Worlds Adrift made me believe in MMOs again

On one screen, a developer is demonstrating Worlds Adrift [official site], and explaining that players have hand-crafted everything I can see. The game world is made up of floating islands and the one he’s scrambling around right now, using a grappling hook to traverse rapidly, has a ruined building at its centre. It’s not very large, the island. You could hop, skip, grapple and jump across it in a matter of seconds, and it’s hanging in empty space. Well, almost.

As the developer plays, an airship putters into view. He decides to board the ship, even though it’s a good distance away from the island, and then there’s a strange moment when I notice the next screen along in the row of demo pods. A passerby has picked up the controller there and is steering a large airship past an island. Our island. I watch, one eye on each screen, as the two worlds come close to colliding.

I wish I could say they did collide, but the ship was to far out. All the skillful grappling at our dev’s disposal weren’t enough to propel him across the gap between island and ship. Still, watching the other play steer hard to starboard, oblivious to the person attempting to board, was exciting in itself. Sometimes, the most important thing a game can do is to remind us that we’re a part of something bigger than us rather than the hero of every tale.

There’s a device I call the Truman Show Effect. It’s in GTA, when the game spawns traffic behind your back where none existed a second before, ensuring the streets in your vicinity are populated. It’s in triggered interactions, those conversations and brawls that don’t begin until the player drops by to listen or observe. So many game worlds are made up of performers, treating the player as a participating audience member. They’re not simulating credible places, they’re simulating a kind of living haunted house experience, where all of the ghouls are staff who have been instructed to entertain the paying guests.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being treated as an important guest and the centre of everybody’s attention, but sometimes I’d like to see how it feels to exist in a world that is indifferent to me (just in the game). Many massively multiplayer games are particularly hampered by the Truman Show Effect, because they have hundreds of Trumans running around, all being treated like the star of the show. I’ve never quite managed to get past the conceit of being one of many heroes, all locked into the same quest chains. It’s as if the Knights of the Round Table all got their own Grail Quest, and now all have their own goblet shoved somewhere deep in their inventories. Two million heroes, one cup two million cups.

In Worlds Adrift, everything is persistent. If you find an abandoned ship adrift in space, like a celestial Mary Celeste, it must have had a crew at one time. You might find evidence hinting at their fate, you might be able to scavenge some spare parts or raw materials, and you might encounter other players on a sightseeing or salvage expedition. While the specifics of a ship’s demise won’t always be obvious, wrecks are likely to be found close to the storm walls that crackle deep in space.

The problem with space, as a place to play, is that it can be terribly empty. Worlds Adrift doesn’t just fill it with the player-designed floating islands that are one of the game’s key features, it also has environmental hazards, such as the storm walls. These almighty dark spots can strip a ship of its components and send the crew tumbling into the void. Grappling hooks can be used to anchor your character onto the deck, but if the deck ends up shattered and stripped of its engines and armour, that’s not going to be much solace. Like Dorothy’s house in the twister, you’re going to end up blown off course and plunged into the unknown. Or just torn to shreds.

Those shreds would then become part of the world. A tale for other voyagers to decipher when – and if – they stumble across what remains.

It’s that ability to leave a mark that makes me so excited about Worlds Adrift. I’m so tired of Teflon realms that only change when someone at the design HQ pushes a switch or pulls a lever to trigger the next avalanche of #content. As Alec noted when he looked at the game last year, it’s not entirely clear how I’d spend my time in Worlds Adrift, beyond sticking bits of ships together so I can visit/bother other players and find more bits of ships, but I’m delighted by the idea that every little thing I do will have an impact. It doesn’t matter how small; I’d rather have my failed attempts to engineer a new craft leave a mess for somebody to find – a mess that is genuinely mine – than kill the same demon lord that everyone else has already killed, even if I do get a fancy new suit of armour as reward for my efforts.

My excitement is tempered by the times I’ve been burned by the promise of a persistent MMORPG world before. Most notably, that happened with EverQuest Next. It’s strange to read my preview back now, knowing that the game I’d heard described will never exist in that specific form or under that name. The dream of a world that not only acknowledges the player’s actions but reacts to and accommodates them is still alive though, and Worlds Adrift’s use of the SpatialOS technology is a key part of that.

I won’t pretend to understand how it all works because I’ve got about as much chance as I have of grasping thaumaturgy, but here’s wot the website says: “SpatialOS can create a swarm of hundreds of conventional game engines that overlap together to create a huge, seamless world”. All I need to know is whether that swarm can give me the persistent online worlds I’ve dreamed of since I first plugged my computer into a LAN. I expected to be playing wargames where every tank left a treadmark and every explosion left a crater and scorchmarks. So many online worlds are about sharing a common experience, and there is great value in that, but I’m far more interested in leaving quiet reminders of my passing, and creating new experiences for whoever follows in my wake.

Worlds Adrift is coming to Steam Early Access at the end of April.

28 Comments

  1. Viral Frog says:

    I’m cautiously optimistic for this game. It sounds like it could turn out to really be something different from the same old, tired promise of a “persistent world” that always seems to fall flat or vanish from existence before it’s even finished.

    Hopefully this one pans out and sees a release. And hopefully it’s as great as the concept seems like it would be. If the option of being a pirate was available, that is how I would spend time time. With a nomadic crew of brigands, pillaging our way to riches and glory.

    I’m keeping an eye on this one. Given what they’ve shown so far, I’m more optimistic than I have been for quite a few titles in the last few years. Still, I’ll wait to see what really comes of this upon release (if released) before allowing myself to get my hopes up too high.

  2. Clavus says:

    I’ve been very interested in the SpatialOS tech ever since I read up on it. Being a programmer, I was mainly looking at the technical side, and they do seem to have that covered. Commonly MMOs have their world simulated on a single server, or split them off in different instances. SpatialOS seems to be actually capable of having two or more physics engines running on two or more different machines manage the same persistent world. If that’s all truly as scalable in practice, this is the sort of stuff that’s going to power metaverse-like worlds with levels of player interactivity normally reserved for singleplayer.

    Anyway the SpatialOS SDK is free to play with so I should really get on that soon.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I’ve been keeping an eye on Chronicles of Elyria, which is another attempt at player-constructed stuff using SpatialOS, albeit in a more traditional Ultima Online-esque milieu.

  3. Carl Sagans Ghost says:

    I registered an account simply to offer a thanks for bringing this to my attention. Since EVE Online spoiled me of the basic MMO formula, I’ve been waiting for a new MMO where I can be a “guy who does stuff” in a universe where “other people do stuff, too.”

    Star Citizen, obviously, is on the horizon. So, too, is Crowfall, Albion Online, and maybe Ashes of Creation. This, too, now, is on my list.

    • Cvnk says:

      You may be aware of it already but Wurm Online is very much about doing stuff in a world of other people doing stuff (in the sense I think you mean). It actually got my attention right around the time I started losing interest in Eve Online and found many parallels between the two games. In particular the idea that cooperating with a group of players towards a common goal gets results. Results beyond rare loot drops and titles and (although that certainly exists to an extent in WO).

      I agree that this Worlds Adrift game does show hints of that same promise.

      • Carl Sagans Ghost says:

        Actually, by the write-up on its site, it sort of looks like what I’m looking for.

        I wouldn’t mind something, however, a bit more modern-looking, if you know what I mean.

        Slightly related. Black Desert is gorgeous. Too bad it’s a single-player experience.

  4. Sp4rkR4t says:

    Looks interesting, there is also the Worlds Adrift Island creator available now to help populate the world before EA version goes live so I’m downloading that now.

    store.steampowered.com/app/271920/

  5. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    I tried this a while back (since they’ve dropped the NDA now) and rather enjoyed it. Fundamental gameplay (grappling, gliding, flying airships) is enjoyable, so it doesn’t fall at the first hurdle for me.

    One, possibly incidental, thing I really liked is how ships are a decent enough time investment that single-player griefing seems difficult – it’s far easier to build a reasonably capable/dangerous ship with a bit of help, so it may push people to be cooperative rather than have the DayZ (etc.) thing of servers being full of lone killers. Of course, that may lead to griefing guilds, but nobody claims Eve’s ruined as a result of those. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    • malkav11 says:

      On the contrary, that’s exactly why I don’t play Eve and have been glad it never took off as the industry-wide inspiration many folks here clamored for it to be.

  6. Sin Vega says:

    This sounds lovely, but no MMO survives contact with gamers.

    • ChatterLumps says:

      Completely true. I have to wonder what kind of community will come out of this but I hope it’ll be one that keeps things interesting.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Dicks and swastikas for everyone!

      • April March says:

        Psht, dicks and swastikas are so 2016. The hot thing now is dicks and ISIS flags.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Asshat griefers will find a way to screw it up for everyone else, because that’s the game they are playing.

  7. Assassinduck says:

    Having been in the Alpha for a long while, i can say that the last time i played it (admitedly its been a while) i felt that the game lacks gameplay motivation that extends beyond loot grind, making a ship, dying and doing it all over again. Some of the design decisions, like the inclusion of a respawning mechanic that just rewards avoiding most of the other game mechanics, boggles the mind in the form of a random respawn mechanic.

    • Artist says:

      Same here. Being in for some alphas and unfortuanatly the game is so empty, hollow and pretty much dead boring. Theres pretty much nothing to do and many players already jumped on the griefplay waggon.
      Also the devs cant get the net sync working properly for many months.
      Shame that they try to sell “open world” as a kind of excuse for lack of content.

  8. hungrycookpot says:

    I played in a recent closed beta. The most basic elements were quite well implemented and fun. IMO, there has never been as enjoyable and interesting of a grappling hook mechanic in any game. Swinging felt fluid and natural, the rope even collided with objects along it’s length instead of clipping through, so if you swung into an obstacle, instead of phasing right through it, your rope would wrap around the object and you’ll be launched around it.

    Sailing was slow, but fun. Finding parts was fun, and there are multiple blueprints in each class, with their in-game appearance procedurally generated, which was really cool and made the hunt for newer cooler parts never-ending. Ship building felt pretty good, slightly janky but thats betas for you.

    The game was pretty poorly balanced however, and griefing was rife. There were some nasty memory leaks in the building system that would cause the game to nearly lock up whenever you picked up a part to build, but only after a certain condition had come to pass. These are things that can be solved with some tweaking, and I choose to have faith that the devs will tweak things in the right direction.

    • Artist says:

      The issues you experienced havent been fixed during the whole past year. Same gamebreakers all around. Sad state.

      • GDorn says:

        And there goes my interest. It looks pretty, and I’ve wanted a persistent world MMO with things to do, but I’ve played Rust for a week and have no desire to do so again.

  9. acespade22 says:

    They already made this game it was called Everquest Landmark and it was an epic failure. Next

  10. Strite says:

    I’ve invested over a year and a half into Worlds Adrift and the community as a whole. Full disclosure; I’m a volunteer moderator on the official Worlds Adrift forums, the sub-reddit and the Steam forums so one might consider my opinion biased but I’m no apologist and will be the first to call Bossa out if I feel they’re in the wrong. Also note the title ‘volunteer moderator’, meaning I’m not on Bossa’s payroll or biased beyond my own interests in the game.

    I’ve been in the Worlds Adrift alpha since the beginning. It was extremely barebones in the early stages – There were only two pre-set ships available, no creatures, no loot or schematics (you could basically craft everything in the game from the off at that point, not that there was much in the game back then) and yet despite its simplicity the core fundamentals were great fun.

    Fast forward well over a year later and the game has come on leaps and bounds. It’s not for everyone and it never will be, on the contrary I’d consider it quite niche – An open PVP sandbox MMO with simulated physics set in a world with floating islands and airships, this isn’t the next WoW that’s for sure. Yet despite all that if you ‘get’ Worlds Adrift, if you appreciate the potential, the lack of handholding and arbitrary content (which is by design btw) and understand what Bossa are really trying to achieve here and where they want it to go then you might just find something particularly special; a world to call home that you weren’t even aware you were looking for.

    • Arglebargle says:

      When someone does a game like this without the PVP, me and my circle of gamers will start considering it. Games like Worlds Adrift aren’t quite our niche, and there is a reason.

      A cautionary tale: Folks at my domicile worked as GMs on an MMO with full on open PVP. After a year or two at this, they now refuse to play any game that has any sort of open or forced PVP. Too much experience with the crews that are attracted to these games.

      • Captain Narol says:

        Indeed, I think there is room for a MMO without PVP that would be focused on co-inventing stories in a persistent dynamic world.

        There is already tons of MMO for PvPers but none really focused on roleplayers/builders/explorers/traders types…

        Eve Online was going the right direction by offering some safe play in a part of its universe, but falled too much on the PvP/powerplay side over the years.

      • Strite says:

        That’s fair enough :) Different strokes for different folks I guess since the open PVP is what attracted me to the game in the first place. Open PVP will always attract a certain number of griefers but the nature of Worlds Adrift means disabling PVP isn’t as simple as just turning off player to player damage like it is in other MMO’s. Because of the physical nature of the game damage can come from a range of sources; falling trees, loose ship parts and falling debris to name a few, all of which can be manipulated by other players. So even if they disabled direct player to player damage people could and would still grief by dropping parts on each others heads and such.

        Worlds Adrift is much more than just an open PVP game though and it’s worth pointing out that many of the drawbacks of other open PVP games (take Rust and DayZ for example) are being addressed; first of all we’re talking about a considerably larger gameworld that’s thousands of kilometers in size with a ceiling height of 8km (the game is set in the sky afterall). Offline base raiding won’t be a thing because in WA your ship is essentially your ‘base’ and it despawns once all associated crew members log out so there’s no having to worry about people destroying all your stuff when you’re not around to defend it. Beyond that there are a bunch of other stuff the devs are adding to make griefing difficult including craftable locks that can be attached to parts of your ship (cannons, doors, helms etc.) and a range of weapons and ship defences to fend off your attackers with.

        If you’re dead set on not playing open PVP games then it’s likely Worlds Adrift won’t change your mind on that score since non-consensual PVP will most certainly be a thing within the game but while it was PVP that initially attracted me to the game it’s the community and the sandbox elements that have made me want to stay, to the point that PVP is not really a focus for me anymore at all.

      • malkav11 says:

        I’m not sure the goals of “open sandbox where players generate the content” and “complete cooperation w/ zero PvP or griefing” are compatible.

        • Captain Narol says:

          I definitely think they are compatible, with a little imagination and out-of-box thinking, as player “competition” can very well take other forms than direct fighting and devs can easily set hard rules against griefing.

          There could be MMOs focused on industry, politics, exploration or trade where people would have the possibility to pursue personal goals in an open universe without the possibility of killing or griefing each other.

          Just imagine, for example, an game like Eve Online but within a procedural universe the same size than the one you have in No Man’s Sky, where Highsec rules forbidding aggression would apply everywhere and where people would have to collaborate to build the gates to the systems still unreached.

          I know an indie MMO that kinda tried that (Ascent the Space Game) and it was VERY REFRESHING to not have to watch your back all the time while exploring a huge universe and/or building stuff…