Early in their existence MMOGs were easy to define by example simply because there were far fewer games available. Games like Ultima Online and Everquest clearly helped set the standards of the genre. On their terms, massively multiplayer means hundreds of other player avatars running around and whacking mobs in the same environment. They also established gameplay standards based on computer roleplaying game staples such as gaining experience to level up, upgrading gear and growing the character's skills and abilities.
But as the genre has expanded and evolved so has our definition of what constituents an MMOG. As I discussed in my last column, mobile MMOGs have very unique challenges to overcome in order to prove successful; but their success will undoubtedly come in time. As those successes arrive, our expectations of MMOGs will likely change. Today I'll be looking at a specific game that claims to be an MMOG for the iPhone and iTouch. It defies the typical conventions of what we'd consider an MMOG. I'll describe some of the interesting features it offers after the break and you can decide whether or not it qualifies as a true MMOG. One thing I'll tell you right off the bat though; even though it's unconventional, it's fun and addictive.
The game I'm referencing is called Aurora Feint: The Beginning. It's available as an iPhone / iTouch application that's free to download from Apple's App Store. As "The Beginning" implies, Aurora Feint will be released episodically, much like the Half Life 2 games (though hopefully much more frequently). The developers, Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron, took only 10 weeks to develop the first episode, so hopefully this bodes well for additions to the game. Given the relatively short development time it's a very polished and interesting game. So what exactly is it?
In basic terms, Aurora Feint is a combination of RPG and puzzle game. It's essentially a series of mini-games that's set in a fantasy universe. The primary game itself is a puzzle game similar to classics like Tetris, Bejewelled, or Toki Toki Boom. You essentially match up blocks of the same color and variety (called Essences) into groupings of three or more. Once you've accomplished this the blocks explode. The object is to clear the blocks before the ever-rising stack reaches the ceiling. One key difference between this mini-game and other Tetris clones, is the ingenious use of the iPhone / iTouch's accelerometer. You can only slide blocks horizontally to move them, but turning the device on its side does two things: it allows you to slide the blocks in what previously was a vertical direction, and it shakes up the order of the blocks as if you were realistically dumping them back and forth in a container. If my description is lacking, perhaps looking at an example of the gameplay on the official site might help. At this point you may be thinking, what's Tetris got to do with MMOGs? Well, keep on reading and I'll explain some of the things that make it unique.
Another key difference from Tetris knock offs is that each grouping of blocks represents a certain Essence type that's used as an in-game resource or currency. While playing the game you are essentially mining those Essences for later use. Acquiring enough Essences stops the game and allows you to level up your character. What's that, you say? A character? Yes, you have your own little avatar that represents you in the world of Aurora Feint.
When you level up your character you can select certain skills from the Essence Mastery and Tool Mastery skill trees. The skills you can select can slightly alter the way you play the primary puzzle game. Tool Mastery skills like Time Stopper allows you to effect game mechanics; in this case slowing the game to better plan combos and chains. Essence Mastery skills like Fire allow you to collect those Essences faster.
Once you've leveled up you'll see that the game takes place in a little world represented on a map. The map contains a few key landmarks: the Mine, the Store, the Smith, and the Tower. The Mine is where the primary puzzle game is played to mine resources (Essences and Crystals). The Store is where you can buy blueprints, Magicbooks and Scrolls with Crystals you earn from mining. Blueprints are then used at the Smith where you can forge new equipment to help you in you game by completing a smithing mini-game. One of the first objects you craft is the Strength Glove that allows you to extract resources too hard to otherwise grab. You can also purchase Magicbooks at the store that allow you to use The Tower (much like the smith) to increase your resource collection rates.
Along the way you'll also pick up or buy scrolls that tell the story of the Aurora Feint universe. You'll also have access to a character sheet that displays your character, his overall level, his level in a specific skillset, and the largest combo or chain you've accomplished in the game. You also can access your inventory that displays the total number of resources mined, tools you've acquired, equipment you've created and can use, and much more.
So the big question you might be asking right now is, where is the multiplayer component? According to the game's download information page, Aurora Feint will, "become an MMO exclusively for the iPhone." Notice the word, "become". As of right now, the only "multiplayer" feature in the game is the ability to compare your character's skill, level, stats and accomplishments with other Aurora Feint players. The developers promise that in future releases there will be ways to participate with friends and meet new friends through the game itself. So is this a massively multiplayer game? By conventional standards, absolutely not. However, it may become one as future modules for the game are released.
In the end, Aurora Feint is a really interesting game that combines elements of a role playing game and puzzle game. You level up your character and acquire new skills and new ways to solve puzzles. As a multiplayer game, the only feature currently available is what we might call a community score sharing feature allowing you to see your buddies stats. Aurora Feint is a fun game, but it's certainly not a massively multiplayer game; at least not yet. As future episodes of the game are released, we'll see if Aurora Feint can evolve into a true MMOG and further push the boundaries of MMOG expectations. In the meantime, if you've got an iPhone or iTouch, I highly recommend checking the game out. The gameplay is fun, the leveling up process is addictive and entertaining, and hey – it's free!
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.