Today's massively multiplayer online RPGs don't tend to emphasize the 'massively multiplayer' part all that much. With some exceptions, most of these games let you mosey around their worlds, leveling up and earning the best equipment, all without ever having to really interact with anyone. As big of a tent-pole feature as guilds used to be, it's amazing how far you can make it without ever having to exchange pleasantries with another player. Albion Online, which just entered into closed beta last week, is different. Jumping into its vast world, where everyone plays together on just one server, and expecting to go the distance without help from others is futile. You can try, but you will fail.
In many ways, Albion Online is a cousin to the sci-fi sandbox MMO EVE Online. Only instead being a cutthroat murderer in a spaceship, you're a cutthroat murderer on a horse. You don't have to murder people, of course. But that's not very fun, is it? And just like EVE, Albion Online is a game that absolutely requires a good group of friends to make the experience fun, because facilitating social interaction is what these games do best.
From the very first hour I spent in the world of Albion, it was apparent that this was a very different kind of MMORPG. Gone are timeworn features like player levels, raids, and, to an extent, quests. They have been replaced by concepts that support a game all about finding your place in a big world and working together with others to carve out that existence. Though you might spend your first weeks toiling in the safety of Albion Online's ‘green zones,’ where player versus player combat isn't allowed, the true riches are found beyond the safety of a continent-spanning wall where players can attack each other at will, capture territory, build settlements, and death can result in losing every item in your inventory. It's brutal, punishing, and enticing.
This is especially so because you're only as good as the armor you wear. There are no character levels acting as a metric of progression—that is instead handled by the ‘Destiny Board’ which unlocks the ability to equip higher tiers of items or gather better resources by engaging in the requisite activity. The catch is that, beyond a certain point, unlocking the ability to wear or craft better armor becomes such a daunting grind that doing everything is impossible. The further you progress up a given branch of the Destiny Board, the more it splits into specific and equally demanding pursuits. This also has the effect of making it impossible to be totally self-reliant. You need other players to fill in the gaps you cannot fill yourself because no one has time to play Albion Online for 24 hours a day until the end of days in order to unlock everything. And that's how long it would take. I did the math.
For me, my area of specialty became leather shoes. My character lives to craft leather shoes, and I like to believe that there isn't a cobbler in all of Albion who puts as much care and devotion into it as he. While I initially spent time crafting all manner of leather items, it wasn't long until the requirements for unlocking the next tier became too demanding and I had to narrow how I spent my time. The fact that Albion Online is so transparent about its grind is interesting, like logging into your first day of World of Warcraft and having a window pop up to instruct you that it will take you roughly 300 hours until you earn the best armor in the game. And so, in the interest of not being a 'jack of all trades, master of none,' I focused on shoes.
While some might look at that grind and balk (I certainly did at first), it also creates potential for one of the more closely knit communities you could experience in an MMORPG. The aggressive grind forces people closer together. As they continue to specialize in order to progress, they continue to need each other all the more. It might sound strange, but I'm proud that I'm my guild's 'leather shoe guy.' It's what I do, and when people need a leather shoe, I'm the guy they come to. And since the punishment for death is often the loss of your beloved gear, there is always a demand for more shoes. There's a reward to filling that kind of niche that no quest or boss can ever give.
Albion Online is worth looking at because it aims to deconstruct the overwrought cut-and-paste template that too many MMOs build from. It certainly feels too early to tell if all the time I'll spend becoming 'Master of Shoes' will be worth it, but right now the necessity for social cooperation has me more invested in my guild and the game than I've been in most MMOs I've played this year. That's something worth paying attention to.