Monday, March 27, 2023

Ex-‘World of Warcraft’ developers unveil game in deal with Asmongold, Mizkif


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In the summer of 2005, 21-year-old Chris Kaleiki started a “World of Warcraft” guild called Notorious. While sharing player feedback about the game online, he attracted the attention of Blizzard developers, who hired him to work on “WoW.” Sixteen years later, Kaleiki — having left Blizzard in 2020 and still acting guildmaster of Notorious in 2021 — hired some of his former colleagues and guildmates to a studio of the same name that he co-founded alongside former Blizzard gameplay engineer Doug Frazer.

Kaleiki, 37, and Notorious Studios announced Wednesday they’re making a fantasy role-playing game, internally code-named Project Honor, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and “Warcraft” that will feature mages and warriors. Popular Twitch streamers, including Asmongold, Esfand and Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, will get to playtest the game in its early form as part of an investment deal. There is no set release date.

“It’s a cool side note, like ‘Oh, these guys actually like each other,’ ” Esfand, who has over a million Twitch followers, said of how Notorious was formed by “WoW” guild members. Esfand flew to California in May to playtest an early version of the game.

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Notorious is talking about its game early in hopes of attracting more employee applicants and building a fan-base-in-waiting.

“It’s unprecedented to talk about a game at this stage of development,” Kaleiki said. “Traditionally, it can be seen as high risk, as other studios could copy your idea too. You’re setting all these expectations that the player is going to have. If you change them, then they’re going to be upset. We’re definitely trying something new here, but it’s driven by us wanting to have this connection with the player early on.”

Kaleiki’s studio is anything but traditional. The venture capital-backed gaming studio has investors like Galaxy Interactive, Riot Games and One True King (OTK), a Texas-based influencer company. OTK has an undisclosed minority investment in Notorious, apart from the $5 million the studio raised back in October.

When Notorious debuted in October, it also drew scrutiny for hiring no women. Kotaku, the video game news outlet, mocked the studio for having more dogs than women on their website’s staff page. Kaleiki envisions the current team of 13 men will grow to 40 to 50 employees as it develops Project Honor, and said he hopes to course correct.

“The studio hasn’t hired any women yet, and that is totally fair to say and it’s true. Even today, we haven’t hired a woman yet to the team,” Kaleiki said. “It’s something we’re working on.

“We’ve experienced an insanely competitive market for new hires. One thing I’m happy about is just that talent from underrepresented backgrounds are in really high demand and the industry recognizes the value in that.”

As part of OTK’s partnership, streamers like Asmongold and Esfand, who have made careers out of playing and critiquing “WoW,” will try the game and give feedback. Asmongold and Esfand are both owners of OTK and asked to be identified by their streaming names due to privacy concerns.

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“As a dev, I have my own perspective on product, but what I don’t have is 40-plus hours a week to just play games,” said John Liberto, lead designer at Notorious. “[Streamers are] sensitive to some things that, as devs, we may not consider, and they’re able to single out often very specific things about game feel and articulate them in ways that can often be difficult to find elsewhere.

“Having that perspective so directly available is a powerful asset for creativity,” Liberto added.

All owners of OTK have had a chance to preview the game’s concept art, though not every member has had a chance to play the prototype yet. Those who have played it offered advice to the developers, suggesting, for example, how to tweak abilities to improve the feeling of combining several skills together. (OTK and Notorious declined to share details about the gameplay.)

While OTK won’t be involved in day-to-day development, the group plans to provide quality assurance testing for the game, give feedback on whether it’s entertaining and then promote the game to fans, according to Tips Out, chief operating officer of OTK, who declined to share his real name due to privacy concerns.

“The reason why we’re investing in them is because we view them to also be people that have their finger on the pulse of what people want in games, and what they think is the best decision in design,” said Asmongold. “Ultimately, we are streamers, they’re game designers, that’s what they do. We give our insight and they take from that what they want.”

“Me and [Asmongold] definitely have an eye for being able to see a game and understand if it’s going to be good content, not only for the chat, but also entertainment for the streamer,” said Mizkif. “I play games for 5-year-olds. When it comes to gaming and what’s good for Twitch and streaming, what the chat likes is pretty simple. Simplicity is key. The simpler the game, the broader the audience you’re gonna be able to hit. ‘Mario Kart’ is an example of pretty much the perfect stream game.”

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Notorious developers described Project Honor as an action-based combat PC game focused on classes that can be played in an immersive world with a splash of danger. They were careful to couch that the game isn’t a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, despite having many of the same trappings — player-versus-player and player-versus-environment experiences, combat systems, and adventures — as a small indie studio would have difficulty supporting a large MMO.

“We want orcs and we want elves and we want big, burly barbarian warriors. We want magic to be this powerful force in the world,” Liberto said. “We want it to permeate the world. We want the world to feel like the people in it have lived in this reality, that it’s not new to them. A mage popping off a magic missile is not gonna surprise anybody.”

As for things the streamers are hoping Project Honor will provide, Asmongold said, “I want the combat to feel f—— good. Whenever you smash a barrel, the pieces fly everywhere.”

For some content creators, the direct line to game makers was a welcome change of pace. Rich Campbell, an OTK owner and Twitch streamer with over 500,000 followers, recalled streaming “WoW” and talking about it on podcasts with other creators. Campbell studied game design in school and used to host official “WoW” esports tournaments, until he announced in 2020 that the relationship had ended.

“You have the leg weights on when you don’t have that direct line to the developer,” Campbell said, comparing talking about “WoW” to testing and giving feedback on Project Honor. “Pulling back the veil, it’s much easier to make sure you’re not just screaming into the void, and you’re actually putting your effort and focusing on things that can really be changed. Working from the ground up is an experience that is new to pretty much all of us.”

Notorious is one of several gaming studios, including Second Dinner and Moonshot, founded by former Blizzard employees. Workers at these studios — and across the gaming industry — have reckoned with their former employer, Activision Blizzard, facing a deluge of harassment lawsuits and government investigations.

“One of the things we’re doing differently at Notorious is just that we don’t have a typical hierarchy management style. We encourage self management,” Kaleiki said of how he would prevent culture and harassment problems from arising at Notorious. “That’s one way in which we’re trying to bulwark ourselves for potential issues that our former employer may have had. The other is to make sure that our values are lived everyday.”

Laine Nooney, New York University assistant professor and gaming historian, said “nothing about a flat hierarchy prevents male collusion or a masculinized work environment.”

“It’s noble that a game company wants to avoid the kinds of harassment and labor exploitation that are endemic to Activision Blizzard,” Nooney said. “Only time will tell how sincere these ambitions really are.”

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