Interview: Worlds Adrift’s Bossa Studios on giving, griefing, and gittin’ gud
After the launch of Worlds Adrift but prior to E3, we sent off an interview to Bossa Studios and recently received our answers, complete with current news about how the studio is trying to address griefing, adding countermeasures, and yes, “gitting good.” Maybe the phrasing there could be better, especially given the brutality of the Steam launch, but Bossa Studios Co-Founder Henrique Olifiers and Game Designer Luke Williams were kind enough to talk to us about why they pursue the seemingly less profitable PvP crowd, building PvPvE experiences, and the road to release.
Let me be upfront with my biases for those unfamiliar with my coverage: I love open world PvP as a concept, not as a ganker but as the guy trying not to get ganked. I love the concept of virtual worlds, but as Bill Roper and I discussed, players aren’t developers and don’t always understand the tech that gives them the games they love.
Repeating the past
In spite of my predisposition to love PvP MMOs, I was unhappy with the game’s Steam EA launch. The world was too small to get stick with the original vision not only of single servers but going long periods of time in isolation. So I asked what exactly created the gap between Bossa’s early expectations of the game and the Steam launch reality. I was told that single servers per region is “still very much [Bossa’s] goal,” and it’s still being worked it. It’s actually one of the areas of the game that needs to be fixed before a proper launch.
Olifiers and Williams went even further. I was told that “there are a couple of systems left to implement to make this happen,” but the team had to choose between launching sharded and delaying the launch. The former was chosen because the devs “felt now was a good time to really get the players in and play the core systems and loops.”
Apparently, Bossa’s “own data has shown that griefing isn’t as rampant as you would think,” and the studio guesses that “the fear of it certainly clouds how people play so [Bossa’s] working on changing that initial experience to be a lot more welcoming for those starting in the game.” While I appreciate the data, they seem to ignore very real players, like myself, who aren’t afraid of griefing but experienced an overabundance of it early on.
This is sort of where we find ourselves at an impasse. Bossa very much wanted to make a PvP game from the start. While there is an audience for PvP games, even among MOP readers, there’s a large, vocal, paying audience that tends to avoid those games in favor of either PvE games or PvP-optional games. As Bossa constantly has said, it can’t do its physics based game in a PvE style. When I asked what a PvE only server look like feature-wise if the Worlds Adrift servers were hypothetically customizable right now, I was given the usual spiel that even I repeat: It’s a physics-based game.
“While pistol attacks are ‘deterministic,’ meaning the game knows who shot at whom (like in any other online game, including Minecraft), it’s not the only way to cause damage. Imagine if a player rams another with a ship he’s no longer at the helm; or chops down a tree over someone else’s head; or puts a timed explosive into a mineral deposit and another player walks into the blast zone; or if the blast zone of a cannonball aimed innocently at an NPC catches a running player? None of these would work on a traditional PvE scenario.”
Again, there’s no PvP-off switch, something even Bill Roper lamented that players simply don’t understand, though Roper had also noted that because players are used to essentially playing the same games, the concept of Worlds Adrift from a technical perspective is even harder to grasp. Still, it’s disappointing that Olifiers and Williams wouldn’t go into detail about what, if anything, would remain without the physics, just to illustrate their point more clearly.
But clearly there’s an audience. When I asked whether Bossa had considered making a Worlds Adrift spin-off for PvE players, I was told that when Bossa started making the game, it did so “regardless of how popular PvP vs PvE is,” as “a PvE-version of Worlds Adrift would be a betrayal of its core pillars as a lot of artificialities would have to be implemented for this to work, and these would undermine its very nature.”
The developers think that bad PvP stems from a feeling of loss of control. “If a player is capable to judge risk, to defend themselves, to have options to deal with threats, it’s a better state of play than just being insulated from all unexpected risk. Other MMOs have done that, this already exists, and it’s not something we want to emulate.”
The problem there is that as a PvP player, I feel the only option I have in WA that I don’t in others is my ability to use physics. I can drop heavy objects on my enemies. I can destroy the device keeping an enemy ship up so it falls and explodes. These are options, yes, but they don’t solve deeper problems with PvP: too little risk for reward when zerging, power gaps between new players and veterans, and the basic concept that your freedom and my freedom end when one person’s violence invades the other’s space.
The team says, “The question then is balance and options. We’re not there yet, but advancing well in the right direction, thus why we are in Early Access: to learn what works and what doesn’t and get novel solutions to very old and hairy problems others have shied away from. Call us naive, but that’s what gets us out of bed as game developers!”
New ways to tackle old problems
While I like the idea that Bossa wants to tackle old problems, I do worry that part of its approach includes making the same mistakes. The hands-off method has failed the PvP community over and over, well into in the past. It’s why we got Trammel in Ultima Online, why Dark Ages of Camelot went with factions, and why EVE thrives thanks to high-sec space. Unmitigated, FFA PvP from the minute you log in is a bad idea that even the founders of the MMO genre admit was a mistake.
That being said, some of the previously mentioned countermeasures to griefing have sounded interesting. The easier shipcrafting changes alone sound like they could help new players escape newbie island ganking faster, though the ship detonation aspect sounds problematic. It keeps people tied to their own ships, but also sounds like it could threaten exploration.
Olifiers and Williams say that the changes solve a couple of problems. First and foremost is that “you couldn’t ‘win’ a fight by being a good defender.” As I experienced for myself, attackers that hid their ship or kept it out of my reach could zerg me down until I ran out of resources. The devs feel that the ship detonation change allows you to “successfully fend off attackers who will have no choice but to relieve an attack or they risk losing their ship.” But there’s more.
“The second reason is that exploration was done by parking 500m above an island, dropping onto it and killing yourself to get back up to your ship, which is certainly not a loop we’re comfortable with. We’ve made a lot of defensive changes to shipyards to drive people to land and dock on an island, which in some cases is safer than leaving your ship unlocked above an island. The old method will still be viable but you will have to dock your ship every few islands to recharge your revivers so they do not detonate.”
I haven’t experienced this myself, so while it does sound good in theory, I could be missing something. If it works to make the game world feel safer, great. Worlds Adrift has been compared with Sea of Thieves by many players and critics alike in that they require player communication to move open world vehicles, offer nearly unrestricted PvP, and have rather simple PvE gameplay. That last feels the most relevant to me as a PvP player (and one that, admittedly, favors SOT) because these games do feel like PvPvE games. Without the PvP aspect, the game feels rather flat, not just in terms of difficulty, but potential for player interaction.
When I asked how the team designs PvE around PvP, I was told that PvE development still has a “long way to go.”
“Many of the environmental threats and creatures will see a lot of additions in the future. A lot of what we have planned for PvE (such as the Skywhale) requires large numbers of players cooperating for a unique goal, and this will be permeated by PvP as well: Will someone try to take advantage of a Skywhale attack to stage an ambush? Our mindset is to evolve the world’s creatures, ecosystems and landscapes into a much more rich tapestry of possibilities, challenges, puzzles and surprises. As we progress with this work, a lot will start to change regarding the dynamics between players, as the world will have more options to make itself relevant to players at every turn.”
In fact, the developers even tossed out in the fact that they want new systems, like territory control. I’m not sure how that was supposed to fit in with PvE, especially given the idea that there are no NPCs, no player created quest assignment system, and no bounty system because as the devs previously told us, “Every time we add a system to organise and regiment a particular interaction, say a ‘bounty hunting board,’ we close down a myriad of interesting possibilities to the players to add a rich, social tapestry of interactions to it.”
I’m hoping this means they’re rethinking their original hands-off approach. The changes they’ve made for players potentially gives new players a fighting chance, as does giving their community the chance to actually help with solving the griefing and content issues.
Apparently, “all the features [Bossa is] currently working on at the moment were originated by player ideas.” These are things like including “a proper onboarding process to teach players faster; a starting area with no handguns that once you leave you cannot go back to; pairing players to form crews earlier (safety in numbers!); [an] easier way to rebuild a lost ship (saving its details so it can be rebuilt with the resources only); [a] revamp respawner rules; and so on.”
Truthfully, if you look at many of those options, it sounds like a lot of the things Sea of Thieves already does. True, the fact that player ideas are being “implemented and tested” doesn’t mean that anything the devs mentioned to me is going to make it into the game, but at least the options are being entertained.
The Spatial between us
As Worlds Adrift is the first publicly playable game utilizing SpatialOS, I had to ask how it’s working out in the wild. Again, Spatial isn’t a new game engine or even specifically for games. It’s like a manager, sitting between the game world and multiple engines, doling out jobs and telling which servers what they need to know to get everything flowing. The ability to keep track of everything is why it’s good for building non-gaming simulation systems that world governments have already used it for. Naturally, for persistent gaming worlds, it has great potential.
Olifiers and Williams said that Spatial has been “surprisingly well-behaved,” and that the team had “literally had no technical incident since launch.” The studio is currently “working to port the game to its newer version, requiring a lot of code refactoring as it’s not backward compatible, but this will also allow [Bossa] to move faster on the development front once [it’s] done with the porting.”
This is interesting, since at both GDC and E3 this year, Worlds Adrift didn’t see as much love as, say, Mavericks, which won’t enter early access until this December. Worlds Adrift should surely be mentioned more when Improbable talks up SpatialOS given that it’s the most mature game they can reference.
So I asked the developers what they thought differentiates Worlds Adrift from other in-development titles that are using Spatial. Bossa told me, “With new games coming to the platform, it’s only natural that [Improbable] give them the spotlight to keep things fresh.” However, the team still feels Worlds Adrift is still a game that uses “the most aspects of what is made possible with SpatialOS, in particular large scale multiplayer physics,” and from what I’ve seen at both conventions, this is true. As Bossa continues to update its game, it’ll probably “keep a healthy lead in terms of features built on Spatial, and the gameplay possibilities they open up for the players.”
But the game is still in early access, so no one is home-free yet. When I asked what needs to happen to move Worlds Adrift into release, I was told that the to-do list is “all the features in the public roadmap (available in the Worlds website) plus some.” Which section wasn’t specified, so I assume that’s… well, everything, including speech bubbles for you roleplayers out there.
Among the team’s favorites? “One world per region; spatial VoIP (as opposed of VoIP per channel), meaning you hear people close to you but not people far away; a lot of PvE activities such as the Skywhale; Territory Control; gameplay elements on the islands (puzzles, switches, secrets); a richer creatures ecosystem; more and new areas, including different storm walls; ability to build on land; a mechanic to restore areas of the world to its former glory.”
It sounds like a long early access to me, though I wish Bossa luck, and a big thanks for getting back to us during a busy time in their development cycle!