The first entrant to my Hobo Gamer series is Black Desert, an upcoming sandbox MMO being developed by Pearl Abyss, a new studio formed specifically for the game’s creation. Set in a beautifully crafted world inspired by the middle ages, its low-fantasy trappings really resonate with me as a virtual world I could potentially call home.
With its announced features, Black Desert has the potential to come the closest to being the game I’ve long searched for – EVE on the ground. While not a complete match by any means, this single sentence best encompasses both my interest in the game and my hopes for its future in a neat package; it is through this lens that I wish to view the game.
Black Desert features a gorgeous, large, seamless, persistent world, and the developers have made their anti-instancing stance more than clear; I could not be more thrilled with this. Leaving behind load screens, instancing, and other artificial barriers makes the game space feel like a real world, and in the end, this is what I want most out of an MMO, even if some difficulties are introduced with it.
One such difficulty is a housing system. Black Desert‘s housing is non-instanced, but you won’t be able to just plop a house down anywhere and ruin the view, as has happened with other games. In a unique twist, all of Black Desert‘s housing is rented for three month periods through an auction process, the specifics of which can be found here on Steparu. While there look to be many, many houses available in the game, they all come in various sizes and grandeur, meaning competition for the best will be fierce. It’s an interesting take on a classic feature, and I look forward to seeing how well it works out in practice. However, as I’m a big fan of housing and a big fan of not instancing content, it seems safe to throw this in the “like” pile.
Update: As of the second CBT, Black Desert‘s housing is now instanced. In my opinion, this is a definite step back from the original open-world design.
Death has consequences in Black Desert, as when players die they lose both experience and items. This can be a contentious feature, but I’m of the opinion that it can work well when properly supported by other mechanics, which so far Black Desert does seem to be implementing. Firstly, while you can lose levels due to the experience loss, there is no level cap in game. While this is mechanically a whole can of worms in its own right, it removes the problem of dying, losing max level, and having to swap back to a lower quality of equipment (there is a ‘soft-cap’ to leveling where gear requirements will presumably rest for endgame gear). Item loss on death or permanent decay are fairly standard in sandbox MMOs, where items are tools used to advance gameplay and not the ultimate goal of the endgame experience. While item loss is an unthinkable mechanic in a gear-progression driven themepark environment, it can do well in a sandbox MMO.
Following in the path of most modern MMORPGs, Black Desert utilizes limited action-set action based combat, but with its own unique twist. Its combat is inspired by fighter games like Tekken, and brings from that reaction-based combat elements like blocks and grabs as well as directional attacks. It’s hard to dig up a lot of concrete information on how it all works, but from combat footage, it does seem to be greatly different from the combo system in Age of Conan, which I am not a fan of. Abilities slotted on the action bar seem to work in the same way as they have in other action based MMOs like The Elder Scrolls Online or Neverwinter; you press the button and the ability goes off.
Here’s a little bit of footage on a variety of classes from the second closed beta, where you can see for yourself a bit of how combat works in Black Desert.
Now we get to the meat and bones of what makes a good sandbox game – its economy. As is to be expected, Black Desert features a fully fleshed out player driven economy. Gathering comes in two varieties, manual and automatic. Manual gathering functions similarly to every other MMO; you run around and mine rocks, chop trees, and generally pillage the scenery to get your hands on materials.
Automated gathering requires you to hire workers who are then able to acquire resources from the nodes you have access to. The nodes themselves are another creature entirely. You can progress through each city and their respective nodes, developing your network in a method reminiscent of Sim City or Civilization. Each area is governed by a faction with whom, for lack of a better term, you can grind rep with. Once acquired, you are able to assign rep to any of the nodes governed by that faction, allowing you to unlock or progress it. For example, you could unlock a mine by the city, or if one isn’t nearby, unlock an outpost on a road allowing your workers to travel to a distant mine (which you would have to unlock separately). Once you have fully unlocked a node and a path to it, you are able to hire NPC workers to go and do your bidding.
This philosophy of localization carries over to the rest of the game as a whole. Banks and auction houses are all local, and you’ll find different resources in specific regions – a few of the many design decisions I find reminiscent of EVE Online. If resource and item driven PvP take a focus in the game (even if only on PvP servers), this will allow a territorial control system to organically form as player organizations attempt to dominate their region’s resources. Similarly, the need to transport resources manually can drive PvP in a game with Black Desert‘s death penalties.
A more in depth look at Black Desert‘s economy can by found in MMOCast’s series of articles on the subject.
In a game with item loss on death transporting crafting materials can be a dangerous business. In addition, Black Desert also imposes inventory capacity limitations based on both weight and slots, meaning players looking to transport a lot of goods will have to find a way to do so. If people are trying to kill you and steal your goods, it will be best if that way happens to be fast. That way is carriages. Much like gathering, carriages come in two varieties. You can either hire an NPC to transport goods between two of your connected cities, or do it yourself if you own a carriage. However, even if you hire an NPC, other players will still be able to kill it and steal its cargo.
I can’t believe it’s taken this long for mounted combat to make its way into MMOs, but I’m glad it’s finally arrived. I was watching the First Look trailer (embedded at the bottom of the page) when at about 3:20, I saw a carriage being attacked by mounted assailants in what can best be described as a medieval car chase. I really don’t think I need to say much more on the subject.
Looking through the scenery of Black Desert, I couldn’t help but find some of the architecture and city design reminiscent of the original Assassins Creed game. Then, to my surprise, one of the characters started climbing the side of a building. The feature looked to be pretty buggy in the first closed beta, but if Pearl Abyss can get this running smoothly, it could be an awesome addition to the game. This will be especially true if it’s supported by content that can really take advantage of it.
What better feature to support wall climbing than siege PvP? In Black Desert‘s sieges, guilds will fight over keeps during vulnerability windows in an attempt to gain control of it and the ability to tax commerce within its area of influence. It seems like there is a lot in flux with the design of the game’s siege PvP, but currently the objective is to construct your own symbol within the keep while destroying those of your enemies. When one symbol is left standing, those players gain control of the keep and everyone else is ported outside to the nearby town. However, so long as it is still within the keep’s vulnerability window, those players will be able to begin the assault anew.
A few days ago Black Desert released a video showcasing its new character customization system and the internet collectively exploded. This may be the new bar for character customization in an MMO. The video speaks for itself, so I’ll let it do just that.
I’m a big fan of minimalist interfaces, and Black Desert seems to deliver on that. Although it’s hard to tell when I can’t read the language, the user interface of the game makes me feel right at home after my time with The Elder Scrolls Online, while also appearing to be more informative. Hopefully this game will be able to strike a good balance between functionality and an appealing form, but it does appear to be on the right track.
In essence, I don’t like Eastern MMORPGs. I imagine players in Asian markets simply have different preferences and priorities than I do, so when a game is tailored for them, it falls short of my own standards for what makes a game good. They’re typically far too grindy, the art style and animations are grating, they’re often free-to-play and pay-to-win, and are generally PvE focused as well. Whether or not Black Desert will prove to avoid these pitfalls remains to be seen, but so far it does appear to not be overdoing most of these.
However, at least one negative has already arisen from the game’s Eastern roots – gender-locked classes. I won’t mince words – I hate this. I always play classes of my own gender. I have nothing against people that don’t, but it’s important for my own enjoyment to be able to connect with and relate to my character – something which is much more difficult when I cannot make the character I want. Fortunately, the word is that all classes but two (the male Giant and female Tamer) will feature a mirrored class of the opposite gender. If this is truly the extent of the gender-locking, then it won’t be too large of an issue for me.
The game is still in the early beta stages, and runs off a new engine developed specifically for Black Desert. Between a new company and their new engine, there’s not a whole lot we can go on as to how this project will turn out. Worse still, the game has not yet found a Western publisher, and though it does have a new placeholder Western site indicating the continued intent to release in that market, this does mean we likely won’t get our hands on the game for quite a long time. Even with this uncertainty, its announced features are good enough to warrant careful consideration of Black Desert as a new MMO home.
As you may have noticed, a lot of my hopes for the game revolve around a fleshed out world PvP system, the existence of which is not yet certain. In fact, recent comments by the game’s producer have called into question whether or not the PvP we’ve seen so far was all intended to be happening:
Many players attributed the high difficulty of the game to the death penalty and random player kill (PK).
The random PK was a bug. Actually, one is only allowed to PK other players during Siege War period. Many players thought that it was part of the game system, despite the notice and information we have released on this bug.
The good news is that the above quote isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem. The translation of the interview was not perfectly done, and there are many instances where answers were phrased in a confusing or ambiguous manner as a result. My understanding is that the bug he referred to was that random PK in the open world did not have consequences, and not simply that it was happening. This is supported by Black Desert having a PvP flagging system already in place.
Black Desert is also stepping away from the trinity model of group content that MMO veterans are all familiar with, and while I have written in favor of replacing the trinity in the past, I don’t see evidence that Pearl Abyss is working to develop an adequate replacement for it. However, as a sandbox, Black Desert is well positioned to eschew traditional group encounters entirely in favor of other forms of content. While I don’t really see this working in the game’s favor, it’s entirely possible that content will be designed in such a way that it will not be a negative.
As the two most hotly anticipated upcoming Eastern sandbox MMORPGs, comparisons between Black Desert and ArcheAge are inevitable. ArcheAge is a much more traditional MMORPG, coming with a large action-set and tab targeting. Though it has a lot of potential, it seems its biggest edge over Black Desert may be coming to an end, as recent comments from Black Desert’s producer have indicated that Pearl Abyss will likely add sea play to the game as well, with warships and trade-ships coming to the game sometime in the future. As I already greatly preferred the action combat, stunning visuals, and general design of Black Desert, a move in this direction would easily knock ArcheAge completely off my radar.
A lot remains to be seen about the future of Black Desert, and there are many ways in which it could turn out to be a bad fit. What we have so far looks damn good though, so I’ll definitely be monitoring the game as its development progresses and public knowledge grows. For now, check out Black Desert‘s First Look trailer below.