Zandagort, a very independent browser-based MMORTS by Zanda Games, really holds a lot of promise. I want to get that out of the way first. Potential, unfortunately, has nothing to do with a player's current experience with the game. No one sits at his PC or laptop and says, "Man, I sure am excited about what this game could be, so I'll keep playing." But that very potential often makes me a little depressed. Potential for good also means potential for bad; if a game is unfinished and has the chance to grow, there's likewise a very real possibility that the game could fester, lose development love, or worse yet, die on the vine. There's no guarantee that even a "AAA" massive-budget game like Star Wars: The Old Republic or RIFT will last forever or even a good amount of time. Who knows?
Usually with an indie game, if it isn't shining and picking up an audience relatively quickly, it just might be in trouble. Zandagort has an audience; I can see players in the outer reaches of space. I am not going to pass judgment on the number of players simply because indie budgets are often easily supported by a smaller playerbase, but I wonder what type of audience it is. I am open-minded and enjoy the occasional slog through an intense "spreadsheets-in-space"-style game, but Zandagort really wore down my patience.
As soon as I saw the game, I sort of groaned. If there is one thing the indie MMO scene needs less of, it's space-themed MMOs that boast gray, boring graphics, as though hundreds of years in the future humans forget everything they know about art and how to make things pretty and yet still remember how to build spacefaring starships. Let me make this clear, in case other indie devs are reading this now: Our computers are beautiful works of art right now. What makes you think that in the future they will be hideous blocky things with green text and massive casings of metal? I understand the need for art design that reeks of a bruised and scarred future in a constant state of war, but let's be honest -- that's been done so much that it's become plain boring. It does not excite me at all.
Watch live video from massivelytv on TwitchTV
Still, I know that indie developers are often programmers or coders first and designers possibly never. I have seen the strangest, ugliest games made by some of the smartest programmers. I can't program myself, but I am an artist. I would never attempt to make a game without a good programmer. Yet, somehow, programmers often feel the need to completely ignore any sort of original art design. Yes, I know it is "hard" to make an original game, but let me give you some examples of overused words that can easily be replaced with almost anything and would instantly become that much more original:
This means that any indie developer can simply replace those words with something else. Please, please replace those words with anything else. I am so tired of seeing the same common stories and settings that we have seen literally thousands of times. This is the first problem with Zandagort; it did not excite my imagination. I followed the tutorial, which is essentially a massive section of raw text in eye-blinding colors, text that wasn't translated particularly well in the first place. I know, I know; all of the information I need is in that tutorial, but I am taking a stand right here and now to say that, in this age of video and audio that can easily be recorded and embedded into a website or game, there is zero excuse for turning a wiki full of boring text into your "tutorial."
Stop it. Stop it right now.
I grew some of my planet. I sent my ship off to explore but found that I could not loot anything but other players. Dozens of empty planets surrounded mine, but there seemed to be nothing to do with them. I could attack other players, but of course I could not figure out how to make more craft that might be more effective. I did try to follow the tutorial, which again was more like a step-by-step instruction guide from IKEA -- it didn't really teach me anything, but it did tell me where to put the allen wrench! I do want to acknowledge the fact that making a game with a handful of people is hard. But creativity and knowing how to work within your bounds, as well as recognizing how the game might be interpreted by a brand-new player, make up a set of talents that are hard to learn but can serve the indie dev like nothing else. I don't need to bring up examples of games that are brilliantly designed but simple games. It's possible, indie devs.
"I don't want to search a wiki for basic information. I want the game to explain it to me right away."
There might have been some lore to explain why I was even in this section of space, and I might have been able to seek it out, but I didn't want to. I don't want to search a wiki for basic information. I want the game to explain it to me right away. Don't throw me into the middle of space and say, "Go look up the tutorial. Good luck, bud." Why would I even care about your game if I have no idea why my character is there? What reason do I have to become invested in the everyday lives of my millions of citizens if they are nothing but a series of figures on the page?
So yes, Zandagort does have some potential. Some. It needs work, and I am sure the developers are aware of that. As someone who has at this point seen literally hundreds of games, I urge the developers to spend some time on giving the game just a smidge of soul. Give it a story, an intense story. Spend a week and make it more immersive. Maybe add a bit of eerie music or come up with more original ship names and designs. If you do, I might just be back to play it again.
Next week I am looking at Stronghold Kingdoms, an indie MMORTS that seems to be doing quite well by topping the charts on the Steam download lists. I may not like Steam, but so far the game looks promising. Watch me livestream the game on our Massively TV Twitch channel at 5:00 p.m. EDT on Monday the 9th of April. See you then!
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!