Shadow Cities – MMROPG played with iPhone or iPad

I got hooked on monkey phonicks. Shadow Cities is a dangerously addictive online game, played on iPhone or iPad with other geeks. It is FarmVille for nerds, as one of my friends said.

The premise of the game is simple.

Two competing mage tribes ( Architects and Animators ) compete over energy resources and domination around the world. Mages gain new skills as they get more experience, which is gained by harvesting free spirits and destroying enemy resources. There is no room for diplomacy, as the game is about harvesting resources and dominating areas which give access to best energy gateways. By crushing your enemy it is easier to dominate important areas, as by giving legroom to your enemies allows them to grow stronger and develop new skills.

Personal energy and currency in the game is called mana, which is used in all spells whether attacking someone, healing structures or building new structures. After using all of their mana, players can either gain mana by waiting it to grow back or use mana bottles to refill themselves instantly. Mana bottles are acquired by either finishing missions inside the game or via purchases. 30 euros gets you 300 mana bottles, which is more than enough to get your character into higher levels in the game and make gameplay fun.

Game mechanics are really simple, which guarantee that starting to play is easy as 1-2-3. Spells are thrown with simple finger gestures and game is played on semi 3d world – on a map – based initially on your physical location. By gaining experience you can develop skills, which allow you to warp to different positions around the world through beacons built by your friends or yourself. So if you are on vacation in San Francisco, you could build a remote beacon right next to large group of energy gateways. Through beacon you and your friends could teleport to harvest all the needed energy – and jump back – without enemy even knowing you had such energy farms at your disposal.

Physical access to different locations is important, as it gives players easier ways to combat enemy forces in the area and conquer realms for their domination. Combat can be fierce in areas populated by lots of players – and places where people spend their working hours or have lunch. And in most cases fighting over some realms and areas is not about game tactics and strategy, but about bragging rights and geek honor. We can’t let the other team dominate the city center, even though keeping the domain in your control is insanely hard and getting attacked in such areas is the norm.

And that brings us to the more interesting parts of the game: the social aspect. Even though game mechanics are simple, gameplay can be a complex social system with people all around the world co-operating inside the game and also outside the game through Facebook, forums and real life meetings. It is amazing how people can self organize themselves into groups which work together and make something more out of a simple game. It is the people who make the game into what it is. Without interesting people the game would be boring as hell. With the social aspect, even dull grinding and simple gameplay becomes an addictive experience.

Last week was my first time playing the game in a campaign. I connected with few of my real life friends in the game and started to play for real, spending my slack time playing the game. I had my iPad on almost all the time: at work when my code was compiling or new files were downloading I casted spells to gain more experience, while walking in the city center I destroyed enemy structures – and while commuting by metro, tram and by bus – I practiced drive by destruction, shooting enemy structures visible to the route.

Game is being developed all the time, so how the rules change and what kind of features it will later on have is unknown. At its present state the game is quite interesting to try, though in the longer run it becomes boring and will feel like work — just like World of Warcraft, with its endless grinding and stupid missions which do not bring anything new to the game. It will be interesting to see how the makers can keep the game feeling fresh and create new ideas, which keep old players interested to continue to play. Though as players invest money and time into the gameplay – and develop their characters’ skills, they are not so keen to drop the game immediately. However if there is nothing more to be gained, then why bother to play. Even at the moment, when just two week long campaigns are played – there are already players who have gained the maximum level in the game ( for now at least ).

For me the addictive part in the game is already over. I played and survived one campaign, and saw what kind of huge amounts of work success on the top lists require. Fortunately I have better things to do than to continue to grind and harvest hours and hours in the game. Normal gameplay is less based on skills than on the time effort and money you put into the game, hence in the long run it will feel like work. However I will continue to be casual gamer and participate in strategic group missions inside the game and try to help our team to continue to win.

There are interesting possibilities where the game can and might develop to, but that is a whole another discussion – and I could speculate more about that later on. In the short term it will be interesting to see how rules change and what new ideas will be implemented into the game. One thing which on personal level is a shame is that there are no points given and no leader boards available for anything else than energy gathering. That makes it harder to motivate people to take other kind of roles in the game – as the game rewards only for one kind of actions. Those who are master hunters, healers or contribute otherwise greatly to the victory – do not see them up in leader boards.

At the moment there are (I assume ) just a few hundred players playing the game actively. Game has so far been available only in Finland, so the nature of the game could change a lot when they open game in UK, in US or in other major markets, from where numerous new players could flock into the game. That could also give it a major boost and change the tempo of the game to more active – as there would be more people to bump in to and new targets to destroy.

So far the game has had a great start, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

And yeah, the game is developed here in Helsinki by Grey AreaLabs: http://www.greyarealabs.com/

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