Random Events and the Shape of Many Worlds
Since their successful Kickstarter last year, Citadel Studios’ Shards Online has largely gone dark in terms of PR and outreach. Contrary to other KS games with multi-million dollar budgets, they’ve been focused more on making the game that adding pledges, because their staff and budget dictate as much. I caught up with Citadel’s Derek Brinkman to chat about the state of Shards and their plans for Alpha and Beta this year.
There are two major updates coming for Shards in the next week or so. The first is a brand new bi-weekly event Pre-Alpha testing schedule. The second is a full-updated roadmap of the game’s alpha to launch timeline, with new sections added… including a Pre Alpha Three testing phase.
Pre-Alpha 2, due to begin very soon will be the Modding Preview for Pre-Alpha level backers ($150 or $200 level backers). This stage allows those backers and other select testers to begin testing their own servers, complete with rulesets and the like. While after launch, the players themselves will run their own shards on their own hardware, for the testing it’ll be housed on the Citadel servers. But Derek noted that while Pre-Alpha 2 will have biweekly events being run by Citadel, since this is a test of the player-owned servers it means that there will very likely be 24/7 servers up and running during the phase.
Pre-Alpha 2 will be running in the current small-ish and “demo” map of Uaran, but when Pre-Alpha 3 hits players will finally have access to the first official map of Celador. Sort of the quinstessential storybook map, Celador is mostly complete as it is now. Derek toured me around the area using god-speed but expect Celador to be roughly the size of 3 or 4 zones in Azeroth, as an example. There are thieve’s guilds, ruins, the Dead Gate and hosts of other POIs for players to explore and interact with.
We saw the Plains area, the intended main housing area. You can put houses pretty much anywhere in Celador, but this one is just a more open and easy place to build them properly. Derek also showed me the Dead Gate, an immense stone portal that when activated, will allow you to travel to alternate shards. In the lore, this is basically the device that players will use to travel between the alternate dimensions (or player-run shards). Any given cluster of player-run shards will have as many copies of Celador as is needed (the only map where housing takes place, and the Dead Gate will let you travel between alternate copies.
But how does one open the Gate? That’s something Derek didn’t want to give too much away for yet, but there will be a server event in-game to unlock the gate. Once you open it, you can travel to any other shard in the cluster. What’s funny though is that the first Shard to open the gate will still have to wait for others to open the other side before they can travel elsewhere.
I touched on the fact that humans are the only playable race, and that will remain as such for the rest of the Pre-Alpha and into the Beta when they’re able to add more. It’s likely that more races will be added as DLC after too, since Shards is Buy-to-Play with no subscription. I mean, they have to monetize and keep the lights on somehow. More races and more maps to add to your own Shards are the key part of that.
For those that aren’t aware, Shards is a lot like Ultima Online in that it uses a skill-path progression system. There will be 26 total different skills to work on before Alpha begins, including Animal Taming, Lumberjacking, Mining, Woodsmithing, Magic, and so many more. And yes, unlike UO, your animals will grow in size and change as you raise them and use them in fighting or crafting.
Pre-Alpha 3, due a little while after PA2 begins, will be the Celador Preview event for the Pre-Alpha level backers. Everything from resource gathering, crafting, furniture making, armor-crafting, house placement, and decoration will all be in by PA3. The combat system and progression, being pretty-fleshed out already just ensures that a very fun game will be in place already when Alpha comes along.
Some intrepid followers of Shards will remember the Two-Towers PVP map from the KS period, and that map will eventually be given to the modders too, as a CTF or some other sort of PVP minigame to add to their worlds. Even Uaran will eventually be given to the players, but it won’t be hosted by Citadel on the official “core” servers that drive the narrative of the multiverse.
Then, a little more down the line in 2015, full Alpha begins. This will bring with it not only Celador, but the Catacombs dungeon map, the Tower of Babel, and the Coliseum. And eventually after that Beta launches and the Terminus map will make five total maps of the Shards world available.
When I told Derek that it looks like an immense amount of work has been done since the Kickstarter, he commented that Citadel is “Scrappy because we have to be. We get to be free to experiment. Free to take risks and try things we really want to because we’re small and independent.”
One such seemingly simple, but effective feature is the random events that Citadel hopes to populate its official shards with, while giving players the tools to create their own as well. One may look at Dynamic Events in games like WAR, or recently GW2 and say… they’re cool, but they just reset and run through everything again every few hours without fail.
What Citadel hopes to do with shards is take the randomness of these sort of public events one step further. Derek showed me the example of the main NPC village in Celador. At night, undead may attack the town, knock down the iron fence erected around the village, and cause general havoc for the townsfolk. Pretty standard stuff, right?
However, whether or not this event happens can be determined by any number of factors. In Derek’s example it was the lunar calendar, and time of night it was. On a player-server it can be something entirely different. This event won’t just happen with the same one or two outcomes every time. And Derek mentioned that if the undead do break down the gate, but are driven back. The Mayor will go to the blacksmith and have him rebuild the gate. And then the blacksmith might need you as the player to help him with the materials. Add in the fact that each server can have gods and demigods running around taking control of NPCs and spawning events, and you can begin to see how unique each world will be in its tales and history.
And what’s more, what I found refreshing about this village in Celador? Finally, an MMO gets it right by sending NPCs to bed, having them close up shop, and go about multiple daily routines. This is something that Ultima VII pretty much hallmarked back in the 90s, and it’s been far too absent from the MMORPG’s own genre history.
Shards is looking really slick in its Pre-Alpha state, and it’s the kind of community and player-driven MMO I think we need to see more of. I know there’s a lot of talk that the MMORPG is on a downward trend, and in terms of sales and AAA budgets, that may be true. But frankly, it makes the development of this genre so much more interesting to see the kind of ideas we’re getting from Citadel Studios. I can’t wait to make my own home in Celador.