Interview with Divergence’s Ethan Casner

Interview with Divergence’s Ethan Casner
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We recently had the opportunity to interview Ethan Casner, the man behind the Indie-MMO, Divergence.

It’s an ambitious project to be sure, but that’s probably the reason why I’ve fallen for it so hard: I’ve been obsessing over the two videos Casner has released, signed up at the game newly released official forums, and filled with dread thinking about the first time I’ll have to deal with a Vindicator or Verrator (Full disclosure, I’ve already pitched in some money in support of the indiegogo funding campaign). In interviewing Casner, I wanted to pick his brain to find out some of what lead him to his particular philosophy of “The MMO”, as well as delve deeper into the idea of an MMO with Perma-Death. He has an amazing sense of determination, incredible vision, and some very deeply held principles that could be a recipe for a truly incredible game.  

You’ve mentioned your distaste with the direction of Modern MMO’s. In your mind what is the most critical thing that Divergence can get right to distinguish itself in the currently flooded market of MMO’s?

I’m reminded every day of one fact; The bulk mass of all of these “newish” mmorpg players got here from WoW and it’s subsequent clones. Most of them probably have no idea what it’s like to have the amount of and kinds of freedoms that existed before that, so I want Divergence to be the game the introduces them to that feeling. For us old farts, it’ll be like going back to “the golden years” but to these new players, they might find themselves enjoying (what would seem to them like) an entirely new playstyle. So long as we stay stalwart and loyal to the original design (the true sandbox experience) and “get it right” I think this will be one of, if not the, most distinguishing features of our game.

Limited Perma-death seems to be the most controversial subject when Divergence gets discussed (at least among my friends). How does the quote “Death means something, and thus life means something.” encapsulate the Divergence experience, and how does a player get attached to a character who could die at any moment?

 I get asked that a lot too actually, We want people to sit up and lean forward in their seats. From the moment you log into your character in Divergence you enter into a world that was in part different from the world it was yesterday. Life requires a constantly recycling ecosystem. Without death your entire world is stagnant and unchanging. Personally (not professionally) I think players might be even more willing to become attached to their characters because now suddenly they can’t simply respawn and run back to the instance entrance like nothing happened. They’ll attach more meaning to their characters and through those actions the adventures they take their characters on they’ll begun to cherish the lives of those same characters, and thus take joy in their continued survival and growth.

How will Divergence handle griefers and trolls? In a game with perma-death, “ganking” becomes a very different issue, some might even say a legal one.

Another important question which ties in with your previous inquiry. The name of the game in our world is “association”. Our systems are based off the same self-regulating ecosystem we find ourselves tied to in real life. Meaning we all have the freedom to go on a psychotic killing spree or settle personal scores at whim, but the social repercussions to these actions can be the same as a death sentence. Shooting a dancer in a cantina for example will likely drop you straight to “hated” with anyone she’s associated with, including both the bouncers and her own home faction such as OSI or DC. In short, you probably won’t make it out of the building with your own head on it’s shoulders. Plus, keep in mind as long as your clone insurance is paid, humanoid players can still clone in most major towns, outposts and various other locations.

Tell us a little bit about the inception of your universe. Who were your muses and from what did you draw your inspiration?

I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan my entire life. Star Wars, Star Trek, but there was always one thing that kept me from being totally absorbed which was the lack of realism mixed in. Life, and the universe, are not rated PG-13. My desire was to develop a universe more like Blade-Runner than some Orwellian Utopia. I drew a lot of inspiration from my background with Anarchy-Online and learned then the power of letting the players decide certain aspects of the story (until of course, they fired all of us and scrapped that department entirely) which to my knowledge hasn’t been attempted since. I’m the biggest Star-Wars fan on earth, so much that I don’t recognize episodes 1, 2 or 3. All those movies, and their subsequent failures accomplished was further reinforcing my blossoming beliefs that people know when they’re being faked out. Sure those movies were “superior” but their totally CG sets and characters, as opposed to the almost plausible realism of 4,5, and 6 taught me that people respect it when you don’t placate them with CG gungans.

The Vindicators and Verrators seems to be your personal brainchild. What was the design philosophy behind a limited-quantity race, and how do you hope players will approach these unique characters?

I designed these character’s to bring back a feeling that most mmogamers of today never get to experience; The feeling of “awe”. I remember “back in the day” in pre-cu, pre-nge Star Wars Galaxies what it felt like the first time I saw a real jedi. I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing. It wasn’t who the character was, or even their glowy sword, it was an overwhelming sensation of being that close to something that powerful who could dispatch everyone in town. They were very few and very careful about exposing their locations and actions because when they died, they had to start over and thus, the system balanced itself out. I wanted players to know that same awe-inspiring aura and I built Vindicator and Verrator from the ground up for precisely this effect. I wanted them to know what it was like to be supremely powerful, incredibly rare and always on the lookout for those who will hunt them.

You’ve mentioned that players will be able to modify the world around them using resource they gather. Will these resources deplete over time, thus forcing the player base further and further out into the wide world?

Correct. Some resources will replenish at various places. Some will appear in different concentrations and at different locations based on the week, but some may be more precious that others, forcing players to mine further and further down into the planet in search of new veins.

Guide writing and walkthroughs are a big part of the MMO community. How does this desire to dissect and understand a sliver of content mesh in the limitless world that Divergence promises?

We’ll be going out of our way to actually inhibit those activities. Guides and walkthroughs are helpful, but in a game like this they say “your experience in this world can be planned, budgeted and controlled front to back”. We don’t want any two people to have the same experience if possible and we don’t want people to be able to download a pre-planned life off of google.

A Sunset in Divergence

While the hindrances are obvious, how has the long period of creation and hibernation assisted you in creating the world of Divergence and cementing your idea of the MMO?

The point at which I stopped showing parts of the world was well before we went into hibernation and actually a year before we even switched engines. At the time of video 1 and 2, most people had never seen that stuff before so I was glad to say at the very least “I kept going even when you didn’t know it”.

I wandered a lot after that. I took a few jobs for other mmo teams (my game was my resume, and a very effective one it turns out) before slowly coming to grips with the fact that, as far as I was concerned, they were all still very much “missing the point”. Did the world really need another tab-targetting mmo with “zone boundaries”? Why were these groups still doing this? I came out of the winter 2012 realizing that if I didn’t pick up where I left off, no one else was going to do it. No other MMO was going to magically come out and “grip” me like past experiences had. If I wanted that game to exist, I had to suck it up and make it exist.

What graphical upgrades do you intend to make with Divergence moving forward?

Virtually none actually. Graphically, I’m quite satisfied with the capabilities of our renderer in that it can be pushed extremely far, enabling insane detail and complexity with the right hardware. The renderer is designed for the graphics hardware of tomorrow.

 

The crew at RaidWarning would like to thank Ethan for taking the time to answer our questions about Divergence. You can find even more information at the games indiegogo page

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Editor-in-Chief of IndieHangover.com. With a soft spot for epics, sagas and tales of all types, Jacob approaches games as ways to tell stories. He's particularly interested in indie games because of the freedom they have to tell different stories, often in more interesting and innovative ways than Triple A titles.

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