Thursday, March 19, 2009

State of Darkfall Online

The steady fall of Ultima Online has taken with it the promised land of persistent, hardcore PvP. Nearly all MMOGs since have focused on the EverQuest/MUD-based model of gameplay. By simplifying and streamlining those theories, World of Warcraft introduced a huge audience to the genre. These 'carebears' ended up marginalizing the players out there who desired something more out of an MMOG since every company wanted to take a slice of Blizzard's multi-million-dollar-per-month cake.
Being 'gamers first,' and not businessfolk, Athens-based indie company Aventurine has struggled through nearly a decade of development. Often whispered as Ultima Online's 'spiritual successor,' Darkfall would reintroduce the concepts of risk, danger, and control to the MMOG playbook. Full loot, first-person style combat, and character skill-based stats had the hopeful drooling and the naysayers crying, "Vaporware!"
Finally, late last year, Darkfall entered its Closed Beta. Not everyone was let in, but I was fortunate enough to participate. While the world of Agon had its glitches, its potential was easy to see. Players didn't have levels, so there was no "you have to be this old to ride the mount" mechanic. Someone could come in game, get geared up by a friend, and start fighting other players. If they really wanted to, at least.
At the end of February, Darkfall was 'launched' in an absolutely terrible fashion. A sequence of hoops was created, and at the end was a pre-order which would allow beta-testers to have a head start. At least, that was the plan.
The Account Management that Aventurine used was inadequate for the demand, on top of ISP issues preventing a great deal of people from even seeing the webpage properly to begin with. Some Accounts which were made - like mine - were bugged from the beginning to never work. Others would only pretend to pre-order the game, instead failing utterly.
Unsurprisingly, the Account Management link that was given out to the Beta Testers as a whole was quickly posted to the forums. Aventurine was too busy trying to get its game launched to even apologize properly (read: give them Accounts) to the beta testers left high and dry. While they've since fixed Account Management and everyone who wants an Account can make one, not everyone who wants to purchase the game can, at the moment. There's just not enough servers for the demand.
This is all beside mechanics which had yet to be fully balanced while still in Beta. Mounted combat was given a huge boon right before 'launch,' but refinement of the new damage dealt had yet to occur. Sieges - the practice of, not neccessarily including Warhulks and Cannons - were far too rare to have given much accurate feedback. The servers would still shut down for maintenance at the drop of a hat, with no warning, essentially destroying any travel progress one has made along with their mount. 
However, those who considered themselves fortunate enough to have taken their chance at purchasing Darkfall soon found intense sync issues once back in-game. At its peak, the most profitable thing to do was fish for lobster, since a player was unable to react to the goblins blinking around them.
While the syncing was being worked on, Aventurine prevented new purchases of the game. There was a new issue, with the queue to enter the game growing longer and longer. Players were leaving their clients on while they went to work, and were still waiting for a play slot when they returned home. In order to allow people to play Darkfall from any browser, the Darkfall Simulator was made - essentially a few images on a web-page showing Darkfall's unmoving queue. In essence, people were paying to wait to play an Open Beta version of Darkfall. 
For those still in-game, lag is still a major issue when large groups gather. Though outside of that, I'm reassured that Darkfall is very enjoyable for those players who love skirmish-sized combat, as well as having a sense of pride for building a city. 
It bears clarification: the players in-game are a fraction of those who want to be. The community is exceedingly frustrated with Aventurine. I clearly remember stating back in Beta that I would pay the subscription just to sight-see, since Darkfall's settings could be so beautiful. There were times I could just sit down on a cliff and watch the clouds go by. That charm is still there, but its being eclipsed by Aventurine's projected incompetance more and more. 
It's harsh to phrase it that way, and I agree. If you think I'm overdoing it, you should visit Darkfall's forums. At least I have compassion. I think what Aventurine has done is spectacular, and they have the making of one of the 'essential' MMOGs. However, the cold shoulder that the Darkfall community feels from Aventurine only amplifies the game's shortcomings, and further threatens its longevity. 
As can be expected, a lot of players and players-to-be are wondering about the true state of Aventurine's finances. It's not a huge step of logic to consider that the company was forced, one way or another, to launch before the game was ready in order to start some sort of cash flow.
Despite a stumble out of the starting gate, Aventurine and Darkfall can still rejoin the pack. There is an obviously neglected niche, which Darkfall (mostly) covers. Aesthetic and social details, which are outvoted by the hardcore PvP types, need to be addressed as soon as mechanics are balanced well. Otherwise, Agon will be a simulation instead of a world.
Even though the community is highly dedicated to Darkfall, 'forumfall' is quite simply too toxic to stand. Players are juggling the theories of arrogance, incompetence, and apathy in order to cope with Aventurine's vague and shallow-looking Public Relations. The company's image needs more than a pinata saying, "There will be ample compensation for any missed game-time." 
I believe that offering up some transparency into the operations of Aventurine would go a long, long way. Several studios have successfully used developer video-diaries and mini-documentaries to help with an irritable playerbase. The outspoken players may tend to be fickle and crude but they're actually very forgiving. And patient, too.
In short, Darkfall is having trouble with its eggshell. Aventurine seems to be an aloof parent doing the best it can. The hatchling isn't exactly strong enough for the real world quite yet, but now that it's here the only option is to nurture it. The beast has a strong heart, and as long as Aventurine can keep itself alive I think Darkfall can grow out of its emaciated and bewildered state into a fire-breathing contender.


  1. An excellent write, and one that really makes me interested in seeing Darkfall. But it also makes me ask, is it the right one to inherit the crown? Is a game, forgotten and ignored, the one that we want to be the banner-bearer of the next stage in MMO gaming?

    Even as a gamer who doesn't play MMOs, I watch them closely because they sometimes show what may be coming to other games in terms of network code and gameplay, but is this the sort of launch we want to see with a game that will (hopefully) overrun the market?

  2. It does have a lot of growing to do, but it definitely has the potential for progressing the Massive Multiplayer Online First Person Real Time Strategic Action Game genre.

    There's not a whole lot there beyond stats to contribute to Role Playing, but that issued will be addressed in a future post discussing ways to improve Darkfall.

  3. Role-Playing is the realm of the user in any case, you can't make Role-Playing with stats, equipment, objectives, or anything else concerning the actual infrastructure. I know that you Role Play, or did at one time, and you know what really constitutes Role Play.

    That aside, where do you think it will grow most? You say it will become one of the forerunners in the new wave of MMOs for a more serious gaming crowd? What specific advantages does it have over other possible competitors?

  4. Certain things like emotes, however, do help with role playing. As are things to do outside of combat that isn't resource gathering. But like I said, Darkfall has other priorities at the moment.

    A head start, primarily, is one of Darkfall's big advantages. The only other game like Darkfall is Mortal Online, which is nearing its own Beta. If Darkfall can pull it together, Mortal Online won't be able to drain a sustainable amount of players.

    Especially if Darkfall adopts some of Mortal Online's tactics, such as skill synergy.

  5. But what of these things makes Darkfall different from a somewhat lesser game? Diablo 2, an older game, has had skill synergy for some time. What will make Darkfall anything other than a rote grindfest, like WoW is at the end of the game?

  6. There's nothing to really grind. PvE is a degree up from negligible, and is simply a dangerous form of resource gathering. The focus is entirely on PvP, Sieging, and politics.

  7. So you're saying that its entirely player-driven? The whole world is created and shaped by the people who play it? Is that the case?

    That's more along the lines of what I was asking. How is the PvP in Darkfall more in-depth than other Player-driven games?

  8. The vast majority of the game is driven by players. There are NPC cities that start as newbie areas, but that doesn't mean they're not prayed on by PKs. Those cities just have the weakest monsters to PvE on. The NPCs give meager quests, but other than that anything else in an NPC city can be made within a PC city as well.

    So while there's no physical shaping going on, the political boundaries are entirely up to the players at the moment. There are 'racial enemies,' but there are also guilds that can accept any race into them. Very flawed, in my opinion.

    PvP in Darkfall is a lot easier to get into. It's also a lot easier to get -back- into, due to combat being more tied to player skill and tactics than a character's equipment.

  9. I'll play if I can, and once again it will be a game where I have to say "Oh, they could have gotten this right, but they didn't bother", like I said about Shadowbane-- which I loved, but no longer play even though it is now free and did finally fix, after many years, some but not all of the issues which plagued it.

    My regrets for Darkfall are not over what will be fixed-- as some of it from this point forward will be. My grief is over the realisation that I had the other day that at this point very many other things promised and advertised about will never will be fixed or implemented because "it's too late, it's out now, we can't go back, gotta move forward".

    (There's a clumsy but suitable metaphor for real life military adventurism in there, somewhere.)

    <3 your blog, by the way.