You might well have seen Boundless, even if you’ve never played it. The game received spotlights during a number of Sony press conferences, and featured a visually striking mix of voxel art and wafer-thin portals connecting the world, all reacting in real-time to movement. It is a gorgeous effect, standing out even in a quick sizzle reel appearance, and it gives a little hint about what makes the full game interesting.
These portals, and the fact it’s an MMOG, were the main things I knew about Boundless when I sat down to talk with its creators on a drizzly morning in Guildford. The studio behind it, Turbulenz, originally had no intentions of making a video game, even though it boasts several ex-Lionhead staff.
Turbulenz was initially focused purely on HTML-5 engine technology, creating back-end software to sell to commercial clients. The company needed something to show off what their tech could do, however, and so began working on developing a game that would showcase its capabilities. The project took off, somewhat unexpectedly according to the team, and quickly became the studio’s core focus.
“We were originally creating a browser based engine”, explains Sam Faulkner, community lead at Wanderstruck. Confusing name time: Wanderstruck is technically the games development team within Turbulenz but, due to the studio’s shifting focus, the two names are at this point basically interchangeable.
“If you’re trying to sell an engine to an industry, you need something you can use to show it off. So the guys at Turbulenz created two games, fairly small-scale indie games. You might have heard of one of them, The Marvellous Miss Take, that’s probably the better-known of the two.”
“The third project around five years ago was Oort Online, and that gained so much traction just as a demo, effectively it became its own game and grew into Boundless. That ended up really being the catalyst, something of a pivot for us towards focusing on game development. Rather than being a tech company first and foremost, now we’re a games developer.”
Boundless had its full release back in September 2018, after a lengthy period prior to that in early access on PC. For the team at Turbulenz, a big part of the focus on when to move to a full release was waiting for the game to be ready for audiences on consoles, with the level of quality that audience expects from a released title.
The game has quite an unusual concept. There’s a shared world and no PvP, and in the months since release Boundless has managed to find a supportive and creative community. Boundless is an MMOG currently spread across 48 large planets, but part of the game’s charm and gimmick is that every player, regardless of region and platform, shares a single instance of this set of worlds. If you can see a world out in space, you can go there on PC, meet your PS4-playing friend who also aimed for the same landmark, and play together without having to co-ordinate playing on the same server or console to facilitate that.
As Faulkner shows me around the world of Boundless, much of the appeal finally becomes clear, in a way not really showcased by trailers for the game. We visit a player-built capital city on a planet, which earned that capital city status by virtue of its size, complexity, and rare resource construction. The game doesn’t feature a creative mode like Minecraft; these towering skyscrapers were all built by hand, presumably by players building their own scaffolds to climb higher and higher. The feats of engineering are impressive, but perhaps more impressive is the fact nobody has deliberately gone in to mess with them.
From there, we visit Gyosha Mall, an entirely player-built shopping centre. Players set up shops with their wants and needs and pay rent for their shop space. Just walking around gives a real sense not only of the scope of the community playing, but the level of respect shown by players. It’s a structure that functions, clearly follows rules set out by players, and somehow manages to work without complaint.
However, perhaps the most impressive act of collaboration Faulkner shows me is the Portal Seekers hub, an area of the game which completely circumvents the intended playstyle of the game. By working together, players overcame developer build limitations, and it’s beautiful to see.
Gyosha Mall, the player-built shopping centre
To explain, we need to look again at Boundless’s most visually stunning and memorable feature: these wafer-thin real-time portals, seamlessly creating doorways across the game's 48 worlds. These portals are expensive to create, expensive to keep functional, and designed to be a rare way for players decently invested in the game to hop planets. You can look at any planet in the sky, drop a marker, and warp there through the portal every once in a while. Boundless’s community wanted a better solution, so they worked together to create one.
“To get around in Boundless using portals, that’s actually fairly advanced content in the game. You’re not realistically going to hit the part of the game where you’re building and maintaining portals with any regularity until several hours into the game. The idea is that we want exploration by itself to be really rewarding, but we were interested in seeing how the community would respond to that”, Faulkner explains, while we’re wandering an environment that is absolutely littered with clearly-labelled portals to other areas of the game.
“Before guilds were officially added to Boundless, this guild called The Portal Seekers formed. They’re really cool, some really lovely players, and they’ve essentially built an interplanetary public transport system and opened it up free for anyone to use.”
“It’s quite interesting, because as much as the portal feature is a massive part of the game, we never expected it to be as commonly used as it has become. We thought it would be a once in a while rare jump, but this hub has made it a common way to get around. All of these portals leads to another planet, usually to a store or a particularly resource-rich area, maybe a fruitful hunting ground. There’s explanations outside portals explaining what you can collect there, what gear you should have equipped before you enter. They ask for donations, materials you need to help maintain a portal, which people gladly give them because they’ve opened up the world in a way players find really useful.”
At this point we’re joined by Ollie Purkiss, lead designer, and Ross Stephens, a senior designer, who want to explain what really makes Boundless tick.
“The core idea when making Boundless was to make a sandbox game, but a sandbox game where everyone plays in the same universe,” Purkiss says. “Everyone regardless of platform, country, could all share one big world together, that was at the core of what we wanted to create. From there it expanded out to be a very community-driven, player-dictated sandbox, with a purely player-driven economy, encouraging players to work together for the greater good of the game world.”
That certainly seems to have been achieved: the economy, cities, and public transport are all run by players. Does that mean that the playerbase also drives development? How much of a say do they have in what the design focuses on?
“Our community can be quite vocal, they’re quite a passionate playerbase,” Stephens says. “In general we do try and listen to their concerns, keep an ear out towards features they’re after. As a studio we try and be quite open with the community about what we’re planning, about we’re working on and excited for, so that we can keep that dialogue about features open. Being open about that helps us see if us and our community are on the same page regarding the game, and if there is anything we’re not seeing eye-to-eye on.”
“In general, we do try and take community ideas on board, but there will be times where those ideas and our ideas just don’t line up. They might not fully agree with what we are doing, or they might just not agree with us. Sometimes it’s more that the community can’t see the big picture. The challenge is just communicating what we’re going for as well as possible and hoping they understand.”
“We’re actually working to a public roadmap,” Faulkner adds. “We have this graphic, and we update it every time we release any major features, so the players always have an idea of what’s on the horizon over the next three to six months ish. We don’t use firm dates, because dates move, but that’s useful for keeping expectations in the right sort of area, and for generating that feedback so we can see early how the community feels about our planned direction.”
There’s another side to such a community-driven game: potential abuse by bad faith players. If someone were to decide to build a giant structure spelling out an expletive, say, it would be visible to all in-game players across the world and across platforms. How does the studio moderate huge planets full of players over the world and stop the game evolving into capital cities of penis skyscrapers?
“I would say we’ve been quite lucky, but I don’t think it’s luck, I think we’ve built a game and curated a community who just don’t need too much moderation”, Faulkner says. “Myself and James, our director, are usually on the front line of this stuff. We try to foster a really respectful dialogue between ourselves and players. Things do pop up obviously, it’s an open forum where people speak and create, but we do have a code of conduct and moderators enforcing it.”
“We tend to see the situation like this: if you treat people like adults they’ll generally respond by acting like adults. We’ve had a few objectionable things flagged up, I think James had to delete a few towers with big middle fingers on the other day, but we see it and act on it quickly, the community know it isn’t acceptable”.
“I think the way our game is put together, with no PvP combat and being so player-driven, it really encourages players to work together and not ruin each other’s experience”, Purkiss adds. “The kind of players that the game attracts are naturally collaborative, and perhaps as a result nicer people, and that has made managing it easier”.
Those comments are backed up by my time exploring the game, which I ended up playing for several hours in my spare time. Boundless does seem to have attracted a particular type of player, and a community in general that’s in it for fun and shared enjoyment rather than ruining anyone’s day. In fact, the example of a dilemma Stephens gives me comes from the other side of the coin.
“We did have one sort of moral dilemma pop up when moderating the game”, Stephens says. “It wasn’t a massive issue, but just before Christmas we found someone had built a really big suicide awareness board in-game. Initially I did want to double check all the phone numbers, make sure it wasn’t people getting pranked who were in a vulnerable place, but it all checked out as legitimate. Once we knew it was real and sincere, it was a really nice effort. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to make that. We did have a chat amongst ourselves about that, how we felt about it being in the game, but we decided to leave it up. Someone had made it, put effort into it, and it clearly meant a lot to them.”
The more I learn about Boundless, the more these stories seem like the norm. I was a World of Warcraft junkie in my teens, so I can see the unusual quality of a world where requests for help and advice are met with multiple helpful messages rather than scoffs of ‘noob.’ Boundless is fairly young as a game and community, only six months out of early access, but it does feel like there is something special holding this community together. I’ve been in awe at some of the feats of collaboration in this huge universe, but what’s just as magical is how nice everyone is.
Putting all of a company’s hopes on the back of an MMOG is a risky proposition. For every WoW or Final Fantasy XIV there are countless commercial failures, and seeing a new entrant struggle to attract players and quickly fail is one of this industry’s saddest sights.
With Boundless, however, Turbulenz seems to have found a niche of its own. By stripping out competitive play, and encouraging players to work together, they’ve seen their community go out of their way for the greater good, and craft this shared world in a spirit of co-operation.Boundless has something very few MMOGs manage: a world where everyone’s trying to make it better for each other.