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Seed on the Road

Shannon Drake | 7 Nov 2006 07:03
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Imagine an MMOG with actual roleplaying, where players determine the direction of the game itself, and where human interaction and scheming are far more important than beating fuzzy animals senseless. From the beginning, Runestone's Seed was built around human interaction - the game didn't even have a combat system - and roleplaying was at the forefront, emphasized in an age when roleplay has devolved into "You can play an elf, if you want. Or, you know, an orc."

Rather than the utopian fantasy daydreams or dystopian science fiction nightmares, Seed's story was all too human: A millennia ago, ships carrying carefully chosen DNA that would later birth a colony of people departed Earth in search of new worlds to populate. One ship arrived in the Beta Hyi system and began terraforming a planet within the solar system, but the terraforming went awry. Nonetheless, the ship's computer began hatching colonists. The "seeds" were trapped inside the colony's tower, unable to visit the hostile world outside, and in the meantime, more and more colonists were popping out daily, straining resources. Seed was going to be about classic office and governmental politics as much as it was about being a futuristic space colony simulator. To survive, the colonists would have to band together and determine how to overcome a new world of challenges in both the short and long term.

That was the idea, anyway. Runestone's star burned brightly over the summer of 2006, but a troubled and buggy release (and a lack of external financial backing) laid the company low. On September 28, 2006, Runestone CEO Lars Kroll Kristensen posted a heartfelt farewell to his community. His departing words contained no hint of regret:

I am still fully convinced that a role play-centric game is not only a good idea: It's a great idea. It just needs to be better executed. Seed has many of the right qualities for such a game, and I still firmly believe that, given sufficient funding, we could have created a great game. Unfortunately, we will never know.

The servers went dark, and the lawyers and creditors came in and dissolved the company, leaving the Runestone team to disperse or find work elsewhere. A compelling concept like Seed deserves more of a eulogy than a few scattered web pages and some forgotten fiction. I was able to talk to Lars - the last gunslinger from a world that's moved on - once the men in nice suits finished their grim work.

Lars' background is in roleplaying and artificial intelligence, he says. "I have a master's degree in computer science from the University of Aarhus. My thesis was about swarm intelligence," which is the collective behavior of individuals in self-organized systems like ant colonies, swarms of nanobots and, if one stretches, players in an all-roleplaying MMOG. "Indeed, my main interest in computer science is about artificial intelligence." He's also a lover of roleplaying games, which he's "been playing on and off since high school. I've also been rather active in the Danish roleplaying community, helping [with] arranging conventions and stuff."

When it came time to develop a product, an MMOG was "really a no-brainer, since what we wanted to do was make an innovative roleplaying game, focusing on the social aspects. So a single-player game was out from the get-go." He cited the business model of MMOGs as, "more innovation friendly. With an [MMOG], you need not necessarily go for a mass market product. You can build a nice business around fewer customers, if these customers are paying subscription [fees] directly to you."

Developing the non-combat side of the game required more time, he says. "The non-combat thing took quite a lot more thinking. The thing is that combat takes a lot of focus in a game. Indeed, if you have a combat-based game, the other gameplay (craft, trade, etc.) tends to be about combat. You craft weapons and armor, and trade them. You need to fill the game-world with monsters to fight, and these monsters drop loot as rewards for the players. This loot is typically better weapons and armor. This model, while very entertaining and definitely effective in attracting customers, is also pretty much the model everyone else uses." This created a problem. It meant "that before we could get going on innovating, we would have to do what everyone else does [first], and on top of that, innovate."

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