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Morning, Love

Having pootled around in Love for a while last week, and watching Steenberg's updates on Twitter, I decided it was time to have a decent session in the alpha build of the game. This led to me tell my girlfriend that I'd be spending the morning "in Love with James." She didn't bat an eyelid, used to such early-morning incoherence, and continued getting ready for work. Later, armed with Teamspeak and cups of tea, James (Arma II's scriptwriter) and I set about investigating the indie not-quite-MMO in its embryonic stages. Our findings are below.

Before I say anything about our experiences, it's worth remembering that this is a game at its earliest playable stage. Steenberg realised he couldn't really do any more development without a population of players, and so he opened up the alpha to paying testers. The small fee goes to server costs. The game is definitely not finished: there's no sound, and almost all game systems are in flux. What the game looks like in a few months time could be very different to what I'm writing about today, which in itself makes this an interesting record of the process.

Anyway, having dropped into the UK4 server, we began running about, soon finding our way to the main player settlement. Teamspeak was invaluable, as in-game text speak is only "local" meaning that people in visual range see what you type, but global chat is limited to the use of in-game equipment, namely the radio tag.

What Steenberg is trying to create is a game in which player-created content is key. It's a building game, rather like Minecraft, but also a shooting game with a Quake-like movement. The building is centered around a settlement in which players can edit terrain to create tunnels, walls, plateaus, towers, trenches and so on. The shooting involves fighting off NPC attacks, and assaulting the enemy bases.

Crucially, all equipment is deployed within your settlement, and must be collected from the landscape as a series of tokens. Once the tokens are placed inside a settlement then they become available to any of the players who are bound to that settlement.

So we headed towards a half-ruined settlement and began grabbing equipment for ourselves. You can carry four things at once, and the selection consists in a variety of combat tools, a number of building tools, and some miscellaneous systems such as the config tool, used for interacting with structures and devices. As it turned out, it was the building tool set that engrossed to begin with. We began editing the base to clean things up. Soon though the denizens of the base - about half a dozen players - turned up and began to complain about the lack of the main resource: power.

To get power we need to bring it into the base from power wells, via a series of towers. The config tool allowed us to access nearby wells and towers, and to point their beams of energy to each other by entering the appropriate simple co-ordinates. Once we'd figured that out power soon became plentiful and many of the extra modules within the base became active.

Editing the base, as it currently functions, ends up being rather messy. With half a dozen people all experimenting with the environment the innards of the base became a horrendous mess of terrain blocks, elevators, trees, equipment dispensers, power-lines, turrets, windmills, holes in the ground, and particle effects. You can see from just a few minutes play with a good set of building tools just how elegant and elaborate a base /could/ be, but half a dozen newbies with no plan currently leads to chaos. Whether this process can be shaped by controlling the order and pace at which tokens are unlocked and building tools are provided, remains to be seen. I suspect experienced players will eventually figure out the best ways to quickly format a settlement, but the process is bound to change in code too.

That said, James and I had a fun time hooking up the power lines, going on mini adventures to bring power in across massive chasms and watery gullies, and took some time to explore the nearby landscape as we went.

What we hadn't seen during this time was any NPC activity, so we finally elected to go off and explore the smoky landscape and find our foe. Perhaps, we thought, we'd be able to establish a new settlement along the way. This exploration took quite some time, as the enemy base was a long way off, atop a huge mesa. There are spawn points that you can bind to across the landscape, and it was sheer chance that we both managed to bind to one before we encountered a horde of enemies. These weird sketchy little blurs pelted us with laser fire, while their chums lobbed explosives at us from the rooftops of their settlement. Being bound to the nearby checkpoint meant we were able to respawn and fight through the worst of them, and begin an attack on their settlement.

This is where things went awry. While I got lost in the nearby wilderness while James fluked his way inside the enemy fortress. Communications and navigation tools are currently largely lacking in the current build of Love - there's no way to locate a buddy in the world, for example. While there's an arrow that points to a nearby settlement, and another to your spawn point, it's very difficult indeed to find another person, and without VOIP comms we'd not have found each other again for some time.

A running battle ensued - James inside the settlement, and me outside, attacking what looked like a second attempt by the AI to establish a base. I found myself face-to-face with a missile-spitting turret which tore great chunks out of the landscape, while James slowly pushed the remaining NPCs from their defences. Soon we began to receive messages about losses from our original settlement. It seemed it was under attack. Was it worth going back? Should we let up our attack on the NPCs? It wasn't clear. So we did neither and logged out to have lunch.

All in all it was in peculiar and yet fascinating experience. Steenberg's project current lacks many of the communication and social systems that players of multiplayer games take for granted, which means that the experience is somewhat stifled, but I suspect to see such things developeed and implemented in good time. Actually exploring the parameters of the game as it exists now - and seeing that there really /is/ a game there, in both building and combat - has been genuinely interesting. While you can see parallels with Love in all kinds of other games, it really does seem to have created a unique recipe of fast action, weird visuals, and player-built environments. Nothing is quite like this.

It's refreshing to play something that feels like an MMO, with its persistence and worldiness, but does not really play like one. My concern is that this mixture will defeat whatever Steenberg's ambitions are to deliver on the long game, by making sustained play unrewarding. Not that we can really tell where he's going, of course, since the game is being written as we go along.

There's a sense in which /all/ MMOs are built as a collaboration between players and developers, since they can often only be properly understood by being played, but here it's absolutely on the surface, and I'll be fascinated to see how Steenberg's singular vision is transformed by exposure to the behaviour and opinion of real gamers over time.

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