As someone that prefers digging through old forum posts, little-read blogs and strange Twitter links to find odd independent games over downloading the latest mega-game, I have to be able to tolerate a lot of bad design. Design is everything, especially in gaming. Gameplay matters nothing if no one wants to look your way, and independent games could take a few cues on design from the mainstream. It's the same way with music and movies.
As I have been playing Eternal Lands over this last week, I couldn't help but feel I was visiting some kind of weekend project, (which may indeed be the case.) I decided to use the music and movie industry as an example to highlight the issues with this very rough-around-the-edges indie MMORPG.
- First, packaging is everything: If bands like U2 or Tool have taught us anything, it's that an easily digestible image will sell to anyone, including to people that are normally outside of the target market. Eternal Lands is a free-range skill-based romp through an old-school landscape, but the website is so rough that you might not care. I am tempted to raise a few hundred dollars for the owners to hire a first-year design student to give the site a face lift. After all, it's the first thing that a potential player sees.
- Second, too much information is too much information: Emo music is popular because it doesn't try to over explain its options; get the combover hairdo, share a mic with the lead singer and use the simplest of lyrics. It works, and it sells. Eternal Lands gives you plenty of options, don't get me wrong, but combing through tabs full of horrible fonts is not the way I want to get there. For example, I finished a simple kill-ten-rats quest, only to find that I could not leave the cave I was in (it turns out the door trigger was bugged and not where I thought it should be) so I decided to log out for the evening. Unfortunately, I could not figure out how to log out. After having to hit ctrl-alt-delete for the third time, I finally got an answer in Twitter: alt-x logs you out. The choice of command is not the issue, it's the hidden choice of command that is the issue. Make your information easy to understand, and easy to find. At the very least, save the major details for later. Let me know why I am in this world first, then hit me with how to log out.
- If you look cheap, at least be aware of it: Refer to The Cramps, please. Or, since Lux died recently, go for a John Waters movie. If you are handmade and cheap, use that. Why not advertise on your site "A handcrafted game with nostalgic graphics." Yes, it might be a bit of a stretch and might seem like a thinly veiled excuse for, well, bad graphics, but it's still true. Eternal Lands dated graphics are actually quite charming and do make me feel a bit nostalgic, but the developer doesn't seem aware of it. And where's the sense of humor? If Waters can pull off cheap and turn it into camp, you can turn ugly graphics into nostalgia.
Let's stop there, or I could fill this entire review with comparisons. The point is that an independent game is in the strange position of being aware and proud of its independence while taking some cues from the Big Boys. No, I do not wish for small basement games like Eternal Lands to be as plastic as World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, but it is not a bad idea to figure out how they got their attention.
The great thing (let me emphasize great, since this review will feel mostly negative) about Eternal Lands is the skill-based openness of it all. I sat and talked with a 2-year veteran of the game, prodding him for explanation of some of the basics. He liked the fact that you can do "whatever you want", and can even live "non-violently." He let me know that I could be a trader if I wanted to; making, transporting and trading goods across the lands. I could be a "PK'er" as well. While there is no player housing and only a few pet options, the idea is to allow the player to build an old school character however they wanted, with no level cap and absolutely for free.
"I want to find out about the lore of the game, but frankly it would give me a splitting headache."
However, I am not sure I can tolerate digging through much more text, windows or tutorials just to get the basics down. I want to find out about the lore of the game, but frankly it would give me a splitting headache. Eternal Lands suffers from overly complicated controls and lack of basic explanations. I don't want to click on one icon to "use" something, then back to another to "attack" something. Why does F-9 make a campfire appear at my feet (at least I think it is a campfire) and why is there no running, unless purchased, in this game of humanoids? Just as I started to get off the horrible tutorial island and started to uncover some of the openness of the game, my patience grew too thin. While the community is very open and giving with information, the chat window makes chatting annoying enough to make me stay quiet.
To sum up, if you want a free skill-based game, go for Eternal Lands. I will bet that, over a long time, the game opens up and allows your character to become truly unique. Unfortunately, I can find that in many games that do not ask me to "discover" basic commands that could have been explained in the first few minutes of the game.
Will Eternal Lands stay on my hard drive? No. If I had the time, I think it might be a fun game. However, I have to keep moving. The independent landscape is littered with games that feel independent and do nothing to avoid looking cheap, and I need to shine some light on the games that show that basement developers can be very aware of packaging, informational overload and image.
To try something different, the next game we are going to look at is not free-to-play. It does have a 10 day trial, so we can explore it over the next week with time to spare. Craft of Gods looks and sounds cool, and my initial few hours in the game were interesting. Look for me on Twitter @spouseaggro so I can announce my new name when it is time.
Now, go log in!