Massively's first look at sandbox Shards Online

How many games have you played only to find yourself uttering the phrase, "If only I could run my own server"? Chances are, there at least one or two titles you''d love to make into a private playground for select friends using your own personal ruleset. Lucky for you, in Shards Online, you'll be able to do precisely that!

Announced last month, this upcoming sandbox by former Mythic Entertainment devs is built on the premise that players will run the majority of the virtual worlds how they want to. Do you want a fantasy world where you can boot those who ruin immersion? You got it! What about the ability to take over mobs and fight the players while spouting personalized comments? Yup, that too. What if you want a hardcore world where survival is for the fittest? Mm-hmm, starving to death is an option, as is permadeath. And how about a world where gameplay unfolds around players as they explore rather than offers questing on rails?

That's the theory behind the game. But how do these ideas hold up in practice? Last week I sat down with Citadel Studios co-founder Derek Brinkmann to witness a demonstration of Shards Online and talk all about the plans for the game. And what I saw certainly looks promising! So if this idea tantalizes your gaming taste buds, keep reading to get the scoop. I've even added a teaser video.

How will player-run worlds work?

Brinkmann, who was a lead developer for Ultima Online for seven years, explained that the eponymous shards are personally run worlds. These shards can be individual because every one is an alternate reality. The shard itself is a relatively small area, currently built to sustain 34 players; the plan is to have shards that can support 64 players, although there is also consideration for shards that can hold up to 128 players. Shards have different maps, meaning there is a variety of terrains that owners can utilize.

Obviously, that doesn't sound very massive. The massively multiplayer part of this MMO is found in the fact that shards can be connected to one another through clusters. Players then can travel between all shards in a cluster through gates. Clusters, which can have thousands of players, run standard rulesets (PvP, RP, etc.) and even custom ones. Although a single player can control a cluster composed of many personal shards or shards belonging to others, Brinkmann said the devs see clusters as something run more often by gaming communities. Perhaps a guild wants to make their perfect fantasy setting and makes its own system for members to enjoy. Or perhaps a multigaming community wants to make a large world open to anyone. There are many possibilities, especially when you take into account modding!

If you know anything about modding in such games as Skyrim, then you've got an idea of how it will work in Shards. Shard owners can customize the game to fit their playstyle. Don't like an update that the devs dish out? No problem -- don't implement it. Brinkmann elaborated:
"It just makes sense to let [players] mod the game as well. This allows players to decide how they want to play the game by picking a cluster that suits their playstyle. With the custom rules, there are many layers to the modifications that you can make to the game. You can create very simple mods without knowing any scripting and just doing some simple tweaks, or you can go all the way down into our scripting engine and completely change the game. You can create new skills, new abilities -- you can wipe the entire game and create your own stories and your own monsters. You can go crazy with it!"
What about those who don't want to join any of the player-run worlds because they don't find any good fits with rulesets, because they are waiting to create their own, or because they just prefer how the company runs things? Those folks will have a place to play as well! Brinkmann told me, "Shards is a complete game. The official rules that we will provide [make up] a complete game with its own stories, its own gameplay, and everything." He added that Citadel will host a few clusters with different rulesets as well.

Because of the variation in rulesets, players who want to move to a different cluster will have to actually re-roll, just as if they were changing to play on a different server in a standard game. That way no one can become super powerful on a shard/cluster with relaxed rules and then decimate others on one that has a harder set. On the same note, if you want to change your shard's cluster, you'll have to make a new shard; you can't just move it between clusters.

Dishing on the demo

What good is owning a shard if no one wants to get on it to play, right? Keeping in mind that the current state of Shards Online is, as Brinkmann put it, somewhere between a prototype and an alpha, these are the tidbits of info and impressions I picked up from my live demonstration.

The game itself is fixed isometric, so all those who are comfortable with games like Diablo and Marvel Heroes will be pretty fluent with the controls. According to Brinkmann, it'll control a bit like Diablo, but the combat resembles traditional MMO combat more, utilizing timing and tactics as opposed to being a clickfest. The ability hotbar is actually broken into two different sections, with those based on learned skills (yup -- it's skill-based!) on the right and those based on current equipment on the left.

During the demonstration, Brinkmann showed off many of Shards Online's sandbox features. If you want to see what a merchant has for sale, you don't pull up an interface; you look at his cart and in his boxes! And by look, I mean rummage through visually because again there is no interface, just the container or shelf. The inventory pack is currently the same, but Brinkmann admitted that it gets hard to find things when they are all piled on top, so the devs are looking to change at least the inventory space to a slotted interface that can be organized.

You can also get stuff by making it. If you want to make a spear, you need to collect the necessary items and then craft it. Each item you recover from the world will have a list of items that can be crafted from it. You can even whip a crafting bench out wherever you are and make your items, leaving it for others to use or picking it back up. This is actually quite useful on shards where players can actually starve to death because you need to make a knife to get the meat from a deer -- after you hunt and kill it, of course -- in order to eat! In another interesting twist, avatars do not like raw meat (go figure), and so players will have to cook it by making a campfire, all before perishing!

One of the best perks of the game is the ability to participate in player-generated content. Not only is there housing that players can place anywhere and decorate any way they like, but players can be a part of a dynamic storyline. How? Well, server administrators are the gods of their respective servers. Shard owners can play in player mode along with everyone else or in god-mode, where they can run around invisible at fast speeds, appear as different things (from a ball of light to a giant elemental), spawn items in the world (even giving them a decay timer so they disappear if not picked up), and take control of NPCs to give players a uniquely personal experience. If you've been itching to try your hand at virtual world DMing, it looks as if your time is coming.

When asked when players might be able to jump into Shards Online, Brinkmann said that plans are to invite more testers to the game before the end of the year. Current players testing out the demo can kill stuff, use skills, loot, and equip things, but there is definitely more to do, including making new maps and adding graphical effects. "We haven't quite hit our graphical target," Brinkmann explained. "There's a lot of polish that still needs to be done to get us to the standard that we want to hold to for our game."

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!
This article was originally published on Massively.