Game review – “Well of Souls”
Synthetic Reality’s Well of Souls was, if I understood it correctly, “Make your own MMORPG” for the masses. Nowadays, you could probably assemble a functioning, playable entry to the genre in Unity or another relatively low cost, full featured engine, but Well of Souls was first released to the public in 1998, making it predate Everquest, albeit not Ultima Online. You could argue it predated much of the genre’s mass popularity. Furthermore, it was free to download (although supported by donations), relied primarily on players to host servers, and did have the aforementioned content creation angle. I played this game mostly between 2004 and 2006; while it was most likely far past its prime by then it could still boast about 100 or more players on all of its servers, highly developed, complex content based on original universes, fan adaptations of media franchises like Star Wars, Castlevania, Warhammer 40K, etc… and even the occasional update to the engine; the last one was released in 2008.
In addition to this, it was already a technical dinosaur when it was first released. Part of this may have been an attempt to keep download sizes sane, but as games moved towards ever more detailed audiovisuals, Well of Souls was stuck with a 256 color palette, a low cap on the size in pixels of background assets, fairly limited sprite sheets, and MIDI music (although by abusing the ambient sound feature you could play around with uncompressed .WAV files). While I really shouldn’t be judging this product on its graphics, I do feel that the developers’ refusal to even increase the maximum color palette or provide something like a MOD player did not help matters. Despite this (or, if you subscribe to the belief that limitations spur creativity, because of it), the community persevered and made significant amounts of content. For instance, the packed-in world (“Evergreen”) was fairly light on plot, but was definitely successful as a demonstration of the engine’s capabilities, including lengthy questlines, a ‘raid’ for higher level players, dedicated PvP battlegrounds, and so forth. Other devs were often more ambitious, although they sometimes had to realize their vision with graphics and sound ripped from other sources – for instance, SNK’s spritework showed up in a lot of worlds, as well as player avatars.
At this point, it’s probably worth noting that most content for the game shares the same basic gameplay – you move around on a world map, get pulled into random battles, and participate in the typical MMO experience/money grind. Battles essentially followed the “Final Fantasy” model by using a variant of that series’ system to combine turn based and real time elements, and the engine was flexible enough to support basic RPG archetypes – warriors, magicians, clerics, and so forth. Besides normal experience (used to unlock statistic boosts), Well of Souls also supported a “participation points” system where merely performing actions in combat would fill up a secondary experience gauge used to unlock spells and strengthen aptitudes in various types of equipment and magic. Much of this was customizable by aspiring developers, but you couldn’t alter many of the formulas and hard caps on many variables, which… wasn’t good for variety. In addition, the way classes were handled wasn’t particularly well realized – it only changed what weapon type you started with an aptitude in (and there was no functional difference between ranged and melee weapons) and potentially what spells you could cast if your world’s devs were paying enough attention. Besides this, the use of percentage aptitudes meant that any class with less than the maximum physical or mental damage aptitude would be underpowered relative to their better-endowed companions.
Merely writing about this makes me feel like I’ve spent huge portions of my life on this engine/game – I can’t really dispute that, since it was my MMO of choice from when I discovered it to when I started playing World of Warcraft (a game that probably does not need a lengthy writeup on this blog). Well of Souls, besides being one of the first primarily player content driven games I experienced, indirectly exposed me to a metric fuckton of video games I hadn’t experienced due to my primarily DOS/Windows based gaming experience – without this, I probably never would’ve tried the Castlevania or Mega Man series, amongst other things. It also gave me reason to dabble in writing, programming, spriting/collage-based artwork, and various other creative disciplines. Without it, this blog might not exist. I guess I owe the main programmer (Dan Samuel)… the existence of my own soul. His other projects – the minigame collection Arcadia, the multiplayer RTS Warpath, and space sandbox prototype Rocket Club are also interesting, although they appear to drawn less of an audience. Apparently nowadays he’s moved onto development for Android smartphones and tablets, and at one point worked on a virtual world called There. Either way, he’s definitely got a legacy. Well of Souls may have been a few years ahead of the curve in some ways (and quite far behind in others), but since it’s still available on its official webpage, fans of old and obscure games might want to give it a look. Evergreen, at the very least, has some nice cartoony spritework courtesy of one Josh Worts (who appears to have fallen off the face of the earth).