WildStar preview: MMO problem-solver

Carbine Studios doesn't mince words when talking about their mission statement. It's right there on their website: "We're Carbine Studios--a developer formed by a bunch of gamers looking to make the Next Great MMO." It's a studio out to fix seemingly every niggling problem the MMO genre has had since the beginning of time. They want to fix the lack of interactivity; the endgame problems that plague seemingly every MMO, and the way the content is actually delivered. Their first project, WildStar, is one big clearinghouse for ideas from people who have worked on everything from Ultima Online to Dark Age of Camelot to World of Warcraft. It's an MMO that wants to be all things to all people, crazy as that sounds. focalbox Like World of Warcraft, Carbine wants to have massive 40-man raids and huge dungeons; like Dark Age of Camelot, they want great PVP, and like Star Wars Galaxies, they want to cater to crafters, settlers, and explorers. So much is going on that it feels as if the whole idea could end up simply shaking apart; or worse, feeling boring and under-developed. All of those elements, however, are part of a broader mission to craft an MMO that has tons to do, but also doesn't force a player down any one path. Content director Mike Donatelli, who has worked on Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, describes it like this: "I'll play another MMO, do the story, finish up, have some fun, and look back on it as a discreet chunk of time. Here it's like you'll be in an area and doing a quest, then you'll be doing a challenge, then you kind of run off into a tangent, but that tangent also dovetails into what you're doing." He continues: "It all feels very 'gamey,' but we embrace the hell out of gamey. We love gameplay. Gameplay is king. It's just fun, right? We should just keep making games that are fun and not focusing on what we're going to force people into doing." That approach--the freedom to explore and do what you want--is coded into the story itself. WildStar is set on a wild, unexplored planet that is just being settled by competing factions. Essentially, players are being plopped down on the frontier and told to have at it. It's pretty much a complete 180 from Star Wars: The Old Republic, where everything is subordinate to the story. In fact, up until the endgame, WildStar doesn't figure to focus much on story at all. "We only start the story at cap," Donatelli says. "You will get little bits and pieces. But only when you hit cap do you get the full story. It was deliberate. We want something to look forward to." In the meantime, you will find yourself completing a variety of quest chains that are built to be completed in around two hours. Donatelli likens it to an episode of the A-Team: "At the end of this playthrough, I rescued a town, saved someone, and now I'm done. It keeps people from being confused when logging in." For those who don't mind exploring a little bit though, there's much more. Wander to another part of the map, and you're apt to trigger another quest chain if you're at the right level. If you're an Explorer, one of several sub-specialties, you can uncover hidden caves or climb to the top of a mountain and plant a flag. If you're a Soldier, you can just hang out and kill monsters. That's where the promise of being 'all things to all players' starts to come into focus. One of the direct results of this approach is that WildStar is almost constantly peppering you with content. Wander around for a bit, and you might find a skull that can be plopped on a pile for a zone-wide buff. Wander around a bit more, and you might randomly be asked to shoot down a hovercopter with a bazooka. Quests come in seemingly every few seconds, and they can be completed just as quickly. The long travel times and gaps between quests that sometimes plague other MMOs are so far virtually non-existent in WildStar. Above all, Donatelli wants players to feel like they're free to do whatever they want: "Some MMOs are built around the idea that you have to play X-number of hours. We've locked you into a path. We've measured it, and tested it, and you can't go faster than this. We took the barriers out, because we'd be foolish to turn around and say that it's going to take anyone 300 hours to get through this game. You can never count on what a player will do. Players are smart. They're going to work around your artificial blocks." And for those who do work around those blocks? Donatelli says the idea is to reward players who hit the level cap with new gameplay modes--think large-scale PVP--and a substantial storyline. Carbine also plans regular monthly events, many of which are being developed right now, and weekly content drops. Of course, every MMORPG developer promises an endless amount of content, but it feels like there's a special urgency over at Carbine to make sure that people don't run out of things to do in WildStar. They make comparisons to China, where free-to-play MMORPGs are king, and content updates have to be almost constant in order to satisfy voracious fans. They know that as soon as people run out of things to do, they will be gone, never to return. Crazy as it seems to try and reach out and appeal to every single type of MMO fan (Carbine even hits the furry demographic with the bunny-like Aurins), it feels almost necessary given the scope of the content that WildStar is trying to deliver. A narrower focus risks narrowing the content too, and potentially boring a subset of players who don't want to go on raids, but definitely want to collect things and build houses. And to its credit, Carbine is making it easy on itself by building a platform early on that will allow them to modify their world almost on the fly, which should allow them to get new content to the masses almost on the fly. All told, it's an ambitious project that holds a lot of promise. Maybe Carbine won't make "the next great MMO," but given all the talent and intelligent ideas behind WildStar, it should at least be a fun one. It is expected to launch sometime this year.

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