I’m a cynic when it comes to Facebook games. Things like Farmville and whatever else there is other than Farmville always leave me cold. There’s a prejudice out there for social games and for the casual gamer, and people like me will always be shaking our fists at people playing Words With Friends while we gently caress our copies of the latest generic release of Shooty McShooterson. So it means a lot when I say that Merlin: The Game, a Facebook release, is really damn good.
It’s a colourful, exciting, and well crafted web-RPG with co-op play. It ties in of course to the television series, and will launch to coincide with the new series. The amount of content, the visuals, and the gameplay mechanics all reflect the ambition from this development team. It’s a social game that freely draws on proper gaming mechanics, and hopefully will introduce new audiences to the world of RPG gaming. I had a chance to speak to lead gamer designer Mike Bithell at the convention, and apart from being just a generally awesome guy, he told me all about the inner workings of the new game.
What is it about the Merlin TV series that makes it good video-game material?
It is one of the biggest fantasy worlds that one of the largest audiences knows about. It’s fantastic in terms of public awareness; people know who Merlin is, they know who Arthur is, even if they don’t know the show they know those characters because obviously it’s a story that has been around for hundreds of years.
When we were sitting down, talking about the idea of doing a fantasy role-playing game, the first thing that seemed like a good fit was Merlin, which is actually made by the people we work for. We are part of the Shine group who also make Merlin. We were very excited because it is an amazing license and world with which to bring a broad audience to an RPG game.
How closely is it related to the TV series? Does it follow the story exactly or is there some artistic license?
There’s the usual kind of artistic license, for the kind of stuff that makes games work, but generally we tie in very closely. The idea is to expand beyond the universe of the show. So, things like if a character visits a place in one episode, we might go back there and see what’s happened since they left. If a character mentions a monster, you might fight that monster. So those kinds of things, filling in the gaps, expanding the universe. But in terms of content that’s there, we’ve got everything: audio, music – we actually have the same sound guys work on this who worked on the show, so our spiders sound exactly like the spiders in the show.
Exactly! That’s the thing, if you’re a fan of a world, of a story, getting that stuff absolutely perfect is massively important, so that’s what we tried to do.
With an existing franchise like this are there any limitations with what you can do?
Well, we can’t have Merlin die. That would be bad. That would probably lead to feuds or a misunderstanding, it wouldn’t play necessarily fantastically. But we have a lot of freedom, basically as long as we don’t kill Merlin or Arthur we’re going to be all right. It’s a cool chance, a nice opportunity to do some cool game-play that’s not known by default to these guys.
You’re previous game, Monstermind, was the first ever realtime player vs player Facebook game. Can we expect any PvP in Merlin?
It’s solid co-op. For us that was a really important and brave decision. We’ve done aggressive and blowing each other up, and that is fun: blowing stuff up is fun. However, what we’ve realised is we want to do cooperative stuff, collaborative stuff, to get that idea of playing with friends, and we felt that was something that players wanted and would enjoy, and also something that felt logical to this universe.
The great thing about Merlin is that Merlin is totally about working together, collaborating, it’s about friendship. Honestly, on a very high level Merlin is a high-school comedy: you’ve got the jock and the nerd and they’re friends, and they have adventures. That’s basically what the show is. And that’s what we wanted to key into. What we could do, because we had all that technology from Monstermind, we could really quickly get a realtime cooperative game, so players could play alongside each other without lag and without problems. Because we’ve had all those problems and we’ve fixed all those problems, so it’s great from that perspective, we find it a natural progression both for us as a company and creatively.
Why did you choose to launch the game on Facebook?
The thing with Facebook which is awesome is that everyone has it. I used to work with console games, and take Xbox Live for example: it is cool, but my mum doesn’t have Xbox Live. Which makes Xbox Live cool, in fairness. The thing with Facebook is that all your friends are already there, they’re already playing, they already have that access. So I can get you and all your friends playing games together. The good thing with Facebook is that they are really getting into the whole gaming side and they’re really pushing it. Their notification systems are fantastic, we can do aggregated statistics, so we can tell you what your favourite weapon is this week, we can tell you that you’ve killed five times as many monsters as your friend. Stuff that works for gamers that feels like a cool extension of multiplayer and isn’t ‘So-and-so has given you a chicken’.
So are you aiming for an audience that don’t usually game?
The thing is, the majority of the world are not gamers. They’re not hardcore and they don’t play first person shooters. However, the majority of people play games, but they play Angry Birds, or Farmville, much more accessible games. We wanted to make a game that is as successful as those games, and what’s fantastic is that thanks to games like Farmville everyone is used to play isometric video games. Why not extend their experience? Why not make a game for them that’s a bit more clever, that has a bit more going on with it and where they can have real meaningful interactions with each other.
The game seems to have been influenced by the isometric fields of the early Fallouts and the adventure style of Diablo, what other games did you draw on?
There’s definitely some of those games in there, honestly we drew on RPGs in general. For me personally a big one is D&D, and specifically what I don’t like about D&D, and specifically what scared the crap out of me the first time I tried to play D&D. Trying to create something that has the depth and the awesomeness of creating a character, going out having the cool stuff, choosing the right tactics and fighting monsters, but we’ve done away with sums and dice. But it’s there, and obviously we need it for the game to make one sword better than another sword, but a player doesn’t need to be bothering with that, it’s off to one side. And Diablo obviously has a similar perspective and similar gameplay, so we’d be idiots if we weren’t looking at that as well. But honestly the perspective came more from how Facebook games have generally been made.
As the TV show continues, will the game be updated with new relevant content?
This is the great thing about Facebook games. As I said I worked in console games before, and you’d make a game, you’d release it, you’d see it on the shelf, you’d be excited that it’s on the shelf, and then you would read metacritic and get a 20. What’s exciting about Facebook games is if I hear from a player tomorrow that something doesn’t work very well then I can immediately leap in and fix it, tweak it, adjust it, make it better. If you play this game in six months time it’s not going to be anything like it is now, we’ll be constantly iterating over it. That’s how you make cool games, and as a game designer that’s the stuff I get very excited about, because I can fiddle; and that’s what game designers like to do, we like to fiddle. Make things feel that little bit nicer and I can do that post-release which is very exciting.
The launch is coinciding with the start of the new series, so will new content be released episodically to keep up with the show?
It’s more organic than that. With Facebook games, because you haven’t got the game, the game isn’t on your hard drive, you don’t need to install something because it all exists on our servers. So we can just change things. For example, there’s guys at the office right now making a new environment because they thought it’d be cool. We’ll add that to the game and current players will be unaware that they’ve added it until they get to the bit where that’s in. It’s not so much that you get expansions, it’s that the game is constantly growing. We will probably do some time based stuff as well.
The game follows a free-to-play model, are there purchasable extras or do you make your profit from advertising?
It’s funded by purchases. As you run through the game, there will be certain items and weapons that look awesome, or weird, or funny, or strange, which you can spend a bit of money on. Also if you want to get things a little bit earlier you can. Say if you’re a level nine character, and there’s a level eleven sword and you really want it so you can feel really awesome for a few level, then you can get that early. The trick, the key thing, is we don’t want to block players from playing the game. We don’t want to say ‘No, go away’. You will be able to complete this game and have fun without ever spending a penny. However, if at some point you see that really cool bit of armour and you want to help pay our rent then you’re absolutely more than welcome to do it. It’s that balance for us. We’re not trying to trick people. Personally I like it as a business model, because when you sell the game traditionally, I get your forty quid, you play your game, and either it’s good or it’s not so good and that’s a very simple transaction. I love the fact that for this game to be financially successful it has to be good, because you have to keep wanting to come back and eventually decide to spend some money. That’s awesome, right? That means that this is a fair economy that drives players to spend money on the games they actually enjoy playing rather than betting on an experience, which I really like.
Is there any chance of seeing a mobile version?
These things are never easy, right now we’ve got it on Facebook but who knows.
What are your future plans as a development team?
Obviously, as I said this one will continue to be developed. Job one, months and months of development, constantly fiddling and tweaking and making this awesome. That’s going to be our focus. We’re going to get some players in, we’ve got a closed beta now, and we’re going to be expanding that very shortly. We need to look after those players and make sure that they are having a good time. Of course, we’re doing other things, we’re looking at some things as well, I can’t talk about it! Otherwise people start shouting at me and I get in trouble, but Merlin is very much the focus.
What about this convention, have you had the chance to look around and play some games?
I got here about half an hour earlier and I went immediately to the Indie section because that’s where all my mates are. Indie’s looking good, I played a few things over there. I’ll tell you what I loved, it’s a new game from the guys who did The Cat That Got The Milk, and it’s called The Button. It’s really good. I also need to play Assassin’s Creed III, that’s the big one. Basically not had much time yet, maybe later.
Finally, when is the game releasing?
It’s out in closed beta right now, you can go to www.merlingame.com and get yourself into the queue for that. We’re going into open beta in a couple of weeks time and we’ll take it from there.