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Impression: Shadow Kings: Dark Ages

The glorious city of Inanage.

The glorious city of Inanage.

So, Shadow Kings: Dark Ages is a F2P browser-based game (there is also a mobile version) from Goodgamestudios that bills itself on being an MMO. I suppose that definition could work if we assume that games like Clash of Clans and Castle Clash and so on are MMOs as well. One thing that Shadow Kings does have over the others is a sort of world map which determines who you can attack rather than it being a random match-up.

One thing that is conspicuously and absurdly missing compared to other such titles however is, you know, combat. No, seriously, there is a planning stage for combat – allowing you to assign attackers and siege equipment to the left, center, or right flanks – but all actual combat is handled instantaneously off-screen in a generic battle report. You can use your mages for espionage or sabotage, split your forces to attack a city from three angles, give your troops ladders and battering rams, and the result is… this:

Oh. Okay.

Oh. Okay.

Without an actual visual combat system in place, all of the traditional trappings of this genre of game are exposed in sharp relief. For example, there is a city-building aspect to the game where you need to balance wood, rock, and food production to keep keep the war machine moving. But since you never actually see your city being attacked, the placement of buildings within the city is entirely irrelevant. Which means enemy city layout is irrelevant. Which makes the various troop compositions you can recruit largely irrelevant. Which leads you to question what the game bit is even supposed to be.

Waiting... waiting... waiting...

Waiting… waiting… waiting…

Near as I can tell, Shadow Kings is Progress Quest with a snappy app interface and copious amounts of in-game purchases to speed things up. There is a quest system to sort of guide your various actions, but it does not take too long to start running into build times measuring in the hours. Building takes time. Upgrading takes time. Recruiting troops takes time, sending them out to attack something takes time, combat is instant and off-screen, and then there is the return trip home.

In additional to the RMT Gems, Gold is another resource that is only generated when you “collect taxes.” You do so by picking a time interval from the given list, and then clicking on the Collect Taxes button at the end of the timer; leave it inactive too long and you will lose an escalating percentage of the amount you would have gained. In a bizarre (or dare I say novel) twist, you actually get rewarded more the shorter the timer happens to be. For example, right now I can collect 5g after 3 minutes. Or 15g at 15 minutes. Or 20g at 30 minutes. Obviously that is to encourage you to stay logged on to secure these funds, but that sort of runs counter to the entire rest of the game in which you are better off queuing a bunch of actions and either Alt-Tabbing to do something else or simply closing the Tab altogether.

It should also be noted that 5 hours is the longest time interval that you can collect taxes… for free. Picking 8.5, 12, or 24 hours as intervals to collect taxes actually costs Gems, with the latter being the equivalent of about $0.35 (assuming none of the frequently advertised Gem sales).

Money shot.

Money shot.

I remain completely and utterly amazed that a team of game designers could construct what could otherwise be a competitor for Clash of Clans/Castle Clash minus the one prevailing, absolutely critical component of player agency: combat. Arguably, there is really no game here. It is a creature of meat and bone with no internal organs. I am trying to imagine a company in which the art, music, and UI teams all finish their work (and it’s pretty good work) while the team in charge of the gameplay walked off the job. Even if it were something simple like watching your little dwarves wail on the walls for a few minutes, I feel like that might have been enough; I mean, beyond troop placement at the start of a battle, you don’t have any control over your dudes in Clash of Clans either. But with combat missing, there is really no context in which to place all the timers you end up having to wait (or pay) to wind down.

So… err… yeah. That’s Shadow Kings: Dark Ages in a nutshell.

The City of Steam Alpha Preview for the Rest of Us

If your own blogroll is remotely similar to mine, you have probably heard quite enough about that City of Steam game. The alpha test was wrapping up this past weekend so the devs started handing out codes to just anyone… which would explain how I got one. The beta test will not start for another ~3 months give or take, and there isn’t even a target release date, so the question undoubtedly on your mind – as was on mine every time I read about the game elsewhere – is simple: why should I care about City of Steam?

Well, do you have a few minutes? If so, watch this:

Feel free to expand that into 1080p full-screen, which is the resolution I played at.

In case you were not aware, City of Steam is a browser-based F2P indie MMO. And the above was from its alpha state.

With the exception of Glitch and Kingdom of Loathing, I tend to stay away from browser-based games for… well, no particular reason. I suppose I never thought of them being “for me,” where that is defined by nebulous double-standards like a willingness to pay for a discrete product as long as I don’t have to use a cash shop or spam my friends. Then there is the soft-spot in my cold, black heart for games with character progression deep enough to optimize the fun out it, as one might squeeze whey from cheese. Except, in this disgusting analogy, I eat the whey.

What were we talking about again? Ah, City of Steam.

I have read some descriptions comparing it to Diablo, but the gameplay is more akin to, well, a typical MMO. All the dungeons are instanced, there are some dungeons within dungeons (Dunception!), you can form traditional MMO parties of up to 5-people, guilds exist, the hub areas act as lobbies of sorts, there are daily and story quests, extensive crafting/modding system that alter actual weapon/armor appearance on your avatar, and… let’s stop here. It’s alpha.

While I had an indie MMO developer’s attention though, I just had to ask some (perhaps impertinent) questions:

Me: This is kind of a Bigger question, but… why browser based instead of stand-alone game? Was it easier to go with browser, or more accessible?
Me: I know I can’t be the first one amazed with the graphics. They are very, very well done and came at a complete surprise. Which is kind of why I ask.
Gabriel V. Laforge: It made it more accessible; we wanted to go on the idea that it’s a lightweight game that almost anyone can just jump on and play
GL: hence the short loading times and no massive client downloads
GL: Unity 3D and loads of our own in-house tools really helped optimize that, without sacrificing all that much in terms of graphics or content

Me: Have the more high-profile MMO news – like 38 Studios collapse, SWTOR going F2P, Funcom stock crashes – affected how you build or design the game? Has it complicated the seeking of outside investors (assuming you need any)?
GL: Yes and no…. the game started out as being something we just really wanted to do. Our lead designer, David Lindsay, wrote a series of Roleplaying books, (The New Epoch), upon which the game is based
GL: as for competitors, well, those are large downloads to play, so we don’t necessarily consider ourselves in the same league
GL: we have nowhere near the team or budget they do ;)
GL: as for investment, we have had funding from an investor who helped us get this far, so we’re set on that end
GL: from here, we still have to decide whether we’ll publish independently, or sign on with a publisher (we’ll only go with one who can share the same vision of making this game with integrity…. we REALLY don’t want to go with a pay-to-win model or any crap like that)

Me: A lot of us in the blog world are speculating on whether the MMO genre in general is contracting. Some have suggested that its widespread popularity was just a “fad.” Is that something you worry about as an indie developer? Or are you simply happy to be able to do a job you love? :P
GL: personally, I’m just happy making games
GL: as a company, we’re trying to present something different, and if it works, all the better
GL: if not, we gave it our best
GL: so far though, we’ve been having very positive feedback and reviews, so we’re optimistic

Me: Are there multiple instances of the hub world? If so, how many people can there generally be?
GL: Instances are private for now, for solo and groups of up to 5
GL: we plan to have publick instances for a lot more players later on (we were limited by the endgine before, but now we can make it)
Me: I mean The Refuge [ed: the first main area].
Me: I see a bunch of people running around, but I imagine there is some kind of cap, right?
GL: We havent’ reached (broken) it yet, and have gone up to 600 PCU so far
Me: haha
Me: I’m pretty sure that’s more than I’ve seen in WoW ;)
GL: Really…? Lucky us! :D

Me: I noticed the Mount slot… this is a vague question, but how big of a world will CoS be at launch?
GL: Pretty darn big; Nexus, the City of Steam, it a massive metropolis
GL: there will be enough places to explore to keep people very busy ;)
GL: right now, Alpha has about 150 difference levels
GL: at launch, we plan to have more like something in the upper hundreds, maybe a thousand or so, with more added with future updates
GL: might not be open world, but it will have plenty of flavour
Me: have you settled on a max level yet?
GL: 30 for Alpha, 40 for Beta, and from there, beyond :) (once higher level content is added)
Me: For my audience (such as it is), I have to ask: will there be a Looking-For-Group feature to facilitate grouping for the 5-player content?
GL: We plan to, given engine limitations on whether we can pull it off, but yes, is planned :)

Assuming you are still with me at this point, you might be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a browser-based indie MMO in its alpha state. The answer is quite simple: this may be the future of the genre.

Perhaps not City of Steam specifically, but here is an indie developer doing its best to craft an MMO on a shoestring budget in a world of AAA companies getting 38 Studio’d. And what is impressing me here is that the “nightmare scenarios” we tell ourselves in the blog world might not actually be that bleak. I no longer feel that it has to be $50+ million budgets or bust. Whether it is City of Steam or another indie offering, I am now convinced the possibility exists.