Monday, May 14, 2012

Playing With Island Forge

Island Forge is an indie-developed MMORPG that allows players to travel across player-created islands slaying monsters and pursuing quests and stories. The game is currently in beta test mode and the developer is looking for feedback, so I spent some time this weekend playing. Here are the results.

Island Forge uses a Java client that's a breeze to get up and running. Once you create an account, download the client, and go through a brief content download, you're up and running with little to no effort. Once logged in through the client, you have two main option panels (plus some typical welcome/credits information):
Part of the Mainland

  • Characters - Through this panel you can create a character and enter the game in adventure mode.
  • Islands - Use this panel to create and edit your own islands.
In adventure mode you start on the mainland, which is actually a full-featured island, complete with its own adventure area. All islands share some common features, a town area; which has crafting shops, a training hall, a healer, the docks, and the gatehouse; and a wilderness, pretty much the rest of the island. You use the gatehouse to leave town and start your adventure, and the docks allow you to travel to other islands. Once you have some materials gathered from the wilds, you can use the crafting shops to create equipment, potions and spells. The trainer allows you to level up, while the healer accepts donations of goods and raw materials to heal any wounds you received while adventuring.

The XP system in Island Forge is interesting. As you adventure you automatically gather raw materials based on the areas you explore and (maybe) what you fight. When you return to town you can donate some or all these goods to the healer, who in turn gives you hit points HP back. The twist is you can gain more HP than  you started with, and every 100 HP you gain grants you one XP.  It took me a bit to figure this out, and since all crafting and training requires XP, it was a little frustrating at first.

Back to adventuring. When you venture into the wilds, you have the choice of several difficulty levels as well as the opportunity to adventure solo or in a group. While Island Forge is billed as an MMO, I get the sense that group size is fairly small, so a more apt comparison might be the Diablo-style multi-player game. Once beyond the gatehouse you explore the wilderness, defeating foes and pursuing quests along the way. The more you explore the greater your rewards, and there is a medal system that rewards complete exploration at the various difficulty levels.

There are NPCs both in town and out in the wilderness. These NPCs may offer hints or quests (or nothing at all). There are also interactive items that are used as part of quest- and story-building. And there are, of course, monsters. The combat system is pretty simple (at least so far), point and click. I've played through three or four islands at the easiest level with little problem. Now that I have some weapons and armor (YAY XP!) I'll be trying some harder challenges. Quests offer no rewards, a reasonable choice given they're all player-created and allowing player-created rewards is an open call for abuse, but exploration nets you loot which  you can then use to craft.

Crafting is a two step process. The first step is to take raw materials to the Millworks, where they're turned into processed materials. This refining seems quasi-random, so you're never sure exactly what refined goods you'll end up with. Once you have processed materials and XP you can visit the various shops to create weapons, armor, potions, and spells. All crafting is point and click: if you have the materials and XP you can make the recipe.

Part of the User Interface
The UI is pretty minimal. There's a simple control panel for equipping items, showing stats, accessing various options, and chatting. There's also an island map, view management controls, a roster of other players in game, and a quest log. Interactions are all choose a dialog option style, and seem to work as intended. For a one man operation in beta, the game has proven to be very stable and reliable. The only minor issue I had was when my network connection dropped and the client freaked out  for a minute.

Overall adventures are pretty light-weight, in part because they're player-created, and let's face it, creating good adventures is *hard work*. There are a couple of islands with interesting little stories, but there are also some that are empty and / or incomplete. That's unfortunate, since the game could really benefit from a well developed island to draw players in. There's also a dearth of players, so I haven't done any group adventures yet.

So that's adventure mode, but that's only part of the story. The other part is island construction. And wow, island construction is detailed. The basic process is:

  • Create a new island from the client start area.
  • Lay out a basic town - there are some minimal requirements for buildings and accessibility.
  • Create the wilderness area - lots of terrain and objects available.
  • Add actors - the agents of your stories and quests.
  • Validate the island to insure it actually works.
  • Publish it to the player community.
I'm currently working on the wilderness area of my first island. As one might expect, I... ummm... got a little over-enthusiastic, yeah that's the word, with my first layout. It's a huge island with lots of details. The layout editor is a bit of a mixed bag. The developer is using public domain or free-licensed art, so some of it is a little inconsistent in scale and style. The editor is pretty easy to use once you figure out the features. Maps seem to have a terrain layer and an object layer. I've been laying out terrain, then adding objects. There's a nice option to ghost the object layer so you can see terrain beneath, and an option to check accessibility of map areas. All in all pretty full featured, but a little slow to pick and choose your objects because they're all stored in a big list. The developer has indicated he's working on improvements to this system.

Once I get further in my island development I plan on writing more about the editor and the publication process. Until then I'll it a few highlights, pro and con about the overall Island Forge experience:

  • The biggest issue I had was zoom level. I play on a 1920x1200 monitor and even at closest zoom my avatar was tiny, and because of scale, movement seems veeeeery slow. This same problem also rears its head in island editing, since it's difficult to zoom in and work details of your map.
  • The developer has a stated goal of turning Island Forge into a subscription-based game. I'm a bit skeptical of this given the current trend among even AAA MMOs to free to play models of one sort or another. Much as I like indie games, I'm not sure this is realistic.
  • This is a great idea! The island concept for player content, the HP/XP system, and the obvious care poured into this one-man project make it worth checking out. I really hope something comes of it long term.
  • Despite some bumps, the game is pretty complete. Sure I could pick some nits with UI and the editor, but what's there works. What Island Forge really needs is some additional content, either in the form of a developer created demonstration island or a more active player base developing islands with more depth.
  • The developer is very responsive and interested. Hell forget the rest, this one point is gold.
So there you have it. Island Forge. As I said, I plan on writing more when I finish working on my own island. Until then I hope you'll take an hour or so and check out this interesting little game. If you want even more information the developer has posted a youtube video about the game, and there are forums and a user guide (work in progress) on the main game site.

Happy Islanding!


  1. I'm the developer - Thank you for taking the time to provide this accurate and fair review!

    Here's an under-the-hood detail regarding creatures and resource item rewards. The creatures that will spawn are based on the local terrain/scenery. So, each island can exhibit a different mix depending on the design. Each creature produces certain types of resource rewards. So, the island creator's design directly influences these elements.

    This game is really important to me, and I appreciate community feedback. Please leave some comments, both to give me feedback, as well as for Mark Thomas for taking the time to write this excellent article.

  2. Quick followup: New post about the island builder experience in Island Forge right here:


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