Saturday, December 8, 2018

Atlas Obscura

A couple of unrelated news items caught my attention at MassivelyOP yesterday. One was a report that Daybreak had laid off another sixty or seventy people. The other was the announcement of a major new MMO, launching before Christmas.

News of layoffs at any MMO studio isn't generally much of a surprise - worrying, maybe, but hardly unusual. I'm tempted to say the most surprising thing about this one was finding out Daybreak still had seventy people left to let go.

John Smedley flared up on Twitter with some choice quotes that look likely to come back to haunt him one day. I imagine he thought so too when he'd calmed down because they've both disappeared from his timeline, although you can read them in the linked M:OP post.

It's one thing to criticize the running of a studio and the care it takes of its employees but that criticism takes on an entirely different tone when it comes from the person directly responsible for arranging the transfer of said studio to its current owners in the first place.

The background to the story seems murky, as is usually the case in affairs of this kind. My dog in the fight is really the health and future fortunes of the current stable of games but as a longtime fan of SOE/DBG's style of MMORPG I'm also interested in what Daybreak might do next.

The good news, in so far as we know anything, is that the existing games seem to be unaffected by the latest round of redundancies. M:OP clarified the original report with some qualified reassurance: "It sounds as if the core MMORPGs are safe".

This opinion appears to have been derived by MassivelyOP directly from sources among the DBG staffers actually laid off, although the linked article from Variety does include a boilerplate quote from a DBG spokesperson: "we remain focused on supporting our existing games and development of our future titles.”.

Conversely, one of the most striking elements in the M:OP edit, the reference to "a secret game with a top IP", doesn't appear at all in the Variety story.  Indeed, on a first reading, the Variety piece appears to contradict M:OP's precis, with Variety reporting the DBG spokesperson as confirming

"“Our Austin office is not closing.""
while Massively:OP reframes that as:
"those laid off may have been working on a secret game with a top IP (at the Austin studio – now confirmed publicly by Variety)."

I guess both could be correct, if the layoffs are at Austin but Austin stays open with whoever's left still working on...whatever it is they do there... but it's a confusing picture to say the least.

What really struck me - other than the fact that Variety even knows DBG exists - is how little we know about anything major studios are up to behind the scenes. Given that MMOs take years to produce, and especially given the recent trends towards turning their development into some kind of reality show, I find it genuinely surprising to learn that there are still so many secret projects out there.

The other news story I mentioned is a case in point. ARK developers Wildcard are launching a brand-new MMO next week. Yes, next week!

If you get your MMO news from Massively:OP, as I do, you'd be forgiven for thinking the first anyone knew about this was when the trailer was shown at the Twitch Game Awards a couple of days ago. (I didn't even hear about the Twitch Game Awards until they were over, despite having a Twitch account, but leaving that aside...)

Checking YouTube, however, I see that there are several videos up for Atlas, which is what the pirate-themed survival MMO is called, going back at least four months. As my own channel has often demonstrated, if you want to hide something from the general public, you can't do better than post it on YouTube.

The Steam page for Atlas also contradicts the M:OP piece, which describes the game as "first person MMO", while the actual description on the page linked by M:OP clearly states that Atlas is

 "a massively multiplayer first-and-third-person fantasy pirate adventure" (my emphasis).

All sources agree that the game will offer a vast open world capable of holding up to forty thousand players at once, which is Massively Multiple by anyone's criteria, I'd say. Wildcard describe it as an MMO "on the grandest scale" and with claims like this, who can argue?

"Physically sail in real-time across the vast oceans with the proprietary server network technology. Explorers will voyage to over 700 unique landmasses across 45,000 square kilometers, with thousands of Discovery Zones, and ten distinct world regions..."

I'm not sure whether the part about sailing in real-time is a threat or a promise. I don't see much future in a game that requires two weeks of your life just to get from one landmass to another. I'm guessing they just mean no instant travel.

Although the game is described as a "a survival MMO", as you might expect from the makers of ARK, the Steam page makes it sound far more like a full-on sandbox. It will even have some theme-park content featuring "challenging main questlines".

If it all sounds too good to be true - and it does - then temper your excitement in the knowledge that next week's "launch" is in fact the start of a proposed two year period of Early Access. How much of the mind-boggling feature set will be in place by Christmas 2020 I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wildcard does have an impressive record with ARK, though. I've never played it but I've read a ton about it and for all the teething troubles and complaints, most of what I read was people enjoying themselves. ARK's overall rating on Steam is "mixed" but its recent rating, from almost seven thousand votes, is "very positive", which to me suggests an Early Access project that produced a solid, successful game.

The official early-access release trailer is impressive even though you can see it's very much a work in progress. This article at PCGamer fleshes out a lot of detail about how the game might play. I'm not particularly a fan of pirate settings and I positively dislike ship-to-ship combat, but even so I'm very tempted. 

The 100GB download and the fact that my GPU might not quite meet the minimum spec is about all that's putting me off. Certainly the $30 price tag sounds reasonable and the option of playing on either PvE or PvP servers is perfect.

What I'm really left wondering, though, is what else might be out there? Who knows which studio is working on what project? We base our expectations for the genre on what we can see but so much is hidden.

We don't even know what that "top IP" Daybreak were working on was, let alone whether the layoffs mean it's been cancelled or just changed development phase. Was it an internal or an external IP? Did the last hope for EQ3 just die, or was that the rumored Planetside 3 that crashed and burned? Or was it an IP on license that we'd never even imagined DBG might be working on and so will never miss?

All we can say for sure is is there's a lot more going on than we ever know about. Until we do. And I like it that way. Long may it continue!


  1. Unfortunately Daybreak isn't a public company the way SOE was, so they are not constrained by truthfulness that would be required if they wanted to avoid being sued by stockholders and the FTC. The lease might not have run out on the Austin office, so it may remain technically "open" and what they consider supporting existing games might differ dramatically from what we have seen in the past. Daybreak's unflinching ability to change their mind about what they had told us about ownership previously does not encourage me to take anything they say with an automatic optimistic spin.

    Still, they gotta make money somehow, and EQ, EQII, and DCUO are all they have that have track records there. H1Z1 is off in another world with NantG Mobile, which means maybe some revenue but no devs needed. Whatever their deal is with SSG probably gets them some income. But is there anything left to make something new at this point?

    As for Smed, he no doubt got paid well for the Daybreak acquisition, but at the time it looked like Sony was going to jettison SOE one way or another, so if it wasn't Jason Epstein it would have been somebody else.

    I'd be interested to know if Smed is still covered by the standard non-disparagement agreement that execs often have to sign as part of such deals and if that led to the removal of his tweets.

    1. Yes, I refrained from making the point in the body of the post, although I glanced at it a little, but the if the upshot of all this turns out to be a doubling-down on the core games, then it's not such a horrible prospect for those of us already enjoying them. There's obviously a non-negligible risk that the entire company will go under and that'll be that but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

      I'dlove to know what those 70 people were workling on, though. The "top IP" thing is throwing me off. If it wasn't for that I'd be certain-sure they just either canned the rumored new EQ game or Planetside3. Or both. I can't really see either of those qualifying as a "top IP" though. I would have thought that would need to be some kind of outside entity, like DCUO was for SOE.

      As for Smed, I don't use Twitter so I wasn't aware he was tweeting regularly again. I read his timeline and it seemed a bit unclear at times whether he was talking about the secret project he's working on for Amazon (another one) or whether he's been seconded to New World. He sounded very bad-tempered and aggressive in some of the tweets, I thought. I really have gone off him.

  2. As for whether the cancelled project was something EQ-related, someone asked that in the MOP comments and Bree answered with a categoric no, so she might actually know more about that than she put in the article.

    For me, hearing that the makers of ARK of all people are releasing an MMO made me raise my eyebrows to be honest. Yes, ARK is both fun and successful, but it also has a reputation for being terribly optimised and buggy as all hell, caused by the devs endlessly stacking features on top of each other without fixing any issues this caused. That might work alright in a single/small multiplayer game but sounds like a recipe for disaster in an MMO environment. It might well result in the kind of rude awakening that Bethesda had with Fallout 76.

    1. Ah, that's interesting about EQ. I guess the mobile version of Norrath or the Norrath Battle Royale is safe!

      The Atlas feature set is already ridiculously optimistic. If it expands any further it's going to start challenging Star Citizen for wishful thinking. And even though I haven't played ARK, even I know how buggy it was (is?). I played Vanguard at launch and loved it though - I'm pretty much immune to bugs. At $30 I definitely think it's worth a shot. I'd buy it right away only there's the Ashes of Creation Battle Royale Open beta also starting before Christmas and that's free, not to mention the alpha that cannot be named. I'll probably give Atlas a month or two to bed in and then jump on. Unless I hear that everyone's having a great time, in which case...


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