Firefly Online: you've never heard of it, you've never heard of the people who are making it, and it's an MMO. I can feel your eyes rolling from here. But bear with me kids, because this really sounds shiny.
Last week I had a chat with Andy Gore, CEO of Quantum Mechanix Interactive, publisher of Firefly Online. One of the first things I asked was why on Earth he isn't sending out press releases every five minutes. It's clear from how friendly and open Gore was that he's not averse to speaking to games press, but his team doesn't seem interested in the usual marketing and public relations strategies of drip-feeding snippets of information to the core press. Instead, QMXi has been in constant communication with the people it's making the game for - people who want to play a Firefly MMO, a group I feel fairly comfortable assuming Gore and the team at Spark Plug Games are part of.
"A lot of what we're doing right now is about communicating to that base," Gore said. He described the process as "peeling the onion slowly", and said the strategy is "working really well for us in terms of our pickup".
Normally when a company produces a licensed game they trot out one of two tired platitudes: that it's making a game for the fans first, or that it's making a good game first and worrying about the fans later. Occasionally, someone says they're going to do both.
Not Gore. QMXi isn't making the game for hardcore gamers, and it's not making a game for hardcore Firefly fans. It's making something new, with neither demographic in mind, and hoping that it all works out.
"You have to be true to your universe. We're working very very hard," Gore said.
The result is something that eschews the trappings of traditional MMOs - and perhaps their inaccessibility, as many MMOs come with a bundle of assumptions about their players, which can put newcomers off.
Usually, "MMO means something specific," Gore said, commenting that the acronym shapes expectations. But running around killing things while juggling cooldown timers is "not the principal mechanic of the game" in Firefly Online.
Although the game world will support massive multiplayer, and players will be able to co-operate in various ways, Firefly Online is "not a traditional MMO at all", Gore said, just as Firefly wasn't a traditional sci-fi show.
One of the things about Firefly that made it really different from other shows, Gore said, is that it wasn't about superheroes or espionage experts or any other power fantasy.
"Firefly was a show that was decidedly not about that," he said. "The central character is a normal guy."
Captain Mal is a great character, but Firefly had an awesome ensemble cast, and the heart of the show was the way Mal led them as a group, making the most of their skills and abilities, Gore said.
As such, Firefly Online isn't about you being the hero - it's you as the leader, assembling a crew of if not heroes then people whose varying attributes make them into something special. Really good players aren't those with the best gear and the most strategic hotbars; it's those who've gathered the right people for the job they want to do.
You won't be able to recruit Zoe, Jayne or Inara - QMXi is keen never to break the show's logic, and you running off with Mal's crew seems quite unlikely - but you might just run into them, somewhere in the Verse.
So let me tell you how this works, because it sounds really cool. You are the captain of a ship - initially quite a modest one, like Serenity. You need people to crew it, and the Verse (which, by the way, QMXi produced the official, fully explorable 3D map for; there are over 200 worlds) is filled with people. You go out and find them.
The thing is, these crew members aren't like SWTOR's companions, limited to certain paths and identical for every player. QMXi describes them as "autonomous"; they have their own existences. When you take on a crew member, they're yours. And when you let them go, they go back in the pool, where anybody can hire them, complete with all the experience they gained in your employ.
Plus, the grudges; crew members have their own personalities and dispositions, and your relationship with them is measured by loyalty, not alignment. It's quite possible you can piss them off enough that they storm out. If your disgruntled ex-crew are picked up by other players, said players may be offered the chance to chase you down and punish you to satisfy their new crew member's grudge.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to recruit Zoe, Jayne or Inara - QMXi is keen never to break the show's logic, and you running off with Mal's crew seems quite unlikely - but you might just run into them, somewhere in the Verse.
"Players do stand a reasonable good chance of encountering characters from the show," Gore said.
Crew members have different skills and abilities, called Savvies. Gore gave me a couple of examples: a crew member with the engineering Savvy will reduce the rate at which your ship deteriorates, meaning you can spend more time cruising around before you need to stop for maintenance (there's no fuel system). Another Savvy lets you break down weapons into components and put them back together as different, hopefully better ones, for use or trade. Additionally, different archetypes offer different options during missions. A preacher or diplomat could give you different dialogue options, say - assuming they like you well enough.
You'll want to pick your crew carefully, then, and try to find shipmates whose interests align with your own, because Firefly offers many different ways to play. Gore said he wants to satisfy even the most casual of players who just want to fly around in space listening to tunes, maybe explore a few planets, as well as those whose ambition it is to be the best trader or mercenary in the Verse.
You'll notice I said "or" not "and", and that was quite deliberate. Speaking with Gore, I got the impression that players won't be able to pursue every avenue. In addition to monitoring your relationship with your crew, you'll need to keep on eye on your reputation with various factions. If you do a lot of trading, the trading guilds will offer you better jobs, but you'll have no inroad with the criminal underworld should you need its services.
"You cannot make friends without enemies," Gore said.
What this means is that there's no right way to play the game. The basic premise is fit out your ship with crew (it's fully explorable, by the way, and customisable); take a job; complete the job; rinse and repeat. The complications arise in the shifting dance of crew loyalty and faction reputation, but you can manage that however you want.
An example Gore gave is carving out a niche as a weapons trader. You'd spend your time flying around and finding hostile forces on planets, defeating them, then looting them for their weapons; whatever they were using to fight you will fall out of their hands, which is a far cry from the gold ring-dropping beetles of most MMOs. You'd then tinker with these weapons to make them as valuable as possible and sell them on. A crew of warriors and weapon smiths would be essential, and you'd want good relations with mercenaries and traders.
But that's just one way to play, of many; what Gore wanted to emphasise, I think, is that there's no "big bad hero's path where you kiss everyone off". What there is is a path where you never have to fire a gun.
"A lot of the show is about being smarter than that," Gore noted.
That makes Firefly Online something quite different from the generic hastily-skinned MMO you, in your cynical core gamer heart, were probably expecting. Firefly Online is not World of Warcraft, or even Star Trek Online. Maybe it's a little bit more like EVE Online, Elite or Star Citizen - but wrapped up in an enduringly popular fictional universe that shapes how its developer approaches design.
"Over the course of 14 episodes Joss Whedon did some of the best world building thats ever been done on television," Gore added.
"We looked at all those games but they're not right for this."
Firefly Online is about "getting everybody to play nice with each other", Gore added, and "having it never work out the way I planned". It's about finding "better and better ships, and stuff in my ship". It's about letting you do what Mal and his crew wanted to do, in a Verse filled with complicated politics and conflicting interests: keep flying.