Rise and Shiny recap: Anarchy Online

Older MMOs are interesting creatures. If they are subscription-based, they tend to lose players until they get down to a hardcore number, and then they are eventually shut down. World of Warcraft will eventually lose most of its numbers, too. In 20 years or so I fully expect to see players still playing it, though, talking about how the controls and game mechanics are still a lot of fun. If the game is from SOE, it might go on for ever and ever, albeit without much of a development team.

Anarchy Online is a great example of how a game can age very, very gracefully. Perhaps newer games should look at AO to see how to keep both their dignity and their core players as the games approach their golden years. I tried to put my finger on exactly why AO seems to have held up so well, how it can still suck in "new" players like yours truly, and how it can still thrill with its lore and setting. How do you even get away with graphics like that in an age of players who literally think that upgrading their PCs every two years is a mark of pride?

Click past the cut and I'll tell you.

In order to maintain this silvery charm, you must never talk down to your players. You don't need to fill the world with such obvious clues or helping hands as giant question marks or exclamation points. Don't worry, they're all grown up -- they can figure it out. In fact, I would wager that the AO developers counted on their players having some level of maturity and intelligence, or else the devs would have just made a world that ripped off any number of science fiction standards. Instead, they set their world in a sleek but sometimes gritty, limitless plastic world of implants and science-magic.

The players of AO are some of the smartest I have ever met, or at least that's how I felt in my limited time there. Star Trek Online gave me the same feeling. These players not only know the game but know why the game works the way it does, why the lore reads the way it does. I felt overwhelmed when talking to some of them, again in similarity to STO. I didn't really need to ask a single bit of advice from anyone as it was almost directly injected into my brain. A typical conversation went like this:
  • Player: Hello.
  • Beau: Hello!
  • Player: OK well first you can take your points and put them all into rifles, but if you want to vary your abilities, you can also balance it by going for defense. But make sure you...

AO is, and I mean this in the best way possible, completely nerdy. Yes, this is a game for nerds -- glorious, wonderful nerds who want to know every bit of the lore, who need to know why that crit chance didn't work right, who have no problem sitting with you for hours (if you want) to explain the lore, the ships, or the planet. On top of all of the information you can receive is the fact that the game allows you to build a character how you want to build him. If you want to concentrate on rifles, go for it. If you want to become a stealthy hacker-type, it's all yours. If you would like to lean towards healing people while also being the best pistol-slinger on the planet, you can try that too! Howver, if you want to be the best swimmer in the game, be prepared to be mocked for it. AO does not like swimmers.

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The whole experience is almost too much. There's so much information chucked at you when you've barely stepped into the game! Then tack on vehicles, a wonderful housing system, roleplay, travel, exploration -- it goes on and on. The brilliant thing about a game that has made it into its 10th year is that it is quite literally like a wonderful old book. The characters have grown and become bigger personalities, the setting has become richer and like something you could picture actually visiting, and you can't put it down. It stands the test of time because it was an original concept rather than light reading in the first place.

As I played through my week, I ran several missions. As I leveled, I would earn skill points to put into whatever skill I saw fit. There are a lot of skills. I was trying to go for a rifle-toting, fast-moving, stealthy little guy who could sneak up to an enemy, shoot him from afar and be done with it. Of course, it wasn't that simple. The more I played and leveled, the more I explored other skills. The more I met other players, the more information or advice I received. One player, after watching my Livestream video, informed me that I was using an assault rifle. That was fine except that I was putting a good deal of my points into normal rifles. I adjusted accordingly.

In fact, all of the talk about what I should do and not do only reinforced one of my longstanding rules about MMOs: Players will make up rules, even when there are none. It seemed to confuse some of the players I met when I explained to them that I didn't care if I made a mistake with my point distribution (I really don't care). For me, the fun of an MMO comes from accepting your character and all of his issues in due course, as you would accept him in real life. I have bad vision in real life -- perhaps the creator of the universe just screwed up and didn't put enough points into the vision stat? Still, it makes me who I am, and those "mistakes" I make with my character make him who he is.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong, at all, with being exact in your gaming. In fact, that is one of the joys of playing a game like AO. It's also not to say that I didn't try to be smart with my points, but mistakes were made. The great thing about the community members is that they seemed to shrug off these issues (at least while dealing with me), despite the fact that it was firing off nerd-alarms in their heads: He put points into swimming! He put points into swimming! There was a certain degree of warmth there, a certain level of acceptance that might only come from an older or more experienced gaming community. The forums also seemed relatively calm. Of course, I could just be thinking too much about it.

While I wish I gave you, fair reader, something more to grab onto in today's column, I would rather you download the game yourself and see how you feel. Yes, you will not like the graphics at first. They will grow on you, I promise. Remember that our eyes take time to adjust to new sights. If you are used to combat looking a certain way, you will have to get used to how it looks in this game. Remember that it comes from the times of old, and back then it was considered top-notch. Really, though, I like the look of the game after my week of living in it. A graphics update is due "soon" say the developers, but an older client will always be available for those players with an older machine or preference.

Spend a week in the game, like I did. There is a free version. During your week, don't be distracted by announcements of the latest "AAA" monster, and don't worry about your other games for the week. Just explore AO, get to know some people in the community, and go watch this mini-series. It's fantastic, if incomplete. Then run some missions, visit the famous subway areas to gain some skill points, and be sure to visit your daily mission agent. If you run one of those per day, you can level once per day at least.

You'll find some issues, of course. While I did not find many game-breaking bugs, I did run across a lot of confusing elements. The maps can be plain horrible, for example. While I now know that you must buy certain map packs in order to get around successfully, it would seem to me that, in a future setting, the first thing you would be able to do is know where you are. The lack of much direction at all will frustrate many players. Most players, actually. If you are a younger player and do not remember games like AO, you will log out in disgust. There is talk about redoing the newbie experience so that new players are introduced to the game more smoothly, but it makes me wonder about something: Could a game like AO even be made these days? Yes, I know about the indie sandboxes and other games -- I've played those, too -- but I mean to ask if a major studio with a major budget would ever make a game like AO again?

Has our collective gamer conscience been forever changed by the mass success of themepark, linear, quest-based MMOs? Would any large number of players ever accept being dropped off onto an island with hardly any instruction?

AO came out of the design of the times. With that sometimes flawed design, however, came the need to communicate with your fellow players, to cooperate during everyday play (not just in a dungeon) and to figure things out for yourself. Yes, there have always been guides and rules that made players feel forced into certain "roles," even in a sandbox game like AO, but the choice was there. It's still there, actually.

Don't read the forums first, and do not investigate your class first. Just jump in. But for all that is holy, do not put points into swimming.

Next week I will be continuing my look at older games by exploring Asheron's Call. After downloading it and trying it on all of the devices, I can say that I can't wait to jump into this one. I am on the Thisteldown server, and my character's name is Beau Hindman. Now, go log in!

Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. We meet each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST; the column runs the following Sunday. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email, or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!
This article was originally published on Massively.