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Robota: The Ongoing Battles Of Perpetuum

Tricolour Robot War

Perpetuum, the offbeat sandbox robot MMO that we've been playing since January, is going through a bit of a strange time, and things aren't looking so rosy for our exploding robots.

Perpetuum is one of those games that it's tough to recommend, but I nevertheless find myself totally absorbed by. It has a sort of level of complexity and fiddliness that appeals to the deepest, darkest part of my tinkering nerd-soul: working out optimal set-ups for the robot, working as a team to gather resources and manufacture items, planning assaults on enemy territory, that sort of thing. It also has gangs of robots ripping into each other with lasers. And, well, there's nothing about that I don't like. All that said, there are some challenges – and not just those of coming to terms with Perpetuum's sedate pace and peculiar way of doing things.

Quite a lot has happened since I wrote my last piece about this ambitious indie MMO, and not all of it good. At a personal level, of what has happened to our corporation, well, things took a turn for the violent. We got booted out of the base we captured by more experienced players, starting with a devastating battle where we lost fifteen robots to a team of just five enemies, and then trailing off into a series of skirmishes and attempted help from other factions in the game. Lots of laser action, and a rapid ascent up the learning curve, but certainly a difficult time for our little robot army.

The truth was that we lacked the resources to hold on to our territorial prize: firstly we were all characters less than two months old, versus characters that were mostly over six months old. On a damage/hit-point basis, fifteen of us could barely scratch less than half a dozen. The only way we could really get wins was by getting the jump on our enemies, or teaming up with the more experienced players of other corporations – something we had wanted to avoid.

Of course we did end up accepting help from some of the other factions in the game, who were keen to help us gain a foothold in the game's “beta” territories. But without a commitment from us to sustain our territorial attacks, it was going to be impossible to hold on versus a smaller, more determined faction. We packed up our stuff, moved backed to the safety of the “alpha” islands, and began to make the money we'd need for a more sustained conflict.

Of course that hasn't stopped us PvPing, and learning more about Perpetuum's unusual combat dynamics. This has led to some genuine heart-in-mouth moments that remind of some of the best things about MMO combat – battles where you are going to lose something expensive, and where something in the game world is genuinely at stake. That is what I want from an MMO, and I am glad we've found it in Perpetuum.

While lots of parallels have been drawn with Eve, the truth is that Perpetuum's combat is quite unlike the famed space MMO. There are similarities in how robots can be equipped and in the lock-time/damage time model for skill-based combat, but other aspects are quite esoteric. One of these is that you can use cover, which means that where a battle takes place, and on what terrain, can make all the difference. Get your electronic warfare guys behind cover and they can lock out enemy robots without being shot themselves, as I discovered to my peril on several occasions.

More interesting still is the “signal detection” part of the game, with robots able to use electronic systems either to mask themselves, or to detect robots at a greater distance. Being able to detect enemy mechs at over two kilometres, rather than the kilometre or so you might have as standard on a robot, becomes utterly essential for survival. It's features like these that drive me to want to play games like Perpetuum. Things I can feel like I've mastered. Skills I've learned that aren't just left over from other games. That's a good feeling.

The other aspect of the game that has taken some getting used to – and is about to be patched again tomorrow – are the player-built structures. So far these have taken the form of player-built walls, which allowed players to wall off huge sections of the beta islands. A delight for the industrialists who want to mine their resources in peace, but a nightmare restriction for everyone else. With the future of the game hanging on the developer's vision for player-built structures of a vastly more complex nature, it's a worrying precedent. The developers being able to get this right in their continued evolution of the game will be utterly essential. You can read about their plans here.

But perhaps Perpetuum's biggest challenge right now is a decline in server population, which has come about with larger Russian and North American corporations quitting the game for varied reasons in the past few months. While the RPS corporation has been enjoying itself enormously, it seems that the political and military struggles of the game – combined with an unclear and sometimes unhelpful vision of the capturable beta territory from the development team – has led to some disillusionment for some of the player-base.

This makes for a precarious position for the game, because it's the kind of game that really needs a certain level of population to keep the action – and the player-driven economy – flowing. However, it's also an opportunity for newcomers to game to make more of an impact than they might otherwise have done, thanks to the power-vacuum that has appeared.

My feeling about Perpetuum is that the entire game is an opportunity: I ranted for years about the need for more experiments in the sandbox space and this one – with robot vs robot battles and a pipeline toward player-built bases and terraforming – remains one of the bravest. I hope the developers can be fast enough to see that the real challenge for the game is enticing players onto their beta islands to make war. War is where the stories for these games come from, its where the thrills are, and it's where the demand for that intricate player-driven economy comes from.

Everything about this kind of game hangs on facilitating PvP conflict. Players need a reason to take risks, and a reason to fight.

And it's down to that ever-awkward partnership between players and developers to make it work, and get Perpetuum to place where it can claim to be one of the MMOs that matter.

Anyway, for my part, as someone who is greatly enjoying Perpetuum's weird, obscure little robot world, here's an open challenge to other online guilds, clans, and corporations: If you've not tried Perpetuum, do so, and do so now. Perhaps you'll get to blow up some of our robots. Perhaps we'll blow up some of yours. Either way, it need not cost a dime, because there's a free trial. We're in the RPS chat channel in-game.

This quiet little corner of the MMO universe needs your attention. Perhaps we'll see you in there?

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