Mark Kern (Kern has worked on games such as “World of Warcraft”, “Diablo II”, “Starcraft” and “Firefall”) has been away from the games industry for a while. However, he’s looking forward to coming back to the industry again. So Kern is creating a Sci-Fi Sandbox MMO called “Ember”. And just recently he created a petition to see if there was enough interest for a game like “Ember” (Kern has also launched a forum page for the”Ember”). So we’ve been able to catch up with Mark and ask him some questions about his new project.
When did the idea of coming out of retirement and making a new MMO come about?
I don’t know if there is a clear beginning. I think the idea that my work had always been unfinished with Firefall has been in the back of my mind since I was turned out. It’s difficult to see something you created be completely changed just before its public launch, and change for the worse. I think when the players had enough I was just as disappointed as they were.
There was so much potential in beta Firefall, seeing it turn 180 degrees to become a traditional MMO level grinding game was very sad to see. We had 1.5M accounts signed up in beta. To me, that’s 1.5M people that were let down. I want to finish the mission.
Your crowdfunding campaign is already over, but it was only for the game website, when will the campaign for the actual game begin?
I only did the crowdfunding for the website because people asked me to put up official forums for Ember, the concept for the spiritual successor to Firefall. We had about 1000 signature at the time on the change.org petition, so I thought this would be a good litmus test of demand.
Initially, we were only trying to raise $250, but the minimum on IndieGoGo is $500. I remember so many people warning me that raising money for a website might not work and everyone was worried about failing. We wanted Ember to succeed so we were thinking that a failure now would kill the idea before it had a chance.
I was skeptical myself. Firefall is old and not the best brand because of how they ruined the game after I left. But, much to everybody’s surprise, we raised nearly 600% of our goal. It was incredible, and in just 10 days.
So yes, the idea of crowdfunding the game does not seem like the insurmountable goal that it did before we started. But I do think most MMO remakes do not do crowdfunding well. They tend to do one big one and raise around 1.5-3M at the most successful. That’s not enough to make a MMO. So the idea came up to break it up into smaller fundraisers along the way…with playable deliverable milestones. That way accountability is built into the process and the risk is lower. You can also raise more money, long-term, to complete a big project. It keeps the developer honest, as they must deliver a good milestone to reach the next goal.
We’ve seen in the past that MMOs can be very expensive to make, but now you and other developers are trying to crowdfund them, how can you make these games happen with a much smaller budget?
Like I said I think the secret is being up front about the costs and time and breaking it up into sub-goals with separate funding for each. So many MMO crowdfunding events imply that an MMO can be made just off one Kickstarter. It can’t. Gamers know this instinctively. They are skeptical of investing a huge amount and then waiting 3-5 years for something they won’t see until the end.
The way I’d like to approach it is to build trust and accountability along the way and show incremental goals that backers can play and touch and feel. So, why not start with just a website? Show that you can do the simplest things well. I think the Ember forums we delivered on time were of the highest quality for any game forum out there. That builds confidence. Gamers can look at our track record and feel better about the risk involved. We can then progress to higher and higher funding goals for bigger parts of the project, like 3D models and a tiny prototype that players can play, for example. Each step we have to deliver the best quality and build that confidence. We don’t want to just sell concept art for space ships. We have to deliver real results that are undeniably good on a consistent basis.
In the past few years we’ve seen many high-profile western MMOs come out and not do all that well (Swtor, Wildstar, TESO, Everquest Next was cancelled and Blizzard pulled the plug on Titan and released Overwatch instead) it would seem Western MMOs in the decline, wouldn’t you agree?
Absolutely. MMOs based on the WoW/EQ model are done. It’s been 20 years and any genre gets stale after that long. Flight sims, adventure games, RTSs etc. all had their day and are done. Players just know “oh these are the mechanics and nothing is a surprise and I know how all this goes yawn” There’s no mystery or wonder or figuring out how to play and get to the highest levels.
But what many don’t’ realize is that before EQ and WoW, is that MMOs were highly experimental. Ultima Online had no levels and a simulated world, for example. The original Star Wars Galaxies MMO also had quite a different model and more procedural elements. These are ripe for exploration as a genre and for a fresh feel.
Firefall was supposed to do that, but somewhere along the way, we got dragged more and more into traditional MMO tropes. We had all this stuff on paper, like the sandbox crafting aspect, the war aspect, and the AI game director aspect that never made it into the game. It would have changed everything. Ember doesn’t have to invent a bunch of new stuff, there is a ton of things we knew we were going to do in FF that we can do for Ember…and we have the benefit of hindsight now, to know what pitfalls to avoid this time around. We don’t have to waste a lot of time on things like (do we do 1st or 3rd person? A debate that consumed Red 5 for a year). We know we do both, because it works and players liked it.
Firefall, in beta, felt like no other MMO before it or since. There was nothing like it. Ember hopes to bring that back.
In a recent interview, you said that if you get to develop a game again. Then you would like to turn your game into a “Buy-to-Play” title similar to “Guild Wars 2”. As many games tried to do that at launch, but were forced to change their business model down the line. And a very recent example is “Evolve”. As the game went from BTP to F2P, and their concurrent users jumped from 100 to 50,000. So, is the business model set in stone or will the final decision be made in the future?
Evolve is a bad example. Or maybe it’s a good example. Evolve was a failure of a game when it came out. The game just sucked and everyone knew it and was horribly disappointed. For a game like that, going free can absolutely up your playerbase by an order of magnitude from failure to “okay.” But that’s not solving the problem. Your game still sucks and now you have to start monetizing it to stay alive as a studio. You begin to make game design decision not based on fun, but on revenue. That’s a slippery slope there that can take a lot of resources away from just making the game fun in the first place. I’ve always said that if you can make a fun game, the money takes care of itself.
You have been critical of gaming media outlets and some gaming journalists in the past, are you concerned with a media blackout and how do you plan to overcome that obstacle?
Yes, I’ve been on the inside and seen the corruption first hand. The gifts, the lavish trips to castles, and even the outright exchange of buying ads for coverage. I did it all. Many years ago the gaming press did it out of love for the game and passion for the industry. As small sites aggregated into fewer, bigger sites that made a lot of money, you saw that change. Click-bait and traffic for ads were a big money booster and the articles changed, became more gossip focused and deliberately inflammatory to get “nerd rage clicks.” It also attracted a whole cadre of new writers who didn’t’ care about games at all. And as they did more and more nerd-baiting, a contempt grew for their audience that we can still see today in the “gamers are dead” mentality.
But the truth is, those big gaming sites that used to sell millions in ads are on the decline. As they traded integrity and honest reviews for nerd-rage traffic and banner ad clicks, they lost their way. Their audience became fed up with the unreliable reviews and obvious shilling and baiting. People also started to use ad-blockers and suddenly, the money dried up. People turned to social media and video (watching let’s play on YouTube, etc.) to get honest opinions about upcoming or released games. It was more reliable. It didn’t involve nerd-raging your audience to sell more ads. And these big game news sites are simply not relevant anymore.
Here, you want proof? When we did Firefall Fest on Twitch or did any trailer on Firefall, we would instantly get 500k-1M views and thousands of live viewers on Twitch. We tracked how many signups we got during these and the numbers always spike, hugely. More than any article on any gaming site ever did. And this was back before people understood that video was the way forward. We had a lot of questions by The9 on why we didn’t spend the money on banner ads instead. Even when we presented cold hard analytics from Google showing 10x the engagement rate, our own marketing team would stare at them and not understand why we were doing video, youtubers and Twitch. But now, of course, everyone knows that the “obvious” way to market your game. Nobody understood that when we did it, even on our own team. It was very frustrating, especially since the numbers showed we were blowing everything else out of the water on market engagement and click-thrus and signups. Marketing teams tend to stick to tried and true formulas and are slow to innovate.
So no, I don’t really care about traditional “big name” web coverage by gaming sites because they don’t help you game anymore. It’s all social now. It’s all word of mouth, and it’s all video. That’s where you’ll find Ember.
Aside from the game having an official website, do you plan on creating official accounts for Ember on other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit?
I just got done setting up a bunch of them for Crixa Labs. I did it so we could get our API keys to hook our forums into them. You can sign into the http://forums.emberthegame.com with Twitter, Facebook or Google now and its very smooth. Makes the on-boarding much simpler. Eventually we will be doing more with our social media presence. I learned a lot on Twitter since Firefall, growing my own followers from 1000 or so to over 63,000. We definitely want to be on social media for Ember. But not Reddit. Reddit moderators have gotten a huge power trip and abuse their members with bias and unjustified censorship, you’ll never see us there. The Firefall subreddit is the worst. The moderator flat-out told me the rules can be broken to abuse, brigade and down vote supporters of Ember and myself there because he’s personal friends with a few disgruntled ex-Red 5’rs. Inexcusable and unprofessional behavior, IMHO.
Other game companies are trying to make Indie Sandbox MMOs with Horizontal Progression too, how would you say Ember could stand apart from them so players don’t get that “Been there, done that” feeling?
Right now, since the idea is “new” it’s what I like to call “market validation.” It means the concepts we pioneered in the beta really do work and have attracted a lot of interest by other game makers. Now it’s all about execution. Who does it the best? I love that type of competition. With all the research and mistakes we made on Firefall, I feel confident we can avoid the common pitfalls and focus on what works best.
MMOs be very expensive to make, do you plan to rely solely on crowdfunding or will you seek outside investors?
If we can get more signups there, and more people on the new forums at http://forums.emberthegame.com then we can release more development and funding goals. If we can get around 1000 signups on the forums, I’d be confident to release our next dev and funding goal of a playable thumper encounter for Ember. We’re in good shape from the first goal and will have all the concept we need to begin 3D modeling the player, T.H.M.P.R. mech and such thanks to the generous support of our backers.
After that I think we can start to talk about outside funding. But no investors. If we do any outside funding I would be talking to potential licensing partners, but not exactly publishers. I really don’t want to fall into that same trap of partners and investors forcing the game into the old MMO genre. Its worse because I helped make WoW and people want me to do that again…but they don’t understand that just repeating what I did before is a recipe for failure. You have to innovate now.
BTW, another way to show support for Ember is to sign the petition on change.org petition (looking for 8000 or so signatures): https://www.change.org/p/crixa-labs-make-ember-a-spiritual-successor-to-firefall It costs nothing and helps build the demand we need to see if Ember can be viable.
MMO players have become very demanding over the years. And they expect features which they consider to be industry standards to be ready at launch. And one example of this is an LFG tool. So how do you plan to tick off all the checkboxes of player expectations?
We’re not a regular MMO, period. That will mean players have no idea what they want as features, because they will have never played a game like Ember before (except for Firefall vets, who got a taste of where were going).
This is a huge advantage. When we made WoW we didn’t have a massive feature set to compete with because the genre was still so new to the mass market. With Ember, players will be learning a whole new way to play with not much else to compare it to. The other games that are share some similarities are not as saturated with features as more established genres. There’s still room to improve that and jump in while its emerging.
Robin Ek – Editor and Co-writer
We are friends and supporters of Mark Kern, LFG and his games.
The Gaming Ground
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