Wildstar, Game Design, and Independence


So you may have recalled I was looking forward to Wildstar Online. If you haven’t been paying attention to the MMO scene, it’s an SF MMO with fantasy elements and a deliberately cartoony style that’s been in development awhile. Also it has erudite space zombies (the Mordesh), a race of whose males are micro-bishounen Wolverines (The Aurin), and psychotic super-scientific squirrel-aliens (the Chua), so it’s not exactly your typical space romp.

(I predict around about Guardians of the Galaxy, a lot of Chua with names like “RokkitRaccoon” and “JamesRocketRaccoon” will pop up. Just warning you now.)

So I’d been looking forward to it enough I bought it pre-release and played the beta. And, yes I was a Spellslinger, but rolled Scientist not Settler because this is me. If you’re playing the game and/or know me, you get it.

So essentially I’ve decided to play awhile now that it’s out. I don’t have a long-term relationship thing with any MMO I tried, so I figure it’ll be something I play for a few months during my normal “game time” until I get tired of it. I only have so many hours in the week to play and I bound it carefully.

But it’s why I chose to play that is interesting- and is the subject of this column as I think it shines some light on the world of game development that’ll be useful to professional geeks.

As you may know I’ve been on an indie kick, which seems to be defined by “Playing FTL and other stuff.” Wildstar intrigued me enough that I decided to give it a go, however, because it felt well-crafted. There was just a sense of precision, of almost artisanl creation.

Then I realized it. This big, sprwawling, AAA MMO had parts that felt like an indie game.

Wait, Really

No, I’m actually serious. Now let’s be honest here, Wildstar’s goal is clearly to take on Warcraft and other big/bigger names. Its enormous, it’s got factions, it’s got auctions, and it’s not even free-to-play – it’s old-school subscriptions (though you can actually buy/sell months in game, take that gold miners). It’s also not cheap.

But there was something to it that struck me in beta, as I messed with character creation and went on adventures that felt just oddly . . . Indie. Things I hadn’t seen in other Triple A titles.

Things that had that crafted feel I associate with non-AAA titles. That personal feel.

A few things like:

  • The character designs. As a friend noted each race has a different artistic style.
  • The humor. Wildstar definitely has its tongue in cheek despite it’s serious themes, from the cartoony character design, to odd quests, to the narrator who apparently watched DBZ and drank coffee. When you die and come back a mysterious voice even makes sarcastic comments “Back already? Why not die, all your friends are doing it!” Heck, just check out the trailers.
  • That’s not to say the game isn’t serious as well. There’s some surprisingly dark and odd elements of the plot. I’ve been playing the supposedly heroic Exile faction and they’re not as good as they come off as. There’s also some excellent characterization. There’s little details.
  • Attributes. Gone are Strength and Dexterity, say hello to Moxie, Brutality, and so on. The humor works into the attributes as well.
  • The crafting reminds me, oddly, of some JRPG and console gaming. THe depth of crafting also seems to be aimed squarely at serious enthusiasts. By the way, that’s me.
  • There’s also inclusions of challenges that also are reminiscent of various other games and RPGs, usually console.
  • The game is famous for having a more “actiony” interface that gives me vibes like Diablo or Dragon’s Nest. That’s been reasonably well-tweaked and feels different – despite its obvious derivations.
  • Customization insanity. Not that customization isn’t big, but the game is insane for it. Mix skills and costumes, housing and building, vehicles, and more and everything is personalized. It’s aimed at you personally.
  • Changing content elements. Inside the game are other games – branching adventures, tower defense, etc.

This isn’t to say the game doesn’t have recognizable components – or frankly a lot of recognizable components. Wildstar has plenty of standard components for MMOs, enough to be more than familiar. Pick a faction, various plot quests everyone does, capital city, etc. Wildstar could probably have innovated more actually.

But there’s just all these touches. All these extras. All these little things that feel almost personal.

And that’s what got me thinking about games, Indie games, and something more . . .

Indie And Independent Thought

I love Indie games because I like seeing the originality, the personal vision. I like it when i’m in touch with not just the game, but the drive behind it. I love FTL as it truly embodies the “managing a starship” experience. I love One Finger Death punch as it is “Bruce Lee Kicks The Butts of Hundreds of Guys At Once” the game. I enjoyed Tower Of Guns for truly creating a visceral core FPS experience.

Good Indie games have a personal touch where the artist and the gamer connect in something. Just like a good film or book. It’s almost like a dialogue.

So basically:

  • Indie games and books and movies in short have some Independent Thought (well, the good ones). They have a vision to them, and a sense of connection to them. They’re not the washed-out, market-tested, dehumanized works we’re a bit too used to. They’re not Franchise Version #4 of Dudes Shoot Dudes In a Car. There’s something in them that’s a real vision.
  • Secondly, because of this vision, Indie games connect with people. There’s still the artist connecting to the audience there. There’s a personal touch, a connection there. Even a lousy game may somehow reach you.

(This by the way is not to say some Indie games can’t be pathetically pandering. But I’m talking idealized here).

So what got me into WIldstar is that it has some real independent thought going there. There’s something to connect to where it feels that the people making the game “get” the audience. There’s some chance-taking.

It’s still a AAA title, but there’s some vision and some personal connection there. Not Indie, but Independent of the Market. That got me into it.

A Personal Connection

I think the reason I get the feel, and for some of the reasons the game works, is that the last few years the developers actually reached out to the audience. They made videos, they took feedback, they ran betas. They mentioned changes and improvements.

The devs even were known by nicknames – everyone knows Brofessional (the nickname of one of the devs) by now.

There was some real communication going on here. Their motto was “The Devs are Listening,” and judging by the game, it really seems they listened and paid attention (I still recall arguments over attack telegraphs).

I see here a model for any game developer – engage your community. Yes, you need to have your own true vision, otherwise you’re just pandering, but also you really want to connect to people. Part of Indie (and Independent Thought) is connecting with people not statistics.

So, yes, I’m enjoying WIldstar, a AAA-MMO for reasons that have little do to with it’s AAA status. It’s the craziness and the neat ideas, the personal touches and the thins that show they really cared. Its the Independent Thought – the same thing that shows in Indies I play..

I think what those of us in game development can learn are:

  • You can have Independent THought and not be Indie. Honestly, there’s no excuse to not innovate more.
  • Personal contact is important for building relations and understanding the audience (and free analysis and feedback).
  • I think I’m desperate enough for innovation in the marketI’ll latch on to anything. Just saying.

Now will Wildstar succeed and validate their feedback, their avoidance of free-to-play, and so on? Remains to be seen. But I can say it is a good game because of what it does different. And that’s something important in today’s game offerings.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.