Durango wants to put an end to theme park MMOs

When I had the chance to talk with Durango's game director, Eunseok Yi, one of the most important questions I asked him was about feelings. We had been talking about gameplay features for sometime, so I had wanted to cut through the mechanics and get to the heart of why I should play Durango:

"What is the primary emotion you want players to feel when playing your game?"

Eunseok thought about his answer for a moment. When he responded, the movement of his hands and the slow nodding afterwards gave the impression he was satisfied with his answer:

"I want players to feel like pioneers. Like they can go anywhere and do whatever they want because no one owns the land."

The answer stuck with me because, after all, Durango is an mobile MMO game that pits players in a world of man-eating dinosaurs. In the games trailer, I saw avatars puking, dancing, and working together to take down massive beasts. I saw a firefighter, in full uniform, shooting a primitive bow and arrow at a wooly mammoth. It was all great fun, but no one would blame you for not taking it too seriously.

▲Do whatever you want in Durango, even if it means serenading a group of herbivores with your primal tunes.

But speaking with Eunseok about his game made me realize that, behind the noise and visual whimsy of Durango, there is an underlying philosophy that aims to disrupt the MMO pecking order and offers the player something very rare on the mobile market: complete freedom in an MMO.

Durango's Theme Park Prey

MMO's always seemed to attract a distinct set of gamers. Players are either social butterflies that enjoy the community, hard-core PvE or PVP specialists that want to be on top of the heap, or slow-paced roleplayers that seek to immerse themselves as much as possible. In recent times however, a new type of MMO player has emerged. Burdened with a busy schedule and in need of clear direction, this semi-casual player enjoys games like World of WarcraftGuild Wars and Wildstar  for their familiarity and distinct lack of sand-box features.

Like a theme park, these titles promise an experience that every patron will get to enjoy. With clear zones and straightforward quests, players walk on a developer designed path that ensures they won't miss out on any of the content they paid for. In other words, as long as these players wait in line, they will get to ride the rollercoaster. 

A theme park MMO tends to avoid drastic changes to their in-game world, as a significant number of their players are on-and-off gamers that don't necessarily log in every day. Additionally, any changes might disrupt the sense of powerful nostalgia that theme park MMOs profit from. The nostalgia component is a big part of where the "theme park" moniker comes from. For example, Disneyland just wouldn't be the same if every time you visited it, the entrance looked different. Small things might change here and there, but the core feel and nostalgia the park brings must be maintained.

▲ Some players will find their role in the community as a hunter, bringing valuable food and other resources back to their town.

Eunseok and his team are fed up with theme park games and Durango aims to offer a completely different take on the genre. Apart from the introductory tutorial, Durango provides no linear paths or fixed objectives. Instead, it leaves it up to the players to figure out how they want to make their mark. Players can build their towns from the ground up in whatever location they find most suitable.

The game's world revolves around survival, crafting and community building. Operating in real-time with persistent NPCs (Dinosaurs freely roam the world and don't just despawn), Durango doesn't promise that every player's experience will be the same. In other words, the game immerse its players in the life of a pioneer just trying to make it in a ruthless world.

Mobile on a massive scale

Durango's mobile platform might leave some gamers scratching their heads but, in reality, interest in mobile MMO games is at an all-time high. In my talk with Eunseok, he mentioned several times how all of Durango's competitors look and feel the same. Stuck in a high-fantasy setting with the usual monsters and dragons, their game worlds become homogenized experiences that are difficult to tell apart.

Durango, on the other hand, chose its primal setting as a way to unify gamers from all parts of the world. As Eunseok put it, "Dinosaurs are a part of world history and almost everyone has once thought about what it would be like to live among them."

▲In Durango's universe, humans are hurled onto an unstable island where Dinosaurs rule.

Durango is betting that players will be drawn to this innate appeal. Similar to games like Ark: Survival Evolved  or Rust, primary obstacles are survival-based progression and interacting with different players. New players must focus on surviving and earning levels whereas veteran players, who are strong enough to avoid becoming prey, can flourish in whatever way they choose.

Out of curiosity, I asked Eunseok if it was possible to play Durango without killing a single dinosaur. as a pacifist. He laughed and asked, "Does fishing count?" We agreed that even a pacifist would fish in a survival situation, and Eunseok went on to explain how pacifist play is possible. Apparently, there are many roles players can assume in Durango, including farming, building, weapon crafting, clothing crafting, and even cooking.

▲Character customization in Durango has a surprising amount of depth for a mobile game.

At one point in development, one of the most popular things players would do is become a chef and exclusively cook throughout the entire game. This was a valuable member of any group and allowed other players to ignore cooking entirely. This, as it turned out, was a little too easy going for Eunseok's sensibilities, and changes have been made to make it much harder for single profession players to power through the game. These type of balance issues are inevitable in Durango, as giving players total freedom can be a tricky thing to make work.

My takeaway

During my time playing Durango, I was surprised at how crisp and appealing the graphics were as well as the smooth control options. However, it's important to note that I was playing on a large tablet device and I consider this the optimal way to enjoy mobile gaming. Everything becomes more difficult as the screen gets smaller and playing Durango is no exception.

Despite my initial hesitation embracing mobile MMO gaming, it's hard to argue against the vision that Durango represents. Theme park style MMOs may be popular with the casual crowd, but they are steadily making it harder and harder for more dedicated gamers to get their MMO fix. With Durango, Nexon is trying to build a truly massive world and, presumably, the ability to take it with you anywhere you go will be an easy sell.

Players who are drawn to the survival genre (or otherwise want a seriously expansive game to play on a mobile device) should keep an eye out for Durango's ever elusive release date. While multiple beta periods have come and gone, the next beta period is still unknown.

You can sign up for updates on Durango directly from Nexon on the games homepage.

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