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Hands On With Worlds Adrift, Which Seeks To Return To MMOs' Days Of Wonder

Worlds Adrift [official site] is an upcoming crafting- and exploration-centric MMO from Surgeon Simulator folk Bossa Studios, set in a vast world split into countless floating islands that are navigated by grappling hooks and player-built skyships. I went to see and play it earlier this week.

I'm repeating a line given as part of a game demonstration here, but I do so because it resonated. Most MMOs now are, and long have been, defined by numbers more than by experiences, by the pursuit of minor or major statistical improvements rather than the discovery of new places and new challenges. Worlds Adrift hopes to take us back to the land that time and numbers forgot.

When I played World of Warcraft in its earliest months, it was for the joy of working out what made this world tick, of bending rules so that I could sneak into a higher level area way before I was ready, or scaling a mountain the developers hadn't intended for me to scale. I played because everything seemed to be a mystery, and every discovery felt like my own, rather than following some rule. Then They took over. With their guilds and raid gear and farming and their min-maxing. Ulcerated tongues glued to a dry salt-lick, dead eyes locked on drop rate wikis. And the adventure was over.

I cannot say whether Worlds Adrift will truly reinstate some of the lost, exploratory values of MMOs' silver age, but I appreciate entirely that it has that intention. Its foremost promises are the pursuit of ad-hoc routes to hard-to-reach places and freeform flying boat design, with which to sail the skies in any direction you see fit. To aid the former, there is an ever-present grappling hook. To aid the latter, there is crafting in the Minecraft paradigm, but with far more room to manoeuvre.

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A metal object, a deck cannon or a boat hull for instance, can be built out of any metal. So if you've found yourself stranded on a floating island devoid of the harder stuff but rife with a soft, heavy metal like gold, you can still build your escape boat. It'll be dense and fragile compared to a steel affair, but you can do it. I guess the idea is that you are not painted into a corner by the lack of specific resources in any one place, and the philosophy instead becomes 'let's see what happens' as opposed to 'do it this way or not at all.

There's more than a touch of Kerbal in there too, though Worlds Adrift's ship designer is built for speed and fluidity rather than simulation. Drag out a craft shape to create your basic hull (symmetrical by default, then with quick options to drag and tweak every angle, like a stripped-down 3D modelling tool), then attach your home-made engines, wings, sails and guns wherever you choose. It'll fly whatever, but it'll fly better if you've applied some logic to your design.

Do expect it to wind up trashed before too long, however. You might smash it into the rocks by mistake. Another player might board you and take it, or liberally sprinkle explosives everywhere (I did this to the developers during my demo. I remain uncertain as to whether they shared my amusement). You might fall off while sprinting and bouncing around the deck, leaving your abandoned ship to sail off into the skies. Or you might brave a trip through a Storm Wall, a vast and tumultuous extreme weather barrier, beyond which lie new islands and new adventures, but first you'll have to survive the voyage through it.

Storm Walls are probably Words Adrift's banner feature. This is where the game switches from unfettered leaping and grappling around pretty but ever so slightly kidsy islands, and instead becomes an airborne Master and Commander. You and, at least in the devs' ideal world, several chums are atop a ship caught in a wild squall, battered by winds, unable to see through the storm so having only a compass for guidance, guns and engines and masts ripped away by the relentless gale, and just for good measure you're probably being chased by flying Manta Rays too. Anyone who has not embedded their grappling hook to the deck will be lost within moments.

When whoever is left of you emerge, it is likely to be on a shattered husk of a ship - although more elaborate, heavily-armoured constructions have a better shot at survival.

A key question I had while watching and playing Worlds Adrift was "what will players spend most of their time doing?", and despite seeing and playing several possible answers, I'm not sure how much the wiser I am yet.

Yes, they will be making their way to new islands, seeing new sights, battling new creatures,

Yes, they will be harvesting resources and using them to complete constructions.

Yes, they will be swinging around caves and climbing up mountains.

Yes, they will be constructing flying boats and sailing across the skies.

Yes, they will be forming guilds and collaborating on gigantic builds or raiding rivals.

Yes, they will be pursuing some manner of ongoing character 'upgrade', though the devs are at pains to point out that they want to avoid the 'max level and done' trap.

Lots of things, all interesting things. But I'm not entirely sure which of these elements will prove to be a primary motivator to spend a ton of time Worlds Adrifting.

This is not to say that I doubt people will do this, just that, in my brief time with it, I could not ascertain quite what will be the core loop. Minecraft, for instance, long straddled the line between survival and construction, and ultimately the players drove it more in the direction of the latter than the former.

Add to this a few somewhat Molyneuxian ideas, such as each island having its own ecosystem - predator and prey hierarchies, to the point that if, for instance, players raze all the fruit trees, herbivores will die out and in turn so will the carnivores - and you're looking at a melting pot of wild ambition.

We have slices of Kerbal + Minecraft + Warcraft + No Man's Sky in there, and I cannot quite ascertain what cocktail will result from all this. I suspect it can only be whatever players most attach to. I suspect too that it is more likely to be the construction side of things than the exploration, because while the fractured land of Worlds Adrift, a mix of procedurally-generated layouts and hand-made decor such as giant statues, offers striking sights, the most active verb for what you do on each island is 'build'.

This may mean that beautiful new places are strip-mined rather than explored, but Bossa claim they can and will add in new islands as required, expanding the scale of the game to suit the size and behaviour of the playerbase. Hopefully those who seek to drift around, taking in the sights, will be as well-served as the frantic builders and creature-squishers.

I mentioned Molyneux earlier (though believe me, speaking personally I remain a big fan, the dull Godus and overblown Curiosity excepted) and I'd mentioned this element to the devs, who strove to put Promising The Earth concerns to rest. They are pledging so much, all this exploration, all these sights, all this player-driven design and activity, 'what if you could fly through a storm', 'what if you can design your own ship', 'what if you could build guns out of gold', 'what if you could attach your grappling hook to a flying creature', 'what if the ecosystem was affected by your actions'.

Thing is, all that stuff does actually exist in the game already. I don't know how it will balance out, how slick or long-lasting each will be, but it's there. This is a game that exists, not a collection of hopes of dreams. And it's damned pretty too, especially from a landscape point of view, although I wasn't entirely sold on the player character models.

There is, of course, currently some controversy surrounding the reality of a game that seemed to promise everything. So far as I can tell, Worlds Adrift is going the opposite route: incorporating the vast bulk of its drawing board ideas even in alpha, and then seeing what sticks. Me, I hope to recapture that early-WoW sense, of arduously finding my own path up a steep mountain and discovering a whole new, deadly and fascinating world on the other side. On paper, doing that with DIY sky-ships only makes sense. There's a ton to do and I look forwards to doing it - I just have no idea which I'll be doing most of yet.

You can sign up for the next Worlds Adrift alpha [here], but applications close on August 29. The full game has no specific release date as yet, but a beta is likely before the end of the year.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.