Developer Donkey Crew is braving new ground with nomadic survival MMO Last Oasis
To see how Donkey Crew is pulling off such a novel concept, we interviewed Project Lead Florian "Chadz" Hofreither. In our discussion, he explains how they came up with the nomadic survival MMO concept, delves into how they're creating an in-game economy that facilitates organic bartering amongst the community, and discusses how they came up with such a unique setting by both looking at the past and the future.
Hofreither also explains how Donkey Crew is building over 100-kilometer-squared worlds and highlights some of the Unreal Engine 4 tools and features that the studio has leaned on as they approach the release of Last Oasis on September 3, 2019. Thanks for your time! Last Oasis features a very unique premise in that the world has stopped spinning and survivors have to constantly migrate across the planet to stay within a moving habitable zone. How did Donkey Crew come up with this interesting “nomadic survival MMO” concept?
Project Lead Florian Hofreither: To be frank, many things in survival games annoy me. I love the promise of survival games, but hate the flaws that come with most.
Take offline raiding for example. I’m fine with losing my belongings, but I want to be there when it happens. I want a fair fight. I want an attacker to challenge my skill, not my sleeping cycle. And if I lose, I want to go out in a blaze of glory, not awake to a message telling me I lost.
Massive clans is a clear consequence of that. When the only way to survive is playing 24/7, joining a clan is a must. But a survival game, especially a survival MMO, should have room for lone wolves and large groups alike.
Last Oasis is an evolution of survival games; taking the genre to the next step, focusing on the intense and fun parts and discarding the frustration.
What if you would have to keep moving? What if resources don’t respawn, but entire new maps appear instead? What if people could take their bases with them? What if people could store their belongings safely before logging off for the day? The results of all those thoughts are Last Oasis.
Last Oasis has a very rustic, tribal look that appears to be infused with a hint of steampunk. Some people are calling it Mad Max with wooden vessels. How did you come up with and execute on the game’s visuals?
Hofreither: We started with the premise of the tidally-locked Earth, and tried to develop technology from the point of view of a nomadic society. How do you deal with a world that forces you to constantly move? A world with an abundance of wind due to its disrupted climate? A world that destroys all infrastructure and leaves eroded deserts instead?
During my research, I learned that after the Roman Empire collapsed, and the network of roads with it, people abandoned carts and wheels. They went back to using camels, horses, and, of course, donkeys. Legs are a universal tool for traversing all terrain.
From our point of view, the nomads are post-apocalyptic. But from their point of view, it’s an established balance of life for as long as they can remember.
We wanted the game to look and feel that way. A world, filled with the normalcy of a society that had to rebuild everything from the ground up, adapting to a new reality; alien to us, but internally consistent to them.
For this, we drew inspiration from various pieces of art and engineering: Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, Boston Dynamics’ robots, Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, Frank Herbert’s Dune, George Miller’s Mad Max, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and more.
Last Oasis features large wooden “Walkers” that players can steer and shoot from. What drew the studio to this design?
Hofreither: We wanted to tackle a subject that is fresh. Games with vehicles usually fall into one of two categories: either they lock you inside of a small vehicle on land, or you are on a large vehicle at sea, surrounded by the dreaded “water gameplay.” We wanted to neither detach you from the world, nor force you to leave the land, as this is where the gameplay is happening.
In Last Oasis, we encourage you to jump off - the smooth transition between Walker gameplay and ground gameplay is a core element.
Last Oasis is about openness: open vehicles, open machinery, and traveling through an open world.
With a big focus on melee combat, can you explain how you’re designing Last Oasis' fighting system?
Hofreither: We knew we wanted melee because that’s kind of our thing. Very early on we decided to completely skip hand-held ranged weapons as we think that completely changes combat in a survival game. We want combat to be a personal affair. You can’t snipe someone from a distance, you need to risk your own belongings to fight someone and consider the risks.
To further strengthen this, skill-based combat was a main focus for us. There’s not a single fight with a guaranteed outcome. There’s always ways to outskill or outsmart your opponent. Better gear helps, but it’s not the deciding factor at the end of the day. With our directional combat system inspired by games like Warband and For Honor, as well as other inspirations coming from classic fighting games, tactics are required especially in group combat. How you position yourself and your teammates and how you approach the enemy is a complex mind game.
Donkey Crew has said the game will feature a player-driven economy that's based on the supply and demand of in-game supplies. Can you elaborate on how this system works and the studio's philosophy for implementing it?
Hofreither: Trading was, from the very beginning, designed to be one of the core elements for the game. An actual economy like EVE’s is hardly seen in survival games, but I think it’s a perfect fit for this genre.
Many oases have a trading station, accessible for everyone, with independently developing prices based on supply and demand. Every single resource is generated by players. The trading station and its currency only help to make it easy for players to trade.
To enhance the impact of the economy, we decided to get rid of the classic way resource respawning is handled. Other games are about waiting at resource nodes until they respawn. In our world, new resources are introduced with new maps. Players need to enter newly appearing oases, exploiting their lands for the valuable resources appearing with them. We want this to shake up both the player economy and alliances alike.
This naturally will lead to resource bottlenecks that lead to interesting gameplay. During our closed-beta test, our community managed to temporarily drain the world of bones, a valuable crafting material in the early stages. Some players tried to substitute it. Others formed expeditions to harvest and monopolize all the remaining bones - quickly marking themselves as high-value targets, culminating in a conflict they now refer to as the “Bone Wars.”
This is exactly the kind of situations we were going for, and we’re thrilled to see it working already. We don’t want to design stories for players, we want to enable conflicts and let players deal with arising situations as they best see fit.
Can you elaborate on how you're designing the crafting and building systems that the game has to offer?
Hofreither: The crafting system and the economy are heavily intertwined. We want to encourage specialization without locking content away from solo players. Players can craft a basic form of every item, or they can specialize in crafting advanced versions with much higher market values.
While the basic weapons and tools will suffice initially, players will aim to turn all items into advanced versions - either by crafting it themselves, trading, or stealing.
How many simultaneous players will Last Oasis support?
Hofreither: First and foremost, our highest priority is performance. Last Oasis is focused on combat, conflicts, and war. Outcomes of fights really matter in the balance of this world. Therefore, it’s our duty to commit to a promise: no matter if the combat is small or large, players need to have a fair experience. If lag, latency or performance becomes a deciding factor in combat, we have the same problem as with offline raids - it’s just frustrating. It would defeat the entire point of the game, really.
Therefore, we designed a system that can scale with players. When players join, we increase the amount of servers and spawn new oases. If they drop, we fade them out and respawn fewer oases in the future. We can always guarantee a similar experience to everyone, and the intended ratio of players to servers.
With this in mind, the world can support any number of players. We are still optimizing and increasing the number of players and Walkers per server. What’s for sure is that we won’t push our servers past the point of a great experience.
Considering maps are said to be over 100-kilometers-squared filled with dozens of players, did the studio lean on any specific UE4 tools to achieve these goals?
Hofreither: We used the foliage spawning system heavily to achieve both the look and the gameplay we wished for. We modified the code heavily for our purposes, and are using over a hundred separate foliage spawners. They allow us to iterate quickly and efficiently. If we need more or less resources or a different look, it’s just a simple click of a button to change the entire world. These are powerful tools for creating large open worlds.
How big is the development team working on Last Oasis?
Hofreither: Donkeycrew consists of 30 people. Due to our modding history, we’re very much international and quite proud of that. Our members come from Italy, Austria, Ukraine, Norway, Belarus, Russia, Serbia, Denmark, China, USA, Brazil, Canada, and, of course, Poland, where our studio is located.
Donkey Crew is comprised of many Mount & Blade modders. Can you explain how the studio's modding experience is having an impact on Last Oasis?
Hofreither: The most profound impact our modding experience had on Last Oasis was that we attempted it in the first place. When we first started discussing the concept of Walkers, a lot of serious technical barriers were brought up by the team. We knew that there was absolutely no technical support for what we’re doing. Physical walking machines in large open landscapes in an open world - this was completely new territory.
Modding is exactly about that. I think modders from all the various games out there will agree with me: modding is about working against all kinds of barriers and figuring out ways around them; I’d go as far and say this very challenge is even part of the fun.
What made UE4 a good fit for the game?
Hofreither: We used to work with our own homemade engine, but for Last Oasis, we knew we needed something that was robust and performant. We also learned that time spent on developing tools is time not spent developing the game. But at the same time, we knew that our project was quite ambitious, and that we would need to be able to modify anything if necessary. In the end, that was the deciding factor for UE4. It's a great editor that provides full access to the source code. In retrospect, it was definitely the right decision.
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools?
Hofreither: We use the Blutility feature quite heavily. Initially, we used it for simple things like calculating stats and exporting various data from our gameplay assets. From there, we moved on to integrating Blutilities into our QA workflow. And, just recently, we’ve adapted our procedural workflow to be fully automated. What used to be a full day of mundane work, we cut down to a single button in the editor. Not only is it faster, but it also cuts down on errors.
Did the studio leverage the UE4 Marketplace in any way?
Hofreither: Absolutely! We use the Marketplace extensively for prototyping. Whenever we needed to test a gameplay feature and we didn’t have custom assets ready for it, we used props from the Marketplace to help us visualize the idea. This helped us iterate the world much more rapidly.
Thanks again for your time. When will Last Oasis launch in Early Access and where can people find out more about the game?
Hofreither: Thank you for the great questions, and for enabling studios like us to create such worlds in the first place! The best place to find out more about Last Oasis is our Discord channel. It’s also where you can sign up for the closed beta and hang out with us to discuss the game.