Ankama Games has a reputation for being quietly effective. So much so that there's something almost virus-like about the way the French developer has insinuated itself into the online gaming world. But no-one's coughing up blood and dropping dead in the streets - coming down with a case of the Ankamas is far more likely to see you spending precious hours clicking away at whimsical and lavishly-illustrated browser-based MMOs that prove enduringly hard to turn off.
Dofus, Ankama's first title, surprised almost everybody by netting exactly the kind of regular subscriber numbers that you don't expect from a gentle, watercolour-styled game with some obscure character classes and nerdy, turn-based combat. The only people who don't appear surprised are Ankama themselves, who are now busy transforming their company into a cross-media giant - although presumably a very artful, quietly effective giant.
With comics and cartoons in the pipeline, Ankama is also readying a new MMO - Wakfu. Due for release later this year, it's a testament to the success of Dofus that when beta keys became available in June, there was a very polite and Gallic scramble to get hold of them. Not a pre-release scrum of Conan proportions, perhaps, but Ankama are presumably paying a fraction of what Funcom are when it comes to overheads.
Wakfu takes place in the same world as Dofus, but shifts the timeline a thousand years into the future, when the landscape has undergone many cataclysms, and people have evolved to a point where they're only marginally better at coming up with names for computer games. The plot concerns Ogrest, a powerful ogre who's gathered together the six Dofus - magical dragon eggs, if memory serves - of the first game, and flooded the world with tears as he pines for his lost love (a bit rich, seeing as he killed her in the first place).
What this means in game terms is that the world map of Dofus has now evolved into five islands. "The first island alone is the whole Dofus game world," explains Reynald Francois, Wakfu's lead designer, who added that gadding about in boats will now play a limited part in the game. The feature's still being worked on, however, so there's no word on whether there's the option for naval combat later down the line. Fingers crossed.
Water aside, the most immediately obvious difference between Dofus and Wakfu is in the presentation. Freed from the browser window, the first thing we noticed when we headed out into the beta is that everything's bigger, chunkier, and more richly detailed. And the map is no longer broken into a grid of single screens; Wakfu is a continuous scrolling environment, where even heading inside a building is handled with a gentle dissolve rather than a cut. This may sound like small change to WOW players who regularly soar over craggy mountain ranges on lavish mythical beasts made of fire and treacle, but in the conservative world of European browser games, it's a huge step forward.
It also means one of Dofus' most irritating problems - the endless search for the unnecessarily tiny tile that takes you from one screen to the next - has been consigned to history along with Pol Pot, bubonic plague and the Air Bud film franchise, freeing up untold man hours I can now invest in weaving tapestries or studying cryptozoology.
It's hard to argue with the fact that the house style's looking more beautiful than ever: there are some nice new particle effects, and a lot more character to the animation. It's still the same kind of landscape - bucolic and solid, filled with down-to-earth elements like milking stools and log piles alongside the more fantastical bits and pieces, but the wildlife now swaggers and squelches along where previously it could often stutter.
Graphical improvements are to be expected, but the second change that stands out is a real departure - one that's filled with potential hazards. There are no NPCs in Wakfu, and the reason is that Ankama is completely rethinking its approach to MMO quests.
The website suggests that one of the ways in which the developers are planning to proceed is by having the game's players generate some of the missions themselves. Details are scarce on how this will actually work (I didn't encounter anything of the sort in my saunter around the beta, but then, many years ago I did manage to drive my dad's car into the front door of my own house, so I'm not the most observant person in the world), but it is, to put it lightly, a bit of a risk, requiring a trustworthy community who are willing to invest a lot of effort in the game. Ankama undoubtedly has such a community - Dofus is one of the friendliest MMOs out there - but handing over that degree of freedom to the players still leaves the game wide open for attacks from griefers who've finally tired of dressing up as giant underpants and reciting Commando dialogue in Second Life.
Francois admits that getting the balance right has been hard, and it's clear that the system Ankama has devised is not as simple as handing the community the keys to the kingdom and sitting back while they burn it down. Alongside the player quests, there will also be "dynamic challenges" available - presumably created by the development team. "These are selected from a semi-random list and are launched only when several conditions are met," said Francois.
However the final balance works out - and it's a relief to note that there are at least a few pre-planned dungeons ready to go - it's a huge change from the quest system most players are used to, and it's hard to judge how successful it will be from the beta. My own limited wanderings around Wakfu have revealed a world that's understandably still fairly empty, and the only dynamic challenge I faced was when I accidentally dropped a cup of coffee into my lap when reaching for a biro. It remains to be seen how things will play out with a bigger population and a fuller feature set when the game goes live.
Neither is Ankama stopping with reinventing quests. It's also allowing the game's population to influence the actual environment. Chop down too many trees in Wakfu and you'll end up with deforestation. Kill too many of a certain kind of animal, and they may move on or become extinct. Elected player governments can create laws for each island, deciding on long-term aims and strategies, and potentially even dictating the course of the plot. "Having control of the whole world will be impossible," says Francois, "but depending on their actions they will be able to unlock, or re-lock, dungeons or whole areas of gameplay. Judging on the Wakfu status at any moment, the team will be able to get the meta plot-moving, going from one piece of the storyline to another, and reacting to whatever the player will do."
This is ambitious stuff. Throw in an ecology of AI-driven wildlife that grows, migrates, and reproduces, along with a day/night cycle and dynamic weather, and Wakfu's starting to look more like a simulation than an MMO.
But it is still an MMO, and many of the staples of Dofus will be recognisable in the finished product. The twelve original races make a return, five of which are already implemented in the beta, and there's the promise of new flavours to be added. Many of the originals have had a bit of a makeover in the last 1000 years - Srams (the assassin class) now wear cool skeleton-print pyjamas, for example, and elsewhere colours are brighter, eyes are blanker, and armour is more extreme and exaggerated.
The combat has also survived intact, with a few additions. The grid is no longer so clearly superimposed, and there are bonuses available if you attack from an angle, getting your enemy in the side or back. Elsewhere, experience has been tweaked so that you level specific skills as you use them, and the crafting system has been broadened. There's also been a change to the user interface, which is now more streamlined and unobtrusive, and can be rearranged as needed.
Wakfu's shaping up as a bold and potentially insane experiment in partial self-governance. It's impossible to judge from the beta what this will mean for the game's long-term chances, but the planned shift in server population from the 5000 of Dofus to 25,000 will potentially make the community even less wieldy. Ankama's developers have previously shown themselves to be astute custodians of their own work, so they hopefully know what they're getting into, and they're certainly betting considerable money on Wakfu, with a cartoon and a standalone non-MMO DS title alongside releases for Mac, PC and Linux systems.
Ultimately, the sheer ambition of Wakfu makes it deeply intriguing. Dofus saw the team throwing caution to the wind in competing against the bigger boys of the MMO schoolyard with a thoughtful, slower-paced kind of experience, but the risks they're taking with Wakfu make that gamble look insignificant. They're about to hand over real power to their players, and as Spider-man's Uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Only time will tell if Ankama's community is yet ready to handle either.