Can 10 million Chinese gamers be wrong? That’s the current player base on Age of Wushu, a free-to-play, massively multiplayer online role-playing game that takes place in every kung-fu movie ever made. Add another 100,000 players roaming around a semi-open beta on brand-new North America servers as Wushu is coming to America.
It doesn’t arrive with the same cultural relevance it enjoys in developer Snail Games’ native China. The U.S. team wants to draw Anglo wuxia fans raised on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or classics like Drunken Master and Master of the Flying Guillotine, but they’re banking on core MMO players who want a deeper dive in a richer, more-to-do world. Senior content producer Tyler Rawlins believes a huge chunk of dedicated, online role-players for a game that gives them more. Wushu, he claims, fills that need.
“World of Warcraft was so successful with people who weren’t familiar with MMOs,” says Rawlins. “The mechanics and features are very simple. Age of Wushu offers a lot of sandbox element that World of Warcraft made people want more of.”
“I could explain pretty much everything about World of Warcraft in 25 minutes,” adds QA manager John Lynch. “I’ve been working on this game for three or four months now, and I’m still finding new things.”
Put another way? “It’s cheaper and deeper,” says Rawlins.
After a short tutorial, players select their school of kung fu — including Shaolin monks, artistic Scholars, humble and honorable Beggars, and brutally callous Royal Guards — and step into a lush, 15th century fantasy world. Instead of dragons and minotaurs, your opponents are bandits and gangs of evil Taoist monks. It’s all firmly based in the wuxia film genre, with all the details present and accounted for. Everyone’s running up walls, running across water, and pulling off all manner of wire work, up to and including flight. Just wandering through a quiet marketplace offered demonstrations of the game’s combat, commerce, and depth.
Lynch dropped into a player-vs-player server to wander the enormous, beautiful city of Yanjing — current-day Beijing and a major metropolis during the Ming Dynasty — while Rawlins talked me through the rock-scissors-paper combat mechanics of attacks, feints, and parries. Players level skills, not characters, and skill trees aren’t locked to each school or profession … particularly once you start spying on and stealing from those other outfits.
“If you’re Shaolin, you can eventually learn Wudang skills, and then mix and match those to make your own personal martial art,” says Rawlins. With only a few exceptions, like school-specific internal skills, Wushu has no caps on learning or leveling.
Skills level up through use and internal cultivation — essentially a slower, background increase. “Certain skills were founded in the water or on a mountain,” says Rawlins, “so if you go to those regions, they cultivate a little faster.” Training in groups doesn’t hurt, either. I caught a group of players practicing Tai Chi exercises just off the market square. It wasn’t merely for mental equilibrium.
So it’s helpful that characters are persistent in Wushu; logging out turns your martial arts master into an NPC. Where you log off matters, too. You might take up a temp job as a barker, spend your down time sweeping a garden, or step up for guard duty at your martial-arts school, all of which earn you money and experience points. If another player breaks into your school to steal a few scrolls, your character might engage them. “I can get experience for fighting someone while I’m offline,” says Rawlins.
Naturally, that comes with risks.