Kaleiki, 37, and Notorious Studios announced on Wednesday that they are developing a fantasy RPG, internally codenamed Project Honor, inspired by JRR Tolkien and “Warcraft” that will feature mages and warriors. Popular Twitch streamers, including Asmongold, Esfand, and Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, can test the game in its early form as part of an investment deal. There is no set release date.
“It’s a cool side note, like, ‘Oh, these guys really like each other,'” said Esfand, who has over a million Twitch followers, of how Notorious was founded by WoW guild members. Esfand flew to California in May to test an early version of the game.
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“It’s unprecedented to be talking about a game at this stage of development,” Kaleiki said. “Traditionally it can be seen as high risk as other studios could copy your idea as well. They set all these expectations that the player is going to have. If you change them, they will be upset. We’re definitely trying something new here, but that’s because we want to have that connection with the player early on.”
Kaleiki’s studio is anything but traditional. The venture-backed gaming studio has investors like Galaxy Interactive, Riot Games and One True King (OTK), a Texas-based influencer company. OTK has an undisclosed minority stake in Notorious aside from the $5 million the studio raised in October.
When Notorious debuted in October, it was also put to the test by not hiring women. Kotaku, the video game news outlet, derided the studio for having more dogs than women on the staff page of its website. Kaleiki expects the current team of 13 to grow to 40-50 people as it develops Project Honor and said he hopes to get on the right track.
“The studio hasn’t hired any women yet and that’s perfectly fair to say and it’s true. To date, we haven’t hired a woman for the team,” said Kaleiki. “We’re working on that.
“We have seen an insanely competitive hiring market. One thing I’m excited about is that talent from underrepresented backgrounds is in high demand and the industry sees the value in that.”
As part of the OTK partnership, streamers like Asmongold and Esfand who have made careers out of playing and criticizing “WoW” will try out the game and provide feedback. Asmongold and Esfand are both owners of OTK and have been asked to be identified by their streaming names for privacy reasons.
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“As a developer, I have my own take on products, but what I don’t have is 40+ hours a week just playing games,” said John Liberto, lead designer at Notorious. “[Streamers are] sensitive to some things that we as developers might not consider, and they are able to pick out often very specific things about the feel of the game and articulate them in a way that is often difficult to find elsewhere.
“Having that perspective so readily available is a powerful creative asset,” added Liberto.
All OTK owners have had the opportunity to preview the game’s concept art, although not all members have had a chance to play the prototype yet. Those who played it gave advice to the developers, suggesting things like how to tweak skills to improve the feel of combining multiple skills together. (OTK and Notorious declined to share gameplay details.)
While OTK won’t be involved in day-to-day development, the group plans to conduct quality assurance tests on the game, provide feedback on whether it’s enjoyable, and then promote the game to fans, according to Tips Out, OTK’s chief operating officer, who declined to give his real name for privacy reasons.
“The reason we invest in them is because we also see them as people who have their finger on the pulse of what people want from games and what they think is the best design choice,” Asmongold said. “Ultimately, we’re streamers, they’re game designers, that’s what they do. We give our insight and they take what they want from it.”
“Me and [Asmongold] definitely keep an eye out to be able to watch a game and understand if it’s good content, not just for chat but for the streamer’s entertainment,” Mizkif said. “I play games for 5 year olds. When it comes to gaming and what’s good for Twitch and streaming, what chat likes is pretty basic. Simplicity is key. The simpler the game, the wider the audience you can reach. ‘Mario Kart’ is an example of the pretty much perfect stream game.”
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Notorious developers described Project Honor as an action-based combat PC game focused on classes playable in an immersive world with a dash of danger. They made sure that the game isn’t a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, although it shares many of the same characteristics – player-versus-player and player-versus-environment experiences, combat systems, and adventure – as a little indie -Studio would have trouble supporting a large MMO.
“We want orcs and we want elves and we want big, burly barbarian warriors. We want magic to be that powerful force in the world,” Liberto said. “We want it to permeate the world. We want the world to feel like the people in it have lived in that reality that it’s not new to them. A magician launching a magic missile will not surprise anyone.”
On the things that Project Honor streamers are hoping for, Asmongold said, “I want the fight to feel freaking good. Whenever you smash a barrel, the pieces fly everywhere.”
For some content creators, the direct line to game makers was a welcome change. Rich Campbell, an OTK owner and Twitch streamer with over 500,000 followers, recalled streaming “WoW” and talking about it with other developers in podcasts. Campbell studied game design in school and used to host official “WoW” eSports tournaments until announcing in 2020 that the relationship had ended.
“You have the leg weights on when you don’t have that direct line to the developer,” Campbell said, comparing talking about WoW to testing and feedback on Project Honor. “When you pull the veil back, it’s a lot easier to make sure that you’re not just screaming into the void, but actually making an effort and focusing on things that can really be changed. Working from scratch is an experience new to pretty much all of us.”
Notorious is one of several game studios, including Second Dinner and Moonshot, founded by former Blizzard employees. Workers at those studios — and across the gaming industry — have come to expect a spate of harassment lawsuits and regulatory investigations from their former employer, Activision Blizzard.
“One of the things that we do differently at Notorious is simply that we don’t have a typical hierarchical leadership style. We encourage self-management,” Kaleiki said of how he would prevent cultural and harassment issues at Notorious. “In this way we try to protect ourselves from potential problems that our former employer may have had. The other is making sure our values are lived every day.”
Laine Nooney, assistant professor and games historian at New York University, said, “Nothing about flat hierarchy prevents male collusion or a masculinized work environment.”
“It’s noble that a game company would want to avoid the types of harassment and labor exploitation that are endemic to Activision Blizzard,” Nooney said. “Only time will tell how sincere these ambitions really are.”