Press about Astonia

April 19th, 2002
from http://rpgvault.ign.com/articles/357/357750p1.html


Astonia 3 Interview

Three members of the Intent Software team tell us about their recently launched fantasy-based online world.

Once the seat of a powerful realm, the city-state of Aston was suddenly stormed by Demons of unknown provenance and intent. They made their way to the Imperial palace where they murdered the Emperor, then razed the proud city almost to the ground before unexpectedly departing. However, the mighty state was shattered. It still lies largely in ruins. Not surprisingly, its influence has waned tremendously; indeed, most of the Empire has fallen apart. Its only real hope for the future may lie with a powerful, mystical figure known as Ishtar and his elite troop of followers, the Seyan'Du. In preparation for what may be the ultimate confrontation, he is now gathering his forces, offering training in the Arts to those willing to join in the battle to contain and overcome the Demons from below and the One whose spirit is animating them.

In the online world of Astonia 3, the journey begins in the southern part of the world, in the vicinity of the provincial town of Cameron where the climate is mild and pleasant, and the laws of the Empire are still being followed. It proceeds northward to Aston, where travelers from around the world may be encountered along with many unusual creatures and monsters. Beyond lie the dark city of Exkordon and vast uncivilized lands where even greater dangers lurk. Having recently learned about this fantasy-based online world, which is now in commercial service, we were curious to learn more, which we did in this substantial Astonia 3 Interview with Intent Software Creative Director and Programmer Daniel "Ishtar" Brockhaus, Managing Director (Finance) Patrick "Coloman" Kollmann and Managing Director (PR and Marketing) Alexander "Goitia" von der Geest.

Jonric: How would you summarize Astonia 3? How did the game come about from the initial idea to launch? What's the basic concept? Why is it called Astonia 3? Were there Astonia 1 and 2?

Patrick Kollman: Astonia 3 is a MMORPG in a fantasy setting. Its sole purpose is to give joy to millions of players, and to make its creators incredibly rich!

Daniel Brockhaus: Astonia started as a paper and pen role-playing game in 1996. The first draft borrowed elements from Tracy Hickman's and Margaret Weiss' floating worlds novels and David Eddings' Elenium. The rule system used took some ideas from a German role-playing system called Das Schwarze Auge, and others from AD&D. It was played (as a paper-and-pen game) for about a year, which led to a lot of changes to the rule system, and to quite a few additions to the game world.

About two years later, I decided to turn the paper and pen game into an online computer game. During that time, I was working for an Internet Service Provider and coding this game was a hobby project of mine. Six months later, Astonia 1 went online. It was a very small world without a real magic system, but still, quite a few players enjoyed it.

Since this was my first venture into the art of creating computer games, a lot of things weren't very well planned and a lot of features were missing. This, and the players' suggestions and complaints, lead to a re-write of the game in early '99, which fixed the design flaws and incorporated most of the features the players asked for - the most important of these being a magic system.

Thus Astonia 2 was born. It was still a hobby project, and real-life demands put its development on hold for a year. The game was online and developing a life of its own, with players organizing the in-game life, taking care of troublemakers and creating quests for their fellow gamers.

In early '01, I decided to quit my job at the time and write computer games for a living; and with the help of Alexander, Patrick and Markus, work on Astonia 3 began. We used the successful elements of Astonia 2, discarded the components that didn't really work and added a different storyline. Nine months later, the first test areas went online...

Jonric: What kind of setting did you create for the game? How does it differ from other persistent online worlds, and why did you choose to make an environment of this type?

Daniel Brockhaus: Astonia 3's background story is one of the basic fantasy concepts: Two ancient and extremely powerful forces are struggling for dominion, and the player (with all of the world's other 'normal' inhabitants) is caught in that struggle. Soon, it becomes apparent that one of the ancient powers represents darkness, while the other represents light, and the player's job is to help the light. This is a single-player concept, and as such it does differ from most other online worlds since these do not have a single goal (defeat evil), but many.

We have chosen this story since it allows more involving quests and offers a final goal to the player. Astonia 3 is probably the only MMORPG you can beat.

Jonric: How large is the world, and how will players be able to move around it aside from walking and running?

Daniel Brockhaus: The game world is ever expanding, but I don't know how its size compares to other online worlds. Transportation is done via teleport stations that allow the players to teleport to any other station they have visited before.

Jonric: What has happened in the backstory before Astonia 3 begins? And what is the storyline within the game proper?

Daniel Brockhaus: The story can be found on the website: http://www.astonia.com/manual_story.html. It's a bit long to reproduce here...

Jonric: Your game is rather unusual in offering only two class options and just one race? Why is this so, and are there any plans to extend the character system? How many characters can a player have, and to what extent can they be customized?

Daniel Brockhaus: There actually is a third class, the Seyan'Du. However, a player will only be able to become a Seyan'Du after solving some of the crucial quests. Astonia 3 does not have different races and only two starting classes for several reasons. One is the download size, which grows with each race/class combination. Another is time constraints, since each class needs its own spells and skills. One major drawback most role-playing games have is that there are good (strong) classes and weak ones. Hardly any of the games I've played has managed to balance the classes. There is always an optimal choice, which causes most players to choose that race/class combination after some testing. We tried to avoid that, and the amount of work needed to balance even the few classes we have made adding more classes too time- consuming.

A profession system is in the works, and will probably be online by the time this interview is published.

We allow 25 characters per account. The players can select their character's name, class and gender, and change its physical appearance (clothes and hair color) in-game.

Jonric: How does the character development system work? How much choice does the player have in how the character develops over months or even years?

Daniel Brockhaus: The players gain experience points for each achievement (solving a quest, killing an enemy etc.), which they can spend on any of their skills anytime. They don't have to wait till reaching the next level.

Each starting class has some skills only available to that class. Later in the game the players can choose to switch class, either strengthening the abilities the character already has, or starting all over again as a character possessing (almost) all skills and spells as a Seyan'Du.

Each character can also learn up to three professions, which give him or her unique abilities and/or strengths.

Jonric: How combat-oriented is the game? What kinds of major activities are there aside from fighting? What non-combat skills and abilities are there, and how important are they?

Patrick Kollman: It's pretty much up to the player. If he (or she) wishes to develop their character very fast, the gameplay will be very combat-oriented. Most of the quests include combat, but often there are ways to solve quests with some strategic thinking. The most important non-combat skills are trading (bartering) and alchemy. Bartering is very important, as every player will buy or sell items every day, and people with a high knowledge of alchemy are very respected in the game.

Another non-combat activity is offered by the clan (guild) system. Clan members will find numerous activities to engage in, such as collecting clan jewels, improving the defence systems of the clan buildings, or forging alliances with other clans.

Another non-combat activity is searching Astonia's mines for gold, silver or the very rare special items produced by the dwarfs.

Jonric: How does the magic system work? What different classes or schools are there? How are spells be acquired, learned and cast? Do players need mana, runes, reagents or any other components?

Patrick Kollman: The magic system is pretty straightforward. The players pick their favorite spells and raise them. Spells are cast by hitting a combination of keys, usually "Alt" plus a number. Some popular spells are lightning flash, heal, freeze, magic shield, fireball etc.

Players need mana to perform these spells, each spell uses up a certain amount of the player's mana when cast.

However, there are some exceptions to the basic magic system. For example, when entering the underground areas, the players will have to learn a few spells, based on "ancient knowledge". Only these spells will protect them against the earth demons' evil magic.

Jonric: Are there lots of different weapons, armor and other items? Are any rare or unique? How are such articles usually acquired? Is it possible to craft or upgrade weapons and armor?

Patrick Kollman: The player can choose between weapons such as dagger, sword, staff or two-handed sword. Most weapons can be found in three different qualities - iron, steal and mithril. Weapons can be enhanced by the gold and silver found in the mines. While standard weapons and armor can be bought in shops, the game also offers a huge variety of enhanced items.

These items are found on monsters, some are rewards for certain quests and very rarely, the player will be able to buy them from the few dwarfs that live in the mines. There are no unique items, but some enhanced items are so rare, that they are hardly ever found.

Jonric: How about the variety and importance of other items such as potions, jewelry, currency et al?

Daniel Brockhaus: Equipment is very important in Astonia 3. Enchanted items like amulets, capes and rings can be found, enhanced and changed in the course of a quest. While the basic equipment is fairly limited in variety, there are more than 50,000 different enchanted items.

Potions and alchemy are another important part of the game. Each player can create magic potions increasing some of his or her abilities.

Jonric: Do players have access to housing or other forms of storage? If so, how does this work?

Daniel Brockhaus: Players have a bank depot where they can store any item they don't want to lose in a death. Accessing this depot requires the players to walk to a bank (one is located in every town) and open their depot.

Jonric: Are there many different computer-controlled opponents to fight? What are some interesting examples?

Daniel Brockhaus: Most of the quests and missions in Astonia 3 require the player to slay a large amount of NPCs (i.e. computer controlled characters). Some NPCs have abilities not available to players, such as the earth demon with its earth-based magic.

Jonric: Do you have any strategies you can talk about to address issues such as camping or macroing?

Daniel Brockhaus: Camping is dealt with by an idle timeout. A player not engaged in active playing will get disconnected after five minutes. Also, all players are visited regularly by a being called the Macro Daemon, who will ask them a simple question. A human player can easily answer that question. A macro, on the other hand, will fail to do so and get the character punished with loss of experience, thus making camping/macroing unprofitable.

Jonric: What is the role of player vs player combat in Astonia 3? How does it function, how important is it, and what were the major considerations when you designed this part of the game?

Daniel Brockhaus: PK (player killing) is possible in Astonia 3, but with some restrictions. All players start out as non-PK and cannot be attacked by other players. Once they reach level 10, they can turn PK and attack anyone who is PK too, provided the level difference is not greater than three.

There are some zones called Arenas where anyone can kill anyone, but a death in these zones does not have any consequences (i.e. no loss of items or experience) so fighting there is just for fun (or honor).

Since PK is opt-in and level restricted, there is very little abuse. Those who die by PK opted in and were killed by someone of about the same strength.

Jonric: What role do quests or missions play in the game? Are there very many of them? What kinds of different or unusual things are you doing to keep questing from becoming stale?

Daniel Brockhaus: There are a lot of static quests, ranging from exploration of a certain area to killing a specific NPC. All these quests are done only once, so they are new and entertaining when the player fulfills them.

Since no MMORPGs can offer enough static quests to keep its players entertained for the thousands of hours they play, Astonia 3 offers two more features, computer-generated quests, which usually require the player to go head-hunting, and a unique quest we call 'The Pentagram Quest"'.

The Pentagram Quest fulfills the same purpose as the endless training/camping required in other online games. Instead of just having the players run through the same area slaying and looting as many NPCs as they can, we decided to replace this with one huge quest you can play over and over again. The quest area contains a vast amount of pentagrams that the player can activate. Once a certain number of pentagrams are activated, the quest is solved and all participants receive a reward based on the difficulty and number of pentagrams activated. Different bonuses can be earned by activating only pentagrams of a certain color.

Also, players will be sent on military missions. These missions will require them to fight some of the monsters that threaten the empire. In the Fire Underworld quests, the player will lead a group of up to 4 NPC soldiers into battle against the demons.

Jonric: Are there many friendly NPCs, and if so, what roles do they play?

Daniel Brockhaus: Besides the usual merchants, most quests are given by NPCs. In some quests, the player is aided by NPCs.

Jonric: What happens when your character dies? Are there penalties such as lost items or experience points, and if so, how much impact do they have? Are there any differences if you killed by an NPC opponent versus another player?

Daniel Brockhaus: Each time a character gains a level, he or she acquires a 'save', a free death with no consequences. If characters run out of saves and die, they lose their equipment and some experience. They can try to recover their equipment by going back and looting their own corpse. Regaining the experience lost can take from half an hour (low level characters) to a day or two.

A PK death results in the loss of items, but no experience is lost (or gained) through PK.

Jonric: Do you have a grouping system, and if so, how does it work? Is the game oriented more towards groups or players adventuring solo? How does communication with other players work?

Daniel Brockhaus: There is no grouping system that allows players to share experience, since we felt that this would lead to more abuse than it's worth. Small groups of players have an advantage when solving quests since they are able to do them at a lower level, but a solo player can fulfill any quest as well.

However, players who are clan members will receive bonus experience if one of their fellow clan members solves the Pentagram Quest.

Communication is either done via normal talk, which reaches all characters visible on the screen, or via a global chat system which allows all players that are online at the time to talk to each other, either via 'tell', a personal message sent to only one player, or through various public channels, visible to all who have joined that particular channel.

Alexander von der Geest: I am fascinated by the fact that Astonia 3 is played all over the world all day long. You can enter the game at any time and feel at home immediately, talking to people from so many different countries.

Jonric: What are the primary features of your game engine and server technology? What are the system requirements needed for good game performance?

Daniel Brockhaus: The game engine uses DirectX (DirectDraw) for fast sprite copying (bitblt); everything else is proprietary code. The engine is 3D isometric and therefore only one point of view is possible.

A P2-450 with 64MB of RAM and a PCI/AGP graphics card with 4MB RAM will work fine.

Jonric: Do you have one large gameworld or multiple smaller ones? What is your simultaneous player capacity?

Daniel Brockhaus: We have a unique system, which is basically one large world, divided into many smaller areas. Each area is housed on a different server, thus dividing the load over several computers. Players move from area to area without really noticing it. On top of that, each area can have several mirrors, copies with exactly the same NPCs, landscape and dungeons, but with different players in it. Players can decide which mirror they want to use, so any player can meet any other player.

These two levels of division allow us to spread the load over thousands of computers if need be, so we can serve (theoretically, we don't have that many computers yet) 500,000 to 1,000,000 players simultaneously.

Daniel Brockhaus: Most of the quests and missions in Astonia 3 require the player to slay a large amount of NPCs (i.e. computer controlled characters). Some NPCs have abilities not available to players, such as the earth demon with its earth-based magic.

Jonric: Are sound and music important factors in Astonia 3?

Patrick Kollman: A lot of players told us that they like to listen to their own music while playing and that they switch off all sound. There is sound, but no music yet.

Jonric: What are the main components and the important features of the interface? What were the major considerations when designing it?

Patrick Kollman: The players will always see their equipment and at least part of their inventory in the interface. Communication with other players and NPCs will take place in the chat window. The interface allows the player to move items from the equipment to the inventory and vice versa. A help menu can be entered through the interface. Other features of the interface include the player's skills, the current time, experience needed to get to the next level, amount of time left until potions/spells run out, and some other things.

Jonric: What are your thoughts about the role of community for Astonia 3? How do you get feedback and how do you respond? What kinds of things are you doing for out-of-game community support?

Patrick Kollman: Community is a key factor for the success of the game. Luckily, our community is very active and we don't have to put a lot of work into it. We try to listen to the players' ideas and wishes as much as we can. As a result, many of the features/quests are actually based on suggestions made by players. Also, a group of our players has been with us for three to four years now, and they do a great job to keep the community alive. There are many out-of-game activities such as fan-sites or meetings of players in real-life. We try to give them any support we can.

Jonric: In your opinion what sets Astonia apart from other online worlds? What kind of player is most likely to enjoy it, and why should gamers want to play it instead of or in addition to other online titles?

Patrick Kollman: We believe that Astonia 3 has the best gameplay available on the MMORPG market. We have lots of players who play (or played) other MMORPGs and all agree that Astonia 3 is the most fun to play. However, we must admit that other games might offer better graphics, or larger worlds. But hey, we see that as a motivation to create Astonia 4 :p

Astonia 3 will appeal to a player new to the genre, as it is straightforward and easy to get started. But its unique gameplay has already attracted many RPG veterans as well.

And in which other commercial MMORPG can you meet the head of development online for at least one to two hours per day, and see your own ideas and suggestions implemented in the game, sometimes only a few days after they have been mentioned?

Jonric: Please introduce your company, Intent Software. When and how did it get started, and where is it located? Who are the core members of the team?

Patrick Kollman: Intent Software was founded in 2001, by Daniel Brockhaus, Markus Roeder, Alexander von der Geest, Patrick Kollmann and a small group of investors.

Alexander von der Geest: As a team, we've been working together on projects for several years now.

Patrick Kollman: Daniel Brockhaus is the Head of Development, and his experience with MMORPGs (which dates back to 1996) forms the basis of the company. Markus Roeder and his brother Lothar are responsible for almost all graphics in the game. Alex and I have a lot of experience in online marketing and business development, which basically means that we talk a lot and know how to spend money.

Alexander von der Geest: Our office is located in Hamburg, Germany in an awful brick building from the 1960s.

Jonric: What about yourselves as gamers? What are the major interests among the team? Are there any that you'd consider noteworthy in terms of having influenced Astonia 3?

Patrick Kollman: Personally, I have played Ultima Online, EverQuest, and The 4th Coming. I will have a look at Dark Age of Camelot as soon as I have the time. Daniel and Markus have played lots of games from all genres, dating back to the old text MUDs in the early '90s - Nethack, Rogue and Circle MUD to name just a few. Most of the concepts in Astonia 3 are rather based on literature or paper and pen games than on other pc-games, if they are based on anything at all.

Jonric: What do you consider the most important lessons you've learned, both as gamers and as designers, from other online games you've worked on or played?

Patrick Kollman: One of the key lessons is that if you like playing it yourself, the players will like it too. It is very important to listen to the players, but you have to keep an eye on the balance, as many ideas that initially sound good destroy the gameplay if implemented. We tried to avoid many problems we encountered in older versions of the game.

Jonric: And to finish up, is there anything else that you would like to tell our readers or ask them?

Alexander von der Geest: Take care and have fun.

Lest we forget, having fun is the point of playing games, so that's a great point on which to close. From the reports we've seen, players do seem to be having considerable fun in Astonia 3, so despite its low profile up to now, it could be a title worth checking out, especially for those who are new to the online world experience. We thank Daniel, Patrick and Alexander for telling us about their game and we look forward to watching it as it moves forward.

Richard Aihoshi - 'Jonric'