Every now and then you have the opportunity to see something so unlike anything else that's currently out there that you can't help but get a little excited for it to make its appearance in your local video game store or what have you. I don't mind saying that after GDC, I'll be paying close attention to, of all things, the Apple App Store after my opportunity to sit down with the co-founders of Grey Area, Mikko Hämäläinen and Ville Vesterinen, to learn about their upcoming iOS MMORPG, Shadow Cities.
We've seen an MMO on the iPhone before; Pocket Legends presents a very traditional avatar-based MMORPG experience that you play from the convenience of your phone. The fact that Shadow Cities is an iOS MMO isn't necessarily what caught my eye about the game. As it usually is in the world of video games, it is the execution of such a thing that has me anxious to get my hands on it.
After speaking with Ville and Mikko, it was obvious that from the moment Grey Area started, their desire was to present something different, something unlike anything else we've seen before. When the iPhone launched in 2007, this game them the opportunity to look at a new medium with that desire in mind. Shadow Cities, the end product of their desires, is a “location based MMORPG” for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. When it was originally released in Finland, the game shot up the list, surpassing even iPhone juggarnaut Angry Birds. As of the time of our meeting, the game is currently planned for a Spring 2011 release in the North American App Store.
Are you shaking your head at the “Location Based MMORPG” line? For any of you who may not know, Location Based apps are often real world, practical apps that can be used for one reason or another. You may be familiar with FourSquare, or Yelp, both of these location-based iPhone (and Android) apps are used quite frequently in this day and age as we maintain our Mayorship over our favorite bar or restaurant. The idea behind these location-based apps, and the ideas behind the MMORPG genre, have merged to become Shadow Cities. Let's get into the game itself.
The concept of the game is this: magic has been gone for hundreds of years, and now it's back. The idea is that those who play the game are “Techno Mages”, and your iDevice is your magical device. Through your magical device you are able to see into a parallel world in which exists this rivalry between the Architects and the Animators. This concept becomes a global battle between the two factions. You choose your side and fight down the competition to gain control over your home city and the neighborhoods therein. Literally, this is taking place in your backyard and is, again literally, a Global battle. If you are in San Francisco, for example, and you have friends in Glasgow, Scotland, you could build a Beacon in Union Square and your Scottish friends could jump through the Beacon and join you in the fight for Union Square, and vice-versa. Your ultimate goal is to conquer neighborhoods in the name of your chosen faction.
The UI, having an opportunity to take a look at it, is surprisingly intuitive. The gameboard itself is akin to Google Maps, though it is cast in this darkness as though seen through some sort of magical device. Your enemies and friends, neighborhoods, Beacons and special locations are all marked in vibrant color and are accessible at a touch. Should you see an enemy that you wish to attack in your neighborhood, tap his icon and begin casting spells. The casting of spells, like much of the game, is incredibly easy to understand. Like most MMOs, you are allotted a certain amount of mana for spell casting. At the top of the UI, you press and pull down your spell screen. Once it's down, you then draw your rune (with your finger) on the screen, and it casts the appropriate spells. The UI gives you access to your spellscreen, your quests/missions, stats, experience, etc.
When the game launched in Finland, people would play quite frequently. Originally conceived as a “pop-in, pop-out” while waiting for a train sort of experience, it was discovered that players would dive into the gameworld for hours, and play quite seriously. One of the funnier stories I was told was of people on trains, performing “drive-by casting” as their trains neared each other, and then passed. The opportunity for that, living in a city like Boston, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, etc., where the populations are quite high and the gaming communities are so strong, is exciting. We were assured by Mikko and Ville, though, that when they say Global, they mean it. They are not limited to the big cities, like the ones I mentioned above, but also some of the smaller towns and cities throughout the world. The game is not solely PvP either, as the potential problem of a low population of players in any given town did not go unseen, the game also offers a PvE experience that will allow you to slay AI monsters to gain experience and other such rewards.
The game continues to be a moving, breathing thing, as the guys at Grey Area are more than willing to admit that the game can continue to expand, especially considering the response and feedback they've received from their current players. The game will be free-to-download, and is monetized through the Mana, the in-game currency. Micro-transactions will be available through an item shop to purchase mana, but you also can earn it through the completion of missions.
It could be argued that the appeal for this game lies within its ability to present us, as individuals, as who we are, as being powerful spellcasters in this alternate reality, fighting battles in our own, literal, backyards. I, Drew Wood, will take on the enemies to secure my neighborhood, where my house is, through my magical device with my Spell-Casting skills. There's a real market for that and there's a lot to like in an idea like this.