You there, PC strategy gamer, I bet you're thinking "where's my MMORTS?" No? Well you should be. All these other genres are poncing about getting their own fancy persistent world variants, MMORPG, MMOFPS, MMOFFS, but what do you get? A poke in the eye, most likely. But fret not, because Silverlode and Wahoo Studios are making game that will attempt to fill that awkwardly acronym'd niche like some kind of plug in an Intel socket. And, even more radically, they're going to do it for free.
Well, not exactly for free. You see PC game developers are increasingly giving away their games (Maple Story, Dungeon Runners) and then charging for some aspect of the game you'll want access to at a later date. In Maple Story it's hats and bug-eyed anime cats, and in Dungeon Runners it's the decent loot. In Saga's quasi-free MMO model (which being a strategy game set in steampunky fantasy realms has little use for cartoon pets) you'll be able to (and expected to) buy armies.
Armies, as you might imagine, will become quite important to Saga players. The idea behind Saga is that you'll be fighting against both NPCs and other player-run nations in a struggle for land, honour, and the favour of the gods. Having an army of expensive dragons is going to afford you a few more victories than having an army full of used hobbits, and so the idea is that you'll pay for extra armies with real-world monies. Of course you can spend plenty of time grinding away at the game too, and conjuring up extra soldiers the hard way, but these booster packs are going to make all the difference. Wahoo are counting on their players wanting to command grand armies in the defence of their realms, and they'll only be able to do that with much ease if they pay for their soldiers. The game's ongoing upkeep and development will depend on the reality of people spending to expand their empires. You can almost see the appeal of it: spend a penny (so to speak) get an extra rank of pikemen.
Of course there are plenty of, erm, RPG-elements. This means your nation will 'level up' as you do better and better, and creating a nation will be rather like creating a character. I love this idea: of running a nation, personalising it, having a history of great victories and hellish defeats. In fact the overall vision that Saga creates is quite startling: trade between nations, with all the attendant politicking, espionage, and back-stabbing that such things entails. Then there are the vast fantasy armies, the favour of the gods, and the city-building. You can't exactly dismiss the depth of its ambition. (And I particularly like that one of the units is a dwarf hanging from balloon and blasting at the skulls of enemy units with a flintlock pistol).
What I think will count most against Saga is that right now it's an ugly, uninspired RTS. Wahoo just don't seem to have the cash to make the field combat a thrillingly slick experience. Armies crash into each other, and you hope for the best. It's unpleasant to play, and the city-building end of things is equally placeholder-ridden for now.
Additionally, the fact that you need to grind hard to get anywhere is going to be depressing. I want games like this to start on a high note and their proceed to hysterical epic conflict, rather than two ranks of men with spears nudging each other, followed by four ranks of men with spears nudging each other and a boar. There's some remarkable clunky interface stuff going on, like having to click 25 times to fill out a unit, and like a main campaign map that looks like it was designed in 1997. This will change of course, because the game is in early beta, but I don't suppose the overall visual drabness or the lack of animation will be addressed any time soon.
Don't get me wrong, I love the ideas Saga is presenting, but as of now I have some major reservations. Not least as to whether the cash-influx idea of buying ‘booster packs' to kit out your military is going drive the game, or simply kill it before it begins. In reality I think I'd be happy to play a small subscription fee for a really solid persistent RTS, especially if I felt like I was getting my money's worth. The 'free-with-extras' model might get people to look at the game, but perhaps actually charging a sub would generate enough cash to make it worth playing in the long term? I don't know.
Furthermore, is the amount of cash someone can spend on their army simply going to defeat the object of the game? Are we going to see the same situation Eve Online faced on its Asia server, where one rich dude paid to conquer the entire PvP aspect of the world? People can always hide behind consensual PvP game mechanics, but that rather defeats the point of having and MMORTS... This isn't the first time we've seen strategy take on the trappings of persistent worlds, but it does look like the first time that a game is going to go live and have at least a small audience.
Perhaps weird payment models and niche ideas for MMOs is where the real future for this kind of game on the PC lies. I just can't help thinking that some games need to reel their ambitions in a little bit before they start.
Saga is currently in an open beta, so you can log on and have a root around. It's worth a look, just don't expect Total War Online...