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Interview: How TERA Evolves The MMORPG Formula

Gamasutra contributor Connor Cleary discusses the upcoming MMORPG TERA Online, which he considered to be one of E3 2011's hidden gems, with En Masse Entertainment's Brian Knox.
[Gamasutra contributor Connor Cleary discusses upcoming MMORPG TERA Online with En Masse Entertainment's Brian Knox and examines the game's attempts at innovation in an already crowded genre.] Probably the biggest complaint I hear from gamers when it comes to MMORPGs is the sluggish pace, but TERA Online hopes to change all that. At E3 this year, we sat down En Masse Entertainment senior producer Brian Knox, a friendly, extremely enthusiastic guy with a quick smile, close-cut, light brown hair, and matching stubble. Knox -- who was also a producer on the MMORPG Aion -- emphasized the real-time battle system of TERA as a defining and innovative feature that he believes really sets their game apart from the crowd. "We call it 'True Action Combat' because you're not targeting monsters and just mashing buttons in a specific rotation; you're dodging out of the way, you're using different attack skills, you're aiming and wherever you're striking is where you're hitting," said Knox. "So, we really feel like this is a big step forward, not just for games and MMOs but technology-wise too. Ten or twelve years ago you really couldn't do this type of action-combat, but now we can, so there's really no excuse not to be doing it and integrating it into MMOs." "When I sat down with TERA for the first time, the very first thing that struck me was the action combat," he continued. "It was something the rest of the market just didn't have. A lot of MMOs claim to have action combat but many don't quite achieve it. Our game really feels action-oriented." "True Action Combat" TERA boasts seven races and eight class options, and there are no restrictions on race-class combinations. The characters I had hands-on time with included a lance-and-shield-wielding humanoid, an axe-wielding dwarf-like creature, and an elvish-looking archer with horns. Each of these characters had a completely unique feel in battle, and special abilities that were quite satisfying to use. One thing I found interesting is the lack of a lock-on system in combat. While that may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, it actually adds a lot to the battles, forcing you to be fully engaged. Knox said that TERA's priorities are unique in that way. "What draws the player's eye?" he asked, before answering for himself: "The action, the combat. We wanted to make sure that the player is really engaged in that combat, focusing more on the fight in the center than the UI around the edge of the screen." In TERA, you have to give combat your undivided attention or it could spell the death of you -- or your companions, if you choose to find some. Fighters must be sure they are facing the monster when they hit the attack button, and archers and sorcerers have to actually target with their cross-hairs to land a successful hit. Gamers can play with either the traditional mouse and keyboard setup or a PC-compatible game-pad. The battles felt like a mix of a brawler and MMO, with a little bit of FPS if you're a ranged class, and the development team has pulled the combination together very organically. Most importantly though: the fights are just fun. Players will have a variety of skill progression options so they can really tailor their class' skills to their own play style. And if a player wants to be a lone wolf, the developers said that's a viable option; a nice prospect for anyone who has ever wasted hours of their life trying to find a decent group in an MMO. If you're a party kind of guy or gal, though, there is a maximum of five party members per group. While at present there is no multi-group equivalent of WoW's raiding parties, the developers I spoke to said they aren't entirely ruling it out for the future. Emergent Social Structures Don't take the small party limit the wrong way though -- there is also a very robust social element to TERA. The team has taken another big stab at changing the MMORPG with their interesting new take on the player-created society of TERA. There are no pre-determined factions like the Horde and the Alliance in WoW, or the three realms of Dark Age of Camelot. Instead, the continent is divided into many different provinces, and each province is ruled by a "Vannarch." Here's where it gets really interesting: the Vannarchs are max-level players. There are two ways to rise to power in TERA: some provinces have Battlegrounds where gladiatorial-type combat takes place, and to rule you have to be the biggest and baddest around. Others have a popular vote system, in which the citizens of the province actually vote for Vannarch candidates in democratic elections. As a Vannarch, you gain a lot of control over your province. You can raise or lower taxes, open new shops, and imprison jerks or people who disagree with you. You can throw events like tournaments to bring tourists and money into your province, and even enable or disable PvP as you see fit. Not only does the Vannarch and his or her crew get special, unique mounts to ride around on, as soon as a player enters a realm, they get a message telling them who the Vannarch is. It seems like a really innovative attempt at an MMO political system, and I can't wait to see how it plays out. The team also hinted at a political position called "Exarch" but left it unexplained as an intentional teaser. "The political system is really a tool for our players, and all the good stories and all the fun stuff is going to come from what they create with it." Knox said. "I think it'll be really interesting, especially on the popular vote side, to see what players do to get their name out there. What are the cool tricks, or gimmicks, or whatever it is that they decide will get them voted in?" The possibilities for political intrigue in a system like this are pretty exciting. Imagine a guild trying to buy the votes of another guild with coin or equipment, only to have the whole province find out about their dirty dealings. The result could be a full-on guild vs. guild war in the streets, if this happened on a PvP server. A Lovely Fantasy World Visually, it is a beautiful game with a fairly unique fantastical style that makes it resemble other titles in some unavoidable ways. The development team has done a good job of setting TERA apart, though. From colorful towns and forests that fall somewhere between WoW and Trine, to lava-rock landscapes reminiscent of the realm of Oblivion, TERA clearly has a talented team of artists behind it. The characters, equipment, and monster designs are slick, stylish and interesting. The "BAMs" (Big Ass Monsters) I've seen (and fought) are massive, intimidating, and epic. Besides the political sandbox, TERA will also have a variety of storyline quests for players. "We have a pretty in-depth story," Knox said. "We've separated out the main story into its own quest-arc that you'll follow through, and every zone will have its own story to tell. So you'll be able to follow that all the way through from one to max-level. You'll have 'Instances' along the way that help move the story along, and those will provide rewards and items." "Our goal is to allow players, every few levels, to have a new instance to go into and play. That way they can experience something a little different or new, and a little bit more tailored. When you're in an instance, it's much easier for the developers to control the environment and tell a story." A Long Wait? While TERA has already launched in Korea, Knox said the team was "aiming for this year" for the western release date, and that the game will only be released here "when we're done, when the quality is where it needs to be." Intrigued gamers can check out the TERA Online official site to sign up for the beta.

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