Studio 369 CTO Dan Nikolaides on building mech combined arms shooter MetalCore

In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to Studio 369’s CTO Dan Nikolaides about MetalCore, its Unreal-powered F2P open-world shooter, which is designed to be welcoming to web2 players but also with plenty of blockchain features for those who want them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can also listen to the podcast via the Fountain app and earn Bitcoin. Can you give us a potted history of your gaming career?

Dan Nikolaides: I’ve been in traditional game development for almost 20 years now. Got my start at Midway Games in Chicago in the early 2000s, working on Mortal Kombat. We were working heavily in Unreal Engine 3 at the time. So I got my start in the Unreal Engine; graduated to UE4 and now UE5. Worked on Gears of War 3, also worked on some smaller indie games, so have experience doing a little bit of everything in the industry. 

About four years ago, I founded this studio with my other two co-founders, Vic Lopez and Matt Candler, right at the start of the pandemic. We came together to work on games that we really love making, one of which was a title called World of Mechs, which we released for the Oculus Quest 2. It was a small-scale mech combat VR game and we had the idea, ‘Why not take this and up-res it, move it to PC, blow it out, make it a much larger combined arms mech game?’

Right around the same time, some funding partners Matt knew said ‘Are you guys interested in web3?’ We thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ We’d been doing some work-for-hire and had worked with web 3 companies like Parallel and Ultra so we’d been dipping our toes into the space. But this was the first moment we got an opportunity to dive head first into making our own big web 3 game and that’s what MetalCore is.

How have you found web3 to be different in terms of development?

It’s very different. It pushes a lot of the early decision-making and puts a lot more pressure to get it right early on, which is different from what we’re used to. Not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to put more thought into it early. But we’re used to having a bit more flexibility. So while we do make promises that we don’t want to go back on, there are other things we’re not going to be public about or make a concrete promise because we need the freedom to be able to creatively explore what’s fun and what isn’t. Such a big portion of game development is iterating and finding the fun. You can’t necessarily know you’ve hit it in a monolithic 40 page document in the first month of the project. 

And the other thing that was very different is how much we frontloaded art. In most games I’ve ever worked on, you start with mostly gray boxes and a very small art team. You start mostly working on the tech infrastructure and the gameplay in a not very beautiful world. Maybe you do one little beautiful corner, as you call it. And then you figure out what’s fun and then you blow out the art. What we did instead was got all the art done almost in the first six months of the project and have since been trying to catch up with getting all of it into the game. So that’s also quite different.

How does the design work in terms of some players being tiny grunts and others stomping around as giant mechs?

We’ve tried to split the gameplay. There’s big open areas where vehicle combat happens, and then there’s bases where the vehicles can’t get into them. So even if you own zero vehicles and you’re just in close quarters combat with a shotgun, you’re going to be able to find a way to play MetalCore and have fun, hiding in a base and waiting for a player to get out of his mech and shoot him in the back. That is a valid way to play. 

Also we don’t want it to feel like it’s pay-to-win. It’s a free-to-play web2 slash web3 game, right? So we call it web 2.5. So it does have mechanics where players might come in and purchase a bunch of really great vehicles, but that’s just going to allow them to play with those vehicles more often, as opposed to making one vehicle that’s going to kill everybody else on the server. 

For example, when your vehicle blows up, it’s going to have a repair cooldown, a repair cost and time before you can use it again so building up your garage means you can play the vehicle side much more often and have a lot more situational variance for what you want to do. 

But if you’re a good free-to-play player and you just have your one trusty mech, you’re still good. You’re still going to be able to go out there and wreck all the people who spent a ton of money on their really expensive mechs. That’s one of the driving ways that we’ve made sure that it’s inherently balanced.

That’s always the balance between skilled players and those with better stuff in the game.

It feels really good being a little grunt who’s stalking behind a big mech, waiting until the pilot jumps out and then assassinating him. That just feels great, right? Of course, nine out of 10 times you’re going to get stomped though, so there’s a trade-off. In terms of those moments for players who want a challenge by taking on something that’s maybe a bit more than they can chew, but the payoff emotionally should be there too.

Can you explain how the balance works between the gameplay and the metagame?

The main game loop we have, we call it open game mode, is a player versus player versus environment (PVPVE) big open world server where you have three different factions in a giant zone. You can accomplish daily missions and randomly generated missions. We spent a lot of time implementing this really cool system that we call kind of tongue-in-cheek DEGEN, which stands for dynamic generator. It dynamically generates mission content for players and that’s what you’re going to be spending most of your time doing. 

But in addition to that, we have PVP objectives, session-based PVP battles, Barony versus Barony battles. Barony is our in-game version of a guild. So we have a bunch of different ways to engage in that kind of broader metagame loop. Then zooming out a step further, we have Territory War, which is like a big PlanetSide 2-style mode, albeit quite a bit slower. It’s a struggle to occupy different territories. Every season of the Territory War, one team is going to win a zone and then you’ll push out your territory, your safe farming zone a little bit more, changing the main conflict area to another adjacent territory. All of this is the meta loop. 

There’s also the general progression of advancing your garage, getting all of the best vehicles for every situation in combat, equipping all of the top loadouts, the best-in-slot for every loadout slot. That’s going to take a really long time. And then there’s barony progression. A lot of players, their goal will be to be in the number one ranked guild in the world. 

How does the progression work for web2 players?

It’s really a driving ideal of ours that you should be able to play this game as a web2 player without ever connecting a wallet and experience 95% of the content. and then naturally see how connecting with web3 would be a pure benefit over what you’re doing. That’s how we want to level up web2 players into web3 players. We’re working with Immutable. It has great Passport tech which minimizes the barrier of entry for players to get into the web3 set of things 

So web2 players will be able to play the game. They’ll be able to defeat giant mechs and scan their blueprints and then get all the pieces they need to build them, upgrade them, modify them, upgrade their loadout slots, take it to a high level and then at a certain point if they want to they can convert it into an NFT by spending some of our tokens. Then you have an NFT you can sell. Some people might play for months with it, maxing out all of its stats, convert it to an NFT, sell it, and then start again on a new vehicle.

You launched your first (and so far only) NFT collection in 2022. How has that gone?

Yes. That was our Infantry Genesis Mint. It was a free mint and the goal was to raise awareness of what we were doing and also get a core community of beta testers into our game. The main thing that those infantry NFTs have been doing is giving people access to our early alphas and now our closed beta. We have a solid 500 to 1,000 players joining in and playing whenever we release new builds. That’s worked out pretty well for us.

What’s your schedule for the rest of 2024?

We are planning a token release, a TGE in late spring, early summer. And we are likely going to release a wider beta. We’re going back and forth on whether we want to call it open beta or if it’s closed beta 3. It may be gated by NFT ownership, but we may also distribute a lot more NFTs. We’re going back and forth on exactly why we want to do it. Because we want to have a million players playing this game on a monthly basis, but we don’t necessarily want that in May. That may be a little too fast for us, so we’d like to work our way up to a million players.

In terms of features, the main thing we’re working on right now is the loadout system. We’re adding a ton of content and implementing the base mechanics and the UI and all this stuff. Then in the summer and the fall later this year, come some of the bigger features. We want to add a full campaign, so more of a narrative campaign. I mentioned the dynamic mission system so we also want to add a narrative campaign, so you’re getting narrative while there’s still the threat of other players coming and killing you while you’re doing these missions. Or somebody’s trying to kill you and then one of your teammates saves you. That emergent PVP gameplay is always super fun. 

We also want the Territory War feature, that’s a big feature we want to get done later this year, as well as a full barony progression. We want our baronies to feel like they’re players who are more of the organizational leadership taxonomy as opposed to the hardcore pro gamer, that they feel like they have something to do and they get some value out of it too.

How do you feel about marketing MetalCore to PC gamers who might not like NFTs?

There is some mistrust but I think that a lot of it is really about the products. There’s nothing out there on web3 that really attracts those gamers. We need to make sure that we have a big enough web3 community playing on a daily basis that any web2 gamer who jumps in and plays will find it a comparable or hopefully even better experience to any other web2 F2P shooter they’re playing and will inherently want to play our game. 

The best marketing you can have is when you have people genuinely wanting to play the game, going out and telling their friends. Once you’re in that position, then you can focus on getting eyeballs on it, doing some marketing spend, getting some more web2 gamers to become aware of the game. It won’t be this thing that’s for web3 gamer-only because there will be a mix of organic gamers coming in on their own or through word-of-mouth. 

Find out more about MetalCore via its website.

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