Anyone on the MassivelyOP team will probably tell you that I won’t shut up about Chronicles of Elyria. There’s so much to like about the game Soulbound Studios wants to build! Like many of you, I backed the game, and I’ve been literally battling to keep myself from donating $500 max to the Kickstarter; so far, I’ve backed at only the $40 tier, and I’ve never gone over $35 for any Kickstarter in the past. I don’t easily part with my money, especially for a game in development. While Elyria has a lot going for it, I’ve noticed recently that the developers and some fans might have gotten a little over excited since hitting their funding goal, and I’ve seen people comment about pulling out their funds because of this. The team recently released some answers to some good questions on Reddit, but some answers still feel a bit too optimistic. Maybe it’s time we bring things back down to Earth.
My PvP preferences
A lot of people who write criticisms about FFA and PvP are often questioned about their past, so let me present my PK resume: I’m the old Massively FFA PvP test dummy and survival genre guinea pig, as well as one of our resident MOBA explorers and shooter enthusiasts. I started toying with FFA PvP on Asheron’s Call‘s Darktide server. I was a minor officer in a major alliance during Darkfall’s early World Wars (Huah Yew!) and survived a week-long civil war involving multiple, daily (morning?) sieges up till the North American server was released, and I continued to work repair duty on my clan’s buildings on the new server. I ran guilds in WoW, RIFT, SWTOR, and TERA that centered on world PvP events, ranging from RP PvP (not just debates, but pitched battles) to multi-guild coordinated efforts to maintain server balance and foster a world PvP environment. I came to the old Massively while covering ArcheAge for a prominent fansite (having played at least 10 hours of the game in three languages) and spamming the writers with updates about the game.
I say this not to show off but to demonstrate that I’m the kind of person who helps make (FFA) PvP work. I have nothing against even pure PvE games, but they tend to expire early for me. I’m not some high-ranked arena player; I’m an open-world shepherd (there’s more than sheep and wolves). I know the risks involved in high-stakes PvP games and engage with allies and enemies to grow and develop our shared communities. I’ve played nearly exclusively on PvP servers and in PvP games for well over a decade, so you’ll have to excuse me for keeping my head out of the clouds. I’ve got no time to stare up into the sky and dream about what might work when there’s plenty of plotting and ganking down here on earth.
Setting realistic expectations
I’m not a prophet, but I’ve experienced enough launch days (or in modern gaming English, “early access”) to have a decent idea of what a game from a small studio looks like at release. Though the team has some big company names on its resume, they’re ultimately untested in the MMO world, and realistically, they don’t have the money or the man-power to pull off the vision they’ve been selling more since reaching their $900k goal. I do feel this team was more realistic about what it was doing at the start, and that’s the game I’m supporting.
For those having trouble managing their hype for this game, I’m here to splash some cold water in the form of history lessons from past “revolutionary” games, mostly of the PvP nature. So let’s take a look at what’s been promised, how those features have gone awry in the past, and what we’re actually likely to get.
I fully expect Chronicles of Elyria to launch by 2018 as planned, but that will probably still be too early. It’s following Darkfall’s trajectory: There will be delays, there will be features cut, and it will be rough. The game will include its rough-looking combat (at least one MMO reviewer could see some promise in it). Permadeath will make it in; it’s a core feature, after all. I’m expecting spirit runs, maybe family members acting as a kind of radar and “spawn point” for newbies, limiting some of their character creation options, and possibly acting in some way to learn abilities after creation, either directly through players or family NPCs as a kind of “faction” to get rep with.
Basic crafting will probably make it, but I don’t know about any Guitar Hero style barding. That’s important because crafting helps build PvE communities and helps separate MMOs from the FPS scene. Resource supply and management that doesn’t reset each game may not always be fun, but it’s what gives MMO wars their weight and why games like EVE have so few of them. Boring crafting that’s easy to master can kill a game’s population, and it’s something I noticed a bit of in Darkfall before its 2011 crafting update, but Elyria may pull off attaching recipes to special NPCs for flavor. Players being able to teach each other recipes through some in-game UI may make it to launch if the crafting community stays vocal enough.
But none of the planned crafting has gone through the full design phase, and at least the term “minigame” is out. Reinventing crafting is not a small thing — Camelot Unchained is the perfect example for how challenging it can be. And maybe I’m too optimistic, but I don’t feel the game can use traditional WoW-style, drag-and-drop crafting without serious backlash, and the rest of the systems described early on will probably be seen as more expendable.
Family, for all its hype, probably will end up being a system that enables players to summon each other, share resources, “sense” each other on a simple radar, and have some kind of family chat. The soul system sounds cool, but the work involved sounds heavy. With barely a playable combat demo and nothing of the world while aiming for a December 2017 release, I can see a lot of this system being cut to push the product out the door. Tunneling will probably be cut before we have something playable, and may come out for an official “release,” but I’m expecting a long paid alpha/beta period with a cash shop needed to keep the lights on.
Historically, meaningful families have been a dream in MMOs since the DAWN of MMO vaporware. While there are MMOs that let you have a last name you can share or channels/land rights (ArcheAge), what Elyria is proposing is something I eagerly want, but I worry about its implementation. I’m sure they can get similar appearances, spawn points, and maybe inheritable classes/stats down. The technology is available in singleplayer games, but since the days of Horizons/Istaria, we’ve seen these features fail to land in MMOs till long after the singleplayer/small-scale multiplayer community is done with them.
This is important because Istaria was a game that, at the time, sounded quite similar to Elyria in many ways: families, FFA PvP, discoverable player skill options (in the form of races), an ever-changing world, and more. What we got was a PvE crafting game with dragons, flight, local banking/auctions, and some unique world building/community events. Not bad, but a far, far cry from the original promise. It’s why anything in Elyria that sounds new or that is rarely done should be suspect beyond payment models.
Unfamilied wards of the state, with or without money, will probably launch because the developers seem to love the idea. However, this is another reason why the family system may not end up as powerful as its being described, since many people will probably want to start this way and complain about feeling the sting before wandering off to a new game.
Housing and land
The world will certainly have enough room for everyone to own a house, but part of that will be due to the FFA PvP nature of the game. Land controls will probably go in mostly as described, with the ability to assign ranks, tax people, and gain/lose territory. Town naming may be simplified though, as the cartography system may also be deemed as something that’s expendable. Cartography is an awesome idea, but Rust has no in-game map and people have made their own without an in-game skill. Elyria’s system sounds better, but if you were making a game and might have to choose between launching your game and cutting features, isn’t this one you’d give up? A game focusing on story and PvP can put exploration bonuses on the backburner. I’ve seen it done plenty of times. That might make backers happy though, as it makes their Kickstarter rewards permanent. Should the system make it, though, I have a feeling it won’t be utilized quite as intensely as the team would like except by the most political players.
NPCs in an MMO with their own goals tend to be few and far in between. Again, UO had it in testing and cut it, but I believe Black Desert Online has it. We’ve heard this feature before, and it sounds possible, but I’m remaining cautious about how it may turn out. In a PvP-focused game, it may just be cut as it has been in the past.
The importance of PvE in a PvP game
Many PvP games talk about doing cool PvE things, and as someone who’s experienced some of that (Darkfall’s roaming and true-flying dragons), I say it’s why this is such an interesting genre. However, the fact remains that these experiences can be rare and seem to pop up more in PvP games than PvE.
PvE, in general, will probably end up rather static. Remember, we’ve been hearing about non-static respawns since the pre-launch days of Ultima Online. Players just kill stuff. The only demo we have is PvP at the moment, and while there’s supposed to be a really cool engine capable of great things in development for 10 years or so, we probably won’t see it during the Kickstarter. Most of what’s said sounds like it relies on players to be driving action while the engine drives some kind of change. Not seeing that in demos at the time of the Kickstarter makes this a bit suspect, but again, good crafting can help alleviate this.
I think, for many people, the issue with Chronicles of Elyria is that, like many other PvP games before it (Crowfall, Revival, Embers of Caerus…), it’s boasting a unique interplay of PvE with PvP to push MMO narration in a meaningful way that has seldom been served to the MMO community since Asheron’s Call (though maybe Guild Wars 2’s Cutthroat Politics event is a more recent example). The problem is that we’re promised this a lot, but it rarely actually happens. EverQuest Next (RIP) generated so much hype because it was going to carve out space for stories based on how the playerbase would interact with it. Again, this is something GW2 aimed for its dynamic events, but as NPCs had a leash to prevent them actually making real progress, the feature only proved an acceptable alternative to yellow ! marks as a source of experience gains, and to show that PvE players need something more.
This was why ArcheAge was so appealing during beta to me as a PvP player. One thing that made PvP games like EVE and Darkfall work or fail was whether they also created an interesting experience for PvE players beyond being victims. Prior to its western launch, AA was offering meaningful crafting, non-instanced player housing, player-made factions, dynamic world building/farming, and more. It also had PvP, largely on a third continent, but if you jumped through the right hoops, you’d experience it everywhere, though with bigger consequences (sound familiar?).
I thought that if the PvE players needed to be in a PvP setting to experience something cool, like massive wars, they’d flock to the game. In some ways, I still do. Asheron’s Call 1’s Shard of the Herald event happened on a PvE server, not PvP. I was, in short, a PvE pizza delivery boy, as I was too weak to assist in the actual defense but could pass off items to stronger PvP players fighting to keep the shard alive.
This kind of system can work, but it rarely does. Part of the reason for this is that modern MMOs are more focused on giving players ways to increase their stat power. The Shard of the Herald event didn’t do this (it dropped powerful items, but they were randomly generated, and lore knowledge was needed just to find the mob’s location and consequences of killing it) and it’s still a defining moment in MMO history. ArcheAge was set to do something similar, but once the studios dropped permanent item decay and created multiple token systems, it became obvious their system would simply force PvE players into PvP zones. However, this was far into the game’s development, after multiple closed beta tests.
Free-for-all PvP and griefing
This is the elephant in the room.
Considering the survival genre and its current history, I am well aware that griefers and hackers will descend on Elyria as soon as possible, probably far too late for Soulbound to properly address them. Though the studio has someone on staff with “griefer tendencies,” that’s far different from whole guilds who live and breathe it. The end result could be that, as in Darkfall, you may be able to roam the wilds without seeing a soul, and should you see one, he’ll probably be someone hardcore looking for free loot (that’s you).
Soulbound recently revealed notes about how griefers are punished, and they won’t be enough, but at least some details give me hope. Anyone who’s casually looked at EVE knows that the bad guys can win, and that’s enough to scare away a lot of players. While that’s not entirely a bad thing, this is a subgenre that’s nicher than niche. I really want to be cautiously optimistic about Elyria’s known punishments:
- People who commit crimes are not safe from the game’s multi-death leniency system that helps make sure the sting of death doesn’t sting your wallet too much.
- The planned punishment is to lose as much life-time as you take from other players.
- Players can refuse to let you into their homes based on your reputation and need proper authority to invade lands. Living in the wilds makes the survival part of the game more difficult.
These are ideas Soulbound probably should have discussed further before outright declaring that there would be no PvE servers because that declaration has scared off a lot of potential backers. ECO, for example, started as a PvE game with indirect PvP with server-enforced laws, preventing playing from committing actions players deem illegal (i.e., if the law says you can kill only three deer, you won’t be able to even pull the trigger on deer #4) and it received government testing with the system in place, so I trust it’s doable. When ECO reached the appropriate stretch goal, the developer added the option to add PvP options, allowing the laws to be broken on designated servers.
If Elyria is doing the same thing, as hinted in with the blacklisting of players from property and needing the proper papers to commit property damage, Soulbound needs to be clear about this immediately, even if it’s just an idea they’re tossing around. The contracts system is a step in the right direction, but easy to abuse (as I’ll address later). However, if these actions are just “illegal,” then I can’t see much of a benefit.
Part of this has to do with how people have abused systems like bounty hunting in previous games, like Wizardry Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Criminals’ friends simply helped clear each others’ names, real life or in-game costs be damned. If player houses are difficult to break into, the criminal can just run to an innocent friend’s home to escape. If houses are easy to break into, the innocent player population is the one that suffers the most, while griefers will loot their stuff by the sack-full.
In sum, Chronicles of Elyria will most likely end up like the original Darkfall, gaining a core following that slowly bleeds as the company is forced to make decisions to attract an audience long after critical mistakes have been made (unless the user experience designer hired by the next stretch goal has a lot of research experience and can show the team just how many times many of these systems have been tried and ultimate failed). I say all this not to say that the game will be a failure because I wouldn’t put money into it if I believed that. I say this because I want to temper people’s expectations. The FFA PvP community has seen this same song and dance in the past and should know that any improvement we see will be incremental rather than revolutionary.
The campaign, the dreamers, and the team
Let me be clear: I very much respect the current devs at Soulbound for attempting to make Chronicles of Elyria. I don’t believe they are intentionally misleading players for money. (I’ve already pledged to give them some myself.) While I can (and hopefully will be!) proven wrong in the coming days/weeks/months/years, we need to be realistic about the current information while the Kickstarter’s still open.
One thing to keep an eye on is that the team is still trying to attract talent. It’s understandable, but with so many stretch goals being based on programmers, that’s a serious concern since the team has very few, and we know from watching Camelot Unchained that good programmers are not easy to come by.
The in-development-for-10-years Soulborn/Proteus engine in theory can do cool things, but on a massive level it’s probably impractical — and that’s likely why we’ve seen no demo of a semi-persistent, playable world for Elyria, just tech features and combat. Unless the team somehow thinks showing a working alpha build of the world would scare away potential backers or investors (which is probably the scarier option), it should be shown. That means general PvE will be rather slow and based on survival gameplay like eating and finding shelter, which the current game climate has plenty of already.
The team may have experience with games, but it doesn’t have any major MMO experience. This is also its first game as a team. All of that sent up red flags when the devs began talking about their game prior to their Kickstarter campaign. Project Gorgon had an alpha build and an experienced MMO developer but still failed to get funded two times! (However, the fact that Soulbound Studios wanted to wait for more stable income and some kind of demo is part of made me take note of it, and I wasn’t disappointed.)
The KS campaign started off very well. Like Crowfall’s, Elyria’s campaign at least started well-grounded. They also both proposed something quite basic to (hopefully) shake things up, with Crowfall embracing what I’d consider a wise use of instancing and Elyria attaching a real cost (cash or game currency) to death. Though the selling of land is, in many ways, buy-to-win when talking about generational games focused on territory conquest, as someone who’s played these types of MMOs, I can tell you that without real player support, it’s usually pretty easy to take land. Having land and fame paints a target on your back that most people, including me, often don’t want to deal with every time they log in. I see it as a necessary evil for the game, perhaps more so than Crowfall’s taxless instanced land for high-paying backers.
While both games released public information and teasers before opening their campaign, soon after hitting about the halfway mark, Elyria’s team gave matter-of-fact reasoning behind why it had so few physical rewards and times when it didn’t listen to its community based on financial realities. Soulbound devs discussed cut features they’d been including in developer journals and how they might bring these back in. I know I speak for a lot of wary gamers when I say I honestly appreciated this sort of communication, and it’s one of the things that made me want to give the team more money.
Survival games and the permadeath problem
However, inexperience has come up several times with the team. For example, permadeath is a very controversial feature and has proven to be difficult to implement correctly, but Soulbound is plunging onward. I could fill at least a paragraph with names of upcoming online games using permadeath, but it’s more illustrative to see what’s actually been done. Wizardry Online has done it, as did Star Wars Galaxies with the game-breaking Jedi. Clearly there is a market for it, and I’ll admit that, in some ways, I’m part of that market. However, Wizardry shut down for myriad reasons, and SWG did away with the system because it scared away too many mainstream gamers. In fact, Vladimir Piskunov of another niche MMO in development, Life is Feudal, has included a lot of the same features Elyria is boasting (FFA PvP, survival mechanics, players staying online when logged out, and tunneling is a big one they’re working on), but specifically said that permadeath isn’t currently part of the plan. His reason? Having players able to die while offline brings in a big temptation for not only griefing but hacking, which I’ve already hinted at. It plagues the the survival genre, and including several of these mechanics in an MMO could prove to undo all the other interesting and unique features of the game.
As someone who’s explored the survival genre for Massively from the start, I can see the problem. These games, while mostly in alpha still, are loaded with hackers, and it’s very common to wake up alone in the wilderness because your home was destroyed in the middle of the night. This is without permadeath, but still losing all your items, plus your home. Soulbound would need to address offline killings hard and fast to make a slow-burn soft permadeath like Elyria’s not only more acceptable but also less common.
While the studio keeps trying to assure fans that there are areas that are mostly safe in the game world, it’s important to remember that the current plan is for it to take just 10 minutes to make a hole in a wall with a mundane item. Anyone with experience in the survival genre can tell you that’s nothing, and anyone who played territory games like Darkfall knows that it’s pretty easy to ruin a town during a 4 a.m. raid. If attacking player structures without the proper writ is possible at all, it will be abused.
Bounty systems do not work
The end result of Wizardry’s permadeath system — with flagging and bounties for murderers — was still that highbies murdered lowbies for kicks and giggles, even in newbie dungeons and spawn points. While I’m personally a fan of the concept of a bounty system in an MMORPG, the fact is that not a single one actually works to prevent griefing — not one. A cynic might say that’s because bounties aren’t actually implemented to discourage griefers but to mollify victims. I attempted several bounties in SWG, but most of my marks hid in private houses I had no access to and/or waited for a friend to come and collect a bounty against them.
So how would Elyria balance it? If a home is too easy to access, both the criminal and the innocent are at risk. Too safe, and the criminal can more easily commit crimes and avoid punishment. Permadeath may sway players from committing crimes, but potentially increase the number of players trying to trick their fellow player into making themselves vulnerable to attack. As much as I love these concepts, PvP is a hard act to juggle, and being unaware of (or being in denial about?) past failures covered by even mainstream sites like Kotaku doesn’t inspire hope.
It’s nice that the three-month Exposition phase will have PvP on for only a month or less, but how much PvP testing will there be before then? Is Soulbound inviting big PvP and anti-PvP guilds to help test the system? Will there be a public open beta so developers can see how normal players and griefers can abuse their systems before paying backers lose kingdoms because of hackers? Will Soulbound intervene at all in player affairs when a system clearly has an exploitable loophole it missed?
I’m rooting for the team to pull through, but I’ve seen a lot of failures in the “kingdom PvP MMO” genre. I need more than words at this point. I need evidence of a cohesive product and a team that understands its genre, and I don’t yet feel confident in either of these to part with a large sum of money.
“Look around and realize that no one builds a gankbox twice. You put Shadowbane and UO guys together and they build Crowfall, not Shadowbane II.” -MOP Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce
I’ve been talking to the MOP staff about Elyria a lot lately. There’s certainly mixed feelings, but one thing we keep coming back to is that, for all the shiny stuff being promised, very little beyond the death penalty is new. Everything we’re seeing has been promised to us — PvEers and PvPers alike — multiple times, even in the early years of the genre. Look at the game’s pitch: “Epic story with aging and death.” So this is Mabinogi meets SWTOR with permadeath? (Actually, I’d play that game too.)
Let’s get down to what probably attracts most people to this game: a generational, story-based MMO. That should be the hook here, not Princess Bride online. I think being able to show that and offer it to the masses would make the project easier to believe in. Having it as the inverse of mainstream MMOs, a PvP game with an option to be PvE, would go far if it were presented to the community in the right way.
The game’s aiming for an ultra niche audience by screaming story story story while pushing for FFA PvP, when FFA survival PvP is already a super-saturated market that’s constantly being let down. By ignoring non-PvP fans and not making clear, hard statements about the purposed severity of the punishment system, the game, I worry, will struggle for funds and make design choices based on that. The devs clearly know this given their budget, and while it’s admirable that they want to do their own thing, it makes the project that much riskier. I’ve seen several people comment about not usually being into PvP but wanting to give this a shot, but I saw the same with ArcheAge, a game that seemed reasonable to me at the time but sadly has had to change direction to stay afloat. I’m hoping Elyria will avoid the same fate, and I believe it will do well enough to reach launch, but past experience is keeping my expectations rather earthbound.