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In Which We Chat About Mortal Online

We've been playing the unusual MMO Mortal Online for the past couple of weeks, and Phill and I took some time out to talk about it. Read our thoughts on this strange spiritual successor to Ultima Online below.

Jim: So we've both been playing Mortal Online, which has just hit beta, and it's an interestingly esoteric experience. It's a hardcore MMO in lots of ways - attempting to tap into the legacy of Ultima Online - but it's oddly endearing too. There's something quite positive and honest about its approach... a sort of "we are going to be different, take it or leave it." Do you agree?

Phill: Yeah, there's a way that it makes even completely menial and mundane tasks seem like massive accomplishments, if only just through the fact that they're so hard to pull off. I know that makes it seem like it might be incredibly grindy, but for some reason it doesn't quite feel like that. Maybe it's just because that chopping wood animation is so satisfying.

Jim: Yeah, I think the fact that's it's first-person has something to do with that. They've thought "okay, if people really are going to mine rocks, then the hammer blow had better be visceral." What's odd about this kind of game is the recognition that people actually want to do that stuff, though. I was podcasting with John yesterday and he did the standard "crazy grinders!" routine, but the truth is people like building stuff from first principles. There are corporations in Eve who just mine rocks, there are people for whom the trade aspects of WoW are the most important. Can you identify with that?

Phill: I think it helps you feel more self-sufficient, at least in this case, because when you start you're given almost no direction about what to do. You're just wearing some rags and you've got an axe. So you apply it in the way that's least likely to get you killed; on inanimate objects. And I think the fact that doing so actually helps you fight, in a very direct way, really helps. It was only after I'd cut down enough wood to make twenty bows that I realised it'd boosted my strength significantly. I like the way it seems you don't do something in isolation; it works towards all the other ways you can interact with the world.

Jim: One of the things the devs need to work on is that skill tree presentation. It takes a while to figure out what is happening. I guess it's similar to the Oblivion improve-through-use, but it's not clear how it's helping you at the start. This is a game where the numbers aren't really on the surface, like they are in say WoW

Phill: Oh yeah, it's got one of the most obtuse interfaces I've ever seen. The fact that it's not even consistent makes it even more difficult to get to grips with. Instead of having a 'tame' icon you can put in your hotbar, you have to type it into chat. Hardly the most helpful way to get people to play your game. But I think that's indicative of how the game itself works; really, really hard to figure out, but when you do, it works smoothly and rewarding enough.

Jim: Presumably these are all cracks to be smoothed over as the beta progresses, but I get the feeling this is a game that could be in beta for a very long time. What's exciting about it though is the way it feels like the early days of Eve. There's a lot of blank slate - you can see where they want user-generated stuff to fill the void...

Phill: Yeah, and that's where I've been having the most fun. When I've interacted with other people, it's just been interesting in a way I've not really experienced before. Like I caught a thief snooping in my pockets the other day, so naturally I tried to kill him, only he was a much, much stronger fighter than me. I run away, and come back when he's sitting down having a rest. Victory me. The great thing is, I've got half a dozen stories like that, and I haven't even made it out of the starting area yet.

Jim: Yeah, there's some interesting stuff that can happen when the world is not "safe". I was saved from a mugging by some guy in armour. I was all "thanks!" and he warned me to be careful in future. Heart-warming. I mean, you can rely on guards in the player centers, but when someone real intervenes in your misfortunes, it's something else.

Phill: I met a monk in the woods who taught me how to fight in unarmed combat. Only I didn't realise it was a lesson, and it was only when I went into 'mercy mode' and he let me live that I realised.

Jim: A player monk taught you?

Phill: In a way, yeah. Because in MO, you learn through doing. So he was blocking while I punched at him, and then waiting for me to block before he punched. It was only when I started getting cocky and landed blows that he wasn't expecting that he decided to put me down.

Jim: Wow. That's kind of beautiful. Old master players tutoring their proteges in a wooded glade. I guess the basic issue with this game is that StarVault are making a huge leap of faith: that players will want a challenge sufficiently sophisticated, and that they'll create all the emergent processes that are required to make the world interesting and dynamic.

Phill: Players have been given this huge, huge blank slate to fill, and yeah, it's a huge act of faith in them that they're actually going to do it and not just get bored that they've only been given the tools, not the house. But what I've seen so far has been encouraging. People like to make stuff, and if the stuff in MO sticks around, that's just more incentive. The thought of a player-made city is incredibly exciting to me, if it can be achieved.

Jim: I'm hoping that we're going to come full circle with MMOs, and the Warcraft millions will eventually start looking for more complex stuff like this. I guess MO might not be "the one" in terms of a persistent world game, but it's a step in the right direction.

Phill: I really like the way that Starvault have talked about what they're trying to do. They claim that most other MMOs are Themeparks, with rides everyone gets to do, but are essentially the same. They're providing a world instead, which is commendable. If it works, even better.

Jim: Yeah, that's CCP's philosophy with Eve. Perhaps we will see some interesting stuff happen in the MMO space after all!

Mortal Online is currently in free open beta.

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Jim Rossignol