Q & A with Brad McQuaid

Posted date / 02.20.19

When you’re an independent game developer, no unimportant roles or extraneous positions on the development team exist. Every member is vital to the project’s success, and everyone’s contributions are crucial. But when discussing the Visionary Realms team, one name piques every serious MMORPG fan’s interest: our Chief Creative Officer, Brad McQuaid.

Brad’s groundbreaking work on multiple seminal games in the genre helped elevate it from a small niche to a mainstream powerhouse. David Schlow sat down with Brad recently to discuss his personal motivations in game design and the vision and direction of Pantheon.

Q: You’ve been developing games for decades now. What drives your passion to continue making games and why MMORPGs specifically?

A: Having dabbled with other genres, working on them just doesn’t make me happy. I enjoy playing many types of games, but when it comes to MMOs I have the chance to be part of something epic. We are creating a home as much as a game — how many people can say that? Also there is a “Grand Vision” for the game that goes far beyond Pantheon’s launch. There are so many mechanics, systems, and ideas to try out but don’t necessarily make sense to until post-launch. In the past I’ve not been able to stay on these projects as long as I would have liked, but I’m all-in on Pantheon; here for the long haul and having a blast!

Q: How does your experience impact how you approach Pantheon?

A: I hope it helps guide us in terms of when to do what. For example, several important systems will help give Pantheon its identity, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to work on them. Also, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the past. So I tell the team, look, we’re human, we can make mistakes but let’s make sure they’re not old mistakes. In other words, let’s not repeat a mistake I’ve made or seen made in the past. So far I think that has saved us a lot of time and energy, or at least allowed us to focus that time and energy on aspects of the game that won’t have to be revisited in the future, or redone completely.

Q: How much do the designers’ own thoughts and ideas feed into the vision for Pantheon?

A: As much as possible, that’s for sure. As CCO, the creative efforts fall into my purview, but the sum is greater than the parts. So while I work at the high level, considering the overall plan and vision of the game, I have no desire to jump in the trenches and interfere with the amazing creative team we have. Chris Perkins, Daniel Krenn, and other directors do a fantastic job and are experts in their areas of responsibility — I would be foolish to interfere or dictate the details. For example, Chris and his team devised all of the class abilities and came up with specifics and nuances I never would have. Likewise, Ben Dean does a great job as Producer with Chris Rowan and I acting as Executive Producers. So Ben manages the directors with high level support from Chris and myself. It’s really a great way to organize both tasks and people, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lastly, I have a great relationship with Ben, Chris Perkins, and the other directors, so when I do want to briefly ‘jump in the trenches’ with an idea, they’re always very accommodating.

Q: Let’s talk about the origins of the game. Why Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen?

A: At the inception of the project we knew we had to create a high level plan for the game mechanics, the game world, etc. The game is called Pantheon because the world of Terminus is filled with people groups from all over the universe, each with different belief systems and, often, their own pantheon of gods. This creates a rich planar fantasy setting that allows us to go far beyond typical “middle earth” limitations. For example, if the gods are at war, how might that affect the lives of mere mortals?

Rise of the Fallen refers to the setting and time of recent and current events. Devastating conflicts such as the Deicide War have occurred, scattering people and destroying many cities, villages and even civilizations. But now things are starting to return to normal, or at least there’s a break from the chaos of conflict. The “fallen” are rising again, new players and NPCs with power and influence are starting to affect events. This is the setting where new players will find themselves -- the question is, will they be able to rise again and make their mark on the world?

Q: With so many other worlds in other fandoms called Terminus, why did you choose to name the world that?

A: Terminus is a very odd world. For reasons unknown (or, at least, unrevealed) it is subject to planar collisions. Parts of different worlds have come to Terminus and become part of the world. Because of this, the world is a terminating point, a nexus for all sorts of disparate geographies, people groups, architectures, beliefs, and cultures. So Terminus is called what it is because that is what it is — a Terminus point for a myriad of realms. Ultimately it allows us to creatively avoid traditional high fantasy constraints. Adjacent areas don’t have to make as much sense geographically. Races you encounter can either be familiar or totally new. It’s definitely something we’re very excited about and find liberating.

Q: Did you think of the original concept for the world’s lore, or did you just know you wanted to make another game and had someone else come up with the lore?

A: Like I said, at the inception of the project we knew the game’s setting was something we wanted to come up with right away. It really is something that sets the tone and acts as a guideline from a creative standpoint. So the initial members of the team, including me, came up with the “planar collision” idea very early on. Later, when Justin Gerhart joined and became our Loremaster, we happily handed all of this over to him to truly make magical and to come up with the details.

Q: Pantheon has overcome a lot of challenges to get to where it is now. With the game experiencing steady development, what new challenges are you facing? How will you overcome them?

A: We’ve continued to grow, which is great, but that brings the responsibility to plan and document better and to be more thorough. This isn’t the first time I’ve been part of a small company that eventually grew much larger. So the challenges aren’t necessarily new, but they’re still there. How one organizes a team of 10 people is different than 20. And 30 is different than 20. We’re at a point now where I work with Chris Rowan and Ben Dean on the big picture, but then those high level goals are broken down into multiple phases, say 4-6 months long. Then Ben will take that to the directors of each department and they’ll work diligently along with Project Manager, Lynn Ashworth, on breaking phases down into individual sprint tasks. Likewise, any system or game mechanic that we’ve talked about but haven’t yet broken down in detail, assuming it fits within the current sprints and overall milestone, get documented in detail. Typically we’ll get together and discuss the deeper aspects of a system, and then someone from the creative team will take ownership and document it. Then, again as a group, we’ll go through that document, make necessary tweaks, and then ratify it. Once ratified, the programming team can implement it.

Q: How has your role in development changed or evolved since the Kickstarter?

A: Overall I’ve slowly but surely moved into a position of overlooking the high level vision of the game. Then, as mentioned, communicate that to Ben who then works with the creative leads. Early on in the project, and this is normal for any start-up, we all wore a lot of different hats. I was more in the trenches and filled in as a tools and gameplay programmer. It was really ‘all hands on deck’ to get this project going -- everyone pitched in wherever they could. Now, however, with a larger team, we can rely on specialists more so than generalists.

Q: You have been really interactive on Twitter and other forms of social media, chatting with Pantheon fans. What do you do behind the scenes that the general public might not be privy to?

A: I’ve already covered my role as CCO as it relates to the creative process working with Chris and Ben. I’m also very involved in the PR and Marketing efforts. We have a lot going on there and some pretty cool stuff planned to get Pantheon a lot more exposure. Lastly, I get together with Chris Rowan and Tim Sullivan as often as possible to look at things and plan strategically and financially at a corporate level. Budgeting is very important, making sure we carefully and frugally spend money where it is really needed. Taking our development and marketing needs and interweaving them into an overall timeline and budget is absolutely essential, especially for a smaller company. This is probably the area least apparent to our community, even though it’s arguably as important as designing, creating art assets, or animating characters.

Q: There has been a lot of debate in the community about in-combat meditation. While out of combat meditation is to be expected due to more of an emphasis on downtime, what is the current design philosophy regarding in-combat meditation? Do you want to see players have more of an active role when it comes to combat?

A: Again, no specifics yet, but I can at least convey our philosophy. Firstly, some downtime between battles is very important. It allows players to chat and get to know each other. It allows players to take a bio-break or grab a quick bite to eat. But too much downtime and the game becomes more waiting than doing — something we definitely want to avoid. More specifically, when it comes to getting your mana back, meditating, etc., a group should consist of different classes that, when played properly, can employ a lot of synergistic abilities and spells. That means you can reduce considerable downtime by working with your group and not just expending mana but also getting it back during combat. You’ll also likely always be regenerating mana, even while fighting. As a last resort you can sit down between battles and the rate of mana regeneration will be even more efficient. What’s important here, however, is that that should be the exception not the rule. If you are playing synergistically and smart, and not just mana dumping all of the time, then downtime between battles should be significantly shorter. On the other hand, if you are playing carelessly and not focusing on teamwork, you may very well find yourself waiting a bit longer in between encounters.

While not set in stone, we are considering letting people sit and meditate during combat, but doing so anywhere near an NPC would draw major aggro. So in some situations, for example, depending on the encounter and location, a Wizard could hide in a corner, away from the battle, and meditate more efficiently. But this would likely not be the norm. It could also be tied into the disposition and behavior of the NPCs involved in the battle. Lastly, the meditating player would have to be very careful about adds and wandering mobs.

Q: Some Pantheon fans see the game as a chance to relive elements of your past games, while others see it as a chance to improve on them. How do you determine which elements of gameplay to retain and which to refine? What can you do to please both voices?

A: It’s a bit tricky but I think we’re doing an admirable job. The key is to break down and refine the core elements that make an MMO like Pantheon work. This foundation has to be solid and it has to be fun. And I’m happy to say we’ve achieved both, validated by our pre-alpha sessions. Players find themselves in a familiar and fun game. And to be completely transparent, if the foundation wasn’t solid and fun, we’d go back and make sure it was — it’s that important. But we are also determined to move the genre forward, so to speak. We have a long list of features, mechanics, and ideas that give Pantheon its own identity. As happy as we are with the foundation and that the game is already a blast to play, we simply wouldn’t be content to release a generic MMO — we need to break new ground. So one of our major challenges and goals since late last year has been to shift focus to implementing the new features we think will establish Pantheon’s unique identity. This is the road to Alpha and I’m really happy with where we are. This is the fun part of MMO development. Lastly, because we are now building on a solid, proven foundation, if a new idea needs to be tweaked or even completely removed, we can do so fairly easily. It’s not like a house of cards, which is one of the big reasons we are building Pantheon the way we are.

Q: Will there be places in-game where players will be required to wait a period of real time to advance or progress further?

A: There will be areas that are not accessible until, say, a quest is complete or an item obtained. There are other areas that will be accessible but very difficult if you are not properly prepared. We call this hard and soft keying. It’s important, however, to stress that this doesn’t mean unnecessary downtime. You won’t be waiting around in real time being bored; rather, you’ll be playing the game, exploring, and gathering the items and materials you need to access these more exotic regions.

Q: Project Faerthale and plans for a Pre-Alpha 5 have shifted the focus away from Alpha for a bit. Can you talk a little about the scope for Alpha, and what still needs to be done before bringing the game into that stage?

A: I really can’t say a lot here — we have an important philosophy behind sharing internal dates and specific timeframes. We do this because it gives us flexibility to adjust those goals without upsetting the community. If there’s one thing I’ve learned making MMOs for 20+ years, it’s that managing community expectations is paramount. It’s not that we like keeping secrets — in fact, we’d love to share it all with you. But then if there was a compelling reason to change a target date many people would feel let down, even mislead. When we do have something to announce, though, it will always be on the official website and in our newsletter.

Project Faerthale, as I mentioned earlier, is about implementing those differentiators. It’s about showing the game off and having people immediately say, “Oh, that’s Pantheon. I can tell just by looking at that screenshot or video.” It also takes us much closer to Alpha 1. Our goal for PF is to establish our identity and really get the word out about the game. Our goals for Alpha are to have the Pantheon major and minor features in-game, leaving only the shorter list of features that don’t make sense to implement until later in Alpha and Beta because they rely on a larger critical mass of players.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of Project Faerthale?

A: The planning. As mentioned earlier, as our team grows, more planning and documentation is necessary. And while we know PF is doable, it is also one of the more ambitious milestones to date. So far the challenge has been to define the high level goals and then derive from them all of the various tasks. These tasks are comprehensive, prioritized and finally assigned to the task’s owner. I’m happy to announce, however, that we’ve recently planned and documented to a level where our team can get to work. PF is already taking form and it’s both exciting and gratifying to see and hear about what we’re achieving each and every week.

Q: Pantheon has many great ideas and features planned for release. What is the one feature you are most excited for or believe has the potential to be a real game-changer?

A: I like to say that Pantheon is putting the E back into PvE. Traditionally, PvE simply means fighting NPCs. Pantheon is going beyond that in a big way. Our Perception System is crucial to all of this. You’ll be able to start quests and obtain critical information while exploring. In fact, you’ll need to explore and adventure in order to take part in many aspects of the game. Some MMOs are all about power leveling to the endgame. Why? There is either a perception or a reality that the real fun is at the higher levels. What do many players do in response to all of this? They sit in one or a few spots and power level, often with a higher level friend accelerating the process. This just isn’t going to work in Pantheon. Adventure and exploration are both rewarded and essential. Noticing various “Perception Pings” will be critical. Learning skills only available from a sage hidden in the depths of a dungeon may be the only way to learn them. You are proactively rewarded for actually playing the game. And it’s funny, when I look back at what I just wrote, it seems so natural: of course you should be rewarded for adventuring and exploring. Of course everything shouldn’t just be handed to you with minimal effort on your part. Of course you shouldn’t be able to sit around and power level, bypassing all of the cool low- and mid-level content. But other MMOs haven’t delivered when it comes to these core principles, often to their detriment. We know there’s a large demographic of MMO players who want to explore a vast world with their friends, using teamwork and enjoying shared experiences. And that’s one of the big reasons we are so excited to be working on this game.

Q: Is anything being considered in terms of XP bonuses for groups, or something to encourage people to group up for XP purposes?

A: I can’t get specific here because ideas like that will be tested in Alpha and Beta. What I can talk about, however, is our general philosophy when it comes to these sorts of issues and questions. In the past, many games pretty much threw new players into the lion’s den. You had to figure out you needed to group. You had to find friends to group with. In this day and age I don’t think this is enough. Pantheon will take a proactive role in bringing people together by helping them find friends, rewarding them for grouping and using teamwork, and doing anything else that helps build community (e.g. not simplistic group finders). Again, too early for details, but if you consider what I’ve said I think that gives you more than a reasonable point from which to extrapolate.

Q: What is your vision for Player vs Player Servers in Pantheon?

A: Alternate Ruleset Servers, as we like to call them, include PvP servers, role-playing (RP) servers, possibly even veteran servers and a variety of other variations on the theme. We will launch with at least one PvP server, and the ruleset will likely be free-for-all. But our plan hardly stops there. As the game grows in popularity, we want to offer a variety of these Alternate Ruleset Serves and that would include different types of PvP servers. Race wars, the ability to take and hold territory, and many other ideas are all in the Grand Vision — we just need to reach that point. And that’s done by launching with a solid foundation, in this case a strong PvE foundation upon which we can build variations of PvP, RP, etc.

Q: Have you ever reached out to or considered working with a game publisher? If the right opportunity arose, would you take it?

A: We talk with publishers, investors, etc. all the time. Along with the crowdfunding we’ve received, we will also need further investment and/or support from publishers and investors which would allow us to accelerate. That said, we are a fiercely independent company, lean and mean, and this has been part of our culture since the project’s inception. What we are looking for, more accurately, are “partners”. What those partners are isn’t as important to us as who they are. Do they share our vision? Will they allow us to control the company and the game from a strategic and creative standpoint? Does Visionary Realms’ culture mesh well with these other entities? That’s what’s most important to us and what we think will ultimately allow us to release an amazing game. Compromise is the enemy of excellence.

Q: What class and race will you be playing at launch? Should we expect you to be dual wielding flaming swords?

A: Aradune will indeed be dual wielding flaming swords, but keep in mind he’s my GM character — I’m not actually going to play the game with him. The characters I will actually be playing will likely be human paladins or rangers, as I really like playing hybrid classes. I won’t be making their names public, of course.

Q: What’s the one thing you want people who have been patiently waiting for the game to know about Pantheon?

A: There are so many things, but what comes to mind right now is just how important the community is. And more specifically, how incredibly impactful community support and faith in us has been. I know the team receives this all the time on forums, in direct messages, etc. I kept my Facebook account open and dedicated to the game and community, and the number of private messages I get that are full of support, kind words, and encouragement is amazing. We love working on Pantheon, but at times it gets tough. Making an MMO is not the easiest genre to tackle — in fact, it may arguably be the toughest. It’s so nice to see a new Youtube video pop up supporting the game and promoting the game when you’re feeling some of that pressure. Getting a PM on FB or Discord or Twitter has an incredibly positive effect on our morale, and we are very, very grateful. Yes, we sincerely appreciate our investors, people who have pledged and supported us financially — I don’t want to take any of that lightly. But I also want you all to know that a few simple words of encouragement can have incredible impact as well. And we get them all the time — validation and support for what we’re doing is essentially one of the most important fuels that keep us burning with passion for this project. Thank you all!