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LWM meets Chris DiBona

An Interview from the Future of Rekonstruction

Four hundred years from now, Earth is a shadow of her former self. On August 24th, 2202, a near calamitous strike from a planetary fragment sent 12 billion souls into backup and made extinct hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species.

So begins Rekonstruction from Damage Studios, the first massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) that is designed to support over 1,000,000 concurrent users. Dee-Ann LeBlanc, LWM's gaming indusry editor, recently had the chance to discuss Rekonstruction with Chris DiBona, cofounder of both Konstrux Technologies and Damage Studios.

LWM: When people hear the name Chris DiBona, it's usually in the context of Slashdot or one of a dozen other Linux writing or techie venues. Looking through your "About Me" page there's nothing in here that screams, "This man will cofound a gaming company one day." Is it every little boy's dream to build (or is it play?) games for a living? How did you end up here?
Chris DiBona:
Boredom, mostly. At the time my cofounder and partner at Damage, Tony Guntharp, approached me about this idea he had for Rekonstruction, I was initially a little cold on the idea of doing both another startup and thought that I was likely unqualified to market and manage such a company. I thought about it for a few hours, and then, over the next day or so found I was more excited about the challenge of both writing and marketing such a game than I had been in a very long time.

When Tony and I first talked, I was still working for Slashdot as an editor, which is a pretty fun thing, and I think that I was pretty good at that. I had posted some 700+ stories and written about 300 polls for the site over the year I had worked there. I have to admit I thought that I was getting a little burned out on the highly event-driven nature of working for Slashdot, so when this opportunity presented itself, I was poised to take it seriously. Running a game company really hadn't been on my short list of "Things to do after VA/OSDN," but when I realized some of the people I could get involved in the project and the exciting technical and marketing challenge that creating and attracting subscribers to such a game represents, I really had to do it in the end.

LWM: Tell us a bit about this MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Where will it fit in the market amongst its projected competitors?
DiBona:
Rekonstruction is set 400 years in the future on an Earth devastated by 200 years of the cumulative aftermath of a large-scale asteroid strike on planet Earth on August 24th, 2202. Earth is still recognizable as such, but most of humanity was wiped out and sent into backup on that date. The overall point of Rekonstruction is to rebuild and recivilize Earth. We've written a lot about the backstory and overall game on our Web site, http://www.rekonstruction.com, and your readers should check that out to get a feel for the backstory and concept art and other visuals that we are serving up for future players there. (And sign up for our mailing list!)

As to the market for such a game, we are marketing Rekonstruction to the hard-core MMORPG player; specifically those who we feel are not currently being served well in the science fiction genre. There are a great number of fantasy MMORPGs out there, and while we felt we could compete adequately in that space, we felt that the fantasy thing had basically been done and will be a mess for newcomers for some time. Also, no one has done a near-term (in science fiction terms, 400 years in the future is still pretty near term) science fiction MMORPG, with the few offerings being tens of thousands of years in the future, so their worlds end up being really just fantasy MMORPGs with lasers or space operas.

We also think that using Earth as the playing surface brings with it some real affinity for our future subscribers and allows us to perhaps further blur the lines between reality and the game world than we would otherwise be able to. I think that people will identify more with San Francisco in Rekonstruction than Rubi-ka (in Anarchy Online) or Norrath (Everquest), and this will anchor their myth in the real world in a way that others can't currently do. I don't really think you want me to go into my annoying lecture on how narrative for MMORPGs is completely different than for first person shooters or real-time strategy games or regular fiction, but designing an overall narrative is something that we take very seriously. We see it as being one of the key differentiators for Rekonstruction.

LWM: In the non-MMORPG world, the games with thriving communities are driven by the ability to do Mods and apply other customizations (such as supplying graphics for logos, textures for clothes, and so on). No one has done this in the MMORPG market yet (that I'm aware of). Have you considered it?
DiBona:
We have, and we provide it in some limited form in our game. This is fraught with difficulties, and managing the provision of such tools in a collaborative environment represents a very difficult balancing act between gamer and game.

At launch we will provide the ability for the players to create new settlements, create new teleportation links, and more.

LWM: How are you working to appeal to more than just the teenage male demographic? Recent surveys point out that adults - and even women as an individual group - play games more than boys, and yet everyone's aiming for that one demographic. Please tell me there won't be overly anatomically "correct" females and Ken doll males (who are anything but anatomically correct).
DiBona:
I think about this a lot; I don't think that the female demographic (which is represented well in a number of MMORPGs) is served particularly well. I prefer to think in terms of providing players with the choice of making beautiful, unique, and attractive characters. I think that there is no reason to not provide future subscribers the ability to create attractive female or male avatars, but I also want them to be able to create stocky, rangy, or otherwise interesting characters.

Character model creation is actually a very exciting area in MMORPGs today; for instance, the things you can do now for facial and other expressions are pretty neat. I remember telling our concept artist just a month ago "be sure to give me a fat blacksmith looking fellow," but that's another story.

LWM: What is the game play going to be like? What kinds of in-game activities will characters be able to do, and advance by? Many people in MMORPGs like a heavy social component, for example. Game balance has proven a huge problem in many of the MMORPGs I've tried. Usually the only effective way to advance is by killing things or going on endless, repetitive quests, no matter how much thought the developers tried to put into offering crafting skills and so on.
DiBona:
MMORPGs without social components aren't MMORPGs. When you talk about the repetitive nature of quests and others, that's clearly something we'd like to avoid, and we think we have cool ways of avoiding the boring part of the leveling grind. Balance, as you note, is key. Can you have a character competent enough without some kind of "work" to get to that level? Is that what you want in a game? It is in our interest to have some kind of learning curve so that people feel competent in the control of their character, but how do we do that without creating boredom. We think we have a handle on this part of the game, but it's going to need serious oversight for as long as the game continues.

As to advancement without combat, we'll offer ways to accomplish this, but Rekonstruction is a game, and character advancement will be an important part of it.

LWM: I've read some fascinating papers on "game economy." How do you intend to tackle the many problems that come in here, like in-game inflation and devaluation, and out-of-game people selling characters and more on eBay?
DiBona:
In-game inflation and deflation is a much bigger problem than extra-game trading of characters and items. Since our game will not have shards, we will not have a lot of the quality-control problems that our competitors have with extra game sales. We will set up an escrow system internal to the game for quality control and make it clear that selling items outside the game can be tricky for people. For extra-game sales, we'll likely charge 50 cents for placing the item in escrow pending sale, that way people can say "see the escrow report at such and such link" in their auction. This will significantly reduce the support load that such sales represent.

LWM: You say that you're using solely Linux on the back end. How did you come to that decision? Was it a no-brainer for you since you've got so much experience in Linux? Have other MMORPGs done this before?
DiBona:
Actually, Linux is quite popular in the space, as are open source databases like Postgres and mySQL. Also, the cost structure in the game industry is such that using commercial operating systems isn't really a good idea. They cost so much and Linux delivers so much, as you know. Also, really, we're all Linux people at Damage.

LWM: How are you implementing the back end? Clusters? Server farm? COWs?
DiBona:
We'll be using a cluster architecture with software of our own design. We're not using grid or pvm/mpi technology, favoring our own back-end technology.

LWM: Your site says that the whiz-bang feature is going to be the ability to support one million concurrent users. What is required to accomplish this?
DiBona:
Well, we actually don't expect to have that many players for some time, so we're not going to buy that level of capacity. We have a lot of experience with clusters, mind you (Tony created SourceForge, I used to work for Tandem, etc...), so we know how to manage that kind of growth, explosive or steady.

We really want a game without artificial boundaries for the players, so providing them with a seamless experience is very important to us; having many shards we think detracts from the playability of a game and restricts the possibility of growth.

LWM: Are you talking about on a single server, or on a massive collection of separated world servers? Will players be able to interact among folks on the other servers?
DiBona:
From the players' perspective it is one game, one Earth, one world. So interaction is seamless for players.

LWM: You say that there will be a Linux client, but not immediately. Could you explain the decision process that forces this approach, and what specific issues you expect to face when porting the client to Linux?
DiBona:
Basically, hard-core gamers are fine with rebooting or using a transgaming style emulation technology, so until we can justify the added cost of maintaining another client platform, that client won't be supported natively. Support for Linux isn't really that difficult, especially when you consider that we will likely be supporting OS X soon after launch of the Windows client. The problem is that there is a cost, and unless the people on that platform are only going to play the game if it is offered under Linux number enough to pay off the ongoing investment in the Linux client, then we cannot initially justify the cost of supporting Linux directly out of the gate.

The other problem with Linux and gaming is sound - I wish that Linux sound was better.

That said, we clearly are all Linux people, so we want to support Linux, despite the financial and marketing realities of gamers on Linux, so we likely will. it's a matter of time and how successful the game is on other platforms.

LWM: Numbers are starting to show that Linux might be gaining over the Macintosh in desktop use. If the gain continues, will you reverse the OS X and Linux client rollouts? (Or at least consider it?)
DiBona:
If the number of gamers using Linux on their desktop surpasses the number of gamers who are using the Mac as a desktop OS full time, then sure, we'll consider it.

LWM: Will the OS X and Linux clients cost extra?
DiBona:
If you mean: Will the Windows version cost $34 and the Mac/Linux versions cost more? Then no.

If you mean, will they eventually all ship on the same DVD? Maybe.

If you mean, will users be able to download the Linux or Mac part of the client if they have already bought the Windows DVD? Then likely.

One thing to point out - our game will likely ship with too much data to allow for a download, so no matter what, people will have to order a copy of the game from their retailer or from our Web site.

LWM: What lessons have you learned from studying what other people have done, both in MMORPGs in general and in anything involving Linux and games?
DiBona:
What a question! We have learned so much from EQ, AO, EVE, and the rest. We really couldn't even begin to answer that without taking up the rest of your magazine's space. With regards to Linux, I'd just like to reiterate what I've been saying for more than five years now: Linux is the only way to go if you are serious about your server. With the exception of some very specialized serving needs that can only be served by the Tandems and IBMS of the world, Linux is it.

More Stories By Dee-Ann LeBlanc

Dee-Ann LeBlanc has been involved with Linux since 1994. She is the author of 12 books, 130 articles, and has more of both coming. She is a trainer, a course developer - including the official Red Hat online courseware at DigitalThink - a founding member of the AnswerSquad, and a consultant.

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