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Into The Echo interview: MMO players “shouldn’t do things just for XP”

We chat MMOs, time travel, and reinventing the wheel with Etlok Studios founder and executive producer Akshay Kolte

Into the Echo is an upcoming MMORPG with a distinct twist. Described as a “time travel odyssey” by Toronto-based developer Etlok Studios, the game is set in the fantastical world of Raava, whose inhabitants have been living with a powerful magical ability called Qen for centuries. The arrival of a new, dark power has brought unrest to the land, and after a brush with this new force the player finds themselves able to travel through time.

With New World’s massive launch, the ongoing success of FFXIV, and plenty of buzz around the upcoming Lost Ark, MMORPGs are enjoying something of a renaissance in recent months. Into the Echo aims to deliver something a little different. Details have been sparse since the MMO was revealed with a teaser trailer and some stunning concept art, but the official website lists some pretty lofty goals: time travel to multiple eras, a revolutionary progress system that emphasises player differences, and community-based story progression.

It also seems the game will focus on bringing its playerbase together, with community challenges requiring a collective effort to move the world forward.

To find out more, we reached out to Akshay Kolte, founder and executive producer at Etlok Studios, to ask about the team’s vision for Into the Echo.

PCGN: Could you tell us about Into the Echo’s time travel mechanics?

Akshay Kolte: When we began building Raava, we wanted to give it a rich, deep history. We went back a million years to the early stages of the world’s evolution and worked our way [back to present-day Raava], taking everything into consideration, from tribes and cultures to languages and politics. We’ve built entire stories around the people who lived during various historical eras. So, when it came to designing the gameplay, we didn’t want to leave all this as just a backstory that our audience can read about in the lore. We wanted players to become a part of those stories, to really experience them.

Time travel is one of the many ways we plan on doing this. Just the introduction of time as a factor has added a new dimension to our vision. It not only gives a depth to the storytelling, but it has allowed us to explore some new ideas with gameplay and world design, too.

When we think of a [world] zone, we don’t just consider what it looks like right now, we automatically have to think about what it looked like in the past. And if players choose to pull on a thread about where something came from, there’ll be a story there for them to unravel.

The concept of an echo is that anytime a significant event has occurred in the past, it has left a ripple in the ocean of time that echoes throughout eternity. Players will be able to tap into these echoes and travel back to that significant moment in time.

Generally, time travel is portrayed as a sci-fi concept, but we’re taking a much more ritualistic approach to it. Players will have to gather things and perform a ritual to go into the echo, and a single location could have multiple echo versions from different points in the world’s timeline. Each echo has some mystery or story associated with it, so we expect that each of these journeys will be an experience in and of itself.

In the echoes themselves, players will encounter entities called Time Keepers that protect the echo, so players will have to either avoid or fight them.

How does the “hub-and-spoke” leveling system work, and what is it about this feature that benefits the game?

Most modern MMOs have a linear progression system that uses XP and levels as metrics to measure the player’s journey through the game. This type of system works really well in a single-player game, in which reaching the max level is the main objective. However, MMOs are ongoing, so using a linear XP model signals to the player that the way to win the game is to maximize your XP gain and reach the level cap. This makes reaching the level cap the objective of every player, and so reaching it in the most efficient way possible becomes the gameplay.

With our hub-and-spoke system, we’re replacing the standard XP bar and levels. Instead, players will come across several progression trees, or ‘spokes’ as we like to call them. These could be associated with a piece of story, building up crafting techniques, or even unlocking skills. The idea is to change the player’s motivations. We believe that by using our system, players will focus on the journey rather than the destination. Players shouldn’t do things just for XP, they should do it because it’s enjoyable.

Furthermore, the progress along each spoke is based on milestones instead of numbers, which makes it harder for there to be a preset formula for efficient progression. In fact, the hub-and-spoke system removes the need for players to search for faster ways of progressing in the first place: it’s completely up to the player to decide which spokes they want to level and in what order. This gives them an individual signature that goes much deeper than a character level number. Simply put, we have built a system that embraces the differences between players rather than homogenising or trying to balance them.

There’s a lot of competition in the MMO space right now, with behemoths like WoW, Final Fantasy 14, and now New World. What is it about Into the Echo that you think will make it stand out in a saturated genre?

While it’s true that there are several triple-A MMORPGs out there, we’ve seen a hunger among players for innovation in this space. Into the Echo provides an entire virtual universe with rich locations, beautiful stories shrouded in mystery, intricate puzzles, and several unique gameplay elements. I think all of these together will attract players to our offering.

Moreover, Into the Echo goes beyond the game. For example we plan to release an interactive lore site next year in 2022 where players will be able to dive into the fascinating world of Raava and learn all about its history, people, languages, and most of all, Qen. Further down the road we will be releasing a series of novels – that’s being worked on as well. Players don’t need to consume these in any particular order, but each piece they read will enrich their overall experience.

It is our hope that our deep storyline, unique progression model, our commitment to mental wellness, and most importantly our respect for our players, will ensure that we can retain players for years to come.

Do you think there’s been a resurgence in MMO interest lately, and if so, what would you attribute that to?

I believe that the demand for MMOs has never decreased. If anything, it has risen, and we can see a lot of casual players entering the space recently. Up until now, technology and cost were the only barriers to entry for innovative studios that wanted to bring their dreamworlds to life. With ground-breaking technology from companies like Epic Games, Unity, Improbable, and others, it has become possible for studios to quickly prototype and test new ideas. We feel like this has been the primary driver for the resurgence of MMO games.

Having said that, the journey of an MMO from prototype to release is long and arduous, and requires significant funding. So, not all MMO ideas will see fruition, but several will and players will be all the better for it.

What are the key themes or style references of Raava?

Our vision for Raava is to build a vibrant, culturally rich world made up of a diverse population. The concept art on our website features Cotopi, which is one of the many locations in Raava. This location is inspired by architecture from South India, specifically the state of Kerala. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: the game’s initial release will be set in the southern sub-continent of Iridon, which is one of the three main continents on Raava. We have a vast map and each area has its own deep history that makes it original and unique. We’ve taken inspiration from various biomes, both from around the world and from the far reaches of our imagination, to create locations that have never been seen in mainstream games before.

We’re lucky to have a fully remote team from over 12 countries. The cultural diversity within the team is reflected in the diversity you will see in the project itself.

Players working together to push the story forward collectively is something that works so well in other MMOs. How have you approached this concept with Into the Echo?

One of the main intentions behind our progression system is to create a playerbase in which every player has a unique identity and purpose. The next step is to make these identities relevant, and we’re doing this through community-based gameplay.

We’re working on this at multiple levels of the game. For example, we’re building world-level community challenges in which thousands of players would have to contribute towards a common goal. On the other hand, we’re developing systems to allow more interdependency between players, so they can help further either their own personal progress, or that of their guild.

We hope to achieve interdependence without forcing social interaction. We understand and respect that not all players are comfortable interacting with other players, which is why we’re creating systems that let players work together without being forced to interact with each other.

Can you tell us more about Qen?

Qen is our unique take on the concept of magic. In most games, magic doesn’t have a history, it just exists. But on Raava, Qen has a complex history and has played an instrumental role in shaping society and politics. We have gone very deep with the theory behind Qen and the way it works, and players will have the opportunity to explore all of that.

Qen originally manifested itself on Raava more than ten thousand years ago. It spread through the population over many generations. People didn’t really understand it at first, therefore it was feared and its use was discouraged. An organisation called the Order of the Silver Birch began to research Qen and then took it upon themselves to spread knowledge about the power and regulate its use. In present-day Raava, the Order of the Silver Birch is the foremost authority on Qen: they understand it and all the laws of nature that govern it. However, a mysterious entity has emerged that is organising a group of rebels to act against the Order, and they seem to be able to bend the rules of Qen, which is a practice known as Shadow Qen.

An inadvertent encounter with Shadow Qen has put the player right in the thick of things. It’s now up to them to learn all about Qen and how it works before they can understand Shadow Qen. Only then will they be able to uncover who the mysterious entity is and how they can stop it. Luckily, their brush with Shadow Qen has left them with an uncanny ability to travel back in time.

What kind of combat can players expect from Into the Echo?

Combat will be action-based. We’re adopting a classless combat system, so players will be able to switch between fighting styles without changing their actual characters. We’re not going to have any open-world PvP, so players cannot simply attack each other as they roam around Raava. When we’re ready, we’ll share more about the PvP gameplay we plan to include, but what we can tell you now is that we’re experimenting with group vs group, guild vs guild, and faction vs faction combat.

Lastly, and most importantly, we’re not limiting PvP to combat. Players will be able to compete with each other in many different ways.

There’s no sign of an Into the Echo release date just yet, though the devs have already begun hosting small pre-alpha tests, and there are details on the next test coming up soon. You’ll be able to sign up on the game’s site for a chance to dive in when the next test rolls around. For now though, we have a list of upcoming PC games to check out if you’re keen to try something new.