Release Date: Q4 2006
A lot of people would argue that Neverwinter Nights became a hit based largely on the Aurora toolkit that it shipped with, which let fans create their own adventures they could GM for friends or distribute online through fansites. Mod friendliness aside, it was more or less what one would expect from a modern fantasy RPG based on the D&D license. A lot of gamers are at this very moment eagerly looking forward to Neverwinter Nights II largely for the prospect of getting to once again make their own campaign using updated graphics, spell effects, and D&D rules. If you are one of these people, then there is an MMO on the market now that you may want to keep a particularly close eye on. It offers a campaign creation toolset that is remarkably similar to Neverwinter Nights II's but allows a wider range of campaign creations and a central server where all players can access all material created by all users. Progression in the user-created modules even helps further progression in the main game, instead of serving as a sideline.
The title in question, as you might have guessed, is the upcoming Ryzom Ring expansion for Nevrax's Saga of Ryzom MMORPG. Saga of Ryzom is an independent MMO with an unusually stiff difficulty curve, a hugely elaborate sci-fantasy setting, and the massive misfortune of launching a month before World of Warcraft did. Despite the game's unusual aesthetic, for most English language players it was quickly forgotten in the rush toward other games that offered more instant gratification, more recognizable licenses, and larger player bases. Still, Ryzom did find its audience, and Nevrax settled into the task of fine-tuning the game that all post-launch MMOs did. But when most MMOs would be content to just spew out some new high-level content for their first expansion, Ryzom decided to do something completely crazy instead. Ryzom Ring changes the way Saga of Ryzom plays to the point where it really forces a re-evaluation of the entire game as if it were a new product.
The Ryzom Ring alterations are two-fold, and half of them were rather quietly snuck out as part of what appeared to be a pretty pedestrian promotional event at the time. Dubbed the "New Player Experience," it was the addition of a "newbie" island separate from the main game. Anyone could download the Saga of Ryzom client from the game's website and then play online for free, although no player could leave the confines of the "newbie island." If you wanted to take yourself into the "real" game universe, you had to subscribe, but otherwise could play on "newbie island" indefinitely. Largely unpublicized and unhyped, the New Player Experience came in quietly but offered an entirely new way for players to get involved with an MMO before having to make a long-term commitment to playing.
While the New Player Experience offered a new way to draw in players to Saga of Ryzom, Ryzom Ring wants to offer a new way to keep players in a game that doesn't revolve around barraging players with bigger things to kill. Ryzom Ring allows players to create adventures using a client that emphasizes drag-and-drop placement of objects and enemies, much like Neverwinter Nights. Unlike NWN's reliance on scripts, though, Ryzom Ring allows for a player to act as a true "Adventure Master," taking control of characters and mobs as he sees fit. This can let a mob attack with more intelligent tactics than AI would normally allow, or for characters to genuinely roleplay with another NPC as part of an adventure. Adventure Masters can set up automatic triggers for behaviors if they want something more script-like, or can remotely trigger events themselves as they watch the adventure. Player-created adventures are instanced and only available when the creating player has his Saga of Ryzom client open.
The Ryzom Ring bears a complex and interesting relationship to the core game. By completing the various player-made adventures, players earn consumable items that make the core game – so long and complex that no maxed-out character has ever been created – pass by more quickly. Characters who divide their time between Ryzom proper and the Ryzom Ring will level up more quickly and be able to adventure farther, sooner. Characters may freely bring anything their character had earned in the main game into their adventures in the Ring, but can't use the Ring to earn anything but the special consumable items. While the main game still progresses as it ever did, with an emphasis on story events and massive interactions over guild-based team combat, players in the Ring will be able to create and maintain whatever sort of adventures they want. Possibilities are near-endless, from enormous World of Warcraft style dungeons to "adventures" that are little more than persistent worlds used for events like in-character weddings or online guild parties.
Adventures created for the Ryzom Ring are still part of the world of Ryzom, and as such, the Adventure Master draws upon monsters, NPCs, flora, and fauna unique to Ryzom for crafting adventures. A player opts to create adventures when his character is as low as level one, but players can only use monsters and NPCs they've seen in either the New Player Experience or Ryzom itself in their adventures. This also applies to certain landforces, decorative plants, and even certain environment types. Of course, this doesn't force a character to level to a certain point, since it's entirely possible to travel the full breadth of Ryzom and see everything without ever getting into a battle or picking up a quest. Even doing that requires much care and effort, though, and of course, Nevrax hopes that someone traveling Ryzom simply to "unlock" things for character creation would feel compelled to stop and get their character involved with the world. It does mean that players can't focus on the Ring to the exclusion of the main game, and even someone who wanted to focus on the main game would benefit from spending enough time in the Ring to acquire consumables.
Saga of Ryzom's NeL engine and the unique processing features give it some of the most attractive graphics players can hope to find in a modern MMO, but it's really the game's unique aesthetic that drives home the eerie beauty of the game. Ryzom's developers take great pride in stating that they offer players more than "orcs and goblins," and hope that letting players take ownership of the alien world of Atys through the Ryzom Ring will let them feel more connected to it. The adventure creation interface for the Ryzom Ring is no less beautiful than the game itself, as it actually makes use of the third-person perspective used to play the game during creation.
To create an adventure, a player sends his character into one of the available maps that he wants to modify. The character can explore the map in exactly the same way he might explore a real map. Once you've directed him to a patch of land you want to modify, you can then alter the camera angle in the ways usually available in the game, and then begin clicking and dragging environmental objects from a sub-menu onto the desired part of the landscape. RTS-like lasso controls let a player choose to copy and paste, or delete, entire groups of objects. This makes it very possible to create entire armies quickly or even on the fly, as it's possible to place new monsters or objects while running an adventure. Similar graphical sub-menus let players set the time of the day and atmospheric effects, like rain or snow.
Once all of the objects are in place, then players can begin crafting its role in the game by highlighting it and entering the sub-menu of options related to that object. NPCs can have dialogue and behavior patterns set, decorative objects can be set up as quest triggers or quest objects, and movement patterns and ranges can be set for any object capable of moving on its own. Finally, players can set up sequences of events, such as a camp being stricken with a fire and burning down, or an army rushing into an area occupied by monsters. Triggers can even move characters from one map to another during the course of an adventure, allowing them to do things like move from a safe village into hostile enemy territory or some area that's supposed to be nearly anywhere on the planet.
Ryzom Ring is a bold and interesting idea for forcing MMO players and PC RPG fans who have been ignoring the title to sit up and give Saga of Ryzom the attention its due. It's not without risk; its success will rest on players being willing to embrace and invest enormous time in the title, when much of what's held the game back has been an inability to get fans to pay attention to it instead of flashier, bigger-budget, more generic MMOs. To some extent, the Ryzom Ring reaches out not to extant MMO players, who probably already have a game or two absorbing their loyalty, but to fans of PC games that have never seen the kind of interactivity they want in an MMORPG. If you're one of those fans who have your fingers crossed for Neverwinter Nights II, then be sure to give Saga of Ryzom and its new Ryzom Ring expansion a look. You may like it just as well as the game you think you want right now. You might like it even better.