When I first got my hands on Deepworld, a new iOS sandbox MMO by Bytebin, I knew I was holding something unique. Sure, it took some cues from Minecraft and came from one of my least favorite schools of design -- steampunk -- but it was being built by a young team of indie developers who simply wanted to make a world that was free-form, open to a player's creativity, and multi-platform. After spending some time with the game, I'd say that they have mostly succeeded.
There are some issues with the game, and I have played enough indie titles to know how rough games can be when launch rolls around. So far, however, the issues are relatively minor and could be easily fixed.
Imagine if you set Minecraft in a steampunk world, complete with top hats and pipes jutting out here and there, then you gave players the ability to play on a Mac or an iPad and made it all a side-scroller with world-impacting weather effects and the ability to build anywhere with almost anybody. The art style of Deepworld is easily described as hand-drawn, much to my delight. It's so easy to get caught up in slick fantasy worlds with state-of-the-art graphics. There is a time and place for all of those bells and whistles, but I always prefer a game with some heart and originality. Ryzom, Wakfu... these are games that have dared to be different. Deepworld's charming graphics come out of necessity more than anything I imagine, the result of an independent budget and a multi-tasking developer who probably found himself overwhelmed by how many assets he had to create.
No matter the process, the art style works. All of the items in the game work well together. One of the most common mistakes of the indie developer is to forget to blend all of the game's assets. Often, MMOs can feel obvious in the way they are made up of different parts. Deepworld looks like as if came from the overactive imagination of that quiet kid in high school. This game looks like the inside of a Trapper Keeper or the margins of an unfinished math worksheet. I mean all of this in a good way, of course.
I set off and immediately did what probably all new players do: I started to dig. I dug as far down as I could, got attacked by a few octopus critters, and eventually made my way back to the surface. I was already familiar with the interface because I had previously visited the developers at GDC Online last year. Instead of climbing and running around the acid-burned surface, I was able to fly around with a steam-powered backpack. It wasn't the smoothest method of transport, but it got the job done.
Unfortunately, one of the few glaring problems of the game comes in the form of its controls. With a keyboard and mouse, everything is pretty easygoing, but on an iPad, the game feels a bit clunky. It's relatively impossible to hold the iPad with one hand while using the other hand to touch the screen to dig. I was so uncomfortable that I had to set the iPad down in order to play, and even that felt unnatural. I imagine that with some fixes, an easier control scheme could be implemented. Otherwise, I'll have to wait for the game to be ported to PC or my smaller Nexus 7 tablet, which would be easier for holding.
I tested the game out on press account that gave me some money to spend in the in-game cash shop, but to feel the true glory of the game, I put some of my own money in -- only $10.00 US, but that scored me access to a private world. In one of the greatest gaming deals I have come across in a long time, that small amount of cash bought me my own chunk of land, one devoid of monthly fees found in other games. I can open my territory up to friends by sharing a special code I received via email. My land came with all of the resources I needed so long as I was willing to dig for them. It even gave me ruins that I could clean up into living areas or whatever else I could imagine. Soon enough, I was crafting and digging my heart out. As I explored and dug and used the resources to craft, I gained achievements and attribute points to put into different areas giving the game an RPG element.
Would this instantly available, open chunk of resources encourage me to hermit myself away from all the other players who made this MMO an MMO? I did spend a lot of time in my own land, I admit, but I also teleported myself around different areas and found a player-made building that had become a sort of player-created market. Players were trading with each other and keeping it relatively cool thanks to the land owner, who seemed to be acting as moderator. It felt very democratic and more like MMOs used to feel back when we had to trade with each other as a matter of course.
The game is not perfect, and the uncomfortable controls had me wishing more than ever for that PC or Android version that might be due in the future if the game makes money. But in its soul, the game is exactly what I love about discovering independent MMOs: It's obviously hand-made. You can see the work that went into the game and can imagine the developers working their tails off to get the thing to a playable state. That means I can be more forgiving of some of the mistakes the developers have made, more so than I can be of a studio that has spent 200 million on an unimaginative mess.
Indie development is a dangerous game, however. For all of the pitfalls that a big-budget studio faces, the indie studio faces them more often. If Deepworld can cast a decent spell on more players then I'll happily be playing it next year and beyond.
Next week I will be looking at Star Sonata. Normally I know a little bit more about the games I am going to be playing, but so far for this one, all I know is that there are spaceships, guns, and space. A lot of space. I'll be livestreaming the game live on Monday, the 7th of January, at 5:00 p.m. EST on our livestream channel. Check it out!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!