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Early Access: Nether Online

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By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), General Manager

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Earlier today I had a chance to duck in at gametrailers’ office a few blocks from our own to meet with Chip Seneni, Director of Nether Online over at indie studio Phosphor Games. I was sure to dedicate the full morning to speaking with him as, unlike countless other titles being pushed in the online space in recent months, Chip has an idea for something that’s truly outside the box. See Phosphor Games saw the success of the DayZ Zombie Shooter and didn’t think “Oh zombies must be big now.” Instead they have long been at work building towards a game focused on the survival elements in a post-apocalyptic urban landscape free of the zombie hoards invading every other shooter on the market.

Nether Online is built around the philosophy that survival takes wits, negotiation skills, stealth, and planning. Creating a decaying world 10 years after a modern event known as The Culling, Phosphor Games has built a perpetual war between the player controlled “Chosen” survivors pitted against their mutated brethren in a desperate struggle to come out on top of the food chain. Even facing off against a single mutant can push you to your limits and greatly hinder your ability to achieve your goals before returning to the safe zone. Draw attention to yourself in the process and you may end up in combat against three monsters that will almost certainly end in your demise. And while the concept is simple enough, when you break down the various components you realize you’re not dealing with your standard indie project.

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Noise is Everything

Noise has always played a major part in shooters, but more recently it has begun offering unfair advantages to those gunning with high-end surround sound systems. Know where the bullets are flying? You’ll be first in your team to turn in preparation for the coming assault. Phosphor wants to push this system to the next level by making noise the basis for its creatures’ AI. This means with each step you take, each shot you fire, and each door you open, your paranoia will be growing as you ponder if that squeaky door hinge just gave away your position.

But to even the playing field for those lacking in hardware, icons will appear on your radar as well as other yet to be developed indicators to send word to the players themselves of key noises and the direction they came from. This will play a major factor in the open world PvP element as each noise you make might give out your position to a bandit sniper or band of local thugs waiting to loot your corpse as soon as you slip up. Those survival gamers looking to feel suspense from just running across a street will find heaping helpings of it in Nether.

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The Economics of Survival

Now one issue of previous survival titles that Phosphor Games hopes to address is the free-for-all run and gun style of play that overtakes most servers in titles like DayZ. Typically when dealing with stupid slow zombies, players end up turning on each other to find challenge in their world. As already alluded to, the monsters themselves will push players a bit harder to make it unwise to take the fight to them without someone watching your back. Various monster types with class distinct features will keep you challenged with a mixture of teleports, tactics, and skills. Four examples offered during the demo include:

Hunter – Satyr looking demonic creature that utilizes a long blade-like arm to tear at its foes. Teleports rapidly to disorient and dismantle its prey. When hunting in packs, the Hunters can leave a foe wondering just how many total they are actually fighting, resulting in a loss of moral that can tear teamwork down.

Shrieker – A ranged mutant that assaults its prey with acidic spittle. This creature is best assassinated with stealth and high impact weapons as it has a tendency to let out a shrill yell when threatened that attracts nearby mutants.

Meatsack – These slow and mostly harmless creatures demonstrate the resistance of some mutants to fight the dark madness that overtook most of the survivors. When faced with confrontation, they will often cry softly. Players will have to make the decision if it’s worth putting them out of their misery or sneaking past them as their cries can signal more dangerous creatures and untrustworthy humans of your location

SubBoss – This tentatively named monster rules the streets and makes foragers think twice about wandering the streets at night. Its thick skin can absorb large amounts of damage without flinching as it smashes through obstacles in a relentless assault to tear its foes apart one at a time. Approaching one without a unified militia is absolute suicide, and the only successful tactic to defeating one involves assigning one member of your team as bait while the rest of your squad lays into him from hidden positions.

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A Day/Night system is in place and the monsters grow in strength as the sun sets. Phosphor is exploring the concept of only allowing certain terribly dangerous monsters to come out at night, while less dangerous creatures like the Meatsack commonly roam during the day.

For players that are confident and coordinated enough to not be held back by the basic necessities of survival, they can set out to hunt down lesser players to acquire their gear, or run dynamic public events or assigned quests at the safe zone. One such event is demoed below in which the safe zone loses its supersonic defense system, allowing the mutants to raid your resting point until the defenses are restored. Another instance may be an NPC in town offering an abnormally high reward for bringing him X of resource Y in a set time period.

All this comes down to pushing a player’s motivation to feel like they have something to accomplish in an otherwise open-ended sandbox world. Phosphor Games fears that the simple gameplay of leaving the save zone, collecting random supplies, and exchanging them for new gear back at the safe zone before you die and drop it all on its own would not be satisfying enough to keep players entertained for an extended period of time. When a helicopter suddenly crashes or an NPC rescue mission is thrown into the mix at random, players will be kept guessing on how events might play out on each expedition outside their safety walls.

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Growth and Progression

Another factor that sets Nether apart from its survival-based counterparts is a heavier focus on progressing your character and building a reputation. This is done in-part through a system that doesn’t push perma-death on a player, but still punishes the player with a full weapon and loot drop upon death that will feel like a hard slap on the wrist each time it happens. However your name, looks, appearance customizing clothes, money, and stats will remain intact when you respawn. Weapons, quest objective items, and other perishables that can be sold or exchanged in town will remain at your corpse waiting for the first player to loot them.

Initially Phosphor Games intended to push a stat system that leveled based on what its players used or accomplished during play. After extensive alpha testing though they found their system too susceptible to gamey stat pushes who would just run in place, or jump around the safe zone trying to build up physical prowess. Instead completing tasks or engaging in combat and player kills will now feed into a collective experience pool, allowing players to set stat points towards specific advantages. Although not every stat has an obvious purpose in-game yet, a few concepts they are tossing around include:

Melee Power
Critical Strike
Reload Speed

As you can imagine these stats offer enough diversity that players can build their own class of “Melee Bruiser” or “Mid-Line Gunner” by allotting points towards set directions like health and melee power or critical strike and reload speed. I’m unsure if there is a cap currently planned on skill progression but this at least gives a slight boon to reward players that have spent countless hours enjoying the game compared to a brand new player. Still Pay-to-Win is something Phosphor Games knows is a nail in the coffin for a title that already has a planned Buy 2 Play business model and, as such, will only sell cosmetic gear in their microtransaction store. Body armor and other stat boosting items are still being considered as a maybe due to Phosphor being unsure about how to go about breaking appearance customization apart from functionality.

How these stats are going to play out when involving the stamina and hunger systems will be interesting. As any good survival genre title, players will have to manage their hunger and thirst to keep their combatant going full steam until they’re safely behind the walls of their base again. And for the times you find yourself stranded in the fringes a bit too long, you’ll soon find your player dealing with a plethora of gameplay impacting effects including depth of vision blurs, removal of sprinting, slowing melee swings, shakiness when aiming, or increased recoil on heavy firearms. All in all they want to punish a player for pushing their limits while still giving them a fighting chance to make it back alive with an epic story to tell.

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Finally for players who have no idea what they’re out in the world to do while exploring, they hope to have signifiers of loot to draw players in the right direction. That way if you’re out exploring for rations, you might tend to migrate towards a large supermarket. If you’re looking for weapons, the occasionally downed vehicle (with smoke bellowing into the heavens included for long-distance spotting) or abandoned military Humvee will typically spawn the weapon sets you’re trying to get your hands on. All-in-all this should not only help give that drive of players to push forward, but draw out the recluses from various nearby buildings to fight over a particular resource spawn. But as for the lures out far beyond the safety of the safe zone confines, team play will come into action.

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Clan Unification and Challenges

The best loot to be found in Nether is planned to be given out at the outside fringes of town as well as acquirable in the major public events. These events though will push the twitch skill limits of players seeking to survive them to reap the rewards. As such if your goal is to be the best of the best, you’re going to need to group up with like-minded people to coordinate an assault on the wild and come back in one piece with loot in hand. But the perks of working as a clan are more plentiful than just having a few extra guns at your back.

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Clan Housing – Phosphor Games is currently drafting up various concepts to allow a clan to lock down a building or location outside of the safe zone to establish as ground zero for your clan. Here players will be able to acquire clan designated clothing, set respawn points, share inventory with a clan storage bank, pick up extra supplies en route to a loot destination, relax for a bit thanks to being in a heavily defended oasis amidst the chaos of the city, and enjoy the view from your rooftop clubhouse. These clan structures are expected to be instanced out, blocking outsiders from gaining access unless they get a hold of a key card. Though like everything else in the world, I imagine a mutant or two might still find their way in at some point.

Inventory Limitations – The biggest hauls mean nothing if you find yourself alone with no allies to help carry it back. Fill your person with too much junk and your sluggish character will be easy pickings for bandits and mutants alike. As such running with a clan is key as each player can equip and upgrade backpacks to up their carrying capacity and make sure that every dime of your loot pile profits the members of your clan. Not to mention the sheer size of the city is huge, and having a few members tagging along with the purpose of carrying supplies to keep the units’ stamina up and hunger down will be vital.

Public Objectives and Strengths – Many events will be impossible to do alone. Though very much a work in progress, supersonic emitters and other access/power points will require someone to man and defend while allies take advantage of the opening to complete objectives elsewhere. Getting a team with varying strengths together such as a doctor, a bruiser, and sniper, and a runner will greatly raise a clan’s chances of success in these risky missions. After all guns are scarce and losing an entire armory to a failed public event might cost you major street credibility with your rivals.

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Community Feedback

I might be biased on this piece but the strongest feature an indie title can offer is its flexibility and dedication to adjusting their title to meet their community’s feedback and expectations. Phosphor Games recognizes this and intend to create a mixture of servers (each able to house up to 64 players) to bring varying rulesets to keep everyone happy.

Based on current feedback they’re considering a server without the mutants present so players can focus on group open world PvP without distraction. Another might have greater realism including healing items specific for given injuries like a stint for a broken leg. Yet another option being considered is one where guns and ammunition is a rare commodity, changing the economics of the server as a result. Although initially voted down by the community, they have considered offering a third person view mode server to see if enough players would prefer the less intense view over a forced first person perspective as will be in the default game. Character progression is planned to be tied to your account so you will have the freedom to jump between these variations finding a community and ruleset that you enjoy without having to start over from scratch each time. It’s unconfirmed but I imagine equipment won’t be transferrable for balance reasons though.

The community also seems to be clamoring for vehicles so they are tested a few options. Everything from fortified transport vehicles to standard cars to even helicopters are currently on the table. Phosphor Games likes the idea of a skybase settled on top of a half decayed building that is only reachable by aircraft.

Crafting is pretty high on the development priority list. Though the obvious will likely make it into the game at launch such as combining a taser with a gun scope and amplifier to create an extended range stun gun, Phosphor is considering pushing the envelope. One thought is farms and other player raised crafting materials and food that can then be transformed via various skill crafts into items of utility. All that’s holding them back is the question of public domain and how much of your personally raised crafting developments you would be able to transfer between servers.

Since Chip seemed so open to suggestion, I threw my two cents in as well and received a nodding approval on both. One was a server with two safezones that would compete directly with the other for resources and perhaps points. ‘Like sports teams complete with clan jerseys’ is how Chip envisioned the concept. The other was a type of GM interaction involving a central government that occasionally would fly into town to deliver a supply drop and share news of progress in the world outside of Chicago. They previously had considered including clues and audio diaries throughout the city that would build on Nether’s lore, but this concept would be ideal for pushing future updates and adding an element of growing intrigue into a living world.

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All-in-all, Nether Online is a lofty project for a small indie studio to accomplish. As such they are taking it one step at a time, and plan to focus on the core elements and features of the game before opening up additional development to a player run forum where popular demand of feasible ideas will be implemented first. Thankfully this forum and access to the game itself should arrive as early as fall of this year. So strap on your backpack, grab some silent sneakers, and prepare to test your nerves as the horrific survival story begins soon.

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