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From book to beta: how City of Steam evolved into a browser-based online RPG

With the launch of its first closed beta on Nov. 16, Mechanist Games has thrown its baby into the wild.

For one month, spread over the course of four "seasons," beta players will have the chance to run amok in City of Steam, figuring out what works and what doesn't. How the game feels. Where its weak spots are. And, finally, if Mechanist has accomplished the high-standard title it set out to make.

The company's debut game, City of Steam is a fully featured, free-to-play browser-based online role-playing game. It's a mouthful of necessary labels, but it fails to get at the game's true nature: "fantasy with a steampunk flair," marketing manager Andrew Woodruff calls it. Beta testing runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 28, with intervals in between seasons for developer modifications.

The game's closed beta will toss more than 10,000 players into this world as a refugee in the City of Steam. The overarching epic questline won't be available during the test run, but players will be able to explore their past through family quests. Each task will bring players closer to an answer about why they came to the city and where they're headed next. Challenge dungeons, mounts, pets and upgrades will be ready for testers to try.

"Everyone said the same thing: this feels like it should be an action RPG."

Development on the game began back in 2009. Mechanist began building a world based on lead designer David Lindsay's role-playing book, The New Epoch. But City of Steam didn't begin as an action RPG, says Andrew. It was turn-based.

Last December, as a team of 11 or so, Mechanist found itself in a position similar to the one it's in today. Launch lurked just around the corner, with feedback pending from a group of game testers. But there was one consistent complaint that would re-make the entire game.

"Everyone said the same thing: this feels like it should be an action RPG," Andrew said. "It just didn't work. It was just so awkward."

City of Steam would begin again, but not without the grace of its former self. Parts of the game could be salvaged, such as its setting and characters, while completely new rewrites took the servers. With something solid to show off, Mechanist recruited more talent. Today, the team stands at 35 — a collection of international members hailing from New Zealand, Ireland, America, Canada and more.

Those experiences all loop back into the effort put forth by the team

As City of Steam nears completion, the team reflects not just on their own work, but the games that have mattered to them. Brian Woodruff, twin brother to Andrew and the game's Content Designer, is familiar with the concept. His own memorable experiences have been found during moments of idling, when a player momentarily becomes part of a gaming world. It's a thirst for vengeance in Halo's multiplayer, he says, or moments of beauty in the fantastic bosses of Shadow of the Colossus.

But to Brian, those experiences all loop back into the effort put forth by the team: aesthetics, gameplay, logical frustration, brute violence, exploration, and so many others.

"I think the best we can do, and have already done, is strive to make City of Steam fit those expectations," Brian said.

Although the road has been a long one, says Brian, it's the roadblocks that have pushed the team to reach its potential and shaped the game as it is today.

"There are the people of Mechanist Games, these tireless, creative mavericks from all manner of backgrounds and expertise who have come together to fulfill a singular vision, donating themselves to a wonderful, if not often at times also horrifying, gestalt creation," Brian said. "And you're going to love it."

The next level of puzzles.

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