Monday, October 17, 2022

Sifting Through The Embers

It's been a while since I was last enthused or excited about the imminent launch of a new mmorpg. Thinking about it, I wonder if it's happened at all since Guild Wars 2 a decade ago. I could check back through the blog but the very fact that nothing comes immediately to mind tells its own story.

That's not to say there hasn't been a steady procession of new games I've been interested in or enjoyed - there most certainly has - but it's been much more "Oh, that looks like it might be worth a try" than "When's it coming out? I can't wait!". As I was musing the other day, I'm not one hundred percent convinced that, did I not have a blog to write, I would be playing new mmorpgs at all. I'd more likely just be ditzing around in the same old ones, quite contentedly.

With that in mind, it's perhaps not surprising I completely missed the (surprisingly smooth) launch of a relatively significant title this weekend. The first I really knew about it was this morning, when a couple of news items caught my eye. It was only when I came to do the research so I could write this post that I realized not only had I failed to notice the game had gone live, I'd been wholly mistaken about the kind of game it was, pretty much from the moment the Indiegogo campaign that introduced it to the world began.

I can cite a few mitigating circumstances to explain, if not excuse, my series of errors. For a start, I stopped following development of the a long time ago. I crossed the game off of my mental checklist a few years back, mostly thanks to some tetchy dev responses I'd seen in comment threads. It seemed for a while as though even mentioning the game unfavorably in passing would result in a visitation so I avoided mentioning it here at all, an embargo that snowballed into avoiding reading about it and eventually into forgetting it even existed.

Before I stopped paying attention altogether, I did read a particular series of marketing and PR releases that skewed my understanding of the game altogether. There was a moment when Saga of Lucimia, as the game was then called, was making a big deal of how dark it was going to be. That's not dark as in horror-inflected. They meant literally dark as in "can't see your hand in front of your face".

The video that showed all the things you wouldn't be able to see is no longer available but as the  article on MassivelyOP explained, "Players won’t be able to use torches in battle, but the darkness will still be there, meaning that players will need to have someone in the group holding a lantern or torch so that you can see what’s going on."

Somehow I got it into my head that the entire game was going to be like this all the time. Until about an hour ago, I did genuinely believe the original plan for Saga of Lucimia was for a world perpetually shrouded in darkness, where you'd never see anything that wasn't illuminated by an artificial light source and in which one spot in every group would always have to be taken by someone who did nothing but hold a torch.

In retrospect, that never seemed likely to work, let alone be popular, even with hardcore, old school mmorpg vets and indeed no-one was expecting that it would be. I'd simply missed the point.  Night-time and some dungeons would be very dark but the world itself would have normal day/night cycles and no-one was being asked to carry a torch outdoors, when the sun was up. 

Another thing I hadn't really taken on board were the many comparisons with original EverQuest and Vanguard, both reference points that would normally have piqued my interest. I had registered the extremely strong commitment to group-centered gameplay - the original pitch specifies "Zero solo content" - but my conception of early EQ, from the perspective of someone who'd been there at the time, was of a very solo-friendly game. The supposed connection between EQ, Vanguard and "group content only" was lost on me. Still is, for that matter.

About the last thing I remember hearing about the game was when an internal implosion within the development team resulted in a change of name. Unfortunately, when the new name, Embers Adrift, began to appear in news items, I confused it with another, extremely similar name, Worlds Adrift, a now-shuttered mmorpg, whose main focus was steampunk airships. Every time I saw an article about how Embers Adrift was coming along, I mistakenly thought it was talking about another game entirely.

Given all of that, it would have been a miracle if I'd spotted the open beta in time to take a look for myself. I didn't, which was a shame. It was only three days, so I didn't miss much, but I would have liked to have popped in and taken a look around.

That was my one chance to see the game for free but of course, now it's launched, I could pay and play any time. Having had a quick flick through the information available on the website, I have to say I'm significantly more interested in that possibility than I ever imagined I might be.

The general tone of the website is far more welcoming than I remember from the game's earlier iteration. It reads very much like the other would-be "old school" mmorpgs, Pantheon, Camelot Unchained and the rest - very much focused on the tastes and expectations of people who enjoyed playing these kinds of games nearly a quarter of a century ago but recognizing that times have changed and not always for the worse.

Most specifically, gone are the boasts that the game features no solo content whatsoever or that absolutely nothing can be achieved without a group. Instead, as the FAQ puts it, "Grouping is not required in Embers Adrift, but it is highly recommended. With a group you'll be able to get to locations that you never could reach on your own.

An article at MMO Haven has a detailed, bullet-point list of features that seems to have been written with the more curious, less already-committed potential player in mind. It claims the game has "Adventure content designed for solo players, small groups, and full 6-person groups for levels 1-50" and "Vast overland zones and non-linear dungeons with escape routes". 

All of that makes the game sound considerably more like the EverQuest I remember, rather than the peculiar "uphill in the snow both ways" miserable experience that seems to have become the mantra of a certain kind of reverse-rose-colored-glasses demographic. The promotional material mentions a number of features that appeal to me, among them being able to gain xp purely by killing mobs and traditional tab-targetting combat.

At this point I might very well be thinking of making an account, downloading the game and giving it a try. Granted, there's absolutely no chance I'm going to be settling back into the kind of forty hour a week grind that so enraptured me back at the turn of the millennium. I'm confident that will never happen again and I wouldn't want it to. 

I would, though, be very happy to have a new game using those old mechanics that I could potter around in for a while, seeing the sights in the lower-level areas, putting in a few hours here and there, now and then, as the mood takes me, killing rats, kobolds, goblins or whatever the local farmers feel they can't handle (Although the FAQ does point out that farmers in Embers aren't quite as helpless as we've become used to seeing in other games: "While some NPCs wouldn't mind a hand around the farm...they typically handle their smaller problems on their own").

I might even have been curious and tempted enough to lay out the $29.99 they're asking. It's an introductory price, set to rise to $39.99 in November. Thirty dollars isn't an unreasonable price to pay for a buy-to-play mmorpg, even one from an unproven, indie studio, although I feel $40 might be pushing it a little.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. In keeping with its traditionalist values, Embers Adrift also comes with a $9.99 monthly subscription, a price that's also set to rise after an introductory period, this time to $14.99 in the New Year. Once again, I don't think that's necessarily an unreasonable ask. If the company wants to keep entirely clear of all kinds of cash shop shennigans as it claims, foregoing both lockboxes cash shop with the commitment that it "will never have micro transactions", the money to keep the servers up is going to haveto come from somewhere.

It just isn't going to come from me. And, frankly, I remain to be convinced it's going to come from enough people to keep Embers Adrift  viable in the medium to long term. The game probably doesn't need a huge number of people to sign up to meet the minimum commercial threshold for continued existence but there's very little understanding of just how big (or small) the potential market for these old-school titles is likely to be.

$40 for the "box" and $15 every month for as long as you want to play seems like a very significant barrier to entry in the current market. I'm very well aware from numerous conversations in the general chat channels of various older games that a hefty proportion of veteran gamers have enough disposable income to see these kinds of sums as trivial but those players also tend to be the most settled in their ways and the least likely to jump ship from the games they've already been playing for much of their lives. 

Whether a newcomer can prize enough of them away from EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot or WoW Classic or P99 or any of the myriad other emulator projects, most of which are either free to play or vastly better-known or both and most of which offer a combination of familiarity and novelty as they continue to build on established foundations, remains to be seen.

I hope they can. From all accounts I've seen so far, Embers Adrift is a solid attempt at providing a satisfying experience for a specific audience. That's a lot more than can be said of many of the crash-and-burn projects that have plagued the mmorpg gamespace in recent years. 

For me, it's probably not quite the right fit and also about a decade too late. I'm not saying I'll never pay a subscription for a new game of this kind - I'll probably stump up for Pantheon, if it ever arrives - but for now I'm happy enough with what I have.

What I most certainly will do, however, is take the opportunity to kick the wheels and inspect the teeth, should Embers Adrift ever decided to throw open the doors for a "free weekend" or offer some kind of  "free trial". I imagine it will have to, eventually, and I imagine those few days will probably be enough for me.


  1. I have to say that while I am 100% the type of player they aim that MMO at, the asking price is way too high in my opinion for me to jump in. I don't mind paying even 40$ for an indie MMO of that level of quality (from the stream I've been watching), but 15$ a month to play is way too high when this same price can give you either All Access from Daybreak where you can play live EQ, EQ2 and their classic servers for similar feels as this, WoW where you, again, get access to both live and classic or FFXIV. I understand these games are different but the value of 15$ remains. So what is the right price? Well all I can say is for 7.99$ a month, I would have given this game a good chance, but as it stands now I don't want to invest my time or money, and it's a shame because I am interested...

    1. I find it very hard to imagine they'll be able to hold this price point for long but I guess it depends on just how small a core audience they consider commercialy viable. It would have to be pretty small but there are plenty of mmorpgs out there that appear to have absolutely tiny populations and yet somehow the servers stay up year after year. If they're hoping for any kind of growth, though, something's going to have to give.

  2. I generally won't spring for an MMO I can't take for a spin with a demo. Even in a short demo, I can get a sense for whether the basic types of characters I can play, the gameworld, and the controls will appeal to me. It also used to be essential for figuring out if my hardware could even handle a game well, but that hasn't been an issue for at least a few years now. At some point PC hardware requirements seem to have mostly levelled out.

    1. I agree. I'd have to be fully on-board with the whole project to pay the full box fee upfront, sight unseen, which would these days probably only apply to Pantheon of the games in development I'm aware of. Otherwise, I want to see the game from the inside, either in one of those once-popular "Beta Weekends" or in a free trial of some kind.

      There was an interesting comment on the MassivelyOP thread, though, that suggested the server hosting plan Embers' developers have gone with isn't flexible enough to handle a sudden surge of players, meaning any free trial or weekend would have to be very carefuly managed, if it was even possible at all. that's the sort of thing I don't tend to think of as a player.


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