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Robota: Our First Week In Perpetuum

Rise Of The Robots?

It's been over a year since I first dabbled in obscure indie MMO Perpetuum, and I decided that since PvP and territory war had been overhauled, it was time to go back. Click onwards for some thoughts on the game as it stands now, and for a report of the activities of the RPS corporation's first week in the game.

There is no genre that excites and frustrates me more than MMOs. To me they represent the promised land of gaming: living worlds, teeming with real human intelligences, allowing us to live parallel lives in fantastic scenarios. The problem is that most of the game designs for MMOs do not support the kind of sandbox, freeform escapism that I believe MMOs should be about, and instead are tied to a quest structure, level system, and class mechanic that is derivative of classical RPGs. A few games have broken this down, Ultima Online did a lot of work, and recently we've most notably acclaimed the possibilities of CCP's Eve Online. Others have, of course, tried to explore this player-driven stuff and ended up not being games at all - Hello, Second Life.

Anyway, it was Eve Online that brought me the closest to the kind of open, free, persistent world based on player interaction, that I believe the existence of MMOs promises us. I've written about it at length here and in numerous other publications. I got a lot out of it, but I had to put a lot into it. When I quit it was for good, but that doesn't mean I don't want to see other, similar games appear. On the contrary, one of the crucial things that came out of years of playing Eve Online and writing and talking about it, was the feeling that more MMO designers should copy what it did. Few did, and that is something that continually disappoints me.

One game, however, did make like Eve. Perpetuum is, in fact, pretty much "Eve with robots". Despite Hungarian developers Avatar Creations' vague claims of parallel development, the truth is that Perpetuum supports many of the same sorts of features as Eve, from the way skills work (with XP earned over time, rather than via actions) to the player-driven industry and economy, even down to how the combat is delivered via an overview. Although different in some quite distinct ways, Perpetuum exhibits are close family resemblance to the Icelandic space game, right down to the grit it takes to get something out of it. Hell, that alone was enough for me to want to try it and, as I was to discover, many of the people playing Perpetuum are refugees from Eve, people looking for a new frontier. There are many of the same corporation names recognisable in the world, including HUN, who were, long ago, allies of my own Eve corporation. It was while in that corporation that I observed, many times, that one of the main issues with playing Eve was that there was no alternative to it. Players of other MMOs could find similar games to move on to, but not so for the Eve player. Until Perpetuum.

Anyway, that's all I will say about the glaring similarity, suffice to say that it makes Perpetuum intriguing to me because it has so much potential for offering up the same sort of player-driven exploits that made its space-bound cousin great. So I logged into the game, created a robot, did some tutorial missions and then began to recruit from friends and RPS readers.

Heading out into the world to do missions and gather resources - there is no story here except that which you make for yourself - I could see that although the game still has a certain austere sci-fi ambience, it is now very much overdue the forthcoming graphical overhaul. It certainly feels like a work in progress, and I understand the relatively slow pace of change is one of the core complaints for the current player base. Nevermind, though, because there is also the instant comedy of the lo-tier robots, which are all insectile, and look like scuttling crazybugs, to the point of one of the assault robots looking like it really needs the toilet. Later, hopefully, we'll get into stompy mechs, and will be able to take ourselves a bit more seriously.

We've been playing for around a week now, and have begun to decipher some of the game's more arcane processes, such as manufacturing via gathered resources. (And even harvesting alien trees.) This aspect of the game, which involves co-ordinating our players to pool their resources, is key to making our time there a success, but it is already frustrated by some arbitrary design decisions made by the developers. Efficiency in industry depends very much on your standing towards NPC factions you are doing missions for. So unless you are part of one of the station-owning factions in PvP land, you need to grind endless missions to get a decent standing and sensible economic access. This issue immediately frustrates players who want to play this for the trade and economy, and it is a needless braking mechanism on activity in the game that the devs should probably remove. If they want their player-driven economy to wake up (and it is currently oh so sleepy) then they need to start plucking away these kinds of constraints.

Anyway, we've begun to settle into the task of building up our corporation, with the awareness that this is probably a lengthy enterprise. A number of existing corporations are already settled in the "beta" areas of the game, large islands which offer free PvP and great resources for those who are able to exploit them. Being newbies we're a way off being able to dabble in that, but it didn't stop us poking about in these more dangerous areas for a bit of entertainment between the grinding for cash and resources.

Last night we rolled out with a dozen light robots, happily making jokes about our impending doom, and headed into the badlands. Bored PvPers immediately scouted us, and it only took a couple of minutes for them to send a bait robot after us. There was some back and forth as we tried to work out how to fight with Eve mechanics in a rolling hilly terrain, where there was no possibility of warping to our enemy. Eventually the hostile mech charged in and we engaged. It was, as we were well aware, a trap, but as it turned out our attacker didn't need the six hidden mechs that were backing him up, since we had no idea that we needed to keep our distance from the right. As he popped the first two light mechs it looked like he was going to die, but as it turned out it wasn't going to be from our guns, but from our exploding chassis. As he himself exploded, so the rest of our team, which was crowding around the dying robot, were destroyed. Ah. We had no idea that Perpetuum's robots exploded with such damaging force. Not a mistake we will make again.

Disappointingly for the rest of our attackers, they were to arrive at the scene of the battle only to find one of our number scuttling away, and everyone else a smoking wreck. Not that we'd have won any kind of fight in our newbie 'bots, but it was a bit of a shame we couldn't have been murdered in more informative fashion.

So we've clearly still got quite a bit to learn about Perpetuum, and the rough edges and limited content of a game that is run by a team of just a handful of people in Hungary, certainly doesn't help lubricate that process. Perhaps, as in another sandbox MMO I might mention, the trick is to get involved with other, more experienced corporations and form some kind of "alliance". Yes, that might be the thing.

And so to diplomacy. And more on that, depending on how it goes, next week.

Perpetuum has a free 15-day trial. Drop by the "rps" chat channel if you are in the game.

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Jim Rossignol