By Blair Nishkian (Tagspeech)
These days, it’s all about voxels – modular polygons in sandbox worlds that make up an entire realm that players can shape, process, move, and otherwise manipulate. It’s the first step on the road to truly interactive and immersive virtual worlds, and it began most notably with the soaring success of Minecraft. Since then, dozens of studios have been racing to make the Next Big Thing after Minecraft. One of the most striking efforts in this regard are those of Wonderstruck Games, and their project: Oort Online.
Using the Windows Beautiful Voxel engine, the folks at Wonderstruck are sticking to their belief that voxels can indeed be pretty, even breathtaking, especially when combined with modern graphical voo-doo. The screenshots speak for themselves. But there’s more to the project than simply making a prettier Minecraft – this a genuine effort to make a vast, interconnected series of procedurally-generated worlds, all existing within a unique game canon that features an assortment of races, and a story for each planet that exists in the form of ancient, primeval guardians.
I sat down with Robert Wyle, one of the big-shots over at Wonderstruck, and we had a frank discussion about Oort Online, its progress, and how players have been shaping the development cycle since they allowed access to key backers – this is a Kickstarter project, after all. What good idea isn’t, these days? According to Robert, the funding is going well. Slow but steady, they see an influx of new backers every week, and are on track to fulfill some of their most basic development goals. Even if the game is shy of massive stretch goals, they still have plans to make it a profitable and flourishing enterprise post release.
That’s a funny concept these days, isn’t it? It used to be that release dates were set in stone, but now, with so many community sandbox titles being crowdsourced and tested by the players themselves, the concept of a solid release has become more and more nebulous. Oort Online is no exception, as Mr. Wyle confirmed. The Wonderstruck approach has been to simply ask the players themselves via survey. “Do you think the game is ready for release?” it might say. What better way to gauge a product’s completion? Whether the heavy involvement of the players themselves in the process of a game’s development is for better or worse remains to be seen in the long-term, but there’s no denying that having immediate and direct access to a chatty community is a boon for the creators themselves.
Not that Wonderstruck is flying blind without their community – far from it. Anyone who even glances at their Kickstarter page will see a sleek, professional layout and a pedigree of collective accomplishments from many different industry veterans. Oort Online may be the ‘AAA’ of Kickstarter projects, at least by appearances and presentation alone. The game has a clear, thoroughly-mapped vision, and a great idea of who is playing, who is interested, and what they want for the game. Mr. Wyle confirmed that they would of course love to be the Next Big Thing in sandbox-voxel MMORPG gaming. Who wouldn’t be? If they didn’t believe their game could achieve such status, they’d have never begun the project in the first place. Given the team’s focus and professionalism, it’s easy to get excited on their behalf at the prospect.
But the competition is stiff. Similar games are in the works, with Landmark and EverQuest next being Sony’s huge, snarling dog in this particular fight. Whether or not their complex approach to voxels proves too expensive and punishing on client-side systems remains to be seen, of course. Smaller titles like Oort Online will have to work hard to distinguish themselves in the coming melee, and Wonderstruck is doing just that. Mr. Wyle said that they were surprised at how focused players were on making sure the various races and species in the game were fleshed out, and that the setting itself remained distinct and colorful. Aesthetics and immersion do matter to players, it seems, and if Oort Online can remain charming and unique, it should have no problem distinguishing itself in the future.
Surprisingly, the technical challenges of linking an infinite number of procedurally-generated worlds online is not as great as they’d initially thought. And so the goal has become to make sure that players have as much control as they like over individual worlds, by setting PVP rules, building settlements, and drafting their own constitutions, so to speak. The end result will be planet after planet connected by great, big portals, which are powered by the mystical Oort stones. The possibilities for adventure and mystery are intended to be quite endless. Let’s hope this charming game keeps its head above water and continues to shine in the coming deluge of Next-Gen MMORPGs.