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Free for All: The best weather systems in free-to-play

Perhaps someone can explain my obsession with in-game weather systems. I remember interviewing the lead designer for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes a few years ago. I had to stop him and ask for more details about the weather system the game used. He told me it was on a separate server, a pretty fancy program that ran independently of the rest of the game. It sounded as if he was telling me that there were real storms brewing in the game and the system knew when and where they were happening.

I was fascinated. How cool it is to imagine in-game clouds forming at one point of the world and slowly moving across the land until the sky begins to rain on your character's head? Sadly, in-game weather seems to be either a low priority or a hard system to tackle. I'm guessing it's a combination of both.

So I searched out those few MMOs that feature an impactful weather system. Not coincidentally, they also happen to be some of my favorite MMOs.

Ryzom screenshot of rain snow and lightning
Ryzom simply has one of the best weather systems in any game I have played to date. The the game is quite literally half-free, meaning that you can play to level 125 out of a total of 250 at no cost. That might not sound like a lot, but that's level 125 of every skill, and this sandbox packs a ton of skills. You won't be looking for something to do anytime soon.

The weather system is amazing; it affects almost every part of the game. If you are a gatherer, someone who travels the land looking for patches of materials to collect, then you have to know what type of weather is happening, what time of day it is, and which season currently envelops the world. Certain materials appear only during certain times. Each season lasts several days and has a visual impact on the land. Summer is bright and clear, fall's trees change colors, winter deposits snow on the ground and even on the trees while snow falls from the sky, and spring makes a good deal of the planet bloom in beautiful colors. Rainstorms roll in; lightning streaks the sky. The wind will shake the trees, and sand can blow around your character. The day and night cycle is beautiful, boasting sunrises and sunsets that rival the graphics in games not even half the age of Ryzom.

The weather even affects the migration of groups of animals. Certain types will move from one point to another while predators follow the groups, picking off prey. Not only is Ryzom's weather represented visually, but it actually influences the game and how you play it. Once again, this little game is light-years ahead of the rest of the pack, and it's nine years old!

Mabinogi screenshot
Mabinogi's weather system does not have as much an impact on the game as Ryzom's, but its reach is still felt. The weather changes between four main effects: sunny, overcast, rainy, and thunderstorming, each lasting for about 20 minutes. Mabinogi is a single-server game, but it maintains different channels between which players can transfer. The different effects occur across all channels at the same time. Each one applies different bonuses to different skills, and some provide a negative effect. When it rains, for example, a scrolling message appears: "It's raining. Increase in success rate for Fishing and Production skills. Life Skills receive an increased success rate bonus. Blacksmithing and Tailoring receive an increased completion rate bonus. Certain Alchemy skills receive increased success rate bonus. Duration of Campfire is decreased."

The "duration of campfire" message makes sense. Players can build fires to use or rest beside while storytelling. Rain, of course, shortens a fire's lifespan. Thunderstorms give the greatest bonus to "life" skills like tailoring or blacksmithing, so a lot of players wait for certain types of weather to try certain tasks. This simple weather system gives the game an ebb and flow and causes hardcore players to time activities. When a weather system can affect how much or when a player plays his or her favorite game, that's wonderful. Plus, Mabinogi's lightning effects and sounds of thunder are the best ones around.

Wakfu screenshot
Wakfu runs a very interesting weather and ecosystem mechanic. Essentially, players can harvest goods, from plant parts to animal guts, and have a direct impact on the environment. If players kill all the animals and no one replenishes them, the animals can literally become extinct. So what stops players from destroying almost every zone by stomping out trees and killing every mob they find? Well, there are multiple benefits to keeping them around. As the website says, "No Tofus, no Tofu feathers... so no Tofu Cape for you!" In other words, players have an incentive to keep the ecosystem balanced.

In fact, in each of the games areas, a Clan Member -- sort of a friendly boss monster -- will let you know what he or she expects out of the ecosystem. You can check a local interface to see the upper limits of plants and animals and decide whether you want to help maintain those limits or not. After all, you can do what you want, but there are bonuses to be had if you follow orders. The system puts the power of environmental destruction or salvation directly in the players' hands. There are very few games that offer players direct control in a game, and it shows that the developers trust players to maintain the order. Every time I play, the ecosystem I am in seems relatively OK, but who knows what happens in higher-level areas? I shudder to think. The local interface will also let players know the weather forecast, an important bit of information because some plants and animals do well in different types of weather. It's a relatively complicated and daring approach to weather.

Wurm Online screenshot
Wurm Online offers a different sort of weather system, one that doesn't directly affect a player's stats or abilities, at least on paper. The impact is actually much more overt and immersive. For example, a fog might roll into a harbor while you're out fishing, ensuring that you can see only a foot or so in front of your face. You can be in the middle of a long-distance trek only to become lost in that same bank of fog. Getting lost in Wurm Online can often mean death. Rain falls quite often in the game, but it's not as dramatic. And I remember back when there even seemed to be lightning effects and the possibility of being struck by lightning. One night I was out wandering in the pitch of dark when lightning came from the sky. One player in local chat said he had been hit -- and killed! -- by the lightning. According to a friendly expert on the game, there is no lightning in the game, so it's possible that the effect I saw was a player spell. I'm not sure, but I took a screenshot of it and will hunt it down if it kills me. In the meantime, it makes for a good legend!

Wurm Online's weather doesn't make numbers go up and down, but it does pull you deeply into the world. The night and day cycle can be so striking that players are known to become lost easily and sometimes find themselves surrounded by pitch black night with only the stars to steer by. It's a brilliantly simple system, one that shows how effective visual-only representations of weather can be.

Will we see better weather systems in MMOs in the future? I think it's a matter of tech and time. At the least, I would love to see harsher day and night cycles and weather that blocks a player's vision or slapped him with a "soaking wet" debuff. Why not?

Why are developers not taking chances with weather systems?

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!