Wild­card’s am­bi­tious MMO re­vealed.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Philippa Warr

t is hard to fight a ghost ship while the per­son in charge of the can­non is play­ing Do-Re-Mi on the ac­cor­dion badly. In ad­di­tion to this wis­dom, Stu­dio Wild­card’s enor­mous pi­rat­i­cal project, At­las, has also taught me how to make the ocean equiv­a­lent of a hand­brake turn (slam the rud­der in one di­rec­tion while the sails are only half open), and that friendly fire is def­i­nitely en­abled.

At­las is an MMO themed around piracy. Think Ark meets EVE On­line on the high seas. There’s a sur­vival el­e­ment, so you’ll need to keep your­self fed, wa­tered, away from dread beasts, at a rea­son­able tem­per­a­ture, and so on. If you’re play­ing ver­sus other play­ers you’ll also need to keep your­self safe from their guns and cut­lasses. There is also a so­cial, em­pire build­ing el­e­ment where play­ers can band to­gether to form com­pa­nies (like Ark’s tribes).

The idea is that these com­pa­nies will grow and vie for ter­ri­tory and re­sources. The abil­ity for com­pa­nies to set laws to gov­ern be­hav­ior in par­tic­u­lar ways will ar­rive in a few months but, from launch, they will be able to set taxes in ar­eas they con­trol. Wild­card wants At­las’s sys­tems to help en­cour­age a mix­ture of co-op and com­pe­ti­tion, trade, and war­fare.

The full fea­ture list is far longer but there’s craft­ing, there’s sail­ing, there’s fish­ing, there are sea shanties, there are boss-type mon­sters... The mini-boss Wild­card showed me was a hy­dra which lived on a Mediter­ranean-look­ing is­land and huffed dread­ful breath at its at­tack­ers. As you might as­sume, the chal­lenge was to de­stroy the mon­ster’s heads be­fore they re­grew, and to de­stroy the whole mon­ster be­fore it de­stroyed your crew.

Set­ting sail

Stu­dio Wild­card co­founder, Jeremy Stieglitz, de­scribes the goal with At­las as: “To make a liv­ing, breath­ing per­sis­tent sur­vival world that is one world for all the play­ers and not many copies of the world, and have that world be about the rise and fall of player-run em­pires, draw­ing a lot of in­spi­ra­tion from games like EVE On­line.”

El­e­ments of At­las will be fa­mil­iar to play­ers of Ark, but At­las is vastly more am­bi­tious in scope. For starters the game world is around 1,200 times the size of Ark’s set­ting. Wild­card in­tends that space to be able to sup­port 40,000 con­cur­rent play­ers. Rather than play­ers be­ing di­vided into myr­iad servers, each with a copy of the is­land, they’re ex­pected to play to­gether. There are a hand­ful of caveats with that state­ment, though. NA and Europe will run dif­fer­ent servers due to la­tency lim­i­ta­tions, and PvP will be sep­a­rate from PvE.

A stu­dio demon­stra­tion with a dozen or so peo­ple means it’s hard to as­sess how the tech will hold up at such a large scale. By the time you read this ar­ti­cle, At­las will have dealt with day one in­ter­est spikes so the tech’s ro­bust­ness should be eas­ier to as­sess. Wild­card has also hired-up ded­i­cated in­fra­struc­ture engi­neers and en­sured the devs can add more area to the in-game play space if it’s needed, as well as tap­ping into their own prior ex­pe­ri­ences with Ark.

To get a fla­vor of how ship bat­tles might play out, PCG’s Steven Mess­ner joins me aboard an enor­mous ship and we set sail with a mix­ture of game de­vel­op­ers and NPCs for our crew. As cap­tain, I take on steer­ing and sails, while Lieu­tenant Steven deals with can­nons (and the ac­cor­dion).

The galleon we are us­ing would rep­re­sent thou­sands of hours of ef­fort and ex­pe­ri­ence if we were play­ing nor­mally. Thus we would (the­o­ret­i­cally) be a lot more con­ser­va­tive in bat­tle, and less likely to, for ex­am­ple, ram it di­rectly into the other team’s sloop in­stead of turn­ing the boat to use the can­nons.

Steer­ing takes a bit of get­ting used to. A and D turn the rud­der and ad­just your di­rec­tion, but hold­ing shift at the same time means those but­tons change the di­rec­tion your

the game world is around 1,200 times the size of Ark’s set­ting

sails are fac­ing. I end up al­ter­nat­ing be­tween rud­der and sails as I try to bring the ship into a po­si­tion where Steven can take a shot.

With the gun ports open, Steven takes aim, check­ing the can­non­balls’ flight path on his screen be­fore fir­ing. Can­non­balls are ex­tremely heavy, so you quickly learn to take into ac­count the en­emy ship’s speed and course so the ammo makes con­tact in­stead of sploosh­ing harm­lessly into the water.

Key­board com­mands of­fer vary­ing de­grees of con­trol. Free fire mode lets any NPC on a can­non shoot au­to­mat­i­cally when they find an en­emy tar­get, and an­other but­ton acts as a uni­ver­sal ‘hold fire’ sig­nal. Red alert forces all NPCs to leave their sta­tion to at­tack any en­emy who has boarded the ship. Play­ers can also set in­di­vid­ual op­tions for their NPCs.

I bring our ship along­side a brig­an­tine, strug­gling with the fact the wind is against us. The brig­an­tines are the stan­dard big ships, whereas our galleon is more of a cruise liner crossed with a bat­tle sta­tion. I hear Steven launch a vol­ley of de­struc­tion and won­der if we’ve de­feated the brig­an­tine. We have not. Let’s just say that we now know friendly fire is a con­sid­er­a­tion.

Our ship has picked up speed, so I try to ram our foe. I don’t make con­tact, but their close­ness means I’m tempted to jump or grap­ple hook onto the en­emy deck to en­gage in a fight. I would be mas­sively out­num­bered though, so I stay put.

If I’d man­aged to board un­no­ticed I could have tried a bit of stealth killing, tak­ing down as many of their crew as pos­si­ble with­out be­ing de­tected. Su­per non-stealth is an­other op­tion, as you can ap­par­ently also use a horse to leap from one ship to an­other, and try mow­ing down the other crew from your sad­dle.

Back from the dead

Dy­ing doesn’t take you out of bat­tle en­tirely, as you can respawn on one of the ship’s beds. Lev­el­ing up a ship can in­crease the num­ber of beds it holds, but you’ll still need to con­sider

things like cooldowns timers and the fact you can’t fast travel your items to a lo­ca­tion, just your char­ac­ter. A bug on the build we’re play­ing on means we can’t use beds, so I end up tak­ing over a dev’s char­ac­ter af­ter mine is killed by a can­non­ball.

I de­cide to try the fire ar­rows he has equipped. Arc­ing them grace­fully onto the en­emy deck is truly sat­is­fy­ing. I’m be­ing tar­geted, though, so while I aim and shoot, I’m also try­ing to dodge in­com­ing pro­jec­tiles so my new char­ac­ter doesn’t go the same way as the cap­tain.

We’re also tak­ing on water due to the dam­age sus­tained in the fight so far. I pull out a re­pair ham­mer and try to find the dam­aged ar­eas. There’s a minigame of sorts which lets you re­pair the ship faster—click to start a re­pair and again to stop a mov­ing cur­sor in the high­lighted sec­tion of a bar. It moves quickly, and I run out of metal be­fore I master the sys­tem.

I still have my ar­rows, though, and the en­emy ship has started sink­ing, mean­ing all we need to do is re­pel board­ers and we’ve won the fight. I stand on the side of the ship, pick­ing off sur­vivors as they splash to­wards us. It’s all go­ing well un­til I fire a flam­ing ar­row into our own deck. I walk away, hop­ing that the hub­bub has con­cealed my er­ror.

The last foe dies! It was a fiery death, so I am hope­ful that he wan­dered into my deck con­fla­gra­tion. Alas, he shot his own fire ar­row into his own feet. But a vic­tory is a vic­tory, and it is their ship at the bot­tom of the sea wait­ing to be looted, not ours.

Stay­ing on the PvP server, we also try out a lit­tle PvE ac­tion. A map piece has washed ashore in a bot­tle, and shows a piece of land with trea­sure buried at the tra­di­tional X. Find­ing the trea­sure in­volves a car­tog­ra­phy chal­lenge where you need to match the shape of the land in the map seg­ment with an is­land in the game. The map might also be ro­tated slightly so there’s a light vis­ual puz­zle el­e­ment.

Our trea­sure is­land is a few min­utes away by sloop (a small sin­gle-deck boat), but maps re­quir­ing fur­ther jour­neys will yield bet­ter trea­sure. It takes us a lit­tle while to get go­ing be­cause the dev team want to show us land travel meth­ods like a car­riage pulled by bears. I find that I can fire ar­rows out of the win­dow and into a moose from the safety of the car­riage, so we also need to fac­tor a moose fight into our jour­ney time.

Steven is told that ships take dam­age from be­ing out at sea, and it’s there­fore wise to drop an­chor every now and again to halt that process, as well as mak­ing re­pairs and stock­ing up on sup­plies. I learnt all that in an ear­lier ses­sion, so I drag the dead moose to Steven’s feet and get into the water to punch a manta ray. They are hardier than I thought.

Cur­rently, the ship is sport­ing PC Gamer lo­gos, but we could change the sails and the rest of the decor, re­paint­ing it pixel by pixel. In­stead, Steven gets out the ac­cor­dion. This is also when a ghost ship finds us.

Ship shape

Ghost ships—known as Ships of the Damned in At­las— are use­ful, as they’re a source of NPC crew. If you sink a Ship of the Damned you free the peo­ple it was try­ing to en­slave, and can re­cruit them your­self if you need. Cash flow mat­ters for this as, if you don’t pay them, they will mutiny.

Once Steven has fin­ished his ac­cor­dion solo, we use the can­non to blow the ghost ship to pieces, and head to the trea­sure is­land. The map holder is the only one who can see the lo­ca­tion of the trea­sure on screen, so he guides us across the rocks. Sol­diers of the Damned guard the trea­sure chests, so we need to take them out be­fore dig­ging up our loot.

Trea­sure is dis­trib­uted across all nearby crew, so we get a pal­try sum for our ef­fort. One so­lu­tion to the low earn­ings em­braces the spirit of piracy: You team up with oth­ers to go on a trea­sure trip, and then be­tray them once the ghost sol­diers are down to get a bet­ter share of the gold.

I’m play­ing At­las us­ing a lot of de­vel­oper short­cuts to give me an over­view of what’s pos­si­ble be­yond the game’s first hours. But for new play­ers, what you’ll first en­counter is a freeport. These are parts of the map where PvP is dis­abled, even if you’re on the PvP server. The idea was to of­fer a smoother start than Ark where play­ers could start learn­ing At­las’s var­ied sys­tems in rel­a­tive com­fort in­stead of via in­stant death or punch­ing a bazil­lion trees. These freeports are level capped so af­ter about half an hour you’d head out on a ba­sic ship—prob­a­bly a raft—seek­ing re­sources and ex­pe­ri­ence.

This in­cen­tivized travel per­sists through­out the game. Dif­fer­ent biomes of­fer unique re­sources and crea­tures and, by ex­ten­sion, dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties to trade, or in­duce­ments to es­tab­lish mul­ti­ple com­pany bases. Claim­ing more ter­ri­tory and hav­ing more com­pany ships out and about will also in­crease your vi­sion of the map, grant­ing valu­able knowl­edge of what other com­pa­nies are up to.

Dis­cov­ery zones also en­cour­age play­ers to wan­der into new ter­ri­tory. These are sim­i­lar to Ark’s ex­plorer notes, of­fer­ing story tid­bits, but there are more of them—over a thou­sand in the early ac­cess launch. To reach the high­est level, Stieglitz tells me you’ll need to find all the dis­cov­ery zones. That means vis­it­ing all land masses and en­gag­ing in dif­fi­cult jour­neys.

Claim­ing an area takes time and your re­ward is a plot of land only you can build on. An­other com­pany can try to take your land and, if you’re not in the area, you’ll get a no­ti­fi­ca­tion and must de­cide whether to try to de­fend it. If you’re in the vicin­ity, they’ll need to take out your play­ers be­fore they can start a counter-claim.

It’s hard to gauge how play­ers will en­gage with these sys­tems be­fore the game hits Early Ac­cess. That’s partly be­cause play­ers have a habit of do­ing sur­pris­ing things, or find­ing loop­holes de­vel­op­ers never imag­ined. EVE On­line is a big source of in­spi­ra­tion for Stu­dio Wild­card, and that game’s player-con­trolled and player-con­tested nullsec ar­eas are rife with peo­ple do­ing un­ex­pected, bril­liant things.

Dif­fer­ent biomes of­fer unique re­sources and crea­tures

Un­charted wa­ters

An­other source of uncer­tainty is the sheer vol­ume of con­tent and sys­tems, both in the game now and on its roadmap. Dur­ing my visit Stieglitz darts from topic to topic, show­ing me drag­ons you can tame for a short pe­riod, a cy­clops, a vi­ta­min sys­tem, skill trees, a World War 2 plane that’s part of the game’s mod­ding as­pi­ra­tions, a cow at the top of a tower. He emails me later to de­tail plans for a whole other sys­tem of magic tech in­volv­ing blueprints for air­ships and sub­mersibles from a now-van­ished Golden Age.

There’s also an ex­e­cu­tion gallery where he asks an­other dev to put his head into a noose as part of a demon­stra­tion of a skull col­lec­tion bounty sys­tem. Boun­ties placed by play­ers on other play­ers are an in­ter­est­ing way of keep­ing jerks in check, but ex­e­cu­tion sta­tions com­bined with an in­ven­tive and large player­base make me anx­ious as to what other uses they might be put.

Stieglitz talks at break­neck speed and with­out pause, so con­cepts from the present, the next few months and the far fu­ture start to rub up against each other. Gen­er­ally they oc­cupy a spec­trum which, for me, runs from, “Sure,” to, “I’m sorry, what?”

For ex­am­ple, char­ac­ter ag­ing will be purely cos­metic at launch (sure). Af­ter a while it will be­come a game sys­tem, grad­u­ally ap­ply­ing buffs and de­buffs to sim­u­late the ef­fects of time and re­quir­ing a player to ei­ther find a foun­tain of youth or risk per­madeath af­ter a few months. And then we’re sud­denly talk­ing about a multi­gen­er­a­tional char­ac­ter sys­tem in­volv­ing mat­ing with other play­ers in or­der to cre­ate ba­bies and then rais­ing the ba­bies to the age of 20 at which point you would be able to body swap into them and stave off death by be­com­ing your own prog­eny (I... have so many ques­tions).

The team has bench­marks and touch­stones it wants to hit along the game’s two-year-or-so path to a 1.0 launch, but along­side that the devs will be check­ing in on what play­ers like or dis­like in or­der to shape the ex­pe­ri­ence. I mean, Ark wasn’t sup­posed to be crea­ture-cen­tric, and that be­came its USP af­ter play­ers fell in love with it.

Learn­ing from Ark— par­tic­u­larly mis­takes made with Ark— will be im­por­tant for Wild­card. The older game didn’t strug­gle for sales, but it did have a volatile Early Ac­cess jour­ney. Par­tic­u­lar flash­points dur­ing this pe­riod were the launch of paid DLC while Ark was still in Early Ac­cess, and an abrupt dou­bling in price at the tail end of Early Ac­cess to match re­tail pre­order.

This time, how­ever, Wild­card in­tends to com­mu­ni­cate pric­ing in­for­ma­tion well in ad­vance. For ex­am­ple, Stieglitz makes it clear that al­though the game will launch at $30 for Early Ac­cess, it is ul­ti­mately in­tended to be a $60 prospect. He notes that paid DLC is very un­likely given the way the game works; in At­las, is­lands pop­ping into ex­is­tence that not ev­ery­one can ac­cess would be dis­rup­tive.

On the money

Given the per­sis­tent na­ture of the game and the lure of show­ing off a fancy pi­rate out­fit to an au­di­ence of

(po­ten­tially) tens of thou­sands, Stieglitz ex­pects mon­e­ti­za­tion in At­las to cen­ter on cos­metic mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. At the mo­ment these are likely to turn up be­fore the game leaves Early Ac­cess—maybe around the six-to-12 month mark depend­ing on how solid the game’s foot­ing is at that point.

On­go­ing per­for­mance is­sues in Ark were a re­peated grum­ble for me and other play­ers, so I ask about At­las’s op­ti­miza­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Wild­card, At­las uses a newer ver­sion of the Un­real En­gine, mean­ing that it takes ad­van­tage of per­for­mance im­prove­ments Epic has made.

“We have bet­ter stream­ing meth­ods,” adds Stieglitz. “There’s not as much be­ing pushed onto the client at one time. Par­tially the na­ture of the world splits it up bet­ter, and then also the newer code we’re us­ing runs faster and we’ve learned some of the di­als we can ad­just on lower-end sys­tems.” Thus At­las should run bet­ter at Early Ac­cess launch than Ark does right now, and Stu­dio Wild­card will then con­tinue to work on im­prove­ments.

Stieglitz hopes that At­las will marry the player-built el­e­ments of EVE On­line, and some of that game’s eco­nomic as­pects, with a mo­ment-to­mo­ment sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence and a com­pelling sail­ing sys­tem. “If this game works, there hope­fully won’t be a need for an­other sur­vival game,” he says, “be­cause it should, in the­ory, be able to do over time just about any­thing you could ever want from a first-per­son grounded sur­vival game.”

It’s an am­bi­tious aim, so he goes on to add, “Ob­vi­ously not ev­ery­thing any­body could ever want would be there day one. Like any Early Ac­cess game, it’s go­ing to be it­er­a­tive. We’ll be see­ing where play­ers want to go. Do they want more crazy PvP me­chan­ics, do they want more em­pire-build­ing sys­tems, do they want more sail­ing sys­tems to in­crease re­al­ism there, or do they want more quests and nar­ra­tive con­tent? If they want all those things, hope­fully we can do all of those things.”

MAIN: Mak­ing sword­fight­ing feel right has been a pri­or­ity for Stu­dio Wild­card given the pi­rate theme.ABOVE: Play­ing an ac­cor­dion well can pro­vide sta­tus buffs.

ABOVE: Land-based mor­tars de­fend a fort against the fire­power of a galleon. RIGHT: Clearly this is a hal­ibut.

TOP: Any ships sunk in bat­tle turn into lootable wrecks.

Kill myth­i­cal beast­ies to ac­quire mag­i­cal arte­facts.

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