There’s a series of articles I’ve been wanting to write for a while now regarding the MMOG scene, and their subjects can be boiled down to the following two points. Firstly, I long for an MMORPG where players can affect the overarching story, not just the in-game world. Secondly, I miss having adventures with my friends, be it questing, exploring, or beating a dungeon, but real life commitments & reduced gaming time make this problematic.
I bring up these points because for the last few years no game has attempted to address both in an MMO title. The nearest we’ve come is either EVE with its galaxy-wide conflicts, or sandbox titles like ARK: Combat Evolved that have spawned communities such as TwitchRP. Both allow players to create their own drama, resulting in great stories playing out, but they aren’t without their flaws. Problems such as a lack of opportunity and accessibility for latecomers, for example, but my main complaint is that it’s essentially the same song and dance over and over. It’s nowhere as bad as in theme park MMORPGs, of course, but player actions never contribute to a natural evolution in its world or its narrative.
Over the years, I’ve put it down to a lack of technology and money to create such a venture. It’s also incredibly risky to try and create a game in a genre that has long since lost its mainstream appeal – just look at Everquest Next (and its never-to-be-realised Storybricks system) However, a few months ago I discovered Chronicles of Elyria, and a faint ember has relit that flame of hope. The Kickstarter pitch video is a colossal 20 minutes long, which is understandable as it goes into huge detail about what CoE is aiming to achieve, but here’s a quick summary. Chronicles of Elyria aims to be an MMORPG where player characters age and die in a world which can change, both in terms of its procedurally generated yet persistent world, and the direction of its 10-year story.
There’s much more to it, which is why I urge you to watch the Kickstarter video before we dive into the article. I’ll be explaining why I had to back it despite my concerns, kicking off with something that was announced for CoE recently.
The awful pun of a subtitle will make sense shortly, I promise.
One of the biggest concerns that CoE has been repeatedly bombarded with is that there was no way the ideas and gameplay mechanics could be achieved with the indicated budget or relatively small team size. Even with the $500,000 dollars studio head Jeremy Walsh has gathered himself, the $900,000 Kickstarter goal was never going to be enough. As an industry observer, I considered it a fair point to make – WildStar failed to reach its potential with $100 million behind it, while Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online & Final Fantasy XIV required large amounts of publisher money to reach the stage they are at now. And they’re all theme park MMORPG, not ambitious game-changers.
Then a few days ago Soulbound Studios revealed it was partnering with British start-up company Improbable, with the aim to use its SpacialOS engine, and everything started to make sense. For those that don’t know, SpacialOS is a cloud computing solution that can not only cater for thousands of players to play in a huge game world simultaneously but can simulate persistent real-time physics at the same time. Regular readers of DO may be getting a sense of deja vu here, and they’d be right – Worlds Adrift (which I covered recently) also utilises the system.
It all sounds incredibly promising, but before we get too excited it’s important to realise that SpacialOS hasn’t been used in a live project yet. Worlds Adrift is due out later this year but is still in Alpha testing, and the other handful of projects using the framework are in the pre-production stage, much like CoE itself. However, the fact Soulbound will be using SpacialOS explains how such a small team can realistically aim for such ambitious goals. It means they won’t be doing any of the R&D themselves, paying someone else to do it instead.
This is further illustrated by how the team recently explained how they have been buying Unreal Engine 4 assets from the asset store to populate the game world with generic items, allowing their artists to work on unique assets. The advantages of paying a smaller, one-time fee as opposed to a monthly wage are obvious, and it’s the same thing with using SpacialOS for its server framework. Instead of building their own system, they just have to integrate it with UE4, which is a (relatively) simpler process. Developer Mike Bithell even said something to the same degree recently, proving it is a legitimate path to take.
If you’re using a popular engine right now, and your needs are semi generic, it’s amazing how much R&D you can offload to asset producers
— Mike Bithell (@mikeBithell) June 2, 2016
“I need to spend a week building system X”
“Or you could spend half a day tweaking this $20 asset”
— Mike Bithell (@mikeBithell) June 2, 2016
The use of SpacialOS and asset purchasing doesn’t alleviate all my concerns (as we’ll go on to discuss) but in my eyes it provides some much needed perspective into Soulbound Studios’ process. Hell, if you’re an UE4 asset builder you could end up contributing to the project AND being paid for it [Please note that we’ve made that sound WAY easier than it sounds – Ed.]
Sparking the soul and finances
Let’s switch gears and talk about CoE’s biggest departure from the genre’s status quo – its permadeath system and how monetisation links into it. Instead of being subscription based or filled with microtransactions, players will need to buy Sparks of Life to play a character, which will give on average between 10-14 months of game time. That amount can be reduced in a few ways – being killed numerous times, becoming famous within the world (giving prominent character deaths more weight), or becoming infamous enough through crimes such as thievery and murder (including griefing other players.) Meanwhile, a player’s progression is stored on their Soul, granting bonuses towards their next virtual incarnation.
There are a few reasons why I really like this method. Firstly, it will make players think carefully about combat instead of hurling themselves in and hoping for the best. Secondly, the publicised cost of $30 for a Spark might seem high initally, but when you consider that kind of money would normally give you only a few months subscription in most other MMOs it becomes a more attractive to the player. It’s also been stated that players can earn Sparks just by contributing to the world story, making the entire system a great departure from the norm.
Thirdly, it doesn’t force playing to log in every day, allowing casual players to jump in as and why they can. That said, I am concerned about whether such a model can sustain CoE in the long run. After all, an average of $30 every 10 months compared to $150 from a $15 monthly subscription per player in the same duration is a huge difference. Soulbound Studios have also ruled out microtransactions for cosmetic items or boosters, which leads to the question being repeatedly asked by skeptics – will it be enough to maintain overheads for both the studio and game, as well as develop future content? It’s ultimately something we won’t know for sure until CoE is nearer the finish line. I just hope Soulbound Studios really can deliver on their dream in this regard, and not have to alter course like Crowfall (another game I kickstarted) announced last month.
They definitely need to avoid over-course-correcting like Star Citizen has done, that’s for sure.
Bolstering casual play
As mentioned at the start of this article, finding time to play an MMORPG with my former guild mates is hard enough these days, but ensuring everyone is up to par for the challenge as well? Almost impossible. This is why I’m a big fan of CoE’s Bolstering system, which allows veteran players to “bolster” the stats of fellow family members to be more in line with with their own. I wouldn’t have to create an alt every time a friend signed up to the game or even repeat “starter zone” content again. Instead, they have the option to join me in whatever I’m doing.
When paired up with the sparks monetization system, it ensures players have the freedom to play casually without being left behind by those who put more time in. Now we’ve seen similar solutions in Guild Wars 2 and WildStar (even WoW will be inserting something similar in Legion) but CoE’s answer to the problem is a solution I can get behind. Just don’t ask me about the maths behind it.
An immersive, evolving world
If I had to pick one reason above all else as my main argument to back CoE, it’s the following – Soulbound Studios are creating a game where players can affect the narrative. This is on top of various kings, queens, dukes and counts having their own game of thrones, backed by houses and armies filled with players and NPCs. The game world will react to player actions, not remain static until someone comes along and does something.
Again, I bring up Storybricks and its intended use in Everquest Next as a comparison, because I was enthralled by the fact players would need to react to the game as much as each other. Soulbound Studios appear to be aiming for something similar with non-repeatable quests that will spawn as the situation depends on it. So long as hostile NPCs react in a similar manner, it could actually be the online role-playing experience I’ve been waiting for since Wish was cancelled over a decade ago.
I’d go into more detail on that, but it’s really a story for another time.
Almost every concern has been met with reasoned, detailed replies from Soulbound, and in some cases videos demonstrating certain mechanics, but that isn’t to say I’m convinced with every response so far. One such area of concern is the combat mechanics, which were demonstrated on the show floor of PAX East. The duelling certainly looks impressive, coming across as Dark Souls without the constant rolling, but what worries me is that even with SpacialOS powering the networks latency will be an issue. Then again, that’s a problem every real-time multiplayer title needs to deal with, but RPGs with stat differences often highlight how latency can favour less skilled players. Again, the Dark Souls series is a fine example of this. I just hope that Soulbound are able to show more progress on this sooner rather than later.
Chasing the dream
I could go on and list a few other concerns, but in truth my main issue is that part of me thinks it’s too good to be true. The word “ambitious” is a massive understatement, even with SpacialOS, Walsh’s Proteus Engine, and the visually impressive Unreal Engine 4 powering things. The thing is, even though I have that bit of doubt in the corner of my mind, I still had to back the project. On paper this is my dream MMORPG, and for me to not put money towards it would have been hypocritical.
Besides, when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns I follow one of my dad’s favourite sayings – “Only gamble what you can afford to lose.”
SOE and Daybreak couldn’t manage it with Everquest Next, but then again they had shareholders to pleases and mainstream markets to chase. On the other hand, Soulbound Studios only have their own dream to achieve, and with over $1.3 million dollars raised it now falls on them to make it a reality. Yes, all manner of horrific scenarios could occur, from early access purgatory to cut content, but the enthusiasm from the developers makes that sliver of hope shine oh so brightly.