Mainframe Industries, a European video game studio founded in 2019, finally revealed its first project on Wednesday — a new MMO role-playing game called Pax Dei. Mainframe bills it as an “immense, player-driven, social sandbox” filled with political machinations and player groups numbering in the thousands, a heady combination of Eve Online and Rust. What Polygon was able to see during a brief, hands-off demo in late February was a tremendously beautiful game, but questions still remain on whether or not the seasoned team of industry veterans can pull off its ambitious goals — which includes a PC version as well as a cloud-based client playable on “any screen,” including consoles and mobile phones.
Pax Dei is high-fantasy MMO filled with gameplay elements borrowed from the survival genre, games like Ark: Survival Evolved. In motion it looks like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, but built with Unreal Engine 5. It boasts impressive lighting and materials interaction, with cloth that ripples realistically, hair that bounces, and shafts of light catching motes of dust as they stream through the windows of rural cottages. Moreover, the game borrows its economic model from Eve, meaning that both geography and scarcity will play a role in a dynamic marketplace.
“Being an MMORPG, harvesting and crafting are core pillars of the experience in the game,” said Mainframe CEO Thor Gunnarsson. “But in our world, the weapons, the armor, the construction pieces needed for your village, these are all items that are crafted and manufactured by the players themselves. So essentially, all of the things that you can gain access to in the world have been produced by someone else in the game.”
A big element of gameplay in Pax Dei is exploration, which in the early game will see small groups working together to bushwhack connections to nearby settlements. During these opening moments, Pax Dei’s nuance is immediately clear, and it begins with how its geography impacts gameplay.
Players will begin at relatively high elevations, among green and ethereal regions known as the Heartlands. There they can work with other players in absolute safety, building small villages with their clan, planting crops, and crafting equipment. The sightlines from the Heartlands are very purposefully long, and Gunnarsson is quick to point out that anything the player sees is someplace they can go. What’s even more interesting is what will motivate them to try and get there.
“When it comes to venturing from the Heartlands,” Gunnarsson said, “really the next area is the Wilderness. This is where darkness leads to more dangerous encounters. Mysteries are interspersed throughout the world, and you begin to unveil the ancient lore of the world — its wondrous past — really through what we call sort of internally ‘indirect mysteries.’”
We had a chance to observe developers playing through an in-game quest, and it was quite a bit different than how quests work in other MMOs. Lead game designer Pétur Örn Þórarinsson, formerly a game design director working on Eve, was at the controls. First he donned his armor — a pauldron and a breastplate — showcasing how the light reflected off its surfaces. It’s the kind of Unreal Engine demo that we’ve seen for years, with incredibly high resolutions and a tremendous amount of realistic detail — not something you’ll find in legacy MMOs. Then he headed off down a forest path, leaving his clan’s tiny patch of the Heartlands behind.
Accompanied by two player-controlled companion characters, the party stumbled on a vaguely Roman ruin, its limestone walls recalling the arches of a 2,000-year-old aqueduct. There, in a corner of a basement closet, were a pair of demons — humanoid forms made of flies. Mad sword blows and bright spells visibly lowered its hit points (showers of numbers were visible on screen, as in Borderlands), and the demon was soon dead. Þórarinsson’s further exploration revealed a book resting on a bench upstairs. Reading the book, the text alluded to another even larger demon nearby. Scouting the area, the boss demon was revealed to be a towering, four-winged pile of filth that killed off the party in short order.
These kinds of diegetic quests — little clues scribbled in a book, on the inside of a ring, or carved into the surface of a piece of pottery — will be what moves the narrative forward and reveals the mysteries of this world to its players. And where the Heartlands are high and intrinsically safe thanks to the light of the divine, the deeper, darker places in Pax Dei will be where the real adventures take place.
“We don’t intend to just like expand outwards,” Þórarinsson said. “More often than not, we want to expand inward, actually making the dungeons deeper. [Say that] you’ve been playing for four years, and then something happened to the world. Now you have a reason to go back [...] because there was this door at the bottom of the dungeon [that is now suddenly open] — or an underground lake that is cleared [...] or a bridge that has been broken. Something has changed, and now you have another reason to go there and actually go deeper than you did before.”
But while Mainframe boasts a deep bench of talent — including additional veterans of CCP Games (Eve Online), Blizzard Entertainment, Ubisoft, Rovio, and Remedy (Alan Wake) — many unanswered questions remain about its design. How will the game’s opt-in player-versus-player combat work, and what will the stakes be for clan-versus-clan engagements? How will governance — both between players and between Mainframe and its community — even work when thousands of players are competing to rule? Pressed for details, developers couldn’t say.
“This is a social sandbox game,” said Gunnarsson, early in the presentation. “It is designed with human interaction and social play at its heart, and we are aiming to offer some new and innovative ways for our players to come together with friends — and then hopefully some some enemies — along the way.”
And, while the game will be playable first on PC, Pax Dei is also billed as a cloud-based experience. The goal, developers say, is to be able to play the game on consoles and mobile devices utilizing “cloud gaming platforms,” according to the news release. None of that functionality was on display during our short demo, however.
The next phase for Pax Dei, Gunnarsson said, is an extensive testing period where the experienced team’s theories and technology will be put to the test. An alpha version of the game will be coming to PC soon, and players are encouraged to sign up at the website and join in the discussion on Mainframe’s Discord.