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My first positive experience with The Repopulation was during character select. It asks you to deisgn your starting armor, and it gives you access to basically every armor piece in the game in order to do so. You design a character who has the cool sci-fi armor you want. You're not done with gear, though: as the game explains, most of a piece of gear's stats come from fittings you slot into it, which are crafted by players. You can also manage your crafting materials carefully to add a few stats to the armor itself, and of course dyes are available to manage your look even further. But I took it as a sign of good faith that the game was willing to start my life as a cool-looking badass.
The perfect metaphor for my time with The Repopulation came about 6 hours of game time later, when I died several times in a row and realized that it was time to upgrade my fittings to improve my combat capabilities. After buying 4 pricy new fittings off the auction house, I realized my gear couldn't handle them. I was perplexed: do I need to upgrade my gear? No, it turned out, I could use my gear forever, just as promised. The problem were my gear skills- I'd apparently broken an unspoken rule during character select and mixed heavy and medium armor types, which have different combat skills associated with them. That meant that I was splitting my skill-ups between them and my armor skill was half what it should have been, ensuring that I couldn't use appropriately-leveled armor fittings. By taking The Repopulation's invitation to experiment with my look seriously, I'd gimped my character.
The Repopulation is an early access sandbox MMO written in the Hero Engine. Its developers, Above and Beyond Technologies, are gunning for a full F2P release at the end of 2015 or early 2016. The game has raised over $225,000 over two rounds of kickstarter funding, and who knows how much cash for early access. And why not? It's been a bit of an MMO community cliché that the genre has lost its way and should spend more time experimenting in the sandbox space, which has been revitalized by distinctly unmassive games like Minecraft and Rust. Maybe what the genre needs is just one solid-if-janky sandbox game to get successful and bring the genre back into alignment.
The Repopulation is pushing hard to position itself as the new Indie Sandbox Sweetheart. Heck, the game might as well call itself Star Conflicts Universes for how hard it's trying, on the surface, to ape Star Wars Galaxies. And on some level, I agree that if a solid SWG clone were to get made and come out, it could be rather popular, if niche. So what's the problem?
The problem is that The Repopulation is not that game. The Repopulation is not a SWG clone. The Repopulation is more like a distant teenage memory of SWG committed to binary. The Repopulation is more like a cargo cult ritual of SWG, where all the motions are gone through, and none of them understood. The Repopulation doesn't understand what made SWG great, but even worse, it doesn't understand what could potentially make itself great. And that's, to be honest, the worst part of all. It's fine to make an "homage" that exists only through the lens of your own experience, even if I disagree with it. It's not fine to make a game that doesn't have a clear understanding of its own design.
Perfect example: let's go back to armor. The developers at A&B clearly understood that items breaking and having to be replaced is a key component of the game economy. But, they asked, what if I want to keep my awesome looking armor? What if the replacement armor when it breaks doesn't come in my look? What if the stats I want are on something that looks like crap? If Bob's Best Helmets clearly have the best helmets and bob doesn't have a fashion sense, everyone will be running around in the same crappy helmet!
So, solution: let's separate stats, and item breakage, from cosmetics. That way, you can have whatever cosmetics you want. This is smart, this is good. This is a clear improvement on star wars galaxies. But then, what do they do? They tie the cosmetics to in-game function, just like they *just got done not doing*. You have to pick one of three armor classes, and your armor class has an in-game purpose, and changing armor classes is expensive. This is twice as dumb for an indie company that can't afford to give armor the wide breadth of cosmetics they truly need in the first place!
And they gameplay is filled with weird backtracks and reversions like these. Armor doesn't have stats, except for when it does. You can do anything you want, except that the world is filled with level 40 monsters who will end you unless you grind up combat. There's no grinding, except that you have to grind to make a-rank equipment which is so ubiquitous from more experienced players that the only thing to do in the game is grind up skills so you can make a-rank equipment.
The economy is downright bizarre. A handful of low-level quests will give you enough scratch to buy up the best mount on the auction house. You can buy top-level fittings on the auction house, but there's also the ability to own a shop in game. It serves no purpose to be able to do so, though- anything you can put in your shop, I can buy instantly from the auction house, receive, and equip, without ever going into town. You can sell on the auction house or place buy orders without having to go into town.
This is one of the most bizarre parts of The Repopulation- there's this bizarrely hardcore attitude when it comes to the crafting system, or not getting murdered while picking flowers, but when it comes to the entire basis of how the Star Wars Galaxies economy worked, they don't want you to have to even use your 0s cooldown teleport to get back into town.
Or how about one of the staples of Star Wars Galaxies: town ownership. Can you build your own town? Yes, but you shouldn't. Unlike Star Wars Galaxies, where there was a few small theme park areas, and then the big wide world where you'd spend most of your time, in The Repopulation, there's a big wide theme park(-ish) area, and then a small, empty expanse to which there is no reason to go. Guess which of these towns go in? The towns are literally in the middle of nowhere. There's a nation-siege system to allow you to destroy or capture towns, but there's no reason to do so, as town ownership does not give you access to any resources or offer any advantage whatsoever. There's not automated crafting tables, helper droids, harvesters, or anything. Actually, scratch that, harvesters do exist, but you cannot place them in the world. Rather, there are special types of gathering nodes that you place a harvester inside for a little while instead of mining by hand.
It's kind of bizarre, because the entire town-ownership system is first gimped and then given this half-hearted territory control mechanism that serves no apparent purpose, and nobody ever wanted. The worst part is that it ruins town ownership by once again backtracking on its own design: towns are a massive investment, and most of that investment is cosmetic in nature (since there's nothing else to do with the damn thing), but you can't make the town actually look good, because you have to build for defensibility or someone might steal your town. Also the main town-placing area is an endless gray expanse with a single texture for miles. Hard to make that look good.
How about PVP? Well, there are no apparent benefits to engaging in it, first of all, and no detriment to dying in it. Even if someone tries to camp you, you can respawn back at your nearest safe zone (either your city, or your faction's city). Not that that sort of camping protection is a bad thing, but the most you can do is distract someone. SWG gave you a number of benefits to going active-PVP, but the repopulation just kind of shrugs and says, "well, there's PVP.."
So what about PVE? Well, there's only two reasons to engage in it: to farm drops for crafting, and to clear enemies away from a resource node. The problem with this: SWG had a low amount of vertical scaling for player abilities (outside of buffs you received from other players), and a high amount of horizontal scaling (more players necessary) for enemies needed to grab high-level mats. Since large-scale fights would require buffing, medics, and a whole rigamarole, this encouraged players to work together. The Repopulation has the opposite situation: there are no ingredients which I am aware of that require you to fight anything as a group. Oh, there are enemies that need to be fought as a group, called out by an almost-invisible icon next to their title bar, which only appears when you're within range of it and have it selected. But you don't need to fight them. Everything they drop can be obtained by soloable opponents. On the other end of things, the vertical power scaling is outrageous, ensuring that you will absolutely get insta-murdered by even mid-level opponents unless you take some hours to grind up your combat abilities to an appropriate level. Even fittings are level-gated, ensuring that you don't get over-geared for your level.
I think everyone recognizes that the crafting system is the core of The Repopulation. I think it's bad, and misses the point- but I've already written, so, so much and I could write about the same length again about just the crafting system. I do want to take a moment to point out that without randomized, obsolescing stat inputs into the crafting system, like SWG had, people are going to work out what the best gear/fittings are, how to make them, and then just make the entire economy about critical pathing that, making this entire dog and pony show pointless.
But what I wanted to do is get back to the point I was making at the beginning. SWG was more than just an economy with a graphical interface. It was a game! And more than that, it was a game that specifically went out of its way to appeal to many different types of players. In fact, I was reading just recently Raph Koster talking about how they intentionally tried to build out content for all 4 of Bartle's player types.
The Repopulation does not. It is made to appeal to Killers and Achievers, and that's it. There are no POI's, no way of interacting with the world, the cosmetic system is miniscule, there's no downtime system, there's no concept of needing to interact with other players except through combat and the same AH interface I do with wow. What's more, the band of achievement has been narrowed to exactly one thing: Craft Stuff. Without a full ecosystem of players all trying to play different ways, without even a full ecosystem of achievers trying achieve different things, the game is paltry, it's a shadow of a great thing, it's a cargo cult ceremony. Even the economy doesn't work, because in an environment where people aren't really trying to get things, pricing makes no sense.
People have this weird opinion that sandbox games are this magic cure for what ails MMO's. What ails MMOs is a lack of attraction for different types of players. You can see it in wow: in the beginning, there were people hanging out on guild chat, PVPing, doing raids, grinding, whatever. A lot of different activities, appealing to different types of players. Today, wow is log in to raid. Or log in to arena. An appeal to a very narrow band of a few types of players. It's not wow's fault: wow was like that from the beginning, people just didn't understand it very well, so they didn't know.
But if you're going to make a game today, you can't just make a weird crafting system and hope that nobody notices that there's nothing behind it. That's not going to work, people are savvier than that now. You have to actually make an MMO that appeals to more than just killers and achievers. It's almost happened a few times, but it can happen now, if you just approach your game with clear eyes.