Prepare to embark on an adventure unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Whether you’re joining the world solo or with friends, endless adventure awaits in one of the largest online VR games ever. Zenith: The Last City is an ambitious new VR MMO from Ramen VR, and it’s out now on Quest and Rift Platforms, with cross-buy and cross-play, for $29.99 USD.
Featuring a massive world with multiple different biomes, an assortment of ferocious enemies, two classes with three separate sub-classes each, and tons of loot to find, Zenith is the kind of VR game you won’t want to stop playing. Taking heavy inspiration from classic JRPG franchises, popular anime, and the latest MMOs on the market, this is sure to be a thrilling adventure no matter which VR platform you play on.
Since Zenith is designed from the ground up with VR in mind, you can do things that you could never do in other MMOs. For example, everyone can stretch their arms out and glide across entire maps or climb any surface in the game world as long as their stamina will last. You can even spawn cooking stations to physically craft delicious meals to boost your stats before battle.
To learn more about Zenith, its roots on Kickstarter, and the studio’s multi-year development cycle, we took some time to chat with Ramen VR CEO Andy Tsen.
Before we get into the details, let's start off simple: What exactly is Zenith: The Last City?
Andy Tsen: Zenith: The Last City is an expansive open-world VR MMO built from the ground up to leverage VR’s unique strengths and capabilities. It’s an online adventure that will take players through a massive world as they explore, fight, and craft their way through a gorgeous JRPG and Anime-inspired open adventure. As large and ambitious as Zenith is on launch day, this is just the beginning—we formed Ramen VR to work exclusively on Zenith, and we think of this as a live-service title.
What role do players have in this world? Why are we fighting monsters?
AT: Long ago, a catastrophic event known as the Fracture threatened all life in Zenith. Sixty years later, Agents of Zenith are called to action, as they unveil a sinister plot to wreak havoc upon the world once again. Agents have special powers that are granted through years of training, and they also wield powerful godstones, concentrated artifacts of Essence, that grant players superhuman abilities
Enemies in Zenith tend to fall into a few camps—aligned with the primary antagonist, who has the goal to usher in a new age of peace through subjugation, wild creatures that are hostile and will attack on sight, and enemies that have been corrupted through the influence of Essence.
What was it like to get funded so quickly on Kickstarter? Did you have to scramble to post stretch goals before you expected?
AT: The reception to Zenith during our Kickstarter was phenomenal. Our internal estimates—we would have been happy with $50,000 – $100,000. To see that we almost tripled our wildest projections was really encouraging. We really used Kickstarter as a way to gauge how much interest there would be in our game.
Zenith has two main classes: Blade Master and Essence Mage, with a third class on the way. Each class can focus on DPS (damage-per-second), tanking, or support, kind of making it like there are six classes. How differently do they play, and how does combat work generally?
AT: We designed the roles to play very differently from each other. Each of the subclasses have completely unique abilities and buffs so that it's like a different class altogether. In fact, I would go as far as to say that each sub-class actually differs more than typical classes in traditional MMOs.
In most MMORPG desktop games, gameplay ends up being a series of button presses or macros you have to press in a certain order, regardless of which class you pick.
Sub-classes in Zenith frequently differ significantly from each other, even at the basic level. For example, the Essence Mage Reaver (Tank) class, has a beam shot that charges up over time the longer you keep it trained on enemies. It also comes with the god hands ability, which lets you block attacks by physically raising your hands up like a boxer.
We tried to make combat in Zenith extremely visceral—that means that it feels more like an action-adventure game than a traditional MMORPG, or action-RPG. Examples include our AI system—enemies actually block attacks with their sword and dodge players. We also have a weak point and stagger system, which means players have to think and act fast in combat in order to maximize their damage output.
MMOs are extremely ambitious games that require a ton of work, funding, and talent to bring to life—and there really aren't very many out there in VR at all. What do you think makes Zenith special?
AT: Launch is the first step, and in many respects, not the last. What’s really important for us is that Zenith has always been, and always will be, a community-driven game. The reason for our success is the fact that we’ve taken user feedback from Pre-Alpha all the way to Beta extremely seriously, and we’ll continue to do so.
With Zenith,we really focused on building something different from the traditional MMO genre—that’s why we think it’s special. Zenith is a unique experience for VR, and we think it should be judged as such. I get a lot of questions about whether or not Zenith would hold up against non-VR games, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Zenith is an immersive online world that only VR can provide.
But just how much of an MMO is it really? For people that are familiar with World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, is it on that same scale?
AT: It’s hard to say how big it is compared to traditional MMOs because while the map size might be smaller, every single nook and cranny is explorable through climbing, gliding, swimming, and running. One statistic I can reveal is that despite having very high retention/engagement rates for Beta, < 1% of our users made it to the end of the world in five days of intense testing. I think that points to it being a fairly massive world.
Instead of being compared to other current-gen MMOs, I’d much prefer to be thought of as a new type of online experience altogether. What we’re building is much more experimental, and we’re hoping our game can inspire a new generation of MMO games with a focus on immersion. For example, soaring through the world using our sensitive gliding system, or flipping a burger while doing a trickshot—these are things that wouldn’t be nearly as fun in flatscreen as VR. We also shed a lot of the cruft that I think has built up in the MMO genre over the years that we think has made the genre less inspired and less approachable. The awesome thing about VR is that it’s actually a lot more intuitive, and we hope that means we’ll introduce an entirely new generation of players to MMO-style gaming.
Around how many players can exist in an area together at once? I've seen footage of high-level boss battles that seem to have tons of players fighting together.
AT: We don’t have an official number on this, but lots of players can be in the same zone—for the last world boss event we did, for example, there were around 40 players fighting the boss at the same time.
We built Zenith with the idea that everyone on one shard would be able to hang out in the same area together. Different platforms will have different quality settings. Rift and Quest mitigate client performance by having different max players that can be rendered per zone.
Do you mind sharing some numbers? How many zones/biomes are there, how many types of enemies, dungeons, bosses, quests, and so on?
AT: Zenith features a really large world, spanning 15 large subzones and five major biomes at launch. I don’t have the exact numbers for unique enemies, but each biome has several fully unique enemies, combined with a few reskins for the elite versions.
As for the number of quests and side quests, it is well over 100, with many more planned on the way. We also have several public events per subzone—and of course lots of other pieces of content, like recipes for cooking, gatherables, etc.
What was your Launch Pad experience like, and how has your involvement made an impact on your career?
AT: Launch Pad made a huge impact on my career in a number of ways. First, it’s where I met Lauren Frazier and where we cut our teeth on Conjure Strike, our first foray into VR game development. It’s also where we won grant funding for our first published VR title, which gave us the confidence to work on more ambitious projects like Zenith.
Can you talk to me a bit about your team at Ramen VR? What’s your personal game development background, and what kind of industry experience does the rest of your team have?
AT: We are an 18-person development team that includes both industry veterans and rising talent, united by a common purpose: To build an incredibly immersive VR MMO. Our design team includes a former lead game designer from Ubisoft, as well as designers that have worked on some of the most popular PC MMOs ever, including Everquest and Rift.
My co-founder and CTO Lauren Frazier was a former senior engineer at Google, before moving to Unity where she led the Game Foundations team before then joining me at Ramen VR. My background is product and engineering—I was the lead engineer on Mob Wars, one of the first successful Facebook games to crack $1 million in revenue, before working on the platform team at GREE as PM, where I worked on the #2 and #3 top grossing mobile titles at the time as a member of the growth and revenue team.
Did you run into any major technical challenges while working on Zenith? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
AT: We ran into many technical challenges along the way—and it wasn’t always easy to find a solution. It was really helpful to have a group of peers and other people to look to for advice. Asking for help when needed was a crucial skill we needed to learn early on.
For standalone VR, one piece of crucial advice is to always keep performance in mind. Never wait until the last second to optimize. Keep drawcalls, render budget, CPU time, and GPU in mind right from the beginning.
It helps to have team members with skills that are complementary to your own, so make sure you look for a diversity of talent and that everyone on the team does something uniquely well.
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
AT: Passion is what drives this industry—so focus on what you are passionate about, and build something unique. Don’t chase what you think will be popular Work on something that you are truly excited about.
Start small, and work your way up to your grand vision. We worked on smaller experiments and games in VR for three years before deciding we were finally experienced enough to take on Zenith.
What was the most important learning(s) or most interesting take-aways from players who playtested the game?
AT: It’s really a meta-learning, but the most important thing is to always listen to your players. That doesn’t mean do everything they tell you to though—it means to absorb the feedback about specific systems and then figure out what the players are actually saying. They often provide a great general direction for the product.
More specifically, here are some additional insights:
Finally, what are your tips for new players stepping into the world of Zenith for the first time?
AT: Zenith is a game that rewards exploration and collaboration. Don’t be afraid to ask players for help—our community is friendly and can’t wait to show you around!
More specifically, make sure you eat food and do your best to complete all the stamina upgrades. Food increases health regen significantly. Stamina upgrades, which you get by collecting Amara’s Tears scattered throughout the world and turning them into the Statue at Fractured Plains, enable you to travel much further and block many more attacks.
Comfort and locomotion settings are key to your individual enjoyment, both if you like more intensity or get uncomfortable in VR. We’d recommend giving sensitive gliding a try—which is a new movement mechanic that’s hard to master, but very fun once you do.
If that sounds like an adventure worth embarking on for yourself, then you’re in luck because the wait’s over. You can dive into Zenith: The Last City for yourself right now on the Quest and Rift Platforms for $29.99 USD. They’re cross-buy and both are also cross-play, including multiplayer with players from Steam on PC VR and on PSVR. For more details on Zenith, check out the official website.