Monday, June 20, 2011

Realm of the Mad God Released!

A little over a year ago, Alex Carobus and Rob Shillingsburg from WildShadow created a prototype of a re-imagined MMO for the TIGSource Assemblee game jam. David and I started working with them a few months later through Spry Fox, helping flesh out with the monetization, interface and cooperative mechanics. The game has been in public beta for a year, rigorously tested by thousands of passionate players. The metrics look good. The tech is in place. Today, after a huge amount of work by a truly talented team, we are officially launching on the Chrome Web Store.

As with any online game, this is just the start. On the feature side, expect to see the game grow and evolve substantially in the coming months. On the distribution side, we'll also be slowly be rolling the game out to thousands of portal sites. Limber up your shooting finger and give Realm a go. Don't forget to dodge.

Indies Innovate

Realm of the Mad God is unique. If you were to toss various gaming labels at it, you'd get the following:
  • Fantasy MMORPG
  • Bullet Hell Shooter (so many bullets!)
  • Co-op only
  • Real-time combat (with 80+ players on screen)
  • Permadeath
As added spice, it runs in a browser using Flash, has a scalable cloud-based backend, sports user generated art and is rather effectively funded by a free-to-play business model.

It turns out that only an indie has the ability to reinvent the MMO genre from the ground up. Certainly no large studio could have made Realm. The original idea contained risky design, challenging hardcore gameplay, hitherto unseen technology. Heck, who even thinks of greenlighting a modern game with permadeath? Yet because of exactly these moonshot design constraints, Realm is fresher than 90% of the games that ever get released. Core gamers who love great games will love Realm.

Realm falls into the emerging category I think of as "Top Shelf Indie": highly playable games that offer deep, polished experiences that are just as much fun as more bloated titles but come with the distinctive spin that only a smaller independent team can manage. Pulling such a feat off requires three ingredients that are rare in our industry:
  • A highly talented small team
  • Freedom to pursue an innovative unified design vision
  • The ability to rapidly release and iterate on playable builds.
Simple stuff. If you love making games, you should look at your current project and ask yourself how many of these ingredients you have in place. (Yes, you deserve to work on a team with all of these.)


Here are a couple of the big design challenges:
  • Co-op is a pervasive design philosophy, not a tacked on feature.
  • Rival goods are a form of PvP

Co-op is a pervasive design philosophy, not a tacked on feature.

The rule of thumb for everything is "Does this mechanic make the game better to play together?" Here are a few of the systems in place the encourage cooperative play.
  • Experience is shared. All you need to do in order to earn experience is to be close by when an enemy is killed. There is a simple yet effective benefit from playing with others. More players means enemies die more quickly, so players working together level and earn our time-based currency (fame) more quickly.
  • Teleporting is cheap. Players can quickly and easily teleport to other players. In early builds, most players would wander for hours without seeing another human being. A smaller percentage of players liked this, but most simply assumed the game was single player and then left. We also wanted to avoid requiring a complex guild and grouping system, especially for new players. As it stands now, it is difficult to play for long without another player jumping to your position and playing alongside you.
  • All experience levels plays together: Level 1 players can easily play alongside Level 20 players. They increase their chance of dying, but there are few artificial barriers if you want to group together with friends of a different level. It also helps that the leveling curves are more shallow than is typical. he most powerful player is only about 30 times more powerful than a first level player.
  • Twinking is encouraged since loot is plentiful, inventory is limited and there isn't a direct means of cashing in items for a more liquid currency. As such there is a culture of players sharing stuff they've found with other players.
Crowds form organically and you'd find many small bands merrily adventuring through the world.

Yet even with all these core systems in place co-op can still be quite fragile. One incredibly cool (and powerful) character is the rogue who has the ability to go invisible and rush in for a sneak attack. Yet, since this class can still be hit by stray bullets, the rogue prefers to work alone where he have better control over exactly how enemy attacks are triggered. As a result there is now a large population of solo-focused players that often complain bitterly when anyone from the larger community attempts to play cooperatively. Other players resent the aptly named rogue for playing selfishly and stealing loot they would have otherwise had a chance to pick up. In essence, an individually fun class actively pollutes the core intent of the game.

So lesson I've learned is that co-op works best when every system in the game is tuned to encourage inexpensive and easy cooperation. This can mean tossing many traditional concepts like expensive travel or requiring guilds for groups. It may mean nerfing or changing a fun and delightful mechanic if it somehow damages the community as a whole. In multiplayer games, finding the fun isn't enough. You need to maximize the fun without poisoning the experience of others.

Rival goods are a form of PvP

An early decision made for the first prototype haunted the game for far too long. Loot in Realm is a rival good; to paraphrase Raph Koster, "If I grab it, you can't." While the rest of the game is all about mutual benefit, loot as a rival good brought out the bloodlust in our players on a number of levels.
  • Initial looting: A team of players will cooperate beautiful to bring down a large boss. They'll coordinate, send happy messages and joke with one another. Yet as soon as someone snags loot that another person desired, the conversation turns acrimonious. Inevitably one player grabs far more loot than others and the predominate emotions of the game decay into greed, distrust and a deeply felt lack of fairness.
  • Death: When someone dies, a percentage of their items stay on the body. This yields a huge incentive to steal from your fellow players. I'd love to run some experiments where all items on a body go away or are soulbound and see how that changes the mood of the community.
What is tricky about both of these is that both looting and stealing from corpses is surprisingly fun. Players treat it as a form of survival of the fittest PvP and a mercenary minority have perfected their skills as efficient looters. Yet as a whole, these 'fun' moments for individuals create a dysfunctional society.

We are methodically solving for these issues by awarding players with soulbound loot. This removes much of the competitive nature of picking up loot and turns loot into a non-rival good. Showing up and helping out gets you loot, not stealing from others.

Other lessons

The game does some other things worth noting that are common to other games I've mentioned here. These help ensure that a small team can release a game that traditionally requires the efforts of hundreds:
  • Design from the root: Instead of accepting genre conventions, each new feature was vigorously questioned to see if it fit the core concept of the game as a co-op MMO shooter.
  • Procedural generation: All the maps and dungeons are procedurally generated. This means content is quite cheap.
  • User generated content: The initial graphics used in the game came from the wonderful Oryx set. However, Alex invested a good amount of time in building a full featured sprite editor that allows users to make new monsters, items and animations. Now almost all new visuals end up being sourced from the community.


MMOs are intensely complex games where even simple systems blossom into a thousand layers of culture and community. The rules of the game create explosive economies, ecosystems and power structures that deeply intertwine with the lives of players. I'm really not surprised that so many MMOs are essentially clones. The genre canon is a tightly wound mechanism where even small changes can destroy your game. Every MMO team faces this particular minefield and must ask themselves if they have the guts to mess with standards that have been gingerly polished over decades.

Most back away from the challenge with fear in their eyes. Instead of making something new, they take the coward's path and desperately try to differentiate their me-too creation with pointless cut-scenes, laborious writing and gaudy graphics.

Alex and Rob took the challenge. Yes, rebuilding many of these systems from a unique starting place is an epic undertaking. But it worked. We need more teams with the guts and the ability to reinvent genre conventions. We need more games like Realm of the Mad God.

take care,


  1. Great write-up and sounds like an interesting game, I may have to give it a spin.

    I'm curious about your marketing & monetization strategy. It occurred to me that for a Flash-based indie MMO (which I assume has an up-front small price in the Chrome store - I can't see the store properly just now to check), it might be interesting to have a "read-only window into the world", a Flash movie that renders what's going on in the game live, and which anyone can watch... but can't participate in. It would show all the fun players are having in this world, creating an impulse of "I want to be part of the fun!" for players. (Just a thought - it could be technically infeasible given the additional number of people viewing the action.)

    I wonder whether the level system itself was ever questioned? I have a design for an "indie MMO" of my own in my pocket, in which I feel I developed a replacement for the level system. The WoW designers I talked to during my time at Blizzard always regarded the level system, and the barrier it creates between friends playing together, as the game's greatest weakness. It seems pretty rooted in the formula, but I'm interested in challenging that assumption.

  2. No upfront price. You can play the entire game for free with all the classes and never pay a cent.

    The game makes money by selling dyes, pets and the occasional temporary boost or potion. These are mostly for players who want to feel powerful for a while, you certainly don't need them.

    We questioned the level system a lot. It is still in place, but only takes about 30 minutes for an experienced play to go from level 1 to the max level cap of level 20. There is a small group that likes to grind for rare stat-boosting potions. Also, we don't restrict who you can play with. So you often see low level players hanging out with more experienced players.

    take care

  3. Nice; if you can't eliminate levels, you can at least change them into a form that doesn't hinder cooperative play.

    I'll be honest that I'm a little disappointed that it's not pay-to-play on the App Store; I was hoping I was seeing a new indie game that would buck the trend of "all Flash games are free." I've been hoping that the Chrome Web Store would represent a realistic way for some excellent Flash-based game to become a breakout hit even though it has an up-front price (even if it's just $.99). It would be nice if Flash game devs at least had the option of monetizing that way.

    For now I still haven't seen that kind of paid breakout hit on the Chrome Store... perhaps with time though.

  4. Great game, although I started to get a little bored when I couldn't find any hard enemies to fight.

    I'm also really curious about the backend and how it's set up. Are you able to talk about that, or is there someone else I could talk to to learn more about it.

  5. IQPierce: Yes, Rob and Alex experimented with not having individual player levels, but haven't found a design that they're happy with. One of their previous games, Steel Chaos, had the entire team (all players on the server) leveling up together. I wrote more about it here:

  6. Uhm, Chrome Web Store? Why do you believe it is a good idea to only give Chrome users the ability to play your game? They have a market share of just around 10% as far as I know.

    Really, really would love to play this but I don't exactly like the fact that I need a different browser (FF4 here) to do so. Oo

  7. If you are have difficulties with Chrome Web Store, give the url a try and it should all work.

    take care

  8. Interesting game, definitely doing many things right. The MMO and co-op aspects are really nice. I am very impressed with the tech. So many players, enemies and bullets running real time in Flash in amazing.

    I am in awe I could keep my guest account after I signed up.

    However, it could use some work as a shooter.

    Too often I am being shot offscreen by enemies I cannot see, their bullets move too fast to truly react to most of the time. The enemies are too random (or just rush you) to discern and adapt to a pattern. Combat comes down to the standard "beat on each other and manage potions" rather than the skills associated with a shooter.

    There is also no shot mechanics past "shoot and smartbomb". Unusual mechanics such as polarity (Ikaruga), mosquito (mars Matrix) or grazing (DoDonPachi) is what makes these kinds of shooters outstanding.

    A bit of deeper design around the shooting would help bring in the shooter fans.

  9. Great reviewlet on Rock Paper Shotgun. Hopefully brings you lots of customers.

  10. I played it after RPS coverage, and loved it. Such tight design and brave decisions (permadeath, insta-teleport, bag restrictions, no loot level restrictions). It's just really well honed. And yes, you got my 10 bucks for another character slot and a vault chest, which is great value, and has transformed how I play ('lending' gear from my 20 to my levelling char, using my 20 to get better gear for my levelling char etc).

    It was only 3 days after I started playing it that I saw that you were involved Danc, and that's when it all made sense. Great design, great execution. I hope that the business model is sustaining you guys.

  11. I must admit that this is the first ever "play for free" game that I paid for. I suppose I should have invested my ten bucks into a character and a chest rather than two chests, but ah well. I really like how players work togehter in the game, and the idea that good items are just passed around for free also takes my liking. Certainly, for the top tier items this will not be the case, but that just means there is a motivation in going on after level 20.

    Thanks a lot for making that game, I suppose the only thing I don't like is that I don't see any sense in the "fog of war" returning all the time. It would be much better if after re-joining a server or coming out of a dungeon, the map would still be explored. Exploration currently is something which RotMG lacks because of that, I think. And I always like exploration in games. ;)

  12. What kind of hardware is it running on?

  13. I have some comments on the co-op. The beat of the game in the battle places are too fast and dangerous, so it is quite difficult to chat with and communicate with other players using the chat box. Therefore, there is a feeling of playing with other (clever?) robots instead of real people.