Wildcard’s ambitious MMO revealed.
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.
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.
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
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.