Thursday, May 14, 2020

Another Part Of The Forest

There are plenty of MMORPGs sitting at the back of my hard drive, gathering virtual dust. Every so often I get the urge to pull a few out and take a look.

It's an urge I generally find quite easy to shrug off. The last time I made the effort to do something about it was in January last year, when I shifted a whole bunch of games from portable drives to my newishly installed third HDD. That was also just about the last time I played any of them.

One title I'm always thinking of revisiting is Elder Scrolls Online. I never really got on with it. Like many people I don't like the combat but unlike most I'm not sold on the graphics either. Throw in the dull, overwritten quests and the flat voice acting and it's a wonder I have any interest in returning at all.

I wouldn't, only I'm acutely aware I've barely seen anything of the wider game, having spent all my time with a single race in a single region. With the entire world having been rendered accessible from the get go, I feel I really should give it another try. I know it won't come to anything but at least I'd get a post or two out of the experience.

That could be the post I'm writing now if it wasn't for one thing: ESO is still patching. It's been at it for about two hours and I've gone right off the boil. You have to catch these impulses at the flood or they fade away.

Instead I'm going to say something about an MMORPG I've mentioned a few times in the past, one that absolutely no-one I have ever heard or read about plays. It's The Hammers End and I first wrote about it in June 2013, when my main interest was the extraordinary payment scheme. You could download the game for nothing, then you got a free hour's play before you had to pay a monthly sub of $14.95 if you wanted to carry on.

I played my hour and passed on the sub. A year later they'd extended the free trial to a more rational fourteen days and I tried again. I didn't have much to say about it but I took some pictures, which I used to illustrate a post on ArcheAge for some inexplicable reason.

By the time I mentioned The Hammer's End again it was 2019 and the game was apparently using "a straightforward F2P/Premium system". The more surprising fact was probably that it was still up and running but perhaps not as surprising as what I found when I clicked on the icon today.

I got a pop-up telling me my install was out of date and I needed to re-download the game. I followed the link to the website, which has been revamped once again but still retains its enviable simplicity, a single page with only the most essential information to get you in and playing.

In amusing contrast to my experience with ESO, it took me no more than a couple of minutes to download and re-install the entire game. That had to be done because it's now running on a new engine.

Adventure World Studios LLC, the company behind THE and about whom I can find nothing other than that they're registered in Aloha, Oregon, developed the original engine specifically for that game. I'm guessing they also developed the new one. It's called "Atmosphere Engine" according to the website, which otherwise says nothing about it at all. Google has no comment to make, either.

There has always been a huge mantle of mystery over The Hammers End. It's very professionally produced, a fully-fledged MMORPG with content and systems that work. The content may be quite generic and the systems unexceptional but in the era of paid pre-alphas and "Early Access" that never ends, releasing a game as finished and complete as this seems like a major achievement.

It's still not something you could easily imagine people paying $14.95 a month for. If, indeed, that's how much it costs these days. I can't actually say for sure because the website no longer mentions any fee at all.

Whatever F2P/Premium arrangements I referred to a year ago seem to have vanished with the winter snows. I wanted to see what the game looked like running under the new engine so I tried to log in using my old details. They were recognized but my account was marked "inactive" and to revive it I was directed to PayPal.

I declined to follow that link. Instead I took advantage of the fourteen day free trial option available to new accounts. I made a new account and logged in on that.

I like The Hammers End. It's simple without being simplistic, it's atmospheric and the gameplay is pleasantly redolent of the genre's early days. I harbor fantasies of one day playing long enough to see some of the dungeons that open up in the mid and higher levels. It'll never happen, of course, but it's nice to log in and run around once in a while.

The game looks fantastic. Not that it didn't look pretty good before - "a very atmospheric, attractive world" I said, back in 2013, adding "the art design seemed convincing and coherent" and finishing up with "it felt like a proper place."

All of that is still true but now it also looks, well, magical. It has a picture-book feel to it, while also reminding me quite intensely of actual forests and woods I've known. I took a lot of screenshots, which don't do justice to how beautiful the gameworld can be.

There's not a lot of variety, at least in the parts I've seen. It's mostly forest. The area where you start is autumnal but if you follow the road far enough you come to winter. The zones are big. It took me a good few minutes to find the end of the first one. If you want to take the tour, though, you don't have to run. There's a handy "travel coach" in every village who'll port you anywhere you choose, for free.

Character models are odd. There are nominally six races but that's two kinds of identical frogs, three identical females and a rat. The characterization options must be in the running for the most limited I have ever seen. Brownies, elves and faeries can change the color of their hair, frogmen and nocturni their skin and burwoods a kind of tattoo or marking on the side of their face. That's it.

Other than those minimal identifiers, every character looks the same. Which might be a problem if there were any other players. I didn't see or hear anyone for the hour and a half I was playing and when I checked the marketplace, where players can trade with each other, it was completely empty.

And that brings me back to my perennial question: how does this game exist? It's been running, to my certain knowledge, for seven years. The login screen offers a choice of four servers, although only one was online when I made my new character. It's even enjoying a new coat of graphical paint. It even has raid dungeons. Who are they for?

I don't suppose it matters. It's one of life's eternal mysteries. It would be nice to know, all the same.


  1. When I see games like that I wonder if that's some kind of an elaborate money fraud theme. Not only I am not educated enough to really judge on that, but adding a whole new engine is extremely weird too. Very few major MMORPGs ever changed their engines AFAIK.

    1. Thoughts like that go through my mind, too, but why would you go to the trouble of building an actual, pretty decent MMORPG for that? And if someone could, why do people who are trying to make one for the usual reasons seem to find it so difficult?

    2. Yes, it's very weird. I was trying to find more information about The Hammers End through Google, but it seems there is very little information about the game online. Heck, if you search for "The Hammers End" you start getting your blog posts on the second page. Is also corroborates your own experiences that the game doesn't even have a small but dedicated community.

      Somewhat related. A 1995 "3d chat" game Worlds still has working servers.
      It seems that most people believe the game is kept alive solely for patent trolling.


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