Dev Spotlight: Dominik Müller
What was your background in games prior to working at SBI?
Like most devs, I spent a lot of my youth playing games, mainly anything with a ranking. My career in games didn’t start until I was accepted at the London College of Communication to study Game Design. I fell in love with the depth of design behind a good game and made it my profession. Since 2012 I have been developing smaller games, and in 2015 I worked on my first proper game, “Iron Fish” by BeefJack, where I was Level and Narrative Designer. The project was too ambitious for the small team, and the whole thing kind of sank, like, well, an iron fish. So I looked for the next opportunity and went back to Germany, my home country, to start working for SBI.
You've worked at Sandbox since 2016. How has your work on the game evolved over the years?
It has been almost three years now since I joined the team. I basically went from the guy who would move bushes and grass out of the way to the guy who would design why there is grass in the first place and how the grass should look and what type of grass it is.
I really enjoyed bringing small stories into the world. All over Albion you can find these small elements, such as a working sundial in an Essence template and a pumpkin scarecrow chained to a bed in the asylum in Camlann. At the same time, I played a ton of Albion, mainly doing Hellgates and Fame farms, learning to see the game from a player perspective.
As my understanding of Albion grew, so did my ambition, and with a small team of devs I worked on the first event, The Headless Descent. Given my love for quests I also took over the world quest line for the subsequent winter event, and eventually the major overhaul of the tutorial, culminating in my latest and biggest contribution: the complete rework of the starter experience.
Can you give an overview of the Level Design process?
We work very closely with all other departments. An idea comes to us from Game Design, which is then given an initial structure by Level Design with all the assets that we have, then polished by Art with new assets. I really feel that for such a small team we have an amazingly detailed and vast world. Due to our small size we are greatly limited in what we can do, and have to keep efficiency in mind at all times. But as I like to say, creativity grows with constraints.
And in my humble opinion, Albion is in all facets a great example of that. Many things we do in Level Design are limited by size, as we are using a so-called template system, meaning we are creating a lot of different puzzle pieces that have to fit together. Which makes it vastly complex to create small areas that look unique enough yet also normal enough to make up a “good”-looking landscape.
We're aware that many parts of the world still seem “copy-pasted” as many of the puzzle pieces are used multiple times, due to the creation of an enormous world in a limited amount of time. We're not too happy with that, but we are dealing with this issue and are improving the world design with every iteration, focusing more and more on the needs of the playerbase and their feedback.
Examples of updated level design can be seen all over the world, most noticeably in the T3 starting clusters which have served as a test run for further changes.
In addition to Level Design, you've also worked in Game Design, and have recently begun working on strengthening Albion's lore. How do these different game development processes relate and connect to each other?
They are so very similar and yet so very different, which is why I always like to use this simple metaphor: Level Design is the creation of the chess board while Game Design is the creation of the rules. Lore, well, lore ties everything together and gives meaning to the numbers and rules of the game. Without narrative elements one would not threaten to destroy a tower, kill a bishop, or overthrow a king, but merely be playing with wooden pieces.
Due to Albion's sandbox nature, only a bit of lore was needed to keep everything together, but I do believe that with more of a background story all design processes can be enhanced – again using the idea that limitations require innovation. The more lore in the game, the more limited our ideas will be, but they will also have more direction and weight. And thus I became more involved with the lore of Albion, going through very old documentations, our amazing paperback book and other sources to update the story and collect everything we know of our own world. We also added a lot of voice lines to mobs and NPCs such as:
- The Cook: "There is no 'peas' in Albion, only beans."
- The Alchemist: "Death in a bottle, life in a bottle... uhh, I should really label them."
- The Torturer Boss: "The pain... what pleasure."
These voice lines add a few more specks of color to Albion's palette, and I can’t wait for players to find more and more lore hidden throughout the world.
What are the biggest challenges when working on a game like Albion Online?
To make everyone happy. It is a tough task to choose and pick in what direction to go, knowing exactly how certain players will react to it, knowing that it might still be the best choice. In the end we are creating this world for the players, and it is very hard to do something that might upset a certain player group. In the end it is not possible to create a world everybody always likes, but we will always give our best to make certain to deliver what we can. And yes, sometimes there are bugs and also misjudgements, but they have been done with the purest intentions. And the great thing about an ongoing development process is that it is never over, and things that might have been once broken can return to glory (see hellgates :D, which might be slightly broken again, but well). It is the circle of games, I guess.
For the Oberon update last spring, you redesigned the game's tutorial from the ground up. Can you give some insights into that process?
This was the fourth time I worked on the tutorial. The first iteration was a streamlining of the starter island to create a natural flow of movement for the player, basically moving rocks and roads.
The second iteration brought a quest line, intended to help the player craft their first set of gear and gather resources.
The third iteration introduced the newly designed starter areas into the game and the first narrative-driven quest line started, which brought my personal favorite reward of the game: the Royal Steed, which is basically a back-alley mule with a royal sigil stitched on the side. This tutorial was far more complex than the previous ones, empowering the player to actually go out into the open world to gather and craft and switch clusters. It was a very inspiring design process going through all the biomes, thinking about how to introduce different resources and tiers to the player while they make their way outward from the starter town.
Then the internal announcement of free-to-play arrived, and we knew that a new and improved starter experience was needed. I was given a few months to work on the complete rehaul of the tutorial, with an updated goal: I needed to create instanced content to have enough resources and space for the rush of new players that would be joining the game.
But this also allowed me to bring a deeper narrative layer to the whole thing. Yes, the story of the hero stranded on a beach is not a new invention, but it lent itself sooo very well to Albion. It's the same premise used in our book, and for those hardcore fans out there, many of the characters one meets in the tutorial are out of the book, like Tia, our fearless captain.
So the new tutorial took shape, created out of elements such as lore, gameplay, and introductions to complex mechanics. Finally we explained the Destiny Board and the Marketplace in the tutorial which made the whole thing a bit less flowy, but as we've seen in our stats, a lot more players understand how the game works and stick with it longer.
Briefly, the new tutorial should show you what the game is all about without being too scary. It should display the love of detail, the combat and crafting system, the depth of progression, and how beautiful the world of Albion can be.
And I am deeply sorry that there is no full loot PvP in the tutorial, but come on, let people breathe before you take their T2 gear.
What are some of your all-time favorite games? Which games have you learned the most from?
I am a very competitive player and did quite well in shooters such as Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike, and MMOs like Guild Wars and WoW. These games taught me how much of a difference a well-placed column or box can make, and how important it is to give players the opportunity to use their knowledge of the environment to gain an advantage.
But my favorite games are the so-called Souls games. I love the brutal skill check and PvP these games have, but what I love most is the level design and lore. Everything in these games is there for a reason, nothing is there just because someone felt like it. If you dive deep enough into discussions with super enthusiasts, you can find a reason behind every stone and every metal type of every armor.
And this is what I eventually would love to achieve for Albion, to create a world where players feel that everything has a reason, and where skill matters most.
Anything else to add?
Our work might not always be perfect, but Albion is our passion, and as I said above, we are doing this for the players. Sometimes we piss them off, sometimes we please them. But in the end, all we want to do is give you a place to have fun and kill some guys and maybe make you chuckle over the silliness of a T2 mule as a quest reward.
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