Frostkeep Studios quietly formed last year, but the Irvine, California-based studio announced itself today with the unveiling of its first project, a team-based survival game called Rend. The studio's co-founders--Solomon Lee, Mat Milizia and Jeremy Wood--have plenty of history together; they met while working on the genre-dominating World of Warcraft before it launched 15 years ago, and teamed up again at Carbine Studios on WildStar, one of the innumerable post-WoW MMOs which failed to steal the genre spotlight from the Blizzard blockbuster.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last week, the founders underscored some of the lessons they learned from their time at Blizzard and seeing the many unsuccessful attempts to steal the game's MMO crown.
"One thing that the survival genre doesn't have right now that the MMO genre had is a WoW," Wood said. "The biggest survival game on the market is Ark: Survival Evolved, obviously. The difference between Ark and the next game isn't remotely similar to the difference between WoW and the next game. There is no massive giant we have to go after."
It's a bit like when the developers originally worked on World of Warcraft, and saw EverQuest as the leader in a relatively new style of game.
"We saw that as a massive opportunities for us to do some interesting things in the genre," Milizia said. "We're taking the same sort of approach, looking at what works, what doesn't work, bringing in new players... It's a perfect opportunity for us to take a new genre the same way we did back in the day."
One of the big goals for Rend is to take the survival genre and get rid of what Frostkeep's founders see as the current "pain points." As Milizia explained, survival games create some amazing stories and moments for players, but they're few and far between, and many players never really get to experience them. There's a fantasy in base-building survival games of players working together to create a cool castle and then fighting another faction on even footing, but that scenario rarely plays out in practice.
"What generally happens in most of these games is you and your three buddies are surviving in your mud hut in the woods, but there's a power guild on the server and they have some sort of giant metal base monstrosity," Milizia said. "And trying to compete against their numbers and head start is pretty much impossible."
To solve that, Frostkeep is shaping Rend as if it were "a long-term MOBA on steroids." Every game is a competition between three different factions that will eventually end, sometimes with a winner, but always with losers. The moment-to-moment gameplay is a 20 vs. 20 vs. 20 shooter, with each faction building a base within a protective shield and venturing out into the wild to scavenge materials, gather souls (points that can be saved for winning the game or spent to upgrade tech or craft things), or play havoc with other players and hostile AI creatures. At a set time every week, "The Reckoning" takes place and the shields around the bases drop as the AI attacks each base in waves. It's an opportunity for players to wipe each other out, or be wiped out by the AI, and every week that passes, the hordes of computer-controlled attackers grow stronger.
"You see the massive success that WoW brings and you want to replicate that. You want a piece of that pie. What they should be doing is making a new pie and owning that pie."
The setup has a few different perks to it. For one, it's very Twitch friendly. Since the Reckoning happens at a pre-determined time and there's an entire week of anticipation to see what happens, there's a hope people will make it appointment viewing. (Right now, they're expecting to go about two to three months between server resets.) For another, it lets the developers play with the system knowing that any changes with undesirable results (a grossly overpowered new weapon, for example) can be taken away at the next server reset without disturbing the player community, as they would have lost their loot then anyway.
Wood said Frostkeep's approach has been informed considerably by watching upstart MMO after upstart MMO try unsuccessfully to crack Blizzard's hold on the genre.
"A lot of them are just going, let's make WoW again and put a little spin on it," Wood said. "They haven't been saying, 'Hey, let's look at what makes WoW fun and do something along that vein but is actually at its core a very different experience.' The MMO genre hasn't done very much of that since WoW came out. Understandably. You see the massive success that WoW brings and you want to replicate that. You want a piece of that pie. What they should be doing is making a new pie and owning that pie. And that's what we're trying to do with the survival genre."
Right now, Frostkeep is building Rend with just five people in-house and a rotating assortment of contractors. One of the big goals of the project is just to launch out of Early Access, which might sound modest, but would still be a notable accomplishment in the genre. The studio knows it will need to bring more people on board eventually if it wants to achieve that, but for now, they're happy to run lean.
"We have a small team, extremely agile, extremely nimble," Milizia said. "Best idea wins out. We've only hired people with no egos. If you hire right, and you're where we are, which is fortunate enough to know people who a) we can trust, and b) are not into themselves but are more into making game experiences, things get really easy, really quickly."