Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Touch My Stuff (You Can Die) : Very First Impressions of Stash

Having said I was in no need of novelty in my New Year's gaming diet, what did I do today but download a new MMO. I blame MassivelyOP.

The MMORPG in question is one I was vaguely interested in a year or three back but had completely forgotten about. Given its title - Stash - and its focus on storage and loot I suppose it was inevitable I'd at least take a look at it but while it was in buy-in Early Access I was never curious enough to pay for that privilege.

That just about sums up the predicament of the modern-day MMO industry, doesn't it? Even when you come up with a passably original idea and implement it efficiently, players who should be your target audience expect to get it for nothing. I plead guilty to being part of the problem and what's more I have no suggestions as to what the solution might be. Other than bigger lootboxes, obviously.

Characters come affixed to a "Peg", which you can customize, making them look and feel like tabletop miniatures.
The very day I learned Stash had officially launched as a Free to Play title and I didn't have to pay, well, naturally I grabbed it immediately. It downloaded and installed via Steam in a matter of minutes. Registration asked for nothing more than an email address and a password, plus a name, which of course I made up, because who uses their real name on the internet?

I spent a couple of hours in - hang on, the world has a name, just let me look it up... Primordiax. Trips off the tongue, that one, doesn't it? And...it was an enjoyable and refreshingly atypical experience.  Although it's scarcely sane to try and come to any kind of a judgment about an MMO after a couple of hours and a couple of levels, I do think this one at least has potential.

Character creation is simple, straightforward and well-documented. There are four classes. Warrior, Elementalist, Hunter and Healer, the same as you'll find in any F2P MMO of the last half-decade and more. All that ever changes is the names and those not very often.

I made this warrior purely because a +6 axe dropped and my Hunter couldn't use it. That speaks volumes.
The selection of races on offer is considerably more impressive. Where most F2P MMOs offer, at most, a choice between short human, tall human and childlike human, Stash extends that to Human, short Human (Dryad), Human with a Dog's Head (Lukoi), Human with a Cat's Head (Catfolk) and Human Made Out Of Rocks (Trulloc).

Unusually for a Western MMORPG, some of the races are gender-locked. In fact, they all are, except for Humans. Lukoi and Trulloc can only be male, Catfolk and Dryads can only be female.

If you sense something distinctly old-fashioned about the way those options have been allocated, well it really doesn't stop there. Stash is pretty darn old-school in lots of ways.

I say "visit an inn". I mean "visit the inn". There is only one. This one.
For example, all the classes have their own armor types and no-one can wear anyone else's. From Level five onwards you accrue experience debt when you die. Your character doesn't regenerate health automatically after a battle - you have to eat food, drink potions, visit an Inn or construct a camp to rest. You can't just spawn a camp at will, either; you need materials in inventory to build it.

Even the experience bar itself is eerily reminiscent of EverQuest's, something that's compounded by the terminology in the tool tips. I was getting flashbacks as I watched my xp bubbles fill.  As for getting the experience in the first place, how does wandering about in the wilderness picking fights with the wildlife or poking your nose into dungeons sound?

Stash is not quest-based. Oh, it does have quests (well, tasks at least) but you don't need to do them. Far from it - the game actively discourages you. The one task-giver I found was in the main city and came with a clear notice that the tasks were optional and could be ignored. The impression I got was that quests were only there because the developers knew someone would make a fuss if they weren't.

Laylia has all your tasks. And I mean all your tasks.
Even without the turn-of-the-century game design, though, Stash really isn't your average, cookie-cutter free-to-play cash grab. For a start combat is entirely turn-based. In gameplay it reminded more than anything of Wizard 101, only without the card deck.

The view is some kind of semi-free-camera, third person isometric perspective. The "world" looks like a tabletop game board. Almost surreally you can use WASD to get around the main map although it feels far more natural to use click-to-move.

Studded across the map like molehills are Encounters, Resources and Dungeons. Each can be "conned" in classic EQ style, with color-coding at Level One going from White (evens) up to Purple (notify next of kin before entering). Once I'd leveled up the White Encounters turned Blue so I'm guessing there's the usual spectrum above and below your own level.

Level 2 and already twinked. Shocking.
Interacting with Encounters opens an instance in a way that will be familiar to any W101 player. The game then goes into Turn mode and battle plays out. Entering a dungeon puts you into another explorable zone which is itself populated with Encounters. Resources also open an instance but as yet I haven't managed to acquire any harvesting tools so I can't say from experience how that works.

I liked the combat. I found it easy to slip into and enjoy and it exuded a strong "just one more" vibe that kept me playing for considerably longer than I'd planned. I was soloing, of course, but the game is designed for group play and some of the Dungeons are open-world, where you can run into other groups.

An intriguing aspect of Stash and one of its defining features is player housing. You get a Base Of Operations, "BOO" for short, which is a personal instance. Mine looks like a clearing in a forest - I don't know if they vary at all. You can supposedly decorate and even build a house but I'm vague on how and the wiki sure isn't helping any. As yet, most of the entries are unedited stubs.

Go for the eyes, Boo! Wait, wrong game...

On a purely mechanical level the game works pretty well. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say it feels polished - I noticed some typos and textual artifacts here and there - but I certainly didn't run into any bugs and everything seemed solid and as easy to understand as any new MMO ever is.

Aesthetically I found the UI appealing and intuitive and the font was clear and comfortable to read. In design terms I spotted one or two appealing and original touches. Player-to-player trades happen by way of the the well-known "stall" method but uniquely in my experience there's a global interface for searching through them, which comes in the form of a "Newspaper".

Stallholders can place Advertisements in the paper to let potential customers know what they're selling. That's one example of both a whimsical approach and an attention to detail that I find encouraging.

And they say the internet killed classified advertising.
Frogdice, the developers, make some very big claims for Stash: that it's "bringing the magic back to MMORPGs" and that it's "more than just a game". They all say that, though.

More convincing than the rhetoric is the company's record, running Threshold, a " text based, role play required MUD still in operation after 20+ years (opened June 1996)" . Then there's the lengthy list of influences and inspirations they draw on, which includes "Dungeons and Dragons tabletop gaming, Warhammer miniature gaming, the “Gold Box” AD&D video games, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Temple of Elemental Evil, Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, and a variety of other turn based RPGs we have played over the years".

I guess the old school vibe shouldn't come as much of a surprise after all. I don't know whether I'm going to find the time to invest in this one that it certainly requires and possibly deserves but it's tempting. It may look funny but it's a proper, real MMORPG and that's not nothing, not nowadays.


  1. Huh, Threshold MUD, now that’s a name that brings me back a couple years. It was pretty notorious for its microtransaction scheme at the time (aka charging the quantities that lootbox companies these days are also expecting from players).

    Also, some drama / highly polarizing opinions about its creator/owner were floating around - I steered clear of trying the MUD out then, since I’m allergic to drama, but folks should do a bit of Googling and form their own opinions, imo. Guess time will tell if Stash learns from the lessons of Threshold or no.

    1. Interesting. I know nothing about MUDs other than what I read on the blogs of people who've played them, like yourself and Wilhelm. Drama, on the other hand, is part and parcel of the entire extended online gaming scene - are there any online games that people don't get overly dramatic about?

      The thing with F2P games for me is that I never spend any money on them so they are all genuinely free. I don't think I have ever spent a single penny on a true F2P game. I occasionally spend money in the cash shops of Subscription and Buy-to-Play games and in the free versions of games that I once had a subscription to but I have a rule of thumb that I never give any of my financial information to any company that only runs F2P operations. I suppose I could use Paypal but to date I never have.

      I went back and played some more Stash after writing the post and I really like it but I can see that the payment model clearly intends you to buy your way out of storage issues - not that that's a remotely unusual approach these days. I doubt I'll still be playing a week from now anyway but we'll see.

      As for the developers, interestingly one of them was in-game and chatting with players in global chat last night, discussing mechanics in the game and taking suggestions on what could be changed or added. Seemed like a good sign at the time.

  2. Is this the Stash the post is about? http://steamcharts.com/app/466660

    1. Yep, that's the one. It's a bit niche to say the least. Not sure if you can access it without going through Steam. Steam is generally a bad way to access MMOs in my experience so I'd prefer to use a standalone client. I probably should look into that...


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