Monday, July 30, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

Do all gameplay features in a Star Trek MMORPG need to have a plausible explanation?

MMORPGs are persistent worlds that, in addition to their pure gameplay, have their own physics (their "laws of nature"), their own historical narrative, and their own objects and NPCs who express these world-y things. This is true even if the MMORPG is one whose lore was invented just for that game.

When the game is based on a licensed world, however, the lore has a much higher implementation value. If the game world doesn't "feel" enough like the TV show or movie or book or whatever, then the game is less likely to appeal to the people who liked the original property. When they choose not to play, some of the money spent to acquire the license will not be earned back.

On the other hand, a typical major MMORPG has a zillion and one pure gameplay features that need to be designed and implemented. Just to be playable as a game, you have to build systems for local movement, for distance travel, for collision detection, for grouping, for character skill application, for character skill improvement, for containers, for object creation, for object possession, for object exchanges, for object usage, for NPC interaction, for mob AI, etc., etc.

Well, with so many pure gameplay features to design and code, it's perfectly understandable if developers (or designers, or producers) sometimes think, "You know, I don't care why they can do it, they just have to be able to do it." The temptation to add a new feature to the game without having to spend time dreaming up some plausible-sounding bit of supporting lore -- just to be able to get to the next hundred gameplay features that have to get done -- must be extreme.

Whoever winds up developing a Star Trek MMORPG will face these questions as well. For example, consider the desire to allow players to quickly access the kind of content they consider fun. Suppose a developer decided to offer this by implementing a quick travel feature -- click a button to go from San Francisco to a combat sector in seconds. This would be one gameplay feature among a vast number that has to be coded... so should the developer spend any additional time trying to find some "treknobabble" to explain this capability? Or should they just say "there it is" and move on to coding some other useful capability?

Yes, in this particular case you might respond by saying, "Oh, they can just call it transwarp." But this is just one example -- what about all the other gameplay features to be implemented? What about gameplay features that a MMORPG like Star Trek Online may need that have no obvious analog to anything ever seen in Star Trek? Should some developers spend time coming up with lore explanations for them, too? What happens if they don't?

In general, how should the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG balance the competing needs of pure gameplay and fidelity to the lore of the license?

Should their development process require that every feature that's implemented be explicitly supported by some piece of Star Trek lore, even if this requirement means leaving out some features in order to make the release schedule?

Or should they decide on a set of gameplay features and implement them without backstory, and then later -- if they have the time -- make a "lore pass" to provide in-game explanations for these features, even if this leaves some features feeling arbitrary and excludes some license elements?

Or is there some other approach to this challenge a developer could take?

If you were directing the design and development of Star Trek Online, how would you decide this question?