From the first moment I realised that it was possible to play a massively multiplayer game online—that I could create a little computer person and interact in a virtual world with hundreds of other little computer people—I’ve only really wanted one thing: to be ordinary.
The thing is, I’ve never really understood the power-trip, hero-fantasy aspect of roleplaying games; especially MMOs. The desire to be a legendary figure of power and renown. It’s always struck me as a real immersion-killer to know that everybody I pass in the street has done the same great deeds as me and, more than this, it counters the very sense of power and achievement the game was presumably designed to provide in the first place. Because if everyone is the saviour of the realm, if everyone is an ultimate, special warrior… then nobody is.
Instead, I’ve always looked for experiences where I can feel part of a bigger world, where my character is just one face in a crowd. I want a fantasy setting that feels real—and this means that it needs shops, tradespeople and others just going about their business, and so on. Where most people are just, you know, making a living.
For me, one of the best periods in World of Warcraft was during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. It had flaws (the dungeon content was nothing like as satisfying as the earlier Burning Crusade stuff) but there was something more special at work in the normal downtime we all had between dungeons and questing progress. Players were encouraged to base themselves in the floating city of Dalaran, and there were daily quests—repeatable actions that were worth doing every time you logged in—which had a wonderful effect on the town.
In previous times, World of Warcraft towns were mostly either empty (because there was nothing to do there) or static (because everyone was just idling by the auction house.) But in Dalaran, people were running in and out of shops, talking to the shopkeepers for the daily quests. There were also long-term achievements based on finding rare books or similar items in the town, which got people walking around when there was nothing better to do at that moment.
The net result was a place that looked… busy. People actually had a reason to go into NPC shops! I thought it was a new era in MMO design; at least until the next expansion came along and everyone moved to Stormwind, where the dailies didn’t work exactly the same way, and never really recaptured that same sense of life that Dalaran had. Oh well.
But this feeling of activity and reality brings me onto Black Desert Online. It’s an MMO that was previously available only in Korea and released for western audiences just last week. It’s a wonderful mess of a game. I’m not trying to review it fully here, but suffice to say I consider it a thing of flawed genius. It’s buggy, badly localised, grindy, baffling and very complicated; but it’s also beautiful, deep, immersive, and the combat is downright joyous.
The best thing about it, though (at least right now, a week after launch) is that it is alive.
The towns and highways are filled with people—both NPCs and players—going about their business. Although there is combat, hero-fantasy questing, magic spells, and the rest of it, the game’s population is finding that some of the most compelling gameplay is to be found in commerce; trading, fishing, and production of goods.
As you walk down the street in Black Desert Online, you’ll pass dozens of players rumbling past in their wagons filled with wheat that they’re taking to the next town over, or horses tethered up whilst their owner visits the tavern. If you go down to the docks in the starter city, Velia, you’ll routinely see loads of players fishing off the pier. There are some very neat design decisions that drive traffic to certain places: for example, anyone who cooks something has a chance at producing some random byproducts which can be traded in to a handful of various NPCs that are dotted around, mostly in one town. This will result in a steady slow of people running around that town delivering food every so often.
The players all look kind of normal, too. Itself a source of controversy, the outfits in the game are bland and uninteresting unless you pay an eye-watering fee in the real-money cash shop for a special costume. The debate about this rages on around the internet, as you would expect, but the practical upshot is this: there aren’t really many people running around to buy potatoes as if dressed for an epic fantasy battleground. We’re mostly all in basic, raggy everyday clothes.
The game’s fundamentals are based on a mixture of travelling between towns, endless amounts of repeatable quests that encourage players to move around in the population centres, and basic reasons to visit NPC merchants on a frequent basis.
This isn’t to say it isn’t a normal MMO at heart; a lot of players are to be found grinding levels by killing respawning creatures over and over—and I think they are even earning the best bank from doing this. And who knows how long the cities will stay busy as players move on, both in the game to other places, and overall as the player base recedes from the launch-month peaks. The mechanics that encourage traffic will no doubt lose their force as people find better things to do with their time.
But for now, BDO is a genuinely novel and weird experience for me, and I’m enjoying nothing more than rumbling between farms in my horse-drawn cart, delivering food and supplies, or standing off the coast in a little fishing boat and whiling away some time.
Yes, I can use mystical energies to summon a shower of meteors that will incinerate a horde of goblins in a blink of an eye; but right now I’ve got some cows to milk, OK?
If you want to join me on BDO, I can be found with the family name ‘Beardofbees’ on the EU Alustin server.