James Austin, CEO of Wonderstruck, talks to us about the studio’s ambitious sandbox MMO.
Roughly a month and a half ago, UK based indie development studio Wonderstruck Games celebrated the full launch of their open world sandbox MMO, Boundless. If you’ve read our review of the game, you know that we really, really liked it. It’s an ambitious experience that blends elements of MMOs, procedurally generated level design, user generated content, and expansive building mechanics. Shortly prior to the game’s launch last month, we sent across some of our most burning questions about Boundless to Wonderstruck, and their CEO James Austen reverted back with some incredibly insightful and very interesting responses. Here’s how our conversation went.
"Keeping a live universe online and fully playable for the entire duration of development was a huge challenge, but ultimately we think it’s helped us make a better game."
What are some of the main changes you’ve made to the game based on the feedback you’ve received during Early Access?
Wow – that’s quite a question, really, because it’s almost impossible to answer this question without saying “everything”. Boundless was launched into Steam Early Access as a playable prototype after constant requests by players in the game’s community, so the entire game has been created whilst in Early Access. We used this as a process of having player input and feedback across the full development. Players would often complain that development was slow, but really they were simply exposed to the reality of game development from prototype to full release. Endless features, balance, iteration, bugs, compatibility, and scalability were all affected by the Early Access player input.
One significant feature that came from player feedback was our creation of Atlases and resource maps. In Boundless resources are non-uniformly distributed between Worlds and within Worlds. The idea was to encourage players to get out into the Worlds, explore them, and go on an adventure for the resources they needed. However, most new players are programmed to dig down and mine – Boundless didn’t work that way. We thought there would be more interest in local knowledge about where resources were to be discovered, but players were finding it frustrating to not be able to find anything they wanted. We didn’t. want to change the distribution models and the push to get players exploring. But we needed to give players more guidance.
Our solution was to allow players to craft an Atlas that could be locked to a World and be gradually revealed as they discovered Regions when exploring. These Atlases could then be loaded with a resource which would present a heat map of its density across the World. Players now had guidance on where to search. But many more things came from this feature players could use the maps for navigation, earn XP discovering all the Regions, make a collection of the all the Worlds in the Universe, and even sell them to players wanting to visit a new World. None of this would have existed without our Early Access player feedback.
Keeping a live universe online and fully playable for the entire duration of development was a huge challenge, but ultimately we think it’s helped us make a better game.
Some users have complained that the game’s in-app purchases are unfair, especially considering that the game isn’t free in the first place. What do you have to say about this?
We’ve always known that running a subscription-free MMO needed a mechanism for covering the Universe costs. We needed a mechanism for the game to continue generating income after the initial purchase explicitly to cover the ongoing universe costs. A subscription model is a non-starter for many players, and the economics of selling private worlds would not cover the costs alone. We needed something else.
The original progression rewards in Boundless were Beacon Plots. Each time your character levelled up you would be awarded new Plots – used to reserve part of the World for yourself to build within. However, this meant the game was making a decision on the player’s behalf; you’ve levelled up and we’ve chosen that the reward you’ll get is Plots. Building was the only reward, independent of whether you wanted more Plots or not. Previously the only way to gain more Plots was to level up again. This configuration went against Boundless’ general principle of being a shared sandbox and letting players decide what they wanted to do. If you enjoy hunting in groups, or running a shop, or gathering resources, or exploring and mapping worlds, or Centraforging unique Gear then these Plots are pretty unrewarding for you.
So, we decided we’d give players a gameplay neutral reward that can then exchanged for something they actually wanted. Something that suited their style of play. From this logic the Exchange was created, a place for exchanging your levelling rewards for in-game stuff: Plots, Headgear (our initial wearable pieces), Body Paints – switchable body decorations- and a collection of character functions, like unlocking alts, resets, and so on. The aim is to include rewards that satisfy all different play styles.
We then balanced the rewards earned by working towards max level and even beyond, to match the Plots players used to receive. This configuration is player friendly, everything in the Exchange can be gained by simply playing the game and nothing in the Exchange is locked behind real money payments.
On first contact, the Exchange didn’t do a good job of getting this model across, and the early tutorial directed you to collect your rewards straight away. Some players took this as a hard sell pushing them to purchase extra rewards. This initial flow was poorly configured by us and we’ve updated it since launch to make it clearer that purchases are not required.
The monetisation model in Boundless and associated IAP are designed to support the game universe without affecting the gameplay.
"We’ve attempted to make every aspect of Boundless adopt sandbox principles, and this includes the progression system. As an MMO and sandbox we wanted the game to focus on giving players ultimate agency and empower them to explore and interact with the Worlds and civilisation as they want to."
Can you tell us more about how microtransactions are implemented in this game?
In addition to the Exchange, Boundless also offers a supporters club called Gleam Club. Whilst everything in the Exchange can be earned by playing Boundless, Gleam Club membership is only accessible by paying a small fee. It’s modelled a little on Discord Nitro and offers players a little more in-game sizzle. Membership gives additional character customisation options, chat customisation and guarantees that your Beacons don’t expire.
What can you tell us about the progression system in the game?
We’ve attempted to make every aspect of Boundless adopt sandbox principles, and this includes the progression system. As an MMO and sandbox we wanted the game to focus on giving players ultimate agency and empower them to explore and interact with the Worlds and civilisation as they want to. The progression system is designed and setup to allow everyone to build their own play style with a freeform classless system. Rather than picking a Character Class before experiencing the game, you gradually grow and combine the skills you enjoy in a way you want to.
All actions in the game from hunting to crafting and building to exploring, assuming they’re done efficiently, should deliver an equivalent experience. In addition, players can complete objectives which gradually guide them through everything the game offers, and feats to gain chunks of experience.
When your character reaches a new level you earn Skill Points which are used to improve your character’s core attributes and abilities, unlock Recipes, improve your Gear mastery and Resistances as well as unlocking epic skills.
Your skills ultimately reflect how you want to play and there is no optimal configuration because everyone wants something a little different. I’m constantly cleansing and tweaking my skills to try and fine tune the setup to become a more effective hunter. What is the ideal configuration for you? It depends on your play style.
How exactly do the procedurally generated worlds work?
The Boundless universe is powered by a next-generation of world-generation. The game includes a visual shader-inspired approach to creating world generation algorithms. This means that we can rapidly sculpt an extremely diverse set of biomes from Earth-like to otherworldly themes. The complex library of world-generation shaders we’ve created has been contributed to by our community and is available as open source.
The Worlds also include a regeneration system designed to work alongside the beaconing system to nullify any grief with building and resource camping. The Worlds are regenerated to their original state gradually over time. This keeps the Worlds feeling fresh for all players to explore and free of vandalism. World resources are redistributed when regenerated to make sure there are always resources to discover and stop players camping on valuable resource locations.
How do players get from one world to another?
Boundless is a sandbox where all players, on all platforms, in all geographical locations, inhabit a single shared online Universe. The Universe is split up into procedurally generated persistent Worlds, and every World is visible in the sky from every other World. The nearest Worlds are rendered as full planets precessing through the sky. You can look up and see remote builds slowly spread across the planet. You can see the player made settlements sparkle as they pass into the night side of a planet.
Many players will take advantage of the seemingly endless network of Portals within and between Worlds that others have already created. You’ll soon find yourself stepping from World to World will little clue about how to get home again. But if you want to connect your base to a popular hub, or be the first to explore a new World, then you’ll need to create your own Warps and Portals.
You start by looking up into the sky and picking the exact point on the remote World you want to Warp to. This creates a location marker for your landing site. You can then build a voxel warp conduit, insert your new location marker to set its destination, open the Warp, remembering to check that your way is clear of dangerous Creatures before stepping seamlessly into the new World. Once you’re comfortable Warping between Worlds, you’re ready to build a permanently live connection with a Portal. Warps are temporary and close after a minute, but Portals can remain open permanently as long as you keep them correctly fuelled.
"Many players are self-driven within a sandbox especially when they start interacting with other members of the community. For players who prefer some guidance, Boundless includes an extensive range of objectives and feats. The objectives will gradually guide the player though everything the game has to offer. The feats track and reward milestones for all actions in the game."
What can you tell us about the trading system in the game?
Trading and the economy in Boundless is fully player created. Players are responsible for gathering, processing and crafting all resources. Then they can install shop stands to sell resources and request baskets for buying items. This enables extensive asynchronous trading between players. Players set their own prices based on demand and scarcity of resources, equipment and items.
How does the crafting system work in the game?
At its core, crafting is taking gathered or mined resources, and using Machines to craft them into finished products. There are a number of different Machines you can use, each with a set of recipes and uses. Machines can also be upgraded with the addition of Spark Generators and Power Coils, which allow access to more powerful items and make the process more efficient. The breadth of the system is such that every player can access all areas of crafting without too much trouble, but to get to the best stuff in the game they would need to specialise in a given area. For example, later in the game, a keen crafter may choose to put their skill points and resources into weapon crafting and be able to craft the best Slingbows and Bombs.
In addition to the already extensive crafting system there is the Centraforge, which is used to upgrade Weapons, Tools and Gear by increasing their attributes or adding extra sandbox effects to them. Using the Centraforge is not for everyone, but for those who like depth, skill and a little bit of luck in their crafting that’s the feature for them.
Since players are free to do whatever they want in the game, do you worry that the lack of structure will leave some feeling bored?
Many players are self-driven within a sandbox especially when they start interacting with other members of the community. For players who prefer some guidance, Boundless includes an extensive range of objectives and feats. The objectives will gradually guide the player though everything the game has to offer. The feats track and reward milestones for all actions in the game.
In additional to progressing their character there is also a prestige system built into building within the worlds. Prestige acts as a progression system for the Beacons and builds. It rewards building with hard to create blocks, sculpting and chiselling blocks, and also building with a variety of block colours harvested from remote Worlds. As players build up their prestige they can claim the title of Warden of their local Settlement. If that player’s Settlement is the most prestigious on a world, then it receives the status of World Capital and they receive the honour of becoming the world’s Viceroy.
So hopefully there is always something for players to work towards.
What can you tell us about the combat system in the game?
Combat in Boundless is frenetic and exciting. The Creatures in the game have a variety of behaviours and attacks, and you have to keep on your toes to stay alive and take your enemies down. The skills you choose and the Gear you take determine what kind of role you want to play in combat. Do you want to be a ranged damage dealer, or a healing support character? Will you use bombs to take enemies down, or protect your friends as a tanking human shield? Whilst you can set yourself up as a lone hunter, you can also work in a group, and this becomes really rewarding when seeking out the Meteorites which fall periodically onto Worlds tearing open Portals which spew out waves of highly dangerous enemies. If you can survive the resulting combat, then the awesome bounty at the heart of the Meteorite can be extracted.
"The extent to which the game’s environment was sculpted by players is really impressive. We haven’t designed a single shop, building, or NPC, so to see huge cities spring up is amazing. You’ll find fully functioning transport hubs thanks to player-created portal networks, massive statues crafted block-by-block, and amazing houses. The in-game economy is really starting to flourish too, which is great to see."
What are some of the creative ways players have interacted with this game from what you’ve seen in the Early Access?
The extent to which the game’s environment was sculpted by players is really impressive. We haven’t designed a single shop, building, or NPC, so to see huge cities spring up is amazing. You’ll find fully functioning transport hubs thanks to player-created portal networks, massive statues crafted block-by-block, and amazing houses. The in-game economy is really starting to flourish too, which is great to see.
One of the most creative things we’ve seen has to be the recently built theme park, which includes a ski jump and grapple assault course. We’ve seen floating fortresses, underground tunnel networks, and even a few houses changing hands for in-game currency. Not many games let you be anything from an architect, to a roller coaster designer, to an estate agent!
Does Boundless have PS4 Pro enhancements? What can players expect in terms of resolution and frame-rate if they are playing the game on PS4 Pro ?
Settlements in Boundless can become very complex filled with Beacons, Portals, Machines, Storage, Signs, Shops and other entities. The game engine takes full advantage of the PS4 Pro to keep the game at a consistent frame rate. However, this can be a real challenge, as the sandbox allows players to create vast complexity in local areas. The game engine works super hard to dynamically determine what should be presented so that players get all their local details whilst still remaining smooth and responsive.
At the moment the game is limited to 30fps, upscaled to 4k, and uses higher resolution textures on PS4 Pro.
And how does the PS4 version turn out in terms of resolution and frame rate?
As an indie studio we’d love to be able to spend more time on extracting additional performance from the PS4 hardware. But as we optimise and improve the engine, we’ll also expand the sandbox in parallel. So hitting and maintaining a solid 30 fps will likely remain the target.
From a development perspective, how do you find the PS4 Pro to be? With so much GPU power, we are sure you must be doing some amazing things.
As the game supports cross-play between PS4 and PC players we strive to have feature parity between the 2 platforms. This means that we focus on the game as a whole rather than adding special features for a subset of platforms. The extra GPU power is definitely a plus, and the engine scales to take advantage of it – but there is nothing unique to the PS4 Pro.
Is there a specific reason why the game is not coming on Xbox One and Switch?
As part of our relationship with PlayStation there is a console exclusivity period. This was announced at the Paris Games Week reveal in 2016. We’re definitely thinking about Xbox One and Switch for the future.
Next gen is coming sooner or later. From a development perspective, what is your biggest expectation from PS5 and Xbox Scarlett?
We’re expecting an evolution of the architecture rather than a revolution. Expect double the number of cores and threads, double the memory, and a modern GPU. The improvement we really hope for is a significantly faster storage device. Boundless needs to pull down a lot of dynamic data about the state of the persistent worlds and we cache this locally. But the local hard disk is really slow and can cause bottlenecks when requesting and generating the Worlds.
In Boundless we’d love to be able to open and render many more Portals at once. The engine already supports this on high end PCs, but the hardware is a real limiter at the moment. It’s exciting to imagine how far we can take Boundless with a new set of tools.
"As a team we’re opposed to loot boxes in games and believe that microtransactions should complement fair gameplay, rather than drive gameplay."
What is your take on the ongoing drama of loot boxes and microtransactions?
As a team we’re opposed to loot boxes in games and believe that microtransactions should complement fair gameplay, rather than drive gameplay.
Boundless only contains a predetermined set of rewards for all players. There are no loot boxes in Boundless.
Boundless is supported by a set of totally optional microtransactions, but we’ve worked super hard to make sure that they have limited direct effect on gameplay.