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Not So MMO - Eco: By Our Powers Combined

Red Thomas Posted:
Columns Not So MMO 0

Eco caught my eye several months back.  As many readers already know, I like to watch out for titles that I feel could be fun to share with my horde of nieces and nephews.  So many of the games I normally play are either too complex or have content too mature to be shared with kids.

For whatever reason, other games got in the way and I just hadn’t looked into Eco until a streamer I watch occasionally was playing it a couple weeks ago.  That put the game back on my radar and as I watched first that streamer and then others play the game, I got interested enough to actually pick it up.

I’m really glad I did because the game has a number of fairly unique features that made Eco a lot more interesting to me.  What I thought was a rather simple Minecraft clone ended up having a lot of unexpected depth, and even more importantly, is a game that I can enjoy with the kids in my family.

The Game

When the game server is started, a meteor in a decaying orbit will quickly be spotted in the sky.  Players have 30 days to develop a community and an infrastructure, research technology to advance their capabilities, and then either to create underground vaults to preserve as much planetary ecology as possible post-impact or to destroy the instrument of impending doom with a giant laser.

If players don’t deal with the astronomical threat to the planet, the meteor will eventually impact damaging the surface and starting fires all over the planet.  Once the immediate effects of the impact have passed, players can emerge from their bunkers to reseed the planet and attempt to live in the severely damaged world, and possibly to even repair it.

The clean art style of the game lends itself well to the genre and makes the game easier to play on dated systems, which means this could be a great school project for someone.

Ecological Weight

One of the key aspects of the game is the preservation of wildlife and flora.  While the game doesn’t force the players down any given line and there’s no real winning in an open-ended game like Eco, there are so many data-based compulsions that I think most players will eventually attempt to do a run to destroy the meteor while having as little negative impact on the planet as possible.

The game server runs a very cool web interface to allow players to collect and display data on all sorts of information from inside the game.  The web UI has 3D displays that indicate the populations of plants and animals.  You can also display information on rainfall, soil water saturation, biomes, and even player activity as well.  The views all use heatmaps to show concentrations of the selected data, and you also play the data over time to watch the world change as players have an impact on nature and terrain.

Time-based Servers

The fact that there’s a progression to life on the server is another very smart design choice in the game.  For one, just giving players a major challenge to overcome that requires them to work together creates a reason to play that many higher-budget survival games lack.

It also creates a defined server time-line that gives you an immediate sense of progression, even if you do nothing at all.  Each day the meteor orbits closer to the planet and looking at the meteor reveals the time left until impact.  One of the things that makes other survival games get stale is that there’s no real beginning or end, so you end up at this point where you play for the sake of playing.  Often you sort of create your own goals that give you a personal sense of progression, but there’s nothing outside of that to push you forward in any way.

No Bruce Willis to save us this time. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Having a major catastrophic event that moves the timeline of the whole server forward at a specific pace gives everyone a uniform clock to operate around.  The fact that each day brings you closer to disaster makes that clock matter.  It’s a mechanic that I think is fundamental to why games like Crowfall are so appealing to me, and I’m really glad to see someone has adapted the ideal for a survival game.

Skills and Advancement

Another very intelligent design choice in Eco is the skills and advancement system.   There were a number of very smart moves on this end that set the game well above most of its peers.  Skill advancement isn’t anything new, and Eco seems to have borrowed at least a little from games like EVE Online, but they’ve creates their own spin on a system that reinforces so many other things I like about this game.

Players accrue daily experience at a set rate.  That rate is modified by the house owned by each player.  The better the house, the more bonus experience the player earns each day.  Houses are improved by replacing sections with better material as it becomes available, adding furnishings, and building specific designated rooms.

I built my own simple wooden house, but I’ll have to contact the local mason if I want to upgrade to stone siding. I wonder if I could get the Texas Rock with maybe a red brick trim…

Food can additionally be used to improve the experience rate for players.  By balancing nutrition similar to what was done in ATLAS, the players improve their experience gain.  Unlike ATLAS, players don’t die from malnourishment, but you do get less experience if your carbs, protein, fat, and vitamin levels aren’t in balance.

This system rewards players for engaging in game-supporting activity, while not actually forcing anyone to do anything.  Because experience is gained over time, it’s a further reinforcement of the progression of time in-game.

This experience is only related to skill points, which players get at each level and use to purchase access to specialties.  Once a player has learned a specialty, using it ranks that specialty up, improving efficiency and unlocking talents that allow for additional customization.

Forward Together

Katchi Kapshida (Forward Together), as we used to say in one of my old units in Korea.  Eco embodies the same idea in how the multiplayer game is laid out.  Servers can use different settings, but the intended model for the game requires that players each support each other while pursuing their own paths.

Because players normally can’t learn every specialization, much less have time to do everything that needs to be done, players tend to focus into specific areas.  Crafting often requires players from multiple areas work together to create higher-tier items, and this benefits everyone.

Building your house out of better materials means a bricklayer needs to create the bricks for you to replace your old wooden walls with, but he needs material from a stonemason to create his bricks.  The result is an unexpectedly complex system of interdependency that while straight forward and simple to grasp, is also very similar to the interdependencies we all experience in real life as parts of our respective communities.

It even extends to the need to select someone from the community to be in charge, at least to some degree.  Eco includes a political model that allows players to elect a mayor, create districts around the planet, and vote on and enact laws that effect the population.  Laws can be used to define who’s a citizen or not, and thus who has a say in government.  A mechanic that’s not only effective but also provides a reason and opportunity for roleplay on servers that would like to encourage that sort of thing.

The in-game UI gives you access to the cool data overlays, but the web-based UI is way better and very worth checking out.

Great Game

In the end, this is a game that I really like on so many levels that it’s hard to even keep track.  It’s a great clean game that I expect the kids in my family will enjoy playing with me.  There’s so much depth to the game that I’m still finding out about new mechanics and systems and often learning that a system I knew about actually has more complexity to it than I realized.

Eco may have been developed by a relatively small studio, but what they’ve done with this game is simply amazing.  I usually try to play it a bit more neutral when I write about games, but I have no problem recommending a buy with Eco.  I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time in game so far and I’m really looking forward to trying it out on a larger server soon.

I liked Eco enough that I reached out to Strange Loop Games and spoke with CEO John Krejewski.  I learned a great deal about the backstory of how the game came about and what some of their future plans are, and that’ll be in my article next week.

In the meantime, post in the forum below if you’ve played Eco and know of a server I should consider playing on.  Also, let me know some of your favorite features about Eco that I might have missed.  Until then, katchi kapshida!


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.