Working As Intended: Dabbling in indie sandbox Villagers and Heroes

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Working As Intended: Dabbling in indie sandbox Villagers and Heroes
Villagers and Heroes
Villagers and Heroes is not the sort of sandbox that gets a lot of coverage in the gaming press. You can't gank in the game. No one will murder you for your ore or your logs. There are no petty internet crime lords generating scandals or developers being ousted for cheating. Clichéd zombies are not waiting to slaughter you come nightfall. You cannot fall off a cliff or treetop pathway to your death. You never have to walk 10 miles uphill in the snow both ways to get to your house. You don't have to wait in line for an instance. You don't really have to fight at all.

In fact, the worst thing that might happen to you is that you'll run out of energy.

So here's the fun part: Villagers and Heroes is actually a game about villagers and heroes, which is refreshingly honest. We're used to games with exotic names that really have nothing to do with their content, but in this sandbox, Uncle Owens are welcome in that there are indeed villages and you can indeed be a villager either as a regular citizen in a melting-pot town or a guild citizen in a private enclave. In fact, village life and cultivation are such major parts of the game that it might seem at a glance to be a bit FarmVille-esque... if FarmVille were an actual MMO set in a 3-D world or if we could all stop comparing any MMO with actual farming mechanics -- which is a lot of them now -- to dated social Flash games from years past. (We can't.)

I once said V&H was like Free Realms with less childlike, immersion-breaking insanity, but upon this most recent playthrough, my second somewhat serious venture into the world of the Seven Realms, I've amended my opinion. It actually feels more like Asheron's Call, a modernized and possibly less hardcore version, with its lumpy avatars and bold colors and jerky combat and simple but endearing crafting system. It never feels like an overly complicated game, perhaps because of the lowish-polygon graphics and streamlined character advancement, but somehow it feels like a satisfying snack, all the way to level 16, a level you'll likely reach multiple times, first on your combat class (Warrior, Wizard, Hunter, Priest) and then again on every crafting, gathering, and cultivation skill: nine skills total ranging from old standbys like mining and tailoring to more exotic offerings like bug lore and gardening.

Why level 16, when the true level scale is so much longer? Energy. And the energy mechanic is the next reason V&H will likely turn off old-school MMO gamers whose ears perked up at my reference to Asheron's Call. Essentially, as your skills reach level 16, they become beholden to an energy bar that depletes as you do things like chop down trees and plink away at ore for shiny rocks. When your bar is empty, you have to wait for it to slowly restore, use hard-won in-game rewards to top it off, or (and who didn't see this coming) hop over to the cash shop to buy the requisite replenishment consumables.

I've heard gamers call this form of monetization "buy-to-wait," and I think it's a fair term (and a mechanic a clever, patient, and frugal player could certainly plan around in order to maximize gametime and minimize costs). Developer Mad Otter originally chose it specifically because of the potential for jack-of-all-trades crafter-characters to flood and dominate the game's fragile market if they were allowed to gather and craft everything and anything with no restrictions. Rather than limit the scope or number of trades characters could learn, the devs simply instituted the energy bar to force players to prioritize their gameplay during a given play session.

As a crafter, I can appreciate that; with just three character slots, I'd not want to choose a handful of crafts across my characters either. But it's a hard sell for those gamers who prefer subs or buy-to-play games to pony up an equivalent $15 in consumables every month just to play as they would in most other MMOs. And to its credit, Mad Otter agrees. Last month, on the heels of the game's relaunch on Steam, the studio sought feedback from players about the mechanic and has decided to gut it in an effort to eliminate the pay-to-win Facebook-game stigma on what is otherwise a sensible little sandbox MMORPG. Energy replenishers will eventually be removed from the cash shop entirely and replaced with all in-game methods of energy renewal. It might seem a trivial thing, but this is the indie F2P equivalent of a subscription game going buy-to-play after a year to chase a new market.

I was skeptical when I read about the proposed revisions because while the game might seem simple, it's not exactly easy. Like a lot of small games, it doesn't hold your hand, and soloing in the world gets more and more difficult as you advance, even if you craft your own gear as you go as I did for my Warrior (ug, nerf the spider poison, guys!). The proposed revamp might actually make energy renewal more difficult for someone who plays as I do; I might actually prefer dropping money on energy to grinding or perform some irritating in-game activity in the service of balance. This change takes away choices.

But I know it can be done and done well. As I neared 16 and the energy mechanic began to worry me, I thought of another indie sandbox that implemented an energy mechanic so perfectly that most players would probably never, ever remember it as a game with an energy mechanic: Glitch. Glitch characters lost energy as they petted trees, squeezed chickens, planted gardens, and mined ore, but the methods for replenishing energy were simple: You just had to make sure you had plenty of food (or drugs... ahem) stocked up. The energy mechanic became a test of planning and an item sink rather than a cash-shop stunt. But let's not forget that one of the reasons Glitch is no longer with us today is that it didn't make enough money because it didn't charge for enough stuff. Its monetization model just wasn't mean enough. In pulling energy potions from the cash shop, Mad Otter might inadvertently duplicate Tiny Speck's mistake.

I've enjoyed my dabbling in Villagers and Heroes, and for the moment, at least until the energy mechanic is revamped as planned, dabbling is where it will end for me. Steam has apparently injected a lot of new players into the game, which led to village overcrowding, a lack of available housing, and the laments of veterans who really wish those damn kids would get off their lawn. The browser client is gone now too, further helping the game shed that Facebook stigma. But Mad Otter really has something here. In a genre where AAA MMORPGs struggle to stand apart and Kickstarters crash and burn, a clean, successful, thriving indie is a rare delight.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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