I’m not sure anything will ever measure up to when I stepped foot into the world of Norrath in the original EverQueston PC in 2000. I was only about 10-years old and was visiting my much older brother over the summer. He was a hardcore PC gamer and he introduced me to the now vast world of MMO gaming by laying bare his own addiction at the time. There’s a reason people commonly referred to EverQuest, the first truly mainstream 3D graphical MMO of all-time, as EverCrack. It just had this way of hooking you.
Fast forward over 20-years later and I’m still hopelessly in love with MMOs. I’ve watched animes like .hack//sign and Sword Art Online and played all of the giants of the genre over the years. And now, in 2022, a new game on the block named Zenith: The Last City from Ramen VR is redefining how I conceptualize MMORPGs through the power and interactivity of VR. And today, it got even better with the release of The Celestial Throne, a massive free update that adds half a dozen dungeons and tons of new content to an already immensely vast persistent VR world.
When you play a typical MMO your ability to become a part of that world is obfuscated by things like computer monitors, keyboards, and game controllers. No matter how detailed or engaging a non-VR MMO is, significant pieces of hardware still separate you from actually embodying your game character. Thanks to VR, those boundaries are all but erased.
“Zenith is a cross-platform, massively multiplayer online world that’s been inspired by our favorite MMOs, JRPGs, and anime, and it’s been built specifically for virtual reality,” says Andy Tsen, CEO of developer Ramen VR. “The interesting thing about virtual reality is that when you step into that world, it’s so much more immersive, and there’s so many different elements of virtual reality that make it seem like it’s more than just an MMO.”
Instead of clicking a mouse to swing a sword I can physically swing my arm in the air. Instead of pressing E in front of a ladder to climb, I can actually grasp each rung and make my way up a ladder. Throwing fireballs, gliding through the sky, scaling mountains, and even cooking up batches of noodles before a dungeon crawl are all actual acts I carry out in real-time. It’s incredibly immersive.
“We didn’t set out to try to create any specific game or try to be the World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy of VR,” said Tsen. “We wanted to create something that was completely unique and bespoke to the virtual reality platform itself.”
So far, those fundamentals are really shining through.
“It’s about making sure that we design these things for VR, as opposed to porting things to VR, which is a bit of a design challenge,” said Lauren Frazier, CTO of developer Ramen VR. “It’s an engineering challenge as well because you’ve got things like syncing transforms of where people’s hands are, where people’s heads are, how the audio is coming through. So there’s a lot of technical challenges there. But yeah, at the end of the day, it’s just about how well do these systems come together, right? You also don’t want it to feel like 10 very well made systems that don’t interact, so that you want to make sure everything is cohesive as well.”
One of the great technical feats that really helps elevate Zenith is the seamless voice chat. By default, everywhere you go, voice chat is turned on. And since every VR headset has an embedded microphone whether it be a Quest, PC VR device, or PSVR, that means people are much more likely to openly chat instead of coasting around on mute. Gesturing with your hand and speaking plainly is far more immersive and engaging than typing out things slowly in a text box plenty of fellow adventurers would likely have minimized in the first place.
Notably, Zenith’s voice chat is fully spatialized around you so you can actually hear the exact direction voices are coming from. Plus, you can even join chat channels specifically for party-only chat or guild-only chat, making it easier than ever to talk to friends and guildmates no matter how far apart you are in-game.
For more insights from this interview, make sure and listen to the latest episode of That Other Gaming Podcast right here. And also don’t forget to check out our Meta Plays entry on Zenithand the Q&A blog we published on launch day.
“I think we expected a lot of latent demand, but the launch numbers surpassed all our expectations,” said Tsen. It's clear to us that we were just channeling something that people have wanted for a while now.”
When Zenith first launched, that weekend all of Ramen VR’s servers were absolutely slammed. On the spectrum of problems a game can have, too many people trying to play is certainly high on the list of preferred issues.
“The response to Zenith has been overwhelming,” said Tsen. “On launch day we were the number one app across all platforms. We were even briefly #1 across all PC games on Steam. We've received a ton of positive feedback, and for the most part, players seem to be loving it. We know we still have a lot to do to create the truly immersive VR MMO everyone is dreaming of, but overall it went as well as we could have hoped!”
And now that Zenith has been out for a while, the real game begins. Anyone that’s ever played an MMO knows that new games in this genre live and die by their post-launch support. After a few more months or even a few years, the game will likely be extremely different from how it is right now shortly after release.
“We’ve always said that in many respects, launch for Zenith is only the first step,” said Tsen. “We want this to be a live service title, where we keep adding things to the game over time based on player feedback. There’s plenty of stuff we know that Zenith still needs to get to where we want it to be…I would say Zenith at the end of 2022 will look dramatically different from the beginning of it.”
An MMO is a living, breathing world for players and developers have to continue releasing new content to keep players engaged. In the first month, they added dozens of new quests and balance changes, for example, and now today, it’s getting its first “major” update with The Celestial Throne.
This marks a new era for Zenith because it adds nearly two dozen new quests, repeatable daily missions, new item crafting system, and finally—dungeons! With The Celestial Throne’s release there are now three four-person instanced dungeons and three eight-person instanced raids. Anyone that’s ever played an online RPG can tell you that dedicated group-based PvE content like dungeons is the cornerstone of an active and engaged MMO community.
“The Celestial Throne not only introduces six new dungeons that are massive in their own right, we've also made a ton of changes behind the scenes to set Ramen VR up to continue scaling Zenith as a MMO and to build other games within the world itself for many years to come,” said Tsen. “The overworld parkour sections and the throne itself are massive as well. To give some context, the throne structure is roughly half the size of our entire world map. That being said, there isn't much to do there yet besides unlocking the dungeons, but in the future we think we could potentially open up the entire structure to exploration, which would make it a massive new zone, all focused on verticality.”
In the base game, my favorite zone is the Amarite Forest. I loved the varied quest design, how interactive the little puzzles were, and how much gliding you needed to do to reach the floating energy pods above the treeline. It really felt like VR was elevating the experience to something you couldn’t achieve in a non-VR MMO. From the sounds of it, these new dungeons expand on those principles a lot.
“These new dungeons are completely different from what you have experienced before,” said Tsen. “They are completely different because they are tightly tuned for the number of users that enter. Other older bosses and endgame content were fun, but many times they were just quick zergs to kill because they couldn't be finely tuned. That means that the content is more bespoke and more engaging. In addition we've added intricate VR interaction puzzles that introduce a layer of content that's never been seen in Zenith, or other MMOs for that matter. We're excited to see what people think of this.”
Arguably it’s quite rare for a persistent, online RPG like Zenith to get a free update of this magnitude—but it doesn’t seem like Ramen VR plans to stop here. According to Tsen, they’re committed to expanding the game with more free content.
One of those additions that’s still forthcoming of course is a new third class: the Cyber Ninja. Right now you can play as an Essence Mage or Blade Master, but the Cyber Ninja will add all-new layers to the existing gameplay dynamics.
“Our motivation behind the class was to let people fulfill the ‘rogue/archer’ fantasy that had been missing from Zenith since launch,” said Tsen. “With a powerful bowshot as well as a repertoire of deadly/stealthy skills, we hope to introduce an entirely new dynamic to the game.”
We tried to get a release date for the new class out of them, but they weren’t budging.
“I just want to thank everyone who has supported us and made our dreams a reality,” said Tsen. “One note is that we started Ramen VR to work exclusively on Zenith -- that means that what you've seen so far is only a small fraction of what we will be able to accomplish together over the next few years. We are so excited to have you all on this journey with us.”
If immersing yourself in a VR MMO sounds appealing, check out Zenith: The Last City, available now for the Quest and Rift Platforms for $29.99 USD with cross-buy and full cross-play between Quest, Rift, PC VR, and PSVR players.