A kickstarter campaign is ending today (8/23/2015) for an indie MMO called Project Gorgon. I decided to check it out, as the podcast I’m a part of would be discussing it. I wanted some first-hand experience with the game so that I would have informed opinions, so I went ahead and downloaded it (as they allowed anyone to try the game for free before the Kickstarter ended).
(HINT: Read all the way to the bottom for a sweet screenshot of why “Calligraphy” shouldn’t be a skill ;D )
Before I launch into my opinions, here’s what one of the creators says about the game (from the Project Gorgon homepage):
“Hi, I’m Eric Heimburg, main developer of Project: Gorgon. This is a 3D fantasy MMORPG (massively-multiplayer online role-playing game) for PC, Mac, and eventually Linux. It has an unusual, original feel, freely mixing ideas from older and newer MMOs with a whole bunch of ideas never before seen in any MMO.
It’s designed for players who want to explore a deep world with complex game systems and a tight-knit community that is friendly enough to actually chat while they group. I can talk about it for a long time, but why not just jump in? You can play a very early version of the game right now, completely free, and see for yourself if this is something you want to be a part of!
Hmm, you’re still here? Okay… I can tell you more about it!”
First, I want to say that I watched the video on their Kickstarter page and… I wasn’t that impressed. The art style, presentation, and animations looked very primitive to me. Yes, I’m used to AAA companies’ MMOs and I have come to expect a certain amount of “prettiness” when I play a game. I don’t feel like desiring a beautiful game world and interesting characters to play is a bad thing either, so I won’t apologize. Because of that first impression, and in the interest of full disclosure: I went into the game willing to give it a try because of the podcast, but ready to hate it.
On the character creation page I was expecting limited options, and wasn’t disappointed. This was absolutely to be expected from a game in its early stages still. What was unexpected was that if you chose to play a human male you had almost three-times as many character customization choices than any other race or gender.
Seriously, guys? I understand that as an indie development team you have limited time and resources, but why didn’t you spread out the customization between your races and genders? Why make human males way more varied and interesting to play than (literally) anyone else? One of the best things about MMOs is being able to get into your character. Maybe not everyone enjoys role playing in games, but I think all gamers can agree that we want our character to look cool, and I just didn’t feel I had that in Project Gorgon.
Shaking off this minor annoyance, I made my character, chose my name, and hopped in game. I won’t ruin the opening cutscene for anyone who wants to play, but the beginning storyline was confusing and forgettable at best. I didn’t find myself drawn into the story, or my character’s part in it. I just wanted to experience gameplay, which is completely unlike me. Coming from a background of pen and paper RPGs, I always loved thinking about the lore of the world as I was making a character, and thinking about my character’s role and background within that world; why they were adventuring, how they grew up… things of that nature. The lore of Project Gorgon just didn’t grab me.
The first thing I noticed when I actually got in game was that the UI was awkwardly designed, and felt clunky and cluttered. Being no stranger to MMOs, I can usually enter a new game and get acquainted with my character and the visual space quickly. I spent longer than I care to admit figuring out what my character could even do as pop-ups for my abilities appeared in the upper right corner, instead of anywhere near the ability I moused over.
When you hover over an item in your inventory, you have to move your inventory around because the tooltips for the item you mouse over and what you’re wearing currently can be off the screen completely… making it impossible to read.
Similarly, the chat box is ill-placed, and irritating to turn off. There’s an X on the UI element, but as soon as someone talks in the channel, the box comes back. You have to click through the tabs until you find a chat channel that isn’t being used and then click the X to close the window. Even then, you’ll still get a fixed error-message box in the same place that you can’t get rid of, and every time you use an ability that is resisted, or denied for some other reason, it registers as an error and spams you.
There are no overhead names for characters, so if you were playing with another person, like I was, you had to either be clicked on them constantly to see their name, or ask them constantly over voice chat “Is that you?” or “Where are you?” because they look just like everyone else because of limited armor appearances.
Oddly-designed UI elements aside, the game is pretty straightforward in fantasy MMO terms. You have a character with abilities and equipment slots. You have a quest journal (more on this later) and an inventory that you can store loot in. All the normal stuff!
One thing I found really neat was that all abilities you can use in the game are skill-based. In order to use an ability, you have to find it in-game and unlock it! You start with the “Unarmed” and “Sword” skills. You can learn other abilities through talking with NPCs, training with books, or practicing the skill.
For example, I found a patch of glowing mushrooms in the starting area and clicked on them… and learned “Mycology”?! Sweet!
Like all old-school MMOs, killing monsters is the standard “click on them (or use tab-targeting) and use your abilities to kill them” setup. If you’re in a party, loot is permanently set to “round robin”, so sometimes if you’re fighting in different areas you have to run over to get your loot, which can be a bit of a bother. There has to be open communication between party members as to what equipment they’re looking for, too, because trading between players is necessary when there’s no “need or greed” system.
For example, I focused on unarmed combat, and needed armor that upgraded unarmed abilities, while the person I was playing with was using a sword, and was looking for equipment that upgraded his sword swings and strikes.
Other than the person I was playing the game with no one talked to me. People were talking in the general channel, but that was more of a frustration than anything else because the chat box kept popping up when I had tried to close it for screen real estate. In fact, when I was fighting a really tough monster, more than once players just ran right past, letting me and my teammate die rather than lending any help. Maybe Project Gorgon does have a “tight-knit, friendly community”… but I didn’t get the pleasure of experiencing it.
Thankfully though, death wasn’t that big of a deal! I do have to say that the game has a really interesting way of handling death. Every time you die in a new way, you gain experience.
Wait, what? You GAIN experience for dying?
Which is good, because I died a LOT.
The ability to mix and match skills was pretty ingenious. Basically, you had two action bars, and you could “load” them with two different weapon sets, or combat abilities. I ended up getting a lot of equipment that boosted my unarmed combat ability, so I chose to focus on that. Unfortunately, you can’t have anything in your hands if you’re going to be an unarmed combatant, so I had to choose a second ability that didn’t require the use of a sword, bow, staff, etc. “Psychology” seemed to fit the bill, as it didn’t require a hand-held item, and I was a bit biased towards it since I majored in that field in college. I was hoping that it would have some healing abilities (even if they were just self-heals since I didn’t notice a party screen, or a way to target another player other than by clicking on them), and I got really excited when I unlocked the ability “Soothe”…
… only to be horribly disappointed. Apparently the entire Psychology skill was just going to poke fun at stereotypes.
But, okay, whatever. At least I have some crowd-control abilities…? And, I had way more say over how I played the game than traditional MMOs that force you to pick a class. No armor sets were unavailable to me, no weapons were off-limits. All I had to do to gain an ability was find it in game, buy or find the weapon that the skill required (like a bow and some arrows for Archery), or earn enough favor from an NPC to get them to teach me the skill.
That’s right, NPCs in the game actually have individual goals and desires! Also, they can be fairly hilarious:
Asking about doing favors for them unlocks quests, or you can use “Small Talk” to find out some of the things they like:
Apparently the NPC named Elahil really likes prepared foods. Since I had some honey ham in my bag, I decided to check out the “Give Gift” option, to give him a gift and increase my favor!
Let’s see, if you remember from the “Small Talk” picture, my favor level was at 26.4 before I gave him the food…
… and now it’s at 25.8.
Really? A 0.6 increase? (Yes, this is an increase even though the numbers are getting smaller. It’s the favor “needed for next level”, so it’s counting down, rather than up.)
Maybe it wasn’t very good food, but let’s break down what I had to do to make that honey ham:
- I had to purchase the recipe from a separate vendor
- Find an empty bottle
- Find a fountain or body of water and fill the bottle
- Find a pig and kill it
- Butcher the pig with a separate skill (which had to have a knife permanently taking up an inventory slot to use) to get the pork shoulder
- Purchase sugar from a vendor
- Find a cook stove and make the ham (which uses up all the ingredients except for the bottle, which returns to being “empty”, so you have to go get more if you want to make more than one honey ham…)
All of that, just to make the one item I gave to him.
I feel like maybe Elahil is an ungrateful bastard…
But who says that gaining favor has to be easy? The NPCs hold a lot of the skills needed to customize your character and gain new abilities, so if it were easy to gain every skill in the game, there wouldn’t be a ton to do if that part of the game was over quickly.
I do, however, think there has to be a balance. If most of the game relies on the gimmick that you can be whatever you want to be and customize your play style through skills, a player needs to be able to access a few different skills at the beginning of the game to get them into their character.
The quest journal actually does an okay job of directing a new player on how to find some skills they might want. In the “Stuff To Do” tab, it helps guide you to areas or NPCs that might have beneficial skills to unlock:
The journal even gives players the option to figure out what they need to do themselves, or click on the “Big Hint (Spoilers!)” button to help guide them further. I like this option a lot. Frequently when I play games, I want to figure out quests by myself. I like a little bit of a mystery to them, because I enjoy games that make me read the quest or NPC text so that I know where to go, and what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to be engaged when I’m playing a game!
Alternatively, sometimes we get stumped and need a nudge in the right direction. Maybe your brain is tired, or just not actively engaged. Maybe you glazed over the text when an NPC was talking, thinking that you got the useful information, only to find yourself drawing a blank when you need to recall it. Instead of being forced to tab out of the game and open a wiki page, you can just hit the hint button and get what you need while still being engaged in the game.
I mentioned before how I came from a background of tabletop pen and paper roleplaying games, and as such, I tend to always have a notebook on hand to take notes as I’m playing a game. Maybe it’s a quest hint I got, maybe it’s how much an item cost on the auction house so I can reference it later. Either way, I always had to have something to jot down notes. Not with Project Gorgon! There’s a “Notepad” tab within your quest journal!
This feature is surprisingly simple and completely original, as I’ve never seen it within another game, MMO or otherwise.
Speaking of innovative, I want to mention one more thing that I think Project Gorgon did well before I wrap up this post. Puzzles and riddles were scattered throughout the game, to reward players who used their brain and gave the game some actual thought. I love this. I love a game that can actively engage me, challenge me, and reward that time and effort!
SPOILERS AHEAD! If you want to experience the first few riddles and puzzles for yourself in the game, don’t read the next section! Skip over to my conclusion.
Here are some examples of the puzzles in game:
Within the starting area there was a room with a locked chest, and four different archways. When clicked in the right sequence, the archways would all light up, and the chest would unlock.
Similarly (also in the starting area), a chest was set behind a glowing wall that required a number passkey to unlock. If you guessed wrong, you were set on fire. The fire was a DoT (damage-over-time debuff) that couldn’t be cleansed until you jumped into some nearby water! Near the water was an NPC, who would give you the clues needed to guess the passkey correctly, but only if you spoke with them and actually listened.
In the first town you encounter, and throughout the landscape, there are sacrificial altars that have a riddle attached to them. If you guess the object the riddle describes, and place the object on the altar to sacrifice it, you gain a reward!
Project Gorgon has some really fun features that you’re not going to find in other games. (Until, maybe, EverQuest Next comes out…?) The ability to tailor your character with unique combat skills is a rewarding way to play. The game requires you to unlock abilities, which means you have to problem-solve to find them. The necessity to use your brain to solve puzzles and riddles for rewards is a welcome breath of fresh air in the MMO industry. And I can’t say enough good things about the lack of quest hand-holding that I find tiresome in many AAA games. Most MMO players are not new to the scene, and if a player is new, it’s because usually they have a friend who got them into the game who is there showing them the ropes. Do we really need starting areas that bore us to tears with their tired old tutorials? Do we really need NPCs with text blocks that serve no purpose, as everything will appear in a shortened version in our quest log? Do we really need little dots on the map to show us where quest mobs are, after the quest text has already told us, and glowing trails of light or big arrows to point us in the right direction…?
If you want a game that says, “Here’s the world, now go figure it out, and come up with stuff to do yourself”, Project Gorgon might be the game for you. Just make sure you convince some friends to come along with you, and leave your reservations about low-budget indie games at the door. The art isn’t going to blow you away. Character customization isn’t going to be awesome. The game isn’t going to be smooth, balanced, or polished.
It’s going to be glitchy and laggy, and the UI is going to be chunky and cluttered. The server is going to lag. Hard. And not all skills were created equal, so imbalances are going to happen.
Game play may be slightly overwhelming to some players because there are many, many things that you can do. Want to spend five hours tradeskilling? Go ahead. Want to hunt down a new ability? Go searching. Want to see what’s over that hill? I dare you! But what you do in Project Gorgon is very much up to you as an individual. To a player who is used to themepark MMOs, it’s going to seem lackluster and boring because there isn’t a set path to take.
Personally, the few inventive features Project Gorgon offers aren’t enough for me to overlook the aspects of play that I didn’t enjoy. If it weren’t for the story I was making up in my head as I went (Unarmed + Psychology = a trash talking monk who will kick your teeth in while spouting abuse), and having someone to play with, the game wouldn’t have been that fun.
Also, this happened, because someone gave me access to the “Calligraphy” skill and I had to make my own fun…
The novelty of the quest journal wore off quickly. The ability to swap out combat abilities to customize my play style wore thin as it became difficult to find and level up new abilities, and even harder to find gear to augment new abilities outside the starting area. The map wasn’t laid out in any sort of organized fashion, so it was difficult to find quest mobs or objectives. For example, the quests inside the town could send you halfway across the map (bumbling into monsters that would kill you outright) rather than having the quest mobs closer to town, then slowly radiate out in power so your character had a chance to gain in power, too. I’m not asking for the game to ping the map for the mobs I needed, as the NPC would tell me which direction to head. But I am asking that mobs between me and the newbie objectives not aggro immediately and one-shot me. The game lent itself more to randomly stumbling around and wandering off than actual directed questing or exploration.
I’ll wait for a AAA title to pick up the features I liked, rather than spend money to play Project Gorgon. It’s a cute indie project with interesting gimmicks, but not somewhere I’d spend a lot of time or energy. Sorry, guys :/