Eschaton Interview

We recently had the chance to catch up with Gnostic Lab’s Travis Cannell to find out more about Eschaton, their team action space simulation. Travis goes into great detail about the project so if you want to know more, read on…

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First of all can you tell us a little bit about Gnostic Labs and the development team’s background.
Gnostic Labs is a startup in Santa Barbara, California specializing in creating the technology for online games and then games themselves. Eschaton is the first title Gnostic Labs is undertaking, and we understand the long journey in front of us. On the other hand, we remind ourselves of all the creative, genre-busting games that unproven teams such as ours made in the past, and it fuels our efforts for the game.

Can you explain more about the title you are currently working on, Eschaton.
Eschaton is both a fast paced networked game that takes minutes to jump into, and a online persistent world where thousands of player’s actions shape a virtual space saga.

MMOG’s usually have an extremely large time commitment. Players devote countless hours to hacking away at monsters, leveling their character to get a powerful weapon, improving stats, or getting money. After spending weeks, sometimes months doing this they are finally in a position where they can be competitive and make a difference in the virtual world they inhabit. This "leveling treadmill" is a large problem, and is the reason why a large population of gamers are turned off by persistent online games. It is a long-term commitment before the game gets fun.

Multiplayer games played through a matchmaking service have a distinct advantage because they require almost no time commitment to start with. Starcraft, CounterStrike, Quake, etc. are all highly competitive games that you join within a couple minutes. The drawback is that once the match ends, there is no real lasting impression that the gamer creates in the persistent world.

Eschaton is a balanced combination of a fast-paced networked game and a persistent online game. An in-game Battlenet like interface connects players wishing to join a battle with available units. The system accommodates for players wishing only to play for a couple hours, as well as players who want to spend more time in the game, rising into a position where they can dictate control of more units.
Player run communities are a staple in Eschaton; in fact, players create and administer all governments, militaries, companies and other communities. Even the three large nations woven into the back story that start the game with immense amounts of economic power are run by players. Laws, an aspect of virtual worlds traditionally created and administered by developers, are drafted, voted on and passed by a government of players. Currently players are drafting a constitution for the Valtavech nation right now, the document will serve as a guidebook for setting up the Valtavech executive, judicial, and legislative branches, as well as the methods for passing and revoking laws.

The leaders of the nations have immense amounts of power, dictating the fate of their nation. Their orders, once checked by the other branches, will trickle down through commanders and diplomats, creating a dynamic, player-driven mission system where each mission impacts the state of the virtual world.
Eschaton brings different types of gamers together to create a virtual world with all the intricacies of reality. Our goal is to blur the distinction as much as possible, suspending the disbelief of the inhabitants of Eschaton.

Eschaton is described as Team Action Strategy but what exactly does that entail?

The Team Action Strategy concept revolves around our vision of a large-scale battle involving hundreds of players performing different functions, all contributing to the same battle. Attaining this goal requires combining three layers of interface, creating an intricate web of players, a cohesive team.
On the lowest level, players control an individual fighter, bomber, interceptor or even a turret on a larger ship. This layer is a first-person space action game where players concentrate on carefully aiming their weapons and dodging enemy fire.

Players also control larger capital ships in Eschaton. In a larger frigate the interface changes to a naval warfare game, with the camera orbiting around the ship in a third person perspective. Less emphasis is given to managing individual gun stations, a job given to other players or in their absence, bots. Instead players focus on positioning, energy allocation to weapons and shields, and weapon firing arcs. If players are operating the turrets on a frigate, the captain of the ship will assign targets to them which will appear as objectives in their HUD. In this manner, the captain can focus on certain aspects of the ship while other players fulfill other roles.

Having proven themselves in battle, players can ascend the ranks of command and become a commander. The interface is in third person, similar to a space-based real time strategy game, zoomed out in order to see a larger portion of the battlefield. Orders pass down through the chain of command, starting at a high strategic level and going down all the way to bottom rungs of the military.

Having a system where players command other players begs the question: why will other players obey commands? The answer is because commanders have the responsibility to assign players to units or unit groups and kick players out of them. If a player consistently ignores orders, commanders revoke his control of the units, forcing him out of the battle. Not only does this system ensure players obey orders, it handles grief players who seek only to cause harm, as they will consistently lose control of units.

The team is the result of different types of play tying together, a cohesive player unit where each player has a unique individual focus, whether it be controlling a frigate, fighter or battle group, that contributes to the battle as a whole.

The game is said to feature a command hierarchy can you explain a little more about this and how it will work, and how will players communicate within this hierarchy?

In a strategy game, a player controls units from a tactical level, without paying attention to micromanaging detail of every craft in his control. Likewise, players in an action game focus on the details of one individual unit and lose sight of the larger battle. The command hierarchy ties action and strategy together seamlessly through the interface itself, creating the depth necessary for a realistic space battle. Such battles will be the core of Eschaton.

The chain of command is a communication tool that ties the action and strategy roles together to create a cohesive organization. Orders flow directly from one interface to another: If a commander selects a unit piloted by a human, (in their absence, bots are used) and orders it to attack an enemy frigate, the pilot’s HUD will display the new objective. The commanders does not have to even use chat or voice to direct his subordinates, he can rely on the interface itself to direct the flow of events.
To gain ranks players have to receive promotions from commanders themselves, who will use their own judgment to promote others. Climbing this organizational structure will be a rewarding experience as players on the top will have a direct impact on the war effort and in turn, the game universe.
Instantly when players join the ranks of a battle they will become part of a focused community of players fighting against a similar organization. Through the interface, chat and voice lines they will communicate and come together, forming a military.

How will player’s develop their persona as they continue to play the game?

The main road of advancement is through promotion in an existing organization or economically by gaining money.

To gain economic status players can create sub-communities within the larger organizations. Companies, bands of pirates and small mercenary forces are a couple examples of what is possible.
Players who join a player run nation can develop their persona by gaining political or militaristic power. In the government, players can take on positions such as consul, senator, dictator, or even police chief performing all the duties of a virtual government. Once in a position of power their persona will become recognized throughout the empire as the leader who defeated the enemy in a decisive victory, or a consul who ran the nation.

Developing an Eschaton persona is not a trivial process of improving statistics through repetitive tasks. Character development in the game will take skill recognized by other players. In the political arena, many of the same rules will apply and people familiar with politics in life will have a distinct advantage. The military is more specific for Eschaton, but players who are naturals at the game will find themselves quickly advancing up to the upper commanding ranks.

With such an open-ended system, advancing your persona resembles a question often asked in real life.
What do you want to accomplish or change in the world around you?

Will there be specific quests or tasks players can undertake?

Eschaton will not have an artificial mission system for new players to run scripted errands. All missions are created by players for players, making them dynamic and meaningful.
The command hierarchy will provide missions in a sense; each order is a goal that a player will attempt to achieve. At a lower level players will receive simple commands such as a target set in their HUD to attack. A commander, depending upon his rank, would receive something higher level such as, take over this planet. He would then delegate out his resources to accomplish the task, providing more missions for players underneath him.

Even in non-military situations, players create missions using the command interface or chat. This could be for a certain amount of ore delivered to certain manufacturing plant, a scouting mission, or even a bounty hunt.

A completely player driven mission system ensures that each mission is dynamic, a step above scripted, static missions that we find in most games today.

How do construction and resources fit into the gameplay model?

Construction and resources play a part in Eschaton, as nothing spawns once the game begins. No space monsters warp into existence and no money comes from thin air. All units, whether they are ships, space stations or planet bases, will come from refined minerals mined from an asteroid, moon or planet. The economy is closed; the only way to generate wealth is to harvest minerals, refine them, and transform them into something usable.

Nations will invest considerable time taking over new star systems to refine precious or otherwise valuable resources, creating an intricate strategy game. The organization with the most resources will be able to produce the most units and will therefore have a distinct advantage over the others.
Using construction and resources, Eschaton becomes a high level strategy game where national leaders strive to control more resources and hamper the production capabilities of their enemies.

How will players that don’t fancy a PvP model be accommodated for, are there specific roles, or is the game mainly going to be PvP driven.

The nature of Eschaton battles are completely PvP driven, as this will create the most interesting, complex battles. For players that do not want to participate directly in war, Eschaton has a host of non-combat positions to fulfill. Mining, manufacturing, and politics are all available pastimes for players to control. Banding together with some likeminded players is also an option, we will support mechanisms for non-combat communities such as companies. Each nation needs a military industrial complex to aid in the war effort, players step in and fulfill these non-combat roles.

What can you tell us about your Optasia technology that you have been developing and how it is being utilized in Eschaton.

Optasia is a powerful graphics engine built on top of Direct X that utilizes global illumination maps, pixel shaders, a level of detail system and a specialized fractal terrain engine for planets. Rendering entire procedural solar systems, with planets that players can land on, has not been attempted since the Elite days. Optasia renders entire planets down to a infinite level of detail, allowing players to zoom from space to ground without any faked zoning or transitions. The fact that the whole system uses mathematical equations, fractals, to describe the planets allows for the planets themselves to be small, meaning that we can create a universe with hundreds of thousands of solar systems.

The networking itself will use peer interest groups to separate players by locality, and then use client machines to forward packets to other players using a virtual multi-cast system. Eschaton requires technology this sophisticated to host battles involving several hundred players, without Optasia the true vision of Eschaton could never become reality.

The game is ‘persistent’ so how will this actually work and can you explain more about the offline/online battle simulator you have planned.

Eschaton is playable through a number of different server configurations.

Gnostic Labs will host a matchmaking service tentatively called the Battle Simulator, similar to Battlenet or GameSpy where players can run servers, find servers, and join them. The server software we release will allow players to host individual space battles or start their own persistent worlds. The space battles will be a massive affair due to the nature of the server software, and hundreds of players will be able to play together. Persistent worlds run by players will be another interesting option, and we will release a toolset so players can configure their own scenarios and universes. Eschaton will therefore be a fun standalone game, since the matchmaking service is free to use without a subscription.

Much of the allure of Eschaton however, lies in the persistent world, where thousands of players can participate in an ongoing virtual saga. Gnostic Labs will run high-speed game servers to host this premium service, and it will cost a monthly subscription fee. In the game players will still be able to find and join battles through an in-game matchmaking service, the twist is that each of the battles is part of a larger war and the outcome leaves a mark on the entire universe.

In comparison to most online games that require players to buy a boxed copy of the game and subscribe to a monthly service fee (approximately a 70$ investment to start), Eschaton will not require a monthly fee and will be enjoyable by itself.

Eschaton seems to be quite a mix of different gameplay elements we have seen on other RTS titles so how are you making all these gell together and what has helped influence the team?

The key central element that will combine all the separate gameplay elements is the chain of command, which is much more than a simple interface for giving orders. It provides a means for managing a large scale battle, with players collaborating together on the same team. It is something that cannot be ignored, and is central to combat in the Eschaton.

For example, the supreme commander for a nation focuses on what systems the fleets under his control should attack. He orders one of the fleets under his command to attack an enemy controlled star system. The fleet commander will receive this command and then decide how he will split up the separate battle groups in his control, knowing that there are bases on several of the system’s planets. He orders one of the groups to attack a moon base, and the battle group commander receives this order and displaces his group outside the perimeter of the base. He then gives tactical orders to his destroyers, fleet carriers and fighter squadrons to attack various defenses and enemy vessels. If a player is controlling one of the ships, he will receive the attack order in his HUD, and engage the appropriate unit. Bots fill in for absent players.
For influence, Gnostic Labs turned to the real world to see historically how militaries control vast armadas of soldiers. The answer is through the most human element of warfare, the chain of command. A correctly implemented command chain breaks a confusing battle into a number of smaller decisions for which certain people are accountable for.

I can’t stress enough that the chain of comand is more than just a way of giving another unit an order. It is a complete system that will organize Eschaton battles, keeping the thousands of units involved all perfectly micro-managed. All players participating in a battle will have a direct commander who will give them needed objectives and even advice but can also revoke the control of their ship at any time if they are not obeying orders. The chain of command will create an effective fighting machine, a single cohesive unit of players able to mange an army of thousands of units down to each individual ship.

The project seems ambitious, and should everything go to plan, can you scale the universe up to accommodate an influx of new players without effecting players already involved in the game?
Eschaton will use a galaxy with hundreds of thousands of solar systems, so running out of real-estate should never become a problem. As more players join the game, the nations will simply grow in size or new nations will be created to accommodate the influx. Since Eschaton will start with three large nations in place, each with hundreds of thousands of units, accommodating for more players should not become a problem.

How far down the road are you in the development process with Eschaton and what is you current estimated release date?

The core engine pieces are in place, our coding efforts are now directed towards the interface and networking components of the game. In the art department we have about 10% of the artwork completed.
Our initial gameplay demo is scheduled for the end of this year that will feature individual space battles with two large teams, but will not be ready immediately for public release. Beta testing will begin towards the end of 2003.

We would like to thank Travis and Gnostic Labs for their time which has given us a great insight into Eschaton. Look out more on the game soon and don’t forget to pop by the official website which you can find linked below.

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Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.