Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. This is a genre that the video game market is currently flooded with. From classics like World of Warcraft and Runescape to the newest titles from Bethesda like Fallout 76 and The Elder Scrolls Online, there are plenty of online worlds to jump into if you’re itching to escape the real one. Back in the Dreamcast days however, the genre was still in its infancy and had yet to make the leap from PC to console. The Dreamcast of course pioneered the way for MMOs on console with Phantasy Star Online and even earlier than that with the Japanese-exclusive Rune Jade. However calling these “Massively Multiplayer” is a bit of a stretch. While you could have hundreds (thousands?) of players on a single server, you were restricted to 4-player teams. “Multiplayer Online RPG” would probably be a more accurate term for these games. That being said, could a true MMO have worked on the Dreamcast? The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes! In fact, there were a few in the works for the console that sadly never saw the light of day. One of these games was being developed by Paradigm Entertainment, most famously known for their previous work on Pilotwings 64. I managed to get in contact with one of the 3D artists for the game, Benjamin Groves, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the game and give us some insight into what could have been.
Q: For anyone who’s never heard of the game, can you give a general description of what Skies was?
“Skies was meant to be an MMO in the mid 1990’s. Air-based movement was the main gameplay mechanic. The game was presented with realtime 3D graphics. The target platform was Windows PC, as part of the SegaSoft.net endeavor.”
Q: Was there any sort of storyline to the game? If so, can you give us a brief synopsis?
“Skies was a fantasy world, set in the skies (hence the namesake). As I recall, a great cataclysm shattered a planet-scape, leaving a series of inhabited small floating islands. Players took the form of Light and Dark Angels, winged avatars that could navigate the game. I don’t recall specific quests or major goal-themes of the game.”
Q: What were some things that made Skies stand out from the other MMOs at the time?
“The gameplay was in realtime and with 3D graphics. Mind this was in the days of Ultima Online, which had a radically different scope of movement and play. Skies development may have been parallel with the early days of Everquest, and before World of Warcraft.”
Q: What kinds of things would you be able to do in the game aside from the typical RPG fare such as going on a quest and killing baddies?
“One big feature (even in today’s terms), was the ability for players to acquire rare and unique items and then be sold to other players. These items were tracked through a block-chain and could actually be sold for real currency.”
Q: How large was the world in the game going to be? Would there have been multiple cities and locations to travel between?
“I am not really sure. I think with the floating-island motif, there were expansion packs in mind.”
Q: How many players would the game have supported on a single server? I’ve heard it was supposed to allow for thousands of players at once but I’m sure there were some limitations to that.
“Correct, the design called for thousands of players on a single server. I am not sure that was technically achieved.”
Q: What about combat? What was the Skies combat system like? Could players choose between different styles such as magic, ranged, and melee?
“Realtime motion and combat. Magic, Ranged, and Melee.”
Q: Continuing on the subject of combat, what would you be fighting? What kinds of monsters or evil beings would players encounter in the game?
“There was a test with a bipedal NPC dragon in a temple, but we did not work on an extensive bestiary. Player versus player (Light Angels versus Dark Angels) was part of the plan.”
Q: What kinds of player character classes/races were in the game and were there any advantages to choosing one over another?“
“I don’t think we got past modelling basic Light Angels and Dark Angels.”
Q: When creating a character in the game, what kinds of customization options were available?
“I do not recall ability to customize the character, but that could very well have been planned for later in development. The characters were supposed to wear the specialized pieces of inventory mentioned earlier.”
Q: I read that your character would physically age over time which would play an important part in Skies. Can you tell us a bit about that?
“I only have vague recollection of the in-game aging. I had forgotten about that part till you mentioned it.”
Q: Aside from the character’s age, how would characters grow and gain experience? Were there levels and an XP system like a typical RPG?
“I am sure there was XP and leveling, but no specifics past that.”
Q: I think it’s probably fitting to end the interview on the subject of the game’s ultimate fate. How far along was the game before development had ceased and what was the reason behind the Skies’ cancellation?
“I was on for about 6 months of early development, then transitioned to a different project. The company worked on development for a few years with SegaSoft. I remembered an experiment with rendering the islands as voxels. At some point the development with SegaSoft ended and a couple of people tried carrying the concept forward as a single-player experience, but that never matured to fruition.”
Bonus answer from the game’s Marketing Manager Gary Bandy:
“The development never got far enough to even call it a game, before SegaSoft shut down… We had not even assembled a dedicated development team at the time as it was so early in the process. There was conceptual art that was being created, and some basic 3D motion controls were being developed in software, There won’t be any “assets” that would be shareable; I wouldn’t have a clue who (if anybody) would even have that material. Keep in mind this was 19 years ago (I just looked it up and found it was 2000 when Segasoft closed!). And Paradigm Entertainment itself was later sold to Infogrames, who in turn bought Atari and started using that name, only to later sell off the Paradigm development company to THQ, who later closed it down altogether! I was the Manager of Business Development and Marketing, so I was heavily involved in all the early discussions with Segasoft (it took nearly 2 years to hammer out all the details from the time we started talking to the time we signed a contract).”
A big thanks to Ben (and Gary) for taking the time to give us some info on what very well could have been the first true MMO on a console! Skies sounds like it would have been a very unique experience, even in today’s flooded MMO market. Maybe one day we’ll get to try it out if someone is lucky enough to find a playable build out there somewhere. If the recent discoveries of previously unknown Dreamcast games like Internet Game Pack and Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator are anything to go by, anything is possible!
Q: Why have everyone play as winged creatures?
“It played into the Gothic / Renaissance style, and of course the floating islands theme. A real-time 3D world was a hallmark feature.”
Q: If players’ characters would be able to kill other players’ characters, then what would have been done to keep trolling in check? What penalties would there have been to discourage PK’ing another player’s character?
“I am not sure we got far enough to consider such things. Mind, this was mid to late 1990’s and the concept of handling player behavior was not as evolved.”
Q: Would the “3D” combat in the game be in true 3D (“three degrees of freedom”) or more along the idea of 3D characters fighting in a 2D plane? If it was true 3D combat, then what things would help the players to aim and fight?
“Paradigm Entertainment (the development studio) made their name with PilotWings on the N64, in my mind this is why we picked up such a project. Following that was another N64 game called “Aerofighters Assault”. I mention Aero Fighters as we were doing some innovative camera positioning at the time, a “padlock camera” that would auto-frame the player and their adversary.”