tower defence in an RPG? Do these areas scale to your level or are they standardized scenarios?
You scale yourself. I like to call the DotA genre “Turbo RPGs” because you go through the growth and choices that would normally play out over 40 hours in 40 minutes. In these areas, even a level 1 player can pump up and go from dealing 80 damage to dealing 275 damage per attack, but it only lasts for the one mission. Upon victory or defeat in The Burn, you lose your temporary powers, then you can go back and try again (exp and drop are permanent). Of course, it is easier if you are higher level. The Burn is hard for level 1, but you can level making it to wave 5 if you killed a lot of elites (“bosses”). If you are level 1 and play with a couple level 40s (who usually come for drops or just to play casually), you will probably win. The Burn is cooperative, so you are always happy to have allies, regardless of their level. The Neutral Zone is pvp, so you want balanced teams if possible, but teamwork is by far the most powerful thing and the powers play a huge role.
What kind of races (and classes, if any) will we be seeing in AO? What kind of character progression system is in place?
There are six races. You can choose any one of them right now. As you gain levels, you can learn skills and hire permanent specialist crew that has passive and active effects. There are 4 item classes that give passive stat bonuses, but soon there will be activated effects on items. At level 10, 25, and soon at 40, you can upgrade your ship in one of two directions. Each race starts with one ship. In short form, the Terran Explorer can shoot down enemy shots, the Nomad Enforcer starts out with the most direct damage and can boost speed, Vorgans heal allies well, Eldred disrupt/lay mines/teleport to interesting tactical effect, Drakken summon a Scout to harass the enemy, and Scarab cloak and mess with people, pushing them or forcing them into hyperspace temporarily.
Tell me honestly, what is your favourite kind of character to play in the current build.
Terran Cruiser, Nomad Dervish, and Eldred Intruder appeal to me depending on how I feel like playing. The Cruiser is a solid all around ship. I like targeting an enemy, launching concussion missiles and seeing the push, plus the summoned station is useful. The Dervish is like a Gundam mech with sword arms, made for close combat. The Intruder can swap positions with enemies and teleport back onto them for damage–good for certain roles in pvp.
GUNDAM! Did you watch Gundam, Macross, and all those other mecha anime as a kid?
Yes. My kids have seen Macross, Southern Cross, and GC:M (under “Robotech“).
I’ve played a few Free to Play games before and, though there are always exceptions, they don’t always live up to the standards of retail games. Why did you choose to go F2P?
We want there to be a large portion of the game that is freely accessible, so people can try it and only pay anything if they really like it.Retail or f2p doesn’t define the game. There are some excellent games that are 100% free, and expensive games that fall flat. The issue is that some f2p are about ripping people off and not giving them a game at all.
Will there be a micro-transaction system? Can I buy character progression with real money?
If we raise money on Kickstarter, it will totally change how we release the game, and eliminate microtrans.
What is AO’s projected release date?
You can play it right now. It will take us some time to complete the higher level player ships, missions, and planets. A huge amount of content can be done within 4-6 months, if we get funding. Otherwise, things move slower. We work on it when we can.
So there’s no final projected date of completion on the horizon?
If we are funded, we can release a solid game next year, and support its growth for a long, long time.
Up to 4 players on one screen, piloting spaceships, shooting aliens, traveling through space to visit planets and stations, to complete missions. Roger did most of the programming, and the joy of that game comes from how easy he made it for people to drop in/out, and how approachable the overall structure of the game was. His sense of clean logic made it transcend whatever downsides it had.
Armada II was in development for years but never saw the light of day. How much of that unreleased game can be seen in AO?
Concepts are there, but the our bosses kept pulling Roger and I off A2 and work on other projects in order to serve their secret goals (to get rid of internal US development and not pay us what was due from A1, set up a Taiwan studio, and focus on the publishing business), and after they did get rid of us, nobody remained who could actually make a game like Armada 2 (we tried to show them how many times, even after leaving). When I bought back the rights to Armada, I was given permission to return to our old offices to retrieve any data that was available. It was a sorry sight. I was only able to find a few meshes. We basically had to make Armada Online from scratch.
I’m sorry to hear that, it must have been a disappointment to find out there was so little left of the work you had put into the game. Which concepts have you taken from Armada II for implementation in AO?
The core survives. That you stand with friends, against the horde, to fight for the right to travel space and seek immortality. That is a major theme in the story, that if you remain stuck on one planet, your species is doomed to die eventually, whether by random collision or one jackass with a powerful weapon.
Do you consider AO to be a true sequel to the original?
Well, going from local to online, from joystick to mouse+keyboard changes a lot, but it is the next game. Armada Online adds large scale strategic considerations on top of the close range tactics. Once the story missions are in, AO will feel a lot more like A1 in terms of solo immersion.
Armada was supposed to be an MMORPG in the first place, this is exactly the kind of thing that would have made me switch allegiances from Sony to SEGA. Why was it scaled back to a local co-op game?
Because Sega was holding back on networking, and our execs were already getting messages about time pressure. There was a huge list of art improvements that I would have liked to make. Our execs being spooked was also partly my fault, because I kept talking about setbacks and development challenges, which to non-developers probably caused panic. [Roger and I had already released Star Command Deluxe, a matchmaking rts on PC, but they were worried about Sega’s level of commitment to WinCE in addition to online in general.]
It was a shock. We tripled performance and were getting interesting effects working. We felt bad for Sega. Soul Calibur DC was magic.
In your opinion, what kind of things (situations, decisions, policies) led to the demise of SEGA’s beloved line of hardware.
Uncertainty. They kept changing their support for things like online and working with Microsoft. Ultimately, they didn’t support their excellent hardware, and bowed to Sony. Many execs at development companies got the message early and shifted projects to other platforms.
With original titles still being released as late as this year and nostalgia running high in the current game market, is there any hope of seeing an Armada re-release?
Yes. We will remake it using Armada Online art and tech.
Who or what are your personal influences in life?
As a child, my family, teachers, making stop motion films, reading Choose Your Own Adventure books (and Endless Quest and Steve Jackson game books), Star Wars, and the Atari 2600. As an artist, reading the Dune books and exploring shapes through sketch. Today, watching my three kids grow, and thinking about what our most ancient ancestors had to deal with.
I’ve got a whole stack of GURPS books sitting on my shelf, are you a big roleplayer?
I was the neighborhood Dungeon Master, growing up. Good times. I might run a campaign for my kids, when they are a little older, maybe more as a storyteller, with simplified rules.
My three part 2D+3D answer: Castlevania Symphony of the Night and Ocarina of Time are two that I feel no hesitation recommending to anyone, which my kids loved also. Fallout 1 and Gothic 1 both gave me a sense of lonely, harsh struggle that immerses me in a game. Magic the Gathering and Return to Castle Wolfenstein were brilliant multiplayer experiences. Castlevania hit me at just the right time, and had such amazing music, art, effects, and depth of play for its time that it endures as a top choice. Your readers can download it on Xbox and Playstation if they never played it. It is truly amazing. It always pleases me to be the one to introduce someone to Symphony of the Night.
And that’s it for this Veteran Spotlight. If you’re interested in finding out more about Armada Online, check out the Kickstarter and the Steam Greenlight pages, as well as the main website. The game is available to play now as an alpha release. Levelsave will be getting a preview of the game up sometime soon, so stay locked!