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Why It's Worth Being Hopeful for the Future

By Steven Messner on December 29, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Why It's Worth Being Hopeful for the Future

Albion Online is many things, but it certainly isn't shy about its huge grind. In fact, where most games try to hide their grind behind neatly dissected levels and gradual spoon feedings of content, Albion displays it proudly on its Destiny Board—a map that helps you chart your progress through the game. "Look at me," it says. "Look at how many countless hours you will need to spend to ever wield the best items in the game." And right now, with Albion being in a closed beta that you can buy into at various tiers, I certainly don't blame anyone for feeling a bit put off by that grind. Simply put, there's just not a whole lot of "game" there right now. Much of what you do in your first hour within Albion Online will be the same things you are doing in your tenth and hundredth hours.

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As a sandbox MMORPG, Albion Online gets to stand in the sadly small circle of games next to EVE Online, Archeage (which has one foot outside of the circle), a handful of Steam Early Access MMOs, and the older, less favorable generation of MMOs. So playing Albion, it's hard not to compare it to other games in the genre since there is just so little to compare it to. Even the developers have been transparent in sharing all of the similarities Albion Online has with EVE Online. But unlike EVE Online, Albion hasn't been around for a decade and therefore doesn't have a decade's worth of interesting mechanics to dive into. Playing it now, unless you're the kind that embraces the social aspect wholeheartedly and doesn't mind making your own fun, Albion Online can feel pretty slim on content. I wouldn't blame anyone for making that judgement and then moving on. But I do think that even if Albion Online isn't a game that you want to play right now, it'd be a big mistake to write it off completely.

At this stage in the closed beta, there isn't a ton of diversity to Albion Online. Your character can progress through one of four different branches of the Destiny Board: combat, gathering, crafting, and farming. But even though they might sound varied enough on paper, and even though the rewards might be drastically different for each pursuit, the big problem facing Albion Online right now is that just about everything in the game is painfully similar in execution. It doesn't matter whether you're gathering stone or minerals or lumber, they all feel the same. Even hunting monsters feels similar, the only difference being that this time the resource nodes fight back. It might be overly reductive way to look at it, but a huge portion of your time in Albion Online will be spent clicking on things repeatedly until they no longer exist.

Outside of those four main pursuits, there is some further depth added in the form of dungeons you can run and a small scattering of other PVE related activities. Arguably the biggest draw is the global PVP, which draws inspiration from EVE Online by forcing guilds out into the harsh wilderness where they must work together in order to capture and defend settlements from other guilds and battle for the rarest resources. It's a fascinating aspect of Albion but it also has the largest barrier of entry out of any activity in the game—one that many players might never even reach.

So, while all of this sounds rather bleak, why do I seem so confident and optimistic about Albion Online's future? It's because I've played enough MMORPGs now to appreciate probably the biggest problem facing the whole genre; these games can evolve and change so rapidly, the way we critique and analyze them fails to keep up. If there's been one major theme punctuating the releases of MMOs during the last few years, it's that just about every single one launched to middling praise and hugely disappointed fans before finding its stride and transforming into a quality experience. Wildstar, The Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, the list goes on. Even several weeks ago I wrote about how this problem is beginning to seep into other genres with Mechwarrior Online being a vastly improved shooter than when it first launched. I'm not saying whether this approach to game design is wrong or right, but a lot of disappointment and anger from fans stems from expecting these games to be a giant apple tree when, at first, they're just a seed.

If you're passionate and knowledgeable about MMORPGs, you're probably already familiar with the idea of the "sandbox" and "themepark" approaches to designing online games. If you're unfamiliar, the easiest way to put it is that theme park MMOs carefully design content with the goal of showing you a good time—like an amusement ride. They are games that want you to feel great every second that you play, and so they go to great lengths to erect worlds that reflect this. But sadly, these worlds can also tend to be someone illusory, and it isn't hard to poke holes in them and feel like you don't have much freedom; here's your path to level cap, better get questing!

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