Ubisoft’s free-to-play agenda is set to push up a gear in 2013. With some impressive efforts having already made the publisher a key player in the field throughout 2012, this year is less about experimentation and more about stabilisation; assessing not how to appropriately deliver free-to-play content, but what content to deliver. Following the success of The Settlers Online, Ubisoft has a number of other franchises ready to make the leap from retail box to browser, and first in line is the hugely popular ANNO series.
Based on the gameplay principles instilled in ANNO 1404, ANNO Online is a more cautious title than The Settlers Online. Not in terms of delivery, but in terms of gameplay. While players can merrily go about their business in The Settlers Online, taking part in community events or ignoring all but the most essential activities with minimal penalty, ANNO Online is a more serious construct. Players must plan ahead, thinking of finance, population and the efficiency of their landscape as they progress: just the way an ANNO videogame should encourage you to do.
During Electronic Theatre’s time with the videogame, the development team at Blue Byte were very open about the process they had been through and the difficulties they had faced in bringing ANNO to the browser, a traditionally more limited platform. However, progression made with browser technologies such as Unity and Flash allow for more demanding software to exist within that once heavily restricted space, most notably thanks to the incorporation of graphics processors. ANNO Online makes full use of this, claiming that the full ANNO experience is available with ‘no compromises.’ According to Blue Byte, this is a ‘next-generation’ browser videogame.
From what Electronic Theatre witnessed you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise: ANNO Online was a comprehensive city building and management experience. Beginning at the absolute, the tutorial taught the basics of building placement and the necessity of roads, meeting the population’s needs before their demands and the functions of the most basic buildings. As is a common principle of city management videogames, resources developed work in two ways: offering a source of finance (both between players and internally) as well as the requirements for further construction. Players unable to meet the needs to a certain building or asset they need can purchase additional resources with real-world money, ANNO Online’s first monetisation opportunity, though the exact expenditure and reward have not yet been properly assessed.
The videogame is primarily concerned with city infrastructure over financial burdens. While the latter is an important factor, the layout of your city – residential amenities, road networks etc. – have far greater influence over your success. Blue Byte is clearly aware that the fun part if a city management videogame is building the city, not balancing the books. Evidence if this is the fact that you are simply able to pick-up and move buildings after their initial construction – once you’ve paid for them they are yours forever, no matter how your city develops around them.
Buildings need to be created in chains, for example the wheat farm needs to be established ahead of the granary, which can then ship the resulting good to the marketplace once constructed. Each of these buildings has a limited range, and so clever planning will allow you to maximise efficiency; using the same example, placing two marketplaces at opposing ends with the granary between will allow for a much wider spread of your goods amongst the population, and thus more satisfied townsfolk and financial gain. More than one hundred and twenty buildings will be available in the final release, including some with very interesting and beneficial effects.
There are specific buildings which have limited use, such mines where the appropriate placement is marked by an icon. Most buildings however, are obvious in their needs, such as the lumberyard that should be placed in the woods. Once such opportunities have fulfilled their usefulness it’s time to expand: in addition to the starting island players can build ships and explore the oceans, discovering new lands and new colonisation opportunities. These islands can offer additional resources and, if luck is on your side, new crops and mining opportunities that can expand your available options. Every player has their own collection of islands, maps and available resources randomly selected and players can visit one another’s islands (though they cannot affect them in anyway) resulting in a lengthy campaign from establishing your first dock to taming the world of ANNO Online.
Blue Byte suggest that the beta version of ANNO Online will be ready to launch sooner rather than later, and thankfully so. There’s a burst of free-to-play browser videogames on the horizon that look set to be disruptive, but it’s almost certain that Ubisoft will maintain their status of being a key player in the field with ANNO Online. Despite the numerous localisation issues that presented themselves during Electronic Theatre’s short time with ANNO Online the videogame is already proving to be an enjoyable timesink, and given the developer’s commitment to making everything accessible through monetisation also available through simple amounts of time investment and strategic play, Blue Byte look set to create a new standard of free-to-play for 2013.