The developers behind Novus Aeterno tell me that it will be the first true MMORTS. That's a pretty ballsy claim. Several games are already vying for that title, including Trion Games' End of Nations and Gas Powered Games' Age of Empires Online . But maybe they knew something I didn't, so I dug deeper and found an interesting premise, potentially fun gameplay and an indie developer focused on making a killer RTS.
The game isn't ready for hands-on yet, but their panel at PAX East and my time with Titale Studios Founder and Lead Developer Nick Nieuwoudt gave me a pretty good idea of what Novus Aeterno is all about.
Taking place entirely on one galactic map, Novus Aeterno is a big=picture RTS that doesn't focus on the individual battles, like Starcraft 2 does, for example. Instead, it focuses on the entire war that's made up of those smaller battles. The change is obvious right away: in most RTSes, you're stuck to the one map. In Novus Aeterno, the entire galaxy is at your disposal, and you can drill down to individual battles all over the place. It sounds like a fairly novel experience for RTS fans, but traveling all over the entirety of existence while battle rage on all over the place is kind of the norm for MMO vets. It should give a great sense of continuity to the world, though, and, according to Nieuwoudt, adds a lot of depth to the diplomacy aspect as well.
The gameplay itself looks pretty standard, with some small twists taken from RTS' turn-based brothers. Your ships can run out of ammo, for example, and will periodically need to reload their guns to continue shooting. Another feature that's not unheard of, but still rare in RTSes is positional armor, meaning that your ships will absorb different amounts of damage based on the direction they're being attacked from. It's a great feature that values strategic movement over perfect build orders. Theoretically, a better ship-manager could beat someone with a bigger army or a fool-proof build order: a welcome change for those of us who are tired of having to memorize the most efficient build orders to find success.
One of the dev team members is a retired Air Force general, and has helped the team focus on the difference aspects of warfare, commonly referred to in the military as D.I.M.E. (Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economy). What I like about this four-pronged design is that it's not about sending out AI minions to take care of your diplomacy or economy for you. If you're expanding your empire to include a new system and want the surrounding players to be friendly towards your expansion, then you need to prove your friendliness towards them first. Assist them if they're under attack or give them some economic support until they think you're a pretty good neighbor.
So we've covered the last three letters in their claim, but what about the first three: MMO. Games will take place on a persistent sever (which Nieuwoudt says was the biggest technical challenge for the team) where the game world made up of A.I. and real players will continue whether you're online or not. To combat griefing and give players the ability to log off every once in a while for sleeping, eating and other non-space activities, your bases are given shields and limited automated defenses to repel aggressive players, for a while. This is also why it's a good idea to make nice with your next-door neighbors though: they can help keep your home safe when you're not around.
Nieuwoudt is doing what every game developer dreams of: he's creating the exact game that he wants to play, and his passion and dedication to core ideals of Novus Aeterno are obvious. By capitalizing on the flexibility of the small indie team, he has a game with the potential to hit a sweet spot between MMOs and RTSes that just migh appeal to gamers from both sides.
And while I still don't buy into the "first true MMORTS" label that they're trying to tag onto the game, I found an interesting and hopeful concept with all the makings of memorable experiences.