Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by CinC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
I think my chief problem would be that I don't think these concept really would draw in "serious Trek fans", because my understanding of the Mirror Universe has been that these episodes were campy, not serious, with the possible exception of Mirror, Mirror. If I wanted Mirror Universe-style play, I'd probably just go learn EVE, God help me.
Just as a matter of opinion, I'd say the only campiness was the way the mirror Kira Nerys was played. Most other elements, from Spock's description of the Empire as doomed within two centuries to the Federation-Sisko's relationship with the mirror version of his dead wife (DS9: "Through the Looking Glass" and "Shattered Mirror"), were played with complete seriousness.

For those who find that depth of story makes their gameplay more fun by giving it meaning, this suggests that a Mirror Universe storyline for Star Trek Online could be emotionally effective. (Those who don't care about story won't care whether the action is said to happen in the Empire or the Federation.)

As for Mirror Universe gameplay sounding like that of EVE Online... that's an interesting point. I would say that there's not that much difference between the gameplay of most MMORPGs and EVE's -- they're all designed to promote destruction over everything else. Certainly there are differences; I just see those as minor compared to the all-pervasive effects of the core design goal they all share, which tends to turn everything else in such games into a combat support function.

The gameplay of a Star Trek Online that's primarily about blowing stuff up and phasering enemies would thus look just like the gameplay of most MMORPGs, including EVE. (Isn't feeling familiar to players of current MMORPGs a design goal for this game?) The only difference is that clearly setting this action in the Mirror Universe would provide a solidly plausible explanation for that destructive/accumulative/manipulative gameplay to the Star Trek fans who care about it.

And note that Star Trek Online players who never watched Star Trek would have nothing to compare the Mirror Universe setting against, so they'd have no reason to object to it (other than "why can't we have nice things?").

Monday, June 25, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay 1

For some reason, I couldn't stop thinking about this gulf I see between the behaviors expressed in the typical MMORPG and the typical conception of Star Trek. How can the competitive, acquisitive action of the typical MMORPG be squared with the cooperative, exploratory nature of Star Trek?

And then a simple and elegant solution came to me: Make the Mirror Universe the primary setting for Star Trek Online.

MMORPG players who are accustomed to being aggressive, avaricious, and to ganging up in groups to beat up other groups, will be free to indulge in exactly that kind of behavior in a Mirror Universe Star Trek Online. ST:O's gameplay and the characters who engage in that gameplay can be utterly combat-centric.

And Star Trek fans will accept such behaviors being rewarded by the game because those are exactly the behaviors that Star Trek lore tells us to expect from Mirror Universe characters.

The more I think about this, the more I like it as a solution that can work for many potential ST:O players, but of course there's no such thing as a solution that can satisfy everyone. So here are the advantages and disadvantages of the Mirror Universe approach that I've thought of so far.


1. Gives current online gamers what they expect. Star Trek Online's gameplay can be built around the combat, loot, guilds, and XP-for-character-growth activity model that current MMORPG players seem to assume must be the core of any MMORPG.

2. Provides core Star Trek fans with a highly plausible story justification for typical MMORPG activities. Fighting, taking other people's stuff, ganging up, and self-interest, which are the behaviors rewarded in existing MMORPGs, are exactly the behaviors that Mirror Universe characters are supposed to demonstrate.

3. Could provide a workable justification for civil war (albeit within the Empire, not the Federation). "Good" players could fight to overturn the Empire from within, following in the footsteps of Jennifer Sisko and (perhaps) the "bearded" Spock.

4. Following #3, could provide a workable justification for PvP.


1. Doesn't resemble the optimistic Federation-viewpoint Star Trek that the casual Trek fan knows and expects.

2. Makes interacting with the Trek characters from the Federation universe a lot more complicated. People may prefer to meet the "good" Picard, the "good" Bashir, and so on.

3. Doesn't follow the backstory as currently provided [in former developer Perpetual's version of Star Trek Online] about Ambassador Picard going to the Romulans. (But note that, as has been pointed out very clearly, information released publicly about the game's development to this point is subject to change.)

4. If the civil war opportunity is implemented, struggling to defeat an evil Empire might seem a bit too similar to a certain other science fiction universe!

5. Will still not be satisfactory to the serious Star Trek purists, who want "their" Trek universe.

6. Won't be satisfactory to the hardcore MMORPG gamers, either, who need non-leet gamers around to take advantage of.


On balance, I think this Mirror Universe setting could work for both those gamers who are strongly MMORPG-oriented and those who care most about plausibility of game action within Star Trek canon. As noted, there are potential difficulties to overcome. But to my mind, those would be considerably easier to address than trying to resolve the major cognitive disparity between Star Trek expectations of a peace-loving and cooperative Federation and MMORPG expectations of combat and loot acquisition.

Player Ethics vs. Character Ethics +

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
... if they code in options for behavior that are viable and interact only with fictional characters, and then say that you as a player are punished permanently or otherwise because you've chosen a style of play that the creators didn't prefer, despite the fact that they have set up the possibility themselves, that in my opinion is little more than bullying.
I agree with you here, but note that this changes the argument. This is no longer about character actions entirely within the magic circle; it's about behavior that breaks the circle, that conflates the character's actions with the player's actions.

In a way this breaking the circle is inevitable -- characters in a game can't do anything without the player (otherwise they'd be sims). This is why the case of Mr. Bungle [note: link to explicit text] is so interesting, if in a very unhappy way. The hacks used to perpetuate non-consensual sexual acts on other characters may have been allowable within the game world, but it's the player behind those acts that we want to punish for shattering the expected gameplay experience of other players. If I-the-player use my character to foul up your game, how is the developers punishing only my character going to have any meaningful effect?

I think there has to be some provision for developers to apply real-world consequences to players for the in-game behaviors they express their characters. That said, doing so ought to happen only under specific circumstances, such as in response to players intentionally using their characters to break the magic circle for other players. In general, if a character is doing something within the context of the game world's ethics, then even if that action goes against what those ethics say is right behavior the game itself should punish the character, not the player.

If that's what you're saying, then we're in agreement. But note that taking away XP for not following the Prime Directive is not punishment against a player! The player doesn't earn XP; the character does.

The counterargument here is that even if it's the character that's penalized in the game world, the player still pays the price in the extra time that's now required to do what he was trying to do. I'm actually sympathetic to that -- I certainly wouldn't want to play a game where my investment of time was repeatedly jerked around according to somebody else's ideas of right and wrong.

But the solution to this is not to force developers to make a game world with the code of ethics one prefers in the real world, or no ethical code at all, or some other feature demand. Consumers can't be allowed to have that kind of veto power over the game design process; if we could, no one would want to develop games.

The only viable solution is to vote with your wallet. If the developers of Game X implement something you can't stand, don't play Game X. If you really object to it, you're free to go online and say so.

Does that blow? Yes. It's a lousy solution. But the alternative of being able to force game developers to implement a game according to someone else's vision is worse.

That doesn't mean we can't ask for what we want, of course....

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
If Perpetual doesn't want you to break the Prime Directive, then they shouldn't let that be an option - and if they do, then the players that choose to do so shouldn't be punished for it, or should be aware of the consequences beforehand. If a player breaks the Prime Directive because they think that's what Kirk would've done, or it's the best option in a bad situation, or they believe the end justifies the means or whatever, and then after the mission they're surprised when the game says that, sorry, they just aren't moral enough to earn a Sovereign ship, then STO simply isn't a game I want to play.
I don't understand why you're talking about this as though it's players themselves whose ethics are being tested. Players won't be earning real starships. Only characters in Star Trek Online will have their starship earnings potential put at risk through their in-game actions. So if my character loses some prestige because he interfered with a pre-warp culture, how does that constitute any kind of ethical judgment whatsoever about me as a real person?

I don't believe that slowing down a character's prestige earnings because he ignored the Prime Directive says anything at all about the ethical qualities of that character's player. If it did, these things wouldn't be "roleplaying" games; they'd be character assessment tools.

But let's say I'm somehow wrong about this, and the player's personal standards of behavior really do somehow matter in a fabricated virtual gameworld. What would be the practical result of that on the game design process?

What would a Star Trek MMORPG look like without gameplay consequences for Starfleet characters who violate Starfleet rules of behavior? Would a Star Trek game in which anything goes feel enough like Star Trek to deserve that label? When Captain Ransom wants to murder alien lifeforms to get home faster, a Star Trek roleplaying game should say, "Hey, no problem, guy -- kill as many of 'em you want"?

What might CBS have to say about standing this part of their license on its head, even if the developer tries to make a "the needs of the gameplay outweigh the needs of Star Trek" argument for it?

If there are or will be other games (e.g., the Multiverse version of Firefly) whose licenses clearly show characters living in a Shades of Gray world, why does Star Trek Online have to be another such game?

Isn't having a clear ethical code within the game world not a defect, but in fact a valuable product differentiator for a Star Trek MMORPG?

I personally think anyone developing a mass market MMORPG based on Star Trek needs to embed a clear code of behavior for Starfleet characters, with meaningful effects on gameplay for ignoring that code. And I personally will have difficulty playing a Star Trek Online in which that's not the case, and if other things I consider equally important are discarded. But at the end of the day, it's up to Star Trek's MMORPG licensor to make those calls, and I fully support their role as the only official source for gameplay design decisions.

If I don't like it, I can choose not to play in that world.

And complain about it, of course. :)

Star Trek Characters as NPCs in a MMORPG

In any literary universe worthy of being turned into a MMORPG, a major part of what makes that universe unique is the cast of characters through whom the action occurs.

So it stands to reason that it's important to make effective use of a world's characters when building a MMORPG based on that world.

How should the characters of Star Trek be used in Star Trek Online? In other words, what gameplay features should known characters from the Star Trek TV/movie universe have as non-player characters (NPCs) in a Star Trek MMORPG? How should players be able to interact with these special NPCs?

The usual approach to implementing literary characters is to turn them into quest-giving NPCs. This approach does have some virtues, but gamers have also criticized it as being too passive and therefore failing to capture and communicate the active aspects of those characters that made them interesting to us. Isn't there more that could be done with these characters to leverage their value within the franchise?

How do you think the Picards and Tuvoks and Leah Brahmses and various "guest stars" of Star Trek should be implemented in Star Trek Online? What do they need to be able to do to make the game fun for most players? Should there be different types of characters with different functions? How close should these NPCs come to being able to do the kinds of things that player characters can do in a Star Trek MMORPG?

Is there a general solution to the problem of adapting literary characters to the MMORPG medium? Or does Star Trek Online need a custom solution fitted to its unique characters?

Here are some ideas for what characters from Star Trek could do as NPCs in a MMORPG:

  • static location quest-dispenser (the usual uninspired use for NPCs)

  • fleet commodore

  • one-time-only deus-ex-machina rescuer (for when your most critical mission goes completely pear-shaped)

  • presiding judge at your court-martial

  • your defender at your court-martial (in the world of Star Trek, every officer eventually gets court-martialed :) )

  • source of clues or items in a puzzle/treasure hunt

  • adversary in a training simulation (not necessarily combat!)

  • victim needing to be freed from alien technology

  • patient needing to be cured of alien disease

  • hostage needing to be rescued from bad guys (or so it appears....)

  • instructor in special (non-prestige-purchased) branch skills

  • appears in a change of command ceremony when you assume command of a major new ship

  • appears in a one-time-only cutscene to congratulate you on a major promotion
Any others?

What you can imagine these characters being able to do as NPCs in a Star Trek MMORPG that would become a new standard feature for NPCs in all MMORPGs that follow?

Player Ethics vs. Character Ethics

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
... "ethics" in STO should apply to us as players- the real humans behind the keyboards when we affect other real people behind real keyboards - and not as characters - digital avatars that affect numbers in a computer program.
Wow. That's a remarkable position to take. I have a really hard time agreeing that that's how virtual worlds in general and a Star Trek MMORPG in particular should be designed.

It seems to me that what we're talking about is the difference between a game world in which no one is capable of appropriately criticizing the behavior of another, versus one in which some things that are possible are not considered good behavior. I think of these competing constructions as "Shades of Gray" versus "Right and Wrong," respectively.

The big problem I have with asserting that MMORPGs should be designed according to the Shades of Gray model is that it ignores the concept of the "magic circle." This is the critical notion that everything that happens in an imagined world is real to the characters who inhabit and act in that world -- they exist inside a magic circle. Literature almost always follows this pattern -- the characters in a book don't talk or act as though they "know" they're merely fictional characters; they talk and act as though they're real and so is everyone else in that fictional world. Actors in a play or a TV show or a movie create the same illusion of reality. That's what being a "good actor" means.

This pretense of a magic circle in which unreal things are treated as real is what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief." It enables us to learn from unreal things by pretending that they are real. By agreeing to put ourselves inside the magic circle, we become able to understand what happens there with respect to our real lives. (This is also the power of myth that Joseph Campbell explored so thoroughly.)

Most RPGs are designed to produce the same effect. By building a world of places inhabited by characters with apparent intentionality, RPGs create a magic circle. And when we play that game, we enter the magic circle. Most of us, when we play a character in such an invented world, choose to behave as though we ourselves are in that world. We willingly suspend disbelief; we pretend that what is in this imaginary world is real and manipulate/inhabit our avatar there accordingly.

It's true that unlike reading a book or watching a movie, playing an RPG (tabletop or online) actively involves the real-world person. The experience is no longer passive; it's interactive. This means that the magic circle is defined in part by what I do, and by what you do, and by what everybody else does inside the fiction of the game world. But that doesn't invalidate the magic circle -- it just means that people have to actively cooperate to maintain the illusion of reality. The fact that some people don't care to do so doesn't mean that everybody else should give up and go along with the loss of the imaginary reality. For them, the rules of the virtual world -- including the ethics of that imagined reality -- should be treated as though they have real effect on all the characters within that world.

So yes -- outside the game, in the real world, real-world ethics apply. But inside the game world, virtual-world ethics (including some that differ from real-world ethics) are perfectly capable of applying if the world's creators have designed it to work that way. There is absolutely nothing about virtual worlds (including MMORPGs) that requires them to be ethically neutral inside the magic circle. If a world's designers want to impose ethical absolutes that the characters in the magic circle of that world will be subject to, then they not only can do so, they should do so if that's necessary for telling a particular story. If the mythic needs of an imagined world require that some actions are right and some are wrong and there are tangible consequences in that world depending on which actions a character takes, then the developers must implement game functions that "enforce one moral code." If they don't, their created world will fail to tell the desired story.

(Not all stories are proper to tell, even in a game setting, however. While in a liberal society we try to extend a lot of freedom to creators to tell whatever stories they want, there are some limits to what can be said even within the aspect of a virtual world. A gameworld in which pedophilia was treated as ethically acceptable, for example, would not be tolerated because our real-world ethics tell us that even imaginary/virtual tolerance of such behaviors are dangerous. So there are some cases where real-world social ethics trump the sovereign literary power of a world creator -- there are some kinds of worlds that may not be created. My point is that in all other worlds -- the ones which are permissible -- it's by definition OK to apply ethical standards to the characters in those worlds other than the standards of behavior common to our real world.)

Is it OK for there to be some RPGs whose developers try to allow characters (as controlled by their players) to do whatever they want in the game world? Sure. It's possible to have a Shades of Gray RPG with a magic circle -- within that circle, might makes right, Thomas Hobbes runs the show, and if you can get away with it, it's allowable. EVE Online is close to being that kind of game. Not everyone wants to play such a game, of course.

But not having to play that kind of game means it must also be OK for designers to create Right and Wrong worlds in which value judgments on behavior are possible and even desirable. The magic circle also supports the design of games in which some the designers of that world impose a particular standard of ethical action on characters. Not everyone will want to play this kind of game, either, but again, they shouldn't have to. If such worlds aren't a person's cup of tea, they can play something else. The existence of worlds where good and evil can be clearly identified shouldn't be censored because some people are more comfortable believing that no absolute standard of right and wrong should exist even in an imaginary world, that everything must always and everywhere be some shade of gray.

Game designers, as creators of worlds, have the power to make both kinds of game. The designers of the world of Star Trek Online are free to build a game world in which the ethical elements of the Star Trek license are made real and have a meaningful impact on the characters in that world. And gamers have the freedom to choose which type of magic circle they prefer to step into through the persona of their character. And that's just how it should be.

This power of creation, not incidentally, is why Richard Bartle insists that describing game designers as political rulers is less accurate than describing them as gods.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Persistence vs. Perception +

Originally Posted by Arili_Opluthi:
If we fail a mission, maybe we should be "locked out" of it for a period of time. There's precedent for this so it shouldn't turn people off too much, and it prevents that whole "throwing yourself at the wall" situation where you try the same dang mission over and over until 3 am.
"Persistence" is absolutely a valid approach to multiplayer design. Some people like to know they can win before they play. In such games, success is directly proportional to effort, which Gamist players recognize as one of their strengths. And we like games that reward what we value about ourselves.

The thing is, that's also true for other kinds of gamers. For the Simulationist players, "learning from failure" is an equally valid design philosophy because learning implies understanding, and the ability to understand, to comprehend, is what these gamers value in themselves.

So I've got absolutely nothing against missions that can be won through persistence. There will be Gamists playing a Star Trek MMORPG, and they need that kind of content. What I'm hoping is that those aren't the only kinds of missions available -- I believe Star Trek Online (or any MMORPG, for that matter) will be a more successful game by also offering "understanding" missions designed to appeal to the Simulationists, and "relating" missions designed to appeal to the Narrativists.

Of course mission design doesn't have to follow this formal breakdown. But it's an interesting yardstick for measuring how appealing a game will be to a broad spectrum of gamers.

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

A couple of quick thoughts:

1. I'm not reflexively against passive skills. In some ways, passive skills can actually be more valuable than active skills -- if they're "always on," you don't have to pay to use them. That can add up to big savings over the long run. But of course you could also look at that as a reason to keep a tight lid on such skills when you're designing a game. (And that goes at least double or triple for a PvP game.)

Another aspect of this is that, given the numeric nature of RPGs of any kind, developers often find passive skills easier to implement. Because you don't have to show them being activated (often requiring art and audio assets to be created), you can just make up something that changes behind-the-scenes numbers and call it a passive skill. The result can be an awfully strong temptation to just crank out a passive skill when you're on a deadline and have to come up with something to round out a character ability set.

So I'm not anti-passive skill. I'm just cautioning against relying on them too much.

2. For NPC reactions based on a player's "skill level," I should have defined my terms better.

I'm using "skill level" here to mean the total number of skill points (or prestige points, or whatever) that a player has sunk into the skills of a particular branch (including Command).

This would reflect the ability of NPCs to look at a character and make a reasonable guess about what they do and how good they are at it. Unless they’re a Master Hacker who broke into the Starfleet Personnel database and inexplicably chose to spend their time there reading your dossier, there's no way the NPC would know that you've got the Plasma Conduit Scrubbing III skill -- but they might reasonably be able to peg you as an Experienced Engineer.

So what I was suggesting about NPC reactions wasn't about them seeing specific character skills. It was about them seeing a character's primary capability at a gross level, and modifying their reaction somewhat (not hugely) based on that observation.

And absolutely the reactions of NPCs should be improvable... unless you've somehow made yourself KOS to them.

But that should take conscious effort on your part.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Voice Chat in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Clive Thompson, in an essay on Wired Online, presents a very interesting counterpoint to the idea that voice chat is always a good thing in MMORPGs.

If the way you think about MMORPGs is primarily in terms of "beating the game," and competitive gameplay is fast-paced, then having a way to communicate in real time is an obvious win. For these gamers, the avatar is just a shell that's required for gameplay -- the character is just a tool to be used in-game, like a sword or a mount. All the actual personality comes from the player, so they're fine with sounding in voice chat like the people they actually are.

But there are other gamers who think differently, whose primary approach to MMORPGs is in terms of "immersiveness." The worldy-ness of the game matters to them; they want the characters to seem appropriate for the game world. So for these gamers, hearing the expletive-spewing voice of an 11-year-old coming out of a cultured Dark Elf prince, or realizing that the swooning damsel they just rescued has the gravel voice of a rotund, 40-year-old chain smoker -- this stuff just absolutely kills all hope of immersion in the game world.

So which of these philosophies of MMORPG gameplay should win when it comes to how a Star Trek MMORPG is designed? The MMO part? Or the RPG part?

Can the game be designed with distinct features that will fully satisfy both these kinds of players?

Or is there some kind of compromise both kinds of gamer could accept, even if it's not 100% what they really want?

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Irdnova:
What do you guys think of a concept that based on certain "experiences" that your Player character is subjected to that it actually becomes a ship bonus?
That depends on whether we're thinking of skills as active or passive.

I'm thinking of them in an active sense -- the value they offer is generated when they're used. A Skilled Medical officer, for example, applies those skills when treating medical conditions.

You seem to be thinking of skills in more of a passive sense -- they're working all the time (in the appropriate context), providing their benefits continuously. In this sense, a Veteran Engineer might make all of a ship's mechanical systems function more effectively without needing to do anything special.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach to skills. It works nicely for a game like Starfleet Command (or the Star Fleet Battles game on which SFC is based), for example. Since those skills belong to NPCs, there's no need to design a mechanism for them to be used actively; that would distract from the player part of the game.

The thing is, that's also why a passive skill system is probably not the best approach for a MMORPG. Players need things to do in these games, so to make their skills passive would actually take away things for them to do. It would work as a sim, but it doesn't work as well in a persistent-world RPG. In that kind of game, players need as many of their skills as possible to be active skills; there needs to be a wide range of things for players to do.

(This is actually a complaint I had against the design of the Merchant profession in the original SWG. Most of the Merchant skills, such as those to reduce maintenance costs, were passive. You didn't do anything with them; they just indirectly altered your gameplay. Not really much fun.)

So I would suggest that most player skills in a Star Trek MMORPG should be designed to be active skills that affect the game world only when a player explicitly activates them.

Not to worry, though -- this doesn't mean there are no ways in which a player's general skill level might affect the game. What about NPCs?

Maybe NPCs react differently to a player with a high overall skill level (or rank, for Command players). Some NPCs might respect authority, so their reactions to high-ranking players become more favorable. Maybe a Legendary officer inspires some NPCs to offer assistance they wouldn't consider offering a Novice officer. (For NPCs following Command players, you could even think of this reaction adjustment as NPC "morale.")

But other NPCs of a more individualistic stripe might react more negatively toward a high rank PC than an Ensign, or toward a player with more skill levels in their rank. An NPC on the shadier side of Federation law might, for example, be more likely to attack a Legendary Captain without warning than risk talking to her, while the same NPC might see a Novice Captain as less of a threat. (Note that this also works as gameplay -- it gives Novice-level ranks a chance to figure out how their new rank works before the bad guys start taking them seriously.)

Something similar could be done for other branch specializations. Maybe pacifistic NPCs don't like really gung-ho Tactical officers. Maybe NPC scientists are affected (positively or negatively) by a player character's level of Science skills.

You get the idea. Anybody see any value in this kind of indirect use of skills?

Mini-Review of Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight

Ah, Jedi Knight. Allow me, if you will, to babble on this subject.

For my money, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight was the best of the entire "Jedi Knight" series of first-person computer games. For that matter, judged against the state of the art at the time of its release, it's one of the best FPS games I've ever played.

The original Star Wars: Dark Forces (DF) was a very good game. For starters, it was a first-person game set in the Star Wars universe. That went a looooong way. TIE Fighter and X-Wing were also first-person games, but they were flight sims; they didn't give you the same feeling of immediacy as a ground-based game with textures you could see and objects you could interact with. I remember when the demo for DF was released -- we could not wait to play this game. It looked and sounded like Star Wars!

In terms of its gameplay, DF offered large vistas, giving a much greater feeling of openness than Doom, its closest competitor and obvious inspiration. DF also required the player to solve puzzles that were more difficult than Doom's. Finally, DF gave the player the chance to play in the Star Wars universe, which was a real hoot. Sounds, artwork, weapons and enemies all contributed to giving DF a distinctive feel and effectively communicating the Star Wars vibe.

That said, Dark Forces was flawed in some ways. Although the level design was generally good, there weren't many different types of opponents. I also felt that the end-game boss fight was a bit anticlimactic. But DF's worst offense by far was the decision not to allow players to save their game except between levels. The developers obviously believed that saving and reloading the game made it too easy, and so simply left that feature out. That wasn't fun. (Surprisingly, some developers still haven't learned that this is unacceptable. Although you could get around it with a console hack, Far Cry was designed not to give players a save/reload feature.)

Unlike some sequels, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (JK) took everything that DF did well and improved on it, while adding new features to make the game even more fun. Levels became still more wide-open, to the point that I found myself hugging exterior walls in some places, nervous about moving. The number of video resolutions at which the game could be run were increased, so that the graphics appeared much sharper than its predecessor's. JK looks a little cartoonish now, but it was reasonably good for its time.

Importantly, the level design for JK absolutely rocked. Not only did every single level do an excellent job of reimagining Star Wars locations and challenges, they were brilliantly imaginative, and they looked and sounded and played great. Among the many memorable levels was one in which the player has only a few minutes (real-time!) to escape from a damaged spaceship which is falling to the ground. As the bulkheads groan and klaxons blare in your ear, and the deck heaves and pitches at crazy angles, you're forced to scramble frantically from one part of the doomed ship to another in search of a way out. It is incredibly frustrating... but incredibly immersive. (And incredibly satisfying when finally completed.)

Another very nice touch in Jedi Knight is the addition of the lightsaber as a weapon. Being able to take on opponents with the lightsaber was something DF didn't offer. To showcase this feature, JK even included several lightsaber fights with bosses of increasing difficulty. (It's pretty remarkable, but I swear that the leaping, whirling lightsaber moves used by Yoda in his fight with Count Dooku in Episode II looked amazingly similar to those used by one of the enemies in one of the lightsaber fights in JK.)

Best of all, JK pulled you even further into the Star Wars universe by the introduction of Force powers. Although we take them for granted now in Star Wars games, abilities like Force Jump and Force Choke appeared first in DF2: Jedi Knight, and were incredibly fun to use. One interesting aspect here was the way Force powers were improved. When you finished a level, you were given "Force Stars" which you could then spend on learning new powers or improving existing powers. Where this got interesting was that you earned more stars the fewer times you saved and reloaded during a level. Apparently the designers were still fixated on the idea that letting players save and reload was undesirable, but at least with JK they figured out a way to reward players for not reloading, rather than simply denying them the ability to do so at all as they had in DF.

And just to showcase the quality of this game's engine, the Mysteries of the Sith expansion for JK (which featured Mara Jade) even included a deathmatch level that mimics the interior of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke and Vader fight. If you break open the large circular window, you get sucked out and must try to land on the narrow ledge below. You can even damage the railing with your lightsaber just like Vader did after Luke injures Vader in his shoulder.

The only questionable aspect of Jedi Knight is the use of full-motion video for its cutscenes. This was the Big Thing of the day before developers realized that it actually hurt the game if the acting wasn't good -- which it usually wasn't. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the acting in the FMV scenes of JK... wasn't good. (An exception to this was Angela Harry as Jan Ors. Her naturalness improved every scene she was in.)

Overall, I have to say DF2:JK was by far the best of the series. JK2: Jedi Outcast wasn't bad, but it didn't push the gameplay envelope nearly as much as JK did, and its levels weren't as imaginative. As for Jedi Academy (JA)... sigh. I didn't enjoy it at all. By comparison with the earlier Star Wars FPS games, the levels in JA felt unimaginative and cramped in both area and duration; the story was weak; the Force and lightsaber gameplay was "been there, done that." In short, Jedi Academy felt like a console game. It actually wasn't all that awful -- it just wasn't a good PC game, and it suffered by comparison to the previous Star Wars FPS games.

On the other hand, it makes DF2:JK look that much better. Wow, but that game was good.

Even with the full-motion video cutscenes. :)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

It seems to me that there's a useful lesson in thinking about the difference in gameplay that flows from having just a few levels (as in AD&D, for example) and many levels (as in many MMORPGs).

Namely, when levels come more frequently (because there are more of them), they become more of an object of focus by the player. The practical result is that players consciously focus on taking actions that will ding their character to the next level. Among other things, they spend time bottom-feeding for safe XP.

When there are only a few levels, by contrast, and the time between dings is accordingly much longer, my experience has been that players stop spending their time doing things just to raise their level and concentrate instead on just playing the game. Only when they know they're about to ding do they start altering their play behaviors to rack up cheap XP. The rest of the time, they're fully immersed in whatever deviltry the DM is throwing at them.

Isn't that latter kind of behavior what we should prefer in MMORPGs as well, rather than the mindless grinding for cheap XP that having lots of levels provokes?

The obvious objection to this is "MMORPG players clearly want their rewards on a more frequent schedule than in 10-level games like AD&D." OK... but who said that increasing a character level was the only possible reward? Anything that can be keyed to a level can be pulled out of that system and used as a reward for good gameplay. And the perceived value of each reward can be used to fix a ratio for desired rewards. Character levels are absolutely not the only way to persuade players to keep playing.

(For more on the subject of reward schedules, please see John Hopson's excellent Gamasutra article, "Behavioral Game Design".)

So my preference for Star Trek Online would be... do both. There would be only a few ranks, but departments (Science, Tactical, etc.) would have multiple levels. In this way there'd be the long-term progression in rank so that players wouldn't be focused on "leveling up to Captain," but they'd still have the possibility of achieving the shorter-term reward of improvement in their department if that appeals to them.

Specifically, there would be ten or fewer Starfleet ranks, each separated by a significant number of prestige points, and each offering unique rewards. That should provide the benefits of character levels without promoting the utterly mechanical level-grinding behavior that makes most MMORPGs the equivalent of running in circles (only without the health benefits).

In addition, departments could offer 40 or 60 or even 100 levels (although 100 levels could make skill improvement stupidly trivial). While I'm not wild about any kind of arbitrary magic number system for describing a character's capabilities (I much prefer specific skills), this could be a convenient way for players who like that sort of thing to measure their character against other characters. If advancement in one's department level is based on skills learned, rather than the other way around (which it could easily be), then even this concern is addressed.

Overall, providing a system of multiple character advancement tracks may be the best way for a MMORPG based on Star Trek to go.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Brief Simulationist/Narrativist Manifesto

I'm getting increasingly tired of game designers treating the Simulationist and Narrativist preferences as mere nice-to-haves (or, even worse, as undesirable distractions) compared to Gamist features.

Worldiness matters, dammit. Flinging a bunch of arbitrary, semi-random rules of play out there is fine for some people, but there are others -- and I'm one of them -- for whom that is not good enough. For us, a game where internal consistency is considered a distraction from "real" game design is not much fun. What's the point of just following made-up rules? Conversely, a game in which consistency is respected, in which the objects and activities in that gameworld fit into a coherent physical/sociological/literary model, would make everything that could be done in that game significantly more fun.

For us, consistency and world-depth and an actual story increase our fun. Are we irrelevant? Are our notions of what's fun unworthy of respect? I don't think so, and I'm sick and tired of being being told to go sit in the back of the bus and not get uppity by asking for the gameworld to be designed in such a way that I'm an equal player.

For a massively multiplayer online persistent-world RPG, any lead designer or producer who seriously says anything like, "It's a game, not a simulation" should have his project taken away from him and given to someone who's not so eager to unnecessarily shun paying customers.

It's time for game designers to start treating Simulationist and Narrativist interests as equal to Gamist preferences. All of these styles (and probably some of the Experientialist mindset as well although there's plenty of action in MMORPGs already) need to be consciously considered when designing content for a mass-market MMORPG. Excluding Simulationist and Narrativist features means excluding logical and emotional consistency in the game world. It means a lack of, yes, "immersiveness." Any designers who think that's either desirable or necessary in a game intended for broad consumption have no business being given responsibility for designing such a game.

In short, "gameplay" does not only mean catering solely to hardcore Gamist interests. What Simulationists and Narrativists (and Experientialists) enjoy doing for structured fun are equally valid forms of play.

Until their interests are taken seriously by designing actual content for them, they won't play these MMORPG things for long. And publishers will fail to make as much money as they otherwise could.

Why should any of us settle for that?

End manifesto.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

One of the character progression concepts from the former developer of Star Trek Online that people seemed to like was the notion of a character's Starfleet rank being somewhat (or possibly even completely) independent of his or her branch specialization.

This brings up the question of how gameplay might change for a character's rank. I threw out some ideas related to this in my "Combat Modes and Starfleet Ranks" essay, but that was mostly related to rank. What about how characters might become more effective -- at their current rank -- within their specialized department (such as Engineering, Command, and so on).

How might gameplay might change based on how far characters progress in their preferred branch specialization? Here are some of the questions that might be considered.

1. Just how good can you get?

How much difference should there be between a newly-minted character and one whose player has been steadily improving her character's Medical skills for four (real-time) years?

Should there be any upper limit on specialization skills? (Bear in mind that if there isn't, then "improvement" probably won't be about learning new skills but merely raising effectiveness numbers on existing skills.)

2. How should ability levels be measured?

What's the best ("best" = fun + Star Trek-y) way to represent skill levels within a branch specialization? Are the usual numbers OK? ("She's a level 63 Engineer; I'm a level 12 Engineer.") Or would descriptive terms be better? ("He's a Novice Engineer; I'm a Veteran Engineer.")

To think of this another way, how much granularity of measuring a character's skills is required? Should there be 5 levels of skill? 10? 40? 100?

3. What kinds of content should be offered at different skill levels?

Should there be significant differences in the kinds of content offered for novice characters and veterans? Or is it OK if content comes in just a few flavors and scales in difficulty based on your skill level in your branch specialization?

I'll review some ideas related to these questions in upcoming notes.

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

The question of realism in a Star Trek MMORPG comes up enough that there are a couple of corollary questions that need to be asked:

1. What kind of realism are we talking about here? "Realistic" in terms of our real universe's physics and human behaviors? Or realistic in terms of the literary universe of Star Trek around which the game's features are being developed?

How do you determine the degree of realism of, say, warp drive?

2. What if what's important isn't so much realism as internal consistency?

I can handle warp drives and magic spells... but having them in the same gameworld with no explanation of how such a thing could be would knock me right out of the game experience. It's not that either of these fails the "realism" test -- it's that there's no internal logic; stuff obviously just got thrown into the game arbitrarily by a designer who was much more focused on "game" than on "world."

That's not just a snubbing of gamers who care about story. (Although it definitely is that.) It's also a missed opportunity for developers to make their gameplay more fun by giving it a logical foundation. A logical story creates ideas for gameplay, and gameplay expresses the story. This then creates more gameplay ideas, and so on.

And when all the gameplay action fits consistently into a gameworld, the entire play experience will feel more distinctive to the player. In a time where players have ever more choices of which MMORPGs they'll invest their time and money in, that is not a trivial point.

So I ultimately come back to the point I've been making: gameplay brings in the players, but it's the gameworld that retains the long-term players. A gameworld that's both deep and consistent generates better gameplay.

As MUD1 designer Richard Bartle put it in an online interview with Iron Realms CEO Matt Mihaly:

Progenitor [Richard] says, "The thing about being worldly is that if you have a rich enough world then you automatically get a gamey world too, if you don't stand in the way of it."

Progenitor says, "So paradoxically, if you want a virtual world that's a good game, you should aim to make it first and foremost a good world."
That doesn't imply a realistic world, but I think it does imply a world that's internally consistent with an established body of lore.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Persistence vs. Perception

In the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist model of game design, one of the things -- possibly the most important thing -- that distinguishes the Simulationist approach from the Gamist approach is whether or not to let players fail.

In the typical MMORPG built squarely around Gamist interests, failure is not an option. You may temporarily be unable to successfully complete some quest or task, but if you're able to access that task at all then simple persistence is enough to allow you to complete it eventually. As long as you keep playing, you can't lose. Persistence is rewarded.

In a simulation, however, you are free to fail. If the reactor blows, or the person you're chatting up slaps you and walks off, the simulation is over. All you can do is restart it. Persistence won't help you here because the system is too complex to count on the dice rolling in your favor. The best path to success in such an environment is to use your failure to build a better mental model of the sim's internal structure, then apply that newfound understanding effectively in the next run of the simulation. In other words, in a simulation, perception is more efficient than persistence in achieving the desired result.

I'm not pointing out this difference to try to make a case that one approach is always "better" somehow than the other. I don't think that's the case; I think different people naturally prefer different approaches to play, and that's fine. I also think that different approaches work better in different situations, so adaptability is a virtue. What I'm really after here is to consider how much of both of these approaches to problem-solving (in addition to the Narrativist preference for people-oriented solutions) should be available to players in Star Trek Online.

To put it bluntly: Should players be able to fail?

If your ship's warp core is going critical in the middle of a firefight and I'm the Chief Engineer, should it be possible for me to fail so badly in trying to repair it that it actually does go *boom*?

What if, as someone playing an engineer-type character, the possibility of failure makes the gameplay more fun for me (even if it's not fun for someone else)? Perceptive learning is the key to the Simulationist's preferred style of play, just as enduring persistence is the key to the Gamist's preferred playstyle -- so how much fun will the game be for Simulationist gamers if simple persistence is always good enough, if learning through failure doesn't play a meaningful role in determining success?

Is there a workable balance that can be struck here?

Designing Women +

Originally Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
My bet is that he was just trying to make a fun and interesting tool for himself, and the whole appealing to both males + females thing was totally accidental
There's possibly some truth to that.

On the one hand, the primary use for creatures in SWG was as minions in combat. Although they could do a couple of tricks, the designers felt compelled to add gameplay functionality to tricks by making them restore "mind pool" points (back when there was such a thing and it mattered). That extreme focus on gameplay utility, not to mention the emphasis on combat, definitely suggests there was a guy behind the wheel when the Creature Handler profession skills were being designed.

On the other hand, you didn't have to use creatures in combat. As I think the original designers of SWG wanted us to do, people made up their own games with creatures. One of them was finding and taming babies of the rarest species -- they weren't necessarily the best in combat, but they were special. You could also name well-developed pets, and that went a long way toward making them desirable to players who wanted to tell stories with the pets they'd tamed and carried with them for many months.

In a fascinating article for The Escapist on the consequences of the NGE, Allan Varney (a designer of the classic RPG Paranoia) reminds us of how one player of Star Wars Galaxies (as quoted in the great "Order 66" thread over at Terra Nova) observed Creature Handlers the night before the NGE completely eliminated their ability to have pets:

The saddest thing I ever saw in SWG was the night before the NGE on the Euro servers... Creature Handlers taking out their favourite pets one last time, petting and playing with them. Perhaps they thought they'd still be able to pull them out, maybe they knew. I am not joking when I say that the conversations I overheard between them then brought a lump to my throat. ... These were people who'd stuck with broken professions - proving that a 'break' doesn't need to mean you can't play or enjoy it - and made their own content and connections.
Creature Handler may have been designed by a man, but to create gameplay rules that are capable of generating such strong feelings of attachment... is that evidence that one doesn't have to be female to design games that women in particular can enjoy?

Is explicitly hiring women as designers necessary to reach this goal? Or just likely to be more effective? Why?

Will women designers be likely to create gameplay that men can enjoy, too? Should that be a goal, or is gender-specific game design acceptable or even desirable?

Lots of questions yet to be answered (or asked) in this area....

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG

How should a Star Trek MMORPG handle pre-warp civilizations?

An important part of Star Trek was the "Prime Directive," which was the policy that agents of the Federation (such as Starfleet vessels) do not interfere with the development of cultures that haven't advanced on their own to Warp 1.0 spaceflight.

This is just me, but I'd really prefer planets with intelligent lifeforms to occupy a wide range of technological levels, from barbarians (peaceful and otherwise) to cultures more technologically advanced than even the Federation. That would not only help make planets a lot more diverse and interesting, it would create the opportunity to tell Prime Directive-based stories.

Not every player will care about that stuff, but a lot of the Trek fans certainly will. And even the non-Trekkers might find the ethical aspects of gameplay in Star Trek Online to be a unique feature that they've never seen in any other MMORPG.

So I'm all for having the occasional high-tech planet with good facilities for starships and their crews... but let's have low-tech planets, too.

"I... am... Kirok!!" :)

Starfleet Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG +

We saw in a couple of Star Trek episodes (TNG: "The First Duty" and DS9: "Valiant") that Starfleet Academy cadets have rank, but we never really saw how those ranks were determined. So maybe that's an opportunity for the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG to implement their own take on it.

For example, a simplified version of Academy rank might be fun:

Year 1: Cadet Ensign
Year 2: Cadet Lieutenant
Year 3: Cadet Commander
Year 4: Cadet Captain
An alternative to this might take into account a player's training performance in some way (although I suspect it's unlikely):

Year 1: Cadet Ensign
Year 2: Cadet Lieutenant
Year 3: Cadet Lieutenant Commander
Year 4: Cadet Commander
Year 4 with distinction: Cadet Captain
After graduating from Starfleet Academy, a character might go directly into service or choose to spend an additional year at some form of advanced training. In these cases, I would suggest that characters on either path begin with a rank of Ensign, but a character who successfully completes a year or two of advanced training would enter active duty service with a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant junior grade.

The difference between these two paths might be that the character who takes advanced training has a safer and more certain route to promotion, while the character who enters service immediately starts at a lower rank but has more opportunities to advance in rank while the other character is still in school. By the time the more educated character enters service as a Lt. j.g., the other character who successfully took more risks may already have been promoted to full Lieutenant.

Designing Women +

Originally Posted by Or'ab Ibo:
The thing that intrigued me about SWG was a lot of women Played the entertainer profession. It didn't require fighting to level up! Image designing was a big hit too. Clothing crafters ...

Don't forget about Creature Handlers (back when SWG had Creature Handlers). For some reason, professions or classes that allow characters to own and play with pets (and I mean animals, not undead) are extremely popular with women. It'll be interesting to see whether the return of some of the Creature Handler abilities in their new "Beast Master" guise will increase SWG's subscriber numbers by attracting women to the game.

And to try desperately to remain on the topic I hoped to promote, I'm pretty sure that the original Creature Handler profession of SWG was designed by a man.

Does that tell us anything interesting?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Star Trek Characters as Archetypes +

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
Spock, like the Tin Woodsman, proclaims himself to be emotionless but in reality can be as caring and understanding as any of the others.
I would argue that he could be, but that doing so was not natural to him. It's also the case that Scotty acted as a Leader when Kirk was stuck in some difficulty down on a planet, and that McCoy needed to be a Thinker to solve medical problems, and that Kirk was obviously ready to personally KATN like a Doer on a moment's notice -- should we therefore conclude that none of these characters had a preferred style?

To me, character is revealed not so much by what people are capable of doing when placed in unusual or extreme circumstances -- it's what they do naturally when there are options. When given a choice, Leaders will choose to lead, Thinkers will prefer to think, and so on. We may learn alternative behaviors, but in most circumstances our best-developed innate motivations -- for power, security, understanding, or happiness -- will assert themselves and we will behave accordingly.

That, I would say, is actually one of the great strengths of Star Trek, and one of the reasons for its enduring success. (Obviously it's not just the stories -- can you say, "Spock's Brain"?) The main characters of the various Star Trek series seem familiar to us because at least one of them clearly shares with us our own preferred motivation. They're interesting to us because we can see the trouble they get themselves into when their preferred motivation takes over too strongly, just as we sometimes struggle with our own preferred motivations. When someone who naturally prefers Doing sees B'Elanna unleashing her inner Doer without tempering it with thinking or leading, they nod ruefully and admit, "Yeah, that doesn't work too well for me, either."

But these characters always find a way to succeed when they use their preferred motivation -- our preferred motivation -- in ways that are appropriate for the situation. By showing us successful characters who are like us, Star Trek says that each of us has it in us to achieve the same level of success. That's a tremendously powerful message.

This is saying an awful lot for a mere TV show. But there have been very few TV shows with such archetypal characters living in such an optimistic view of our future.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Star Trek Characters as Archetypes +

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
I'm curious how you came up with that set of archetypes, and how you assigned characters to them.
Years and years of amateur study of psychological types and temperament, and even more years of watching Star Trek.


That may sound a little silly, but it's actually a pretty accurate description of the process by which I arrived at the characteristic types I came up with and their assignment to specific Star Trek characters. I just thought about what I recalled seeing the various characters do. And then I thought about whether there were any behaviors that seemed common across shows and roles.

That led me to the Doer/Leader/Thinker/Healer model. Not only did those describe what seemed to motivate characters, it fit pretty neatly into the Tactical/Command/Science/Medical branch divisions.

The rest was just applying those types to individual characters.

(Note: I'm actually pretty big on Myers-Briggs "types" model in general and David Keirsey's "temperament" model in particular. I'm also a user of Richard Bartle's original model of four player types because I see those types as game-specific subsets of Keirsey's four temperaments. So seeing four Star Trek styles wasn't much of a stretch after years of working with Keirsey's Artisan/Guardian/Rational/Idealist temperaments and Bartle's Killer/Achiever/Explorer/Socializer player types.)

(Also, it wasn't a conscious borrowing since as I said I've been into this stuff for years, but I remembered last night my copy of Boldly Live As You've Never Lived Before. This book by Richard Raben and Hiyaguha Cohen sees -- surprise! -- four styles of Star Trek characters: Warriors, Leaders, Analyzers, and Relaters, and suggests how people can tap into the strengths of each of these styles. I don't think the close correspondence with the model I described is a coincidence, but I don't think it's a result of anyone copying anyone else's ideas -- I believe it stems from a fundamental understanding of human nature as expressing four basic kinds of personality styles. But that's another thread.)

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
(I don't see Chekov as a "Thinker" at all, for example -- but then, most of the secondary characters from TOS have been very poorly developed.)
Chekov was a little more difficult to classify than most of the other characters. I originally had him pegged as a Thinker/Doer from his time as science officer on Enterprise and Reliant, but like you I just didn't think that seemed right for him. He seemed to spend most of his time getting into various kinds of trouble, and his time at Navigation suggested an active disposition, but I couldn't ignore the science aspect.

So I flipped him to Doer/Thinker. Based on all we've seen -- which, I agree, isn't much -- that seems right to me. But I'm open to other perspectives.

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
Doing a research paper in high school, I came across an author who compared Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow (respectively).
I like it. But I think I'd rework the assignments just a bit.

First, let's extend the types to include Dorothy. As the person who got everyone working together, I see her as distinct from the other characters.

Accordingly, here's the set of correspondences I come up with:

Tin WoodsmanheartHealerMcCoy
Cowardly LioncourageDoerScotty

I like this alignment considerably better; I think it's a much more accurate fit for both Dorothy and Kirk as the "glue" that holds everyone together toward achieving a common goal.

(Note that this actually has me thinking I goofed in describing Scotty as a Thinker/Doer. Like Jadzia Dax, he's probably closer to being a Doer/Thinker who's certain he knows what needs doing and uses tools to get it done.)

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

So how should a post-scarcity economy be implemented in a massively multiplayer online game based on the universe of Star Trek? Are there ways to satisfy both canonical economic lore (as discussed in previous comments on this topic) and gameplay?

The first big question concerns replicators -- the devices in TNG+ Star Trek that are used to create copies of materials and objects based on patterns. That's useful in a science fiction TV show, but how do you implement such a capability in a multiplayer game where you play a character in Starfleet? Should all parts/resources be free to replicate?

My suggested solution is to allow basic resources, materials and parts to be replicated infinitely for free... but with consequences for abuse.

First, some things shouldn't be considered "basic." Dilithium and some other resources, for example, should only be available through mining (although the mining process itself might be abstracted out of the game as not much fun). This allows some resources to be strategic resources and thus supports strategic gameplay.

Also, it should probably not be possible to replicate large or complex objects. To allow that would eliminate crafting.

Second, if basic things can be replicated for free, players can't be allowed to replicate as many copies of something as they want. Enough loonies would soon clog up the game's object database. So even if it's theoretically possible for someone in Star Trek to generate as many widgets as they like, in practical terms in a game we can't let players do that.

The obvious solution is to put some kind of cap on the number of items a character can possess at any moment in time, and assign ownership of replicated items to the player who replicates them. Yes, that would probably work... but it seems boringly artificial.

Instead, why not call Starfleet Security (NPCs) if someone monopolizes a replicator or pops out 100 copies of something at a time? "We're sorry, sir, but we need to suspend your replicator privileges for a while." Maybe your prestige even takes a hit.

Wouldn't that be preferable to a hard cap with no Star Trek backstory?

Should missions be generated for the combat people based on what various people need, upon completion, resources get placed in a ship wide container?

I hope that mission rewards for everybody (not just combat-oriented players) are inclined more toward prestige than money or loot items. Frying that poor NPC on Sasquatch IV should be much more about the ethics of destruction than about obtaining samples of the local currency or technology, neither of which should generally be useful to a character. (Although high-tech alien technology might occasionally be usable, obtaining such things through force from a high-tech culture should generate an equally high-tech response... not to mention painful diplomatic objections.)

The big question here seems to me to be whether Star Trek Online will treat player groups like corporations -- as entities that have their own "corporate" existence.

If not, then everybody's out for himself. When you succeed in a mission, whatever you get for it you get as an individual.

But maybe player groups in Star Trek Online will work more like player "corps" in EVE Online, which are persistent organizations that can "own" resources whose distribution is administered by selected players. In that case, perhaps some of the rewards for completing a mission are designated as group rewards -- something that can be applied to enhancing the capability of everyone in that group.

I'd sort of prefer to see that kind of thing, actually. It's a better fit with Star Trek as a more social and cooperative universe.

Should people be free to charge their fellow crew members?

I'd say no. As you say, the idea of charging for performing some appropriate service for one's fellow Starfleet officer seems very wrong.

There should be rewards for cooperation, but making them tangible, direct rewards sort of negates the idea that helping your fellow officers succeed is what you're supposed to do.

"We work to improve ourselves" probably needs to translate into prestige, which can then be used to purchase personal capability enhancements such as skills, ships, or advanced rank.

For as much ink as has been spilled talking about it, it'll be interesting to see whether this prestige feature makes it into the game that actually ships... if it ever ships.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Designing Women +

The "nature vs. nurture" debate shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. Even if incontrovertible physical evidence were provided, some people would simply ignore it because it conflicts with the sociopolitical belief system in which they are invested.

Without going too deeply into my views on the subject, a minor comment:

Originally Posted by Aiten:
Our brain stories memories and regulates the body through chemical releases. The communication is done in a similar way to binary (just electrical pulses on varying levels of strength), but the actual storing and running is all chemicals.
And what's particularly important about this is that it starts while our brains are forming. Estrogen and testosterone levels begin varying based on sex differences while we're still in the womb, and while the fundamental forms and connections of our brains are taking shape. Among other things, this is responsible for the greater size of the corpus callosum -- the part of the brain in between the two hemispheres that connects them to each other -- in women than in men.

Even if we're unable to put our fingers precisely on the mechanism, this in-utero biochemical differentiation suggests that it's not unreasonable to believe that men and women in the aggregate really do think differently.


That said, I'd like to steer us back to what I hinted at in my (deliberately) chosen thread title: What, if anything, does this imply for women in the game development industry?

Is Smedley right to give preference to women for certain game design opportunities because, as Paglia and Sommers suggest, men are different enough mentally from women that they find it hard to figure out what women (or girls) like?

Or is he wrong to do so because that contradicts the position of feminists of the Friedan/Steinem school, which is that even to imply that men and women might think differently is sexist and discriminatory?

If men and women should be treated as though they're the same mentally, then what rationale is there for outreach efforts to hire more women in game development?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Designing Women

In an interview with the New York Times, SOE's John Smedley said the following concerning the design of one of SOE's newly-announced games:

Mr. Smedley said he wanted to diversify his customer base, which is 85 percent male and 32 years old, on average. Women have become the major driver of the casual games business (games like Bejeweled and Bookworm), and Mr. Smedley wants a piece of that action.

"We want to get our average age lower, probably into the low 20s, and I'd really like to see the gender breakdown go to 50-50 or even slightly more women than men, to reflect real life," he said.

Sony Online's new direction can perhaps be seen most clearly in a game the company intends to announce today called Free Realms.


While the company's traditional fantasy and science-fiction games have been aimed at a hard-core male audience, Free Realms is basically aimed at children, especially girls. ... To reach out to girls, Mr. Smedley realized he had to hire more women. The creative director and art director on the game are now women.

"I just can't explain to a 30-year-old single male why 10-year-old girls like horses," he said. "We were trying to figure out what pets to put into Free Realms and before, the lead designer was a guy and he definitely wanted things that could fight. And when we got more women on the team, it was like 'No, no, no. We need puppies and horses in there.'"
So how about this? Is it a gesture of respect that someone is trying to open doors to other ways of seeing the world, and thus helping to promote fresh new ways of thinking about game design?

Or is it impermissible to imagine that men and women think differently in any way, in which case the "puppies and horses" comment must grate like fingernails on a chalkboard?

Or is the whole discussion sort of insultingly paternalistic, and as a guy I shouldn't even be asking these questions?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Star Trek Characters as Archetypes +

Originally Posted by Masaka:
How do you feel the leadership option will be presented in STO?
Not a clue. :)

I'm actually not even sure that leadership style should be something that has an RPG component -- maybe it should be entirely a matter of the player's own personality.

On the chance that there's some RPG goodness here that I'm just not seeing, I do have a vague idea of leadership styles that might be derived from the archetypes I suggested.

Thinker Leaders (e.g., Picard and Janeway) are at their best when they're able to gather information and plan the optimal response given the available resources. To those whom they don't know they can seem cold and aloof, but once their trust is gained they can open up unexpected depths of feeling that they also use to guide their leadership decisions.

The Doer Leaders (such as Kirk and Sisko) attract followers who assume that anyone who's that sure of their actions must know what they're doing. That's not always the case, but Doer Leaders are so adept at perceiving and responding swiftly to changes in the situation that they seem unstoppable.

The Healer Leader is one that I don't think we've seen as a main character in Star Trek, but I suspect there've been a few as guest stars. This kind of leader achieves his or her goals not by planning (as the Thinker Leader) or by action (like the Doer Leader), but through charisma and a powerful vision. This kind of leader doesn't have to communicate grand strategies or leap into action -- they accumulate followers who are moved by the depth of their insight into what needs to be done.

It's just a hunch, but I wonder if an important storyline in the version of Star Trek Online that was being developed by the late Perpetual Entertainment was wrapped around the character of Miral Paris. The daughter of Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres, Miral was described in one of Perpetual's info releases as inspiring many Klingons as a kuvah'magh, a kind of spiritual leader.

Had that story been told, Miral might have been a fascinating counterpoint to the usual Leader/Doer or Leader/Thinker styles of central Star Trek characters.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by Periphas:
i dont think it is their [Perpetual's] primary goal and therefore, things such as interiors and decorations for them etc will be seen as icing on the cake rather than a piece of the cake itself.
I wish I could disagree with you on this, but I can't.

I've come to believe rather strongly that developers are leaving money on the table by defining "MMORPG" to treat exploration and (ironically) roleplaying as necessary evils at best, rather than as the two best sources of long-term, community-supporting gamers. Fortunately the capitalist society we live in insures that some developer will come along to reap the benefits of serving this increasingly underserved market.

Unfortunately it costs upwards of three years and $20M to make a decent AAA title MMORPG these days. A developer who designs a game to attract multiple player types stands virtually no chance of getting that game implemented and published, because it's the publishers with the cash who are certain that anything other than destruction/looting/leveling is mere "icing."

So yes, I'm aware of the gulf between what Star Trek Online is likely to be and what I personally believe it should be. On that basis, I figure I have three choices:

  • Accept what I'm given without question.

  • Complain bitterly and incessantly.

  • Offer constructive suggestions in the hope (but not expectation) of influencing the design slightly toward my vision of gameplay.
I'm not a fan of either of those first two options.

Originally Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
when does it becoming generic? What defines a generic game here? Could it be less of an actuality, and more of a mindset? (the assumption of something being generic due to similarities with other items of its class)
With respect, I think your question is a little bit unfair -- of course there's no such thing as a "generic MMORPG," but that's not the concern. The concern is that there's a set of features that most past MMORPGs have implemented, and that developers are inappropriately designing new games to have those features as though simply doing so is enough to make a game popular.

During World War II in the South Pacific, the U.S. airdropped supplies to the servicemen stationed on many of the small islands. The native villagers on these islands noticed that every so often, servicemen would begin making strange sounds and waving brightly-colored sticks. Soon thereafter, boxes full of all manner of interesting and useful objects would fall from the sky.

Then the war ended, and the troops left. But the villagers remembered what they'd seen and heard. And so they reenacted what they'd seen and heard, hoping that by doing so they could cause cargo to once again appear.

It's awfully tempting to see similarities between these "cargo cults" and game developers, some of whom seem equally convinced that simply imitating the main gameplay features of successful MMORPGs is enough to make their own game successful.

That's my understanding of the anti-generic argument. The idea is that developers shouldn't be copying features of existing MMORPGs as though doing so has anything to do with making a game popular. The goal should be to understand a game's likely audience and offer features that those people will enjoy, whether anyone else has ever implemented those features yet or not.

Of course that view has to be tempered by the reality that money people insist on copying what's worked before in order to minimize risk. That's why Spiderman 3, Shrek 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 all showed up at your local multiplex.

But those films would never exist if some smart money person hadn't had the guts to greenlight the original Spiderman, and the original Shrek, and the original Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Somebody looked at the filmmaker's understanding of the likely audience, and looked at the crazy new idea for convincing them to part with some of their money, and realized it was a good shot even though nothing like these movies had been done before.

Star Trek Online has a chance to be a Shrek of the MMORPG world. But that is far less likely to happen if it is deliberately designed to be similar to other games that have already captured subscribers. Too much sameness gives people no reason to switch.

And that is why I continue to advocate for a middle way. Give people a game that has some of the usual MMORPG features... but do something seriously different, too. Don't be satisfied with a percentage of the current population of gamers when the Star Trek license means potentially creating tens of thousands of new gamers by offering Star Trek-specific gameplay.

If shaking up the Star Trek franchise by killing off Spock (TWOK) and putting a Klingon in Starfleet (TNG) were Good Things, then let's see some smart developer similarly rattle the cage of the MMORPG industry by refusing to be bound by all the current conventions of the genre.

Easy for me to say, of course -- it's not my money at stake. :)

But if I had the money, I'd be putting it where my mouth is right now.

Star Trek Characters as Archetypes

As I think about what elements define Star Trek, one that jumps out at me right away is "the characters."

So what is it about the characters of Star Trek that makes them immediately recognizable?

It seems to me that part of the answer is that these characters were designed primarily as archetypes. That is, each character is written to express a particular way of looking at and dealing with the world. These characters resonate with us in part because we recognize something universally human in each of them (including the non-human characters).

So I thought it might be fun to think about these archetypes. Seeing the kinds of people who make Star Trek what it is might tell us something about what features would be valuable in Star Trek Online.


The typology of the Big Three in TOS was pretty simple: Kirk was the Leader, Spock was the Thinker, McCoy was the Healer.

(Note: Classifying a character as being primarily of one archetype or another doesn't mean that character can't express other types of behavior. For example, Kirk was a Leader, but obviously he could think as well, as could McCoy.)

However, the development of the various Star Trek shows as ensemble dramas meant that more depth of characters was necessary. Thus it might make sense to consider one additional archetype -- the Doer (that is, someone who prefers to Do things; usually a Tactical/Security or Engineering officer) -- as well as imagining characters as having a primary type and a secondary type.

Accordingly, here's my off-the-cuff classification of the characters in the various Star Trek shows (other than ENT, which I'm still thinking about):

Spock:Thinker/LeaderRiker:Leader/Doer Jadzia Dax:Doer/ThinkerChakotay:Leader/Doer
Scotty:Thinker/DoerData:Thinker/Doer Bashir:Healer/DoerParis:Doer/Healer
Guinan:Healer/DoerEzri Dax:Healer/ThinkerNeelix:Doer/Healer

Assuming these classifications are more or less acceptable (and I'm open to different interpretations), we can see some interesting things.

1. A lot of characters have the Doer archetype as either a primary or secondary style -- their main interest is in action. This is perhaps natural for characters in an action/adventure TV show. But it also makes sense that Starfleet might attract people with that kind of physically active personality. Is this also a natural fit for the gameplay of a MMORPG?

2. TNG and VOY were fairly balanced in the archetypes of their main characters, although Voyager's crew was perhaps tipped a little toward the Thinker archetype. But look at DS9 -- for six years, everybody was a Doer! That could be a source of both understanding ("these people see the world like I do") and conflict ("I'm going to do this my way whether you like it or not"). I think the kinds of episodes we typically saw in DS9 and VOY were a pretty good reflection of these character archetypes.

3. Compare the leadership styles of Picard, Sisko and Janeway. Where Kirk and Sisko were inclined to act immediately on their decisions (and led others through the force of their convictions), Picard and Janeway had a more thoughtful approach to getting things done. Their inclination was to assess the factors of a situation, consult with others for the best course of action, and then exert leadership to accomplish what needed to be done. So: are either of these styles “better” than the other? What might a Leader/Healer character have looked like? Do these different leadership styles suggest any gameplay for Command skills in a Star Trek MMORPG?

At any rate, there are some ideas. What do you think? Is there anything in this that might help clarify for us what we believe Star Trek Online should offer?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Skill Training in EVE Online

There's something worth observing about EVE Online's offline skill training design from a game development perspective: Since it's possible to train skills offline, that's what people actually do.

In other words, people will log on and play for a while to build up cash, either taking on pirate NPCs or (as I do) just mining for veldspar and scordite in 0.8 or safer space. It doesn't take long at all to make millions of ISK.

The rest of the time, players pay CCP $15/month to log in once every couple of days, select a new skill to train, and log out again. CCP gets the player's money, but the player uses virtually no bandwidth!

As a gameplay mechanic that fits a business model, that is utterly brilliant.

As gameplay... well. Not so much fun. And certainly not supportive of playing a character (as in an RPG).

But as a system for generating revenue, it is diabolically clever.

Star Trek: Generations: Revised Ending

There's something that's been bothering me for a long time now, and I'm thinking maybe this is the right time and place to unload this particular bit of baggage.

Basically, like many Star Trek fans I have never liked the ending of Star Trek: Generations.

[Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen this movie, you might want to stop reading now. On the other hand, why would you be reading this if you haven't seen the movie? Hmm.]

The point behind this movie was to tie together TOS and TNG -- to pass the torch to the next generation. My problem was that this wasn't done anywhere near as powerfully as it could have and should have been done.

In particular, Kirk's death was astonishingly, unbelievably, heartbreakingly lame. There's no way he should have gone out like that. I mean, falling down a cliff after a fistfight? Huh? OK, yes, it's ACTION!... but how does that action show Kirk at his best -- at the helm of a starship leading a team of smart, skilled people out of a tough situation -- and how does it link TOS to TNG?

I don't think it did either of those things. So in my version of the movie, that's not what happened. Here's how my version goes....


We begin after the Klingon attack has destroyed the secondary hull of the Enterprise-D, and the saucer section is careening toward the surface of the planet Veridian III.

However, unlike the first timeline of the movie, despite the best efforts of the bridge crew to bring the saucer section to the ground safely, it crashes disastrously. Everyone is killed, with a broken Data surviving just long enough to communicate the extent of the disaster to Picard -- and then the collapse of the star Veridian due to Soran's missile finishes the job by destroying the entire planet.

Picard is then shown in the Nexus sequence as filmed. Kirk agrees to return to return to Picard's timeline.

But instead of Kirk showing up on Veridian III to help Picard win a stupid fistfight with Soran, Picard returns to the fight alone. He doesn't need Kirk's help; this time he's able to win the fight by knowing what Soran is going to do. Picard ducks Soran's punches with a smirk, and strikes Soran's arm so that he drops his weapon. (Remember, Picard had already seen all of Soran's moves in the first pre-Nexus timeline.) Soran, however, is a clever duck. Realizing that Picard knows what he's going to do, he changes what he would otherwise have done and scampers off to retrieve his weapon. This leaves Picard free to jam the launch sequence, and the rest of that scene follows as it did in the film.

Kirk, meanwhile, appears on the bridge of the Enterprise. Riker, recognizing Kirk immediately, explains the situation and cedes command to him as the (very!) senior Captain. Using his experience, Kirk is able to suggest some crazy-sounding trick to Data that will allow the saucer section to land safely. ("Trust me. It'll work," he says, flashing that trademark Kirk grin.)

It does work, and the landing goes better this time, but it's still bumpy. (Basically it would be the same landing from the first timeline in the actual film, only with Kirk in the Big Chair instead of Riker.) Everyone gets thrown around, but when the shaking stops everyone's OK... except for Kirk, who was flung across the bridge a couple of times and winds up under the Enterprise's dedication plaque.

It's clear that Kirk's injuries are mortal.

The bridge crew gather around him. In a voice labored with pain, Kirk slowly asks Riker, "Ship... safe? Out of danger?"

Riker nods, grief clouding his eyes.

Kirk smiles. "She's got the right name. Always take care of her, and she'll always bring you..." -- his eyes widen -- "...home."

And he dies.

The camera pulls back slowly to reveal the bridge crew comforting each other around Kirk's body, amid the debris of the bridge. As the camera pulls back further to the saucer exterior, we see various crew members emerging from the wreckage, alive and well because Kirk, for one final time, turned death into a fighting chance for others to live.

The rest of the film (excluding the scene of Picard building the cairn for Kirk's body) goes as originally shown.


Clearly I like this ending much better, and I hope you do, too, but I'd like to point out a couple of reasons why I think it's more effective.

One obvious element is the dying Kirk's quotations from previous Star Trek episodes. "Ship safe? Out of danger?" is from Spock's dying moments in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. The other quote is taken from the very first TNG episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," in which McCoy, talking with Data, explicitly links "his" Enterprise with the Enterprise-D.

These quotes perform multiple jobs:

  • They work as appropriate dialog for the scene.
  • They reference previous Trek (as a gift for the Star Trek fans).
  • They link TOS and TNG by reminding us that the Enterprise-D carries on the tradition of all the ships of that name.
  • They allow Spock and McCoy, who were so important to Kirk, to make a kind of appearance.
On that last point: although Kirk always knew he'd die "alone" (i.e., without Spock and McCoy there), quoting them gives them a chance to be there in spirit, as they should be.

The other thing that's important for me is this death has meaning, where the one shown in the actual film did not. Kirk ends his days exactly where he should be, exactly where he always should have been -- on the bridge of the Enterprise, doing what he was born to do.

As Star Trek, and as literature, I believe this would have been a far better thing for this film, and a far better rest for the original series to go to.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

The way things are going in online game design these days, I have a feeling I know where the design of Star Trek Online seems to be headed in terms of "pure" MMORPG versus "pure" Star Trek experience. Naturally, I think I also have a pretty good idea of where I think the design of this game should be heading:

What I'd like noticed is that there's not really all that much of a gap between where I suspect Star Trek Online is being designed and where I think it ought to be designed. In other words, I don't think my position that ST:O needs more canon- and simulation-oriented content is an extreme one -- in fact, what I think this game needs is actually more of a balance than the MMORPG-heavy designs we've seen (from former developer Perpetual Entertainment).

The reality is that my preference is not for something so excessively Star Trek as to be a slideshow or a high-fidelity simulation of every trivial detail of life as a Starfleet officer, but a MMORPG that works equally well for gamers and Star Trek fans alike.

I understand that Star Trek Online is first and foremost a game. The question is, how much of ST:O will be pure MMORPG gameplay that could work in any game, and how much will be gameplay that uniquely exploits the themes and iconic elements of Star Trek?

I'm looking for a game that is consciously designed to offer a more balanced mix of gameplay features based on core Star Trek elements than what I currently perceive. That doesn't mean I think "Star Trek Online is doomed!" or any such thing. It just means that right now, based on currently available information and filtered through my personal preconceptions and beliefs about online games and the correct target audience for a Star Trek MMORPG, it appears to me that ST:O is likely to wind up being a bit too much conventional MMORPG and not enough Star Trek experience.

If some Official Star Trek Online Developer says tomorrow, "Oh, and we're now finalizing the design for our exploration engine, which will insure that there'll always be surprising and cool Star Trek science you can do with your starship if that's what you enjoy," then my perception will change for the better. I'll happily shift that "where I think ST:O is heading" pointer closer to the "where I think ST:O should be headed" setting.

On the other hand, if the next infodumps reveal (for example) that Starfleet branches are designed primarily as Tank, Nuker and Healer combat roles, or that the usual MMORPG aggro system will be implemented, or that most missions will be pre-scripted for combat only, or that most random encounters will reward players for shooting first and asking questions later, or that collecting loot from defeated enemies will contribute to player/ship power, or that "crafting" will consist of combining objects to make new objects useful only in combat... well. In these cases, I will without apology shift that "where ST:O seems to be headed" pointer leftward.

This brings me to an important point: In terms of communicating the lore of an IP, there is an enormous difference between gameplay and text/images/audio. Having the latter doesn't hurt, but revealing the unique aspects of a cherished franchise through gameplay is vastly more powerful. ("Narrative through environment and gameplay" is why both BioShock and Portal won so many awards in 2007. Why should online games be immune to what works?)

If the gameplay of Star Trek Online is primarily conventional MMORPG features, and the Star Trek aspects that get implemented are mostly text and graphics and ripped sound effects, then that is not a game that properly balances MMORPG and Star Trek. Eye candy and Majel Barrett's voice do not a good Star Trek MMORPG make.

In short, I don't want to just see and hear Star Trek things in a Star Trek MMORPG -- I want to do Star Trek things. In addition to the usual MMORPG stuff (i.e., repetitive hypercompetitive destruction), players of Star Trek Online need real exploratory and social content distributed through every feature and location of the game.

The more I hear about significant cooperative, constructive, non-combat gameplay activities reflective of the best Star Trek episodes that will be implemented in Star Trek Online to balance the necessary "kill it and take its stuff" MMORPG gameplay, the closer I will perceive this game to be to the vision of a good game -- a good Star Trek game. And I'll be happy to promote it as such to anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen.