ZAM Tours the Animal World of Earth Eternal

Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff got the chance to participate in the Earth Eternal closed beta and speak with Sparkplay CEO and Creative Director Matt Mihaly about the game's creation.

Free-to-play, browser-based MMOs are nothing new. After all, RuneScape's been around for years and has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's most popular free MMORPG. Despite such competition, Sparkplay Media plans to take this sub-genre of online games to the next level with Earth Eternal, an MMO that puts players in the shoes of anthropomorphic animals and creatures instead of elves and orcs. I got a chance to participate in the game's closed beta and speak with members of the Sparkplay team, and it's clear the company is dedicated to putting out a fun product for its first release.

Sparkplay was co-founded in 2006 by CEO and Creative Director Matt Mihaly, to focus on the development of Earth Eternal and other projects. The company actually spun off from Iron Realms Entertainment, which Mihaly launched in 1996, to develop text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeon). "When we started the business, it was just me," Mihaly said, looking back on the creation of Iron Realms. "I was kind of casting around for how we could make money. I ended up pioneering the virtual goods model." This model can be seen in Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands, an MUD that was released in 1997. The game is still running strong and is touted on its Web site as "the most successful new MUD of the last nine years."

Despite Iron Realms' success with MUDs, Mihaly admits the text-based market is shrinking since it's not mainstream, which led the company to branch out with a graphical game. "We thought we'd carve out our own niche with a real 3D MMO in a browser," Mihaly said. "We saw it as an opportunity to take browser-based games to the next level."

The team initially wanted to make an over-the-top MMO full of extreme violence, but realized it wouldn't work after looking at the concept art. The group decided a game that used animals as avatars would help them stand out in the fantasy genre, and Earth Eternal was born. Iron Realms funded the project at first, but venture capitalists helped Mihaly form Sparkplay so the two companies could focus on separate games. Iron Realms is currently developing Midkemia Online, a text MUD based on the works of author Raymond E. Feist.

The lore of Earth Eternal is simply massive. "It's kind of a world I've been working on in the back of my head since 2003," Mihaly said. Basically, the time of humankind has passed and ancient beasts have returned to Earth. There's a 145-page PDF on the game's Web site that tells the history of the Lost Ages to the Age of Man, and that still leaves a 2,000-year gap from the end of the history to the start of the game. It combines high fantasy and real world history with various mythologies and fairy tales. I'm not going to pretend that I'm already a master of the game's story, but I'm impressed that so much detail has been put into the lore.

To go along with the history, players get to choose between 22 different races. While they have names like Anura and Noctari, they're really animals like frogs and owls. In addition to races such as raccoons, rabbits, deer and cats, there are also mythical ones like demons, cyclops and robots. Personally, I chose a Sylvan, which is a walking tree. I wanted to be a druid, so it just fit well. I can imagine that many players will make numerous alts to try out all the races.

It's important to note there's absolutely no difference between the races. Your selection is purely cosmetic, which means there's no "best race" for any given class or situation. If you want to be a yeti rogue, go for it. Mihaly did suggest they may add race-specific emotes in the future so players can see a tangible difference between the characters, but the changes would never affect combat.

While we're talking about races, let's get the furries discussion out of the way. In case you're not familiar with the term, it's a fandom for anthropomorphic animals that has been the subject of controversy due to the sexual habits of some of its followers. "The community has had a couple of trolls, but in the most part they're incredibly well-behaved," Mihaly said. "I honestly didn't really know what furries were before starting Earth Eternal. I don't have a problem with them, but I won't encourage the sexual aspect. They're welcome to play the game as long as they behave like everyone else."

Getting back to the races, customization is a big part of Earth Eternal. While you can only choose between three body types and faces for your characters, you have complete control over your avatar's colors and height. You assign him or her both a first and last name and select the starting outfit regardless of which class you pick. Players can also use in-game currency to combine two items by keeping the stats of one and the appearance of the other. If you really like the look of your hat but find an upgrade, you can put the new stats on your old hat. All of these options really help characters stand out from each other. Yeah, you may see a bunch of cats with similar faces running around, but their armor and fur colors add enough details to make them look different.

Players will be able to choose between four classes: knights, rogues, mages and druids. They all fill the roles you'd expect from playing other MMOs. Knights are tanks with high armor and the best aggro abilities; rogues provide melee damage and can sneak around with invisibility; mages are ranged damage and can deal the most damage overall; and the druid is the jack-of-all-trades class.

You may be wondering why there's no healing class. Well, characters can choose the abilities from every class in another effort to maximize customization. All classes will be able to buy skills from the healing tree, which will allow players to solo more easily or specialize as a healer. Mihaly said that druids work best as a main healer if you'd like to focus on that tree.

Just to make it clear, I did say classes will be able to "buy" skills from the trees. Since Mihaly said he pioneered the virtual goods model with Iron Realms, it should come as no surprise that Earth Eternal will contain microtransactions. Players will be able to buy credits with real money and use them to purchase stuff, such as outfits and charms, from the in-game store. For example, you can buy a reagent generator that will automatically purchase spell reagents using your in-game gold so you don't have to run to town for those supplies.

Players also use credits to buy ability points, which are used to learn skills. You'll get ability points by leveling up, but they'll eventually cap out. Once than happens, you'll need to turn to credits to get more points. "The idea is that they scale up in cost," Mihaly said. The points will start out costing around one penny per point and will increase in price as you go up.  According to Mihaly, you can get your character up to about 80 percent effectiveness without ever buying points.

Players who don't want to spend money on points can earn in-game gold and trade it with other players for credits. "It's a trade-off between time and money," Mihaly said. I was a little wary at the thought of players having to purchase points to max out their characters, but I'm glad Sparkplay is giving them the option to earn their credits by simply playing the game.

Earth Eternal is similar in controls and style to World of Warcraft, which should allow most players to jump right in. You can complete quests to earn experience and form parties of up to five players, although the game is solo-friendly. There won't be an auction house or mounts for the game's launch, but they should be added in the future. Mihaly said the biggest gold sink will be crafting, which requires you to pick up recipes from vendors and gather components. "All of the coolest weapons are done through crafting," he said.

You can auto-attack in combat and use various abilities to collect charges, which are used to perform powerful execute abilities. Your execute's damage is based on the amount of charges you collect during the fight. The best comparison I can think of is a rogue's combo points in World of Warcraft. All classes in Earth Eternal have both Might and Will, which are used for melee and magic abilities, respectively. For solo players, there's really no difference between ranged and melee attacks once the enemy is next to you, although ranged attacks are helpful in group situations.

One interesting part of Earth Eternal combat is the Heroism bar, which fills up as you kill enemies. You gain benefits, such as increased luck, as the bar hits various percentage marks. It's basically a death penalty since you lose some of your Heroism when you die. However, you can choose to spend different amounts of gold, when you're revived, to retain various amounts of Heroism.

Oddly enough, there's no level cap. You'll eventually run out of enemies to kill that will give you experience, but more monsters will be added in the future so you can keep leveling up.

Earth Eternal is currently in closed beta, but Sparkplay is preparing to begin its commercial open beta in a few weeks. A release date for the game has not been announced, but Mihaly did tell me about the Groves system that will be implemented in the game's official launch. It's a player housing and social gathering system that will allow clans to create their own meeting areas, full of houses, forests, NPCs, mini-games, PvP arenas, and so on. I actually got to watch a video of the Grove creation tools in action that I'm not allowed to share with you, but the level of customization is amazing. You can build hills and valleys, add colors to the land and trees and place buildings wherever you want. Player housing is always a popular addition to any MMO, and the Groves system will certainly impress players who focus on such options in their games.

Despite the animal avatars, the game is not targeted toward young children. The target audience is players ages 13-22 who are somewhere between a hardcore and casual gamer. You can play Earth Eternal in your browser or download a client, but there's literally no difference between either version. You'll never be forced to download a copy of the game, which is the biggest draw of Earth Eternal. If you had to buy a retail box of the game for $50 and spend $14.99 a month to play it, I honestly doubt it would be able to compete with the larger pay-to-play MMOs out there. But as a free-to-play browser game, the level of quality and customization is impressive, and the large amount of races keeps things interesting.

I personally had a lot of fun loading up the game in Firefox for a quick MMO fix. Sure, the graphics aren't Aion quality, but the game's made to be available to lower-end computers. I'm not always a fan of making microtransactions such an integral part of gameplay, but Sparkplay has made sure that players with limited funds can still get credits without buying them. So if you're looking for a free 3D MMO, I'd suggest giving Earth Eternal a try.

Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff
News Reporter


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Age 13-22
# Oct 01 2009 at 11:40 AM Rating: Decent
As long as they don't severely limit the chat options like Free Realms does, I'm sold. It's always nice to have a fun, cartoony game like this to kill some time, and with 22(!) races, I'll be making so many alts I'll probably never hit the level cap anyway :D
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