Outside the MMO Box: Darkspore
This week I was selected to come down to the EA Maxis studio in California to take a look at their forthcoming game, Darkspore. Originally, I was hesitant about the trip. I haven't been terribly enamored of anything that Maxis has produced since maybe Sim City 2000 (which I sank more hours into than Doom 2, and that's really saying something. Though The Sims turned itself into a cultural phenomenon, and Spore is arguably one of the most discussed games of the last decade, neither franchise had really captured my attention beyond “I'm going to build a house/create a creature and then start over”. Darkspore, on the other hand, once I finally did get my hands on the game, was a pleasant surprise on a couple of different levels.
Now, if anyone out there reading this article has been following the game's development at all, I know for a fact that there's one firm thing that they're thinking in their minds and they're already scrolling to the bottom of this article to comment on: Darkspore straight up is not an MMO. That is correct. Let's face it, you're right to point it out. I acknowledge this. It is, however, worth mentioning for a couple different reasons.
Let me dive into what the game is, a little bit. Darkspore is a top down adventure game in a Diablo style but there are no experience points. As you progress through the levels, the enemies get increasingly difficult but the “loot” system works in such a way that it increases in power with the enemies. What this means is that leveling is done through loot collection and additions to your character (literally by adding it to the selected hero's body). There are 100 creatures from which to choose your squad of three that are unlocked as you progress through the game. There are three types of characters: Sentinel (Tank), Skirmisher (DPS) and Tempest (Magic User). Those descriptions are an over-simplification but you get the idea. There are five geneses, or energy types, to build your squad from. Each creature is a character with a profile and unique powers (though each genesis has applicable heroes to the other geneses, one skirmisher may be more or less the same as another of a different genesis). At the end of the day, think of Darkspore as a Diablo-like game with a bit less emphasis on the traditional RPG and a little more emphasis on creating and customizing an experience of comparable quality.
The truest charms of this game, however, come in the form of multiplayer. There is support in the game for up-to-four player (that's twelve creatures) co-operative mode. When I gave the single-player campaign a whirl, it was fun, but the deepest appeal of the game came out in spades the moment I had the opportunity to dive into the campaign with three of my fellow press members and we tore through the exotic countryside, decimating every suitably-Spore-looking creature that stumbled into our path. This was fun by yourself, but running in a group was just a blast.
So, Drew, you liked the co-operative mode, huh? That's nice. Still not an MMO.
Spoiler alert, kids: This game is not an MMO in any regard. You remember in the original Spore, one of the many gameplay modes we were provided with was a traditional MMO-like style of third person, point and click gameplay. Darkspore doesn't even have that. Darkspore is, in its entirety, a top down adventure game as mentioned above.
What I haven't talked about yet is the PvP in the game.
Yes, you read that correctly. PvP. And some of the most entertaining PvP that I've played in a very long time, despite the fact that my fellow press members can tell you, particularly my PvP Tournament Teammate, that I'm awful at it, it's still one of the greatest examples of instanced PvP in a game, MMO or not. Essentially, the PvP in the game turns Darkspore from a top-down adventure game, into the most entertaining MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena, for those who don't know) that I've ever played, akin to Bloodline Champions or League of Legends. When entering PvP, you choose your squad similar to the single player game. But you're encouraged throughout the game to build up to three separate squads. In PvP this is particularly useful if you're playing a best 2-of-3 deathmatch so you can switch squads between rounds to throw a curveball at your opponents. This can make for close matches, the entertainment value of which is high, even as a spectator. It harkens back to the market that's out there for eSports and Major League Gaming. I would not be surprised to see it used as just such a tool in the near future. Though my teammate and I were eliminated rather early (again, my fault), I was entertained watching the other participants and even found myself cheering and clapping.
I'd really like to wrap this article up on a few different notes. Darkspore may not be an MMO, Bloodline Champions may not be an MMO, but I'd like to see more MMOs, perhaps untraditionally, take a page from their book. Arguably, there's no place for it in the AAA market, but with all of the advancements in browser-based, or free-to-download, this could be a more appropriate option for companies who want to present players with something familiar, but just different enough to keep them entertained beyond “browser-based” or “free-to-download”. This is something that I know that I would be interested in seeing pursued, because I know for a fact that I would eagerly play it. To me, the appeal of adding that other M to the beginning appeals to me. MMOBA has an interesting ring to it, don't you think?
Darkspore itself, the lore of it, the art style and the story all lend themselves very, very well to an MMO setting. To have this wonderful, mystical world available to us where our leveling system is handled through loot drops and affixed by giving us additional horns or eyes or arms to throw on our creature to improve our strength, health, critical damaging rating, etc. would be awesome. The higher the average of your attributes, the higher your level. Open world PvP, and instanced MOBAs would fulfill the needs of the PvP crowd, and a rich story with off-beat and untraditional MMO quests would satisfy those PvEers. Dive into crafting, or housing and adopt the traditional elements of the MMO into the mix and suddenly, a Darkspore MMO could be what a lot of players think might be missing from the games we play. Then again, it would never satisfy those of us who play Rift, or WoW, to lure those players away It wouldn't have the cerebral challenge of games like EVE Online. What it would have is a fantastic gameplay, mixed with a wondrous world that could encourage creativity amongst the player base like never before, and a character create that could put even the best in the business in a corner.
Sometimes, I find it easy to talk about what I think should have been when it comes to video games I encounter. Lord of the Rings Online should have stuck to the mostly side-story to the main plot, instead of incorporating the famous characters into the player's early experience. The original Battlefield games should have included a single player campaign, not just the ability to practice with bots. Should Darkspore have been developed as a large scale MMO? No, it's a perfectly good game just as it is. But I will say this:
Darkspore 2 should definitely be an MMO.