Persist Online is fusing Escape from Tarkov and DayZ into a MMORPG – developer interview

Tibia developer CipSoft is diving into something new
CipSoft

German developer CipSoft may not be a household name in the shining world of triple-A games, but with its history of successfully running one of the oldest and genre-defining MMORPGs in the world it must be doing something right. Tibia went online in 1997 and is doing “exceptionally well” at the moment, according to CipSoft’s Benjamin Zuckerer, who spoke to us via email recently.

CipSoft has been able to pay its employees an average bonus of €43.500 Euro in 2023 thanks to Tibia’s performance, making it into national newspapers in Germany. More people are working on the game than ever before as its 30th anniversary draws closer, but this isn’t the only direction in which the studio is expanding: Fueled by Tibia’s success, CipSoft built up a second team at its HQ in Regensburg, which is focusing on the development of its first new PC game in almost three decades – Persist Online, an open-world zombie MMORPG.

Persist Online “started as a hobby project by Thomas Brünger (product manager) and me shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began,” Zuckerer, who is the lead product manager of the new game alongside his role as CipSoft’s managing director, tells us. The two company veterans worked on their prototype for “about 18 months” before presenting it to the studio founders. The result: “They liked the idea, and we brought the project to the company. Now, the team is 14 people strong.”

After working on the same game for about three decades, wasn’t it difficult to leave that comfort zone and embark on a totally different journey – from 2D high fantasy to 3D zombie apocalypse, from magic wands and swords to frying pans and guns? Not really, according to Zuckerer: “It was more about returning to our roots. Persist Online shares a lot of the same DNA as Tibia. It’s a hardcore MMORPG where player actions inside the large open world are relevant, where it is important where your character is located in the world, and where the best stories are created through interactions with other players from around the world.”

Persist Online screenshot showing a player aim at another player.
PvP is always enabled outside of stronghold areas, which makes for thrilling adventures. / CipSoft

CipSoft calls the game a “true, old-school MMORPG” precisely because it shares a lot of core values with Tibia. “Tom and I love the old-school experience where the player is not led by the hand and is given rewards for every step. We love the idea of exploring the game and its world by yourself, filling gaps with your imagination, and giving players the space to create something unique and personal,” Zuckerer explains. 

Aside from that, Persist Online will feature a hardcore PvP system where everyone is game outside of dedicated strongholds: Anyone can be attacked and robbed at any time, though a would-be criminal will have to deal with the negative karma such actions. “This sense of danger when leaving the secure walls of a settlement is a great experience,” Zuckerer says. “When you meet another player and don’t know what will happen next, the adrenaline rush is exhilarating. Will we fight? Will we join a party together and become friends? Or did they not see me, and I could sneak around them?”

Zuckerer names Escape from Tarkov, DayZ, and PUBG: Battlegrounds as games that inspired the duo’s project. I question whether the team wasn’t a bit late to jump on the zombie survival train. “That’s true,” he admits. “There are many games with a zombie setting – and to be honest, we love many of them. But Persist Online is not just a survival game; it’s a fully-fledged MMORPG with a persistent game world!”

Persist Online combat screenshot.
Your daily bread and butter will be to beat and shoot up some undead. / CipSoft

Though they loved the idea of exploring the map with a persistent threat level, they “didn’t like losing our progress and starting naked on the beach after a deadly encounter.” Your progress and equipped items are always safe in Persist Online, though players lose the contents of their backpack, item durability, and experience points when dying. They can safely store anything by bringing their haul back to a stronghold or bunker. 

“We think this direction is one of two natural next steps for current survival games. One is towards more simulation and survival elements, and the other is towards a persistent game world where the players' actions impact and write the stories of the game,” Zuckerer adds.

In essence, the duo wanted to bring that “adrenaline rush feeling” from games like Tarkov over to a persistent, evolving MMORPG world.

Being played from the third-person perspective, Persist Online is a radical departure from Tibia’s 2D top-down view – not just to differentiate the two games, Zuckerer explains. “It enhances the game's core systems: shooting at zombies. It’s just more fun from that perspective.”

Though Tibia players can expect to spot some easter eggs in Persist Online’s world, the main similarity between the titles is that they’re unforgiving.

Persist Online screenshot showing players on horses.
Persist Online will feature a mount system for faster travel speeds. / CipSoft

Speaking of the world: How big is the map going to be? Zuckerer says it will be “quite large” – or, to be more precise, “about 35 km².” That’s around 13.5 square miles. What’s more, the developer says that the world “is entirely handcrafted.” Every building players see can be entered. They are “not just decorative landmarks with a facade.” Buildings will naturally provide players with loot and “some can even be seen like dungeons in fantasy games.” A day-night cycle will additionally impact gameplay, as you can imagine.

Though primarily planned as a sandbox game, there will be factions, quests, and a story in the game players can uncover. “Every stronghold and faction in the game will offer some quests, exploring the world's history and unveiling what its inhabitants think caused the apocalypse. The game is humorous, even in some moments, because of or despite the gloomy future they face,” Zuckerer says.

Players will be able to communicate via text chat channels and a letter system, which allows them to trade items directly with each other as well. An auction platform will be included, too. Voice channels are currently not on the to-do list, however. “In our experience, most players prefer their own systems,” Zuckerer explains the omission. “We have a Discord server with voice channels that can be used as well.”

Persist Online screenshot showing a green landscape with a player in the middle.
Persist Online's map features wilderness as well as townscapes. / CipSoft

CipSoft is currently planning for the game to be free-to-play with an optional founder’s pack being on the table as well, but Zuckerer says that the company hadn’t given monetization that much thought yet. Its full focus is on “creating fun gameplay and a world that feels alive – or, on second thought, undead” at the moment.

“Tibia has taught us many things over the past decades. From how to set up and run game servers to how players will use cheats and exploit game weaknesses,” Zuckerer tells us. “We consider ourselves very lucky that we can use this knowledge now, and it helped us in many ways during the game's early development. Creating an online game is a large and complex task. There are many services, and the game needs to run 24/7. Of course, Persist also required some of its own solutions, different from Tibia.”

Aside from such practical knowledge and experience, Tibia imbued perhaps the most crucial thing on the two developers who began the project: courage. “I don’t know if Tom and I would have started such an ambitious project without our prior experience and knowledge,” Zuckerer recounts.

Featuring an unforgiving sandbox world filled with hostile undead and hundreds of unpredictable players, Persist Online will come to PC via Steam as an Early Access release, though there is no concrete launch date yet.


Published
Marco Wutz

MARCO WUTZ

Marco Wutz is a writer from Parkstetten, Germany. He has a degree in Ancient History and a particular love for real-time and turn-based strategy games like StarCraft, Age of Empires, Total War, Age of Wonders, Crusader Kings, and Civilization as well as a soft spot for Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail. He began covering StarCraft 2 as a writer in 2011 for the largest German community around the game and hosted a live tournament on a stage at gamescom 2014 before he went on to work for Bonjwa, one of the country's biggest Twitch channels. He branched out to write in English in 2015 by joining tl.net, the global center of the StarCraft scene run by Team Liquid, which was nominated as the Best Coverage Website of the Year at the Esports Industry Awards in 2017. He worked as a translator on The Crusader Stands Watch, a biography in memory of Dennis "INTERNETHULK" Hawelka, and provided live coverage of many StarCraft 2 events on the social channels of tl.net as well as DreamHack, the world's largest gaming festival. From there, he transitioned into writing about the games industry in general after his graduation, joining GLHF, a content agency specializing in video games coverage for media partners across the globe, in 2021. He has also written for NGL.ONE, kicker, ComputerBild, USA Today's ForTheWin, The Sun, Men's Journal, and Parade. Email: marco.wutz@glhf.gg