Game Design

worlds adrift ends: triumphs and challenges of the skyship mmo

On May 29th, Bossa Studios announced that it would be shutting down Worlds Adrift, the sandbox MMO where you build and pilot your own skyship through a sky of player-created islands.  The game, which has been in early access on Steam since July 2017, will be shut down by the end of July this year1.

Image from: Bossa Studios.

Clearly, any game that gets pulled before it makes it out of early access did not meet its original goals.  So it’s not surprising that news outlets, and even the developers themselves, are labelling Worlds Adrift a failure.  A certain street cred based on shipped titles is prominent among game devs.

As a result, it’s easy to forget that every “failed” video game project is worthwhile for having been experienced by one or thousands or players, and for teaching us valuable lessons about game development.

If we shift the paradigm, I think Worlds Adrift is a triumph on many fronts.  It was just up against some tough challenges it could not surmount.

Image from: Bossa Studios.

Challenge 1: Mixed focus on game vs. toy

Worlds Adrift is mainly a toy, not a game.  Yet the developers had to split their efforts, weakening the game’s purpose and goals.

A toy is an object you play with, while a game is something you play.  Both are things used for fun, but toys lack the structure of games; typically, they don’t have formal rules, point systems, or progression arcs.

Take for example the World’s Adrift Island Creator, which allows players to unleash their creativity and create personal islands to be seen and explored in the game.

The Worlds Adrift Island Creator is free to play on Steam and will remain available, though there will be no way for players to share and explore their islands.

The editor looks more like Unity than a game, and functions as a toy.  There is no right or wrong way to build an island, and there are no points, time limits, or cutscenes invovled.  Just a blank canvas with some tools to make whatever you want.

The Island Creator itself is a well-designed tool that is easy enough to pick up for the first timer, yet has a lot of depth for more experienced creators to create very detailed pieces of art.  It’s very easy to get lost in the process of creating an island, spending hours playing with the editor.  I know this from experience.

The “toy”ness of Worlds Adrift becomes even clearer when you jump into the game world.  The player-generated sandbox universe has you building your own airship, then travelling and exploring islands created by other players.  And this is where Worlds Adrift really hits its stride – it’s beautiful, immersive and fun to create, explore, repeat.  Not to mention the joy of using a grappling hook.  The whole thing screams potential.

Challenge 2: Making a virtual world profitable

In the end, the problem wasn’t the world of Worlds Adrift.  The problem was trying to force that world into becoming a marketable, self-sustaining game.

On the gaming front, players can engage in combat, or follow progression trees to gain knowledge and unlock schematics to craft better items.  And this is where Worlds Adrift as an MMO fell short.  The few progression loops weren’t developed enough, and the world lacked game objectives.

An early access review describes my feelings pretty well.

I’m not really convinced by Worlds Adrift the MMO. The freewheeling aviation adventure? That I absolutely dig. I can lose days to it. It’s become my happy place, where I can look at pretty islands and not worry about the weird rattling noise that’s coming from my bathroom. I don’t even mind losing my life to the occasional workplace accident. I’m not bemoaning that it’s multiplayer, either. It’s perfectly suited for it, particularly co-op. It’s at the big picture stuff, or lack thereof, where it loses me.

– Fraser Brown, Rock Paper Shotgun2

When announcing that the game would be shut down, the developers spoke about what they thought was missing.  Pretty much all of it was gameplay-related.

We’re missing a lot of features… like all the creatures.  We’re missing access to the lore, objectives to pursue in the world.  There are no gigantic sky whales to battle.  There’s no territory control to defend, no puzzle features in the islands to kind of fight your way through temples.  The technical challenges of the game became so big that we had to focus all our efforts into making it just work rather than making it as good to play as it needed to be.  This is not what we originally planned, and as a result, we failed at creating a game millions would play.

– Luke Williams, Lead Designer of Worlds Adrift at Bossa Studios3

This brings to light an all-too-common challenge for game developers.  The bigger and more complex a project, the more funding it requires to keep going.  More funding, for games, means more players.  And World’s Adrift was nothing if not ambitious, to the point that it needed a critical mass of millions of players, which was most suitable to an MMO.

Image from: Bossa Studios.

Thus, the sandbox world of World’s Adrift needed MMO-style layers of complexity added to it – objectives, combat, crafting, lore, puzzles, loot, progression, even things as simple as health bars.  These elements, and more of them that were eventually deemed missing from the game, were crucial for World’s Adrift to be financially viable.

The developers did not have the time or resources to spend on the MMO features because of the demands of the sandbox world – physics, art assets, user-generated content, building tools, to name a few.

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Challenge 3: No defined space for non-gaming virtual worlds

But that’s okay.  Remember, Worlds Adrift is not a game.  Some terms that I think better describe the experience include “virtual world”, “interactive art” or “pure sandbox”.

Here’s how it would work.  Imagine wandering from island to island and just looking at them.  Having thoughts and opinions on the look and feel of each area.  Enjoying exploration simply because of discovery and wonder.  No way of dying, no combat, no goals or missions.  Furthermore, imagine being able to create and add islands to the world.  Or exploring the floating islands in VR.

Players have created intricate, gorgeous worlds, some of which are featured on the Worlds Adrift website.

It’s difficult for many gamers to come to terms with this, because unlike toys, games require goals, conflict and progression.  Players are thus accustomed to looking for things to do in any virtual world.

Sadly, there is no market or funding for virtual, interactive art experiences where players can create parts of the world.  These worlds are expensive to make and maintain.  So these experiences must fall under the video game category to try and be viable products.  This results in having to add game mechanics to an art world to capture the gamer audience.

Not all virtual, interactive experiences need to be games.  Sometimes they can just be worlds.

Image from: Bossa Studios.

Challenge 4: Digital art is a new medium with little traction

As society gets more and more digital, it makes sense that our art should be expressed within virtual worlds too.  Art appreciation and creation does not have to be limited to physical art galleries and museums. In fact, creating and engaging with art can be made far more accessible through worlds like Worlds Adrift.

There’s a lack of funding for these sort of  projects at the minute, as is the constant struggle for art.  Maybe the interest and value of art and artistic expression has diminished since the Renaissance, when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel.  Or maybe the modern art investor, who is likely to fund experimental art projects, does not know about or understand virtual worlds.

Furthermore, the cost of creating art in a digital space is often a lot higher than that of creating art in a traditional medium.  Building a virtual world, especially of the scale of World’s Adrift, requires a large team of experts who specialize in various technical fields.  It also requires expensive technology and ongoing maintenance staff.

Image from: Bossa Studios.

The lasting triumph of world’s adrift

Nonetheless, Worlds Adrift was a pioneer in community world building, and in new ways to engage and explore art.  Its Island Creator was its biggest strength, gaining very positive reviews on Steam and allowing for the creation of some truly remarkable pieces of art.  Getting to then explore those islands in game was also very compelling.

But all this without a solid game loop was not enough to keep it going.  For a small studio, the ambitious undertaking of a proposed MMO that requires a lot of ongoing content creation and support means that it almost certainly needs to be a hit to attract the player masses it needs to be successful.

The other big reason Worlds Adrift struggled was because, like DisneyQuest, it was a touch ahead of its time.

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While we will never again be able to experience the world firsthand, the many screenshots, developer podcast, and YouTube videos will help the art to live on beyond the July expiration date of Worlds Adrift.  And with any luck, those lasting artifacts will serve as a narrative for future ambitious developers and artists, about the team that tried to make this work.

I hope that, in the near future, there will be many thriving art-focused virtual worlds (not games) out there, aimed at everyone from school kids to professional artists.  The real world just has some catching up to do to make these sort of experiences self-sustainable, and even profitable.

If you’re a fan of open world sandbox creation and digital art, I strongly recommend you check out the many worlds created by players on the Steam Community Hub for the Island Creator.  For more about the development process and gameplay of Worlds Adrift, a good start is the videos and podcast on YouTube.

References Cited

  1. O’Connor, Alice. “Worlds Adrift shutting down after failing to take off.” Rock Paper Shotgun, 29 May 2019. Web. 9 June 2019.
  2. Brown, Fraser. “Premature Evaluation: Worlds Adrift.” Rock Paper Shotgun, 29 May 2018. Web. 9 June 2019.
  3. Worlds Adrift. “The End of Worlds Adrift.” Uploaded to YouTube, 29 May 2019. Web. 9 June 2019.