Square Enix’s Collective indie publishing label has released games like Bulkhead Interactive’s sci-fi puzzler The Turing Test and Throughline Games’ fairy tale platformer Forgotton Anne, and its newest project is its most ambitious yet. It will publish indie studio Wonderstruck Games’s massively multiplayer online (MMO) sandbox game Boundless, which is slated to launch later this year for PC and PlayStation 4.
Boundless, formerly known as Oort Online, has been in Early Access for nearly four years, and an estimated 29,000 people own the game, according to Steam Spy. It’s a light science fiction take on the MMO genre, loosing players on a galaxy of planets in a colorful voxel art world. What they choose to do when they arrive is up to them.
“There [are] no NPCs, no developer-built structures, no ways to buy or sell things to non-player characters,” said Square Enix Collective director of indie publishing Phil Elliott in a phone call with GamesBeat. “From that perspective, suddenly I got very excited about the game, because when everything is based around what players do, you can never predict what’s going to come next. You get a layer of, I suppose, social and even political things coming through, which you don’t get so much with other games.”
Though Wonderstruck has included some lore to set up its world and why it exists, it has mainly turned over the reins to players. It doesn’t provide any quests or storylines for people to follow. Its community builds all the structures and it maintains its marketplace; no NPCs roam around with convenient potions or items on sell.
Players have gotten creative with the services they offer. Elliott points to the Portal Seekers, a guild that focuses on building an interplanetary transit system. Boundless’s main mode of transportation is via portals — players can make single-use totems, point it at a planet in the sky, and teleport there instantly. They can also build a more permanent structure, though that requires many more resources. The Portal Seekers have their sights set on the latter, creating a network of transportation hubs that will enable people to hop from world to world.
“There’s quite a high cost to maintaining these portals. It’s not cheap. This is where getting people together and collaborating for these kinds of endeavors is important,” said Elliott. “Again, that’s emergent gameplay. It’s possible to do it within the game, but the game isn’t designed so that someone or a group of people — these are people setting their own ambitions, their own targets. That’s the kind of game this is.”
Experience in Early Access
Boundless is Wonderstruck’s third game, and the studio previously developed the web-based tower defense game Polycraft and its stealthy heist adventure The Marvellous Miss Take. It has 16 full-time team members who have a lot of industry experience, hailing from companies like Lionhead Studios and Criterion Games. Square Enix Collective signaled in a previous interview with GamesBeat that it was shifting gears to look at larger, more established indie studios, and Wonderstruck fits the bill.
Along with the team’s track record, Wonderstruck has also shown that it knows how to engage with players during Early Access. For an MMO especially, Early Access comes with a lot of challenges — for instance, Boundless will go through a world wipe before its full launch, which means all its current players’ progress will be wiped. It’s a decision that could sit poorly with players if it isn’t made clear, but the developers have communicated that often to their community. Elliott says that Collective looked at how the developer interacted with its fan base — how frequently it updated the game, whether those were “meaningful updates,” and how they interact with their community.
“We’ve obviously worked with brand new teams, and we’ve worked with more experienced teams now. The difference is that you can probably take a more accurate judgment call on where a more experienced team is going to land,” said Elliott. “They’ve been through the process a few times. Shipping a game, even just one or two games, you learn so much through that. Ordinarily you look at a kind of ‘traditional’ MMO and you expect massive teams, huge content creation, two-year expansion cycles. This isn’t what the game is about.”
Elliott says that, broadly, MMOs usually go two ways: either the developer creates a ton of content or they create tools for players to make their own content. Boundless is opting for the second option, looking at ways to expand gameplay. For instance, all the combat in Early Access is against hostile creatures in the environment — though it’s possible that Wonderstruck will add in player-vs-player (PVP) action in the future. The team will also easily be able to bring new planets online if it feels that the world is getting too crowded and add new features, like enabling players to farm.
“What we want to see is players creating that history. I think one of the interesting challenges we’re going to have is how we document that,” said Elliott. “We’ve been looking at, for example, a kind of news feed for the forums, where we talk about the day’s news. Maybe it’s that famous shopper returning after a bit of a break, or recently there was a big effort to bring prices down across the different main stores. People are building websites to track prices. They’re building websites to track crafting and look at how that evolves.”
Wonderstruck also wants to make sure that Boundless is “safe and appropriate” — something that families could play together if they want. Elliott says that players will be able to create private worlds and control who can access those locations and what visitors can do to the environment. The game will also have standard moderation tools so that players can report abusive behavior or language.
Boundless is part of a fresh crop of MMOs that will be hitting the market. Frostkeep Studios is about to launch its Norse mythology-inspired Rend into Early Access. Novaquark has been hard at work on its Eve Online-esque MMO Dual Universe, which offers players a chance to settle planets and build their own economies, cities, and space ships. Cryptic Studios and Perfect World are working on a Magic: The Gathering MMO. And Cloud Imperium Games made waves when it raised over $100 million through crowdfunding for its space-faring title Star Citizen.
All of these newer contenders will also be up against established giants like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which has waned in recent years but will be releasing a new expansion in August, and Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls Online, which has attracted over 11 million players and consistently rolls out new DLC.
Elliott says that success for an MMO in this kind of climate is a matter of long-term survival.
“Success depends on making more money than you spend. It depends on being able to continue to develop the game, to build in new content, and therefore our expectations at launch, I’d say, are relatively modest,” said Elliott. “We look at this as a sort of five-year plan. That’s the kind of time frame we hope that people will respond to when they jump in, because, as I said, there’s so much that can be done. I can’t even imagine where the game could be in three, four, five years, based on the way that they continue to build interesting and cool things into it.”
Boundless’s impending world wipe will be a fresh start for all players, though those who played the game in Early Access and folks who pre-order it will get a little bit of extra lead time. It’s the start of a new journey, and it sounds like Square Enix Collective and Wonderstruck are in it for the long haul.