In June, I drove down to Austin, Texas, to once again participate in GDC Online. I do it every year if I can, and I love it. It's a smaller event when compared to the larger E3s and other conventions, but it is more personal and up-close. My favorite speaker at this last event had to be David Calvo from Ankama Games. When he first came out barefoot, I was honestly worried that the chat would be all about goofy, "deep" design techniques that had no real use in practice. In the end, his talk was deep but was really just asking developers to have fun and try new things. Yes, I know: new things. Crazy, huh?
If Wakfu is any proof, those design theories are put to practice every day at Ankama. Wakfu, for me, is a breath of fresh air in so many ways. Even though I am somewhat used to the design and art style, thanks in large part to playing the previous title Dofus, I still find myself loving how simply complex much of Wakfu is.
There are issues that come with complexity, however.
The first thing most players will notice about Wakfu is the top-down graphical style. It does seem a bit primitive at first glance, but once you're in the game, it is quickly obvious that the animations and music go far beyond what any Flash-based game (or most any game) has done before. The idle animations of the characters on the screen are fun to watch. They do repeat, of course, but there are enough of them to marvel at.
Wakfu has improved over Dofus in many ways, but the graphics-handling in particular stands out. You can zoom in while playing Dofus, but in Wakfu, zooming seems more fluid and more useful. Sure, once you zoom to a certain point, you begin to see the jiggly lines of the artwork, but overall, the zooming ability is a great tool for framing fights on your screen. In Dofus, players needed to click on certain keypoints of their maps to move to the next section, then wait for the next area load. Wakfu does away with that, and the ground moves right along with the avatars. It's a much more fluid experience.
The character design is wonderfully done. Rarely have I seen such original characters and classes. Perhaps only in games like Ryzom or Glitch have there been such refreshingly unique characters to choose from. While Wakfu is a class-based game, the variations on the classes and the abilities to customize the classes make the game feel very sandbox-ish. Players can enjoy standard sort of gameplay, like rolling a healer or warrior, or they can go for something wholly original like the odd time-controlling Xelor's Sandglass that I played; it's a class that uses strange, clock-based attacks and movements. I have never seen anything like it before, and even at the time of this writing, I do not fully understand how to play the class. I will break a rule of mine and go read a wiki article to fill me in.
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After I followed through much of the tutorial and took a trapdoor down to the "real world," I found myself in familiar areas. I have played through much of the early game in some form or another a few times now. As someone who considers himself a fanboy for certain games, I have a hard time resisting rolling a character or two during every phase of testing. Normally I like to avoid testing, mainly because I will probably end up covering the game anyway once it is released. But I have played Wakfu enough that it technically does not fit in with the rules of Rise and Shiny. So I cheated a bit. Even now, I have read that the open beta state of the game will still be wiped away once the game launches, meaning that the characters I am making now will be reset. That's a pretty rare thing to happen during open beta nowadays, and a bit frustrating.
"I can already hear complaints about being lost or not knowing what to do. There are several systems that might confuse players."
Players are cast into a pretty formidable world after the tutorial. I can already hear complaints about being lost or not knowing what to do. There are several systems that might confuse players. First, there is the political system, in which actual players can be voted into two-week long terms in office. During that time, they can raise taxes, declare wars and perform other duties. There's also the ecosystem balance to worry about. Players can literally cause it to tip one way or the other by killing too many animals or chopping down too many trees. Luckily, those same players can plant seeds that can sprout into animals or plants, and things can be brought back to center. The game does not replenish the supply, so players must.
There is no coin in the game unless players press it themselves. This puts the economy literally in the hands of the players. What will happen with the economy when the game goes live? Time will tell.
Admittedly, the game is complex, sometimes a bit too complex. For all of the wonderful simplicity and reliability in the art design of the game, and for all of the chatter that Ankama has put out there about making games fun and an experience, you would think that the company might add in just a few more hints about how a player can make it in the world after the newbie stages.
At the same time, this is what makes Wakfu so irresistible. Remember MMOs from years ago? Remember how you could become lost and confused and frustrated? Wakfu is sort of like that, but now we have so many sources for information that I am not sure how lost anyone could be for long. Still, I'm torn a bit. I love the fact that the game is different and that the essential information a player needs isn't resting perfectly on the surface, but I tend to hate it when essential systems, even basic ones, are hidden behind a veil of "complexity." What's the point? A player will just look up the information anyway, so why not use all of those brilliant design ideas to give the information to the new player without wrecking the immersion? It's a complex issue, for sure. I tend to lean toward the mystery of the game, as long as it is hidden behind a very beautiful curtain.
I often mention cartoony graphics and how much I love them, but only in certain circumstances. As long as those graphics have an edge of drama on them, and as long as the game lore is deep enough or original enough, cartoony graphics do not distract me or detract from my feelings of immersion one bit. We've discussed this before, but the fact is that the more realistic the graphics in a game attempt to be, the sillier I can feel. It's as if the developers are taking the game way too seriously, and that only serves to shine light on the fact that I am playing a game. It's sort of like someone getting mad during a board game: It makes everyone feel silly. Wakfu's combination of brilliantly animated graphics and ancient-seeming storyline are enough to cast a huge spell on me. I am in love, easily. I haven't felt this way about a game since Ryzom, Vanguard, Glitch, RuneScape or The Chronicles of Spellborn. These are all games that have taken a chance and do things differently.
I'll keep playing Wakfu, for sure. I want to see the ecosystems and political systems working in a true release, and maybe I'll even run for office. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Next week I will be playing through Thirst of Night, a new vampire-themed MMORTS by Kabam. Look for me in game, but try to avoid conquering me, OK?
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. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook!