Citadel of Sorcery is the most ambitious game you’ve never heard of (interview)

Citadel of Sorcery screenshotGame designer Phil Blood has sacrificed eight years and three million dollars to create the massively multiplayer online role-playing game of his dreams.

And Citadel of Sorcery certainly sounds like a dream. It features a classless character progression system and novel-length quests in a game world roughly the size of a planet (900,000,000 sq. kilometers). That world constantly changes; time is always moving forward. Nonplayer characters age and die, towns that burn down stay burned down, and every monster has a purpose beyond being experience fodder. Even the plant life evolves over time.

On paper, Citadel of Sorcery sounds almost too good to be true. It’s a complicated, high-risk project, which is why Blood says video-game publishers are not willing to back it. That’s where Kickstarter comes in. After eight years of development, Citadel of Sorcery is finally nearing alpha, and Blood’s company, MMO Magic, is trying to raise $700,000 on the crowdfunding website to make their dream game a reality.

GamesBeat: Tell me about Citadel of Sorcery.

Phil Blood: Citadel of Sorcery is a game that we felt we’ve been wanting to play for many, many years, and we just couldn’t find it. What’s different about it, really, is that it isn’t the same for every player. We wanted a personal experience so that you have that feeling of going into not just a living world, but one that you weren’t walking through down the same path as every single other player. Each player’s story is unique.

I’m going to use Lord of the Rings as an example because everybody’s either seen the movies or read the books, or both. If Lord of the Rings was a story within our game world, it would be a single quest. The entire thing. And you would be the lead person in this quest. And you would go through that entire story, including all the massive, epic battles — everything. Across all those countries, all those adventures.

In our game, the choices you’re going to make are going to change the story. And then the next person who enters that story will make different choices, and the whole thing will be different. But … we didn’t want stories to be episodic, either. So what we did was we had our writers write these massive, novel-length stories. And then we wrote a programming module that’s just very complex and huge. It analyzes the character that’s going to go through this quest and adapts the story to his personal storyline. So not only can your choices change things that happen during the quest, but the quest is modified to begin with to fit logically into your personal story. So when you as a player go through our story, you won’t be collecting a whole bunch of tasks and have a list of them. You actually don’t have any list. You just begin in the world, and when you go into the world, something will happen. And when that epic quest concludes … the next thing will just flow naturally from that moment to the next. Your story is continuous.

GamesBeat: It sounds like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and its Radiant quest system.

Blood: Yes and no. You’re talking about a role-playing game now, not an MMO. That’s a single-player game, which we’re not. It’s very different in that sense. We have story-reflected worlds, and we have community-reflected worlds. Each of these are an entire planet. They’re not instances of the planet. We call them “reflected worlds” because the geography is the same, but that’s all that’s the same.

For example, you put together a group of up to eight people, and you decide to go on this epic quest. You have this great adventure, and let’s say it involves going to this kingdom where the king has supposedly betrayed the Citadel and you have to go find out if this is true and deal with it. So you go to this kingdom, and in this particular instance, you find out that he’s made a deal with the enemy, and you end up having to assassinate [him]. That’s on this reflected world. Later, if you join somebody else’s group, and they were heading off on this adventure, and they go to another reflected world. … In this particular case, the king hasn’t made a deal with the enemy. Maybe his daughter’s been kidnapped, and he’s being blackmailed. Even though it’s similar, it’s not the same at all. It’s affected by the world itself and what actions are taken by the players. It’s just completely different.

Citadel of Sorcery screenshotGamesBeat: If each quest is the size of an epic role-playing game or The Lord of the Rings, are you at all worried that players will grow bored or burn out playing these very, very long quests?

Blood: No. That’s like saying, “Are people going to burn out after reading a book?” and [thinking] they’re not going to read another book. It’s the equivalent of going to the movies or reading a book. It’s a huge story, although it’s interactive, so it’s not linear. But other than that, it’s the same kind of entertainment value that you’re getting from those.

We offer many levels of gameplay. We don’t expect players to go back-to-back on the epic quests. We have things called League Actions that take about two hours to complete from beginning to end. They’re still really good stories, but they’re not going to have the depth of Lord of the Rings. They’re more like short stories.

But if that’s still too much for you, then we have things we call Adventures. Adventures are [events] happening in the world. Let’s say I’m on a quest, and I’m traveling from one town to another. As I come over the hill, there’s a town I was at yesterday, and it was all fine and great. And today, as I come over the hill, it’s under siege. The enemy has siege weapons out, and they’re attacking the town. You can continue right on by — you don’t have to stop, and that town may fall. Or you can stop and try to help them. It’s not part of your current quest; it’s just something that’s happening in the world.

GamesBeat: You pitched this game to publishers and were shot down. Why were they not willing to touch it?

Blood: The risk level. The risk level of this is just gigantic. Think of how complex what I just said to you sounds. How in the world can you achieve that? Well, publishers aren’t about taking risks. This is why they make clones. I’ve been in the industry for nearly 30 years, and I was lead designer at two different game companies. I sold many games. I’ve pitched way more than that to publishers … and I can tell you exactly what happens. I’ll bring them the game, and what they’ll [say] is, “That sounds really cool, but we want you to make …” and they’ll name some game. They will literally tell you to copy it because that game is successful. And [publishers] don’t want anything that’s not like that because they already know that that’s what people want. They don’t want to take risks. They would rather make less money on a less risky thing than make a killing, possibly, by taking a risk.

[Publishers] mostly are conservative. This isn’t a conservative game. It’s so far beyond a conservative game that it’s in the extreme high-risk category. I know this. When I went to the chief executive officer of the publisher I was working for as their lead designer and pitched a similar game to this … they just told me that it would take 10 years of development of technology and design to achieve. “We cannot possibly take a 10-year risk on making that. Even if it sounds like the best game we’ve ever heard of.”

I can tell you after eight years of working on this now they were right. It’s been eight years! It’s been a very long path to get this thing even nearing alpha now. But it was one that we decided to take. We feel that there’s very little competition for our game out there simply because there’s such a difficult path to making it. You have to be able to fund such a long development cycle. Most companies either wouldn’t do it or the people who would do it — some indie developers — are not big enough to take on a triple-A title of this magnitude.