Sherwood Dungeon exclusive interview

Sherwood Dungeon is a free browser MMO that started as an experimental project in 2003 and slowly but surely evolved into one of the most cherished games of its genre. spoke with the maker – yes, just one – of Sherwood Dungeon. Read on to learn about the creation and evolution of this MMO.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m an independent game developer and created a game called Sherwood Dungeon in my basement. Sherwood is a browser based 3D MMO that has a million unique visitors every month and just had its sixth anniversary. I was a 3D modeling and animation instructor for many years before taking a job in the console games industry.

Making browser based games was an activity that started as a hobby in the late 90s and became my primary focus in 2006 when I left my day job as a Technical Art Director to concentrate on Sherwood full time. My wife also joined the company at that time to handle everything not directly related to making or running the games. I wanted to keep the new business cottage-industry based and make a go of things in a non-traditional way that doesn’t rely on publishers or VCs.

How did you come up with the idea to create a browser-based MMO all by yourself?

By 2003 I had a number of small, hobby 3d avatar based chat rooms. These experimental projects were really intended to learn how to code and hopefully leave me with some techniques I could use in the future. I posted all my experiments on so friends and other Shockwave developers could see how it was going. These projects developed a small following and that encouraged me to take what I’d done and tackle a more feature filled MMO.

As a fantasy lover, I launched Sherwood to see how close I could get to an Everquest-like experience in a web browser. Although I liked the 3rd person camera and visual presentation of Everquest, from a game design perspective I deviated immediately and went with a skill-based, action RPG style of combat.

Were there times when the task just seemed too overwhelming?

Sherwood didn’t always look like it does today. It started as a hobby and I launched with the absolute minimum of features, basically a 3D chatroom in a fantasy environment. Because the game is always in active development, features are added in response to player feedback or my interests at the time. There was never a point to feel overwhelmed because I only worried about the next feature and could let Sherwood evolve organically. It was an experiment with a more open development process where players could see the game evolve over time and participate in the process with their feedback. That sounds more official than it is in practice and really it’s just a bunch of people talking about Sherwood and one of them happens to be making the game. No player community speaks with one voice, so it’s always a tricky balancing act. Articulate ideas from individuals seem to have the most influence as opposed to some kind of design by committee process. Early players bought into the idea of what Sherwood could be some day as opposed to what it actually was. The fact that I wanted their feedback to help steer the direction of development was apparently such a rare thing that they were willing to overlook the fact that it was so unfinished. There wasn’t much to do, so they would invent stuff. That culture of emergent play never left the game. As a result, some of the coolest “features” of Sherwood are not found in the user interface but come from a very active player community.

Is this the MMORPG for people who don’t like MMORPGs?

I like MMOs and although we share many of the same influences, Sherwood doesn’t really fit the established traditional mold. The vast majority of fantasy MMO's tend to use a pseudo-turn based approach to combat. In these games, most attacks have cool-down periods that provide time to make strategic choices for the next attack. As players level, their skill tree expands and those choices become increasingly complex. The player’s ability to crunch numbers becomes more important and they are rewarded largely based on the hours dedicated to the game. The traditional MMO is more of a cerebral strategy based game than an action oriented skill based one.

For better or worse, I wanted to make combat in Sherwood feel more in your face and differentiate it from other MMOs. This is why we don’t use the traditional tank, DPS, healer trinity and focus more on an action RPG style of melee combat. My intention was to make combat a little like Street Fighter, where timing and practice count but XP Level does not. In this way any player is a potential opponent for any other player and you're not running around looking for opponents of the same XP Level. This also removes the pressure of having to spend many hours dedicated to get some arbitrary stats in the game to say you’re god like.

Over six years from launch, how is Sherwood Dungeon doing, and what are your plans for the near future?

Part of the reason for Sherwood’s longevity is the grassroots nature of it. Players seem to find it a refreshing change to play an MMO developed by a guy in his basement rather than a large faceless corporation. We don’t require registration or personal information and the game is running in your browser within a minute. Just enter a character name and you’re in. We have the lowest barrier to entry of any MMO. We don’t talk much about updates before they are released or discuss specifics about what’s in the works and new features usually just appear in the game without advanced notice or hype. This way there’s no false expectations and it’s just a nice surprise. Players can often get a sense of what’s on my priority list from the on-going conversations on the facebook page, particularly when I ask for feedback on aspects of the game.

Anything else you would like to say to our readers?

One of the new things in Sherwood is the expansion of our pet features. There have been optional pets available for purchase in the game for $5 each since 2008. Pets can now can be either summoned to help you in combat or ridden as a mount. If you ever wanted to explore our virtual world as a wolf or a dragon, you can now also transform your character into the shape of your pet.

Sherwood is designed to be playable either in a small window, typical of a web game or full screen, more like a boxed MMO. We have a liberal linking policy and provide code so that any website can embed Sherwood and the other games on their site so long as the ad is visible under the game. With hundreds of sites linking in, we’ve ended up with an ad-hoc distribution network rather than relying on a major game portal. This also means that Sherwood guilds and clans can include the game itself as part of the content of their guild site. So if you want Sherwood Dungeon on your website, let me know.

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