Monday, October 29, 2007

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

While doing some research on technology scales, I ran across a really interesting site over on Wikipedia. It's the idea, expressed by the Russian cosmologist Nikolai Kardashev, of a scale by which the technology level of a civilization can be classified.

This Kardashev scale, while probably not based directly on the ideas of anthropologist Leslie White, does expand on White's notion that a culture's technological capability is directly proportional to the amount of energy it consumes.

Kardashev proposed three tiers of civilizations -- Types I, II, and III -- each of which uses about 1010 more power than the previous tier. Others who followed Kardashev added Type 0 and Type IV classifications, leading to a system as follows:

Type 0can harness only some of the power available on a planet
Type Ican harness all the power available on a planet (about 1016 watts)
Type IIcan harness all the power available from a star (about 1026 W)
Type IIIcan harness all the power available from a galaxy (about 1036 W)
Type IVcan harness all the power available throughout a universe (roughly 1046 W)

Following this usage, Carl Sagan calculated that the most advanced portions of humanity (as of about 1980) were at the Type 0 level, about seven-tenths of the way to becoming a Type I civilization.

Such a Type I civilization, having reached the point of being able to consume all available power on its home planet, would (if it survived the likely crisis of achieving this level) almost certainly become a spacefaring society, at least within its own solar system.

Similarly, a Type II civilization, after having created ringworlds or Dyson spheres, would probably either perish or become capable of interstellar travel, establishing human life in multiple star systems. The major races of the Star Trek universe might be said to be at an early Type II level of technology.

Type III civilizations, Type IV, and beyond are essentially beyond our speculative comprehension. It's impossible to guess what a human could do -- or become -- with so much power. (The Wikipedia article notes that the Q continuum might be considered beyond Type IV.)

This technology classification system catches my eye for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reminds me of the planetary classification system from the original Star Trek series onward. A way to classify the technological level of a planet's inhabitants would seem to be a natural companion to the canonical geological/biological classification system.

Secondly, a Star Trek MMORPG, it seems to me, would be missing something important if it didn't include opportunities to test a character's faithfulness to the Prime Directive. That implies the existence in the game of both post-warp and pre-warp civilizations on various planets. To distinguish between such civilizations, we could use a simple pre-warp/post-warp classification system. But while that might work for Star Trek Online as a pure game, it's not very appealing for a persistent world based on the Star Trek universe. The Kardashev scale is a ready-made solution to that problem.

So how about this? Anyone think something like this might have value in Star Trek Online? Or is this mostly just interesting to think about but not really useful even in a game?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
SWG's much-lauded "sandbox" style of play was only mildly successful, numbers-wise.
Well, by comparison with the numbers that WoW puts up today, yes, but is that a fair comparison?

When it launched in 2003, SWG's numbers were as good as any U.S. MMORPG's, so I'm not sure we can say that SWG's more sandboxy design hurt it with respect to other games of that time.

And it gets even harder to be sure if SWG's slightly less game-y style stunted its success when we factor in the points you make next:

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
The game was frequently criticized for not being "Star Wars-y" enough and for concentrating too much on Uncle Owen-type characters (including literal moisture farming) ...
I'd like to point out that these criticisms came from two very different sources.

Gamers (and I was one of them) noted that SWG didn't seem to offer the feel of the movies, of being swept up in a Galactic Civil War... but only the developers ever thought that it was Uncle Owen's fault, that the cause for this perception was the existence of the resource collection aspect of the crafting system that was almost universally hailed as one of SWG's best features.

As I see it, the "feel" problem didn't stem from the features the original SWG did have -- the problem was what it didn't have, which was strong interaction with the iconic characters in deep and engaging storylines wrapped around the Galactic Civil War.

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
... and not enough on the Galactic Civil War and Jedi (specifically lightsabers and force powers). The game never materialized the numbers that SOE and LucasArts expected for a game with that particular license.
Oh, man, "the Jedi question" has still not been resolved, and probably never will be. The game-centric people are convinced that players-as-Jedi should have been implemented even more than they were; the lore-centric people are just as convinced that having players running around dueling each other everywhere just obliterated the critical storyline concept of Jedi as nearly extinct.

Meanwhile, the developers just seemed to assume that Marketing trumped everything; that any/all players who wanted to have a Jedi character simply had to have that opportunity, regardless of what they did with those characters.

So I'd say the implementation of Jedi in SWG never fully satisfied anybody, gamer or Star Wars fan. I just don't know how much it hurt subscriptions.

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
The question is, is that [DikuMUD] style of MMO really more popular among the gaming public, and if so, why? Does it have to do with the mechanics themselves, or is it just a coincidence that the popular games happen to use those mechanics?
Raph Koster has suggested that part of the reason for the success of DikuMUD games themselves was that a DikuMUD game was an "out of the box" solution. It was easy to set up and easy to modify compared to other game systems like LPmud.

To this I would add that this relative simplicity was partly structural, but the class/level/combat/loot model of gameplay is also conceptually simple enough to be easily updated. Because it's so numbers-based, it's easy to customize the gameplay just by changing the calculations and tables.

(This, BTW, is why so many people -- mistakenly, in my view -- claim that MMORPGs are defined in part by being numbers-intensive. Because most MMORPGs are DikuMUD-inspired, they're strongly numbers-driven. People thus naturally but invalidly conclude that being numbers-driven must be a defining characteristic of a MMORPG.)

So honestly, I really do assign the apparently popularity of class/level/loot games not so much to gamers demanding them as to developers choosing to make them, because the developers are the ones who decide that the class/level/combat/loot model is so easy to develop for.

Is that wrong of MMORPG developers? I'm not inclined to criticize them too harshly for so many of them making this decision to follow the DikuMUD road. A serious MMORPG takes a huge amount of development effort; it's only natural to prefer a model of play that, by focusing on easily-tweaked numeric gameplay rules over deep world and social systems, gets a MMORPG out the door and earning revenue sooner.

I can understand that. But that doesn't mean I have to be satisfied with it, especially when I think that "deep world and social systems" are required features for a particular license (like Star Trek), and when the business numbers show pretty clearly that there's a strong market for highly social worlds.

I'd be more willing to accept the possibility that "most" gamers prefer class/level/combat/loot games if we could get some decent alternatives out there to compare against!

And I still think a Star Trek MMORPG would be a great candidate for such a game that uses some existing MMORPG mechanics while unrepentantly discarding those that aren't appropriate or add little value compared to new ideas.

Starfleet Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG +

It occurs to me that maybe I could do a better job of explaining what I mean when I talk about how combat modes might align with ranks in Star Trek Online.

So here's a little chart I whipped up to describe graphically what I've so far used a lot of text to try to communicate. (Note that I've tweaked the language a little bit. Since I think this idea could apply to more than just combat, I've renamed the concept slightly from "Combat Modes" to "Conflict Management Modes". This works better for representing the range of encounters that a given rank might experience.)

I hope this is one of those images that's worth a thousand words or so (because I think I've already spent more than my allotted share of words :) ), but a couple of short comments might be in order.

1. Within each mode (tactics, operations, strategy) the content on the left side (signified by "-") is the easiest, while the content at the right side of that mode (the "+" part of the arrow) is the most challenging.

2. Commanders and Commodores each have duties that significantly span two modes. To some players, this may mark these ranks as transitional -- you're getting a taste of the type of gameplay the next rank up will usually get. This will allow players to decide whether they want to advance in rank or not.

To other players, these ranks could be a lot of fun in and of themselves precisely because they're not just one mode all the time, but something of a hybrid.

3. Although Captains (in this model) wouldn't get much tactical action, and wouldn't get much strategic gameplay, either, they would get some of both... which makes them unique in that they are the only rank that spans all three modes.

Earning the rank of Captain for their character might thus be the appropriate final destination for the "jack of all trades" generalist player.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Environmental Richness and Tactics

Originally Posted by Samodelkin:
I am a major supporter of this line of thinking.

The biggest problem I have with how most MMORPGs handle combat is that they are too game-y. Effects are abstracted away into a trivial game rule: activating weapon X does Y damage to a target. There's no use of the environment beyond simple line-of-sight (if you're lucky).

That's easier to program and easier to balance as a game, but it creates an incredibly impoverished tactical experience. Without accounting for environmental factors such as terrain (hills, foxholes, nebulae, planets/asteroids), weather (fog, rain, snow, ion storm, magnetic eddies), light (day/night, searchlights, photon burst illumination), chemical traces (scent, ion trail), particle radiation and electromagnetic effects, "combat" is reduced to stationary one-on-one duels consisting of spamming a couple of special attacks at each other.

That is not "tactics." It barely deserves to be called "combat."

This isn't to say that all of the things I mentioned above have to be included in a MMORPG. These are gameworlds, not military-grade tactical simulators; most of them (especially the fantasy-themed ones) don't need that much environmental detail.

But I would argue that more realistic game worlds, including science fictional worlds, do need to include more of those kinds of environmental features for combat to feel interesting. Furthermore, the Star Trek universe, as I've documented in Sensors and Star Trek Online, is incredibly rich with environmental phenomena. To make Star Trek Online's combat (ground or space) just a matter of repeatedly whacking a couple of hotkeys no matter what the target would utterly fail to capture the spirit of the Star Trek license in which the universe is teeming with environmental phenomena of all kinds.

So while I wouldn't say that Star Trek Online's combat model needs to implement every phenomenon I listed in my Sensors essay, or even the extremely limited subset of phenomena I suggested earlier in this thread, I agree completely with Samodelkin that thinking of combat purely in terms of special moves (like most MMORPGs) is too simplistic for this game.

Star Trek Online doesn't need to be a Federation-specific version of "America's Army" (although that could be a fascinating game!). But I do think it needs to do better than imagining tactical combat as just another hotkeyed slapfight.

Designing the online Star Trek universe as full of phenomena that have specific effects on mobs and ships, and which can be produced by mobs and devices, would be a far more satisfying approach. Not only would it be more fun as a game, it would be a much more effective use of the license.

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:

Ensign: Level 1-20
Lt (JG): Level 20-30
Lt: Level 30-40
Lt. Cmdr: Level 40-50
Cmdr: 50-65
Capt: 65-70
Adm: 70+
There's something worth seeing here: a rank system based on a numerical calculation is simply another form of level system. The main difference is that it replaces groups of levels with a name instead of displaying individual level numbers.

That said, there's one other important and positive difference: the distance between two ranks is much larger than the distance between two typical MMORPG levels. In other words, it takes a lot longer to go from the rank of Commander to Captain than it does to go from level 35 to 36. That has beneficial effects on gameplay, and we can know that because we've seen both approaches used in various RPGs.

In a conventional MMORPG your character has a class in which you can rise through 60 or 70 or 90 levels. Developers do this because they've apparently decided that all gamers are basically simple-minded creatures -- lab rats, really -- who can be trained to press a lever over and over and over again if doing so will frequently cause a yummy "new level" pellet to be dropped. By dicing up class competencies into many, many little pieces, developers can offer levels more frequently, thus (the theory goes) keeping the rats -- er, that is, the customers -- playing longer.

"I just need 324 more XP to ding to level 40!"

A character advancement system with far fewer levels but which requires the same overall amount of effort to reach the highest level, by comparison, doesn't generate this mindless lever pressing behavior. The distance between any two levels is so great that there is obviously no point in spending multiple play sessions standing in one place doing the same thing over and over again. That would be too boring even for a lab rat.

So people don't do it. Instead of grinding for XP because the next level is perceived as being so close, they stop focusing on gaming the system and concentrate on exploring the game's content. As they do so, they collect XP as a side effect... and eventually, it adds up to being enough to ding to the next level, which -- because it's rare and unexpected -- feels incredibly satisfying.

Doesn't that sound like more fun than standing at a little lever going, "324... 323... 322... 321..."?

Having only 10-12 levels seemed to work out pretty well for this little game I once heard of called Dungeons & Dragons... why isn't it good enough for online RPGs? Like, say, Star Trek Online, where mindless behavior would seem to be the exact opposite of what the gameplay should be designed to encourage through its reward schedule?

Are MMOG developers in general really so deficient in imagination that they can't come up with any desirable forms of frequent reward besides character class levels? I don't believe that, but maybe I have a higher regard for their creative abilities than they do.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dynamic Balancing of Class Selection

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:
So what do people think the imbalance might be in STO? Too many engineers? Too many security? Not enough Medics? It's intriguing to think about.
As someone who's been a designer of complex systems for many years, I favor self-regulating systems over ones where somebody has to remember to tinker with it to get it to work "right."

In terms of character classes, that translates into a preference for creating a class selection system that dynamically adjusts the reasons for people to want to choose underrepresented classes, as opposed to applying the dreaded nerf bat to overrepresented classes.

Example: When players are reviewing which department to choose for their character, let the game automatically calculate and offer a bonus of some kind for each department, and base the size of that bonus on the number of characters currently assigned to that department such that underrepresented departments will have the biggest bonus. As the population shifts, the bonuses will automatically shift as well.

Of course this isn't a perfect solution, but so far I'm not seeing any reason to think it would be worse than the more arbitrary ways of correcting class imbalances in other games today.

The Initial Player Experience in a Star Trek MMORPG

Some of the items on my personal wish list of things I'd like to experience in a Star Trek MMORPG:

  • figure out how an abandoned alien technology works

  • reconfigure the main deflector dish to emit an inverse tachyon pulse (why? no reason -- it just sounds cool)

  • make a successful first contact with a new civilization

  • interact with characters from Star Trek in some way that's unique to my character

  • save lives by solving a medical mystery

  • perceive a long-term threat to the Federation and direct strategic resources to successfully counter the threat

  • peacefully resolve a trade dispute

  • reprogram someone's sonic shower to cover them with mud

  • induce a warp core breach

  • prevent a warp core breach

  • choose between interfering with a pre-warp culture or allowing it to be exploited or injured

  • use the ship's sensors to detect a cloaked ship

  • reprogram an antimatter regulator to spray chili sauce

  • visit Vulcan and spend weeks exploring all aspects of the culture

  • explore strange new worlds

  • seek out new life and new civilizations

  • find some places to boldly go where thousands of players haven't already gone before

Comparative Rankings of Starships in Star Trek +

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:
Why so much difference in power based on ship size. Granted, an Oberth class would never have the capability of a Sovereign, but let's talk Miranda and Constitution (refit) for just a moment. The Miranda, in all respects was simply a Constitution Refit with less hull. So, wouldn't that lead us to believe that it should have the same offensive/defensive capabilities as the Constitution, in a better package because it is more maneuverable and less hull area to strike? Seems to me that there are some problems in how ships are ranked within the ST Universe. Defiant is another example. In Legacy for example, a Defiant class was easier to destroy than an Intrepid class, even though the Defiant class was supposedly built for war and to withstand a pounding.
Bearing in mind that all this is just us swapping ideas -- I'm not trying to make a definitive statement here -- my short answer would be "structural points."

If we're talking combat rating, firepower is obviously important, but so is survivability. If the size of a ship determines how much structure it has, then it stands to reason that a bigger ship is more survivable; it can hang in a firefight longer (presumably continuing to dish out damage).

If we're talking about the Constitution-refit and Miranda classes specifically, it's important to note that there's not just a size difference here. The big structural difference between these two classes is that the Constitution sports a large secondary hull while the Miranda does not. That gives the Constitution (original and refit) two important survivability advantages over the Miranda:

  • more damage-absorbing structural points

  • saucer separation capability
So even though the Miranda class is only marginally less capable than either Constitution class in terms of firepower -- six Type-IX phaser emitters (three dual-emitter banks) on the Miranda to the eight of the Constitution -- the difference in survivability is enough to give the Constitution a distinct edge over its Miranda cousin in combat situations.

As for maneuverability and difficulty of targeting, I actually do include both of those things in my calculations. Small and Tiny ships (I categorize the USS Defiant, for example, as Small, and treat shuttlecraft as Tiny) get a bonus to their Survivability for being hard to target, while I add the square root of a ship's calculated Maneuverability value directly to that ship's Combat rating.

So here's one more difference between the Constitution and Miranda classes: the Constitution was more maneuverable with two impulse engines than the Miranda which (according to the DS9 Tech Manual as cited at Memory Alpha) had only one impulse engine. Thus, even though the Constitution packed more mass spread over a larger area, the additional impulse engine more than compensated for that mass when maneuvering at sub-light speeds.

I think all this reasoning could also explain the disparity between the relative combat ratings of the Defiant and Intrepid classes. The Defiant class is tougher, but it's also significantly smaller -- 120 meters in length and 4 or 5 decks, versus 344 meters over 15 decks for the Intrepid class. Being Small gives it a minor bonus to Survivability, as does its ablative armor, but that's far outweighed by having so much less structure to absorb damage.

On the other hand, the Defiant class has three impulse engines to the Intrepid's two. In conjunction with having less mass to move around, the extra engine gives Defiant-class ships a great advantage in Maneuverability.

Combining the serious firepower of the Defiant class with its excellent Maneuverability gives it a fractional edge over the Intrepid in overall combat capability despite the Defiant class's lower Survivability. My current spreadsheet shows the standard Intrepid class with a Combat rating of 0.90 and the Defiant class at 0.96 (relative to the 1.00 rating of the Galaxy class).

On paper, ships of either of these two classes could give a Galaxy-class ship a hard time. I think that's a bit off, as I noted earlier; I think the Voyager and Defiant stats are artificially inflated for dramatic necessity, making their base classes look tougher than they really would be without a "hero" crew.

Either way, the relative numbers are still fun to bat back and forth, no?

Science and Engineering Content in a Star Trek MMORPG 2

One of the questions that comes up when thinking about a MMORPG based on Star Trek is how to generate interestingly distinct gameplay for both Engineering and Science branches. Both of these are fairly dependent on technology... so what's to stop an engineer from being interchangeable with a science officer?

To answer that, we need to figure out what's unique to each discipline. Once we see those things, we can discriminate usefully between them to create appropriate gameplay features.

So here are some of the characteristics of Science and Engineering that come to mind:

  • Science is about theoretical understanding; Engineering is about practical application.
  • Science is about perceiving patterns in complex data; Engineering is about insuring patterns in the behavior of complex objects.
  • Science is about knowledge; Engineering is about technology.
  • Science is about building internal models of systems; Engineering is about building external examples of systems.
  • Science is about "why"; Engineering is about "how."
Do these observations suggest anything useful about how to generate Engineering gameplay that is distinct from Science gameplay (and vice versa) in a MMORPG set in the Star Trek universe?

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Still more discussion about Admiral-level gameplay:

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:
Make it possible for anyone to hit the upper ranks, but make them pretty hard to achieve if that makes sense, so that 4 months down the road after launch we don't have 1 million Captains running around and no lower ranks. Kind of destroys the immersion factor in a way.
My feeling is that trying to limit the number of high-ranked players by making higher ranks harder to achieve will just turn it into a grindfest. You'll still have bunches of Admirals; they'll just be the people who spent all their time grinding their way to that rank instead of the gamers who are good leaders and strategists.

So instead, I'd still rather see rank define different kinds of gameplay. That way ST:O won't be filled with Admirals because not everybody will want to be an Admiral -- they'll be happy enjoying the content typically available to them at some other rank. In this design, players would level up to the kind of gameplay they like, then spend the rest of their play time getting better at it.

In other words, rather than the game being structured so that gamers feel like they must be lazy if they don't grind their way up to Admiral to get to "the good stuff," I'd hope that Star Trek Online is designed so that there are different kinds of fun content at different ranks. For example, I like the idea of Ensigns, Lieutenants, and Lt. Commanders typically getting lots of opportunities for exciting tactical (action) gameplay, Commanders and Captains having operational (leadership) gameplay, and Admirals having strategic (logistics and planning) gameplay.

This approach, I think, would keep the number of high-rank players low by persuading players themselves to limit their rank -- that feels to me like a more satisfying approach than imposing an arbitrary degree of difficulty on higher-rank content. Players would voluntarily level up in rank to get to the kind of content they enjoy, and then they could stop gaining more rank in order to focus on getting better at their current rank.

Better to let players become legendary Lieutenants and Commanders than to make everyone feel forced to become mediocre Admirals.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Travel Times in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by [a gamer]:
No player is going to want to spend 12 minutes traveling from earth to Alpha Centauri at cruise warp speeds. or the dreaded, 12 hour trip to a remote planet
"No player"? Do you really believe that everyone wants exactly the same kind of gameplay from a large, complex, massively multiplayer game world?

I can see how someone might come to this belief that "no player" could possibly want travel to be anything other than instantaneous if they assume without question that all that matters is the goal, the destination. But that's a badly flawed assumption. It's just not true that every gamer is motivated this way. And declarative statements about how gameplay "has to be" based on such invalid assumptions are, to put it politely, unpersuasive.

Different people want different things. Are some people highly goal-driven? Absolutely; they like knowing exactly what to do next and getting to it immediately; they're happiest when they can level up as quickly as possible. And they want their games to support this worldview -- a world-y type game that's optimized for this kind of gamer needs plenty of extrinsic rewards.

There are also people for whom (as the saying goes) the journey is more important than the destination. There really are people who don't feel a need to attack (and beat) every challenge now, now, now. There really are people who enjoy seeing the sights, chatting with friends, exploring systems, who are perfectly fine with extrinsic rewards (loot, cash, XP, levels) coming slowly or even not at all as long as there are plenty of opportunities for intrinsic rewards that come from the satisfaction of exploring interesting things and meeting interesting people.

These more laid-back gamers are as deserving of game content as anybody else. Their money spends just like anybody else's, and a good MMO will be designed with content they like, too.

So taking 12 hours to get somewhere in Star Trek Online is fine... as long as starships are detailed enough and space is complex enough for the journey itself to be as interesting as the destination, and as long as there are also ways for the goal-focused gamers to be able to get to the content they like without excessive waiting.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by AaronH:
And the final issue is the idea that the MMO genre doesn't currently allow inovation. Honestly, if you believe that you should take a look around. There is hordes of innovation, is all you ever hear is WoW clone, but in reality, how many WoW clones are? How many aren't WoW clones? How many are cut and dry carbon copies? How many try to expand into new areas? This is the nature of most media arts, it is evolution not revolution. And frankly, when a game comes along that works, you never hear the cries about how it is a cheap knockoff of that other game, or how it stole ideas from various other sources, is all you hear is "Great game, so originall" when inreality, if you take the time to look, you can trace its lineage back to boardgames most of the time.
Your point that everything stands on the shoulders of something else is a good one. Most stuff is evolutionary, and probably should be.

But is the MMOG industry really as innovative as it could/should be? I'm not as convinced of this as you seem to be.

To try to boil down my perception on this as much as possible, for me it comes down to seeing MMOGs as being different in an important way from most art, most commercial products, and even most games. These massively multiplayer online game things aren't just any old kind of product -- they are worlds.

I can't look at MMOGs in this way and not see almost limitless opportunity to create places and things and events and interactions that no one has ever seen before, that no one has ever even imagined before. The range of expressive freedom offered by our newfound ability to create highly detailed persistent virtual world games is, in fact, revolutionary.

So the question arises, are the people making MMOGs taking full advantage of this opportunity? In fairness, I think the answer is obviously no, they are not. Making the minor tweak here and there to the same few bits of MMOG gameplay that have come before does not even begin to tap into the potential of MMOGs.

Does this mean I think developers are to blame? Not entirely. In large part -- as developers themselves (such as Greg Costikyan) have consistently pointed out -- this is because it costs too much to build worlds that really feel like worlds. At $10-50M and four or more years per major MMOG, the risk of failing to recoup that investment is too high to permit anything but tentative tinkering with the last formula that appeared to work.

Bearing this in mind, I have to disagree with the view that there's plenty of innovation in the MMOG industry. I don't think that view holds up when we consider the potential of the medium, and how little of that territory has been explored thus far by MMOG developers who, with only minor alterations, have largely copied each other's class/level/combat/aggro/loot gameplay.

Happily, there are some signs of enthusiasm for confronting this problem of risk in creating new worlds. Multiverse was an important start to this process. More recently, Raph Koster is absolutely to be commended for putting his reputation (and probably some of his money) at stake to try a new approach. Metaplace is designed at its core to reduce the cost-based risk of world creation by spreading the risk over many developers. I don't know if this approach will work, but I'm proud to see that there are some developers who are willing to acknowledge the lack of variety in MMOGs and are directly doing something about it.

I don't necessarily think that the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG should be expected to go that far. Even so, it does seem to me that Star Trek Online's design could help advance this process of exploring new possibilities in the creation of gameworlds by being more than just another class/level/combat/aggro game. Raph is blazing the trail leading into unexplored MMO territory, but he can't draw the new maps all by himself, nor should he.

Star Trek Online will be a massively multiplayer persistent-world game based on a license that is all about seeking out new worlds and new civilizations. If that isn't the right MMORPG to offer a substantively enhanced vision of MMOG gameplay, what is?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Diplomacy in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by DougQB:
I agree, but I also wonder if a math wiz would care to give us some calculations on the amount of data we're talking about as we increase the number of groups and individuals we're tracking this information on? Maybe if we keep our server population small, say 2,000 to 3,000 active characters, and who knows how many more players and characters offline? How many groups and factions? What about NPCs? For that matter, how long should we track this data? Keep in mind, these are just some, but by no means all, of the possibilities!
Oh, I think we can avoid needing to fly Stephen Hawking in for the weekend.

Assuming we start with the usual simple faction system, the multi-faction concept as I've described it can be implemented substantially with just three modifications:

1. Additional records in an existing "group" table to record faction against other known groups.
2. Additional records in an existing "player faction" table to record faction against known groups and NPCs.
3. Additional records in an existing "NPC faction" table to record faction against known groups and players.
It's important to see here that word "known" -- it means you don't need a record for every possible interaction; you only add or select a record if the two entities have ever encountered each other. If your character never interacts with Bob the NPC, there'll never be a record in the database documenting the quality of that interaction. Only if you and Bob interact will there need to be records written.

(For that matter, note that some items from groups 2 and 3 could be merged if NPC/player faction is always the same in both directions -- you only need one database record to track both reactions.)

I know you understand that for a serious MMORPG we're already talking about hundreds of database tables for storing game information. In my judgement, adding some additional records to two or three tables (which are already going to exist if faction is implemented at all) out of hundreds seems unlikely to produce the kind of combinatorial explosion you're implying.

Factor in the run-time behavior, wherein none of these records will be getting updated all that often (only at those moments when characters and/or groups need to check or update faction), and I think you're seriously overestimating the potential technical issues with implementing this idea.

Now, if you wanted to argue against multifaction on the grounds that it might be bad for the gameplay experience somehow, you might have a stronger case. Maybe not enough Star Trek Online players would want a Star Trek universe where allegiances can slowly but constantly shift for this feature to be worth having.

I think there are plenty of gamers who would find charting this dynamic social landscape to be tremendously exciting. MMORPGs typically offer -- at best -- a trivial faction system in which every member of an NPC group somehow instantaneously likes or dislikes you to exactly the same degree. All I'm suggesting is a small but far-reaching improvement on this system so that diplomacy can be more than just some arbitrary minigame that's disconnected from anything else in the game, but would instead become an ongoing challenge to win and retain friends in an occasionally hostile galaxy.

Solo and Group Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I see choosing to explore on one's own not as "losing" power and resources, but more as not gaining power and resources as quickly as someone who groups more often. Seen this way, soloing is not so much a punishment as a conscious tradeoff.

All that said, two more points on soloing. First, it might be useful to reiterate the observation that nobody really solos in a massively multiplayer online game -- you just interact indirectly with other players, rather than directly. When you leave messages describing what you've seen while you were out exploring, or buy or sell from a Bazaar or Auction House, you're actively participating in the game. The fact that it's not direct interaction with strangers doesn't make it any less valuable to the other players in the game. It's still a useful form of contribution; it's another way to be part of the community of players.

Second, although I prefer solo play myself, and hope that there's some of that in a Star Trek MMORPG, I acknowledge that for it to feel like Star Trek, the group play experience is absolutely required. Whether on a ship or on an away mission, nobody in Star Trek is truly on their own -- they're part of a team, almost a family. That's always been part of the storyline of Star Trek, and an online Star Trek won't feel right if it's designed to be too soloable.

So while I personally prefer not to have my success depend on other people honoring their commitments (I hated being given group assignments back in school :) ), I can't imagine ST:O feeling right without being designed to encourage and reward grouping.

It would be amazing, and satisfying beyond words, if Star Trek Online could be designed such that the Barclays of the world could be made to feel welcome and useful in a pick-up group heading off to run a mission.

That would not only be true to the spirit of Star Trek, I think it would produce a very good game.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Diplomacy in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by DougQB:
Couldn't we strive for something a bit more abstract and still achieve the same type of results?
I don't think so. As I see it, you can abstract out gameworld behaviors (i.e., make the world simpler and more predictable), or you can have interesting gameworld behaviors, but not both.

"Simpler and more predictable" isn't necessarily a bad thing. From the typical MMORPG developer's point of view, a game where you don't know exactly how the gameworld will look after a while is a threat to gameplay because it means you can't control it. That's not an unreasonable concern if your sole aim is to force the game to provide exactly the kind of gameplay experience you think it should provide. (I might even argue that this could be considered a responsibility of a game designer.)

My problem is that not every gamer wants a predictable experience. Sure, you could make faction as simple as it is in most MMORPGs -- one per NPC. That would be nicely controllable. It would also be incredibly boring, because we've already seen that in multiple games; we know its texture; it's easily gamable. Where's the surprise? Where's the joy of encountering a situation you didn't expect? Where's the satisfaction of being part of a truly dynamic, living gameworld, where the NPCs have attitudes and goals and allegiances shift over time just like they would for any group of sentient beings?

The major concern about this "multifaction" concept seems to be that groups who we expect would always cooperate -- like Starfleet Command and the Federation Council -- might have their faction changed toward each other so much that they'd start fighting each other. About this concern, two comments:

1. If this is considered too loosey-goosey, you could put fenceposts on the faction level of groups that are "supposed to" like each other. In other words, you just tack on an extra bit of code that checks the current amount when some action initiates a request for a change of group vs. group faction, and if it's already at the desired limit doesn't allow faction to get any better or worse.

2. Alternatively, suppose that groups who normally like each other were allowed to develop negative faction toward each other. So? What if the game was so well-written that changes in group faction like this generated story-based missions and other gameplay? Wouldn't that be a fascinating storyline to be a part of?

I hope it's clear that I understand the desire of those who develop multiplayer games to come up with designs that provide a reasonable assurance that most players will have fun.

My point is that not every gamer wants the same kind of fun. Yes, some want a highly controlled play experience, where nothing is left to chance and everyone always knows exactly what to do next... but not everyone is into that. Some gamers prefer a world that breathes, where part of the fun is seeing what's different when you visit. What about these gamers?

Those who prefer static and predictable content can and should have it, as they do in current MMORPGs... but those who prefer dynamic and surprising content should have some features supporting their preferred gameplay as well.

I think the multifaction concept described in this thread could be one small way of achieving that latter goal.

Comparative Rankings of Starships in Star Trek +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
I would be really interested in seeing a ranking for the different ships hulls only, based on volume (more volume needs more hits to break apart) and integrity (round shapes being harder to break then flat shapes, etc.).
It may not be exactly what you're looking for, but I am actually now doing something like this in my current calculation for a ship class's Survivability. (The current calculation is a little different from the one provided in the original spreadsheet attached to this Log.)

The Survivability calculation I'm currently using is the sum of the following stored values (divided by a scaling factor so that the Galaxy class's Survivability equals 1.00):

Hull Integrity = Length * Decks * HullMaterial * Armor
Hard-to-Target Bonus = Size [smaller = larger bonus]
Separation Bonus = (number of Sections - 1) * 4000
Shield Strength = Shield emitter type * ShieldOutput * ShieldCount
Cloaking Device Bonus = number of Cloaking devices * 8000

Note that I'm assuming Length * Decks is a reasonable substitute for a Volume value. Multiplying this by the Hull Material factor and the Armor factor (both defined in sub-tables of the spreadsheet) yields an approximation of a class's overall hull integrity.

So the Survivability value is actually a combination of a ship class's physical features (hull integrity, small size, and saucer separation capability) and its active defenses (shields and, if installed, cloaking device).

Needless to say, by this measure the Prometheus class has a very good Survivability rating, and the rating for the Sovereign class is even better. On the other hand, the D'Deridex and the Jem'Hadar battleship are extremely survivable (relative to the Galaxy) based on their large sizes... and you really don't want to know how tough the Borg vessels normally are. :)

One thing I'm not currently doing that you suggested is taking into account the shape of a starship class in calculating its Survivability value. However, this could easily be added by defining a table of bonus values associated with the Config type (saucer, saucer+secondary, wedge, brick, etc.) of the class, which I do track in my spreadsheet for every ship class listed.

Although I like the Survivability calculation as it is now (without ship configuration), I might add that factor to the Survivability calculation some day.

(I could spend days playing with the numbers on this spreadsheet thing to make them "perfect," but I wouldn't get much else done!)

Comparative Rankings of Starships in Star Trek +

So what is it really about the Intrepid and Defiant classes? Why (on paper) does the USS Defiant pack nearly the same wallop as a Galaxy-class ship, for example?

I think I commented in the original "Starship Power Comparison" thread on why I thought this oddness might have happened, but to reiterate:

1. Where the Galaxy class has only 3 Mark XXV photon torpedo launchers, the Intrepid class has 5, and the Defiant class actually has 4 Q-II quantum torpedo launchers. (And quantum torpedoes are just crazy powerful.)

2. The Intrepid class, in my judgment, is ridiculously overloaded on direct-fire weapons. If it were any other class, there's no way it would be said in canon sources to have the same number of Type X phasers as a Galaxy class vessel: 13.

3. Voyager and Defiant are both more maneuverable -- Defiant considerably more so -- than a Galaxy-class ship. And Maneuverability factors into the Combat rating as noted in my original post above.

4. The Defiant class is on the books as a "warship," compared to the multi-role design of the Galaxy class. Given that the Defiant class is all about combat and carries the latest weapons systems (at least as of the 2370s), it's at least conceivable that its Combat rating might approach that of a Galaxy-class ship.

5. Here's the big one: Voyager and Defiant were "hero" ships -- they were the ships in which the stars of a Star Trek series traveled. Consequently, there was no power in the galaxy that could completely destroy those ships while Our Heroes were in them. This was also true of the Enterprise-D, but it was older. (And yes, I know the original Defiant was destroyed... but the stars of the series had -- just barely -- fled the burning ship in its escape pods before its destruction.)

To cover the nonsensical invulnerability of Voyager and Defiant with a veil of plausibility, Voyager and Defiant were given a completely silly number of weapons... and that punches up their Combat rating to nearly match that of the older and slower but much larger Galaxy class.


I'm not sure any of this should persuade you that it's OK for the Enterprise-D to be only slightly stronger in pure combat compared to Voyager and Defiant.

But if I've introduced even a little doubt, my mission is accomplished. :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Science and Engineering Content in a Star Trek MMORPG 1

What kind of gameplay might be fun for players in the Science and Engineering departments of a Star Trek MMORPG?

I'd like to see these players able to make and modify devices.

It seems unlikely that a Star Trek MMORPG will allow players to create new kinds of things. User-created content is just plain scary to most multiplayer game developers; the potential for abuse by a few jerks looms too large for the perceived development effort. There's also the question of how many of a game's likely subscribers would use this content. Finally, a decision to focus a game's design on conventional MMORPG gameplay would argue against implementing a feature as significant as user-created content.

Having said all this, I don't believe it should stop us from knocking around some ideas on the subject of user-generated content in the sense of creating and modifying the functionality of devices in a Star Trek MMORPG. If not in Star Trek Online, then someone, someday....

So: my ideas on this (which I've described at much greater and more painful length in Starship Operations in a Star Trek MMORPG) boil down to applying two simple design concepts broadly throughout the game:

1. Build every complex object out of components that can be disassembled.
2. Allow the basic functionality of every complex object to be modified by its programming.
The practical effect of these two things would be to give both Engineers and Scientists (including Medical specialists) opportunities for real creativity.

Given the appropriate tools and skills, Engineers would be able to deconstruct complex objects, from hand phasers to warp cores to starships, then put them back together again in new ways (and with different components) that yield new or improved basic functions. (The requirement for having the right tools for the job is important, BTW. Even given all the parts, no Engineer -- not even Scotty -- should be able to build a transporter using only a screwdriver and a paperclip. Repair one, maybe, but not build one.)

Scientists, meanwhile, would be able to modify the functionality of complex devices by writing computer subroutines that apply various filters to the outputs (energy, matter, information) of the internal components of these objects. Examples of this would be writing a quick subroutine that applies a dynamic inversion matrix to the output of a compression rifle to make it more effective against an enemy's shields, or a sensor enhancement algorithm, or a medical steri-field that adapts to a newly encountered lifeform's biology.

Taken together, these two features -- components and programs -- would form the basis for crafting in ST:O. And basing crafting in Star Trek Online from the very start on user-created content would allow players to enjoy the experience of creative problem-solving that is so much a part of Star Trek. (This approach also fits with the notion of "orthogonality" in Star Trek devices, which just means that in Star Trek there are only a few kinds of devices, but most devices have many modes of operation.)

I should note that, to some degree, this "Engineers work with objects, Scientists work with programs" approach is an artificial distinction. That's a fair criticism. After all, engineers in Star Trek (especially the later Ops officers) often reprogrammed devices, and scientists built devices. (Think of Scotty programming the Jenolan's transporter to store his pattern for 70+ years, or Spock's attempt to construct a mnemonic memory device using "stone knives and bearskins.")

Still, in terms of gameplay in a MMORPG, this seems like a reasonable way to insure that both Engineers and Scientists have some kind of useful creative activity they can do without breaking too far away from what's been seen in Star Trek.

Between these two capabilities, I think exploring the Star Trek Online universe would become as interesting as it should be.

Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
What's wrong if Goerdi LaForge would realize the Romulans to use a far superior way of adjusting their shields and to copy that technique? Nothing. And it is far easier to study a wrecked enemy ship, then an intact one.

The nice thing about the idea, to make information and data the loot is, that it feels more like studying your enemy, then looting. When adding the teamplay aspect, this kind of loot would make no sense for the singleplayer. The social aspect would make it feel even more starfleet. So, it serves the same purpose as looting in any other usual MMO, but it doesn't show the nasty side effects (egoism, heavy grinding), and it's absolutely canon.
Could the word we're looking for here be "espionage?"

The nice thing about thinking of "information looting" in this way is that you don't have to have wrecked the target first. It might help, but it's not required.

It also allows you to target friends... but they might not be friends any longer if they catch you in the act. :)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Diplomacy in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I've long held that the game mechanism of faction is an area that's woefully underutilized in MMORPGs. Faction is memory! The problem is that individual NPCs are no more than perfect representatives of a group memory -- everybody in that group somehow holds exactly the same faction toward the player, and they all update their faction toward the player the instant it changes with respect to any individual NPC who belongs to the group. Oh, and NPC groups can't have faction toward each other.

That's all pretty strange, isn't it?

Letting players have different ratings with different factions is a good start, but there's so much more that could be done with this concept that would help the game world feel more dynamic and more responsive to what players do. Diplomacy in a Star Trek MMORPG would be a great way to showcase this possibility.

Consider just these three extensions to the basic notion of player faction with NPC groups:

1. Tag in-game actions to have multiple factional effects.
2. Allow NPC groups to have faction toward each other.
3. Design the Diplomacy Game in Star Trek Online around adjusting the faction of NPCs towards the diplomat's client(s).
Let's take those first two ideas first. Most computer-based RPGs already allow for player actions with respect to an individual NPC to affect the player's standing with respect to the one group to which that NPC is coded to belong. But why stop there?

Suppose that I, as a Starfleet officer, save a stranded Romulan NPC from death. My faction with several groups is high enough so that I am considered a member of those groups. The Romulan, in turn, belongs to several other groups. So what kinds of factional changes could my saving a Romulan's life produce among all these individuals and groups?

Here are some (but by no means all) possibilities:

  • I gain 50 "personal faction" with the individual Romulan NPC I saved.
  • I gain 3 faction with Romulan Fleet Command.
  • I gain 5 faction with Starfleet Command.
  • I gain or lose some amount of faction with my NPC commanding officer based on the strength and direction of his/her feeling toward Romulans.
  • I gain 10 faction with the Federation Council.
  • Starfleet Command gains 2 faction with the Federation Council.
  • I gain 20 faction with the civilian Federation-Romulan Benevolent Society.
  • I lose 3 faction with Starfleet Security.
  • I gain 3 faction with Section 31. (Note: Official records contain no reference to any such organization as "Section 31.")
  • Starfleet gains 2 faction with the Romulan I saved.
  • Starfleet gains 1 faction with Romulan Fleet Command.
  • The Romulan I saved loses 10 faction with the Tal Shiar.
Now take my individual action and add it up with all my other actions, and all the actions of the other players on my server, and across several weeks and months and years of play.

Suddenly the game world gets a bit more interesting, doesn't it? For example, what happens to the Federation's relations with the Klingon Empire if so many players play kissy-face with Romulan NPCs that the UFP and Romulan Star Empire eventually have high faction with each other?

Talk about your dynamic game universes!

My third suggestion builds on this notion of multiple groups who can change faction with each other -- call it "multifaction." As a diplomat, making that happen would be your task. In other words, the art of diplomacy would consist of taking on a client (by accepting a mission from an NPC member of a group) who wants you to raise their faction with a particular group. If you succeed to some preset level, then perhaps you earn a commission -- 10% of the factional improvement, maybe.

Of course, by doing so you may lose -- or gain -- faction with other groups who have an interest in preserving or changing the status quo wherever you went. And that in turn could lead to new offers of diplomatic missions from groups who like you better now, or to being opposed by members of groups who've consistently lost faction because of your diplomatic triumphs.

And what about diplomats who are inconsistent, who serve one client today and serve their enemies tomorrow? What if a group could recognize when their faction toward you shifts back and forth repeatedly?

And what happens when there are multiple diplomats in action, some working together, some working at cross-purposes, and some whose goals are diametrically opposed to those of other diplomats?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

Some players of SWG have suggested that gathering resources felt like a "logistical nightmare" for casual players, that tending harvesters felt like grinding.

I considered myself casual, but I really enjoyed the resource gathering subgame. Running harvesters was an interesting combination of planning (which resources are the best to harvest right now?), combat (how can I get to my harvesters when they're surrounded by antagonistic mobs?), exploration (this high-percentage resource site is a place I've never been before), and commerce (I don't need these resources I've harvested -- where can I sell them for the most money?).

In my experience, harvester-based resource gathering only became un-fun in a couple of ways. One was if you got too wrapped up in always having the absolute "best" resources; you could wind up obsessing about checking your harvesters several times a day to make sure you didn't miss replanting them in the best spot when a great new resource shifted in. The other way that resource gathering would start to feel like work was if you persuaded other people to assign admin rights to their harvesters to you. There were people (usually in guilds) who had hundreds of harvesters admin'ed to them; they could literally spend hours at a time tending fields covered with harvesters.

As long as you just tended the 10 (or fewer, depending if you had a house) harvesters you could personally plant, and were OK with not always having harvesters planted in the perfect location for the best resources, resource gathering was a fun and even reasonably lucrative subgame to play in SWG, even for casual players. At least, that was my experience of it.

And if you were a crafter, too (as I was), resource gathering got even more interesting because that put additional constraints on which resources were the most useful to you for the kinds of items you wanted to craft. (Many craftable items based their quality on the characteristics of the resources used, or even required certain resources to be made at all.)

That's not to say that this resource gathering/crafting system was perfect. In particular I had criticisms concerning experimentation; I never thought it contributed enough to the characteristics of the final crafted product. (And wrote several of my typically long-winded design essays suggesting ways to improve this situation.)

But I always thought the resource-gathering segment of this part of the fully player-run economy of SWG was one of the better-designed bits.

Heh. Former SWG players are like economists: ask two of them a question and get three (or more) opinions. :)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Let's examine this notion of Knowledge-power. What is it really, and what kinds of MMORPG features would help to generate it?

Based on the MMORPGs currently out there, we know without a doubt that within an hour after the game launches, someone will already be writing "here's how to find/do X" entries in a Wiki somewhere. Worse yet, there are even games like WoW that actually allow this kind of thing to be automated (thottbot as powered by Cosmos).

But there's something important to note here: this kind of knowledge is player knowledge. It's information from inside the gameworld that's stored and organized and exposed outside the gameworld for players to use -- it's not stuff that your character knows. That works for Achievers, for whom characters are little more than vehicles to be driven around inside the gameworld, but it's not much fun for Explorers or roleplaying Socializers who prefer to treat the gameworld (and the characters in it) as plausibly believable.

Well, what about changing that dynamic? What if in-game lore were designed to have a more direct connection to character-based gameplay? What if knowledge was something that your character could learn, and that only has an effect inside the game world if your character knows it?

This wouldn't be like gear because a tool is something you can pick up and put down -- once you have knowledge, it stays with you. Knowledge is also unlike gear in that although only one person at a time can own an individual piece of gear, an individual bit of knowledge can be held by many people.

Character knowledge also wouldn't be a like a class-based ability because it's not something that's intrinsic to your character (which a class is). It's also not quite like a skill, although these two are similar. The difference is that while a skill is essentially a new ability to do some tangible thing, knowledge is more abstract; it's information about how to do some thing, or why something works the way it does, or even just raw data about something or someone. Unlike a skill, there's not just one way to use some piece of learned information.

The most common way to acquire knowledge also distinguishes it from gear or abilities. Whereas you learn new abilities by leveling up (in a class/level model) or repeating some behavior for appropriate XP (in a skill model), and you gain new gear by picking it up, looting it, buying it, or trading for it, knowledge is typically acquired in three ways:

Observation is just interacting with the world. Being in the right place at the right time can yield knowledge if you're ready and able to perceive it -- that's how Bilbo figured out how to get into Smaug's cave. In computer games, talking to NPCs is an even more common way of a character acquiring information.

Education is sort of the passive version of knowledge-collection compared to the more active approach of observation. Educational knowledge -- seen in more works of fantasy than we can count as "wizarding colleges" and such-like -- means you don't go looking for knowledge; the knowledge comes to you. Of course, it's coming to a lot of characters at the same time... but some characters are more receptive to educational knowledge than others, no?

Finally, induction and deduction are ways of generating new knowledge from existing knowledge. Characters who are in possession of three key facts might be able to induce a general principle from them. This principle would be a new piece of knowledge that could in turn be use to deduce additional facts about the gameworld.

So what about "knowledge" seen in this light, then? Does it make this kind of character power look a little more attractive? Or does keying knowledge to characters instead of players seem too difficult to include in a MMORPG?

Sensors and Star Trek Online +

After the massive infodump that was my Sensors and Star Trek Online essay, some interesting comments, questions and suggestions came up:

Originally Posted by Kinneas:
What do you feel are the very basic and absolutely essential sensors a ship needs to get out of space dock?
If we're talking sensors as specific devices, I'd guess probably several visual sensors plus an array of futuristic proximity sensors or LIDAR emitter/detectors. Basically you just need to know the positions and velocities of all parts of your ship relative to all parts of the thing you're docking/undocking with.

Realistically that could call for a bunch of sensors. (Actually, for a really big and expensive futuristic starship, I doubt there's any way you'd let a human do such maneuvering at all. But turning over helm control to the computer is apparently still frowned on even in the late 24th century, so no point in going there. Bad M5 unit -- bad!)

In terms of how docking/undocking might work as gameplay, honestly, I don't know that you'd need/want the full-up sensors for this kind of thing at all. My guess is that there'd be a specialized system (with display) for that sort of thing, much like the way the Space Shuttle docks with the International Space Station. You'd use the ship's thrusters to adjust your position, velocity, and orientation with respect to whatever you're trying to dock/undock with. In theory, the sensor system would feed the necessary data into the docking/undocking system, but that's it. The pilot would have a display showing a schematic of all pertinent objects, along with useful numeric readouts, and would make the proper adjustments based on this information.

Doesn't sound terribly exciting, does it? Darn simulationists! :)

Originally Posted by Kinneas:
As people advance they could start getting access to other sensor packages for their sensor platform.
I like the notion of exposing more of the features of sensor operation as a player gets more experienced... or should that be, as the character gets more experienced?

Originally Posted by Kinneas:
Thumbs up on anything to do with 'Electronic Warfare'
That's actually an area I didn't get into with this that I might have.

It's got the potential to support ECM/ECCM fights (if we add devices that can jam various frequencies or emit disruptive particles). But it's possible that a significant number of players might find this kind of thing boring, or even an unwelcome distraction from exciting phasers vs. shields gameplay.

So I'm curious to hear what you and others think about this. Is there any way this model of energies/particles/sensors could be used to implement an ECM/ECCM feature that would be fun for most of ST:O's likely subscribers?


It occurs to me that I should mention something important here: I'm pretty confident that the people who would play a Star Trek game in order to play with sensors will not be the same people who are interested in firing phasers as rapidly and as often as possible.

It seems very likely to me that the gamers who come to Star Trek Online because they're eager to explore the galaxy -- in other words, those who create Science characters and to a slightly lesser degree Engineering characters -- aren't the kind of gamers who'll be satisfied with a simple, shallow, hot-keyable system. They are IMO much more likely to be gamers who enjoy immersing themselves in a gameworld that's rich with content and ways to interact with that content... and that's even more likely to be true for an important sub-branch of Star Trek fan.

So while I agree immediately that a complex sensor system wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, I'm equally confident that there'll be players who would be very disappointed by a sensor system that doesn't let them detect and categorize the huge number of wild-sounding particles and energies found throughout the world of Star Trek. In fact, I'm betting that a lot more of the latter kind of player will gravitate toward the departments and specializations that allow them to play with sensors. For these gamers, a deep sensor system is exactly what they want.

This essay was written with these players in mind.

You know who you are.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I really like the following ideas:

Originally Posted by ianD967:
they beam the peice aboard and being study of it and inform starfleet who then ask them to test it out and such (lets say it improves shields by 10% letting them take more damage)
after the test Starfleet asks them to hand it over with their findings and then begin a further study of it and start supplying ships with this peice giving all federation ships the shield boost it gave

the ship that found it gains that boost for a certain time then it becomes the normal provding a global bonus of 10% for shields

This sounds pretty good to me. The odds of finding anything after an engagement (and you should have to search intelligently to find anything) ought to be so low that no one in his right mind would spend all his game time killing enemy spawns to try to generate epic loot drops.

But on those rare occasions when something does drop, I love the idea that it eventually winds up benefiting all Starfleet players. In fact, I like this so much that I'm not even opposed to the finder getting some special benefit. (The suggestion that this special benefit be time-limited helps a lot.)

One additional idea: What about having to dock at a starbase for a "refit" to gain this new or improved ship capability? Should there be any gameplay involved in checking for and installing refit technology at a starbase, or should upgrades just happen automatically when you dock?

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG

I've been wondering: what should be the basis of power in Star Trek Online?

By "power" I don't mean energy, like warp power -- I mean character power; I'm talking about the ability to affect other characters. What should determine how much power a character has in this game?

I'm curious about this because it seems to me that how character power gets defined by Star Trek Online's developer (in terms of game features) will have a major impact on the "feel" of the game. That will to a large extent determine the nature of the ST:O community, and community is what makes or breaks an online game.

As a way to start thinking about this, I'd like to suggest that there are four typical paths to power:

  • what you can do (skill-power)
  • what you possess (gear-power)
  • what you know (knowledge-power)
  • who you know (people-power)
All of these are present to varying degrees in current MMORPGs.

Skill-power: If it's an RPG, characters will have special abilities that are innate to them. (Whether they "learn" these abilities as individual skills or through a class/level model is irrelevant to this discussion.)

Gear-power: Most MMORPGs today also place a heavy emphasis on gear-power, where what you can do depends on what's wielded, worn, or in your inventory at that moment. (WoW's endgame is all about trying to increase this kind of power.)

Knowledge-power: Knowing where certain content is and knowing how to get the most out of any in-game feature are also forms of power in today's MMORPGs. (But notice that these are informal abilities of the player, not aspects of a character that the game explicitly supports with in-game features. More on that in a minute.)

People-power: Being part of a network of friends and allies who share a common goal is a popular way to confer power on individuals that they otherwise could not obtain. (Again, though, formal in-game features to support this kind of power are usually minimal. EVE Online's features supporting player-run corporations are a prominent exception.)

So what about Star Trek Online? What should the relative proportions of these kinds of character power be in ST:O?

Skill-power: Should power to affect the play of others be derived mostly from character abilities -- in particular, how much effect should rank have where other players are concerned? Would ST:O feel wrong if rank is so weak that it has no effect on other players? What kinds of problems could ST:O have if rank power is too strong? Are there any other kinds of character skills beyond rank that could make a character powerful with respect to other characters?

Gear-power: Or should power in ST:O come mostly from gear? If so, what kinds of possessible objects are we talking about here? Weapons and armor? Engineering tools or devices? Something else? Where (as we've been discussing in the Improving Starship Technology Through Looting? thread) should this gear come from? Should it all be player-crafted? Or assigned by Starfleet? Or looted? What will Star Trek Online feel like if a character's power comes mostly from the gear he/she/it possesses?

Knowledge-power: What about knowledge-power? Can you think of any ways in which a character's knowledge (other than the skills learned or levels gained), rather than the player's knowledge, can have more of an impact in Star Trek Online? How should character knowledge be represented? To what degree should game content be created to measure and reward character knowledge (or even a character's basic level of intelligence)? How important should knowledge be in crafting? Should there be a research system, and if so, how might it affect a character's power relative to other characters?

People-power: How much power should come from being part of a group? What kinds of in-game features that confer power on individuals as a result of their membership in a group would be appropriate for Star Trek Online? How could ST:O offer group-power features without copying EVE Online? Should there be ways to gain power through relationships that don't require formal membership in a group? Should groups be able to affect individual players, or only other groups? What about soloers -- what effect would increasing the importance of relationship-power have on them and their interest in playing this game?

To sum up, what do you think would be the right overall balance of the different types of character power features in Star Trek Online?

Poll results as of 2008/02/27 (127 voters):





Skill power

character abilities, levels, and ranks



Gear power

tools and objects possessed



Knowledge power

information about the world



People power

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Another comment on Admiral-level gameplay:

Originally Posted by DougQB:
What if people don't care for the low Level activities and just want to jump to the endgame content?
First of all, a mea culpa. I keep using the word "level," but it's somewhat misleading. It's not wrong to see tactical and operational and strategic play as low-level and mid-level and high-level, but it's not entirely right, either. It's not wrong to also see these as different kinds of activity, one being no more or less better/harder/cooler/whatever than the other.

People are different; someone who's got mad operational skillz may be more valuable in a given situation than someone with equally strong tactical capabilities. So I'd rather not describe tactical gameplay as "low-level" gameplay; that just makes players think that the "fun" content is only found at the "high" levels. If what they find most fun is tactical gameplay, they might not enjoy being an Admiral at all if that rank is mostly about strategic-type gameplay.

That said, I suspect we're looking at this from both a realism/simulationist perspective and a pure gameplay perspective. But the two ways of seeing don't always lead to similar conclusions about the "right" design.

In the real world you want your leaders to have hands-on experience doing what they later tell other people to do, the theory being that this will make them better leaders. To a certain extent, I think that's true. When you've done something yourself, you gain an understanding of its practical limits.

On the other hand, a MMORPG is an entertainment product -- it's a game filled with people who often aren't competing directly against each other. So, unlike a training simulation where it's possible to fail, everybody needs to be able to win in a MMORPG; everyone needs to be able to get to the content they enjoy before they decide that the game's not fun and stop paying a subscription fee.

As a proponent of balanced game content, I think a game that includes character rank needs to try to achieve both of those goals. There's probably value in making the higher ranks more difficult to earn, and requiring personal experience of lower ranks before earning higher rank.

At the same time, it's bad business to force game-players to engage in play they don't enjoy. If Bob strongly prefers strategic gameplay, but after starting the game discovers that it's going to take him a year or more of consistently shooting stuff and organizing groups before he can get to a rank that opens up strategic-level play, the odds that he'll spend any more money on that game decrease... and that's the opposite of what a MMORPG design should accomplish. A better approach would let players quickly access the kinds of content they enjoy, and would offer a lot of that content so that they'll keep playing for a long time.

So how can we reconcile these two goals?

What kind of design would let players who like strategic and operational gameplay earn the appropriate "higher-level" ranks relatively quickly while still insuring that they appreciate the lessons taught by experiencing the tactics-focused ranks?

Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Avery:
... couldn't one also argue that [Borg "looting"] is the same thing the Federation is doing, parsec by painstakingly small parsec? I mean, the whole idea behind "Seek out new life and new civilizations" in a small way shadows that of the Borg phillosophy, though on the complete opositve end of that same spectrum.
Absolutely there's a similarity. In fact, I would argue that we are supposed to see this similarity; that the Borg are intended to be a warning to us.

The Borg are the Federation -- i.e., us -- gone bad. They are us if we choose to see only what technology can give us and ignore what it takes away. They are what we will become if we ever allow pure goal-directed utilitarianism to pwn our humanity.

In short, the Borg are the Federation without individual choice. They loot individuality.

Originally Posted by Avery:
Arguably though, you have to have loot in some aspect of the game, because it is an instant gratification reward for defeating something else. And it's the little rewards that stack up and count in these MMOG's. Most players want or even need that instant gratification to feel like they are accomplishing something in the game.
The merits of encouraging instant-gratification-thinking in any environment -- including a game -- strike me as dubious at best. (The notion of MMORPG as Skinner box is explored in an interesting interview with Jon Blow at

From a pure game design perspective it's true that most of the MMORPGs we've seen so far focus on supplying small, tangible rewards on a short frequency. And I have and would argue that it's a valid form of reward for some kinds of gamers.

But is it really something that a Star Trek MMORPG should copy without also offering other, less accumulation-driven kinds of rewards for other kinds of gamers?

Originally Posted by DOAM:
why do you (and others) constantly only cite the extreme, and poor, examples of looting? Especially when most of the posts here, for looting, have been about moderate-to-low looting?
Because as I said earlier, having a little looting in a game rarely stops there. It's just too easy to let it take over a game.

Compared to adding other kinds of content, whipping up some new bit of loot is freakishly simple. And so of course that's exactly what time-pressured developers do. And that attracts more people who like collecting loot, and who loudly and often demand more loot and more powerful loot.

You see where that goes.

I don't want to take (and I don't think I'm taking) an extreme position here. I think some short-schedule tangible rewards are necessary to help any MMORPG, including a Star Trek Online, appeal to Achievers. But Achievers won't be the only people playing a Star Trek Online, and therefore accumulatable loot isn't the only appropriate reward.

Basically, my cautions concerning loot as a reward aren't about what kind of game Star Trek Online would be at the start if looting is enabled along with other kinds of rewards. It's where the game would end up if that kind of thing isn't strictly and continuously limited.

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

Originally Posted by Dominion1971:
Dropping a free-flowing creative person in an environment that is set in the middle of Star Wars and Empire strikes back just wont work... not without changing canon, which I heard over and over would not be allowed, nor should it. Its that canon that made the Sw stuff so great...
I find this surprising, and in a couple of ways.

First, my impression is that the creative people were the ones who most liked the early SWG, precisely because it (unlike other MMORPGs) wasn't overly directive -- it didn't try to control every infinitesimal moment of what the developers thought your gameplay experience should be. Instead there was this large universe filled with places and things and processes, and you got to explore them in your own preferred way.

It's worth noting that some of the most satisfied players of SWG were the ones who figured out how to arrange objects in their houses to create amazing works of art. I saw fireplaces, aquariums -- one guy even built an astonishingly accurate model of Anakin's pod racer from Episode I.

Now that's creative freedom. Who says it's only "fun" if you get some kind of in-game collectible reward for doing it? What a terribly cramped definition of fun that is!

Second, and a little bit pickier, is the question of fidelity to Star Wars canon in Star Wars Galaxies. SWG not only changed SW canon, it utterly and completely defiled it... with Jedi.

I am not and have never been a Jedi-hater; that's silly. But it's a fact that whereas the movies made a point that all the Jedi had been wiped out (mostly by Darth Vader), a year into SWG there were Jedi all over the place. And the more time that passed, the more Jedi there were. Heck, ever since the NGE, "Jedi" is a starting class!

I understand SOE/LA wanting to allow gamers to have the ultimate Star Wars experience (as seen in the generally good single-player Star Wars FPS games) of being a Jedi. It's a crucial marketing feature. I get that.

But it's also horribly disruptive to any gamer for whom the story of Star Wars carries the most entertainment value. At the time in which SWG was set (just after the destruction of the Death Star), the Jedi were gone. By allowing any and every SWG player to have a Jedi character (and this was true on Day One even though we didn't know it then), SOE/LA simply ignored canon. And in doing so they obliterated this important part of the Star Wars story.

Was the marketing aspect more important? Maybe. But no one should think that the decision that allowed the gameworld to fill up with glowstick-brandishing "Jedi" came without a cost. SOE/LA very clearly made their choice: game >> story.

So IMO it wasn't creative players or the relatively open-ended nature of the original game that dealt a deathblow to canonicity in SWG.

Man, I could just rattle on about this stuff for years....

Cutscenes +

Originally Posted by DOAM:
The only problem with cutscenes using our characters, is that of the RP'er. What if my guy doesn't like Picard, because he's my father. But whenever I go to train, the bastard just stands there and doesn't even talk to me! ... The "game" taking over someones character is rarely a good idea, IMO.
That's a really good point.

To go even further afield with the idea of "cutscene," what if instead of simply watching/listening to a canned speech you could actually interact with a special character through branching dialogue (or more)?

Can you imagine being one of the Starfleet officers in the bar on Space Station K-7 (from TOS: "The Trouble With Tribbles") when the fight with the Klingons starts? (Maybe as a reward for protecting the timeline you got sent there by the Department of Temporal Investigations to keep an eye on the Deep Space 9 crew when they went back....)

This would turn a cutscene into a dynamic encounter between the player's character and an NPC. (Which, if we're just talking dialogue, means being able to reuse the code written to support branching dialogue, so there's no technical problem.) After the conclusion of some major event, you'd find yourself whisked off into an instanced location to meet some special character, who would know something about you (including your recent success or failure) and who would give you some choices to which you could respond as you felt was appropriate.

Would this feel too much like "interference?" Would it address the potential objection by dedicated roleplayers to more focused cutscenes?

(Actually, I think if this approach to cutscenes were considered, it would be possible to make it work for all kinds of players. Roleplayers could follow the dialogue options they think their character would take; world/simulationist players could choose the options that yield interesting system-information about the universe of the game; and gameplay-focused players could choose the options that allow them to receive some kind of valuable collectible, or perhaps even to initiate combat with the special character. Wouldn't this be more fun than a one-size-fits-all static cutscene that everybody just hits the Escape key to break out of?)

A potential problem with this level of interactivity is the user who just sits there and does nothing. How long should a user be able to occupy a cutscene?

There's no technical impediment to the special character checking his/her/its watch and, after a minute or two, saying something like, "If you don't reply, I'm going to assume [whatever]," and the user would be given another chance to make a choice. After another minute or two of dumb insolence, the special character could just say, "So be it," pick the least favorable option for the player (or pick randomly), and the cutscene ends.

Finally, I'm sure there are some who'd object that this kind of dynamic instanced interaction with an NPC doesn't count as a "cutscene." I think a careful reading of the idea of "cutscene" allows even this kind of thing, though.

A cutscene is just a scene that's used to cut between two pieces of action. Although in the past these scenes have often been pre-rendered bits of video, that's just a convention. Half-Life showed that it's not necessary to break up the action this way; you could instead include scripted sequences using the game engine to link action segments.

So why not run with this idea in a MMORPG? How cool would it be to encounter one of the legendary Star Trek characters in a properly dramatic setting as a way to signify an important shift in your character's circumstances? I haven't played every MMORPG that's out there, but I'd be surprised if there aren't already some games that are already taking this kind of approach to cutscenes.

If not... well, then, here's another opportunity for the developer of Star Trek Online to be an industry leader.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by DOAM:
I'm working on creating a lawn mower with no wheels or handles. I need some funding, though. Anyone willing?
Well, if it cuts the grass better at the same cost than conventional lawnmowers, then sure, I'll consider chipping in on the funding for an improved version.

Alternately, we could just switch our brains off and accept without question the assumption that current lawnmower technology is perfect and cannot be improved on, and we should just copy it without even trying to think of something that might work better.

Why would we want to go with that latter option?

Seriously, I get your point. If a product you're thinking of making requires buy-in by some sector of the public to be successful, then you need to at least have some reason to think that some sector of the public wants whatever it is you're thinking of offering.

The problem I have with your argument is that from this perfectly reasonable position you make an inexplicable leap to something like "... and people don't ever want anything different from what they currently have." Say what? If some new technology offers demonstrably more capability than a previous generation of technology, of course people will want the new stuff -- that's why we're typing on computer keyboards now instead of banging rocks together.

With respect to the specific question of reducing (not eliminating!) the impact of loot in a MMORPG... well, let's cut to your subsequent comments:

Originally Posted by DOAM:
Everyone brings up the arguement that no-loot would work, if given a chance. Or some form of that arguement. I don't know what to say, or do, other than pointing at CoH. The proof is in the pudding. I can point to games with loot that work, and games that didn't have loot that didnt work, and games that didn't have loot and didnt work so switched to loot and work. Who can people point to for games that work without loot? Cue crickets.
This is the classic fallacy that Bastiat described as "what is seen and what is not seen."

When imagining possibilities, we always give more weight to what we see than to what we don't see. Currently we don't see any MMORPGs that are based on behaviors other than "kill, loot, repeat," so we naturally have trouble imagining what such alternative MMORPGs might look like, or that such things could even exist (much less be commercially successful).

Let's accept for the moment the assertion that CoH "didn't work" without loot (which I don't necessarily accept, but let's run with it for a moment). If after adding a form of looting CoH now "works," two things:

1. Adding some looting to a non-looting game does not automatically turn it into a game that is as loot-centric as most other MMORPGs. (At least not overnight.) Maybe CoH is now a better game than other MMORPGs because it has less looting than they do -- if you think CoH "works" now where it didn't before, why isn't this a possible conclusion?

2. A sample size of one (CoH) does not prove a trend. And the lack of evidence does not constitute proof of anything. We need to see a few more well-designed non-loot-centric games before we can reasonably conclude that the idea is innately broken. Until then, why jump on people who just want to give the idea a try?

Originally Posted by DOAM:
For me, the core of it comes down to this... loots bad because, why? Because other people get it? There is craftable stuff, and it is usually remotely close to being comparable.
"Remotely close" does not equal "better," and "better" is all that most players care about in a MMORPG that's wrapped around collecting ever-larger piles of swag.

Think about the distribution of character skills once a MMORPG has been around for a while: you've now got a bunch of looters at a fairly high level, and some crafters at a fairly high level. The looters are looking for any advantage, no matter how marginal, so they're going to focus on whatever process minimizes their effort and maximizes their gain... and if looted items are even fractionally better than the best possible crafted items, those high-level crafters are out of business.

So loot is not "bad" per se -- what's bad is when looting takes over a game because it drives off other useful kinds of gameplay.

And the problem is that it's so easy for this to happen because loot is a concrete, tangible reward, and creating that kind of reward takes a lot less mental effort on the part of a developer than designing and implementing a new crafting process or new tools for roleplaying.

So new loot accumulates. In onesies and twosies, no biggie... but over the months and years, those individual additions of loot content can unbalance a good MMORPG into one that, because it now caters so much to the loot-loving Achievers, no longer appeals to many of its other former customers. And that's just bad business, no matter how seductively easy it is to get there.

There have already been a number of MMORPGs that make looting a big part of their content. Some have been successful. Some haven't. So if looting doesn't guarantee a successful MMORPG, I see no good business justification for making yet another game that's built around kill, loot, repeat...

...and far less justification for a Star Trek game to go that route.

Originally Posted by DOAM:
Basicly, so what if someone else loots if there is a viable option for non-looters? Why hate on other people? That person having spent 20 hours a day farming/grinding/raiding for an extra 3-5% boost in power is NOT making you worse. (S)he's only making theirself marginally better. You can have a loot game, and still play without loot. You can't have a no-loot game but play with loot. Get off their back. Do your thing, they'll do theirs. Watch your lane, as I used to commonly say in the Army. Just watch your lane.
Thank you for giving me yet another opportunity to knock down and stomp on this old chestnut. :)

Firstly, a MMORPG isn't some stovepiped bunch of specializations that never interact. The whole point of being "massively multiplayer" is that what you do affects everybody else, some directly, some indirectly. As far as I can see, this theory that players should all be able to "do their own thing" without affecting the game for anybody else is completely bogus.

The trick is to give all kinds of gamers as much of the things they enjoy as possible while minimizing the amount to which doing so honks up the game that others are trying to play. That is, admittedly, a much more difficult prospect than just "everybody watch his own lane," but it's the price a good game designer should be eager to pay.

Secondly, starting a MMORPG from the initial design phase so that it doesn't make looting a (or The) key form of gameplay is not some kind of deliberate kick in the berries to people who enjoy concrete rewards. It's an honorable attempt to make a game based on the understanding that different people enjoy different things, and that no one reward style should dominate all the others... at least, not if you want to attract the largest possible audience for your product.

Why is this so objectionable a prospect?

Originally Posted by Bitbrain:
One of Starfleet's most important goals is to better humanity. Without a moral absolute, is it all that wrong to steal from others who have it better than you? ... Privided you take only that which is better than what you have, looting in Star Trek: Online would better humanity in the game.
We have a name for people who favor this approach: we call them the Borg.

Is that really how we want Starfleet characters in a Star Trek MMORPG to behave? If the gameplay of Star Trek Online was designed to reward beating up other people and taking their stuff -- just like every other MMORPG -- wouldn't that be a really effective way of telling players, "Go forth and be Borg"?

I think this is one of those areas where the needs of Star Trek outweigh the needs of conventional MMORPG gameplay. Surely there are other ways to provide desirable rewards to players than mindlessly cloning the loot-accumulation gameplay of yesterday’s MMORPGs!