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Beta Botters: Perpetuum

Perpetuum is to hit open beta, and that will happen on the 18th of October. Perpetuum is an extremely interesting project, for a variety of reasons. Developed by Hungary-based indie outfit Avatar Creations, it's the first MMO I've seen that tries to take what Eve Online did and do something useful with it. Avatar Creations are keen to distance themselves from Eve of course, and recent iterations of the game client have, frankly, often been about making this robot-based, freeform MMO less like CCP's game of spaceships. But no matter how different the UI ends up looking, the underlying principles are the same. And perhaps they are wrong to try and deny that connection too strongly. CCP's game, no matter how aged and entrenched it might now seem, remains a poster-child for the army of gamers who understand the MMO doesn't have to equate the genetic lineage of Everquest and WoW.

Let's continue this beneath the click, shall we?

Perpetuum takes place across a series of islands, each of which is inhabited by various wild AI drone bots, weird flora, and precious ores. Studded across this landscape are spectacular sci-fi skyscrapers. These structures share as the shared, neutral bases of the players, and PvP combat can't take place near them without consequences, at least on the central islands. The outer ring of islands, much like Eve's 0.0 space, offer a more dangerous space for interaction. Anyway, at its most basic, players take missions at this bases, and head out into the islands. From there they mine the landscape or fight with NPC bots, collecting resources for research, or materials and modules they can use to equip their robots.

Robots come in four racial types, but the lower end ones are all rather like skittery insect things, which is something of a shame. To get hold of a really stompy robot means saving up and waiting for the time-based experience to clock up, which is a shame, because I'd like to have seen stampy little mech-things in there right from the tutorial bot. Once you're out in the field things become a little more familiar: these bots are a controlled in the third person, WASD to move, with a tagged targetting system. Having been fitted with a set of modules, you will have various ways of dealing damage, or collecting minerals. Anyone familiar with Eve is going to see the connection here. Combat is relatively slow, but it ends up being as much about positioning, which you have to do manually, as it does about your skills. You often find yourself fleeing from a fight, and the realisation that my missiles could collide with and knock over scenery caused me to coo in surprise.

The visual design is, for a team as small and new as Avatar, remarkably strong. There are moments where it really captures that 1970s sci-fi cover art feel of a weird alien world. The huge base structures are particularly impressive, and the landscape has recently been overhauled to be far more mechanistic, with giant spires and causeways hanging over the valleys, and hi-tech ruins littering the wider world. Pastel valleys of of grimy, ultra-tech junkscapes, rumbling towers, clicking alien AIs. This is a game world you will want to explore. But more than that, it's a world with an esoteric look and feel. No focus-tested space generica here. This is different, delicious.

Of course what all this ends up doing is creating a player-driven economy, which is one of the more exciting things about Perpetuum. A few weeks back my old StateCorp Eve fraternity pretty much all ended up in Perpetuum's closed beta. I suspect the population was basically too low for us at that point, because we weren't able to find the PvP conflict that would have kept us interested. There was, however, a flicker of interest in the economy. The old desires to compete, to corner a market, appeared, and that's something that's only possible in a game that has an open market like this.

And that might not be over for us. With the population spike that will come with an open beta there's a good chance that Perpetuum might get interesting. It will be certainly be wort seeing whether its islands can really scale to take a much greater population, but it will also be interesting to see whether it evolves over time in the same way that Eve did. There was a genuine Wild West sense of the Eve at the start, when many of the systems that formalised things like political alliances simply hadn't be written into the game, and the weapons balance was almost unexplored. Perpetuum has this same untested feel to it. The same fertile space for development. The sense that it is a raw, heavy canvas. These early days that will come with the beta and the months that follow could be the most exciting for Perpetuum, because they could be the most formative. This is a game where the players will have to do the work, and if my experience is anything to go by, they will do it. Assuming they're given the tools.

From a more distant perspective, it's a game that is out there on the periphery of MMO design, in a realm that Eve Online - which floated past Ultima Online, now a decaying hulk - was bravely exploring, only to find itself alone and isolated. This was brought home to me yesterday when one of my old Eve comrades messaged me, lamenting that MMOs had basically gone nowhere, and done nothing, in the years and years he had been playing Eve. I had to agree. I had to shrug. Game design is a huge terrain, and most of the travelers are using familiar paths. The MMO world has learned nothing from Eve's approach. It has not understood the power of the single shard world, or the community-grabbing possibilities of creating a game that is more like a giant toolkit for fantasy than it is a storybook or prescribed adventures. Perpetuum offers a rare possibility that this stuff might have had some traction in the wider imagination of game designers. It might not yet represent a useful alternative for those folks who want to push on further from the likes of Eve, but it could. It is growing and evolving. It might live in Eve's shadow, design-wise, but that's okay, because at least it isn't cowering under the far deeper loom of World of Warcraft and its many inbred cousins.

The MMO, as a technology, remains the most interesting frontier of gaming, but there are few pioneers still out here. If a tiny, creative team like Avatar can do this, then perhaps this still hope that others will come. There's so much potential left in living worlds, in player-driven systems, in free, open models of co-operation and competition, that it would be a tragedy if it were not explored further. For this to be a dead end, or a closed off niche, would be one of the most hideous failures of the industry.

I'll be back in Perpetuum on the 18th. I hope to see you there.

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