There are few things harder to do in gaming than gather a bunch of like-minded friends from around the world and try to make a video game out something you love that happens to be owned by a big corporation that you're not a part of.
For a couple of years, Canadian indie game developer Craig Redl has been trying to do that, leading a group of what he calls "crew members" to build a massively multiplayer game called FUO that is inspired by 20th Century Fox and Joss Whedon's 2002 cult favourite "space western" TV series Firefly.
It's not been easy for Redl and his crew, many of whom he says split their time working on the project and holding down day jobs. Slow progress has caused all sorts of headaches, as has Redl's concern that Fox would swoop in and shut them down.
During a phone call with me yesterday, Redl told me that FUO — Firefly Universe Online — has had doubters for a while. The doubters looked at an early screenshot released for the game and scoffed (there's a new screenshot, snapped from Redl's desktop while we spoke, at the top of this story). Even "crew members" on the project began to wonder if they could really pull this thing off. There were those worries about Fox, though Redl told me his team had a breakthrough and seemed to get, if not an OK to go ahead, at least an indication that Fox wasn't going to shut them down.
It's not been easy, but, to be honest, we at Kotaku made it harder for these folks. Over the weekend we ran a story about their project but then became concerned that we'd been had. The official FUO website, designed to showcase the work of Redl and friends' studio, DarkCryo, was emblazoned with an endorsement from the Yes Men, the renowned Internet pranksters. The claims to have gotten "well wishes of Fox Entertainment Group" to make the MMO seemed thin.
We called the project a hoax.
We did so without reaching out to the FUO people for comment, a breach of our own reporting policy.
It appears that we were wrong.
FUO is indeed a real project, Redl tells me. It's the work of a small scrappy team, to be sure.
Redl directed me to the studio's FAQ to find out a lot more about the game, but even that FAQ is vague and more the product of people who are clearly dreaming of a great game if not necessarily equipped to make the next World of Warcraft. The FAQ is behind a login page, inaccessible to casual visitors because there have been just that many doubters, Redl told me. He only wants people who care enough to create an account to see what progress has been made.
The FAQ paints the picture of a game that's ambitious:
Most titles incorporate RP as a sideline function, not at all part of core gameplay mechanics. Arguably the most important element for this lore, and a breakthrough concept for any MMORPG that has ever hit the market, is our exclusive concept we call Roleplay Experience Points, or RPXP.
In its simpliest form, NPCs will require interaction from players, in the form of text, text-to-speech, and emotes. Understanding that presenting a /rude emote to a Federal soldier, or "GIMME THE F#$%IG JOB LOLZ" to a crime Boss, will immediately and severely alter the course of a player's story. While interacting with players may be somewhat flexible as compared to NPCs, players will still be required to stay in character at all times. Doing so will increase faction and territorial reputation, and open more opportunities for you.
RPXP takes this concept a step even further by recording vital statistics during the course of your Character's activities and behaviour throughout the Universe, and uses that information to evolve your gameplay experience. While Character capture, conversion and even death are topics all on their own, RPXP ensures that the neverending footprint of your Character is a permanent contribution to the FUO Universe.
It also shows just how tough a going DarkCryo has had:
When will FUO be released?
On February 26th, 2012, we unveiled the projected release date for an FUO Alpha Sandbox build to be December 26th, 2012. As we had mentioned on our Facebook page, and website at the time, meeting our timelines was contingent on meeting our minimum financial requirements. While the support from our devoted Fanbase has been most overwhelming, and we are greatful for every Fan amongst us, it simply did not meet the standards to ensure quality delivery. If our upcoming kickstart campaign meets its projected goal, we will finally be able to guarantee the revised launch date of Winter 2013 for the Alpha Sandbox build.
The Yes Men endorsement is more visible on the site. It's on the front page for all to see. Redl told me that it had been born from a previous project that DarkCryo was working on with the pranksters.
The Fox go-ahead was indeed informal.
In an email to Kotaku, Redl said that "20th Century Fox has no official agreement with the crew of DarkCryo Entertainment. We sympathise with their list of reasons, and will remain enjoying informal communication only with the 20th until such time as we can overcome their — very tall — hurdles in order to be considered for a derivative licence in the future. While the Executive branch of 20th have expressed a condition of confidence regarding transcripts, we can elude to the fact that Hollywood is an extremely small town."
And what exactly did DarkCryo mean by saying they had Fox's well wishes?
"We have had multiple conversations with the Senior Counsel at Fox Legal and, despite popular belief, they are a very generous group of people. While, again, we hesitate to throw transcripts to the wind, our first conversation began with, "We have good news and bad.", with authorization to publicly relay only the bad. Honestly this was the kindest "no" we've every received. Our statement regarding 20th's 'well wishes' was taken from this conversation.
"During our conference calls we were essentially asking how close to the line we are allowed to tread and still maintain a positive, open comm link with Fox Legal. We've never received a C&D, and don't want one. We gave scenarios, and Fox Legal was generous enough to give us specifics on what they perceived to be derivative. So long as we maintain this fine line, Fox Legal stated that "of course" we can proceed, and that they "wish us well".
"When we stated 'well wishes', we were simply alleviating people's fear that - no matter what DarkCryo does — it will be 'shut down.'We know now how to avoid this scenario, and should no longer be an issue."
(We've reached out to FOX and the Yes Men ourselves, but have not heard back yet; if we do, we'll add their comments too.)
Redl says his team has amassed a terabyte of assets for their game. He thinks the dream of finishing this game really is possible. But his team could use some Kickstarter funds. In fact, that's what was coming next… that's what we originally reported before mistakenly thinking the whole thing was just a Yes Men hoax meant to comment on Kickstarter culture.
The Kickstarter will still happen, but it will be delayed. It'll start after DarkCryo thinks the dust has cleared and once they think they can build people's confidence again. They also have the tough task that any fan game has… to convince people that, sure, even though DarkCryo isn't BioWare or Sony or Activision that they can pull this off, that they can make an MMO worthy of the love people have for Firefly.
We wish them the best of luck.