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