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Warp Nexus: Independent Ideas

Red Thomas Posted:
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I’m a big fan of indie games because indie studios can often take risks the larger studios can’t, and that’s where the real new ideas happen in the video game industry.  Many of these concepts are refined and commercialized later under larger banners, but indies are where to go if you want to see industry-changing innovation.

When I was approached to look at Warp Nexus, it wasn’t too hard to agree.  Seeing an early draft of a game is always interesting, but it sounded like there were a few ideas being built into the game that were worth exploring a little further.  Plus, I’m just a big fan of supporting the little guy and trying to spotlight smaller studios when I have the opportunity.

The game is in very early stages, so most of this is theoretical, but that doesn’t make any of it less viable.  I spoke with Scott Brown, President of Wyrmbyte, about their plans for the game, and nothing in their approach stood out as particularly problematic.  The team just has a few unique thoughts around building their game that diverge from the current status quo.  We’ll be going through a few of them today and talking about some of the hurdles the team may face, along with my own thoughts about their intended features.

Economy-Driven Model

One of the key aspects of the game will be that everything is driven by economy.  Specific items and components can only be made at specific stations, which will create several economic demands.  The manufacturing stations will require raw resources and base components, while other stations demand the finished good.  Both AI and players will be able to generate missions to deliver the required goods and material to the relevant stations.

If missions as accepted, but goods don’t get delivered because they’re being interdicted by pirates, then missions will be created to combat pirate activity in those areas.  Mineral extraction, delivery, and other missions will all be created around supporting the economy and use basic supply and demand as the catalyst.

It’s not a totally new idea.  John Erskine spoke to me about how Star Citizen was going to use a similar model, and Richard Garriott has a certain amount of fame for first using a version of it in Ultima Online.  Still, I never really cared for Star Citizen version of simplified economy on rails, and I don’t know that Garriott ever really used the economic sandbox he created to generate missions quite like they’re planning to do with Warp Nexus.

If the idea works, it could be a really interesting way of generating content dynamically.  It’d leave players to decide how they want to play, and those choices will have direct impact in the game and lead to even more dynamic missions.

The challenge will center around building an economic model that’s complex enough to be interesting.  Also, developers will have to discover where the line is between allowing players to have the freedom to impact the in-game world and allowing them a game-breaking amount of freedom that hurts the game for others.

Instanced Missions

Another wild swing away from the norm will come in the form of instanced missions.  The last couple decades of game development has been one long push away from instances and towards single-server technology using scalable cloud resources.  I find it more than a little amusing that with cloud resources and containerization finally getting us to the point where the barrier to that standard is very reachable, Wyrmbyte kicks through the digital walls like a virtual Kool-Aid Man and announces that they’re going back the other way.

I think it’s equal parts crazy and interesting, which is sometimes the right combination for success.  Despite all the reasons why it might not be a great idea, there are a number of ways this could be a smart move.  If nothing else, it makes the game cheaper and simpler to develop, leaving time for other systems.  The team also has the benefit of two decades of online game development successes and mistakes to study, and sometimes a really refined step back can be hugely successful.

The other main advantage is really in how the idea plays into some of the core vision for the game, though.  Scott tells me that the team really wants a game that’s both easy to get into and also allows players to play the way they want.  Instancing allows them to skip all the boring parts of space sims, which is the flying around in the deep black for hours between shorter periods of interesting activity.  More casual gamers may find that getting into the action more quickly is a lot more desirable than the ambiance of how space travel is handled typically.

PvP, PvE, or Co-Op

Allowing players to play the way they want means allowing them to choose whether they want PvP, Coop, or just to rock their game solo.  Instancing makes all choices valid, as you can just select what conditions you want to complete the mission under, and then get to it.

It does present a few problems, though.  Namely, if the economy is supply and demand and players get experience and resources for completing missions, what’s to stop players from taking the PvE approach every time?  If getting those resources from A to B is important to me, I’m not risking PvP unless there’s some compelling reason.  The team will really have to spend some time tuning the rewards for missions to encourage players who prefer economic and industrial play to take the additional risk of PvP.  I don’t think that’s a trivial problem and it’ll be interesting to see where the team takes it as they start testing at scale.

I’ve noted in other articles how I feel that PvP needs to exist in some sort of context, or it tends to feel flat in the long run.  That’s another factor that the team will have to work out as they refine this system for allowing players more freedom of choice in their play-style.  If players have the choice of Co-Op or PvE, there needs to be some sort of meta-game to give all of it purpose, and I don’t see how that’s fitting in the game yet.  Though, I have to caveat that with how early in the development cycle this game is and note that there’s a lot in the pipe that hasn’t been announced yet.

Concerns and Hopes

Leading off with the concerns about Warp Nexus, I have to say the largest is the lack of meta-game.  As I said, it’s a critical part of meaningful PvP to me, but it’s also key to the long-term stability of the game.   There are plenty of examples of successful yet mindless games with no great depth.  Angry Birds may be fun to play in doses, but it’s not a game I’d ever buy off of Steam and play on my PC.

If Wyrmbyte wants to be successful, I think they’ll have to build in some sort of context to frame the economy and PvP around.  Either NPC or player factions that add additional depth to the game will need to be added.  Economies need some sort of driving force and there’s nothing like a good war to create an economic boom.  I’m not sure pure PvP will suck enough resources out of the economy to be the sole driving force, so those factions will additionally need to consume resources in some fashion, as well.

The game as it looks right now might be a bit simplistic for PC.  The team is a long way from having everything added that they expect to be in the game, but there are no player-made stations or manufacturing capacity and no sort of exploration missions were mentioned in my conversation or in anything I read online about the game.  PC players tend to expect more complexity in their games on average and I’ll be looking for that in the months to come if Warp Nexus is going to be successful.

That said, simplicity could be that double-edged sword, because it could be one of the defining characteristics of a successful Warp Nexus, too.  With extra time and resources dedicated to the systems that are in the game, those components could be very successful if done well.  Making it easy to jump into a mission on demand could serve to spotlight really fun space combat mechanics.  For instance, Rocket League on the surface is an absurdly simple game, but it’s also a lot of fun.  Focused effort could lead to something similar with Warp Nexus.

Also, making the game more approachable by cutting out the unnecessary complexities and presenting a clean and simplified interface to the use could work very well.  Blizzard pulled that one off and the industry is still defined by the result.  Granted, Wyrmbyte doesn’t have the same sort of budget, but I think World of Warcraft was successful due to design philosophy as much as the development effort as a whole.

There are no approachable space MMOs on the market right now, and I can’t really think of any that have even tried.  It might not be the easiest genre to kick your way into, but it has the potential to be a very lucrative one.  I’ll be very interested to watch Warp Nexus come together over the next several months.  I feel like the market is due a really good space-based online game right now.  The question is whether Warp Nexus is that game or not.   Either way, it’s going to be very interesting project and I’ll be keeping an eye on it.


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.