From the ‘Year of the Bow’, to Rogue-lites and the resurgence of historical shooters, there’s always been an ebb and flow of ideas and genres in video games. As Bossa Studios’ long in development Worlds Adrift heads toward an Early Access release in May, it brings to mind the likes of Sea of Thieves and No Man’s Sky, and it really feels like British developers are making the “make your own fun” sandbox game their own.
Luke Williams, Game Designer said, “We’d already been touching into that with Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread anyway, and that’s going back five or six years. It was quite interesting when Sea of Thieves was announced, because it was a case of them being very close. I’m very glad that at least when I was looking at Wind Waker [as an inspiration] I didn’t just go, yes, that’s the setting we’re going for. Taking Skies of Arcadia at least meant that we had the ships in the skies.”
Set in a world shattered by a cataclysmic event a long time ago, you travel from one island to the next on grand sky ships, exploring, looking for resources, and more. You create your own ship, using the game’s physics to determine its design, whether creating something fast and light or gearing toward ship-to-ship combat, but exploration is just as important, enabled by your character’s grappling hook which allows you to zip around quickly. You’ll also potentially have to be wary of other players, as you share this world with thousands of other players on the unified server, which has been enabled by SpatialOS’s cloud platform.
What’s fascinating is how Hello Games, Rare and Bossa have all taken dramatically different approaches to creating their worlds and universes. There was the procedural generation of millions of planets in No Man’s Sky, while Sea of Thieves took the exact opposite approach with its sea dotted with dozens of islands created by their art team. Worlds Adrift has found a third way, mixing the breadth of procedural creation with the nuance of hand-crafted design by outsourcing the island creation to their community using an island creation tool. In some ways, it’s allowing Bossa to overcome the criticisms that their peers have received about a lack of meaningful content.
“We’ve been along that path for two years now at least, in terms of involving the community and stuff,” Luke said. “We definitely identified the issue coming off the back of No Man’s Sky with procedural generation, because we were already umming and ahing about “Oh, I guess we’ll do procedural islands, right?” We knew that there were problems there anyway, but then the backlash for No Man’s Sky was definitely a concern.
“It was already on the table as a potential thing [to let the players create islands], but that’s when we knew that we had to try and tackle that, and it’s led to the point that we’re actually saying we’ll just let them build the gameplay, which is a big sort of release of your ownership of that side of things.”
Worlds Adrift has been described as a community-created MMO, and it really is. Almost all of the islands have been created by them, and there have been players in closed tests helping Bossa to see how the game was working, giving their feedback and helping to shape the game. As they push the boundaries, Bossa have put more and more control over the game’s look, feel and design into their hands.
Giving an example, Luke said, “We wanted our world to be old enough so there’s not any wooden assets in the game, because it would have rotted away, so it’s just crumbling ruins, but when players were building stuff, they were building little shacks and shanty towns. They were building them out of the stone blocks that we’d made, but in the style of old wooden mansion thing. We always had a problem with that, but now we’re just going to give them the wooden assets and we’ve stripped back the official time that the world broke apart.
“We had an idea in our heads of how old the ruins and stuff were, but players are pretty much building complete bunker things. Sometimes they’ll go full on overgrown ruins, somethings they’ll go, ‘Oh, it’s preserved’. Who’s to say before the players were in the game, there weren’t other people building stuff? But the idea is that the official lore stops the moment that the game launches, and then it’s the story of the players and their journeys.”
Soon they’ll be able to add hazards like turrets, create dungeons, place reward chests in the game, with plans to implement switches and wiring down the line. Bossa are really trusting them not to overstep the mark, just as they have with all the creations to date, letting them create unique platforming challenges and puzzles to reach player-creator placed loot chests. The one concession to “impossible” challenges is that their rewards will get bigger and better the longer they go unclaimed.
When the game launches into Early Access in May, it will be far from the end of Bossa’s development of the game. There’s still alliances and social elements to formalise, which will then mean you’re able to claim islands as your territory and for rivalries to spring up. Even a few months after release, it could be a very different feeling game as these all take form.
“It’s essentially that [we’re going to let this evolve],” Luke admitted. “We’re not quite sure, but we do have the things in place. With the territory control side of things, we haven’t revealed the full details of that yet, but it very much still includes the need to explore the islands and it’s more a player generated exploration. I’ve got to be vague, but we’re very, very aware of keeping the exploration side of things and really utilising the islands, rather than just sticking a thing on the surface and that’s it, you own the island. We want to utilise all these crazy temples and structures that the players have been building.
“It also means that as a new player, when you’re flying around, you’re not under attack. These islands support the holding alliance in another way, so it’s not like they build up defences on it and shoot anyone that comes their way. It’s still going to be the wilderness and we’re being very careful to preserve that.”
The comparisons to Sea of Thieves are almost inevitable though. There is looting, there is battling, there is piracy, even if you can fly through this more fantastical setting. The ship-to-ship combat in the game hinges around the physics simulation and the fully customisable ships, which can be designed and edited using an in-game tool that creates a wireframe blueprint that you then build on.
Luke explained, “Your ship is fully built by you and it’s physics based, so where as the galleon and the sloop [in Sea of Thieves] end up with those endless chases, in Worlds Adrift we have an interesting balance that wasn’t exactly designed. You find resources in the world – iron, lead, stuff like that – and you use those to build parts of your ship. The combined material weight determines how heavy it is.
“So say your skyship can hold 1000kg, your engines weigh 200kg… you’re always balancing the weight and materials your using, which could be lighter but slightly weaker, easier to break off, and stuff like that. What that does mean is you can build for speed and you might have one cannon as a deterrent, whereas these warships will come at you with ten cannons, but they are sluggish and slow as hell. It’s very easy to outrun them and outmanoeuvre them.”
However, this also holds true in the big battles between warships. Knocking parts off those other ships lightens them and increases their chances of escape. Thankfully, Bossa are keeping combat a kind of level playing field. While you can loot and find rare weapons and technologies from the past, there’s no RPG-esque levelling, no real power creep from the first hour of play through to the end of the game. The cannons you might find could be better in being able to throw the shells further, but each hit you land still only does the same amount of damage. You might find different types of weapon that offer up new methods of attack or defence, but it’s always more dependent on player skill in design and combat to emerge victorious.
It’s almost a shame that the first thing I asked Luke about when sitting down to discuss Worlds Adrift was No Man’s Sky and Sea of Thieves. It’s a game with its own history and unique evolution, putting evermore influence and control in its players’ hands. Yes, there are parallels with this British school of sandbox game design, and their lessons will have certainly helped to make Bossa’s game design move past the problems of content, but Worlds Adrift deserves to be recognised on its own merits.