Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Exploration in MMORPGs +

Originally Posted by eventhorizen:
Flatfingers, how do you go about creating an enviroment or items or mechanics that accomplishes that continual sense of exploration and discovery, and this exploration and discovery is more than just eye candy for the Hubble fanboys? Even Second Life with its vast volumne of continually player created content is little more than an electronic catwalk. How do you reconcile the difficulty of actively producing the 'new', with the contents and activity within the boundaries of a virtual world?
The short answer is that I don't have a good answer. I have ideas, but I don't pretend to know that they'd work. I just know that Explorers need something more than they're getting, and that some games are more appropriate for that something than others.

I also suspect I know the three hardest problems involved:

  • striking a game-focused balance between grinding (too much structure) and griefing (not enough structure)
  • devising gameplay rewards that appeal more to Explorers than to Achievers
  • designing the system to reveal its secrets slowly over time no matter who plays
I'm pretty sure I understand what you're asking. As I've said, I think a good exploration game includes not only physical exploration of geography but the mapping of abstract rule-systems as well. So just making 1000 identical copies of the identical item that every other crafter is making holds zero interest for me as an Explorer. There's no mapping of the unknown possible there.

On the other hand, exposing a mechanism for scripting completely unconstrained objects (as in Second Life) is guaranteed to lead to people making things that have nothing to do with the game. You're also guaranteed to get people using this ability to hose each other, as in Randy Farmer's now-legendary "Invisible Teleporting Grenades of Death" from Second Life.

The key word here is "game." Too many constraints on behavior and it's not a game, it's a manufacturing simulation. (I happen to like simulations, but they're not really games.) Too few rule-based constraints on behavior and it's not a game, it's a social world.

For an exploration/discovery feature to be fun as a game, it's got to hit some middle ground between too much structure and too much freedom.

The usual solution suggested is some kind of "construction kit." I've proposed that idea, too. I like the idea of building new things from simple rules; it seems to live at about the right place between structure and freedom.

But for a while now I've been thinking that focusing on exploration as item-construction is too limited, that maybe I need to bounce out of the box a little bit. (This follows the systems design rule of thumb that if you have a problem that isn't yielding to conventional solutions, then consider that you might actually have a meta-problem. That means it's time to step back, identify assumptions, and start selectively questioning them.)

What I came up with was the idea of distinguishing between artifacts and processes. Instead of letting players create entirely new kinds of objects under an existing set of rules, what if they could discover new rules? That is, what if discovery were about inventing new processes for making things?

From this I've been thinking that it might make sense to divide crafting into Manufacturing and R&D. (Or the equivalent names for a given genre/time.) Manufacturing would be the typical perfect competition sales-crafting game as it exists today in most MMORPGs. Achievers would be able to play the economic competition game they enjoy by acquiring raw materials at low prices and turning them into goods that can be sold for high prices.

Meanwhile, Explorers would enjoy R&D, which would be designed as more of a pure research game. This would be about coming up with hypotheses for how things work, devising experiments to test those hypotheses, and then documenting the results in a useful (repeatable) form.

As an example of this, R&D players might be able to use this method to apply various raw materials to each other to see what happens. From the results, they'd define processes for extracting useful minerals from their ores. These processes could then be combined into larger-scale processes that Manufacturing players would then pay to use in mass-producing desirable items.

For example, here is the well-known Hall-Héroult process for extracting aluminum from its primary ore (Al2O3, or "alumina"):

1. Crushing: alumina precipitate, Al2O3, is crushed to pebble-size.
2. Grinding: the crushed alumina is ground to a powder.
3. Melting: the ground alumina is dissolved in a carbon-lined bath of molten synthetic cryolite, Na3AlF6; aluminium fluoride, AlF3, is also present to reduce the melting point of the cryolite.
4. Electrorefining: electrolysis of the alumina-cryolite mixture produces carbon dioxide (from the anode) and liquid aluminum which (because it is denser than the molten cryolite) sinks to the bottom of the bath at the cathode as a precipitate.
A player who wanted to dominate some part of the Manufacturing game could license (or, for a much higher price, purchase) this process and a few others. Once a supply of alumina is obtained, the Manufacturing player could start making items out of aluminum.

But there's an obvious problem here. Namely, processes have economic value -- the more efficient processes are more valuable. That makes R&D a prime target for Achievers to create researcher alts so they wouldn't have to pay anyone for new processes. Unfortunately, Achievers are so good at brute-forcing their way through system spaces that it's possible they'd crowd Explorers out of the process-discovery game.

I haven't solved this problem yet. I have a feeling it's going to involve making the actual mechanism of forming and testing hypotheses so mentally challenging (i.e., not conducive to being solved by brute force, either individually or in large groups) that Achievers just won't be interested. There are some fairness issues with that approach, too, however.

At any rate, there's a snapshot of my current thinking on this subject.

So far. :)

Meanwhile, I tinker on....

Originally Posted by eventhorizen:
So what then? A massive scientific overhaul of every aspect of the game to provide virtual chemistry, physics, biology and methods of invention, research and creation? That sounds great to me, but it also sounds like more work than is generally added to any game, let alone a MMORPG.
I would say I'm aiming for something a bit less extreme than that, but yes, that's in the general neighborhood of what I'd like to see someone offer. The fun would reside in the exploration of the fundamental rules of the game universe.

Figuring out how to make it work as a practical matter, however, is hard. I admit that freely. Making sure all the secrets of the universe aren't posted on a discussion forum somewhere within the first month after the game launches, for example. (Sigh.)

But I also think something that accomplishes this is worth trying. The alternative is to continue to fail to attract what I believe is a severely underserved market of Exploration-driven gamers... and why let that revenue stream flow past untouched if there's a cost-effective way to tap it?

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by Suricata:
This is an MMO, as much as people don't want killing mobs to be in the game. its unavoidable and will be present, hopefully along with good trade and exploration content too.... But either way, grinding will be in hte game to some extent and what I would like to see is that it is implemented in a way as to give it more purpose than it has in some games.
With respect, I disagree very strongly with this sentiment.

Will Star Trek: Online be an MMO? Yes. But will it be any old MMO? No. It will be an online game based on Star Trek. That means that sometimes the Star Trek part has to trump the MMO part.

If it never does, if MMO > Star Trek in every design conflict, then the criticism that "it's just a generic MMO with a Star Trek skin" will turn out to have been valid.

Therefore I do not agree that we can/should assume that "killing mobs will be in the game" merely because that's a typical feature of typical MMOs. Maybe this is one of those times that Star Trek should win.

Now, that said, it doesn't mean there's no room for some kind of grind. Although I don't enjoy that sort of thing myself, I agree with the observation that some people like it. It's progress without having to think; it's sort of restful. (Strangely, however, these folks don't seem to see the humor in Progress Quest.)

There was a good thread on this subject a while back over at Terra Nova.

As for me? My idea of a good MMORPG would offer gameplay that's targeted to specific playstyles. In fact, the one I'm designing for fun does exactly that: the combat and competitive game features offer lots of small encounters and many levels of rank, while the discovery and social features offer rewards that are focused less on XP/loot and more on player self-expression. (Where is it written that all players are motivated by and must be given the same rewards?)

I'd like to see a Star Trek MMORPG try that approach. I wouldn't mind at all if players who like grinding could do that as long as I wasn't also subject to it when playing the part of the game that I prefer.

Infinity: The Quest for Earth +

Originally posted by Aiten:
The killer for me is 'you're a ship'. Not for me I am afraid. I like being organic with 2 arms and 2 legs. It does sound impressive, but I can't see it working out. The world is too big, and if there was 1,000,000,000 planets, and say 50,000 players ... its easy to imagine how isolated this game will make players feel.
I know what you mean about the "no avatars" decision. You're not the only person to question it.

The general answer (which I phrase in my own words, not those of any Official Infinity Person) has been:

"It's hard enough to make a functional, deep MMOG. Having to also create code/art/sounds for avatars would add too much complexity without adding equivalent gameplay value since we've already decided this isn't going to be an RPG."

That's actually a pretty reasonable answer, so I'm on the fence. I think the technical arguments have some merit. OTOH, there's no question that most current MMOG players want and expect to play as characters, which means RPG, which means avatars.

On balance, I think there are probably enough MMORPGs out there that it's worth trying something different. Even if I might go a different direction, and don't really want to play Infinity-the-game as currently described, I'm curious to see how a no-avatars game that's otherwise fun will do.

As to the question of isolation, that's another concern that's been brought up many times. Here's the condensed version of the official Infinity response (again, just in my admittedly subjective words, not theirs):

"There are ways of getting players to congregate. We've already thought of everything. You worry too much. LOL"

Leaving aside the "you're dumb for questioning us" attitude that I perceive in many official responses to reasonable questions, the idea of being able to play in a massively multiplayer persistent-world universe where I'm not penalized for not grouping actually sounds pretty good to me. What's wrong with preferring to contribute to the game world in an indirect way? Why should I be shut out because I don't want to be Member #2351 in an uberguild and don't feel like spending hours trying to find a pick-up group that doesn't include l33t kiddies?

I really like the idea of a game where I can contribute indirectly, such as by roaming the edges of known space, charting star systems and stellar phenomena and cataloging the chemical, plant, and animal life of planets. Avatars or not, Infinity might offer me that kind of game. I continue to watch it to see if it will.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Infinity: The Quest for Earth +

I'm all for deep features, but I'd like to point out that in my earlier comments I wasn't hoping for "non-violent" gameplay -- my complaint was (and is) that everything I've seen about Infinity from its developer's comments to the vast majority of comments on its forum leads me to think it's going to be focused almost exclusively on competitive play.

Again, I've got no complaint against competitive play per se. I even think it could be appropriate for that to be a major form of gameplay in Infinity.

What I object to is making yet another game where 24/7 competition in all facets of gameplay is the game. That's bad enough for any game; IMO it's worse for Infinity because no other game will have the billions of procedurally-generated worlds that are absolutely perfect for an exploration-focused core gameplay system. Having all those worlds and using them only as collectable loot tokens in another hypercompetitive zero-sum-mentality game would -- again, just IMO -- be a horribly wasted opportunity.

Which is why I said before (and echo eventhorizen now) that I hope Flavien builds his code to split out the gameplay from the world physics/graphics engine. Maybe that way someone, somewhere, will be able to create the exploration-focused game that this remarkable engine deserves.

All speculative, of course; this is a game that hasn't been released (and, as an independent project, may never be released). But I don't believe it's unreasonable speculation given the public statements I've read since word of Infinity first emerged. Pretty much everything discussed has been about competition. I see no reason to think that exploring new worlds will be anything but a second-class citizen: gameplay that exists only to service socio-economic competition.

If I turn out to be wrong, I'll admit it. Publicly.

But I'm not expecting to have to do that.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Infinity: The Quest for Earth +

As I said previously, I'm in love with the idea of sagans of procedurally-generated planets in a galaxy. I always thought it could be done well, and Infinity seems to be bearing out that prediction.

OTOH, the gameplay sounds like an even more Hobbesian gankfest than EVE Online, and that just holds zero attraction for me. I am so tired of the constant, unremitting, dog-eat-dog competition in these MMORPG things that I'm just not going to play another one of them. I've got no problem with competitive gameplay; I think it serves a useful social role and it's usually worth implementing in online games... I'm just tired of it taking over every game.

I would find it incredibly refreshing to play a game where the standard mode of play is to work constructively with other players to achieve some worthwhile goal. A Tale In The Desert offers something like that, but it appears to be a little too much about grinding out 10,000 bricks to suit my taste. Even so, at least it tries to get past the zero-sum mentality.

Where I get the willies about Infinity is that everything I've seen so far points to a zero-sum, competitive environment that would make Thomas Hobbes blush. An RPG applies at least some restraints on human brutishness; Infinity shows no signs so far that such controls are even being imagined.

So to repeat what I said before: I wish Flavien & Co. well; I hope Infinity meets their goals for success. The procedural generation of worlds is a great idea that deserves to win.

It's everything else about Infinity that's making me think there's no way I'll want to play in that world.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Starfleet Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG

Back when I was talking with other people about a Star Trek MMORPG, various suggestions were made for how to rewards to associate with promotions in Starfleet rank.

One suggestions was to increase the size of the player's personal inventory when they gain a rank. Another was to give players bigger "hangers" for more personal ships.

The more I think about these ideas, the less comfortable I feel with the idea of giving only positive rewards for increasing rank. It seems to me that making higher rank always and clearly better than lower rank just creates the same "gotta level up!" mentality that makes other games so exhausting (i.e., not much fun to play).

Why should increasing rank be better? Why should lower ranks be less fun? Why not distinguish the different ranks by making them different in their gameplay, rather than just cranking out the usual "more of the same, only more so" gameplay design?

It's just my vision for Star Trek Online, but I'd much rather that players didn't feel forced to "level up" in rank. If I enjoy being a Lieutenant (because of the gameplay typically generated for players at that rank), why should I feel like I'm being penalized for not spending all my time grinding missions for prestige I can use to buy higher rank?

What if increasing in rank wasn't just about gaining more advantages, but also meant that you're expected to spend more time insuring that other players are having fun? Isn't that an appropriate expectation in return for higher rank?

As an example of this, maybe dinging to Commander means you get more inventory space and more room in your personal hangar, but your newly-elevated status also brings with it the responsibility of writing mission plans and staff evaluation reports. Maybe getting bonus prestige points as a Commander means insuring that the functionality status of each of your ship's primary systems remains above 95% for 80% of your time in space, or that everyone on your away mission makes it back in one piece, and so on.

The point is that making advanced rank mean more than scoring a bunch of purely positive rewards gives players an interesting choice to make. If the choice is between being a great Lieutenant Commander or a good Commander, that's a lot more interesting than feeling that something must be wrong with you if you're too "lazy" to become an Admiral as the conventional MMORPG design would insist.

It's worth noting that the word "rank" is usually short for "service rank." And that says something important about what rank is for.

If rank in a Star Trek MMORPG isn't defined in terms of service to and increased responsibility for others, then something very useful (in a gameplay sense) about the idea of rank may be lost. As a missed opportunity to carve out new territory in the "undiscovered country" of MMORPGs, that would be a shame.

Mini-Review of Starcraft

I was talking to another gamer today who hadn't played Starcraft, so I got to spend a good ten minutes talking his ear off about how superb it was. Here's the recap:

  • crisp, clear, appropriate, and useful sound effects

  • three playable factions -- far more interesting than one vs. one

  • music that accurately fits the mood of play for each faction

  • factions have very distinct capabilities (so much so that the word "zerg" is now a commonly used verb in gamer circles)

  • superbly balanced gameplay overall

  • gorgeous translucent UI

  • effective unit controls

  • human "Ghost" units can drop nukes on opponents -- lovely!

  • evocative voice acting (much better than the usual)

  • an actual story that you can care about

  • a story with characters that you can care about

  • a love story that you can care about, of all things!
I'm actually not that much into the RTS genre, but I had a blast playing Starcraft. It was as close to a "perfect" game as I've seen in many years of computer gaming.

And a final point, just to prove that I'm no mere fanboi: visit any electronics store that sells games, and you will find Starcraft still on the shelves. Realize that retail shelf space is so valuable that most games are gone in four weeks, and that Starcraft originally shipped in 1998, and you can only conclude that this is one of the highest quality PC games of all time.

Having said that, I find I'm not much interested in the sequel. It appears that what I enjoyed in the original, which was the nice balance of planning and action, will be shifted much more toward the action side of the ledger (perhaps to satisfy the Korean gamer market). From the previews, Starcraft 2 looks more than anything like a cross between Starcraft and God of War, all hyperemotive ("CRUSH YOUR ENEMIES!") and particle effects.


But maybe I speak too soon, and there actually is a compelling literary experience underneath all the flash.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mission Generation in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Demosthenes:
In some games, when you complete a mission the 'rewards' you gain usually come in the form of loot, cash reward and experience gain, for instance... but are they suitable to STO? What exactly should be achieved by completing a mission, beyond the experience/rank gain which could be awarded at the end of the mission or dependant on your actions within it. The idea of looting and cash rewards doesn't really sit well with me, so how else could missions be made rewarding to the player upon completion?
Excellent question!

I'm really not wild about the idea of cash or object rewards. In particular I hope not to see Star Trek Online turn into a phat lewt game (as I noted in my Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG blog entry) -- that just doesn't seem right for Starfleet types. (Might work if non-Starfleet careers are implemented, however.) Rewards tailored to one's Starfleet career might be the most fun.

For system-generated missions, one thought that occurs to me is a "mission debriefing" in which your performance is evaluated by the appropriate NPC officer. It might be fun, useful (for figuring out how to get promoted), and a good use of Star Trek lore to hear whether your performance was adequate, exemplary, or outstanding.

For this to have value, missions would probably need to be more interesting than just "kill 10 pirates." Suppose that the typical mission consists of a major objective and several minor objectives. That would allow for some variation in the rewards for completing the mission:

  • XP/prestige (branch-specific? general? Command?)

  • gain Federation faction

  • recognition in Federation newspapers (large gain in Federation faction)

  • commendations

  • medals

  • opportunity to request reassignment

  • offered command of "better" player ship (0 prestige cost)

  • offered choice of commands of several kinds of player ships (0 prestige cost)

  • insta-promotion (for completing every objective of an extremely difficult critical mission)
As for missions assigned to players by higher-ranking players (a concept I support enthusiastically), this is a very different kind of beast. The usual reward structure might not be appropriate.

The problem is that "the system" can be assumed to be fair in generating missions and handing out rewards, but you can't always assume that about players. What if I only give the "good" (low-risk, high-payoff) missions to people I like? What if I only offer "bad" (high-risk, low-payoff) missions to someone I dislike?

Both the structure of player mission assignment and rewards (if this is implemented at all) need special attention compared to system-generated missions. I'd suggest the following features:

  • mission-assigning players supply the reward (so they have a stake in the assigned player's success)

  • assignable missions have a defined difficulty level

  • reward values (whatever the form of the reward) are calculated by the system from the mission difficulty level (so Admirals can't turn their favorites into instant Captains)

  • successfully completed missions provide some alternate reward to the assigning player (so that assigning missions is desirable)
There are probably more features/constraints needed for player-assigned missions, but you get the idea. It's hard to talk about specific rewards without knowing the general structure of how player-assigned missions could work.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

MMORPG Interface Design

My fundamental philosophy on how MMORPG interfaces should function is pretty simple: players should have control over any character-level information they send or receive inside the game world.

This implies two capabilities:

  • I can control what information other players can see about me.
  • I can control how information about other characters is displayed to me.
All my specific answers to character interface questions follow from this perspective.

So: From the point of view of other players, I want to be able to turn on or off any information about my character that isn't part of my personal appearance (body, clothing, gear, badges/rank insignia, etc.).

Suppose my character is wearing a Starfleet uniform in a Star Trek MMORPG. Based on what I've chosen for my character to display, you'd be able to determine the following information: "species = Human, faction = Starfleet, department = Tactical, rank = Commander." If I'm wearing my dress uniform, you could see "Human, Starfleet, Tactical, Commander, Grankite Order of Tactics, Palm Leaf of Gallospey Peace Mission."

But if I'm wearing civvies, you'd only be able to see my character's species and (if my species has such a thing) sex. There's nothing magically and inexplicably floating above my head, so you don't know my name, rank, serial number, or anything else. If you want to know those things, you'll need to talk to me and ask... unless I choose to turn on other information about me, such as my name, factional allegiance, rank, awards/badges/medals, biography, and so on, in which case you can have that information about me displayed to you in whatever way you like (more on that in a moment).

The reason for this approach is threefold. First, this information about me could serve a tactical purpose if PvP is ever enabled. The more you can learn about me before a fight, the better your odds of beating me. Therefore I ought to be able to control what information about me is available to other players.

Second, control over this information serves roleplaying. If I prefer that you should talk to me to learn my character's history, I shouldn't have that option taken away from me by having that "personal" info displayed without my consent.

And third, I believe that character customization is the next big battleground for MMORPG features. People want to have control over their personal information in games, just like many people do in real life. Respecting this desire as part of the game's design by giving players control over what information about their character is displayed would make a small but useful contribution to the overall satisfaction of players with the game environment.

So that's what I'm thinking about what information about my character is available to you. The other side of this coin is what power you have to determine how information about other characters is displayed to you.

Let's say I go into my character options screen and turn on all possible information about my character. You should then be able to go into you UI options screen and choose settings that determine what information about my character is displayed on your screen, and how it's displayed.

If you want to roleplay, you absolutely should be able to turn all that "floating" stuff off so that you have to click on someone's avatar to bring that information up. But if you're there to "win the game," then you should be able to turn on all kinds of information about other characters (if they've chosen to make that information available) -- their name, allegiance, rank, branch, guild/clan/fleet/crew membership, etc. And if there's a way to display that information other than as floating text, then you ought to be able to select those alternative presentation choices yourself.

Finally, I should reiterate that all this is information is innate stuff; these are things that aren't part of a character's "physical" appearance. If you put on some visible article of clothing or gear that is associated with a particular piece of personal information about your character (such as a uniform associated with a particular faction), then other players will know that information about you regardless of whether you've turned that bit of info on or off in your character information display options.

The point of all this is that players should, within reason, be able to customize their gameplay experience to their preferred playstyle. Giving players control over the management of information about characters -- their own and others -- would be a useful means to that end.

(Note: I emphasize "character-level" and "inside the game world" in my fundamental definition to distinguish such kinds of information from game-specific [usually numeric] information about characters that they wouldn't know themselves. If the characters would know it about themselves, then the gamer playing that character ought to be able to determine how it's presented or received inside the game world. But that should not be read as a justification for expecting the game to expose low-level internal game data about characters to their players that the characters wouldn't know about themselves.)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Player Ship Interiors +

If there's any one core mechanic in popular literature, it's the use of "tension and release." You build up tension by showing conflict, then you resolve that tension through action. This resolution then creates the next conflict, and so on.

In considering MMORPGs so far, I get the feeling that their developers don't come from literary backgrounds because these games are all release and no tension. There's no build-up; it's just bang-bang-bang action without meaning. It's as though every developer takes as gospel the notion that if a gameplay feature isn't about "fast-paced exciting action," nobody will play.

But there's nothing that says game developers can't take a page from their theater-arts colleagues. To be "fun" doesn't require starship combat in Star Trek Online to be the equivalent of two people constantly hitting each other with sticks. There's a more dramatic alternative: content that communicates a build-up to action, then "exciting fast-paced action," then a refractory period where the consequences of that action, its meaning, can be assessed.

So how could we get this greater sense of drama in ship combat in Star Trek Online? By designing starships to be less like individual fighter aircraft and more like aircraft carriers.

Consider how carriers work. To the darkened Combat Information Center comes word of a possible attack. General Quarters is sounded, and crew move smartly to man their battle stations. Fighters are launched on Combat Air Patrols to guard the ship. Picket ships take up their stations. A sensor net is spread, and people try to make sense out of the raw data. Now people have time to think about the upcoming struggle. Was the warning true? Was the intel accurate? Are we ready? Will I perform well under fire? Will I make it? Now there's tension.

Then the attack comes. Life gets crazy; there's noise, light, motion; problems have to be solved in real time under difficult conditions. There's all the action anyone could want, and we feel a release from the built-up tension.

And then it's over. Now there's time to assess what just happened. Are my friends OK? Do we need urgent repairs? How did I perform? Was there any pattern to the attack? Why did they attack us? The release leads to re-tensioning as we consider the consequences of our action. This after-action review allows action to be more satisfying in a dramatic sense than mere slam-bang activity because it's possible to see how the action fits into a larger context.

Which brings me, finally, back to the question: would being able to see the avatars of our crewmates be useful if ship combat were designed according to this large-ship model that allows for dramatic tension and release? Or not?

Obviously I believe it would; I think being able to see people is an important component of drama, which is about people.

And I think starship combat in a Star Trek MMORPG would be more satisfying for more people if it were more dramatic, rather than being yet another "exciting fast-paced action" fistfight design that's just about who's got the bigger, um, gun.

Action needs to mean something or it's just calisthenics. And meaning comes from people.

An external interface is not about people.

Admittedly, neither is staring at consoles... but at least if we can see consoles, we can look up occasionally to interact with the avatars of our shipmates.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies

[Star Wars Galaxies was the first MMORPG into which I really sank a lot of my time. It's also, by my reckoning, one of the few MMORPGs that started out trying to do some of the player-centered design I care about. As such, SWG tends to be my benchmark against which I judge all other large online RPGs. So I can't seem to stop talking about it....]

1. By about a year or so into SWG, I was writing posts on SWG's official forum stating my opinion that the iconic elements of the Star Wars license weren't being used to their full potential. The gameplay was good, for the most part; it was the Star Wars aspects of the game that needed to be emphasized.

As just one example, Han Solo should have been an active force for excitement and adventure. Instead, he was a static NPC in a bar handing out the same quests to every player. Not a complete waste of his character, but pretty darn close. Many other iconic elements suffered the same fate.

So I was on board for some kind of change that would increase the feeling of living in (there's that "live in" thing again!) the richly detailed Star Wars universe.

2. SOE had a strange habit: when enough players would complain about some very specific part of the game, the developers would change that part... but their changes often went far beyond what any players actually wanted. It was like a memo had gone out: "Be sure to swat all gnats with a BFG 9000." Instead of just fixing the things that didn't work, SWG repeatedly gutted entire systems, often losing the things that players liked in the process of changing the one or two small things they didn't like.

This happened often enough that people regularly commented on it in the official forum. (I'd post links to some representative comments, but with the post-NGE forum revamp those messages are no longer available.)

The Combat Upgrade of Publish 15 was a particularly obvious example of this. People had been calling for the combat system to be rationalized from the numerous quirks it had collected over the months of individual tweaks and nerfs. Not only were skills inconsistent, creature/NPC abilities were not lining up properly with skills. So in general, players were enthusiastic about the upcoming Combat Upgrade; they were looking forward to the various low-level bizarrities being eliminated or fixed.

What they got horrified many of them. Instead of taking the existing system and ironing out the kinks, SOE radically changed the entire combat model. Overnight, combat became much more "twitchy," with more real-time targeting and cool-down timers. The simple control icons were replaced with more colorful, "busier" icons (which I and others found harder to distinguish from each other). Weapons and armor and creatures all had their damage types changed.

And most astonishingly of all, every mob -- PC, NPC, or creature -- now had its "combat level" number exposed. Now instead of needing to observe a potential target to determine its challenge level, there was a nice, simple, utterly magical number.

This didn't just injure the worldiness of the game; it also made combat a lot more numbers-driven instead of being excitement-driven. After the CU, if you picked a target whose combat level number was 2 or more above or below your character's combat level, you'd get little to no XP.

I was active in the SWG forums. Nobody was asking for these things!

And so it was with the NGE. Yes, people wanted "more iconic," and I was one of them. But SOE/LA went so far beyond the incremental changes needed that (IMO) many of the good parts of the game were removed as well. It felt a bit like a doctor who, while performing an appendectomy, figures that the patient really wants a brain transplant as well.

3. An aspect of imposing the NGE that should not be overlooked when reviewing subscriber reactions is SOE's pushing the NGE just two weeks after releasing the "Trials of Obi-Wan" expansion.

The NGE altered gameplay so dramatically that many players said they'd never have bought the expansion if they'd known what was about to happen. Although SOE offered a refund for TOOW purchasers, the damage was done.

4. I'd like to admire SOE/LA for being willing to make radical changes to an established game's core design. If they knew the impact of their changes on the SWG community, and went ahead anyway, that speaks of a certain kind of courage to follow their beliefs about what would make SWG a better game.

Unfortunately, "clueless beyond all hope" is also an explanation for the NGE that fits the available data, as it fits neatly into the SOP of not listening to what gamers actually wanted from SWG.

One example of this was the developer "Helios" who, when asked how crafters (with minimal combat skills) would protect themselves now that creatures and NPCs would attack them, replied that they should simply hire other players to guard them... as though that's something that any action-oriented combat player would ever want to do. Were crafters asked whether they wanted this "feature?" (I give you one guess.)

But the all-time champion for game development cluelessness has to be the comments from LucasArts exec Nancy MacIntyre to the New York Times:

"We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base," said Nancy MacIntyre, the game's senior director at LucasArts. "There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves."
I don't know Ms. MacIntyre; she may be a very nice person. But speaking strictly about game development, the level of imperviousness to the art of game design demonstrated by her comments (which, given that LucasArts later promoted her, were obviously not unusual within LA) was remarkable.

So while I wish I could believe that the NGE was a courageous act to rescue a failing product, the evidence available to me as a player of SWG says the more likely cause was sheer bloody-minded ignorance of who SWG's true customers were and what they wanted.

That doesn't make anybody at SOE "bad." It's just strange.

5. If some people like the NGE, I think that's great. I'm sincerely happy that they enjoy how SWG plays for them.

I just wish it hadn't come at the expense of the game that I and others enjoyed. In particular, the loss of the one major game that offered a skill system instead of Yet Another Class/Level system was painful.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crafting for Explorers

Maybe it's just me, but I find the standard pattern of gaining XP by making an object, and then using that XP to gain a skill level in making objects, lethally boring.

The only thing this conception of "crafting" can possibly lead to is grinding. Crafting becomes dominated by Achievers who are willing to grind a zillion worthless objects in order to gain the title of "Master Whatever."

Blecch. As an Explorer, why should I pay to play a game like that?

I think the problem with this "XP from making stuff" paradigm in RPGs is that it shifts the learning process to the character... but it's the player for whom learning is fun! When the crafting game is designed so that it's the character who "learns" (i.e., gains a skill level by making stuff), that form of entertainment is taken away from the Explorer players who would enjoy it.

Role-Playing Games allow you-as-a-character to do things that you-as-a-real-person can't do. So it makes sense to design an RPG to allow characters to have increasible skills in things like Broadsword and Fireball and so on. But it's a mistake to apply that approach blindly to everything -- if it's something that players can reasonably be expected to do (and enjoy doing), and it's OK in the context of the game for them to do it, then it shouldn't be abstracted as a character skill.

Crafting as a form of discovery is, I think, one of those things that players can and should do themselves. It's the player's ability to understand complex systems that should determine the character's effectiveness in the game -- a grindable system for mimicking this ability only takes fun out of the game for these players.

Accordingly, crafting as I'd like to see it designed into a game (not necessarily every game, but some game somewhere) would do two things.

First, it would recognize that different kinds of players have different reasons for wanting to make things -- in particular, that there are "discovery crafters" and "sales crafters." And it would therefore offer two separate but related crafting disciplines: Research and Manufacturing. (The actual discipline names would be picked to reflect the period and genre.) Research would be about letting Explorers learn how to make new things; Manufacturing would enable Achievers to mass-produce items to compete in the sales game.

Second, the Research game would shift discovery-based learning away from the character and over to the player. The fun would be in letting the player figure out the rules of the system through thoughtful experimentation. (No, of course other players wouldn't consider this fun, but they've already got plenty of content focused on their entertainment style.)

Gameplay would involve using knowledge about the properties and behaviors of materials to collect more such knowledge. Players would devise tests for the player's Researcher character to run that apply selected materials to each other in new ways to see what happens. (In other words, players would attempt to discover processes by which the properties or forms of materials can be changed.) The character would then do the scutwork of running those tests (possibly with some +/- modification of the results based on the character's "skill" level), and the player would be presented with the results.

If the results aren't sufficiently better than some existing process (and they typically shouldn't be), enough information will be returned so that the player can think of another test to try. This is the "learning from mistakes" part of discovery-crafting. (Trying to figure out how to let characters in an RPG learn from failures is unnecessary and undesirable -- it's the player whose imagination is being challenged who needs to be rewarded.)

If the results of an experiment clearly show that a better way to do something has been identified, then the player has found a new process. Once it's properly defined and documented, this new process can then be made available (through patent licensing to any/all Manufacturing players or outright sale to an individual Manufacturing player) in exchange for resources (money, materials, labs, directorships, etc.) that allow for more advanced experimentation. (Note: The details of this interface would have to be worked out carefully to insure that Achievers aren't motivated to create Researcher alts that would crowd out actual Explorer crafters.)

The virtue of this dual-path approach to designing crafting is that it doesn't confuse what Explorers want with what Achievers want. By separating Research from Manufacturing, Achievers retain the crafting-as-sales game that they're accustomed to and expect while Explorers finally get a discovery-centric game feature that's worth the money they pay in subscription fees. And by carefully designing these two kinds of crafting to work together to produce desirable goods, all the other players of the game benefit.

In summary, crafting should be about more than just the mass production of identical items. It can and should also reward the distinctive creativity of individual players.

I'd really like to play that game.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Naval Architect Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG

I'd love to see a subgame of a Star Trek MMORPG where players could, within limits, create their own starships. In fact, I'd say that a big part of the fun in a ship design feature would be working within appropriate limits.

Restrictions on options -- not arbitrary "just because" limits, but reasonable requirements and tradeoffs -- are what enable interesting choices. Otherwise everybody would just build the Biggest whatever, and how much fun would that be?

If the available warp cores were rated for size, mass, and power output, and then every possible powered system were rated for size, mass, and power usage, then for a given hull type the Naval Architect game would be to optimize components for a desired mission profile.

For example, suppose you wanted to build an assault shuttle. You'd start by selecting the appropriate shuttle hull. Then you'd start choosing systems -- maybe you start by picking your powerplant, then weapons, or maybe you choose subsystems, then weapons, then try to find a warp core that will fit into your hull while providing enough power for your chosen systems.

Sound like fun to anyone else?

If something like this were ever implemented, it would need to be folded into the rest of the gameplay. For example: let anyone build a starship, but hold design competitions to see which ships are selected to enter service. Maybe all the player Admirals can get together once every three months (or so) to decide which of the currently submitted designs best meets the projected needs of Starfleet. Maybe the Federation needs some help in the diplomacy area, and the best fast courier design would win.

Obviously I'm just scratching the surface of the possibilities here. The main thing is just to note that it would not be correct to consign a naval architecture feature to the "simulation" circular file -- it could, if smartly implemented, make a positive contribution to gameplay.

I like to think it would even bring in enough paying subscribers to be worth the development time, but that might be a little too enthusiastic of me. :)

Exploration in MMORPGs

Bonnie Ruberg over at Gamasutra has an interesting interview of Clint Hocking concerning the virtues of exploration in games. I think this might have some value for those of us who believe that a Star Trek MMORPG must have strong exploration content.

I thought many of Hocking's comments were pretty insightful, and I'm in general agreement with him on the value of exploration as a style of gameplay that's worth attracting through appropriate content.

However, there was something about his observations I'd like to comment on. Hocking expressed some confusion over the fact that the explorers he'd read about didn't fit the interviewer's ideas about who's more likely to explore. He also seemed puzzled about why people travel to unknown places.

Exploration in games is a subject that's been of special interest to me for a while, so I may be able to suggest an answer: exploration isn't just about geography.

In other words, I suspect that the problem is definitional. In Ruberg's transcription of her interview, Hocking consistently describes exploration as a "spacial" [sic] activity. I think that's too cramped a definition. Yes, the most obvious kind of exploration is that of landscapes, of places, of physical geography. But exploration is by no means limited to geography -- "to explore" means to reveal the hidden places on any kind of map, whether it's a topographical landscape map or the abilities of a strangely glowing sword or a structural model of the interaction of magical forces.

I've talked about this at length elsewhere, so I'll just summarize here: Exploration is about discovery. It's about converting the unknown to the known.

Physical exploration is certainly one important mode of discovery. The relatively concrete nature of geographic exploration is what most gamers think of. It's natural to think of "exploring" in terms of specific places that can be exposed on a map, especially if that information can be possessed and thus has economic value. This is a very visible aspect of many of the stories told in the Star Trek: Voyager series, in which the namesake ship did a lot of physical traveling.

But there are other kinds of exploration that, although they're perfectly valid forms of discovery, don't get as much attention as "exploration" because they're more abstract and therefore harder to see.

One real-world example is science. Forming a hypothesis, devising an experiment to test that hypothesis, revising a model to conform to accumulated data -- this is absolutely a form of exploration. Studying how things work in order to improve one's understanding of the rules of the game... that's as much exploration as climbing a mountain. VOY and TNG were classic Star Trek in this respect; many stories were driven by a character's desire to improve his or her understanding of how the world works.

In MMORPGs, crafting is best understood as a form of exploration. "Crafting" in this sense isn't manufacturing or crafting-for-sales, which are primarily competitive-accumulative activities that appeal to a different kind of gamer. The kind of crafting I'm talking about is the creative act of thinking of a new thing and bringing it into the (game) world through the power of one's understanding of constructive systems. It's tinkering with systems to see how they work and thereby to gain the power to make a specific thing. The crafter who makes things, not to get rich but because the knowledge of how to make new things is interesting and worthwhile in and of itself, is an explorer.

And so is the person who engages in what I've called "ethical exploration." We fill in the dark places on the map of human behavior by puzzling out the right action when confronted with a situation that challenges our principles. That's not only an important kind of exploration, it's also the source of our greatest literature. Learning who we are could be the most important form of exploration of them all because it's what gives meaning to everything else that we do.

I think looking at "exploration" in this somewhat brighter light could resolve some of the confusion Clint Hocking expressed about why some people enjoy this kind of activity.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Online Game Forums

Game discussion forums tend to attract game critics. Or, at least, gamers who think it's fun to criticize.

I see two categories of anti-fanboi:
  • the Black Hats
  • the Competitive Venters

The Black Hats are so-called from the behavior type described by Edward de Bono in his "Six Thinking Hats" model of how people talk about ideas and plans. Basically, the Black Hat kind of person is naturally inclined to see the reasons why an idea is broken, why a plan can't possibly work, and in general all the flaws and dangers of someone else's suggestions.

There's value in Black Hat thinking. It can be useful to highlight the risks and potential costs of doing some thing. But it's not the kind of thinking that should be applied immediately as soon as someone says, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...." Applied too early, Black Hat thinking squelches ideas. Even if they really are bad ideas, pretty soon people decide that any idea is going to get hammered into the turf before it can be given fair consideration. And so they stop suggesting ideas.

The easiness of Black Hat thinking (it's always simpler to knock down someone else's ideas than propose ideas of one's own) means that these folks are pretty common on many game forums. Unless they're encouraged by other users to hold their fire, Black Hats can take over.

When that's allowed to happen, the Black Hats usually attract the Competitive Venters. (There's no link for this term; I just invented it. I think.)

The Competitive Venters are the folks who seem to think that "I can pile on more than you can" should be a team sport. They'll wait for a Black Hat to criticize someone's idea, then they'll jump in with their own criticisms, usually of a much more emotional (and less coherent) nature.

It's almost like they're fighting to see who can say the harshest thing. "LOL u r so dumb" is only where this style begins; more sophisticated ad hominem attacks and complaints that the idea's original poster is a fool for not knowing "fact" X or for somehow minimizing the gameplay style that the Venter favors soon follow.

Once the Black Hats and Competitive Venters are allowed to establish their style as the norm in a MMO discussion forum, that forum is pretty much toast as a useful place for discussing the game in question. Often an "in-crowd" will develop that takes a kind of sad pride in crushing any idea expressed by someone who's not part of the established gang. ("Yes, heard that one already -- RTF, n00b!") I've encountered discussion forums whose moderators have allowed this "private sandbox" mentality to take over; they're not fun places to visit.

Fortunately, there are other MMO forums that by policy encourage constructive discussion and tolerance of new and different viewpoints.

These places must be defended. There aren't enough of them.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mission Generation in a Star Trek MMORPG

Let's consider the systems by which a MMORPG generates missions/quests for characters. (Let's use the term "mission" for now.)

The usual way of providing mission content in MMORPGs is to define each mission as an example of a type of mission. For example, there are Destroy missions (destroy a character or structure or object), Recon missions (move to specified coordinates), "Fedex" missions (collect an item from one person/place and deliver it to another person/place), Escort missions (locate a character in one location and keep her alive while traveling with her to another location), and so on.

In some cases, these missions are skill-specific -- some are for combat characters, some are for stealthy characters. If missions are designed to require characters with specific skill types, then the mission-generation system communicates that information so people can pick the missions they have a reasonable shot at completing successfully. Information about whether a mission requires a specific character level or group size is also usually provided.

One thing about this approach to mission generation is that it's rather fragile. It doesn't cope well with changes that occur after the mission is accepted, such a character's level changing or characters leaving a group.

So let's consider an alternative. Instead of a system that generates static missions whose requirements never change from the instant they're created to the moment they're completed, and which therefore can become impossible if someone disconnects, what about a system that allows mission requirements to change depending on who's currently in the group and their capabilities?

This is "dynamic mission scaling." It's not a novel suggestion, but just for fun let's have another look at it anyway.

Dynamic mission scaling allows a generalized mission to be generated -- "End the Orion pirate blockade of planet Zirconia VII" -- then when the challenge actually begins, the specifics of the challenge are dynamically adjusted to be appropriate for the number of people in the group and their skills.

Let's say you're in a big group of characters with lots of combat skills. When you reach Zirconia VII you might find that the pirates are well-armed and hostile. If on the other hand you're in a small group with diplomatic skills, there might be just a few pirates who'd be willing to negotiate a trade agreement with the Zirconians. (Note that it would be good to randomize this slightly -- you don't want to present players with the exact same type of challenge every time. Sometimes peace is possible; sometimes diplomacy breaks down.)

The key to dynamic mission scaling is that the specific details of the challenge are generated only at the moment you actually reach the mission starting point, not when you accept the mission (as with static missions). Overall, it seems to me that this dynamic mission scaling approach offers a number of benefits:

  • It would allow for changes in your party's membership right up until the moment the mission action starts.

  • It would work for both groups and solo players.

  • It would maximize the value of a group's (or soloer's) best skills, no matter what those skills are.

  • It would allow missions to have multiple solutions rather than having only one "right" answer.

  • It would eliminate the need for developers to hand-craft every single mission.

  • It would still permit static, hand-crafted, required-skill missions (such as for a main storyline).
Of course this approach has some drawbacks as well:

  • A generalized mission-generator takes more time and care up front to design and implement.

  • Some gamers may prefer that every detail of a mission be locked down and clearly spelled out before they take that mission.

  • It minimizes the value of pre-mission preparation, which some players enjoy.
Bearing in mind the cost of these potential drawbacks, if this dynamic approach were used I believe it would make the loss of a group member a lot less painful. And that should translate directly into "more fun," which is what a game ought to be all about.

Would players find something like this acceptable? Or are there big problems with it that would make it even worse than the static "one disconnect and you've all failed" mission generation systems in use by MMORPGs today?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

So where did this distaste for the generation of wealth in Star Trek come from?

My impression is that it's the bourgeois attitude that accumulating wealth is a worthwhile end in and of itself that Stewart and others object to. The Sims, developed by the Berkeley-centered folks at Maxis, mocked the "make more money to buy more stuff" worldview as well.

To a certain degree, I'm actually sympathetic to that reaction. I believe that being fully human requires exposure to many ways of experiencing existence: science, art, literature, sports, entertainment, construction, consumption, competition, cooperation, being part of a group, being alone, seeing the world, and knowing oneself. To focus only on a single one of these is to miss the opportunity to be fully human. In the tragically brief lifespan we're offered, that seems like such a waste.

So someone who's driven only by the desire to accumulate wealth, as though that's all that matters, is missing something important. I'm with the Stewarts and the Maxis folks and their fellow-travelers thus far.

Where I diverge sharply from them, however, is their belief that this particular approach to life is merely a choice -- just a learned behavior -- and that these people somehow need to be reeducated to recognize their error and change their bourgeois ways. I think that's a dangerously mistaken belief. It leads to what I call the "Human Perfectability Project" where anyone who thinks differently than the utopianists must be doing so deliberately, and needs to be bullied into going along with the program. For their own good, of course.

That's the thinking that led to bullets in the back of the head of millions of people whom Stalin believed were threats, and to the millions more human beings whose bones were left to rot in the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia. Those who won't get with the program can't be allowed to challenge it.

[Important note: I absolutely am not equating with Stalin and Pol Pot anyone who thinks that capitalism is bad or that people ought to give more and take less. What I am talking about here is strictly the belief that humans are perfectible, and the follow-on belief that any person has the wisdom to know how to perfect someone else. I view socialism as a step down this road; it is different in degree but not in kind and deserves criticism accordingly. (Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is the classic work on the arrogance of the Central Planning mentality.) But that criticism is emphatically not the same thing as an assertion that "all socialists are would-be murderers." I do not think that, I'm not saying that here, and I'd like that to be on the record.]

I don't think the beliefs of the perfectionists survive the light of reality. Humans demonstrate every day that they are not mere products of their environments and therefore perfectible according to someone's Master Plan. I see humans as being innately tugged in different directions from the moment they have a functioning and biochemically-driven brain. Environment matters, yes; we're capable of learning behaviors and habits. But we all begin our lives with predispositions toward seeing the world in particular ways, and those innate motivations will resist all attempts at being talked into something else by those who believe they know how everyone else should be.

In this balanced model of understanding people, those who are accumulation-driven aren't that way because "society" taught them to be that way, at least not entirely -- they're that way primarily because their fundamental innate motivation is toward security. For these individuals, making money is one activity that helps satisfy their deeply-rooted need for security in an insecure world. When a lot of other people feel the same motivation, that's how a society forms that tends to favor that attitude -- not because it's imposed from some external source on the members of that society, but because it's what a lot of people feel is most important.

And there's nothing wrong with that that needs to be "fixed" by Patrick Stewart and his merry band of "we know what's best for you" socialists, any more than there's something wrong with those of us who are motivated by other goals, such as a desire for understanding, or a desire to manipulate their world, or a belief that the greatest good is to grow as persons.

"Different" does not imply "broken." Of course those who focus intensely on making money miss out on some other important aspects of life... but so do those who focus on knowledge, or on experience, or on personal growth. We are all imperfect beings, not because we differ from each other, but because we are finite. None of us has all gifts -- we need each other.

It is, in fact, our diversity of ways of thought that enable us as a species to adapt to our world as it changes. The last thing we (individually or collectively) should want is to be "perfected" so that everybody thinks the same way and is driven by exactly the same internal motivations and blinded by the same limitations. The critics of capitalism are not entirely wrong, and the perfective motivation that drives their more principled criticisms is not inherently wrong, either. It's good to try to better ourselves.

But other ways of looking at the world aren't inherently wrong, either. And it would be nice if the artists who create our entertainment would respect that. Sometimes the audience knows best.

Player-Run Starbases in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Some people have suggested making command of a starbase a perk for leading a large player organization. (Let's follow accepted usage and call them guild leaders.)

But why would an experienced guild leader want to command a starbase?

Let's say we've got someone who's been a great guild leader. They've pulled together a lot of different people to get a lot of things accomplished in the game. They've done a lot of exploring, a lot of socializing, a lot of combat... probably a lot of combat. Their existence in the game has been one of going and doing; they've been highly active in bringing people into the group and making membership in the group fun.

And their reward for that whirlwind of activity will be to oversee a stationary support function? To spend their time making sure that other people's ships get fixed so that other people can go out into the galaxy to have active fun?

I'm making the assumption here that the primary function of a starbase is support, rather than direct gameplay action. Yes, if a starbase is attacked there could be some action, but it'll be defensive, not offensive -- and it won't happen all that often. (It better not!) Which means that most of the time, the point of a starbase will be to supply services to other players who are going Out There and doing exciting things.

Is it really likely that this is the kind of reward for services rendered that a highly active gamer is going to enjoy?

People want rewards that let them do more of what they enjoy doing, not less. Rather than a "reward" that radically changes their gameplay, action-oriented players need action rewards; exploration-oriented players need rewards that offer a higher level of exploratory play... and social players need rewards that let them socialize more. Such as commanding a starbase, whose function is to stay in one place and help lots of different people.

I wouldn't expect the leader of a gung-ho, action-oriented guild to enjoy it if the reward for all their activity was to oversee a stationary starbase, any more than I'd expect a cooperation-oriented social player to be happy if their reward for being a great social player was to lead a bunch of ships in combat or do behind-the-scenes strategic planning.

As a rule, high-level content shouldn't change the type of game a person enjoys playing. What it should do is give them even more of the specific kind of gameplay they enjoy.

And note that this "more of what you like" approach is what I propose in my "Combat Modes and Player Ranks" essay for each rank. As players find the kind of gameplay they enjoy, as determined by their rank, they're able to increase their level of competence in that rank so that the level of challenge increases with them. The difficulty increases while the type of challenge remains the same.

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG

This question of money in the Star Trek universe has bugged me ever since Star Trek: First Contact.

As far as I'm concerned, that "acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives" comment wasn't Picard talking. It was Patrick Stewart -- who's never made any secret of being a committed socialist -- indulging in a moment of wishful thinking (and Frakes and Berman letting him get away with it). For me, that was the one gratingly false moment in an otherwise excellent movie.

Not that it started there. Even the first season TNG episode "The Neutral Zone" has Picard condescendingly lecturing a wealth-creating businessman on the elimination of the profit motive. And the invention by Berman et al. of the Ferengi to ham-handedly mock "capitalism gone wild" (capitalism = subjugation of women!) is beneath contempt.

To my admittedly biased mind, the whole anti-capitalist 'tude of Trek from TNG onward has far more to do with socialist stars and Hollywood politics than with a carefully reasoned extrapolation of economic history into the future. Trying to find a workable intellectual basis for the Trek economy is a lost cause.

So of course that's exactly what I'm about to try to do. :)

Even if the "we don't use money" thing is nonsensical, it's still fun to consider what the advent of replicator technology would do to an economy. The phrase "post-scarcity economy" comes up here, and it's appropriate. When replicators allow the mass fabrication of objects large and small by simply feeding it cheap raw materials, industrialized labor is immediately displaced as a foundation for economic activity.

Even so, I think the notion that replicators invalidate capitalism is utterly bogus wishful thinking. Replicators don't mean the end of labor as a source of wealth generation. Even if they eliminate the need for manual fabrication of basic items, there are still numerous labor-intensive activities required by a modern society:

  • resource collection (mining)
  • large-scale construction (undersea arcologies, starships)
  • information processing
However, with the introduction of robots and (later) holograms, even the first two of these will no longer be required.

And yet for a civilization to survive and grow, the production and exchange of wealth is still necessary. Well, if you can replicate most things, and manual labor is clearly on the way out, where does "wealth" come from?

It seems to me that even in a post-scarcity world, there are still some things that would be scarce. There would still be some things that can't be replicated. Those, therefore, would become the new bases for economic growth and exchange -- the new "gold standard."

IMO, there would be two such things in particular: antimatter, and imagination.

Let's take antimatter first. If this is the key source of power throughout the Federation, and if it can't be replicated, then antimatter is not only a critical strategic resource, it basically becomes your new form of currency. (That's not so crazy -- we basically treat gold the same way; it's both a useful metal and a measure of scarcity.) "Wealth," in a world of replicators and robots, could be measured by how much antimatter you control. (Interestingly, in their wonderful "Sten" novels Allan Cole and Chris Bunch used antimatter as both a power source and a source of power.)

But there's another resource whose generation is critical to a society, and that is the imagination of sentient beings. When we think of a new idea, when we put old concepts together in a new way, we are adding to the sum total of all intellectual capital in our society. As the Agricultural Revolution gave way to the Industrial Revolution, today we can already see progress toward an Information Revolution where the key measure of productivity is value added to information through creative thought.

Even in a "post-scarcity" economy, intelligence would still be scarce. Replicators can't replicate that!

So I'd guess that creative thought would be an even more valuable commodity in a Star Trek future than it already is today. That gives it economic value. So, as with antimatter, whoever can control the supply of imaginative creativity will be rich -- not in money as we understand it today, perhaps, but still wealthy in influence. Whoever can best organize people for creative work would contribute the most to society, and would reasonably expect the largest reward of that society for their contributions. I'd bet that, if anything, the corporation would be an even more powerful entity in the future than it is in our world.

So in a Star Trek world, where replicators and robots fulfill our basic needs, I would conjecture that the quality and quantity of your creative output determines the amount of antimatter at your command, which can be used to turn essentially free raw materials into whatever you want.

Which sounds to me like a pretty reasonable behind-the-scenes explanation for how we've seen Federation citizens act. When they need something, they replicate it, and the power used to do so is deducted from their antimatter account balance. To increase that balance, they render something of value -- either services or intellectual creativity -- to someone who pays by transferring control of an agreed-upon amount of antimatter to the vendor's account.

In the case of working for an employer, whether a corporation or Starfleet, I'd guess there'd be a long-term draft system established -- control of X amount of antimatter is added to your balance every month or so. (Maybe with a bonus for especially creative thinking or problem-solving.)

In all of this, there's still one critical question, however: who owns antimatter initially? If only the Federation can create antimatter, that pretty much puts all "money" in the hands of the government... and I don't know about you, but I don't think I would trust even the Federation that much. Alternately, antimatter could be created by privately-owned corporate entities... but while that would be better than a government monopoly, it's still open to abuse.

So it might be interesting to think about how that could work.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Limiting Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG

I've been thinking (uh-oh!) about the limits of power.

Specifically, I've been thinking about whether there are or should be any general rules about how the power of 25th-century treknologies will be used by us 21st-century online gamers. They may have "more evolved sensibilities" in A.D. 2370, but we hairless apes in the 2000s who still think pointed sticks are pretty cool have a long and sordid history of turning technology to selfish and destructive and trivial ends.

Scott Adams (the creator of "Dilbert") once wrote an infamous little essay on why "The Future will not be like Star Trek". Here are some of the horrible uses to which he imagined we would put Star Trek technologies if given half a chance:

Medical Technology
  • Dermal regenerators would be used to close up some of your more important bodily orifices.

  • People who can't operate a copy machine would be responsible for accurately beaming your molecules around the world.

  • People would take anything they wanted by beaming it into their house -- groceries, famous paintings, cheerleaders, etc.

  • If someone tried to arrest you for taking stuff, you could just beam them into space.

  • If there's someone you don't like, you could transport them anywhere you wanted.

  • Think your neighbor's stuff is better than yours? Just transport it into your house -- now it's your stuff.

  • The holodeck would be the last thing the human race invents. No one would ever come out of the holodeck. We'd go in, order up three Icelandic massage therapists with reasonably flexible moral codes, and that would be it -- the last humans alive would find our smiling corpses weeks later. But then they'd be history because then they'd be in the holodeck.

  • Bad service at the convenience store? Zap.

  • Annoying person in front of you at the theater? Zap.

  • Yappy dog next door wakes you up at 3 AM? Zzzzzzzzzap.

  • People would start phasering off body parts just to have them replaced with cool cybernetic implants.

  • Very handy for keeping the stuff you just beamed into your house.

  • Why would you need to be constructive or friendly when you can just say, "Shields up!" and dare the person whose yappy dog you just phasered to do anything about it?
You get the idea. Although the essay that describes these abuses is pretty funny, there's a serious point being made: given power, human beings are naturally inclined to abuse it.

Can you say, "griefing?"

In thinking about the cool technogadgets from Star Trek, we naturally think about how we'd use them, but the developers of a mass-market MMORPG based on Star Trek need to go beyond "what can be done" to "what shouldn't be done." If Star Trek Online were a sandbox or social world like Second Life, the devs could just turn people loose with transporters and phasers and watch the ensuing chaos tear the place apart. (Actually, that sounds a lot like Second Life.)

But a game is different. In a game, there have to be limits to power, otherwise some players will interfere too much with the fun of other players. So developers have to consider what limits to place on technology-assisted character abilities. That means some developer has to decide what the fundamental physical and social rules of the world should be, and then turn them into that gameworld's reality by programming them as code and data. As the saying goes, "code is law."

Which brings me to my first question: If you were a Star Trek Online developer, what limits would you place on Star Trek technologies?

We've all thought about things we'd like to do with transporters and replicators and so on. (And if the stuff from the Scott Adams essay didn't give you some ideas, you're not trying hard enough.) But what are some things that no one should be allowed to do in Star Trek Online with those technologies and the other cool Star Trek gizmos?

What kinds of technology-enabled behaviors should be off-limits by design?


While you think about that, here's a related point.

When you're designing a system that's intended to be used by people, there are actually two ways to get people not to do something with that system that you don't want them doing:

  • Don't give them a way to do it at all.

  • Let them do it, but impose negative consequences for doing it.

Both of these approaches can work, but both approaches have pros and cons.

Not letting someone use a system in a particular way (by simply not coding that feature, or by adding special-case code to prevent a type of usage) insures that people won't do what you don't want them doing. But it also infantilizes people; it relieves them of responsibility for doing the right thing by never giving them the chance.

Allowing all behaviors, but imposing negative consequences for actions that impair the play of others, grants human beings the respect that free will and responsibility are due. This also enables useful but unplanned positive behaviors to emerge. On the other hand, if the negative consequences are too weak or aren't evenly enforced, severely negative behaviors can emerge. If enough people start acting that way (like drivers in Boston), pretty soon everybody has to break the rules just to keep up.

So here's the second question: In general, which of these approaches to social engineering would work best for Star Trek Online?

Should a Star Trek MMORPG work like a very tightly moderated game by coding every technology to be used in only very specific and carefully circumscribed ways?

Or should behavior in Star Trek Online be mostly left up to the players themselves -- they can (within some necessary limits) do whatever they want as long as they're willing to endure the consequences (e.g., loss of rank, loss of one's ship, permadeath for their character)?

Or should this kind of decision be made on a case-by-case basis, even if that leads to inconsistency of gameplay and code that's harder to maintain?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Player-Run Starbases in a Star Trek MMORPG

I like the idea of letting players command starbases in a Star Trek MMORPG.

Not everybody is into exploration or combat. Some people enjoy helping others, and certainly there'll be lots of players needing help of one kind or another (repairs, supplies, etc.). So why not let the people who are good at that and find it satisfying have the chance to do it? That seems like a win-win to me.

The only caveat I'd offer is that commanding a starbase shouldn't be about power. Sure, it might come with some junior officers to command, but it should mostly be a support role, with all the headaches that entails. I'd actually require the commander of a starbase to document to Starfleet HQ all the resources they use every month, and the average time to repair incoming ships, and even the bar fights and thefts and security breaches, and I'd make a starbase commander's rewards contingent on their performance in these kinds of categories. Retaining this command should mean putting together a strong organization of friends who like helping people; it should be "work" (of a fun kind), but it should also allow for lots of socialization.

Basically the job should only go to someone who really likes helping other people and can prove on a regular basis that they're good at it.

No, to most people this won't sound like much fun at all. But to some people, to those who feel useful when they have responsibility for the well-being of others and who don't need a lot of recognition for being helpful, I'm betting this would sound like a wonderful opportunity.

There's a general rule of multiplayer game design I've come up with. Consider the following conditions:

  • there's some activity or function that serves a useful purpose in the game

  • it's something that enough people enjoy doing so much that they'll do it outside the game world

  • it's something that's OK for players to do

  • it can be implemented in a safe way

  • it fits within the gameworld's lore and setting and backstory
If all of those things are true for some activity or function, then that's a great candidate for implementing it in the game as something players can do.

I think player operation of a supply/repair starbase satisfies all those conditions. If it does, then I'd definitely be for it as a feature in Star Trek Online.

Player Ship Interiors +

Originally Posted by Neth:
I'm wondering though just how much people are wanting internal ship combat vs external ship combat. If when your captain calls a red alert do you think it would be ok to see your character going into the teleport and then loading up an external view of the ship as though it assumes you arrived at your duty station?
I'm inclined to guess that most players would be able to accept that transition, but I'm probably biased.

But maybe this is the right place to mention that I've been thinking this whole "exterior view" thing is a little misleading.

The fact is, all of us who play Star Trek Online will be experiencing it as a 3D environment flattened onto and displayed on the 2D screen of our computer's monitor. (I'm assuming ST:O will be a PC game.) None of us humans will actually be in space or on a ship; we'll all have to represent the gameworld as some kind of view on a 2D screen.

The thing is, the specific form of this representation isn't set in stone. We actually have two choices on how the exterior view could be displayed on our monitors:

  • unbordered -- "space" and the ship take up the whole monitor screen (with UI overlays)

  • bordered -- the exterior ship view is displayed in its own window, or as a screen on a ship console
I suspect some of us are simply assuming that Perpetual will represent the ship exterior view as an unbordered, full-screen view. But there's nothing that forces that choice.

If players can accept having the exterior view of their ship displayed on their real-world 2D monitor, then how much cognitive distance is there between that and putting exactly the same visual information on a 2D in-game ship console that is itself then displayed on their real-world monitor?

In other words, how far off is console control really from the "exterior view" that Perpetual has indicated was the better choice for a ship combat interface? We'd still have that exterior view; it would just be rendered as a subwindow rather than as a view that takes over our entire monitor.

Does the one additional level of abstraction really make a significant difference?

What if the console-displayed exterior view was the default, but you-the-player could double-click on the exterior view section of the console to bring it up in unbordered form?

It seems to me that implementing the exterior ship view in this way -- as a console display that can be zoomed into -- would satisfy both the players who prefer the iconic feel of a console interface and those who want the gameplay immediacy of an unbordered, full-screen exterior view.

Sure, that's extra work for the developers, but since I'm not one of them I can just snap my (flat) fingers and say, "Make it so!" :) But the primary question isn't one of technical feasibility -- it's whether the concept would fly at all. The technical stuff matters; it's just not the first question that has to be answered.

Am I completely off-base in thinking that most players wouldn't have a problem with a console-based display of their ship's exterior if they could switch to (or even default to) a full-screen view?


Back to the notion of using a site-to-site transport for quickly accessing a duty station (in support of the possibility of implementing ship control through functional consoles) -- here's another crazy idea.

Let's say that whoever "has the bridge" (normally the captain) whacks the button that activates the red alert. What if, in addition to turning on the red lights and the klaxon, this automatically transports players to their stations?

If I were implementing this I'd set it up so that a player not at their assigned station gets a modal pop-up message:

*** RED ALERT ***
You are about to be transported to your
assigned duty station. Are you ready?
[YES] [NO]
If they click on YES, poof, instant transport; if they say NO, then nothing special happens. They can finish what they're doing and punch the Emergency Station Transporter (EST) button, or make their way to their post by some other means (turbolift?), or even not report to their station at all.

Of course, the captain will want to know their reason for this dereliction of duty!

Overall, I think this approach has the virtue of making it absolutely clear what's expected of each player and gets it done in the most efficient possible way, while still leaving players free to make their own choices.

Does this go too far, or is there maybe some value somewhere in this alternative approach?

Originally Posted by Neth:
Also I am sorry to go back to this but has anyone though of how to deal with the stress of the number of mobile HUBs in the game? If it's just a few there would not be a problem but if every one and their grandmother wants to have one there is just no way to make it possible. Even limiting them to end game rewards is only a short term solution as I am sure you can understand.

I guess this depends on how you're using the term "hub."

My impression is that the intention for hubs is that there are just a few of these, basically serving the same role in ST:O that cities serve in fantasy MMORPGs: quest-giving NPCs, personal storage space, item trading centers, and so on. Most would probably be stationary starbases -- the idea that some of these cities could actually be mobile (ships) is actually a pretty slick one. (Sort of reminds me of James Blish's wonderful "Cities in Flight" tetralogy.)

So the possibility of there being many of these things seems remote. I would guess -- and this is nothing more than a guess -- that there'd actually be fewer hubs than there are sectors (leaving some sectors open as "wild frontiers"). If there are 27 sectors, then I'd guess that there'd be something like 6-20 actual hubs in all.

If that's the case, then the real issue is how "big" the largest player ships will be. My guess: nowhere even remotely as big as a hub. Again, this is just a guess, but I suspect even the biggest player ships aren't going to have all the amenities of hubs; they won't be anywhere near as complex or fully-rendered as hubs. (Which is fine by me, just as long as player ships aren't merely combat platforms -- players who like exploration and socializing are, IMO, far too important to ST:O's commercial success not to put plenty of features for them on player ships.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Making NPC Behaviors More Plausible

Earlier today I actually worked up a short hierarchy of internal characteristics which, if used to drive NPC behavior, could help NPCs seem more plausible:

  • Emotions - lizard-brain reactions to environmental stimuli
  • Perception - awareness of environmental features
  • Communication - ability to transmit state information or knowledge to other NPCs
  • Memory - awareness of previous encounters as positive or negative toward the NPC's plans
  • World-knowledge - understanding of thing-behavior and people-behavior in the world (as in Doug Lenat's Cyc project)
  • Planning - ability to propose actions to achieve low-level, immediate goals and high-level, long-term purpose
  • Self-reasoning - ability to effectively describe internal states and knowledge
It's not certain that giving NPCs these features would make a game more fun. It's not even clear that a gameworld populated with creatures whose behavior is more appropriate for their type (animal or NPC) would get us past the "uncanny valley" problem.

But it would, I think, lead to a very different gameworld than the kind we see in MMORPGs currently. Fully simulating intelligent actors and an adaptive ecosystem is probably a little too much to ask, but wouldn't MMORPG gameworlds be more interesting if we could move a little closer to those goals?

Do we really need another game where mobs are either invulnerable quest-dispensers or loot-bags existing only to be popped?

Monday, May 7, 2007


Originally Posted by AaronH:
The main issue though, is in developing a system that is easy enough to use, that anyone can get into it, but complex enough to allow for long term viability and engagement for multiple people.
This is such a great point that it deserves amplification.

In particular, I'd like to offer a suggestion to any developer thinking of going down this design path: it's important to start with a deep system in the design phase and simplify in the implementation phase -- and not the other way around.

Launching with a simple system and then adding depth later seems like a reasonable idea. It increases your chances of getting that feature in the game, for one thing. It also makes sense from a systems design perspective -- build something simple, then add to it. But it's important to note that there are some practical, real-world difficulties in this simple-to-complex path.

The most painful is that every developer always has the best intentions of coming back to some nice, simple (working) system later to significantly improve it... and it never happens. Something always comes up that's more important. If it's working (any software development lead will tell you), the customer will insist that you leave it the heck alone and concentrate on something else. If it ever gets touched again, it'll only be to rip it out and replace it with something else.

But let's say you do get the post-launch approval to enhance a simple system to make it deeper. Now you have the problem that other game systems have had time to expect that your simple system will always look exactly the way it does. When you change your simple system, you discover that it breaks eight other things. Eight other more important things. Your lead is unlikely to be happy about having to explain to her boss that this little change will actually take three times longer to complete than you previously estimated.

And then there are the players. Oh, my. Sure, the folks who always wanted a deeper system will be happy, but what about the other players -- the ones who used that system because it was simple? Even if you go that extra mile and create a deep system with a still-simple interface, there will be players who will insist that you've "nerfed" something they loved like their own firstborn child.

So going from simple in design to complex after the game launches has some problems. What about the alternative?

My suggested approach for building a system that's both deep and focused goes a little something like this:

1. Have an idea for a system with a few interesting capabilities that can interact in multiple ways.
2. Brainstorm lots of design features that explore the core capabilities.
3. Reduce the design down a simple version that highlights the most crucial elements.
4. Build a prototype from the design.
5. Extend the system to expose its gameplay depth -- see what works, what doesn't.
6. Remove the parts that aren't fun, emphasize the parts that remain.
7. Rationalize the system with the other game systems so that it's consistent with them and improves them, too.
8. Abstract an interface to the system that's simple for those who want simple but which doesn't degrade gameplay for those who enjoy depth.
And then, and only then, launch the game.

This approach does a couple of important things. First, it recognizes the systems design principle that complex systems designed from scratch almost never work right -- you have to start with simple pieces that work and put them together carefully. And it has to happen before the game launches. After any system is released to production, it gains constituencies that don't want it to change (as noted above). This makes change nearly impossible.

Second, it follows the observation about elegant design enunciated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince): "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Start simple, then bring out the details, then burn off everything that doesn't contribute to making the game more fun overall.

So to come back (finally!) to Star Trek Online: if the goal is to create a system with some depth of gameplay, don't try to launch with it in a simple form; you'll never realize your vision of a deep system. Instead, design it simple but deep to start with. If you want to change it later, that'll be more acceptable to users who already see it as a deep system.

Player Ship Interiors

[2008/04/01: One of the design elements of Star Trek Online proposed by its former developer, Perpetual Entertainment, was the decision that the interface to player starships would be a third-person external view. Rather than treating player ships as mobile structures with internal rooms in which player avatars would be able to see and interact with each other, player ships would essentially be like the "mounts" of fantasy online games.

This player ship interiors (PSIs) decision generated a lot of discussion. Some defended Perpetual's design, which was based on the assertion that the third-person external view was most efficient for tactical action gameplay. Others objected to this design on the grounds that the gameplay of an online Star Trek RPG should be driven by more than just "tactical action," and that not allowing players to see and interact with each other's avatars inside starships would completely fail to deliver the crucial social aspect of the Star Trek experience.

The entries I wrote on this subject follow the latter viewpoint. I thought, and still think, that "players as ships" is the wrong design choice for this game, and I hope Star Trek Online's new developers will not make the same mistake.]


Originally Posted by Suricata:
I think Characters at consoles is a bad idea for combat. ... after watching some consoles displaying the water pressure of the fire main, or the RPM of the gas turbines, or the power output of the diesel generators, it gets boring very very fast. ... Having to run from console to console to raise the shields, to activate a thruster, to fire a torpedo was a lot of fun, but I could not imagine it would be fun to do again and again like things do in MMO's.
Great points, Suricata. In response, I'd say we're lucky that Star Trek Online will be a game and not a hardcore simulation!

Because it'll be a game, there's nothing stopping its developer from abstracting (or even inventing) only the most fun parts of operating a starship. There's no reason why "characters at consoles" has to only mean staring at one dial and occasionally clicking a button -- there've already been plenty of ideas in this forum for fun things that players at consoles could do.

For example, there was the excellent idea that the console user's screen could be split into (at least) two parts -- one that shows controls and readouts (the console), and one that shows the exterior of the ship, which displays what happens when the player takes an action. Sure, it's a little odd -- where's the camera outside the ship that sees this stuff? -- but it's no odder than being outside the ship all the time.

Furthermore, there's nothing whatsoever that says consoles can offer only a few boring commands. Take for example the Tactical station. Without even breaking a sweat I can think of five things that would be fun to do through that control station:

  • designate and prioritize threats to my ship

  • manually target an enemy ship

  • manually target a specific feature of an enemy ship

  • select a torpedo's warhead type for maximum effect

  • scan for and identify intruders who've boarded my ship
I'm sure other people can think of even more things that would be fun to do at a console. And all this would be in addition to (not "instead of") the other completely non-console-y things that a Star Trek character could do on the inside of a starship.

Could we do those things "outside" the ship? Sure... but then we wouldn't be able to see our comrades in arms cheer when we take out the bad guy. Representing characters inside ships allows for much more immersive interaction with other players than some weird disembodied voice telling us what to do.

So yes, "characters at consoles" could be very, very boring... if it was designed that way. Fortunately, there's nothing inherent in that particular design mechanic that limits it to the boring bits.

Originally Posted by Suricata:
It's understandable that players would love to reproduce how Star Trek is to perfection, but people need to realise that by doing that you risk turning the game into something that could end up feeling more of a chore or job. ... I'd also like to point out that as nice as some people think it would be for PE to make a game solely for hardcore Trek fans, it really is an impossable task, especially when some Trek fans refuse to even accept offical canon stuff as canon ... I seriously believe that a 100% simulation of a starship will only hit a very niche market of Trek fans which would seriously put the success of the game at risk.
This isn't a fair argument. I don't believe anyone here has proposed or wants a "perfect" or "100%" simulation of Star Trek (whatever that might look like). So arguing against that as you're doing here doesn't really address what some here actually want, which is just a more even balance of gameplay (the MMORPG side) and immersiveness (the Star Trek side).

I'm sure this is this a goal shared by most of us, including Star Trek Online's developers. We just have somewhat different ideas of what this "balance" looks like.