The MMO market is a strange place: a land of boundless opportunity, or at least perceived to be, going by the tales of hardy adventurers into the unknown like EverQuest and EVE Online and, of course, the great explorer World of Warcraft, who ventured deep in-country and found riches beyond imagining.
So games publishers, seasoned developers and media companies around the world have been busily financing their own expeditions - but few so far have been as successful as their backers might have hoped, and sometimes it's seemed as though the more money they spent and the more sensible and experienced they were, the more likely they were to stumble in Blizzard's footprints. But the huge cost of and risk now involved in these expeditions has surely ruled them out for everyone else. Or has it?
Not hardly. Like any gold-rush, the MMO market also attracts a different kind of adventurer: the fearless, inexperienced, determined and solitary dreamer, making a go of it on nothing but their own resources and pluck. The online distribution and direct revenue streams - be they subscriptions or micro-transactions - make it theoretically possible to make a mint in MMOs without any help from the gaming establishment at all.
Several of these enterprising types were hawking their wares at last month's Game Developers Conference. From the pet project of a multi-millionaire to the abstract vision of one mad coder, these games are all made by start-ups without, to date, any backing or partnership with the games industry - yet several of them are full-scale virtual worlds that lack nothing in their ambition. Do any of them have a chance of striking gold?
We didn't know it at the time, but when we met Bulgarian studio Masthead's mild-mannered CEO with the cosmonaut name, Atanas Atanasov, he was on the point of concluding a deal with Interplay to work on its cherished but endangered Fallout MMO. So this lone rider has turned hired gun already - but Earthrise remains all Masthead's own work.
It's not hard to see what made Interplay think Masthead would be a good fit. No fewer than three of these independent MMOs have post-apocalyptic sci-fi settings, but Earthrise's blasted landscapes, mutant animals and cracked architecture are particularly close to Fallout's. We might question Interplay's enthusiasm for Masthead's engine, however - the framerate was as rocky as the terrain in our demo, and though the detail was impressive, the game had a rather flimsy look.
We've covered many of Earthrise's basics in our earlier interview with Atanasov; freeform skill-based RPG advancement with no classes or levels, a focus on crafting and a strategic endgame of player-versus-player territory warfare. He expanded a little at GDC - your character will be shaped very much by its equipment, with your stats dependent on your armour (a naked character will usually die with one hit) and weapons - fists, blades, plasma and laser firearms - dictating which skills will be available (you'll be able to learn them all, but not equip them all at the same time). All of this will be summarised in a "battle rating" to give you something to brag about.
Psionic powers for mind control and electricity and fire magic will also feature - Earthrise isn't breaking the links with the fantasy RPG completely. That goes for combat, too. Although superficially similar to Tabula Rasa, with its lock-on and over-the-shoulder camera, Earthrise has an even slower pace than many traditional MMORPGs. In fact, it's glacially slow, with four-second cooldowns on simple gunshot attacks. The seamless, zoning-free world is an impressive achievement, and it's pretty in places, although with 80 per cent of it being barren and post-apocalyptic, it's not all that inviting.
Earthrise has much that will recommend it to a certain subset of the MMO hardcore, but in its current form it will seem unpolished and obtuse to many. And with the first beta invites due to go out in May with a release planned for the end of 2009, Masthead doesn't have long to do much about that.
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