Friday, 14 August 2015

The News From Otherland

Tonight I was going to write about EQ2's new pre-Campaign quest "Malice in the Woods" (or "Malice in the Grove" if you're one of those goody-goody Qeynosian types). It took me about an hour to run through it including time out for screenshots and cheating research. Then, just after I finished, I took quick glance at Feedly and saw this on MassivelyOP. Quest reports will just have to wait until tomorrow.

The first mention of Otherland on this blog was in October 2012 as part of a portmanteau post about nine upcoming MMOs and expansions. In the intervening three years all of the other eight launched successfully. To no-one's surprise the Tad Williams inspired and endorsed project did not.

It failed to make its optimistic "Quarter 4 2012" release date (still bizarrely shown on Gamigo's web-page for the game - are Gamigo even still involved?) and from then on it was downhill all the way to oblivion. Or so we thought.

In an April 2013 post I described Otherland as "on the verge of extinction" as massive lay-offs hit developer RealU. Nothing was heard after that for more than a year and I'd both written the game off and forgotten about it until October 2014, when Massively chimed in with unexpected news of a last-minute reprieve.

The white knight riding to the rescue (or salvage crew picking up the pieces if you prefer) was hitherto unheard-of Polish MMO developer Drago-Entertainment. Progress since then has hardly been high-profile. A trickle of reports dribbled out, a closed beta test here, a new feature added there, but had the MassivelyOP crew not pulled off their own back-from-the-grave act it's doubtful we'd have heard anything about even those few tidbits.


It comes as a very pleasant surprise, then, to be able to report that as of the end of this month we will be able to log into Otherland and find out whether all the fuss, or lack of it, was worth it. In what is now a traditional move for smaller developers looking to keep the lights on while still working on getting something playable out the door, Otherland is offering Early Access from August 26 and through Steam, no less.

Steam Early Access might not carry the imprimatur of quality it once did (it did have authority once upon a time, didn't it? Or am I imagining that?) but it certainly means access to a significant audience. Including me. I have a Steam account although I rarely find any cause to use it. Well, this is one such cause.

Tad Williams is an author whose work I've enjoyed for many years (although his current dirty angel series is unreadable). The Shadowmarch saga is top-class genre fantasy and although I devoured the huge, sprawling, self-indulgent and highly entertaining Otherland trilogy maybe a decade ago I can still remember great chunks of it.

The whole enterprise rested on a rendition of virtual reality that almost begged to be translated into an MMORPG. The narrative takes place in what is effectively a series of instances accessed via a lobby and the setting gives carte blanch to cater for any and all tastes from fantasy and SF to historical re-enactment or abstract psychedelia.


In what looks to be a measured and unambitious way that's just the tack Drago-Entertainment has taken. The very professional and articulate prospectus on the Steam Early Access page lays out the limits plainly and realistically. I was particularly taken with the pragmatic nature of statements like these:

"...as a small developer there is only so much we can do. This means that you will certainly encounter previously unknown bugs and that we still need to adjust the balancing."

"After several CBTs we decided against doing a traditional OBT outside of Steam. Though this would have likely brought a huge user peak in the beginning, the feedback would not have been meaningful".

"...the revenues from Early Access purchases will be reinvested into additional development resources and more servers, providing an overall superior final product.”

The feature set is similarly restrained. Although the PR team unleash their lexicon of promises and lures in the About The Game section on Steam, which closely mirrors the website itself, the actual scope looks much less exaggerated. Half a dozen zones including an arena and a lobby area, four classes, the Unreal engine - no reinventing the wheel or throwing in everything and hoping some of it sticks.


Gameplay offers PvE, trailing the prospect of "new worlds with hundreds of new quests" by the time the game launches for real but a close reading reveals a game solidly focused on PvP. In a highly unusual move the player housing (yes, it has player housing) is vulnerable to attack by other players even when you aren't there to defend it.

"Set in Lambda Mall, each player is given their own virtual home called USpace, which can be decorated and customized. USpaces are used to grow Soma, the game’s main resource, and can be attacked by other players, leading to PVP encounters. Afraid to go on vacation? Collect eDNA from creatures and clone them to protect the USpace in your absence".

Even Crowfall doesn't go that far.

With the heavy focus on PvP and the "action-based combat with direct controls" it's hardly my idea of a relaxing MMMORPG but it's still likely to be my first Steam Easy Access purchase if for no better reason than I've been following its limping, halting progress for years now and I want to see it up close and in person. Virtual person.

Chances of playing Otherland long-term? Minimal. Chances of getting my money's worth? I'll tell you when I can find a price on Steam.

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