I'm standing at the edge of the Deradune hunting grounds with a million things to do. I've been playing MMOs like WildStar for more than a decade but, while I'm capable of parsing the approximate meaning of all of the buttons and objectives presented to me, I have no idea what I should do first. I have two options: the first is to lean on my experience of other games and progress by inches, ensuring that I don't drop off the critical path – but I've been there, and done that. The other option is to start running for the horizon and see how well the game can keep pace. I start running.
Deradune is the starting area for the Draken, a race of horned beastmen who form the militaristic vanguard of WildStar's imperious Dominion faction. The zone itself is modelled on the African savannah. Winding paths link scattered towns, with prey species wandering the open spaces and predators lurking in the treeline. WildStar sits square on the boundary between science fiction and fantasy – spaceships might populate the skyline of the game's single planet, Nexus, but on the ground swords are just as common as lasers. You're liable to find yourself battling a pack of ravening space panthers one moment and a circling enemy gunship the next.
The game has a bright, heavily stylised design, with action-figure characters and landscapes painted in broad, colourful strokes. Animations are exaggerated and impactful, from the lolloping run of the Draken to the full-body coil that telegraphs an incoming enemy attack.
I'm playing as a Mechari warrior, an eight-foot robot wielding a two-handed energy sword. In addition to my class, which determines how I go about killing things, I've also chosen a path – in this case, that of the soldier – that determines why. In WildStar, your path provides a set of extra objectives that are available exclusively to you and that shape the course you'll take on the way to the level cap. Other paths include the scientist, who focuses on analysing monsters; and the settler, who is encouraged to play socially. There's also the explorer, but I'll get to that later.
Running through the town gates, I pass a quest giver of the traditional sort. A little way beyond her is a computer terminal that dispenses an additional, path-specific mission – in this case, I'm given a pile of grenades and a mandate to test them on the local monkey population. There's also a public quest in the area, asking players to place any skulls they've looted on a trophy pile in the centre of town.
On the way to the first cluster of monkeys, I receive a phone call from a quest giver I'd ignored, filling me in on her requirements and adding another objective to my tracker. The sense I get is of the game bending to accommodate my momentum – while I'd probably have been better off approaching Deradune more methodically, the game works in smart ways to ensure that I don't miss out. This isn't an accident: according to executive producer Jeremy Gaffney, the way that experienced MMO players approach content has been a major influence on WildStar's design.
“Most people have an MMO they played and loved,” Gaffney says. “But were they able to teleport back to the MMO they so blissfully remember, would they really put up with the stuff they put up with the first time? I loved EverQuest, but I had to stand in line for mobs. Would I be willing to put up with that now that I've played so many other MMOs?”
The answer – as evidenced by WildStar's attitude to content – seems to be no: hence multiple progression paths, quests branching from other quests and new things to do at every turn.
WildStar uses a traditional action bar setup for combat, with a number of significant tweaks. Careful positioning is essential as almost all attacks have an area of effect, painted on the ground as sweeping red semicircles or long cones. As a consequence, it's quite difficult to play on autopilot.
My sword attacks range from direct strikes to cleaves and whirling blows that damage every enemy around me. It doesn't take long to settle into a rhythm, initiating with area damage before following up with a precision coup de grâce. Maximising the effectiveness of your own attacks while avoiding damage is basically satisfying in the manner of a brawler – every time you dodge a would-be crippling blow, it feels like you're beating the game on your own terms. This is a strong basis for combat in an MMO.
“If we do our jobs right, you feel clever when you find the combination that works for you – and you feel super clever when you find a more efficient combination,” Gaffney explain. “The same thing applies to areas. Maybe I got used to fighting this monster, but now I'm doing it in a minefield – the best way used to be to dodge backwards, now it's 'kick his arse into a mine and watch him explode'!”
I use a combination of grenades and regular sword attacks to wipe out a few monkey camps and yet another mission type pops up – in this case, a challenge. Designed to keep players on their feet, challenges suddenly up the stakes, asking you to wipe out a set number of enemy camps within a time limit in return for a randomised reward. While working on one of these challenges I realise that there are multiple types of exclusive quests available to my chosen path – as a soldier, I'm also capable of tracking down assassination targets or triggering pointdefence sequences out in the wilderness. Honestly, even with my determination to play as free-spiritedly as possible, this sudden onrush of options is paralysing.
I asked Gaffney if he anticipated this. “We fractured it out intentionally,” he explains. “What we do is fracture it until it seems like too much, and then condense it. You have to do that because otherwise you'll never know when you should have added one more layer. It's better to go too far and ratchet it back a notch than never take a step forward.” By splitting the life of a single character into distinct channels with different play styles and rewards, the team at Carbine hope to make the experience of playing an MMORPG more generous and consistently engaging than it has traditionally been. This basic level of mechanical complexity underscores the whole game. As a soldier, I've opted for an experience that focuses on combat. Were I a scientist or a settler, however, I may have other objectives to consider, or other reasons to be hunting specific species in Deradune's wilds.
“We let the players do as much as they can simultaneously,” Gaffney explains, describing the ideal behaviour of a lategame WildStar player as a layer cake of complementary mechanics. “I'm in the middle of kicking dudes into mines while at the same time I'm scanning them and studying them, and I'm unlocking and questing and doing a timed challenge – and I'm doing all of this stuff at once because I'm awesome. That's very powerful, and if there's a principle that impacts all of our designs, it's that one.”
“It lets you choose what your critical path is,” he continues. “What do you want to do in this game session? Do you want to work on your path stuff, or do you want to try to get through the main story arc? That dilettante style is something that I personally find fun.”
Here, then is my mistake: WildStar furnishes the player with a vast amount of options, but attempting to do all of them at once isn't the way to play. You have to choose. With this in mind I make a beeline for another of my path missions, involving setting up and defending a piece of tech from onrushing hordes of space panthers. As I fend them off I'm joined by another player, a Draken stalker who uses stealth to set up high-damage burst attacks.
Players can pitch in with one another's missions regardless of their own path, meaning that you're not wholly locked out of these other parts of the game. This is a potentially clever use of divergent play styles, giving people a reason to come together while emphasising each other's personal choices.
Intrigued to see just how much of a difference your choice of path makes, I switch characters. As a human spellslinger, the way I approach combat changes substantially – armed with a pair of laser pistols I focus on kiting groups of enemies into position for a mixture of channelled and charged ranged attacks. As an explorer, my path-specific missions lead me into very different situations to the ones I found myself in as a soldier.
The exploratory approach is intended for players who would otherwise spend their time pushing at the fringes of each zone, trying to reach impassable areas. Deradune is dotted with tall, winding trees that are only climbable by explorers. Every zone will have a number of these jumping puzzles to complete, and finishing the whole set earns you a reward. This is what I did first, and as a consequence my initial impressions of the explorer aren't great – following an arrow to a jumping challenge with a fixed solution doesn't feel like exploring, and as these challenges are something that have to be completed solo there's no room for ad-hoc socialisation.
I get more enjoyment out of the explorer's other key ability, which is the power to unlock a long network of tunnels that link diverse parts of the zone. Stumbling across a highlighted patch of ground can lead to a drop into a monster-infested cavern and a new set of quests before emerging back onto the surface – or, in one case, onto a cliff-top route patrolled by enemy aircraft. Explorers can also unlock shortcuts for other players, which will be their chief contribution to social play. Nonetheless, I found the path a little lonely in the time I spent with it.
The fact that I enjoyed one path over another isn't surprising – players are, after all, expected to pick the play style that suits them, and I wouldn't necessarily choose to play in this way in the final game. I asked Gaffney whether he was concerned that giving players such a significant decision to make right at the start of their time with the game could backfire – particularly considering the trend in recent MMOs towards reducing the amount of choices made at character creation.
“There are a lot of babies that get thrown out with the bathwater, you know?” He says. “You don't want a horribly punitive death penalty, but what about that friend you made because they saved you from dying? Those bonds are weakened when you don't care that someone saved you. As designers we need to know when pain can be fun, or when the pain makes things meaningful and when removing it can trivialise things.”
In this sense, then, my preference for one path over another – even my confusion when faced with an overwhelming amount of different things to do – is a negative response that the developers are willing to risk incurring if it means giving players more freedom to meaningfully outline the parameters of their own game experience. It's an old-school sentiment wrapped up in a game with a lot of new ideas, an obvious devotion to the traditions of the genre mixed up with a studied effort to do things better.
“We're not aiming for the lapsed MMO crowd because of grand focus groups and research,” Gaffney tells me. “We're aiming for it because it's us.”