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Shards Online: Empowering Creativity

Once in a long while we find a trailblazer willing to risk everything to explore the road less traveled.  Derek Brinkmann, Citadel Studios Founder & CEO, has poured his life into his latest creation Shards Online which is set to revolutionize the way we look at MMORPG's.

Derek has worked with MMORPG's for the past decade and served as the Lead Software Engineer on EA/Mythic's Ultima Online for 5 years. He takes his experience working with the forefathers of MMORPG's to play his hand at the creation of a fresh innovative new concept.

Shards Online offers some very unique features that place the power of creation in the player’s hands. Today, we talk with Derek on his career in the gaming industry and what we have to look forward to in his latest title Shards Online.

Greetings Derek! Thank you for joining us today. Before we dive into this massive new concept, I'd like to ask you to introduce yourself and the work you've done over the past decade.

Well, I’m co-founder and project lead for Citadel Studios. I got my start in the industry way back in 2003 when I got hired as an intern at EA to help with Madden 2004. After graduating, I came back to work full-time and in 2006, I jumped on the opportunity to head over to San Francisco to work on Ultima Online, the grandfather of MMOs. About a year later, the project was moved to Mythic Entertainment in Fairfax, Virginia and I took over as lead engineer. We had a blast working on expansion packs like Stygian Abyss and High Seas. I’ll tell ya, the first time you shut down those live servers for a patch is quite a rush. Just knowing that there are 3000 or so people out their behind their keyboards that see a disconnected message just because you hit one button! I know EA tends to have a bad wrap in the industry, but I really did enjoy the 10 years that I worked there and I learned a ton about what it takes to go from a game concept to a finished product.

I understand many of your team come from the Mythic studio and have worked on projects such as Warhammer Online and Dark Age of Camelot. What inspired you to break away and form your own studio?

It was always part of my master plan to start my own studio. The time I spent in the game industry prior to forming Citadel Studios was me essentially hoarding knowledge and cash so I could one day pull this off. When I got together with Tim Cotten, our creative director, on Ultima Online, we knew almost instantly that one day we would create our own game together. Our brains just complement each other really well, ya know? Anyways, we were always impressed with the level of freedom designers had while creating content for Ultima Online and we were determined to give that same freedom to the players one day.

From your experience to date, what have you learned about the differences in working for someone else vs being your own boss? Have there been any noticeable differences?

Working for someone else is much easier. You know exactly what your expectations are. When you are expected to show up for work, etc. When you are your own boss you have to rely on yourself to stay motivated. That is still pretty easy for me however because I have a such a strong passion for the game we are creating. Of course, I miss the steady guaranteed paychecks that I had back when I was working for the man.

So lets crack open this box and take a look inside your next title Shards Online? What is the general overall premise behind this game?

If Ultima Online and Neverwinter Nights had a love child, Shards Online would be the result. By combining the persistent virtual world of Ultima Online with the freedom of community run servers and the ability to act as a god (like a dungeon master) in Neverwinter Nights, we are creating a paradise for roleplayers where you are no longer constrained by the rules handed to you by the development team.

For regular players it means there is no limit to the content they will be able to experience since modders will be constantly creating new stories, meta-games and live events. For the admins, it means they will finally have a platform where they can host and moderate a virtual world with the potential to support thousands of players.

What is uniquely different about your title over every other title out there?

I can point to two key concepts that set Shards Online apart. First, is our focus on creating a living breathing world. What this means is we created an engine that at its core is a true world simulation and the designers build the game on top of that. Unlike other games where the engine is specifically designed to suit the experiences the designers want you to have. This philosophy encourages “emergent gameplay” which is a fancy way to say that players will create their own experiences, often unintended by the designers, that are completely unique to them.

The other key concept is this ability to not only run and moderate your own game worlds but also completely change everything about the game right down to the core rules and stories on your server. With years of experience developing for MMOs we have figured out how to simplify the server architecture so just about anyone with a little technical ability can run their own server.

Will these Shards be housed internally or will they rely on players to house their own Shard?

It’s important to understand the distinction between a single shard and a complete Shards Online server (we call them clusters). A single ‘shard’ is like a zone or region in other online games. The ‘cluster’ is our secret sauce that connects ‘shards’ together, enforces the rules, and allows travel between them. We host the ‘clusters’, you host the ‘shards’ however you want. The simplest way to run a ‘shard’ would be directly on your home computer, but you can also run them through a cloud service or third party server hosting company. We are currently exploring partnerships with third party hosting companies to make it as easy as possible to get a ‘shard’ up and running quickly without taxing your home computer.

What type of things can a Shard Owner do with their world?

The easiest thing to do is set some initial settings, whitelist a few people as admins (gods) and fire it up with one of the official rulesets provided to you by Citadel Studios. The whole process won’t take more than 20 minutes or so. With a ‘shard’ running in standalone mode, anyone will be able to connect to it via IP address and play there. You will be able to use the built in god commands like possession, and creature/item spawning to create unique content for your players on the fly.

If you want to host more than a single ‘shard’, you will rent a ‘cluster’ server from Citadel Studios and use our simple web interface to connect your ‘shards’ together. Now you are running a true MMO where the only limit on the number of players connected to your server is your resources and number of shards you choose to connect. ‘Clusters’ also have the innate ability to be listed on the official in-game server list. This makes it much easier for players to find your server.

Are there any caps to how many players can be on a Shard at a time?

As we optimize the server, the number of players that can connect to a single shard will be constantly increasing. By the time we hit beta, we plan for a single ‘shard’ (or zone) to support 128 players, provided the hardware you are running it on is powerful enough. Don’t expect to support 128 players on the “smart toaster” in your kitchen. As we go beyond beta we will continue to work on this hard limit to get it beyond 128 players. Remember, a ‘shard’ is just a single game zone on your server and you will be able to support numbers much larger than 128 (even up to the thousands) by connecting them together in a ‘cluster’.

When we talk about having the ability to create your own game world, where is the line drawn in the sand? How much freedom do we have? Can we program new features? Import custom models? Is there some sort of approval process for player created content?

The freedom to modify the game on your servers will increase as we progress through development. We are starting with the gameplay, content and rules. At alpha, you will be able to change how the game plays, things like skills, abilities, monster AI and item drops, npc dialog and stories.

As we work through the stages of alpha we will be adding support for custom assets. These are art assets that get pushed down to the users when they connect. This will be things like new models, textures, particle effects and even eventually entire maps. We can not wait to see what people come up with. It’s the most exciting thing about what we are doing with Shards Online.

What types of restrictions can Shard Owners place on their worlds? How will you prevent players from creating powerlevel worlds to gear up their characters to the max so they can tip the scales in their favor on other worlds?

All ‘shards’ (zones) connected together in a single ‘cluster’ (server) run the same rules and that is enforced by the central ‘cluster’ server. Admins, can place restrictions on their servers by either changing the settings that come with the default rules or digging into the Lua behaviors to write custom rules.

With as much talent as you have coming from RvR based games, will their be Siege warfare available for content creators to build RvR style battles? Will their be siege warfare in the out of box game worlds?

We aren’t planning for any siege warfare in the initial release of the game, but we will be doing regular content packs that add additional content and features to the game post-release. This sounds like a great candidate for one of those packs.

Is there crafting planned for Shards Online and how will it work?

No online RPG would be complete without the ability to craft your own items. Our lead designer, Logrus, has tons of awesome plans for the crafting system. Check out a video Q&A with him here.

What about Guilds, I haven't seen a whole lot about what's store for communities like Gaiscioch who decide to play Shards Online. Is there anything you can share with us about your plans for guilds in Shards Online?

Just like crafting, guilds is a must have part of any online RPG. We will provide a bunch of systems to help guilds get together, communicate and work together. Of course, guild halls will be built into the game and we have talked about ways we can allow for sanctioned guild vs. guild wars where the guards will stay out of the way. The open ended nature of Shards Online means that guilds will find their own ways to create experiences for their members, for example maybe you will have a group of builders in your guild who assist members with getting their homes and other structures built. Maybe your guild is based in an area out of the protection of guards and you will need to establish regular patrols to keep your members protected and feeling secure.

For larger gaming communities, we are excited to see that many of them are already planning to run their own servers. These large communities have the greatest potential to run much larger servers since they can pool their resources together.

Lets talk about story. What is the general background story to the out of box experience?

We have an amazing, and completely insane, story that doesn’t only explain the game world, but it explains the existence of the game itself. The overarching story focuses on two creator gods Lili and Eve (they manifest themselves as cute little fraternal twin sisters) who run experiments creating universes hoping to find an intelligent race that can eventually ascend and surpass them in power.

Is there a forecast release date planned for Shards Online?

We have a highly detailed development roadmap on our product page. Of course, nothing in game development is ever set in stone and almost everything is subject to change. But it gives you a pretty good idea of how we plan to get to Beta (in the world of online games, they are essentially released when they reach Beta) in early 2016.

Lastly, would you be willing to share one experience that you can remember, where you were forced to step back to square one to advance your vision?

Well, my co-founder Tim Cotten and I did a great bit of planning before we even began development. Luckily, the vision is working and we haven’t had to change much. The vision of Citadel Studios and Shards Online will never change and that is that we strive to create living breathing game worlds, where the gamers and their communities have the ultimate power.

I want to thank you for taking the time to discuss your newest title with us and we look forward to seeing what you have in store next.

Thank you! I’m looking forward to seeing a Gaiscioch ‘cluster’ popping up on the Shards Online server list real soon!

Published: April 17th, 2015   |  1,644 Reads

About the Author

Benjamin "Foghladha" Foley
Managing Editor

Benjamin founded the Gaiscioch Social Gaming Community in 2001 and has since been the founder & activities director for this well known community. His role has gone beyond just running the Gaming Community and now includes running the Athletics Program in Portland, Oregon, as well as acting as the Managing Editor of the Gaiscioch Magazine, and is the Lead Producer on the Gaiscioch Livestream Productions. Additionally he networks with game developers to form relationships between Gaiscioch and development studios.

His experience in publishing dates back to helping his Grandparents who operated a printing press for over 40 years. In high school and college Benjamin excelled in journalism and played an active part in the school newspaper. Benjamin currently works full time as the director of technology for a franchise trade publication & education company.

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