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GameObserver interview with ĎLoveí designer, Eskil Steenberg

by Larry Giver

Posted: 11-08-2009

There are many one-man game projects currently being developed, but few are as ambitious and exciting as ĎLoveí, a game that promises to revolutionize MMOs.


What is Love? No, not the cheesy Haddaway disco song; itís a legitimate question. What is Love? Ask Eskil Steenberg and he will tell you that itís the next phase in MMOs -- a game that intends to reinvent the very nature of why we play persistent online games in the first place. Love is completely being designed by the author himself with no support or funding. The code, the art, engine, tools, design, networking, everything is currently being created from the ground up by one single person: Mr. Steenberg.

In a nutshell, Love is a first-person shooter that will let players build structures, permanently manipulate their environment and share resources. Imagine a real-time strategy seen through the eyes of a grunt, with players having no option but to cooperate on servers of 200 users. One can say the game was named after the authorís passion for the project, but Love is mainly an experiment. Itís an attempt to show players a new way of cooperating in a persistent world, where actions of the few can influence the experience of an entire server.

The game will be pay-to-play and will come outÖ Actually, weíll let the gameís designer answer that one. GameObserverís Larry Giver recently had the privilege of chatting with Eskil. Here is how the interview went down:

Larry Giver: Where did the idea and concept come from?

Eskil: It started with me not having anything else to do -- really wanting to do something cool. I thought of all the different things that I was interested in, all the ideas Iíve had, and I managed to figure out that I had an idea that matched everything, that all the ideas could be connected and you could build something cool, something that was technically possible, and something that was doable but still exciting. [I wanted] something that I knew I could be working on for a very long time to come and stillbe interested in, even in the future. So that was kinda the start of the project, just getting that feeling of ďHey this is something that I can actually do and this could actually be pretty cool.Ē

Larry Giver: The Art style looks to be very reminiscent of in some ways of games like The Dig and even to a degree to The Neverhood. The gameplay aspect almost seems to reflect the old PC adventure games type of logic. What were the major influences of gameplay and art design?

Eskil: In gameplay I think it was a lot of things. I think it sort of started out being ďOoo, I wanna make a Zelda -- the first Zelda game -- but from a first-person perspective. And I wanted it to be multiplayer. But then, as I started doing more of the procedural stuff, I started realizing ďNo, thatís actually not really what I want to do.Ē The gameplay is about trying to do a game where you play sort of in a small scale, but where actions you do have repercussions on the big scale. In a way you could think of it playing a first-person shooter or a first-person action adventure game, where your actions lead to a Civilization type of game.

If you imagine Civilization where you invent your stuff or build new stuff, imagine playing one of those characters on the ground doing that. And being able to do something minute in your world and see that impact in the major world. That was the main thrust of the gameplay goal. The goal is to make some type of story, but a story that isnít written by me but one that is created by the actions of the player. And for that to happen, the players really need to know that if I do something itís going to make a difference on a larger scale, and Iím sort of in command of the possibilities of the world. Thatís very much the core goal of the game.

Larry Giver: One of the things that has caught my attention and charmed me into following Love was the fact that it looks to be more intended to form a community because you will have a much closer knit group of people playing on a server, as opposed to those thousands of people playing at the same time.

Eskil: Ya, thatís important. If you are a small village, you can get to know anybody whoís there -- you can get an opinion. And even if you donít know everybody, you can know of everybody after a while. That was very important, to create a consistency. Actually Iíve setup the server system right now so when you register for the game you get a list where you can pick the fastest server, or the same server as a friend. But then youíre stuck on that server. You can actually switch the server, but you will lose one day of play.

The game doesnít come into its own until youíve been in the same server for a long time and really seen the changes of the world. Since all servers are procedurally generated, they are all different. One of the problems with procedural content is that you canít really expose the procedural nature of the game because then nothing that it generates has any value. Imagine if you have a game where you can generate a new level; you would never do anything that required you do anything hard or difficult because as soon as youíd run into a problem, youíd just say, ďNah, Iíll just create a new level that doesnít have this stupid thing that I keep failing at. Iíll start a new one.Ē That means that youíre never attached to anything, it doesnít mean anything because you have an infinite amount of them, so you can create another [level]. Thatís why I want to lock people down a bit, and say, ďThis is your server and you really have to care about it. And these people you will have to deal with them and actually be a part of this.Ē Thatís the direction I want people to go. I want people to have that soap opera feeling where you have to login to see whatís new, whatís happened since yesterday. ďHave they fought this enemy; have they changed this thing; have they fixed that thing?Ē Thatís really what I want from the game.

Larry Giver: So youíve essentially created the Cheers of video games, where you want to go where everybody knows your name.

Eskil: [laughs] Kinda, ya.

Larry Giver: One other thing that intrigued me while I was first reading up about Love was the concept of not just finding weapons and tools, but more investing on how to make them. One of the examples was you can find a rifle, but if it breaks then youíre donít have it anymore. Or you can find prints on how to make a rifle and the equipment to do it, and you can supply an entire village with defenses, as opposed to just a single piece of equipment. Is there anything you can say to elaborate that concept?

Eskil: The concept is that you can find very few objects, but basically all the weapons and things you can build are found as something I call a ďtoken.Ē And that token can be placed in your city, and once youíve placed it, you get an object in your city that when you walk up to it you can automatically add it to your equipment slot. That means that everybody in your city can use that tool as soon as somebody provides that token. That means everyone that is sharing the same settlement has the same abilities, the same weapons and powers. So youíre never out of sync with your world. You canít really grief [from losing something] because you canít take anything from anyone else. Youíre always working for a common goal, so thereís no point in hogging anything because you canít.

The only way of getting something is to have everyone get it. I want to scare people in a direction that is different from this sort of me-centric style of games. It feels that pretty much all games are going into that Diablo direction of collecting and building up my characters, and itís all sort of very egocentric about creating your own powerful character. I think people should care about the environment because if they care about the environment -- if they built something cool -- other players will see that as well. To me the environment and making things that other players can experience is a lot more interesting than the idea of having something that is just fun for you as a single player.

Larry Giver: Youíre looking to limit people to 200 to a server in Love, is that right?

Eskil: Thatís going to be 200 registered players. So you might have maybe 50 or 70 players online at any one time. So itís not the same as 200 player combat. The idea is to not have the world too big. You want to be able to influence the world. If youíre one in a billion, you canít really do that. In a game like World of Warcraft, with massive servers and thousands of players, itís really hard for you to make any impression on the world and do something that is interesting.

Itís still an estimate, but itís roughly what I think will be good for gameplay. Also, in order to make the performance of the game run really well it needs to be a limited world. Remember, this is not an MMO where itís almost turn-based, where everything is very slow and very methodical. You push your buttons and thereís a radial that says if you hit or miss. This is a FPS that you can play like any other FPS, so the demands of latency and collision detection and all those things just go way up. Itís a way more sophisticated world, so processing-wise itís going to be very tough to make worlds larger than that. So thatís why the limitation has been set.

Larry Giver: Was this not designed to be free-to-play? Because I was nosing through your site and I thought at one point I had seen a notice that you were looking at a free-to-play model, then I saw that it was a pay-to-play, looking into possibly doing a reward system.

Eskil: Itís always been a subscription game. I kind of wanted to make a where you sort of pay for what you get -- you pay for what costs money. The way you pay for a game should reflect the costs of making the game Ė thatís been my feeling. A subscription game to me is really good because providing servers is going to be pretty expensive. I did the simple math of free-to-play and it just doesnít work. Heh, it just isnít possible to do. If you look at the free-to-play games out there, they have maybe 5% of the players pay anything where you have micro-transactions, and if I did have those rates of payment, the payments wouldnít even cover the hardware servers cost. And thatís not even the expensive part. The expensive part if developing the game. So itís simply not a viable way of working. And actually it wouldnít matter if I got 10 million users; I would have to have a lot more servers, so it simply wouldnít be viable. Thatís just out the window. Itís not possible.

Larry Giver: For those that donít know, Love seems to be very under the radar. It seems few people have latched onto it and followed it, but the majority have not seen or heard about it. Could you explain how it plays out? What the focus is. How would you describe the game to someone who hasnít seen it before?

Eskil: Well, first of all, Iím not sure itís under the radar. Itís been around a lot. Iím very happy with the press. Iíve been in Wired and USA Today and all kinds of places.

Larry Giver: Iíve seen more of it recently, but Iíve talked to numerous people, and they just kind of look at me and go ďHuh?Ē

Eskil: Itís a big world and Iím a small person. Iím really happy with the press. Lately I havenít sought out any press whatsoever. Iím more interested in making the game than getting the press. I have all the press that I need. I donít have a game, so whatís the point of having press.

To get back to your real question, I would say itís a FPS action adventure game in a procedural world that constantly creates new content for you to play with. I would describe it as playing a unit in an RTS game Ė playing of those little guys who can influence the major events of the game. Thereís a little bit of puzzle, a lot of strategy in it, a little bit of action; you can build things, the environment is editable so you can build whatever you want.

Larry Giver: As I understand it, most if not all the software that youíve used to develop Love was built from the ground up. It looks like a considerable amount was your handy work. Are you looking ahead at using it for another project after Love is done? Or simply starting from scratch on another project once Love is finally completed?

Eskil: I donít think Love will be completed. The idea of having a subscription game is that it allows you to spend money to developing it essentially forever. I have lots of other projects I want to do. Being able to get some money so that I can afford to do that is important. My goal is to build a toolset that can be used for many things. The toolset is actually available and you can download it and play with it Ė itís open-source. So the idea is that anyone can use it for whatever they want. Itís not in any way tied to Love and what Iím using it for.

Thatís really important, because investment in tools is very financially sound, because tools can be around a lot longer. People talk a lot about engines but I think that engines are not as important as tools. A good example is an engine like Quake. Quake has been rewritten for pretty much every Quake iteration. It has been more or less a brand new engine. But even going back to Quake 1 and all the way up to Rage, the new one coming out, they have been using the same editor qED, or QEradiant as it became later on. It has been the same editor; that meant that whatever they invested in that tool, they would keep around for over 10 years, whereas the engines they come around a lot faster.

I think that today we are no longer having the problem of nobody able to write an engine, the computers not being fast enough to draw the graphics or effects we need; all those technical problems are being solved, but the main problem is making the content. The content is really expensive. If you look at a major team today they are going to have 10-20 programmers, but they will have 200 artists. So the artists are like 10 times more expensive for the developers. And if you can develop the tools that can cut down maybe just 10 percent of the time you need to work on your content, thatís a huge win, and that really makes it viable to do things you couldnít do before. So my goal has really been to optimize the art workflow so that you can work a lot more efficiently.

For this game Iím focusing mostly on 3D models and the merging of 3D models, and the environment and things like that. But lately Iíve been experimenting with my UV editing tool. The UV editor is a 100% automatic UV editor. That opens up for some really cool texturing technology that I really want to develop. Love doesnít have much texturing, but whatever I do next is probably going to be texture heavy as I develop the tools that makes viable to actually make a game that makes use of a lot of textures, because I can produce the texture really fast. Whereas if I was to texture a game like Love from scratch by hand, it would never finish. It would just be way too much work. It wouldnít be feasible. So itís really about trying to make new things feasible by making new tools I couldnít do yesterday.

Larry Giver: I have watched some of you presentations and tech demos of your toolsets. Have you ever considered not simply putting them out there as open source, but selling them, monetizing them to fund your projects?

Eskil: Definitely. Thatís a very possible idea. Anything that is open source right now will remain open source. Iím not going to close it. But I do have some tools, like the UV Editor, that I have considered doing something with. Iím working on some texture technology that I might want to commercialize later on. Ya, definitely looking into that direction. Giving out your tools, even if you are selling or having open source -- just getting your tools out there -- is a great way of controlling the quality of your tools, because once you put them out there you have to care about their quality. Whereas internal tooling in most game studios tend to become crap really quickly just because, well, nobody is going to see this anyway, and when you have that sort of mentality, it ends up making tools that are extremely terrible to use, and that really kills productivity.

A good example of a company that is doing it right, in my opinion, is a company like Pixar, who is doing their own rendering technology, RenderMan. They have using them for years and years and years. They have a very profitable business selling the software. Itís not nearly as profitable as their movies, of course, but just having that little portion to be profitable means that they can actually internally defend that they have all these developers working on the technology that they essentially could have bought from someone else. But because they do it in-house, they have better control, better understanding of it. If they need some specific feature they can get it in. They have all these flexibilities that their competitors donít have. And at the same time everybody wants to use their tools because they make the movies that make more money than any other movie. So of course everybody wants to use what they use. So itís a sort of self-serving system where they can really make some money on the back. The two, the artistic movie making and the tools, sort of feed each other in terms of profitability and how they work from a commercial standpoint. Iím a strong believer in that.

Other things that just make it a lot more interesting to do that, is you can hire someone off the street who knows Renderman, whereas if you had a proprietary system that was only used internally, anyone you would hire you would have to start from scratch and teach them how to use their tools because they wouldnít know anything about it. If you look at Valve, by putting out their tools, they can just look at who in the community is using them in interesting ways and then hire those people. They know from day one they will come in and be productive because they have already proven they can work with the tools Valve is using internally.

Larry Giver: Once you have it up and running is there any consideration to bring it to home consoles?

Eskil: It is definitely a possibility. Iím really into porting things, so the game is already being ported to Mac OS 10 and Linux. So at least we will be available for all PC platforms. Consoles are little bit more complicated. The structure of a deal with hardware vendors is a bit more complicated. Miscrosoft isnít really open to pay-to-play type of games. They donít really have subscription games. Thatís a problem. Sony is a bit more open to that. It would probably be easier to convince them about it. So yes, it is very much a possibility, but there some problems with it. For instance, I tend to send updates to my software very regularly, like every once or every two weeks, and doing that with the structure they have in place, where it takes maybe a month of certification to get something out the door, that becomes very impractical. Also, I donít really have the bandwidth to put it out on more platforms than I already am. Still, I am only person, and Iím already doing quite a lot. It wouldnít be possible to do that just manpower-wise until I were able to get some funding through the subscriptions, where I could hire some people to help me. It definitely is a possibility and there is no technical limitation, but there is a lot of deal making and a bit of resources needed to make that happen.

Larry Giver: I know this has been in the works for several years. Have you put out a projection for yourself for when you would like to have Love running and available for play?

Eskil: Well I would like it to be [done] like three months ago, but I donít know. I have a projection, but Iím not going tell you, because I donít believe in that. I usually use the ďWhen itís doneĒ line. But thatís not actually true. It will be out when itís ready to be out. And when itís ready it will continue to be developed as it is out. So it will be done, but I donít know [when]. One of the major problems that I have had lately, is that I have a test group of people testing it, but I donít get enough feedback from them. So I need more testers, but the problem is I canít just take any testers at the moment. I need people I can trust. When you go really early on, there are going to be some issues that you donít want, that wonít at all affect the end result. So itís the kind of things you donít want argued on message boards. You want to have some control over it. The plan is to make a more open alpha or beta in the not too distant future.

Larry Giver: If anything else comes up that you want to share, please do keep in touch. Love is something that Iíd like to keep track of. Iíd love to see it as much out in the open. It looks absolutely gorgeous and it looks like a fantastically unique project and I would love to see more things like this. Much appreciated for the time.

Eskil: Thank you, take care. Bye.


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