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Today’s gaming market is largely devoid of the traditional, once-loved fantasy MMORPG. While some manage a strong start, they almost inevitably end up either free-to-play or offline, as maintaining the traditional subscription model simply isn’t realistic anymore. Even World of Warcraft, the once undisputed king of fantasy MMORPGs, is witnessing a rapid decrease in numbers. The Elder Scrolls Online, a title which should be attracting millions on name alone, is having a rocky launch due to poor reception of the weighty subscription required to play. The traditional formula is dead, and developers realize that they must adapt.
Enter Citadel Studios, developer of Shards Online, an MMORPG currently seeking Kickstarter funding. Composed of former developers of lauded RPGs including Ultima Online and Morrowind (just to name a few), Citadel is hoping to shake up the formula with ideas that, while admittedly somewhat vague/open to interpretation, just might be ambitious enough to change up the connotations carried by the term “MMORPG.”
How are they gonna do it, and why do I think they can? In this blog, I want to identify four main pillars of what I think should bring Shards Online success during its Kickstarter, while in full development, and post-launch (the period which kills most MMOs). I’ll begin with an elevator pitch of the game itself, as the goals of the game require some explanation.
If a few words could encompass the collection of ideas present in Shards Online, “consequential,” “dynamic,” and “living” might be fitting. Shards utilizes servers, but no two servers are going to be exactly alike. Whereas traditional MMORPGs carry minor variations between servers (often designating between “player vs. player” or “player vs. environment” focuses), Shards is defined by the endless, player driven possibilities of each server. While each server will carry a similar template and toolset, the population will decide how the events play out.
For instance, each server has a designated amount of “residential area” that allows players to claim land as their home base. From here, they can open and run businesses, hire NPCs, simply rest before returning to adventures, or anything else. However, the actions of each player leave a mark on the world, permanently setting it apart from a different server, even by simple actions like hiring a certain NPC as a worker, preventing other players from doing so. Additionally, each shard will be defined by its own ruleset (defined by players), opening up limitless possibilities.
That said, the game is more than a life simulation. The core of many fantasy MMORPGs, fighting and looting and growing a character, is still very intact. Players can venture into dungeons and dangerous countrysides or engage in player versus player, but in a much less linear fashion than that which is present in other MMOs. Instead of receiving set quests or engaging in canned public events, player in Shards Online will be forced to explore and interact with other players and the environment in order to create an adventure. That isn’t to say that NPCs do not assist in the journey, but the goal is for more dynamic adventuring. For example, a player tampering with the nest of a dragon could result in the aforementioned dragon attacking a town, forcing its denizens to take up arms. These events are all brought about purely by the actions of players.
The player-driven nature of Shards Online opens up layers of possibilities for what the experience could eventually become. We’ve already seen games like Rust and DayZ give players command over server rules and outcomes, but no other MMO allows for the dramatic world changes that Shards hopes to introduce. Any gamer knows the feeling of disagreeing with the design decisions of a developer, regardless of game type. Shards Online wants to remove this frustration, allowing players to define their experience in their personal server. No longer is it impossible to burn down impermeable central cities of an MMO. With enough support, wars can occur, cities can be sacked, trade empires can be established, huge monsters can be taken down...everything is a decision, as opposed to a design choice.
Two huge facets of the game’s design support these unprecedented possibilities: the open character customization system, and the presence of “gods.” Shards Online doesn’t believe in character classes or leveling up. Instead, skills are learned naturally, be it through tomes or trainers. A stealth-based character can wield spells, or a hammer-wielding brute can sneak around. Respec options are always available, allowing players to avoid the typical MMO problem of giving up after finding themselves bored after 20 levels of playing a class that they don’t like. Characters can be customized to fit the vision of the player, and are not restricted to the archetypes of the developer.
Citadel knows that placing more power in some players’ hands is a must in order to provide some sort of progression to the game, and they’ve created an effective method of doing so. Players can ascend to “god” status, which is, in essence, becoming a moderator. However, “god” levels are tiered, with some having more power than others. Additionally, gods are meant to give the game a level of unpredictability, not simply to keep players in line. Higher level gods can kill any beast or player instantaneously. They can also influence the rules and happenings of the shard, giving even more unique flair to each world. While I can see this opening up some possibilities for easy trolling, I can also see it creating interesting relationships between player and god, opening up opportunities for emergent gameplay.
Let’s be honest: even the best of ideas cannot be executed upon without a quality team of designers. Thankfully, Citadel Studios’s has a team with time in the gaming industry totaling over forty years. Leading the group is Derek Brinkmann, who carried the title of lead engineer on Ultima Online during the development of two of its expansion packs. Additionally, Chris Ondrus, who worked on Morrowind, Dark Age of Camelot, and Warhammer Online, is working as the art director of the team. Lastly, Tim Cotten is Shards’ creative director, and spent time on the Ultima Online team. Working under these three founders is a team of dedicated individuals, some of whom are new to the industry, while others have been working in it for several years. Rest assured, Shards Online is in the hands of folks that are not only passionate, but also capable.
The Release Schedule
One of the top questions for any gaming Kickstarter is “When can I play?” Citadel Studios already has a pre-alpha build of Shards Online up and running, which will be made available to backers at a certain level almost immediately following the campaign. Lower level backers will be invited into an alpha later this year, and then a more open beta will follow sometime in mid-2015, with the full game (hopefully) releasing in late 2015. By already having a dedicated team and pre-alpha build, Citadel seems to have a pretty good handle on their development times and seem appropriately confident in their dates.
However, the release schedule of Shards is also perhaps its most terrifying prospect. Games like DayZ Standalone and Rust have seen large success during early access stages, but seem somewhat deadened by the time full release comes along. Or, in the case of the aforementioned examples, before the game even officially releases. Shards has the advantage of being, in a way, more “large scale” than either of these titles, with a focus on watching a world grow over a long period of time, as opposed to wiping a server after just a couple weeks. For this reason, I can see Shards holding more lasting appeal than similar player-driven MMOs, but its still a worrying prospect.
Not yet convinced? Feel free to check out Shards Online’s Kickstarter page for more information. The project is intriguing. Gamers love RPGs, choice, connectedness, and playing games that allow us to do things other than loot and kill. Shards Online hopes to take all of these, throw them together, and see what gamers choose to do with the freedom. The experience hearkens back to old school, but in a way that could only be done today. Check it out.
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