Guns of Icarus Online

Independent developer Muse Games, maker of the upcoming multiplayer airship combat game Guns of Icarus Online, has one simple goal.

“We [want to] make the most co-op game that you could ever imagine,” said one-man public-relations firm VGSmart’s Joe Lieberman (not that one) in an interview. I met with Lieberman and Muse chief Howard Tsao at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) gaming convention in Seattle last week, where they were showing off the fiery steampunk fest to press.

Guns of Icarus Online is the follow-up to the 2010 onrails shooter Guns of Icarus. In the original game, players manned a gunship on the eponymous Icarus zeppelin, taking down enemy craft and repairing the ship as needed. Online expands on that premise by letting teams of four players run the entire ship.

“The vision that we had was, wouldn’t it be so cool to fly the airship?” said Lieberman. “Wouldn’t it be so cool to have lots of people on the ship — multiple people manning different guns and doing different things — and all this chaos going on and set [up] a team where you work together?”

“There’s also a third component,” said Tsao, “which is repair. We introduced a time management mechanic to the engineering in the game, which is essentially fixing the ship and keeping the ship afloat. So in-game, the three classes pretty much have to work together. Someone has to keep the ship afloat and shoot, and somebody has to drive the ship and tell the crew what to do.”

Guns of Icarus Online will support up to 32 players per match (four players per ship and a maximum of eight ships), and you can choose from three classes: Captain, Engineer, and Gunner. The Captain flies the ship and coordinates the crew, the Gunner tries to take out enemy vessels, and the Engineer runs around and repairs the ship as it takes damage.

Guns of Icarus Online

This is where the “most co-op game ever” idea really comes into play. Every class can perform the same tasks — the Captain can hop on a gun if he really needs to — but everyone has a specific job to do, and success depends on performing it well. Other co-op games, like Valve’s Team Fortress 2, give their character types specific strengths and weaknesses to promote coordination and strategy, but your entire team can go rogue and still win. In Guns of Icarus Online, however, loose cannons (both literal and metaphorical) will cost you the match.

For example, in the first round I played at PAX, my ship’s Captain allowed an enemy to get directly behind us. We didn’t have any guns back there, so our foe made pretty short work of us. My second Captain (who spoke like a pirate for reasons unknown to anyone) was way better at positioning the ship and issuing orders, so I always had plenty of clear shots at other ships. Guess which round my team won?

The game’s chat functionality is also specialized. It has two chat channels: One is for crew chat, and the other is for Captains only. The Captain channel allows ship commanders to strategize among themselves without crowding out intracrew chatter. The upshot is that Engineers and Gunners never see the big picture unless their Captains keep them posted. The lack of information creates a “theirs but to do and die” vibe that really makes you feel your role and forces the other classes to trust their Captains to make sound tactical decisions.

“The Captain is the most limited in terms of flexibility,” said Lieberman, “because really the most important thing is making sure your ship’s in the right position. You have to know your ship’s strengths and weaknesses, know your enemies’ weaknesses, and try to angle yourself and work together with your teammates to make sure one guy’s being covered by another.”

Guns of Icarus Online’s airships promote cooperation through psychological means. When you look at them, you realize that they’re really just platforms with nothing holding them up but flimsy balloons (and yes, enemies can take out your balloons and send you drifting uselessly to the ground). The hulls have no protective walls; you’re sailing through the air with nothing between you and gravity but a few boards and a railing while your enemies’ artillery explodes around you.

This open layout makes the entire situation feel ridiculous and unsafe. Imagine it: You’re trapped on a giant plank of wood with three other players, and all around you are people whose sole function is to blast you out of the sky. It’s insane. Even if you don’t like your teammates, you’ll find a way to work together. It’s really in your own best interests. If one person is not doing his job, the team will lose. It’s as simple as that.

Guns of Icarus Online is currently in closed beta. It will launch for PC and Mac on Valve’s digital-distribution platform Steam on Sept. 30.