Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mission Generation in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Back when Perpetual Entertainment was the developer of Star Trek Online, lead writer Mike Stemmle once said, "Mission text has to be short and punchy."

I'm a little bothered by this, because it implies that mission text length has to be a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. Specifically, it means mission text must be trivially terse and use only simple words so that the most impatient people aren't annoyed by having to actually, you know, like, read words and stuff.

Hmm? Why are we designing the whole game around the most impatient people?

I go back to my Rule #1 for designing MMOGs: people are different. Different people like different things. Instead of assuming that there's just one likely gamer and designing to that imaginary person, I'd like to see game designers recognize that people have different playstyles and that all these people will be trying your game... so why turn some of them off if the cost of attracting and retaining those gamers is lower than the revenue they'd bring in? That's not good business.

Instead, I advocate designing each of a game's core content forms to have multiple modes, each of which is especially satisfying to different styles of play (whatever those might be). Not only does this tailor gameplay to people who enjoy specific playstyles, it also increases replayability for those who enjoy trying out different playstyles.

So in the case of mission text, why assume that all text has to be terse enough to satisfy even a Nancy "Too Much Reading" MacIntyre? How about this: If it's a mission optimized for killin', then sure, keep the text down to a few monosyllabic grunts. But if it's primarily for exploration and discovery, then why not offer a richer literary experience? And if it's for diplomacy or roleplaying, why in the world should a game not indulge a writer's love of language? The people who'll take those missions want that level of linguistic depth!

If you don't like the approach of keying text richness to mission type, then how about writing missions in which the text-rich parts are optional? Make the text for most missions short, fine, but also create some missions in which choosing the more detailed conversational branch opens up a deeper narrative. Deus Ex -- a critical and commercial success -- included several completely optional opportunities to converse at length with NPCs on the nature of freedom and social responsibility. If you didn't care for that sort of thing, you could skip it and proceed to the next bit of mayhem. But for those who believe that action is more satisfying when it has meaning, including these philosophical discursions gave the gameplay context that it otherwise would not have had.

In Deus Ex, a deeper, richer verbal experience made the play experience more than that of merely another mindless action game. (The same was true for BioShock, a game from another alumnus of Looking Glass.) I'm hoping Star Trek Online will similarly be a game that rewards thoughtful play.

A Star Trek MMORPG needs some missions with enough text to engage our hearts and minds as well as our trigger fingers.