Population Zero Interview and Giveaway – A Russian Developer’s Quest to Merge MMO and Survival Genres
Survival games aren't the most trending genre anymore after the explosion of Battle Royale and its variants. Nevertheless, they are still very popular, though nowadays developers try to implement considerable twists on the base survival formula that originally worked so well.
Enplex Games, for example, is a Moscow-based studio currently working on a sci-fi survival/MMO hybrid game titled Population Zero. The premise is fairly familiar to any sci-fi fan, as players will find themselves stranded on an unknown alien planet called Kepler, but Enplex Games is planning quite a few distinctive features to make it unique.
With the game now in Alpha testing and scheduled to launch in late 2019 on PC, we talked with PR Specialist Dmitry Muratov to learn everything about the studio and its debut project, Population Zero. We've also got twenty Alpha codes to give away - just enter the Gleam form below as usual and stay tuned for the winners.
Tell us about your own studio, Enplex Games.
Sure! The studio was founded back in 2016. Well, it's closer to 2017. Back then, it was a small five people team who started prototyping the game. And they decided to go with the survival MMO genre since everybody on the team, as well as our co-founders, they really enjoyed playing games like that
Not the well popular (even back then) Battle Royale genre, or any kind of regular MMO, but rather somewhat of a fusion of MMO and survival games. And since we're all adults here, we enjoy 70s sci-fi literature immensely. So we decided to base the game in a sci-fi universe based on lamb, Asimov and garrison and many other literary geniuses. Those were set as a baseline for our future art and lore development.
We also enjoyed Subnautica and love the game called Firewatch. I'm quite sure you know both of those. Those were our biggest inspirations in the art direction since we didn't want to make it look cartoonish, but we wanted to be more of the realistic, pseudo-realistic kind of art, right? So with a team of six people, we made first prototypes. And we secured an investor, which is pretty hard in Russia, because the industry here is all about big corporations like Mail.ru, Wargaming, etc. Those are the biggest players around and independent studios rarely do anything, because there is too little understanding of what the industry is about, of where the money actually is. And so most people usually decide to stay away from gaming projects. We were lucky enough to find an independent investor who believed in us. And with that, we started growing. And right now we're based in the very heart of Moscow, and the studio right now I think it's 55 people strong. And we're still growing. We were looking for developers even now. And we've been working on the game for the last two years.
Which games did your developers work on before?
Absolutely. As a studio, we haven't shipped any game yet. This is our debut project, right? But we have people from all over the industry who worked on games like Allods Online, Skyforge, Hearthstone, Heroes of Might and Magic Five, the Blitzkrieg series, World of Tanks, World of Warships, Forsaken World and others.
So some of them are very experienced, some of them not as much, but that's because some developers only worked on mobile titles before. And they left their corporations just to build the game of their dreams because working in a corporation always pays well, but the work is dull to many of who gathered here.
Is it easy for you to find new developers in Moscow?
It's not very hard to find developers in Russia, but they are almost never based in Moscow. And so we had quite a lot of people move from different regions. Russia is, well, pretty huge. And so we have lots and lots of people, and we have an outsource art department, as well as the in-house art department and the outsource department is in another city. So it's like we have a studio and the small outsource studio for art.
So yeah, we have to gather talents from all over the country. And we always have the expertise of our colleagues in other big studios who developed games. I'm not allowed to name any Western big studios, but like the guys from World of Tanks, Wargaming. They helped us quite a lot lately with their professional opinions.
Of course, Population Zero is going to be, as you said, a mix between a survival and MMO game. But there is a certain stigma among MMO fans that survival games don't really belong in the category due to their limited number of concurrent players (usually, only 60 or so) in any given server. Will Population Zero be a full MMO with larger servers?
Yes, absolutely. I just showed you, when I did this little tour around the office, I showed you the server guys, they are working there day and night to make it possible. We're building a server based on the same language Unity is built on, but we're building it all from the ground up. And we're very close to finishing the teleportation system, which will allow seamless transition from one location to another, as well as other systems that will help us with having hundreds of people on each server. And we hold like, weekly, or biweekly tests to be able to understand the density of the servers right now. And to be able to, you know, build on the testers feedback to understand where we should move to build the bigger and better servers. But I'm sure we're near the goal of having the promised amount of people on each and every server; right now we can already allow more than 100 people if I recall correctly.
How big is your world going to be at launch?
There will be four biomes. The first one is Savannah, shown off in almost every media material we've published so far, in every trailer and developers diary. And almost every screenshot. But the next biome we're currently working on will be finished very soon, I can't name what it is going to be but it is going to be all green, it's going to have many trees.
So then we'll move on to the next one, and then the last one, and we blend the four of them to come out with the release of the game. And we'll add upon the foundation in the future updates after the launch. So the game is going to have 25 square kilometers at the very beginning. But those are not like a single layer, we're going to have a lot of exploration above the ground as well as below. There's a huge cave system in one of the biome. So the whole thing will be like three times that 25 square kilometers if you consider all the layers of the world.
Right, so you'll have a lot of verticality in Population Zero's world design.
Absolutely. And verticality is something that hasn't been done much in the survival genre, while it has been done in MMOs. That's one of the points we would take pride in, we're building a survival game where you can have a house built well above the ground, among the trees, as well as a house below it.
Some of the survival/sandbox online games give players the ability to terraform the environment, will that be possible in Population Zero?
Digging in a way Minecraft does it is not our way, but we're going to have as I said before a huge cave system. Inside it, you'll have a lot of different resources. And you will also be able to build in there. But basically, the whole process of terraforming as you know it in Minecraft is not there. What we allow people is to build almost anywhere on the terrain, below the ground or above the ground or right, like on the first biome in Savannah, on the plateau that we have.
And of course, other players could damage your bases in Population Zero, correct?
They could, but there is this saying, creation takes a lot of work and effort while destruction doesn't. The thing is, we want buildings to be sturdy enough to withhold a lot of pressure from other players and we're going to put a system in place which will allow a homeowner to defend his house and to know beforehand if somebody decided to put an eye on his property, right? So they're going to know beforehand that somebody's going to attack.
Okay, so they've got to get like notified in a way. It would be cool if there was any way to get this notification when you're not in the game, too.
We're actually thinking about doing some kind of SMS notification, right? Or you know, if you have like WhatsApp or whatever people use nowadays.
You've said Population Zero will have full loot, right?
I was wondering, though, if there is any way to ensure your equipment or properties before 'accidents' like getting ganked happen.
What we've been hearing so far from the Western audience is that they that not everybody enjoys full loot PvP. Some people said, this is hardcore, and I love that. But others say, well, I'd love to have some kind of role play or PvE server. And we've been gathering all that feedback. And we've been talking inside the studio that if the outcry of you know, people wanting a PvE server is too high, we would actually consider putting something like that in our plans. As to your question. We have a few systems in place, being there tested internally right now, which allow people to actually save some of the stuff they gathered even if they die. That's like the best I can do right now in terms of answering that question. But when you die in a survival game, usually, well, survival games are all about looting, right? And the character doesn't really mean anything most of the time. But in Population Zero, we're going to have a perk system and a tech tree. Both of those make your character different from others, right? It all depends on what parts you install on your character and where you move on that tech tree, which looks a little similar to Civilization games. And when you die, you're not losing the progress that you've made so far with both your tech tree and your perk tree. Right. So that's something you save as well, even if you die.
Can you disclose the survival elements featured in Population Zero compared to other games in the genre? I mean, for instance, how often will you have to eat?
it all comes down to balance. The bigger the world gets the lesser, you're going to need to eat and drink food, obviously. And our testers are always giving us feedback on what they think about the current survival tools that they have, like, they've talked a lot about having to eat and drink too often lately. And so we decided to rework this system. Thankfully, early testing allows us to test a lot of this stuff before we actually roll it out on the closed beta. And so we've worked quite a few mechanics that work well with survivalism, you can have toxicity level as well as the starvation meter. You will also have to watch out for mutation as there is a mutation mechanic in place, you will have to work hard if you don't want to turn into something different entirely in terms of human and nonhuman organism. So there will be quite a few mechanics that survival games actually do nowadays. But in terms of starvation, hungriness, and, you know, drinking water, it's all about balancing and we don't want players to feel pressured at all times with these things. We want them to evolve during their game so that the matter of eating and drinking becomes less of a problem for them and new challenges arise, like getting through a canyon full of toxic materials to get to the crash sites to get the more they the journals of the sheep. That's one of the quests in the game, by the way.
I've also read your character may even freeze or overheat...
Yes, those are pretty much basic mechanics in every survival game, we don't want to exclude them because in real life, you can actually overheat and freeze. Well, it's easier to die freezing rather than overheating, but those mechanics don't just kill you in Population Zero, they hinder your character's movement, they make your life harder and not in the harshest of ways, I think.
I was wondering if the game's dynamic weather impacts the survival mechanics in a meaningful way.
Well, once again, it's all about balance. Right now, I don't think so. I didn't feel like that affected me much in terms of getting cold. But you know, crafting a bonfire helps quite a lot during the night. And those mechanics are not there to hinder your progress, rather make you feel like you're actually on an alien planet. Like the things around you can sting you, bite you. They're poisonous, they're deadly, they sometimes hunt back. It's all about those kinds of interactions.
As your character gets better over time in Population Zero, can you enhance your armor and equipment to make it easier to survive on this harsh planet?
Absolutely, absolutely. We have different armor tiers with different stats protecting you from different types of damages. And depending on how long you've played, you will actually move through the tech tree to find resources and new ways of crafting a better armor set perhaps. And that armor will protect you from both overheating, freezing and from monster teeth or other players.
Since it's a sci-fi game I have to ask, is there any chance to see something like a jetpack in Population Zero?
We don't want to have a jetpack because that has become too popular lately, without naming any projects. Jetpacks are perhaps too trendy now. But we want to have means of traveling across the map other than your own two feet. But at the moment we have in development plans, transportation methods, and I'm not sure we're going to show those off until the very release window.
Okay. And did you talk about maybe having mounted combat in Population Zero?
We've actually talked about it a lot as mounted combat is not something survival games have done before. And so we're thinking that since we have more than one faction, we're thinking of giving them different ways of transportation, as well as different weaponry, and so mounted combat might come later in the development cycle, if we have all the other priorities straight by then, because we want to develop first of all a smooth experience. And for that, we need to fix a heck of a lot of bugs and a lot of stability issues, server issues, etc. And after that, it will come to a point where we can start realizing all the features we're planning. Our game designers have documents on both mounts and mounted combat and a lot of different types of gameplay features we want to add, but it really all comes to us being able to first deliver the base, right? If we don't have those but we have mounted combat, who would care about that? So it's a little bit too early to truly talk about that stuff. But we're very, very eager to start delivering, delivering on more features a little bit later in time.
What can you tell me about dungeons? Can we expect something like that?
We're actually going to have something like a dungeon from the very release of the game with boss monsters. I air quote the word dungeon right now because like we're used to Korean type of instances, but ours won't be instanced. You might meet other players while you're going inside a dungeon because they might be there to hunt the same rare creature you are and that might lead to a conflict of sorts.
Will there be any dynamic events in Population Zero, as in other MMOs?
We're actually thinking about having some kind of dynamic encounters. But we also keep in mind that when the world is populated by players, they are what makes the world a one big, you know, dynamic environment. Because when they meet each other, and this game has a kind of a PvP mode, which is always enabled, they know that their interactions come down to a Hey, I'm not a player killer, maybe we could trade or in other instances, if they belong to different factions, they might not even think twice before they attack another player. And that brings a lot of, you know, 'interactive events' to the whole exploration process for each and every player out there.
Is there going to be the chance to specialize your player character to be a support player, to heal and/or buff your teammates?
Oh, we don't plan a class system. But people will be able to specialize in different kinds of support types or attack types. And by that I mean, it all depends on the perks they use. Some perks are good for fighting some perks are good for specific ways of fighting, while other perks will be more about exploration and gathering. And some perks will give you a lot of carry weight and health so that you can get from one point to another with tons of loot without dying to any kind of creature out there. So in terms of battle support, I don't think that's really necessary for us to have such a thing because once again we don't have classes. We have freedom of choice. When you make your character you can make it whatever you want it to be and we also are going to have a mutation system, which I've mentioned before and that will allow you to turn into something else entirely. You won't even be a human anymore if you follow the road of mutations. So basically to join a different faction you're accepting a different way of living. You're turning into a different creature altogether. And everything you do will be different, things you build the things you craft all of that will differ when we're ready to roll out this feature. Basically, that will also separate you as maybe we could call that a class.
Personally, I've always been a big fan of melee combat and I'm wondering if it's viable in Population Zero.
This is actually a funny story. Our co-founders, they are adults in a way that they can't play Counter-Strike competitively anymore like the younger generations who have good reflexes. Our co-founders basically thought that they wanted to make a game where every play style was viable to some point like if a person wanted to use a ranged weapon he could, but it would never be the absolute best choice in the game. The shooting mechanics won't be the only way to do PvE or PvP, that's for sure. The reaction times are no longer there for many of us, and we want to be able to be competitive with those who can actually shoot well. And so we come to the melee battle system. We're working on a system where blocks, dodges slides and all that kind of stuff is actually turning your experience into tactic melee combat, possibly a little bit similar to the Dark Souls games. So we want to have a combat system similar to the feeling you get when you play Dark Souls, where blocking is a necessary mechanic, where melee strikes can be really hard or they can be really fast.
So yep, that's one of our biggest priorities in combat, to have melee weapons balanced with long-range weapons.
Another thing I wanted to ask is, I know that in Russia PC is the dominant platform by far. But you know, in the West consoles are popular as well. Have you talked about porting the game on these platforms?
The thing is, we've been following a lot of independent studios for a long time. And we've seen the success that has come to games like worth way more Path of Exile. What I'm trying to say is they first launched a well-polished product on one platform. And then they went out to conquer other platforms, right. And that's actually what we're aiming for. We don't want to have a half-assed experience for PC gamers and move on to porting the game to ps4 and Xbox One or whatever console we have by the end of 2019, we want to have a well-polished experience for those who use PC. And as soon as we're sure that the game is, well, all polished and done, and it has no technical issues whatsoever, we will move forward to other platforms.
What about having controller support on the PC platform?
Many people have asked us that, and we're actually thinking of adding something of that sorts to development plans. But I'm not sure that shooting mechanics and the controller would work well together. So I can't say much about that at this point in time.
Are there going to be any community servers for Population Zero or just official servers?
Only officially servers. At least, the plan right now is to only have servers controlled by the developer, we want to make sure there are as well as few cheaters as possible. And we want to make sure that people enjoy the game on the same rule set everybody else does. Like there are no skips to know what-what what's in. Since we have like a quest line in place, we don't want people to be able to do it in like 10 minutes because they gave themselves some kind of a fly mode and all the necessary resources to do it, and then spoil the whole process of completing the quests for everyone else. We want all the players to live out the story of the world of the ancient civilization that has been possibly there before them, while they thought that they were colonizing planets with just wildlife in it. We want to have the servers under developer control. The second reason is having hundreds of players on each server, that we're actually building a game so that there are hundreds of players and the game doesn't feel overcrowded or as well as it doesn't feel empty. So if a person wanted his own server, he would have to pay a massive fee to have that kind of scale. And that actually hinders the experience. I hate the word experience lately, but that's the best way to put it right now.
I'd like to know if you are planning to release the game on Steam, the Epic Games Store or both? There's this war brewing up among digital stores on PC, I'm sure you've read about it.
Yeah. We're following this war very closely, particularly after the release of an amazing game, Metro Exodus, and the scandal surrounding the developers who worked really hard for the past few years.
When we look at all that's happening around the platforms, Steam and the Epic Games Store, and when we see how developers get under fire, even though they didn't really deserve it, we're actually thinking of making our own launcher. I know we're going to miss millions of potential players if we're not going to be there, that's for sure. But right now, we're actually considering doing our own launcher, and maybe later in time joining whichever platform is there by the time we're ready, whichever platform is the best, both commercially and audience-wise. But doing it right now, choosing sides right now is ethically wrong for both players and other developers. At least that's how we feel.
Yeah. And I understand, of course, as you said, there are also drawbacks because you won't have that kind of visibility. But let's say, hypothetically, tomorrow you got a call from Epic and they want to fund your development of Population Zero in exchange for it being an exclusive on the Epic Game Store. What would you do?
Not considering such an offer would not be wise. But it will almost always depend - we're putting a hell of a lot of pressure on our investor. We, like our founders, like the people who bought our founder's packs, they are the people who support us, and they support the development, but our investor, as of right, now, he takes the most risk. And if such an offer ever arrives, we will be put in the position where we will have a to choose between, you know, our investor as a person who takes the risk, and our ethics. And when that time comes, if such a time ever comes, I have no idea what the decision will be. But it will definitely be the one that helps sustain the studio, the 55 people working here, as well as putting less strain on the person who believed in us, our investor.
Choosing between a studio's survival and its closure is no choice at all, so we'd do it even if that meant picking a platform earlier than we even wanted to.
Yeah, that obviously makes sense. Do you have anything left to add?
Whenever I have anything to add, it's usually all about the team and the fact that we as everybody in the gaming industry, we work really hard to bring this game to, to our community and to people who might enjoy it around the world and doing that means making sacrifices, even with family time.
What I'm trying to say is, working hard for us is the only option to deliver on all of our promises we've made to the community, and we're making even as we speak right now. I hope that we never ever get lost along the way. It's like the best thing we could do in the Russian industry, and we're trying our best.
Thank you for your time, it was a great chat.