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MMOs are dying; meet the team that wants to save the genre

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Empyrean Interactive is a team of “industry middleweights” looking for funding and a new way to make online games

Geoff Virtue and Joe Piepiora, Empyrean Interactive
Geoff Virtue and Joe Piepiora, Empyrean Interactive
Empyrean Interactive

In all likelihood, you’ve never heard of the developers who founded Empyrean Interactive. But that’s not because they haven’t put the work in.

Joe Piepiora, Empyrean’s chief creative officer, has proudly embraced the label of "industry middleweight" — a term that first popped up in relation to him in the comments of an article on Massively Overpowered.

"There’s something liberating about that," Piepiora tells Polygon from the garage in Southern California that Empyrean is currently working out of. "We’ve got a lot of experience. Most the people on our team have 10-plus years of experience. We have a lot of survivors on this team."

Empyrean’s recruits have survived not just the instability of the game industry as a whole, but particularly the wild fluctuations of the massively multiplayer market. While the genre has plenty of new releases each year, anything beyond World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy 14 seems to slink into obscurity.

Perhaps this explains why Piepiora shies away from the term "MMO," despite a combined dozens of years of experience in the genre on the Empyrean team. He has a different explanation, however.

"I don’t like the the label MMO for our game," he says. "It means something different to everyone based on their favorite one."

A phrase on the early Empyrean Interactive website puts it more directly: "After years of developing and playing massively multiplayer online games we’ve found that the genre has lost some of its magic."

So does this mean Empyrean is moving away from the MMO entirely? Not exactly. Rather, the team has come up with a new approach, an iteration on the genre that it calls "persistent cooperative adventures."

Empyrean doesn’t want to kill the MMO genre; it wants to fix it, by completely redefining it.

Concept art for Empyrean Interactive’s first project
Concept art for Empyrean Interactive’s first project

Starting Over

The birth of Empyrean goes back to the start of Piepiora’s career in game development. After years of working for a management systems company in Ireland, he decided to start over in an industry he was much more excited about. Piepiora went from a high-paying office job to a $10-an-hour temp position at development studio Turbine.

Piepiora spun that starter job into a full-time position working on design, systems and content for The Lord of the Rings Online, his first MMO project. He then went to 38 Studios, the MMO developer founded by ex-baseball pitcher Curt Schilling. That company's project imploded in a very public and painful way, but Piepiora doesn’t regret his time there.

"38 Studios was a fantastic team on the dev side," he says. "I really enjoyed working with them. People who worked there are everywhere now, including some on our team, and they’re really talented."

In 2012, Piepiora joined Carbine Studios, a Southern California team owned by NCSoft, which was already hard at work on the latest hot new massively multiplayer game: WildStar. This is where Piepiora met Geoff Virtue, who later became his partner in founding Empyrean. It’s also where his feelings about MMOs solidified — both his love of the genre and his certainty about the huge problems facing its future.

WildStar was in development for almost 10 years before it was released in June 2014. Critical reception was largely positive, but the game never picked up enough buzz to make much of an impact. After sticking with the game for another six months as a senior producer, Virtue saw the writing on the wall and left Carbine Studios for short stints at Riot Games (working on League of Legends) and Blizzard (working on Hearthstone).

"The big companies wrap you in benefits to keep you still"

When Virtue left Carbine, he and Piepiora had talked about the idea of starting their own studio. But Piepiora had a baby daughter to take care of, and he was afraid to rock the boat.

"It’s scary going from triple-A to indie," Piepiora says. "The big companies wrap you in benefits to keep you still."

Instead, he and Virtue kept in touch, occasionally daydreaming about one day starting a studio together. By fall of 2015, NCSoft shifted gears on WildStar, changing it from a subscription-based MMO to completely free-to-play. In March of this year, Carbine laid off nearly half of its staff, including Piepiora.

"One of the big issues we have in our industry is that it’s such a cyclical churn that occurs, so no one can establish roots," Virtue says. "A unifying theme for Empyrean was building a studio that was family-oriented and allowed people to set down roots for 15 or 20 years."

To this end, Piepiora and Virtue have built Empyrean from the ground up to be family-friendly. As an example, the company is built around profit sharing. The better the company does, the better everyone who works there will do.

With Piepiora and many of his former co-workers across the industry burned by working on a genre they loved, he was ready to start something new. He was ready to search for a new way. Together with Virtue, Piepiora wanted to discover a way to recapture the magic he felt when playing MMOs, but in a way that’s more sustainable for developers.

This is where Empyrean started.

A prototype from Empyrean Interactive
A prototype from Empyrean Interactive

Old friends

The first thing the team needed was a space to work. Beginning with very little money (and no other employees), the two founders settled for a humble location: Virtue’s garage.

In their initial meetings in that garage, in the days following the Carbine layoffs, the two men worked out what their roles would be in the company. Virtue decided to take on the title of CEO and president; he would focus on studio strategy, business development and fundraising — the bigger-picture stuff that he’d become so familiar with working on as a producer at some of the gaming industry’s largest studios. Piepiora, on the other hand, would be in charge of the creative vision and guiding the team in creating a game.

By the second week of April, the duo sat in Virtue’s garage in front of a massive spreadsheet. It was a list of possible names for the studio — thousands of ideas. But before the two could decide on one, they wanted to begin gathering a team, to make sure they picked a name that other early employees would like.

To begin expanding, they turned to the many talented people they had worked with in the past.

"Everybody I work with here at Empyrean is someone I’ve worked with before," Piepiora says. "A lot of folks were interested in stepping away and doing something smaller."

"We’re trying to make a game today, put it out in two years and market it as quickly as possible"

Some of the people Piepiora pulled in were also casualties of the March layoffs at Carbine. Others were people he remembered from 38 Studios or Turbine who just happened to be looking for the next big thing. What they all had in common was a ton of experience developing MMOs and exposure to the mix of long development times and difficulty in breaking through that makes creating these games so difficult. Piepiora came to these ex-colleagues with a pitch for something different.

"We’re trying to recapture our love for MMOs, make it smaller and more manageable, and get it out there more quickly," he explains. "These games are in development for three, five, six years sometimes. The game you start with is very different from the game you make at the very end, and people’s opinions on media change so much in that time. We’re trying to make a game today, put it out in two years and market it as quickly as possible. We actually want to do it faster than two years."

Virtue says it was important for the first Empyrean employees to be people they knew and were comfortable with, because it meant they weren’t starting from scratch. He says they’ve already forged relationships with these developers "through fire and tears and mutual respect."

In the four months since Virtue and Piepiora got started, they’ve grown from just those two to the current total of 12 employees. That might seem like a small number, but it’s exactly where Empyrean wants to be right now. And the studio already has a functioning, near-art-complete prototype of its first project.

What it didn’t have, as of May, was funding.

Empyrean team photo, May 2016
Empyrean Interactive team photo, May 2016

Money and where to find it

According to Virtue, Empyrean approached fundraising by looking at "five different pillars — five sets of folks."

First, it looked into venture capital funding, of the kind that has become traditional for Silicon Valley startups. Virtue says that venture capital firms are looking to invest anywhere in the range of $30 million to $1.5 billion, and their focus is largely in tech, which made them not a great fit for Empyrean.

Next, the company looked at angel investors, which are like venture capital firms but formed by a single person. "An angel investor may put in something like $50,000 to $500,000," says Virtue.

For a third option, Virtue and Piepiora looked at potentially getting an agent who could then run down other business opportunities. And on the more traditional end, they also had publisher deals and crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to consider. It came down to five possible roads, each with their own pros and cons, and each of which Virtue had to quickly learn the ropes of.

Virtue stumbled through some of his earliest presentations, quickly learning where he went wrong. He created a 10-slide presentation deck initially to introduce the company and the concept of its game; then he realized he would need to tweak that presentation depending on the type of investor he was talking to. He built one deck for angel investors, one for venture capital firms and another entirely for publishers.

"Publishers are interested in the game, and angel investors are interested in the studio," Piepiora says. This difference greatly affected the focus of any individual presentation.

Empyrean concept art

Empyrean Interactive concept art

While the process of trying to get money has been harrowing, Virtue believes it’s also made Empyrean a stronger, smarter company, more certain of the product it’s making.

"You start to ask the tough questions early on," Virtue says. "Is this product viable? What is the market size for it? Why do we think this is something we can build? You’ve got to bring a lot of data into these meetings."

While early meetings didn’t pan out, Empyrean found itself continuously pushed toward new opportunities by a tight-knit game development scene that seemed to tacitly approve of the group’s ambitions. This is how Piepiora and Virtue found themselves at this year’s E3 conference, not to publicly show the game they’re working on, but to demo it privately and hopefully find people interested in giving them money.

For the whole week of E3 in June, while publishers, press and other industry members scuttled around the Los Angeles Convention Center show floor, Virtue and Piepiora lugged a heavy backpack with a powerful laptop in it across various hotels. Eventually, they scouted out the perfect location: a quiet, out-of-the-way pool bar at the JW Marriott hotel.

One thing that was important for Empyrean going into E3 — and the reason for the heavy backpack — was to have a working prototype. Despite the team’s small size and young age, it went above and beyond in producing something that was really ready to show off.

"When most people talk about prototyping, it’s still a gray box with no art in," says Virtue. "It’s mocked-up, blocked-out levels, maybe some core stuff like a light version of combat. We wanted to do it a little more polished. We have roughly 85 percent of the art done on the prototype. We have a lot of our core systems in place. They’re not polished yet, but they’re fun."

The hard work in getting that prototype ready so quickly appears to be paying off, as well. Piepiora says there has been a lot of interest among the people they met with at E3, especially on the publisher side.

"There’s probably a negative view of publishers in general, but everyone we’ve spoken to on the publishing side was really great," he says. "They understood the industry, and they’re excited about the product. They weren’t pushing for things we weren’t interested in doing, like saying we had to be free-to-play or we had to release globally. It was nice."

Perhaps Empyrean’s biggest surprise lesson has been that asking for more money could have made things easier. The company is currently seeking around $7 million to build its first game, which is considered extremely small by many of the investors it has spoken to.

"Sometimes it seems like it’s more difficult to receive a smaller amount of money," Piepiora says, laughing. "Angel investors are looking for someone making a game for $16 million with the potential to reach a billion people."

At this point, Empyrean’s founders won’t confirm if or how much money they’ve raised, because they’re under NDA. Virtue hinted at it heavily, however: "I would allude to the fact that things are going well."

A prototype from Empyrean Interactive
A prototype from Empyrean Interactive

The first project

Throughout our discussion for this story, Empyrean’s founders dutifully avoided discussing the one thing we usually expect to hear about when talking to a developer: their actual game. Empyrean’s first project doesn’t have a name yet — not publicly, at least. Piepiora and Virtue don’t want to say much about the game until they can actually show it.

Here’s the little that we know so far: It’s a sci-fi game, as the concept art featured throughout this article suggests. It is played from the first-person perspective. It has an ongoing story that players will be able to affect.

Despite Empyrean’s hesitance to call it an MMO, the game is a persistent online role-playing game, and Piepiora says that it has "features in it that people who play MMOs will understand and appreciate." The focus of the game seems to be on smaller-scale cooperative adventures, maybe comparable with raids or small dungeon groups in other massively multiplayer games. But those smaller adventures will contribute to a larger, persistent, server-wide effort.

One thing Empyrean hopes to avoid is the lack of social atmosphere that’s become common in MMOs. Virtue points to modern-day World of Warcraft as an example, where players can log in, use the dungeon finder tools to look for a group and run a bunch of dungeons without ever saying a word to their teammates.

"Having thousands of players doesn’t necessarily make you more social," Piepiora says. "You’re less likely to reach out to other players."

"we want the potential for failure"

Right now, the team at Empyrean isn’t sure how many players will be able to populate any one server on the game at the same time. Piepiora says their tech could easily hold as many as 300 or as few as 30; the developer is just trying to figure out where between those numbers is the most fun and fits the vision of the game.

One important part of that vision: Players will be able to fail, and those failures will have consequences. While Empyrean won’t spill details yet, Piepiora suggests that major failures could "potentially require players to start fresh and begin anew with some things earned." Almost like a roguelike, within a persistent online setting.

"We want to make sure victory is earned and not waded through," he says. "We’re not looking to create a frustrating game, but we want the potential for failure."

Though Empyrean is staying tight-lipped about many of the game’s details, its continued aggressive pace of development means we should find out more sooner rather than later. Virtue says that depending on investors and a few other factors, Empyrean is hoping to begin showing the game publicly in November, in a fully playable alpha form.

"We have a tremendous art team and design team and engineer team cranking stuff out rapidly," he says. "We’ll have the game in a polished state by November. Sometime in 2017, we’ll enter early access."

Using third-party tools such as Unreal Engine, Virtue plans to keep Empyrean lean despite building quickly. And thus far, it’s the developing that’s been the easy part. Finding money will be a much harder, more long-term goal.

"It’s easier to build games than it’s ever been before," Virtue says. "But it’s much harder to fund games than ever before." Babykayak