The steampunk genre is a curious one I never fully understood. For one thing, I'm pretty sure that people in the 1890's weren't typically wearing top hats and rusty welding goggles together at the same time, but that seems to be a fairly standard steampunk fashion combo. It gets even more curious when you throw in fantasy elements like elves, orcs, goblins and magic. Orcs with bowlers and burly muttonchop sideburns lumbering through filthy, steamy streets and grumbling to themselves in thick Cockney accents, elves trying to figure out how to use magic to make their zeppelins fly straighter, goblins using steam-powered rail guns and weaponized Tesla coils to stage train robberies... it can get out of hand pretty quickly.
That's where City of Steam comes in - right at that tipping point. It is more properly labeled "steam fantasy" than steampunk, but it contains elements that will appeal to the steampunk crowd and to fantasy MMO players. It is set in a high-magic world experiencing an industrial revolution - transportation and production are becoming mechanized by steam power, clockwork and magic. It's actually way more fun than that sounds - check out JeffPrime's Beta Impressions from a previous round of closed beta testing.
This week we got a guided tour of the third round of closed beta by Gabriel V. Laforge, Communications Manager at Mechanist Games.The first thing Gabriel wanted to show off was, understandably, the dungeons. This is where most of the PvE questing takes place, and there are a lot of them. In the starting city, called Refuge, there are a good handful of them, all in slightly different locales. Each dungeon has its own set of challenges. We started out with The Glut, a sewers-type dungeon, and did both challenges there. One involved finding and opening all the chests and the other required killing all the monsters in the place. Each challenge had a time limit, and the chest challenge was much shorter. Gabriel advised me to only find and loot the chests and not bother with smashing all the crates and barrels and other loot containers scattered around, which was good advice. Between the two of us, we managed to find all the chests with only a few seconds remaining.
The challenges reward daily prizes, which means that players will have a reason to run them over and over. The challenges for The Glut rewarded health potions and Challenge Orbs, which can be used in a Transmuter machine to generate semi-random items, ranging from chest keys to steam-bike mounts.
There are some interesting systems in place in City of Steam that are totally handy and convenient but also have perfectly rational lore-logic behind them that you just don't see very often.
A lot of games have personal storage vaults or chests or lockers, for example. These chests or crates or vaults or whatever are usually stationary objects that magically contain all of your stashed belongings no matter where you access them from, and these are usually only located in major population areas or rest centers. There's no logic behind your stuff being accessible from every storage chest in the world - it's just there because that's the game mechanic.
City of Steam works a little bit differently. There are still storage spaces, and you can still access all your stuff from any terminal, but there's a logical reason for it - these storage terminals are pneumatic tubes all connected to some massive underground system, evidently operated by dwarves. When you access the terminal, it sends a request to the tube guys and they shoot your container straight to you. Sure, that's a justification for a common game mechanic, but it's a damned good one, and better than I've seen elsewhere. It's the little things like this that make the game what it is.
Another cool thing about this storage system is that the first time I encountered one, it was in an adventuring instance. It wasn't hidden in some crowded room in some bank in the middle of a town. It was in a spot where a player might commonly have a pressing need for it. We've all had those moments where we're in the middle of a dungeon or instance or whatever, and suddenly realize we forgot to vendor our trash loot and stash those ingots or unpolished gems or super-heavy armor, and have run completely out of inventory space. In most games, you would have to run out and hit a vendor and/or a vault to make room.
The very best thing about the storage tube: it was standing right beside an Alchemer in that same dungeon. An Alchemer is basically a healing potion vending machine that also buys your junk. These machines are constantly restocked, likely by the same system of underground tubes that feed the storage terminals, and give players a convenient way to prepare for and recover from tough dungeons. These services are not located in every single dungeon or adventuring area, and there some to be found in rest areas because that's sort of mandatory, but their inclusion means that the developers are also gamers, and they are designing what they want to see in games.
This also includes the cash shop. Everything sold in the cash shop (with the exception of some cosmetics and the like) is stuff you can get in the game by normal means - there are no exclusive potions or other pay-to-win items. The devs at Mechanist Games feel that pay-to-win items tend to limit the lifespan of a game, and that the ability to earn valued items through normal gameplay gives players the incentive to keep playing.
Gabriel was also keen on introducing me to the item mod and crafting system. Modding is fairly simple and straightforward - you don't need special tools or a workbench, you just select the thing you want to tweak and cram mods into it. The current system is rather limited - one mod at a time - but Gabriel assured me that they were planning on expanding on this in future builds.
There are some rather unfortunate limitations to the mod system, however. While mods applied to weapons are visible and can drastically alter the look of them, armor and clothing mods are invisible. Gabriel explained that this is because there are a lot of resources already used for un-modded armor - so many pieces, and so many variations and combinations. Making the mods visible would require a ton of new resources, which would cripple load times and frame rates. This is not a graphically-complex game - the largest map we visited was around 3 - 4 mb in size. Add a bunch of crazy armor mods on a bunch of people running around on each map and that means much longer load times and lag.
We talked in some detail about future plans for City of Steam. Gabriel was unable to go into any real specifics - this is still mid-way through closed beta, after all, and so much is subject to change - but he did say that they are expecting to go into open beta testing in "spring-ish." In the meantime, they are working on improving a number of systems that testers have tried and found lacking - keybinding, for example. This is something they wanted to add to closed beta because so many testers started asking for it, but there were larger issues that needed handling first, and custom keybinding will not likely be seen until open beta sometime early next year. He also mentioned more customization in the character creation menu, adding more variety to skin tones. They plan on sticking with realistic tones and avoiding hot pinks and electric blues and the like.
It's pretty clear that the developers are enthusiastic about the future of City of Steam. And the beta community is too. How about you? Share your thoughts in the comments!