Project C is a mysterious sci-fi MMO that wants to mix the large scale persistent world of EVE Online with third-person action combat and a sprinkle of the immersive sim.
At the Game Developers Conference 2018 I got to catch up with a couple of key members of Darewise, the studio behind the title. They've just announced a new partnership with Improbable, the same company whose tech is helping to make Mavericks, the 1000-player battle royale game, technically possible. Improbable's cloud-based SpatialOS platform will supposedly allow for an unprecedented level of simulation, something that's being used to handle large player counts and make tracking enemies more realistic in Mavericks. In Project C, a game so early it doesn't yet have a proper name, those systems will instead bring a little immersive sim spark to the MMO genre. That starts with the world itself and the non-player entities within it.
"We really want it to be meaningful," says Darewise founder and CEO Benjamin Charbit. Charbit is a veteran of Ubisoft, having worked on a laundry list of that publisher's major franchises. "We're talking about an online world that is fully persistent and populated by a bunch of AIs running the gamut of everything from creatures to plants... It's fully autonomous and fully simulated, so we're really trying to create a world that is the character. A world where you get in, you leave it, and then you come back two months later and it'll be absolutely, completely different."
The idea is pretty simple. Improbable's cloud-based systems allow for off-system processing of certain elements of a game, and that links up well with Darewise's ambition for a deeper, more meaningful open online world. The actions of players will impact the world as a whole, with Charbit giving an example of a low-level creature in the game such as bees. The behaviour and location of the bees will be driven by the plant-life in the world, which is also simulated - where plants are, bees will follow. Destroying plant life could allow players to essentially commit bee genocide, while leaving plants unchecked could cause an explosion in population that could cause swarms of dangerous bees that in turn could make areas difficult to traverse.
"We're really trying to create a world that is the character. A world where you get in, you leave it and then you come back two months later and it'll be absolutely, completely different."
"We're still a PVP and PVE game - so there'll be different factions and races fighting each other, and who knows, you might be able to leverage the AI behavior to have a benefit to harm your opponent," Charbit continues. "The bee use case might or might not be in the game, but the point is that both actions could have consequences. That's something we really want to put an emphasis on - as a player you'll see interactions between the AI and the entities, and there'll be some sort of food chain and growth that will take over the world if you do nothing... but you can also use this kind of behaviour to your advantage to leverage your skills, influence your decisions, and change your way of playing.
"The idea in this game is really to say... we're going to give players the chance to make a strategic choice and there is no good or bad answer - but it will just definitely have an impact, good or bad, on the world, and that impact is permanent."
In a sense, the idea smacks of the antics around EVE Online. There is a key difference, however - the most outrageous antics in EVE are driven by its wonderfully mad player-base alone, but in Darewise's designs for Project C there'll also be complex world systems and unique AI behaviours ticking away behind the scenes that will also react to the input of players. The team are aware of the potential for player trolling and abuse, however, and systems will be built into the game to allow them to massage more difficult situations that arise.
"The idea is that we'll only have to play god when bad things happen," Charbit laughs, going on to explain that he hopes his team's experience will help them to get that right. The team includes veterans from the likes of Assassin's Creed, Half-Life, Dishonored, Halo, DOOM, The Division, and Mafia to name a few, and so a large part of the challenge will likely be building systems that can interact and react in an exciting way without breaking the game world. That world, by the way, will be visually designed by Half-Life veteran (and thus City 17 architect) Viktor Antonov.
"We're going to be playing with balancing during alphas and betas a lot, involving players from very early on so that we make sure that once we deliver the game we'll have some sort of balance and equilibrium in the world. That obviously will change over time depending on the player's behavior - and that's again where our puppet-mastering will come into play, since as we deliver new content or new updates we can rebalance the game in the same way many other current game developers do."
"It's not the fake 'living and breathing' that we've been doing... like I've done myself working on Assassin's Creed and such ... It's really going to be very unique in terms of how the experience can be persistent compared to what we've seen in the past."
One major way in which Project C will differ from other MMOs or third-person action games is in its nod to a cult favourite genre - the immersive sim. Darewise again has the chops on board to make this recently troubled genre work, with Thief designer Randy Smith on board as the lead designer. The aim, Smith briefly explains to me, is to inject a little bit of that genre's style of world-building and storytelling into this usually more straightforward type of game. With recent immersive sim titles like Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex Mankind Divided struggling to find a sales audience despite critical plaudits, inserting some of the best of the immersive sim into other genres may well be its best hope.
In Thief, people may have got their kicks from seeing a guard had a routine and mental logic players could predict. Project C wants to implement that sort of mechanic on a much larger scale. It's not actually an immersive sim, Smith tells me, but it's borrowing a great deal from the genre he helped to craft.
"It's not the fake 'living and breathing' that we've been doing... like I've done myself working on Assassin's Creed and such," Charbit explains. "Or, like, think about how when you play World of Warcraft you see these packs of mobs and their behavior is triggered once you get close to them, here it's like... you can just look at them and they live, they grow, they die, they feed, they reproduce, etcetera... so it's really going to be very unique in terms of how the experience can be persistent compared to what we've seen in the past."
It's a depth of systems and AI interaction that hasn't been done in MMOs before thanks to difficulty with technology and implementation, but Darewise think they're now in a position to make it work. Part of that is thanks to the game not being a traditional MMO - that is to say, not an RPG. Instead it's a third-person action game that features different races with unique abilities that'll mesh in interesting ways when players get together. The team want to avoid 'hard classes' that players can't transcend, but they're aiming to create a system where players are rewarded for specialising in a particular thing, where co-operative play will involve different kinds of characters working together to unique effect.
It's ultimately early days for Darewise and Project C, however. Charbit emphasises the deal with Improbable and their technology is currently in an 'experimental' stage, and right now the team aren't yet sure if the game will feature a traditional MMO style server structure or the sort of single shared world featured in the likes of EVE Online.
"The whole philosophy of the project is to give players control of the game. So we're trying to make things that are as open as possible, Charbit concludes. "Then we're really trying to find a way where instead of us authoring everything, we're more creating tools so that players can customize and kind of make their own game."
As with Mavericks, Project C is another deeply intriguing SpatialOS project that talks a very good game - the question now is if the technology can be made to fully support the ideas its team have.