There's something distinctly unfair about being an American fantasy fan. If you enjoy all of the movies or run around in all of the wonderful fantasy landscapes you'll quickly notice how un-American the inhabitants are. Sure, monsters or knights in a fantasy MMO don't really belong to any one nationality or time, but they are more likely to sound like they're from England rather than Long Island. It's not fair. What do Americans have in their past that is anything as cool as knights and swords?
Actually, we've had some pretty cool stuff over here as well. And, if you think about it, a lot of it is pretty much like a more recent middle ages... sort of. The thought sunk in as I was looking at Salem, a hardcore free-for-all PvP MMO by Paradox Interactive. Then the thought really sunk in when I recently fell in love with The West by Innogames, a German publisher.
America has a very primitive, and recent, past that had to feel a lot like a time of magic and wonder to those who were in it. Why aren't we seeing more Western MMOs or games set in the time of the founding of our country?
The West is one of those games and Innogames is one of those publishers that generally causes readers to shrug when they read a story about either. But if Facebook "likes" are any indication, The West is not just another tiny indie game that doesn't exist because you have never heard of them. 107,000 likes on Facebook indicates a game with a pretty strong community, no matter the publisher. (Take some time to compare like numbers from different games, you'll be surprised.) In comparison, Guild Wars 2 has 863,000. Grepolis, another Innogames title, has 385,000. Hardly scientific, but still a neat comparison.
Innogames has been doing really well for quite a while and they easily fall into the category of one of my favorite publishers. I love their approach to development; they want to make MMOs for almost every type of player on almost any piece of technology. The eventual goal, according to an interview I did with them at GDC Online 2012, is to make each game accessible across PC and mobile. They also design games that can be casually hardcore, meaning that a game like The West can be enjoyed in 15-minute chunks or epic eight-hour sessions. I tend to play it only several times a day but still manage to get quite a bit done.
"Think about it; there is a dependence on the blade during that time. A knife or sword was still a very useful and needed object."
The West is a game that could be seen as a pretty cool fantasy MMO. Think about it; there is a dependence on the blade during that time. A knife or sword was still a very useful and needed object. To some, skill with a blade was as important as skill with a gun. While guns are not something you will typically find in a lot of fantasy, steampunk and other blended genres use the weapons all of the time. And there are some examples of guns or explosives being used in many of our favorite fantasy MMOs. So even the six-shooters of the Wild West are not that out of place in our fantasy worlds. We all know how important a good mount is when you are going off onto an adventure. In The West, a mount will save you time traveling from one job or fight to the next. I just bought a new mount and already I love how much time it saves me traveling across the landscape. The West's land mass is so huge that I found myself facing epic three- or four-hour treks -- in real time -- without coming anywhere near the edge of the continent. I've officially checked with the developers and the land mass is not really a specific area, but it is 1,000 square miles! Of course this means the next experiment is to walk across it.
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Next, just imagine that you live during the time of early America. Imagine those days when much of the continent was unexplored or untouched. Sure, I'm blending together a lot of history under the title of "the Wild West" but just imagine how massive the rest of the world must have seemed. Magic had to be something that people still believed in. Heck, people believe in magic now, but tack on the fact that there were no phones or instant messaging back then. Getting a letter to someone could take weeks, so getting one in return had to feel like being with that person. Magic was everywhere back then, even if it wasn't of the spell-casting kind.
A classic fantasy trope is the need for adventurers to hunt after epic loot while fighting off massive monsters. If you're careful in a fantasy world you can come out with armloads of shinies and songs named after you. In The West, higher-level players are adorned with snazzy hats or golden guns. If you are sent to do a job for an NPC, you might have to travel for an hour or more and then work at tending sheep or picking tobacco until you get what the quest-giver asked for. You can turn in most quests remotely, but the long travel times and "realistic" work make me smile... this is what sandbox fantasy fans love.
"If you watch the gameplay you can easily see how much of what is going on in the game could be retitled as fantasy."
Combat is pulled off in a very interesting way. You can duel other players and can be attacked but the only real loss is a bit of the gold that you carry. Some of the coolest combat comes when forts are in play. If your guild declares an attack on a fort, all players must travel to the location (again, something that might take several hours) and then each person decides where they want to to be when the attack starts as well as where they will attack.
There's much more to it than that, but afterwards you can log in to find that you were knocked out cold and dragged off the battlefield or that you performed awesomely. For the record, I am always from the former category.
I've embedded a recent livestream of The West in this article in case you're curious. If you watch the gameplay you can easily see how much of what is going on in the game could be re-titled as fantasy. The wild Western days of America were truly a magical, dangerous time. We used primitive tools and primitive medicine in the hopes of surviving another day. The great thing about those years in America is that they were not that long ago. We have actual proof of what went on and we can literally see how people scratched out a life from the harsh landscape. It certainly wasn't a pretty time, but fantasy is attractive because of its grit.
What do you think? Why isn't the Wild West a more popular setting for MMOs?
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 email@example.com!