Eco epitomizes the feeling of potentia in its current state. A game and idea around it that screams of the possibilities but one in which is both muddied by its current alpha state, but also because of how convoluted many of it’s mechanics and systems are. Looking at it right now and I am rather unsure of its future because of it. The next big thing in Minecraft-inspired sandboxes, or just another in a long range of failures.
It is an incredibly interesting concept though. A sandbox/survival style multiplayer that is built around the ecology of the world. A world that is built upon many interconnected systems like the environment, animals, and resources that the player needs to be aware of and manage correctly. It’s a system that is built around cause and effect and having to be mindful of your impact on the world around, which is not something we often see in these types of games
Trees need to be cut and slowly grow back over time. Animals can be wiped out entirely, which means you have to take care when hunting to leave a certain amount of animals to repopulate the world. Terraform too much in an area and both the Flora and Fauna is unlikely to return as well. Unsurprisingly food plays a huge part in this kind of gameplay with finding, growing and cooking food for yourself and it is rather detailed with how you need to aim towards a balanced diet between Carbs, protein, fat and nutrients. You will need to explore and gather the necessary ingredients to maintain that balance in order to maximise skill gain, with each ingredient and meal varying dramatically at times. It can be a little fiddly to figure this out but it is an interesting system that encourages you to explore the world and experiment with different food items.
This brings me to the research style progression system that you open up with points to allow new actions and abilities to interact with the world, as well as many more craftings styles and options. There are long progression systems for cooking, as well as farming. Mining and Masonry, and even rather large scientific endeavors like refineries and lasers. Various methods of creating power and you are even able to uncover and implement a complete manufacturing system to refine materials. There is even a civics system involved with research that allows you to unlock a server wide style of government with laws and edicts, as well a systems of voting over these. It looks like a simple system to start, but it hides a rather large scope from where you start to where you are able to go. From a simple neanderthal banging rocks, to a refined scientist and community member.
The amount of elements to uncover and research is a little daunting and this is made worse by the, absolutely ludicrous, skill point requirements later on. Hundreds of points needed for a single skill when you might only be getting a couple dozen in the beginning, and that’s with perfectly balanced nutrition. This means you have gameplay around often waiting, or coming back to the game in a day or two after you have got the skill points you needed. As you get better food types though, this does increase but still – when you are looking at the skill requirements for one aspect when there are a plethora of other options all seemingly fielding these ridiculous skill point requirements the process seems unmanageable.
And this brings me to the rather divisive part of ECOs design in that the systems and mechanics are all built around the idea of a server community banding together to accomplish these tasks. With people choosing to specialise in the various tasks needed and sharing their abilities and talents around accordingly – to get the most impact and improvement. With being able to unlock those areas that have large skill requirements, yet share that knowledge by creating skill books that anyone can use afterwards to gain that knowledge as well. It’s a decent principle and one that may allow it to be the amazing teaching program they aim for and also to create strong, vibrant communities around it. It can and does create a certain amount of frustration too.
Unfortunately this specialisation leads to there being a lot of grind with systems that feel way to restricted because of how they minimise the impact and usefulness of the individual player. The level of materials is often rather high, especially when you go further into the crafting systems. Mining and moving those materials in particular is intentionally unwieldy with only being able to pick up one stone, or metal material at a time. There is a work around with placing them into a crate or cart first, then being able to pick up a stack of ten but this takes a lot of time and it would have been far easier to be able to pick up to your maximum directly.
The overarching goal behind the game is to stop an impending meteor from destroying the planet, and to do this within the time-frame you need to work together as a community to gather, craft, research and build. Boldly crafting where no one has crafted before, but it’s an overarching goal that doesn’t exactly feel so threatening at times. just a distant threat that is so far removed from the general gameplay, at least in the beginning, to be meaningless and this feeling only gets stronger the more you play. It’s the sandbox nature of the experience that evokes those feelings of creative freedom, yet a design that runs counter to that and you can see the dissidence this creates with how wildly different some servers can be.
I’ve experienced both sides of this equation so far with the Main unofficial server, Steplife being this wonderful collaborative journey of people working together, helping where they can with chest and crafting benches open up to the public for use. With things like skill books available on near everything, that let others bypass the large skill point research requirements of progression to the point where the community and sever progresses so much faster than you would expect. With group Building projects occurring all around: houses going up, roads expanded across the globe, and full scale industrialization. It’s an incredible sight to see.
And then there is the other side. Houses boarded up and inaccessible to others. Crafting benches inside going unused. Resources being hoarded for your own use and no one else’s. Personal plots taking up areas of rich resources for personal use. Research being a singular affair that feels overwhelming and honestly like you are making no progress at all. Small group cliques that neither interact or help others around and what seems like open hostility. It’s strange but a product of this weird social environment that gets created.
The later you progress as a server the more you do have to work together as well as the effects of unchecked player actions and industry progress have greater effect on the world around with pollution impacted on the entirety of the world, an impact can doom it. It’s a concept that when it works makes for an amazing community experience, or a frustrating failure but that is of course left up to the quality of players.
This isn’t the only issue at the moment either, as it is in a rather early Alpha state right now so there are various bugs to worry about. Farming is impossible right now with how unlikely a plant is to actually grow that’s been planted – even in the right area and climate. Then there are the cart physics that are so broken as to be unusable. Performance is pretty bad right now too with fps issues as well as constant pop-in of objects even in your immediate surroundings, and the ping I get to even servers in australia is close to 200 – not sure what kind of what coding fuck-up causes that but it makes for a much poorer experience. But, even through those issues and many more right now you can’t help but see that glimmer of potential within and it keeps you playing, progressing and learning more about the game and it’s systems. A potential I very much hope is realised.