Worlds Adrift

Bossa’s physics-driven MMO con­tin­ues to give us ver­tigo



The solid-gold en­gine was a mis­take, in hind­sight. Light­ning lashes the screen as our squat, lop-sided air­ship strug­gles to hold a sou-west­erly head­ing through a boil­ing mass of cloud. This is a storm wall, one of the re­gions of in­clement weather that break up Bossa’s Worlds Adrift, sep­a­rat­ing the MMO’s biomes and the dif­fer­ent grades of re­source they con­tain. Some­where be­low us, de­signer Luke Wil­liams dan­gles from a grap­ple line, fran­ti­cally zap­ping hull pan­els and tur­bines with his re­pair gun be­fore the wind can prise them free. An­other blast of light­ning and the helm’s ar­ti­fi­cial hori­zon dis­ap­pears in a flurry of sparks. With­out it, we’re un­able to dis­tin­guish up from down. Pro­ducer Herb Liu winces. “I think you might have to bail.”

Weather walls vary greatly by thick­ness and in­ten­sity. Set­ting off into one at ran­dom is, as we’re dis­cov­er­ing, a sui­ci­dal ex­er­cise. Wil­liams claws his way back on deck just as our mast snaps un­der the strain; we only have one pro­pel­ler left, and barely enough fuel to keep it spin­ning. The air­ship flops for­ward drunk­enly as a wing comes loose, leav­ing us hang­ing from the bow. Time to bail, in­deed – but sud­denly the air clears and the real hori­zon re­veals it­self, a bliss­ful sun­set dot­ted with im­pos­si­ble rocky sil­hou­ettes. We’ve made it. Our proud ves­sel might be a cap­sized, limb­less car­cass held aloft by a cou­ple of anti- grav­ity cores, but we still have our wing­suits, and safe ground is just a short glide away.

Emo­tions are height­ened by the aware­ness that were this the live re­lease, that drift­ing hulk would linger in­def­i­nitely – a mon­u­ment to our tri­umph, or at least a source of spare parts for a be­lea­guered crew. Half a year since we pre­vi­ously saw it, Worlds Adrift is still uniquely tan­ta­lis­ing: an aerial ar­chi­pel­ago pow­ered by so­phis­ti­cated dis­trib­uted-pro­cess­ing tech­nol­ogy, in which ev­ery ob­ject is sub­ject to re­al­time net­worked physics and ev­ery change you make is per­sis­tent and ap­par­ent to ev­ery player in your shard.

This is an MMO whose com­plex­ity and longevity de­rive not from grind­ing and lev­el­ling, but tan­gi­ble prob­lems of weight and bal­ance, in which op­pos­ing crews can rip com­po­nents off each other’s ves­sels or drop chunks of lead onto them to force them earth­wards. It’s a world whose ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tex­ture will be gen­er­ated by play­ers as they travel be­tween is­lands, scour them for re­sources, in­ter­act with wildlife and blow each other to pieces. Kill all the fly­ing manta rays in one re­gion and they’ll be gone for good, at least till breed­ing pairs from a neigh­bour­ing re­gion ar­rive to re­pop­u­late the waste. Crash­land and the rust­ing wreck will still be there, months later, for others to pick over.

The only caveat is you can’t al­ter the ter­rain it­self in-game, but you can carve out your own is­land for Bossa’s con­sid­er­a­tion us­ing the stand­alone Is­land Cre­ator, freely avail­able on Steam. “Orig­i­nally, we de­signed the Cre­ator to be an in­ter­nal tool,” Liu tells us. “Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we re­lease it to see what peo­ple can make?’ And it be­came huge. We have, like, 1,800 is­lands now.”

Wil­liams es­ti­mates that about 30 per cent of Worlds Adrift’s exquisitely chis­elled air­borne mono­liths are com­mu­nity-made – the rest are a mix of de­vel­oper-de­signed and pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated. “It’s [a scale] we could never achieve oth­er­wise, not with a stu­dio this size. It adds so much to it. If your game is about ex­plo­ration, you can’t beat hand­crafted.” The other ad­van­tage of this ap­proach is that it gives con­trib­u­tors some­thing else to shoot for when they start the game. “You see player Al­liances that have de­signed is­lands with cave net­works that are huge dock­ing sys­tems, like a space sta­tion. And they’re like, ‘We’re go­ing to find this is­land among thou­sands when the game goes live, and that’s go­ing to be our home base’.”

Bossa’s com­mit­ment to a player-de­ter­mined world ex­tends to the so­cial and eco­nomic struc­tures, or rather the scarcity of them. There are no cur­ren­cies, no es­tab­lished fac­tions, no cities a-bus­tle with NPC traders who’ll mer­rily re­lieve you of all your junk, just other play­ers and their Al­liances. “Our set­ting is af­ter the col­lapse of a civil­i­sa­tion,” Liu says. “It’s this new age of dis­cov­ery, where we fig­ure out our own so­cial cir­cles, and there’s no cur­rency be­cause there are no NPCs to buy things from. If you’re just trad­ing with each other, you can fig­ure out your own ways of do­ing that. Play­ers might end up us­ing gold as a cur­rency, and that would be hi­lar­i­ous, be­cause gold is more or less use­less.”

Play­ers will also have a hand in com­pos­ing the lore, which com­bines sev­eral nov­els’ worth of of­fi­cial back­story with what­ever air­ship pi­lots dream up by, for ex­am­ple, leav­ing enig­matic mes­sages in the bow­els of re­mote is­lands or wag­ing wars with other Al­liances. “It’s kind of like how EVE On­line works, where player-run cor­po­ra­tions and agree­ments and pol­i­tics shape how the game feels,” Liu says.

How ex­actly Bossa will bal­ance this es­sen­tially law­less en­vi­ron­ment re­mains to be seen – Wil­liams and Liu in­sist the world and com­mu­nity will au­to­cor­rect, as play­ers engi­neer re­sponses to each other’s strate­gies and an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions wax and wane – but it’s easy to imag­ine a new­comer strug­gling. The con­trols, at least, are straight­for­ward, though the cam­era is un­wieldy at present. Your re­pair and re­source-har­vest­ing tools are mapped to left-click, your all-im­por­tant grap­ple line to right-click, and your wing­suit, once crafted, to the space bar.

The ship­yard in­ter­face has yet to be fi­nalised but seems just as di­gestible. You pull out a 3D wire­frame model to de­sign the frame, then at­tach com­po­nents such as can­nons, spawn pads and nav­i­ga­tional aids by drag­ging and drop­ping. There’s no ar­ti­fi­cial fail state: pro­vid­ing you can get your cre­ation off the ground, it’s yours to fly, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties range from cheery snub-nosed dog­fight­ers to ser­pen­tine be­he­moths whose vul­ner­a­ble spots are hard to lo­cate. You can even cre­ate cir­cuit boards us­ing pre­cious met­als to, for in­stance, trig­ger a broad­side from the helm with­out en­list­ing a gun­ner. Ship­wright­ing ac­counts for the bulk of the craft­ing op­tions, but you’ll also fash­ion items for your char­ac­ter, such as non-au­to­matic firearms.

The ‘thrill of dis­cov­ery’ is a pop­u­lar re­frain from de­sign­ers to­day, but their cre­ations of­ten ar­rive pre­loaded with way­points and bread­crumb trails, not so much un­charted re­gions as ex­otic work­places where you toil for pre­dictable re­wards. In Worlds Adrift, by con­trast, lit­tle is given, and ex­plo­ration ac­tu­ally feels like ex­plo­ration. It’s a step away from the grind that now clouds the MMO’s ap­peal, a re­turn to the days when all play­ers wanted was to look over the hori­zon. “It was new, ex­cit­ing, you weren’t sure what you were go­ing to see – we want to have that all the way through,” Liu says. “Not just at the be­gin­ning. Not just when the world’s fresh.”

The pos­si­bil­i­ties range from cheery snub-nosed dog­fight­ers to ser­pen­tine be­he­moths

Ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands are pos­si­ble – just rope to­gether a few hulls. You’ll be ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble to sab­o­tage, how­ever: all some­body needs to do is slice away your lifter cores

FROM TOP Pro­ducer Herb Liu and de­signer Luke Wil­liams

Erect­ing a world around fly­ing is­lands al­lows Bossa’s small team to fo­cus its ef­forts, cre­at­ing lovely dio­ra­mas rather than labour­ing over the ge­og­ra­phy of a con­ti­nent

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