Finding civilization: The future of Life is Feudal

Vladimir Piskunov (PhD) has the best business card I've seen at E3.

When the CEO and CTO of Bitbox LTD, the developers of PC survival RPG Life is Feudal hands me his card, it's part of a whole ... thing, for lack of a better term. Piskunov, a very tall, dark-haired Russian gentleman with a deep voice and a thick but-not unintelligible accent, has a shirt textured to look like chain mail, and he hands me the card, which isn't printed — it's forged. Or stamped. Or whatever you need to do to have your business cards made of aluminum, which need to be packaged in a plastic sleeve to make sure people like me don't hurt themselves with them.

This feels appropriate for a game like Life is Feudal, whose promotional materials include statistics like the number of players who have managed to harvest crops on their in-game farms (30,000) with the number of players who have killed someone else using only a shovel (5000).

It is unforgiving and deep and very, very particular, which makes sense, as Piskunov guided the game's development in large part based on what he wanted and wasn't getting from its contemporaries.

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"I want to confess, back in 2010, I was disappointed with the progress of games, and I just decided to make the game of my dreams," he said. "Some people told me, it's not correct, you should learn the marketing, you should target the audience, and you will fail, and no one will play if you make a niche game. So maybe it's a niche game, maybe it's true, but some people like it. And for those people we are making that game."

It turns out it might be a bigger niche than some people led Piskunov to believe. Piskunov began development in late 2010, and found a local investor to seed the game a year later. Bitbox attempted to secure additional funding with an Indiegogo campaign in late 2013, but it failed spectacularly, reaching only €5,324 of its €200,000 goal.

Life is Feudal went on to sell 100,000 copies on Steam in its first month

Piskunov and his partners soldiered on, "grinding out development" per their E3 fact sheet and submitting Life is Feudal to Steam Greenlight in February 2014. In September of 2014, Bitbox released an early access version of Life is Feudal without the explicit MMO element it had been envisioned with.

Instead, Life is Feudal: Your Own (YO) supported smaller, 64 player instances, which, it turns out, might be enough to start. Life is Feudal went on to sell 100,000 copies on Steam in its first month, which might make it the most popular survival game you probably haven't heard of.

The problem may be that it isn't actually as simple as "survival." "That's actually our main problem to reach (players), because our game cannot be described in little words, like ‘it's a survival game'," Piskunov says.

"I believe our game is really feature rich, and people are doing different stuff," he says. "Some people play solo, like hermits, and some people like to play solo, Minecraft-style. Some people like to play with their friends and meet friends in game and create villages, with blacksmiths and farmers. An alchemist will provide alcohol and other stuff. Some people like PVP and survival aspects so they try to survive in the forest. It's rich. It's different."

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Where it's most different, though, is in the relationship it hopes to foster between players. "My experience in DayZ was different," Piskunov said, "but in most cases, if you are newbie you just make 300 meters movement and you get shot."

DayZ isn't alone in this, I point out. Rust, arguably the biggest survival title on Steam right now, is similarly draconian. If you die, you lose almost everything, and death can come very quickly, even while you're not in-game.

That last part is the most frustrating, in my experience. Something about primal survival environments seems to turn players into pre-civilization monsters, and when I mention this to Piskunov, he knows exactly what I'm talking about.

"In our game, alignment and karma actually discourage such mechanics," he said. "We still kept full loot, so if you have died, you will lose all your stuff. But if you die, if you have a high karma, you will lose only a small portion of your skill points. So that kind of progression is preserved.

"But if you're the one who is killing everyone, your karma will be low," he said. "And if you die, you will lose a lot of progress."

"Our game is huge and hard to comprehend at first glance, and that kind of scares some people out"

I suggest that the worse a person you are in Life is Feudal, the more you're punished. "That's right. And I believe it is working." That said, Piskunov explains that Bitbox doesn't want to eradicate player vs player antagonism from the game. He says that absolute freedom is a philosophy of Life is Feudal's sandbox.

"Of course we implemented the alignment system, so we can encourage people to behave, but if someone is really good at player killing, let it be," Piskunov says. "It adds some extra spice to the game. But there are some player killer wannabes who just kill everyone on sight, and they will be punished hard with that system. And they will eventually disappear from the game."

This outlook seems to comport with Bitbox's comfort with a niche for Life is Feudal. "Our game is quite complex, with a steep learning curve," Piskunov said, "and we're trying to do different tutorials and we'll have to minimize that, but still our game is huge and hard to comprehend at first glance, and that kind of scares some people out. I do understand that."

I asked if there's a concern that the game might be especially hard to get into within a genre notoriously hostile to new players — as Piskunov admitted when he talked about DayZ. But that sounds like the point, as much as it may be a challenge for wider adoption. "It's more the reason people get into our game," he said.

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The thought Bitbox and Piskunov have invested in Life is Feudal will find its logical evolution in a bigger world. In Piskunov's words, the originally back-burnered MMO component set to release next year will add another dimension to Life is Feudal's sandbox.

"On the MMORPG scale," he said, "21 kilometers, a lot of different people, a lot of different nationalities, it will be a diplomatic sandbox. I'm friends with those, i'm allied with those, I'm enemies with those, if we're raiding them, they call backup, someone makes fun of someone's mom and ‘we're going to punish you for that.' It's really going to be like Game of Thrones, with intrigues."

Those intrigues will have consequences beyond most MMOs. The strict consequences of life and death and karma are backed up by a unique account system: your purchase of the game gives you one character. One existence. One karma. And if you ruin that by being the murderer or thief, then that karma will brand that character.

"I'm a big fan of Ultima Online"

I asked if there were concerns about the landmass size in Life is Feudal, about it being too big or too small, if it being too crowded would be a problem or an interesting development. "I believe there should be a Goldilocks zone — where people are not too crowded and where you don't have to travel three kilometers before you find a real live person," Piskunov said. "So we're going to observe it and analyze statistics of interactions between players and if it's too crowded, we'll try to add new landmass. If it's too dispersed, we won't lower the amount of landmass, but maybe we'll try to attract more people to those particular servers."

But Piskunov's Platonic ideal and ultimate goal seems to be one of his favorite games. "To be honest, I'm a big fan of Ultima Online. Ultima Online is a classic example of perfect symbiosis of crafting players and combat-oriented players. That's our ultimate goal, to find that perfect symbiosis."

Life is Feudal: YO should come out of early access and become a proper release in October, Piskunov said. The MMORPG version should launch in March of 2016.