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.