Monday, June 4, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

A general notion embedded in my "Combat Modes and Starfleet Ranks" blog was the concept of designing admiral-level gameplay around strategic actions over whole sectors of space -- as opposed to commanding individual starships of whatever size, or whipping out phasers for face-to-face encounters. Similarly, allowing Commodores and Captains to enjoy the operational gameplay of translating sector-sized orders into specific tactical missions is also right in line with where I'd hope to see ST:O go.

An important aspect of this whole system which I failed to discuss, however, will be player Fleets. Let's consider them now.

1. It's likely that there'll be a small number of large player Fleets of 100 ships or more. It might be wise to have special roles for these large groups, but what about the many more smaller Fleets (of, say, 2-30 ships)?

Should all player Fleets, the large and the small, be under the command of a particular sector admiral? What kinds of gameplay should be available to smaller Fleets that would be fun and important within the game's storyline? Should there be a distinction in kind between gameplay for big fleets and small fleets, or should all Fleet missions be similar except in degree?

Should fleets be able to span sectors? If so, who gives them their assignments?

2. More specifically, what are fleets of starships for? What are the kinds of activities that would be appropriate (and fun!) for player Fleets to engage in that also make sense as things that players who are Admirals would enjoy directing?

At this level of gameplay I believe it would be appropriate to see logistics play an important role. For example, some resources are "strategically critical" because they occur in only a few places and they're a required resource for (say) starship production, so those locations must be discovered, and once discovered they must be protected. But there are probably other kinds of strategic gameplay in which player Fleets can have crucial roles -- so what are some other examples?

3. How should Admirals interact with SFHQ and with each other?

Being responsible for the strategic management of their sectors (or branches/divisions of Starfleet) implies that player-Admirals have been given some goal for which their strategies should be appropriate... so where does that goal come from? Who provides it? And how can the success of their strategies for achieving it be measured?

Also, how can player-Admirals work with (and possibly even against!) each other? I'd like to see a kind of push-pull relationship among command admirals. They'd compete against each other on small things (best fleet maintenance records, highest percentage of missions completed by all fleets in their sector, highest total amount of bonus prestige awarded for particularly successful missions, etc.), but they should also have gameplay-specific ways to cooperate to achieve the Federation's overall goals.

Oh, and... within the game universe, who sets the highest-level goals for player group activity, anyway?

4. What's the actual command structure?

If you've got a player ship and I agree to serve aboard it as an officer, how should that work? What do I need to do? What do you need to do? What additional forms of gameplay become available to me? What additional responsibilities will I be expected to carry out? And what similar things happen to your gameplay?

What about multiple ships, as in player Fleets? On this subject I have a specific suggestion: Allow players who are in command of a ship to be able to designate another ship as their "flagship." From this feature, a number of interesting effects could follow:

  • Using the "Set this ship as your flagship" function with another ship targeted joins you to the player Fleet to which that ship belongs.
  • The captain of the fleet's flagship (or watch officer?) must accept your request to join. (Alternately, allow flagships to offer invitations to join a fleet to captains of individual ships.)
  • Attaching your ship to a Fleet sets the Fleet flagship's captain as your CO.
  • It creates a communication channel usable only by members of your fleet. (CSRs should have the power to join any fleet for CS purposes.)
  • The "set flagship" function can only be used by the player who "owns" a ship.
  • When attached to a Fleet, your missions will be assigned by your CO or his/her designate.
  • When not attached to a Fleet, your ship's role will be described as "detached duty," and you can take whatever missions you want (possibly including special missions from admirals).
  • Fleets in a particular sector are automatically assigned to the command of the current sector admiral (player or NPC).
  • The default role of a sector fleet is "patrol duty."
  • Sector admirals can see the strengths and compositions of the fleets under their command.
  • Sector admirals can use this information to make fleet assignments (missions).
  • Attachment to a Fleet can be an important part of a player's "service record": "Stardates 51703.3 to 51784.0: Attached to the Tenth 'Victoria' Fleet under COMM T'Prel, comm. U.S.S. Sarek".

So are any of these ideas too goofy to live? Or are any of them worthy of being extended?

5. Should divisions within a fleet be possible?

In other words, should the game enable player Fleets to be divisible into flotillas or squadrons? Should there be developer-supplied gameplay features to support an increased amount of hierarchy within a player fleet command structure?

6. As suggested above, I'd like for players from any branch to be able to become an Admiral, but I think there ought to be a distinction made between Command admirals and other kinds of admirals.

Specifically, becoming an Admiral (however that works) through the Command branch should be the only way to obtain a sector command. Engineering/Science/Tactical branch specialists who don't have Command experience should still be able to serve in the Admiralty, but in support roles, rather than giving direct orders to fleets.

All of which assumes that non-Command branch specialists can advance in rank to Admiral....

7. How does all this work within an overall storyline?

Once Star Trek Online launches, how should the game's operational team guide high-level gameplay? Should most missions be pre-generated quests that are self-contained stories? Or should most tactical-level missions be written to reveal larger operational-level sagas, which in turn reveal strategic-level epic stories?

How can storylines be developed that would be fun for fleets of 200 ships as well as for solo players?

If players can create their own missions for other (lower-ranked) players, how can that feature be used to create larger and more dramatically engaging stories?

8. Special note: One really hard question in all of this is how to keep player Admirals from interfering with each other. I've addressed that partially elsewhere by suggesting that admiral-level gameplay should be strategic stuff that only appeals to a relatively small number of gamers, but even that doesn't cope with what happens if lots of players become Admirals.

So should the number of Admirals be restricted somehow, such as by saying there are only N slots for Command admirals and X slots for all other admirals? How is that fair/fun?

But if you don't do that somehow, how do you allow multiple players to share strategic responsibilities while still making that kind of gameplay fun?