Nords: Interview with Tomer Shabtay, Head of Web Unit
We appreciate you folks taking out some time in your schedule to answer our questions, no doubt you’re busy with the new release of Nords and the browser version finally going live. First of all, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Tomer Shabtay and I am the Head of the Web Unit at Plarium and have more than 8 years of experience in marketing. The web unit’s main responsibilities are to advertise Plarium's games worldwide on browser through diverse channels, alongside providing and enriching players' experience on our portal.
So, for those who don’t know about the game, can you give us a brief overview of what it’s about?
Nords: Heroes of the North is a midcore MMO fantasy strategy game focused on deep balance, large scale PvP, PvE and clan gameplay. The setting takes a fun spin on familiar Norse mythology and fantasy clichés. Players start by choosing from one of three factions – Elves, Northmen (humans) and Orcs – and must join forces to defeat the evil Ice Queen and her army of the undead. After choosing their factions, players will get to build their bases and armies and send them out to attack or ally with other players and NPC’s from the Ice Queen’s army. That’s the short version, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
What has been the reception so far to the game, any major problems you’ve had to face?
The reception has been great so far, but we’ve had a few challenges. With all the extra animations, sounds and graphics, this game is much more content-heavy than our prior titles, so we had to do a lot of extra work behind-the-scenes to make sure none of this had a negative impact on performance. We also went through several different versions of the background artwork and interfaces before we struck the right balance between aesthetics and ease of use. We also had to think of a way to make this game really stand out from Stormfall – we didn’t want it to be just another fantasy game. The humor, characters, and skewed approach to fantasy conventions all make this game a truly unique experience.
Anyone who has played other Plarium games will most definitely find the gameplay and features extremely familiar, with the games you develop there’s not always that much of a difference between the core mechanics, Nords included. Why do you stick so heavily to the same kind of gameplay and don’t you worry that it may be a little boring for players coming from one of your other titles having a near identical progression experience?
The short answer is that the core features and balance really seem to be something people enjoy, and maintaining this many titles with one team is easier if we keep a certain level of compatibility – but also these features are changing all the time. What you’re seeing within each game are rolling new features, content and gameplay updates constantly being implemented (usually to new games), and then retroactively upgraded across all of our titles and their Facebook and mobile counterparts.
When we first launched Stormfall, for example, there were no Leagues, no League Maps, no tournaments, no item collection, no global events, no daily challenges, and so on - but you don’t see that evolution because we apply these updates horizontally across all our titles once we see them work in one game. If we made traditional “box and ship” AAA titles, we’d be on Stormfall IV, Total Domination VII, and Soldiers Inc. III by now, but since all the games are synched, you don’t see any feature contrast when you look at them – which is more or less what we were going for.
With Nords, for the first time, we’ve added a comprehensive new set of RPG elements including multiple factions, customizable characters, as well as the ability to craft and collect weapons and equipment that will have a big impact on gameplay compared to our other titles. But the biggest difference with this release is definitely the battle animations. Now you can see your units in battle like in other RTS or RPG games, as opposed to battle logs that we used to employ.
If we see all of these new battle animations and RPG features become a hit in Nords, it’s a good bet that you’ll see them in our older games in the next few months for our other players – and a first time player of those games will assume that that’s the way they’ve always been. We like our long-time fans to have the option to stay wherever they’re happy, without fear of missing out on any new innovations.
As much as Nords might be the same as some of the other games it is very clear that it stands head and shoulders above the rest of your titles, it has AAA browser title written all over it as far as production quality goes. Why did you guys decide to go all out for this title?
We didn’t go into Nords thinking ‘this will be the game we go all out on’. All of our games excite us because we make games we want to play. It was more a result of our commitment to making each game with higher production quality, better features, and superior player engagement than the previous game before it.
With each game we also gain experience in doing more in less time, so we can add more polish, content, artwork, and time in production vs. development. For us, it was the right time to add these new elements you’ll see in the game and we plan to continue to do so for each of our main titles moving forward.
You’ve pulled in some famous faces (or voices) for the game, obviously Patrick Warburton (Family Guy’s Joe Swanson, Seinfeld, Men In Black II) as the voice of King Björn being the most notable; what was it like bringing in a higher profile celebrity to work on the game?
It was inspiring for our team to see someone of Patrick’s experience bring one of our characters to life, and moreover to see him have as much fun with it as he did. Patrick knew exactly what he was doing, immediately nailed Björn, and really went above and beyond in putting his personality into the character. We’d written King Björn specifically with him in mind, and from the moment he stepped into the studio, we knew we’d made the right call.
After the first session, he ad-libbed for about 30 minutes after we ran out of script text. We had to cut the session short, or risk pulling a muscle from laughing. We got tired of reading our own jokes about 2-3 months after writing them, but the fact that we still chuckle when we play back that session footage really gives us confidence that the humor is going to click with our audience. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled that off. The name recognition is obviously a big factor, but at the end of the day it’s the talent that matters. He didn’t disappoint.
So in what ways do you think the game greatly differs from other browser RTS games, both your own and other titles?
We go into the development of each new Browser and Facebook game with a console-level quality mindset, meaning high production values. As you’ve probably noticed, Plarium places a lot of emphasis on sound, visuals and narratives. We don’t want Nords to be a game you play with some free time on your hands, we want players to feel invested in this world that we created for them and to be a game they can’t go a day without wanting to play. That’s why we tap into so many resources to make this happen – including Jesper Kyd for our soundtracks and now high-level voice acting to push our narratives to new heights. Many browser and Facebook games out there create an illusion of a narrative to tie everything together – that’s not how we look at it.
What sort of late game activities can players hope to get into, with both PVE and PVP?
Veteran players can look forward to a whole range of new features, starting with new playable Champions, in-game factions, and unit lines mapped out through this fall, and some big improvements coming to both PVE and PVP Tournament events. We’re also working on ways to give players and clans more control over their location on the map, and new gameplay strategies that take advantage of those capabilities.
How closely do you work with your community in regards to making changes, as many of the main features are part of Plarium’s winning formula do you adopt a more “if it ain’t broke then don’t try and fix it” policy with your core gameplay?
We do a lot of live feature testing within certain game servers when deciding if a new element is something we want to adopt for the larger community, and the players are a big part of that. If it doesn’t work, or causes problems in places we didn’t anticipate, we really depend on them to help us identify those issues.
Ultimately, we decide what goes in and what stays out, but we also have a large community of moderators and senior players that we’ve learned to listen to over the years, and we’ll run some of our ideas past them before diving in. For really big changes, such as modifications on existing mechanics, we’ll sometimes do surveys and Q&A sessions to test the waters before making the change.
You’ve just announced the Global Tournaments, can you give us some more information as to how these work and how it will benefit players to get involved?
Global Tournaments let players compete across a huge range of different recurring competitions, either individually or with their clan. Every challenge comes with its own ranking system and graduated prizes, and allows players to either go solo, cooperate, or compete to win them. Tournament objectives range from PvP resource raiding against other players to Battleground Carnage events, taking out rival Clan Obelisks, achieving development goals, and more. Getting involved is as easy as clicking “accept”, and also the easiest way to earn advanced units, items, XP, and game currency.
As the game seems to be a bit more of a budget buster in comparison to the other games, can we expect a lot more time and attention on this title in comparison to the others? What future content are you guys thinking about for the game?
We’ve definitely brought a new level of resources to the table for this project - and you haven’t seen the half of it yet. One thing we’ve always wanted to put in our games is more visual, visceral storytelling - because text, voiceovers, and artwork can only go so far.
We’ve got a series of animated 2D and 3D cartoons in the works that will tell more of the world’s backstory, flesh out the major characters, and set the stage for upcoming game features. We also have another three or four fully-voiced characters we’d like to introduce in future Saga Quests, and already have around ten new animated units in production. It’s possible these will be introduced first into the Facebook version of the game, as well as our upcoming mobile release, and then make their way onto Browser shortly after.
Once again we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and we wish you continued luck with the game, it’s definitely a solid looking MMO and we can’t imagine it being anything but a huge hit.