Saturday, January 5, 2019

Girl Singing in the Wreckage : Final First Impressions

There's something about pirate-themed MMOs that just seems to demand an extended metaphor, isn't there? Maybe it's because coming up with them is just about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, a mini-game that is, no doubt, in development on Wildcard's private test server even as we speak.

According to MassivelyOP, Atlas, after a hasty and ill-prepared launch, has slipped past the treacherous rocks of overwhelmingly negative reviews to sail into the calm seas of very satisfactory player retention. I'm sure we're all very relieved to hear that, not least the twelve thousand people who posted negative reviews on Steam.

Is Atlas an MMO, though? And if is, is it also an MMORPG? When first we learned of its existence we were excited, not to say astounded, to hear that Atlas would host "over 40,000 players in the same world, all exploring it simultaneously".

Go to bed fully dressed.
That sounds like a bold claim but M:OP reports a current concurrency of 44,000 and a high just shy of 59,000 while Steam gives a monthly average of 38,000. On the other hand, when I logged out this morning, the stats on my exit screen told me there were 19 other people playing. You do the math because I can't.

Let's give the confusing numbers a pass and agree that Atlas is in some ways both "Massive" and "Multiple". It's definitely "Online". So I guess it's an MMO. Is it an MMORPG, though?

No, it bloody well is not! There's one very simple reason that Atlas falls at the first hurdle in any race to join the ranks of bona fide MMORPGs: persistence. The key defining feature of MMORPGs is persistence, not only of the world but of your character's place in it. This is something Atlas, entirely by intent and design, neither has nor wants.

It's hard to find out accurate information at this early stage, but as far as I can tell Atlas follows the general principle of survival games when it comes to persistence, namely Use It Or Lose It. If you log out, any structures or craft you own are vulnerable both to predation and decay. If you stay offline for long enough to get a good night's sleep, let alone take a few days off, you will come back to find your corpse floating in the water or face down on the sand.

On a PvP server this is a mechanic designed to foster co-operation and competition. On a PvE server... I have no idea.

The game is unapologetically marketed and promoted as something suited to organized groups of players, be that clans, guilds or co-op teams. Presumably there's a market out there for PvE gameplay with almost all the downsides of PvP except for actually being killed by other players.

This is not to say that keeping your character alive and your stuff intact while also performing the necessary functions of an actual life is impossible, even playing solo. It's hard to be sure, though, as information at this stage is sketchy. I'm not even clear yet whether Storage Crates decay over time, for example, let alone buildings, so I can't say for certain whether true persistence is actually impossible or just very difficult to achieve. 

Wake up in your underwear.
You don't have to do everything yourself, even if you have no actual friends to lend a hand. Atlas
does have hireable NPCs - "Crew" - who can be set to perform all the necessary functions of running a ship, including repair. They don't do this for love, though; you have to pay them. If you run out of Gold they walk off the job and down goes your boat.

What's more, you have to supply them with the necessary materials to keep everything ship-shape. You also have to keep yourself fed, watered, healthy, not too warm and not too cold, all at the same time as earning enough gold to pay your crew and gathering enough materials to keep the entire operation afloat.

This, in my opinion, is not a game. Neither is it entertainment. It's a pastime, a hobby, and very possibly a great way of avoiding issues you'd rather not be thinking about. As an effective way to keep your hands, eyes and at least some of your brain occupied for most or even all of your waking hours it can hardly be faulted.

I'm on record as being very much in favor of hobbies and pastimes. I strongly prefer them to games. People do, however, tend have quite strong preferences, likes and dislikes, when it comes to hobbies and I'm no exception. While I'm entirely comfortable with spending inordinate amounts of time doing things that have little or no extrinsic purpose or value, I often find myself drawing my own personal line at treading water.

It's one thing to carry out repetitive actions for hours on end, to perform by hand repetitive tasks that could easily and more efficiently be automated, or to work through extended storylines and dialogs that you've already heard or read. It's another to do any of those things purely to prevent your character and your possessions from despawning.

Tobold has been talking about Progression. Atlas has it. Your character's level, statistics and skills neither decay nor disappear if you don't service them. They are truly persistent and, so long as you keep playing, they will continue to progress, at least  until you hit the caps.

I don't find that helps much. Neither does finding that a decade has passed in game since I last logged in a few days ago. When I logged out on Monday my character was twenty-three years old. When I logged in this morning she was thirty-five. That's the kind of progression I could do without.

A lot can happen
If I leave it another couple of weeks I'm guessing she'll be dead. As in permanently unplayable - she was dead in game when I logged in today. I might log in to find out, just out of curiosity. It's unlikely I'll be logging in to play.

I would play Atlas, if it was an MMORPG. If I knew I could log back in and find my character where and how I'd left her. If there was some persistence in the things that matter. I might also play it if the overall experience was something much more throwaway, if everything happened quickly and easily and having to start over was a pleasure rather than a pain.

Atlas is neither of those things. It's a harsh and unforgiving world, filled with hard knocks and vicious knockbacks. It demands constant attention and commitment without the promise of anything lasting or substantial in return. There's nothing wrong with that if that's what you want. It's not what I want.

Also, just to put the cap on it, while the game still runs well while I'm playing, some recent change
means that every time I log out my entire PC hangs for anything up to half an hour. It's almost as though the game is trying to tell me something.

in a dozen years.
I'm going to keep an eye on Atlas. The potential is huge. This month Wildcard are releasing the Developers' Kit which will open up the game for modding. I'm fairly sure someone will use it as the platform to build something interesting, somewhere down the line.

Next week's patch is also set to reduce the difficulty of getting started significantly. That's quite encouraging and it might have persuaded me to start over yet again if it wasn't for the fact that GW2's next Living Story update also drops on Tuesday.

Probably not. The incoming changes likely wouldn't have made enough difference to draw me back even without the competition. I've enjoyed learning what Atlas is trying to be, but as a PvE MMO, right now it's pretty much a bust. It's still a co-op survival game under the hood and that's a genre that's never appealed to me, no matter how fancy the paint job.

I'm still very happy to have bought and tried it. Atlas's journey has barely begun. It's going to be around for a long time.  If - when - things change, I'll be back to give it another look. For the time being, though, I think I'm done.


  1. I also find such lack of persistence offputting. It even goes so far that I'm reluctant to play long single player RPGs like Witcher, because I can't stand the thought that it'll be over at some point and all my progress effectively gone.

    Of course I'll make an exception for Cyberpunk though.

    1. I think you'd have to have a lot of free time and nothing much to fill it with to get the most out of Atlas or any similar "game". It could get quite obsessive, I imagine.

  2. To play the devil’s advocate, you seem to be conflating the term persistence with the concepts of “no item decay” and “lack of negative backward progress.”

    Atlas is very much persistent, in the fact that the world stays alive on the server and keeps on ticking without you. It is so persistent that all your constructed buildings stay around on said ticking world, and then promptly decays when you’re not there to witness it. It is so persistent that I watched a streamer mess around with another player’s ‘sleeping’ aka offline body because that player accidentally left his house door open when he logged off and that body remained in the world to be molested (literally, there was an attempt to drag the body out of the house, only questionably saved by a glitch into the floor on collision with the door frame) and potentially robbed of all possessions.

    On the other hand, when you combine such worldly persistence with the design principles that it’s ok for trees to fall in the forest while nobody’s watching, everything ages and decays, it’s open season on everything and everyone (unless player made alliances and rules say differently) and it’s ok for players to lose all their stuff...

    ...certainly not a game for me either. My personal Minecraft world has zero persistence, it does not continue to exist and develop without players to interact with it, it’s not there until and unless I boot up the game in singleplayer, but all my stuff is saved for me.

    1. No, I covered that quite specifically in the introductory part of the post: "The key defining feature of MMORPGs is persistence, not only of the world but of your character's place in it." And by "place in it" I mean literally, exactly that: if your character doesn't log back in the same place and in the same state that they logged out then your actions as a player do not have persistence. The world may and your character may but you don't.

      Of course, regular MMORPGs have exceptions to this basic principle - if you log out in a timed instance, for example, or in an inn room that has a rental requirement, and your timer expires while you're offline, then you will be moved to a default position - usually the door or zone-line to the instance you were in. The equivalent in Atlas, assuming it wanted to be an actual MMORPG, which clearly it doesn't, would be for you to log in beside the wreckage of your ship/swimming in the sea with no ship/next to the house you no longer own etc etc. Instead you wake up nowhere and have to respawn somewhere unconnected to where you were when you logged out.

      That's perfectly fine as a game system. Nothing wrong with it at all. It makes every play session a separate entity, though, rather than a linked sequence, hence no persistence. And, as I said, there are probably ways that you can circumvent this effect, eventually, given enough time and effort. It's still something of a workaround, though. The entropy of the systems themselves will eventually overwhelm you no matter how hard you resist.

  3. It actually sounds like Atlas might be suffering from a bit too much persistence if you can come back dead and looted after having logged off.

    1. I'm beginning to think "persistence" is a really unhelpful term! If this post was a chapter in a book I'd re-write the whole thing but since it's just a blog post it can lie here and fester.

  4. Sounds like MMORPGs offer continuity more than persistence, perhaps? All this is very much not the sort of game I want to play. I was reading somewhere about the PVE server's problems where players are banding together en masse to sink ships as that's a thing apparently. It reminds me of the lengths players would go to to grief others in Archeage in zones where PVP wasn't active (using carts to block roads etc)...


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