Free for All: Ryzom might still be the most original MMO there is

Ryzom screenshot
It seems, even to me, that I tend to dislike more games than I like these days. Not only do I think there's a lack of really good "AAA" titles, but I also find a lot of yucky gameplay in titles from all sizes of developers from all over the world. Yes, I dislike as many indie MMOs, if not more, than AAAs. But the latest title I give the snooty stinkeye to has to be The Secret World. I'm half-kidding and will be reserving much of my opinion for later on after I have played it for longer, but right now, I'm just not blown away by it. I'm not immersed or sucked in as much as I would like to be. That could change, of course.

Then I log back in to a game like Ryzom and see just how far things have come. That is to say, not very far. After all, if you really look at what Ryzom does (and you have no excuse; it's free to play to half max-level now), it will sort of depress you that no other games are being made like it nowadays. At least, not exactly.


Don't worry; this will not be some misty-eyed look back on the good old days of raiding or fighting sleep for three days while I hoped for a good drop. No, Ryzom was never about that. I do have a very vague recollection of trying it for the first time ever; it pushed my old machine so hard I had to log out. All I remember is some great windmills and water, so I must have started a Tryker character. The Tryker are a smaller race whose members live on and near the water, and despite being the "short" race of the game, they are pretty unique. I always play a smaller race if I can, simply because I am a smaller guy in real life (five-foot-six). The Tryker had to attract me right away, I'm sure.

Later on, I really got into the game, even hosting my very first podcast to cover it. The thing is, Ryzom the sandbox can be as grindy and min-maxish as any other title. Heck, I haven't found an MMO yet that does not feature some aspect that players will powergame perfectly. Even in roleplay communities, there are rules, even if they are unspoken. Most players I meet seem to get more out of a game if they have goals to conquer. But I get the most out of a game when I can waste the most time in it, in a good way. Ryzom has a way of sucking you in and calming you down, the opposite of many of the newer titles I find. Don't ask me how many hours I spent in the Ryzom Ring, a tool that allows players to create their own adventures.


"RIFT, SWTOR, and now many of the new indie titles definitely give me this same rushed feeling. They funnel me into areas that seem relatively open and large and beautiful but ultimately give me the best rewards only when I fall in line and do my quests."

In a game like The Secret World, I feel as if I am being told what to do almost immediately. (Again, I realize that the situation might change over time.) RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and now many of the new indie titles definitely give me this same rushed feeling. They funnel me into areas that seem relatively open and large and beautiful but ultimately give me the best rewards only when I fall in line and do my quests. I don't really like that feeling, at least not most of the time. Sure, I enjoy the heck out of a good romp through World of Warcraft when I feel like being tossed around by giant turtles or taken hostage underwater, but I tend to prefer MMOs that allow me to do what I want and when I want, without making me feel like I should be somewhere else lest I will miss out.

Ryzom is from the school of design that says a game -- a virtual world -- should invite you in, make you go "whoa," and then leave you alone. There are actual mysteries in Ryzom, little bits of stuff that no one ever figures out. A particularly brainy player decoded a lot of the in-game symbols once, and I remember being amazed that they all actually seemed to mean something. To this day, there are entire skills and chunks of lore that I have never learned about, only heard of or seen in action. I like that mystery, and it's pretty amazing when an MMO, a digital space with limited boundaries, can still achieve that feeling. Maybe I'm just an older, grumpier gamer here, but I've realized that most of the new titles I play these days can't afford to take the time to confuse me. Developers don't want to leave out anyone, so they open everything up to everyone. Almost anyone can raid, achieve max level, or do well in PvP. Ryzom, with its multiple sandox skill sets and immersive environment that offers features like weather systems that actually affect gameplay, cannot be tamed even after years. For a casual player like yours truly, the game is never-ending.


The main thing I'd like to get across in this article is how important art design is. Besides the few creatures that resemble standard, sci-fi, or fantasy monsters we've seen before, the vast majority of the sci-fantasy mobs on Atys are like nothing I've seen before or since. It's a bit upsetting that many games just don't take many chances when it comes to mob design. Many of the greatest budgets turn out some of the most unoriginal creatures and settings, and here Ryzom sits, with its impossible giant-tree planet, sky-roots, and player abilities and skills that you can't find anywhere. Where else will you find a creature that looks like a cross between a crab and a praying mantis that blows its mating call out of tailpipe-like appendages? I remember when I first heard the Kipee make that sound. It about scared me out of my chair.


"Most of the new titles I play these days can't afford to take the time to confuse me."

Perhaps the originality of the environment and the mysteries of the world (possibly due to under-development? Who knows?) explains why, after I logged in a few minutes ago to take screenshots, I found players who have been in the game for years and years. When you ask even the grumpiest Ryzom player why she sticks around the game, she will tell you that it's "hard to explain." The world and its art are just not found anywhere else, especially in newer titles.

I don't know what Winch Gate's intentions are in the long-term, but I sort of enjoy the mystery. It reminds me of Nirvana's first video: The main thing people noticed and talked about was how impossible it was to make out any of the band members' faces. Perhaps the mystery of where Ryzom is headed, on top of the fact that the world and art itself is something wonderful and a bit confusing, adds to the allure of the title. Even after eight years in business, it's still the most original MMO I can think of. Is that a sad thing to say in today's bigger-than-ever MMO market?

Nah, it's just a fact.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!

This article was originally published on Massively.