Saturday, February 4, 2017

Moving Away From The Pulsebeat : Tanzia, Antilia, Ninelives

Like most of the quondam MMO blogs in my Feedly, Massively OP, whose very raison d'étre used to be MMOs, has diversified somewhat as the genre has drifted from the spotlight. Consequently it didn't come as much of a surprise this morning when I saw yet another post covering something that professedly isn't an MMO.

It was more unusual to find the game in question - Tanzia - isn't even going to be online when it launches, supposedly later this year. Of course, the question of what is or isn't "online" is hard to parse these days. Tanzia is already on Steam, which, for my definitional purposes at least, makes it an online game even if it has an offline mode too.

Leaving nit-picking definitions over distribution platforms aside, what really interests me here are  the possibilities for massively multiple online gaming with the massive, the multiple and the online all taken out. On the face of it that's reductio ad absurdam. An MMORPG without the MMO is just an RPG, isn't it?

Except it isn't. I've tried to play a few RPGs over the last decade and a half and more since I first caught the taint. In the early years, coming down off RPGs like Return to Krondor and Might and Magic VII, I managed a couple more before the MMO train picked up speed. Baldur's Gate 2 was the last one I finished. That was sixteen years ago.

Somehow I just haven't been able to settle into any offline RPG since I discovered EverQuest. They seem flat and empty and pointless somehow. You'd think that would be the futility of solitude. Only I'm not sure that's true.

Increasingly over the years my MMO play, like most peoples', probably, has been self-focused. Even when we play with others nowadays it's often not in the way it once would have been. For a decade and more almost all the direction of developmental travel for the genre has aimed towards self-sufficiency. Short of whatever passes for an end-game, at least.

Outside of raiding, which has always been considered a minority interest within the hobby, the entire thrust of MMO gameplay has passed from group to individual. Questing is largely a solo activity these days as is leveling. Crafting interactions are generally limited to transactions through an NPC moderated brokerage.

Even supposedly group-oriented activities like running dungeons or taking down overland Boss Monsters get handed on to automated group-finders, leaving players to run in packs, sharing buffs and heals and bouncing aggro without the time-drag of having to organize or even speak to each other. The UI and the matchmaking algorithms handle everything so much more efficiently, after all.

Given the way we play now - the way I play now - what should I be missing in an offline rpg? Why do they feel so off-kilter, so skittery-wrong? It could be the lack of conversation, perhaps. For all the supposed solipsism and insularity fostered by modern MMO mechanics I, for one, talk as much in game as I ever did, which is a lot.

I was one of the people making Lake of Ill Omen /ooc infamous back at the turn of the century. Not, I hasten to add, for any trolling or filter-testing profanity but for yakking incessantly about in-game stuff as if everyone cared what I thought about every little last thing. I've rowed back some over the years but I still would as soon jump into a debate as tab out.

And chat channels in MMOs are as buzzing as ever they were. In GW2 map and EQ2 general the stream of consciousness never stops. It's like radio for the eyes.

So maybe that's why offline rpgs don't work for me? Well, I thought that too, until I played Ninelives. Ninelives was going to be an MMO before developers Smokymonkeys found they'd bitten off more than they could chew and turned it into an "open world online RPG".

That history resulted in a game that looks, feels and plays exactly like an MMO with the two Ms dropped. Unlike Syp, who didn't take to it when he visited, I found myself instantly at home there. Partly that was the wonderful, bleak, elegaic feel to the world but a lot of it was the very familiar mechanics and structure.

As Syp observed, "It’s an MMO in feel but completely devoid of a mark of any other player" but for once I never felt that lack for a moment. It didn't matter that there were no other player characters running past me on the roads or pushing in front of me at the bank. I never even noticed the absence of chatter. I was too busy exploring, questing, gearing up, sorting my bags...

Too busy playing my own, personal MMO. In the end is that it? Does it come down to the mechanics? Is that why this genre has the hold over me that it does?

It's a given of any discussion of why people go on playing MMOs for so much longer than they play other video games, why they play them long after they even claim to be enjoying themselves, that it's all abut the community. Supposedly it's the relationships you form inside the games, the friends you make, your guilds and your buddy list and the times you shared. All about that.

Well, some of it's about that, sure. Mrs Bhagpuss and I sometimes reminisce about people we grouped with back in 2004 in just the same way we remember people we used to go drinking or partying with back then. But we don't see those people any more and yet we still play the games. I, in particular, even still play the very same MMOs, even though not a single person I knew back then plays any of them now.

So, what I'm wondering is this: has playing MMOs, for me, always been more about the mechanics than the people? And if so, and assuming I'm far from alone in feeling that way, even though it may not be socially or culturally acceptable, yet, to admit it, then why have MMO developers been so reluctant to cash in? Why are there no offline spin-offs from WoW or EQ or Runescape or Lineage or the rest of the long-running titles with tens or hundreds of millions of current and former players?

What's more, when each ex-successful MMO sunsets, as the Asherons Calls did this month, instead of taking a PR hit for doing nothing, instead of letting private servers and emulators soak up the disenfranchised, why not package up some existing assets, throw an offline version together and sell it for those tear-stained nostalgia dollars?

How hard can it be? I mean, you already have all the art assets and game systems. Psychochild points out some technical difficulties in his comment to TAGN but how many of those problems would be intractable with a non-networked offer?

That's a tangent though. Emulators will serve the needs of the nostalgia market well enough for any MMO large enough to have a commercial market in its afterlife. My real interest is in the prospects for offline, single player MMOs as a self-sustaining sub-genre.

The outcomes that I'm aware of so far haven't been great. Smokymonkeys, which is basically two guys in Japan plus a musician and some community help with the translations, threw in the towel a while back. The game is still up for now but development is suspended. It may remain playable as-is but as a game running on someone else's servers, not your own PC, any progress you might make or attachment you might feel is unbearably fragile. I could wake up any day and find it all gone which puts me off trying.

Another game I've had my eye on - Antilia - is nowhere even that close to being a permanent presence in anyone's life. This one seems to be a single-developer project. It was going to be an MMO but that proved too much to handle so now it's aiming to become a "sandbox-style RPG, featuring both single and multi-player game modes".

I hope it makes it because it looks very much like a game I'd want to play. More so, really, than the brasher, brighter, flashier, faster Tanzia. Tanzia, though, looks like it might actually happen and happen this year, at that.

If it does I'll be giving it a go. I'd like to find out once and for all whether an internet connection really is essential to play the only kind of game I've wanted to play these last seventeen years.


  1. I tried to get a reunion together for my EQ guild, especially now that the game is free and all the old characters are still there. I had a few nibbles from a few people here and there but it never did happen. I'm a nostalgic fool and it wouldn't take me much to be a regular on EQ again, if an old friend or two suggested I would do it - which was probably part of my motivation for trying to drum it up in the first place, I suspect.

    Soloing a Warrior is not a joy in EQ. Even a troll one.

    I wish more MMOs were RPGS, especially when there are a few that I feel would benefit greatly from that - SWTOR and TSW for me especially would be awesome. The forced MMO mechanics (non-permanence) seems to water down the possibilities.

    Mass Effect: Andromeda will pull me out of almost all gaming until it is done, I have a feeling.

    The reason why WoW doesn't do a RPG is that any dollar spent on that initiative is better spent on the MMO side to keep the subs pouring in. There is no doubt that people would play a WoW offline RPG but a few million people leaving WoW for any period of time is a hard balance for the company. What was that line, robbing Peter to pay Paul? (Does Paul even deserve it?)

    1. Have you tried "soloing" a warrior in EQ since mercenaries were added? It's obviously a different experience entirely, playing a warrior with a dedicated healer who never complains you're pulling too fast (or too slow), never has to go afk to walk the dog, never rolls against you on plate drops...

      The thing about offline RPGs (video games I mean) is that they are largely story-focused whereas story is one of the things about MMOs that interests me the least. I like the sound of Tanzia because it claims to play like an MMO as much as like an RPG. It's the kiting and camp/room breaking that appeals me to me. That's something you rarely get even in MMOs these days let alone RPGs, although Baldur's Gate was full of that kind of thing, come to think of it.

    2. I haven't actually. I never did get into the mercenary thing, and perhaps I will try that. My main push back into EQ was on the progression servers, which was good fun =)

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