Monday, December 31, 2007

Strange Search Phrases

So I was over at Dan Carlson's very good Star Trek Minutiae web site, idly perusing the bits of humor there, when I ran into his list from 2001 of some very strange search terms that people had in their browser when they reached his server.

I have almost stopped laughing now. Almost.

Just to give you a few examples of some of the search terms that -- somehow -- led to the Star Trek Minutiae site:

  • pig-shaped food

  • jellyfish pantyhose

  • Panty Raiders BBS

  • evil squirrel cartoons
You need to check out the full list. It's that good. (Note: slightly adult language.)


Firefly Fans Vs. Star Trek Fans

Hardcore fans of Joss Whedon's briefly-aired science fiction series Firefly tend -- loudly -- to regard Star Trek as a disastrously awful excuse for science fiction.

I've recently read a bunch of essays by dedicated Firefly fans, and pretty much every one of their authors went out of their way to punch Star Trek in the mouth. (With the exception of David Gerrold, and even he couldn't resist taking a few pokes at Trek.) Star Trek is held to be childishly utopian (and therefore not "real" science fiction), anti-feminist to the point of misogyny (not enough women behaving like men), militaristic (they wear uniforms), fascistic (the state controls the economy), impossibly antiseptic (they wear "Day-Glo" uniforms, and their starships are clean instead of being littered with dusty crap), hierarchical (they have a rank structure), culturally imperialistic (the Federation expects everybody else to respect individual liberty), paternalistic (can you say, "Prime Directive?"), scientifically implausible (the Trekiverse is full of aliens with bumpy foreheads and cute pointy ears), and the story-telling jejune to the point of being fit only for low-grade morons incapable of appreciating serious fiction.

In short, serious Firefly fans look down on Star Trek fans, and miss no opportunity to say so.

So, having heard how Firefly fans feel about people who like Star Trek, I naturally wonder whether Star Trek fans will similarly find so many things to dislike about Firefly. Somehow, I doubt that -- my guess is that Star Trek fans are more tolerant of other worldviews.

What does it tell us that plenty of Star Trek fans are happy to disagree with things that Gene Roddenberry said, compared to the defensiveness of Firefly fans when someone doesn't join them in deifying Joss Whedon?

It's important to understand that I enjoyed Firefly. I thought the characters and stories were generally very well done, and I respect many of the world-building decisions made in creating the Firefly 'verse. But there's something about the way the heavy-duty Firefly fans want to treat Star Trek that puts my back up. (Some Babylon 5 fans were the same way.) They remind me of powergamers who go onto forums to trash any change to "their" game, as though they enjoy competing to see who can say the most brutishly disgusting things about any creative act that doesn't fit into their personal beliefs about how things should be. Maybe I'm just not seeing it, but I can't recall ever hearing Star Trek fans run down anybody else's science fiction universe in this way. Even the old "Star Trek vs. Star Wars" debate seems like more of a fun bull session than an attempt to tear down somebody else's world.

So am I wrong? Or is there something about these two franchises that attracts different kinds of people?

What's wrong with enjoying both?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Making NPC Behaviors More Plausible +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
The whole time you meet NPC-zombies that stare at the horizon, doing nothing. Note, there are sandstorms on Tatooine and heavy rain on Naboo. Doesn't matter for the NPCs, a zombie doesn't know any pain.
This is one of my big problems with MMORPGs as well: NPCs appear to have virtually no awareness of their environment.

I've described before my feelings about the time I observed a single maxed-out Rebel player enter Kadaara and start butchering every Imperial NPC in the city. I'm watching it happen right in front of me; the sound of blaster fire is unceasing... and what are the local NPCs doing?

The civilian NPCs just there for eye candy are walking around like they're out for a nice stroll. Why aren't they screaming and running for cover, or begging the Imperials for protection?

The quest-giving or trainer NPCs are standing in their usual spots scratching themselves. Why aren't they reacting according to their specializations?

And the stormtroopers investing the town are lounging up against a wall, looking dangerous and doing absolutely nothing, as though their comrades in arms aren't being slaughtered a mere thirty meters away in plain sight. Why aren't they running to assist, or calling in reinforcements?

Forget about being too stupid to get inside out of the rain (or a sandstorm). The NPCs in SWG -- and pretty much every other MMORPG -- are too stupid to live. Maybe that works for pure mindless gameplay, where NPCs are intended to serve only as reward pellet dispensers, but as a world containing anthropomorphic characters it's a disaster.

An MMORPG with non-reactive NPCs doesn't feel like a world; it feels like a wind-up toy that just plays one note over and over. It's boring. It's not fun.

Now, that criticism made, to be realistic we need to consider the other side of this question: how much is all this wonderful behavioral plausibility going to cost a developer?

Making NPCs react plausibly to specific kinds of changes in their environment would impose three types of cost:

  • time to develop subroutines that allow NPCs to react plausibly
  • significantly increased load on servers to process decision-making by smarter NPCs
  • NPCs that serve specific gameplay purposes sometimes can't be accessed because they've been shifted into Panic Mode (allows griefing)
So the question isn't just, "Why don't MMORPG developers make their NPCs behave more plausibly?" The real question is, "How much improvement in NPC behavioral plausibility can be justified considering the likely costs?"

First Officers in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Hoplite:
it's difficult because you need to give everyone something to do, and if they aren't flying the ship and/or shooting, what are they doing? looking at some sensor read outs? damage reports? how does that remain fun for long periods? i know some of us might like to do that, but as a mass appeal thing? it's problematic.
Only if you define the "masses" as the people who like today's killing/loot-centric MMORPGs.

Maybe with a broader definition of gamers, content that's about more than just killing things and taking their stuff becomes more appealing.

Instead of rank and position being just another badge to be collected by grinding missions for prestige, what if rank and position were earned by service to other players? What if earning -- and keeping -- rank depended on how much fun you make the game for other players?

In a game like that, the role of executive officer might look considerably more attractive. When the game is about nothing more than your personal immediate gratification, when rank is just one more pellet that drops once you personally have pushed some magic number of arbitrary levers, the role of XO doesn't make much sense. In a game where rank is about service to other players, however, suddenly being a ship's executive officer becomes a desirable role -- and having content for an XO role makes sense -- because it offers lots of ways to be of service to other players.

In the broader sense, what can multiple players in the different departments do (other than the usual kill/loot/repeat cycle) that's fun for long periods? I don't consider this problematic at all; in fact, it's already been discussed in multiple threads here.

In my Skill-Based Minigames in a Star Trek MMORPG blog entry I offered just a few notions for "what players can do" that occured to me, and I'm not a Professional Game Developer. I expect the folks actually making a Star Trek MMORPG could come up with lots more things that are even more fun than the things I dreamed up. There'd be combat content, of course, but I hope the above suggestions show that there are plenty of things players could do that go well beyond mindless killin', as long as we're willing to see beyond Star Trek Online being just another MMORPG like the last one we played except with different graphics.

I know how creative people can be. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if its developers want to do so, they could definitely create a Star Trek Online in which XOs have a useful role to play that's highly enjoyable for the gamers who like helping other players have fun.

The only question is whether the developer embraces this broader definition of "mass appeal," or if their vision is limited to seeing gamers only in terms of today's games.

If the latter, we can forget about XOs being part of Star Trek Online. After all, who could possibly want to manage crew or ship systems when they could be grinding missions for prestige to buy rank that lets them grind more missions for more rank?

You can't have more than that, or the next thing you know some players would want to be able to play Uncle Owen, or bake bread, or forge swords, and where's the blood-soaked, loot-whoring excitement in that?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

First Officers in a Star Trek MMORPG

One of the questions that comes up when talking about translating the world of Star Trek into a MMORPG is whether the role of executive officer (or first officer -- for now, let's treat them as the same thing) makes sense. How could an XO role be implemented so that it's fun in a multiplayer persistent-world online game based on Star Trek?

Crew management (after-action reports, reviews, etc.) is part of the XO's usual job description. For a game like Star Trek Online this might be sort of fun if it's thought of as a social function, as a way to help a ship's crew get to know each other, rather than solely as a hardcore gameplay-driven "ship's operation" kind of thing. I also like this aspect of the XO's job in that it helps to create a distinction between what you do as a junior officer in ST:O and what's expected from an officer learning to command. In Star Trek Online terms, crew management gameplay features would serve to distinguish Operational-level gameplay from Tactical-level gameplay.

But there's more to the executive officer's life than crew management. To offer a taste of what's possible, here's a list of things that the officer of the deck (OOD, who typically reports to the XO for most things) should know [with some possible Star Trek versions given in square brackets]:

1. Principal dimensions (beam, draft, length, displacement, etc.).
2. Fuel and water capacity, fuel consumption at various speeds, most economical speed.
3. Maximum speed available under different boiler combinations (steam plants) [warp core configurations].
4. Engine line-up and combination or turbine line-up and combination (gas-turbine and diesel ships).
5. Capabilities and limitations of weapon systems.
6. Capabilities and limitations of sensors.
7. Rudder angles for standard, full, and hard rudder.
8. Steering-engine controls and steering-engine combinations [impulse drive]; emergency-steering procedures.
9. Location, sound, appearance, and meaning of all alarm systems on the bridge.
10. Location of and normal use for all radio and internal communications stations.
11. Procedures and safety precautions for raising and lowering boats [shuttle ops].
12. Preparations needed for underway replenishment.
13. Preparations needed for entering and leaving port.
14. Operation of radar repeaters.
15. Operation of bearing circles, alidades, and stadimeters [Navigation].
16. Publications kept on the bridge, where they are to be found and how they are accounted for [use of ship's computer].
17. Procedure for manning watch and battle stations.
18. Makeup and check-in requirements for various security watches.
19. Regulations concerning disposal of trash and garbage.
20. Regulations concerning pumping bilges, oil spills, and environmental protection.
21. Characteristics and limitations of aircraft or helicopters carried [shuttles].
22. Operational, administrative, and task organizations that affect the OOD, and where his ship is in the organization.
23. Required reports to the OOD.
24. Location and use of emergency signals.
25. Preparations to be taken in heavy weather [structural integrity reinforcement?].
26. Basic ship's tactical information, such as turning-circle diameters under various conditions and limitations on acceleration and deceleration.

[Source: Watch Officer's Guide, 11th Edition]

Now, am I proposing that Star Trek Online should implement all these things? Absolutely not! I'm giving this list solely to point out some of the things that XOs are responsible for beyond just crew management, in the hope that some of the items listed might help generate ideas for fun gameplay features in ST:O that are appropriate for the XO role.

Overall, what should be borne in mind is that the XO has two functions:

1. Handle routine matters of ship operation.
2. Make sure that when the captain gives an order, it can be carried out.
And that's it. So the question is, should Star Trek Online be designed such that, on larger ships, there are plenty of fun gameplay features for both the captain (who handles the big-responsibility decisions) and the XO (who handles the ship's routine and makes sure that all systems -- crew and gear -- are working at peak efficiency)?

More pointedly: if it's a "routine" matter, is that worth implementing as something a character is responsible for doing in a role-playing game?

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing at this point. It's just a question that has to be asked.

The Commodore Rank in a Star Trek MMORPG

Let's talk about that pesky Commodore rank. :)

It does seem that the rank has been phased out in Star Trek by the time of Picard & Co. On the other hand, Star Trek Online is free to "reimagine" some aspects of the Star Trek universe. Why can't we suppose that Commodores have made a triumphal return in this game?

No need for a "Fleet Captain" rank title, though. Blecch.

Let's look a little more closely at the Commodore rank. What is it they do, anyway?

The normal concept is that they don't exercise direct command over individual ships -- that's what captains are for. Commodores receive high-level tactical and operational information concerning an Area of Operations and then devise plans for forces of multiple ships to accomplish some appropriate goal in that AO. They'll then give operational orders to the captains of the ships in that task force or fleet as to what they want accomplished, but each captain is then responsible for the specific tactical actions their ship must perform to carry out that mission.

In essence the rank of "Commodore" is a special rank given to a senior Captain that provides some flag rank authority. A commodore will normally be billeted aboard the largest ship of a task force (which becomes the "flagship"), with physical space, staff, and equipment necessary to receive information, formulate plans, and communicate with the commanders of the task group. But doing this doesn't make him the master of that particular ship; the captain is still the captain.

In short, the commodore says what to do, and each captain decides how to do it. It's not entirely that simple, since a commodore may in some cases also give certain tactical direction, but this is a useful way to think of the relationship.

I could definitely see this working in Star Trek Online. I stubbornly persist in thinking that there's only going to be one rank of "Admiral" -- I just don't believe that a game developer will spend as much time creating features and content for a strategic-level game as they will on the usual tactical gameplay features and content -- but I think that still leaves room for a Commodore rank whose function is to command multiple ships for the really hardcore missions.

Starship Production Times in Star Trek

Originally Posted by Falin:
I proposed that the larger and more complex a ships design, the long it would take to be constructed. I used the example that the Big D took approximatly 15 years to be built, and that it was the third ship f it's class to be constructed.

Phillip countered that as the more are built, the faster the process goes.
Aren't both of those observations true?

The observation that complex things take longer to create than simple things seems pretty self-evident.

But it's also true that most things that are intended to be produced more than once typically have a long development time, an extended initial production time, and a shorter long-term production time as efficiencies are found in the assembly-line production process.

So the time to produce any such thing, whether it's a battleship or a sub or a fighter aircraft, is directly proportional to its complexity and inversely proportional (to a lesser degree) to the number of units previously assembled.

I don't see any reason to think these effects wouldn't still apply to starship construction, even if replicators and robotic assembly are factored in. Complexity (size, advanced materials, state-of-the-art subsystems) would still tend to increase the base production time, and having built several ships would still tend to reduce construction time by some amount from the first ships off the line (10-20% doesn't seem unreasonable).

Another thing: I'm less sure that this matters in the Star Trek universe, but in our world there's also usually a reduction in the cost per unit over the life of a production line. Every time some new weapon system comes up for funding, the number of units to be produced is always a major point of discussion because that has a significant impact on the overall cost of the program -- more units means a lower per-unit cost.

Finally, it should be noted that the more complex vehicles tend to be built by multiple subcontractors in multiple locations. This creates all kinds of funky side-effects, in particular political log-rolling. A politician can create many jobs by having part of a major vehicle built in his or her district, while the threat of closing down such a fabrication site can also be used as a tool for extracting votes on other issues from the politician in whose district the production line is located.

But I'm sure that would never happen in the happy Federation, right?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Solo and Group Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Once again: Do soloers have any place in a Star Trek MMORPG or not?

Well, before considering this question one last time, we'd better address (once again) that old canard that "if you don't want to play with other people, shouldn't you go play a single-player game?"

Well, couldn't I just as easily say, "If you like real-time social interaction so much, shouldn't you be playing a game in a room with other real people instead of sitting by yourself punching keys on a computer?"

The fact is that both social and solo players contribute to multiplayer gameworlds. Direct, real-time social interaction (in the game world) with other players has value in a massively multiplayer game world, but so does indirect interaction, such as collecting resources, trading in auction houses or with NPCs, and placing structures in the world. What soloers do has real, measurable, and cumulatively important effects on other players of MMOGs.

This belief held by many newcomers to MMOGs that only direct, real-time, highly social interaction "counts" is, IMO, a mistaken belief based on looking at MMOGs in terms of one's own interests instead of seeing them as places that need to serve the entertainment interests of different kinds of people. To restrict MMOGs to only highly gregarious people would exclude the real contributions that soloers make in helping to keep these gameworlds dynamic.

Now, having addressed that, let's turn to the specific case of Star Trek Online. To start with the obvious, having more soloers flying around in starships will help the gameworld feel more alive with activity. More importantly, who do you think will do the crafting (pretty much always designed as a solo activity in MMOGs) if the game is designed to tell soloers, "Get out -- we don't want your kind here"?

I think there's a reasonable balance that can be struck here. I see no problem in requiring several real players to fill the key duty roles in the largest player-operated starships in Star Trek Online. That kind of social interaction was an important part of Star Trek and it ought to be reflected in the gameplay of a Star Trek MMORPG. But I would also hope that many small- and medium-sized ships could be handled by solo players, perhaps with NPCs filling the non-Command stations in the mid-sized ships. I don't believe any useful purpose would be served by choosing to exclude these solo players from the game.

What I am sure of is that excluding them would put a large and unnecessary dent in the game's revenues....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Player-Run Governments in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by Slade:
I've been fascinated with player ran governments for awhile now. Seeing how I'm a roleplayer and I'd believe it'd add a sense of roleplay to ST:O. I'm just wondering if it'd be possible in this type of game.
Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
As of this moment, we don't have any indication from Perpetual, the developers of ST:O, that a structure will be in place for fully player-run governments.
What about the notion of military governors? Kor, for example, was made military governor of Organia, so we know the concept is already part of Star Trek. If Star Trek Online has any kind of strategic element, where taking and holding systems is part of the game, perhaps even the Federation might consider making certain qualified Starfleet officers military governors of strategically important planets.

If other players can be brought in to support this activity, this could involve lots of the kinds of political maneuvering that I suspect players who like the idea of player-run governments are looking for... and that's especially true if there's some kind of competition among groups to see who can develop "their" planet in the most effective way. (Note that "effective" might be defined differently by different players, or for planets whose indigenous populations have different cultural expectations -- a firm hand might be needed on one planet, while lots of diplomatic talent might be required on another.)

If operating the larger starships in a multiplayer mode is space-based content for "fleets" (AKA guilds), maybe military governorships would be the ground-based equivalent. So what might the rules be for determining who gets a military governorship (and the group patronage that would go along with that role)?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Poor Captain Harriman

Let's examine the case of Captain Harriman of the Enterprise-B, as seen in the first part of the movie Star Trek: Generations.

Considered against real-world captains, Captain Harriman might not look so bad. In the real world, some fights are just too hard for anyone to win. But what about in the world of Star Trek? How does Captain Harriman compare to other Star Trek captains? And in particular, how does he fare against other captains of ships named Enterprise?

In my judgment, Harriman does not measure up. At every step, he failed to do what anybody truly worthy of skippering the latest ship to bear the proud name Enterprise would have done. Let's look at the evidence.

1. When the distress call was received, a real Enterprise captain would have looked for a way to render immediate assistance. Harriman's first reaction was to look for someone else to solve the problem.

2. When it was made clear to him that it was his problem to solve, a real Enterprise captain would have welcomed the responsibility of solving the problem himself. That doesn't mean trying to be a hero; he could have asked the extraordinarily experienced Kirk for advice. But a real commander would never -- never -- have offered anybody else the Big Chair. Not even James T. Kirk.

3. So what if the press were there? In a command like that, your every action is already going to be recorded whether the press are there or not. If you're not ready for that level of scrutiny, if you're not confident that you are the right person for that job, then you're not the right person for that job.

4. So what if the ship didn't have a full complement, or wasn't fully space-ready? Nobody cares about excuses. All that matters -- all that has ever mattered, really -- is whether you did the best you could with what you had. I'd argue that that's true for any human, but I think it's pretty clearly true for Starfleet officers. How many times did Kirk save the day with a good poker face and an absolute determination not to lose? Granted, Kirk is a special case, but I expect a real Enterprise captain to at least try. By that standard, Harriman comes nowhere close to measuring up.


On balance, then, like Cadet Captain Watters, Captain Harriman may have been a good man, but -- going solely by what we saw in ST: Generations -- he was not a good Enterprise captain.

(I should add that it's clear Captain Harriman seemed unprepared to command the Ent-B solely because that's what the script required. It's unfortunate that he went down in history as "the guy who got Kirk killed," but hey, that's what happens when you allow yourself to be turned into a fictional character. :) He fares a little better, however, in the fan-produced series of short films, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men.)

(I should also add that this is in no way a criticism of Alan Ruck, the actor who has portrayed Captain Harriman. He did a fine job portraying a character who doesn't quite meet the demands of a tough situation.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Real-Money Transactions in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by BLZBUB:
The new Live Gamer site opened Monday into the virtual trading arena and introduced itself "as the premier provider of a publisher-supported, secure platform for real money trading of virtual property."

By introducing a fully transparent, secure, publisher-sanctioned marketplace, Live Gamer helps protect content creators from the distorting impact of illicit trading on their intellectual property and provides a safe alternative for consumers around the world who spend millions of hours in-world every month.
The key phrase in the announcement was "publisher-sanctioned." In other words, Live Gamer apparently won't sell currency or items or characters from a gameworld without the explicit permission of that world's operator to do so. Apparently they're trying to distinguish themselves from the goldsellers of the world, who IMO ought to be sued for misappropriation of property (or whatever the appropriate legal lingo is when someone who doesn't own your property rents it for money to a third party).

(And yes, if I may offer a brief digression, I think the ones and zeros inside a gameworld operator's database are property, even if no game operator has been willing to risk going to court to get that ruling... yet. When you play an online game [and I'm excluding Second Life here; it's not a "game"] and your character acquires some object like a sword, you-the-player don't "own" that sword, which is just ones and zeros, some as artwork on a client and some stored in a database owned by the game's operator. All you're doing when you subscribe to an online game is renting the use of those bits as an entertainment experience. You don't own them any more than you own the seat you're sitting on in a stadium where you're watching a ball game -- you're paying for the use of that seat, not for ownership of the seat itself. OK, back to the main point.)

So, assuming these new Live Gamer guys actually mean what they say, good for them. Their business ethics will be one step above those of the farmers and their goldselling pimps.

But I'm not sure that's saying much. Because it doesn't matter whether RMT is sanctioned by the game's operator or not -- if the game wasn't designed around RMT, then allowing real-world trading in in-game objects is guaranteed to have a "distorting impact" on the gameplay experience.

If inside the gameworld I can flat-out gift you with massive quantities of some valuable object because you gave me real money outside the game, and if the play experience of that game wasn't designed to be balanced for such exchanges, then that transaction cannot possibly be anything other than a profound subversion of the intended gameplay for everyone who plays that game. It's another example of how breaking the "magic circle" of the game screws up the play experience for those who play by the rules.

Of course there will always be counterarguments. Here are some of the most common bad ways that people have attempted to justify RMT where the game's not designed for it:

"It doesn't hurt anybody." This is bogus; it hurts the players who miss out on the play experience as designed even if they don't realize that or believe it.

"It doesn't hurt anybody else." This is also bogus. These are massively multiplayer games; what one person does in the gameworld has some impact on other players... and when a lot of people do it, a lot of honorable players have their play experience fouled up.

"If the game companies didn't like RMT they'd sue the big goldsellers, but they don't so they must be OK with it." This is flawed logic, since there are other reasons for not pursuing legal sanctions against third-party "resellers." Among the most powerful of these reasons is the strong desire to avoid the risk of losing such a case before a clueless judge, thereby setting a highly undesirable precedent concerning who owns the ones and zeros that comprise the objects of a gameworld.

(Note: At this writing there are currently at least two legal situations occurring with regard to IGE, but neither is from a game developer directly. One is Hernandez v. IGE, a class-action lawsuit from a player of WoW, and the other is an investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Economic Crimes into IGE's business practices. The feud between two of IGE's founders is titillating, but tangential.)

"SOE does it for EverQuest 2 with Station Exchange." This is irrelevant. EQ2 is Sony's game; if they want to let people skip past the gameplay progression they created, that's their business -- it has zero application to any other game whose rules of play are different from those of EQ2.

(Note: Although SOE (which already endorses RMT with its Station Exchange), Funcom, and Acclaim (which is Korean-owned and wants to use microtransactions in its games, such as Dave Perry's upcoming racing game) are participating in the Live Gamer sales system, not all developers/publishers are on board. Specifically, Blizzard has said they do not intend to participate, as they consider RMT to be a violation of their Terms of Service agreement, period.)

"RMT allows people to level up quickly so they can play with their friends." This one always sounds good, but it ignores the fact that if a game's developer wanted people doing this they'd have built it into the game somehow. Going around the game designer's intentions honks up gameplay regardless of why or how much people may want to do so. (For the record, however, I do think game designers ought to find ways to allow people with characters of different levels to play together. I favor dumping "levels" entirely, but that's just me.)


On balance, then, I'm willing to give these "Live Gamer" people half a cheer for at least saying that they won't engage in RMT for some game unless the game's operator gives them permission to do so. But for the rest of it, they get a big-time thumbs-down from me. RMT in a monthly subscription game skunks up the gameplay regardless of any "because I want it" justifications from players. (RMT in a game designed for it is fine, though. If that's the extent of the games these Live Gamer people are going to provide RMT for, OK. But it's hard to see them remaining satisfied with just that small bite of the $1.8B apple.)

I would be marginally happier if MMORPGs were designed with rules that make RMT effectively worthless or impossible to drive the third-party resellers out of business entirely.

More specifically, I'd like to see Star Trek Online designed with such rules so that no one can just dump a bunch of valuable stuff on anyone else.

And more specifically than that, I hope a Star Trek MMORPG would be designed so that there are few things of any value that can be traded between characters in the first place.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Uniform Colors in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Looking at this from a Trek point of view (as opposed to gameplay, which I'll come back to in a moment), these seem to be the colors worn ca. 2373 regardless of rank:

  • Command

    • Command

    • Command Support (includes Strategic Operations)

    • Admin

    • Helm

  • Operations

    • Engineering (includes Engineers assigned to starbases and ground stations)

    • Tactical

    • Security

  • Services

    • Science

    • Medical
However, even if this finds general acceptance within the Star Trek universe, what about Star Trek Online?

My guess is that player characters won't be assigned to Strategic Operations or Admin roles. And in Perpetual's version of Star Trek Online, the Helm position is gone; whoever owns a ship gets to drive it. (NPCs might be described as filling some or all of these roles, however.)

So the big distinction for which players wear red seems to be whether you're acting in a direct Command role or not. The thing is, how is that going to be determined in this game in which all players, whether solo or grouped, can eventually have a starship of their own?

I guess then that it comes down to one of the following two options:

Should uniform color be determined by what your character does in the game?

If I have the rank of Captain and I'm flying my cruiser-sized ship on which four or five other players are serving, it makes sense that I wear red.

But what color do I wear if I'm a lowly junior-grade Lieutenant off by myself? Do I need to be in a position of leadership when playing the game (i.e., leading a group) to wear red? Looking at this from the other side, if I'm an Engineer or Science or Tac/Sec officer, and I decide to lead a pick-up group, do I suddenly find myself wearing red whether I want to or not?

What if tomorrow I decide to serve as crew (Engineering, perhaps) on someone else's ship? Should I wear red today and gold tomorrow? Will most of Star Trek Online's likely players be OK with that? Does/should it matter if my character has a rank of Captain?

Alternatively, should uniform color be determined by what your character knows in the game?

Should I wear red solely because I've chosen to invest most of my prestige points into Command skills instead of into Operations or Services skills?

In other words, should a character's uniform color depend on that character's actions or assigned role, which can change from minute to minute, or on that character's abilities, which remain mostly constant from day to day?

(This is one of those weird intersections between the lore of an established IP and the needs of game design. Who should win? Why?)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Uniform Colors in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl:

Well Flatfingers...I hate to do this to you, but I've got to punch a few holes in your least #1...#2 seems to be accurate.

Promotion to the rank of Commander does not mean that you automatically get the red uniform, to which there are many examples in canon. Here are a few:

Don't forget:

The Lt Cmdrs I listed all wore command red even though they were not in a direct command role...that was my point.
Excellent list!

I did goof on Chakotay. Thanks for the correction.

It does seem pretty clear that while most Commanders wear red uniforms, they don't always. Which means that what matters most in determining uniform color is the role in which one serves.

So I'm thinking now that each of the Lt Cmdrs you listed were considered to be in some kind of Command support role. Hobson and Chakotay are pretty easy; they each served as first officers. The others... Shelby, Hudson, and Remmick... although these individuals were "only" Lt Cmdrs, they each were serving in roles that were considered important to Starfleet, so perhaps that's enough to qualify for being a "Command support" position that makes the red uniform appropriate.

Doing additional damage to my simple theory, it also turns out that even Admirals don't always wear red uniforms. Here's what Memory Alpha has to say on the subject of Admiral Toddman's attire:

Quote from Memory Alpha:
Admiral Toddman was played by Leon Russom, who also played the Starfleet commander in chief in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He has the unique distinction of wearing an operations division gold admiral's uniform. To date, he is the only 24th century era flag officer to not wear command red as his division color. However, there is a 23rd century precedent to this practice, as all TOS flag officers wore command division gold except for two Commodores, Stone and Stocker. Interestingly enough, the background behind Admiral Toddman (with the setting sun on a dark sky) appears to be a partial homage to the set and matte paintings created for Starbase 11, for the office of the very same Commodore Stone in TOS: "Court Martial".
So that leaves us with a choice: either Toddman was a one-off special case that can be ignored, or my relatively simple theory has to be extended to say that all officers at Lt. Cmdr. or higher rank assigned to Command or Command support roles regardless of rank wear red, but officers in other roles wear their departmental color regardless of rank. (Have there been any non-Helm Lieutenants wearing red after the first couple seasons of TNG?)

Any point in trying to salvage a relatively simple theory of uniform colors? It's fun playing with this in the context of the Star Trek universe, but I'm also interested in figuring out what the best rule ought to be for the online game.

Maybe for the game it just needs to be something like "if most of your prestige points are spent on rank or Command abilities instead of on department specializations, then the trim color of your uniform is automatically set to red regardless of whether you're running a ship, crewing someone else's ship, or are on the ground or visiting a hub."

I'm not really happy with that as a defining rule, but maybe it's a place to start.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Uniform Colors in a Star Trek MMORPG

I've done a little research into who gets the red Command uniform. (Uh-oh!) Here are my tentative conclusions.

The rules (at least for TNG up through about 2380) seem to be that you wear departmental colors until one of two things happens:

1. promotion to Commander
2. assignment as First Officer, Executive Officer, or similar command assistance role
As far as I can tell, anybody who gets promoted to the rank of Commander gets the red duty uniform regardless of department (with the exception of officers serving in Medical roles). This appears to explain Riker, Chakotay, and Sisko wearing red, while Commander Beverly Crusher still wears Medical blue. It also explains LaForge wearing red as a Captain in the provisional future of VOY: "Timeless".

The use of the red Command color (regardless of department) for officers below the rank of Commander serving in Command assistance roles is a little trickier, but we saw this multiple times as well:

It is possible that the "Commanders wear red" rule is actually a subset of the "officers in Command or Command assistance roles wear red" rule. If being promoted to full Commander also always means being assigned to a Command or Command assistance role such as First Officer or XO (again, with the exception of doctors), then it's the role that determines the color, not the rank.

So how does all this sound? Reasonable? Or are there obvious counter-examples I've missed? If so, let's hear your definition of the rules for non-Helm officers wearing red!

To get that process started, excluding officers assigned to Helm I'd be interested in hearing of examples of Lieutenant Commanders in non-Command roles wearing red, or of Ensigns, Lieutenants j.g., or Lieutenants wearing red. For example, in the "fake future" of TNG: "Future Imperfect", what color did Commander LaForge wear? (Note: I'm ignoring the colors worn by Starfleet Academy cadets, whose use of red may not be sufficiently well supported by canon to figure out.)

So based on all of this, I have two questions:

1. Will Star Trek Online automatically generate the department/rank/role color of whatever duty or dress uniform you're wearing? That might be an effective way of insuring that players know the roles of other players in a group, but it would take away some level of agency from players. So which of these goals is more important for this game?

2. Will Star Trek Online use the "serving in Command assistance role" rule to determine which Lt. Commanders wear red?

Man, with geek-mode questions like these being flung at Star Trek Online's developers, designing this game has just got to be the biggest barrel of fun ever. :)

Spock for President! +

Right -- here are the bumper stickers so far:

"Spock: The Logical Choice"

"Vote for LaForge: Proven Vision"

"I Like Riker: He's Number One!"

"Mot for President: A Cut Above"

"Vote Janeway: She's Never Lost"

"Locutus in 2400: Resistance Is Futile"


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl:
Beta testers becoming the first admirals:
To another degree, I am against this idea. Only so many people and certain types of people will be a beta tester, and thus you are already discriminating.
No strong disagreement to this or anything else, but it's worth noting that the designers of Star Trek Online can't not discriminate when it comes to who gets to be an admiral.

By designing the gameplay that controls promotion, the developers set the rules for reaching the rank of Admiral. One set of rules for promotion will favor this kind of gamer; another set of rules will encourage other gamers to gain that reward. The rules are always going to favor one kind of gamer over another -- in that sense, there simply is no way to avoid discriminating against some players over others.

So defining the rules for selecting the first admirals as picking the most productive beta testers first is just choosing to discriminate against late adopters of the game in favor of people who contributed sooner. That might be a good call or a bad call, but it's not bad just because it benefits some players over other players. All rules of play do that.

Which is one reason why it's important (and hard) to pick really good rules for a complex game. Anybody can make up rules of play that are fun for one person -- making up rules of play that make a game fun for lots of different kinds of people is an art.

Regarding the idea of letting the most productive beta testers be the first admirals, note that I define "most productive" not as who creates the most bug reports, but who reports the most bugs that get fixed. Cranking out zillions of trouble tickets isn't as valuable as opening tickets on things that really need to get fixed.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Messages in Games +

Originally Posted by Stronin:
I have a significant respect for will wright though, he's always shown he has a definte vision for games. I'll be interested to see how future titles of his incorperate that
That's pretty much where I am on this, too, Stronin.

The guy is obviously a great game designer; he's got a feel for rules of play that are fun, especially in a simulation context.

The thing is, does it help or hurt the game when there's some kind of social engineering message at its core, such as "using up natural resources is bad" (SimEarth) or "consumerism is bad" (The Sims)? On the one hand it's kind of annoying when as a gamer you realize you're being whacked over the head with some finger-wagging belief system treated as gospel over at Berkeley. But on the other hand wrapping your game around a meaningful message (whether people agree with it or not) can create an extremely powerful driver for gameplay design.

What about violent games? Do they send any kind of social "message?" What about MMORPGs, so many of which are almost nothing but the constant killing of mobs -- do they send a message different only in content from the kinds of messages embedded in Maxis games?

American Game Designers Less Creative?

According to this story, Nick Button-Brown of EA Partners believes that European game developers are more innovative than American studios, while American developers are more focused on financial results:

"There's more creativity in Europe than there is in America," said Button-Brown, speaking exclusively to at Game Connection. "The Americans are much more refined in their processes, it's all about the money. There are less chances taken and there is more money being thrown at developers in the US."

"Taking less chances means there's less failures, but I can't see the US having ever come up with Grand Theft Auto."
Well, that's... interesting. :)

I have to agree that there's a serious bottleneck in U.S. game development when it comes to AAA games, and the name of that bottleneck is "publishers."

As the people who control the money, of course publishers get risk-averse when they're handing out $20-50 million dollars to some development studio to spend three or more years making an entertainment product. If that money came out of the dividends of your stockholders, wouldn't you be cautious in how you spent it? Wouldn't you do everything you could to try to minimize any risk of failure, even if that meant suffering from sequelitis?

But three things: firstly, just because the money people are unwilling to fund novel gameplay ideas doesn't mean that there are few U.S. developers with novel ideas. There are, I think, plenty of people with interesting new ideas for games even if those games aren't getting funded for development. Fortunately, the relatively free market nature of U.S. commercial activity enables the creation of lower-cost development and publishing opportunities as embodied in Multiverse and Metaplace. Making it easier for smaller developers to publish their work should expose more of the hidden creativity of U.S. game developers.

Secondly, even European publishers want to make their money back. So they'll tend to be risk-averse as well, and for big (read: expensive) games will favor doing whatever appears to have worked for somebody else recently, even if it's not "creative."

Finally, while it's not a trend by itself, the critical and commercial success of Valve's Portal suggests that it's premature to discount the creativity of U.S. game developers. Perhaps more importantly, the independent game development scene in the U.S. is doing quite well, rivaling the demo programming field in Europe (and perhaps more than rivaling European developers when it comes to actually releasing complete games).

On balance, I think it's a little early yet to count out U.S. developers in the international creativity sweepstakes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Messages in Games

Originally Posted by kaylee:

From Fox News:
Several high-profile cases involving people who met playing online games have led experts to caution that such Web sites have a unique environment that could be a breeding ground for criminal minds...

..."The common goal of annihilating the foe can bring out a belligerence that sometimes spills over into real-world interactions, especially within those who become addicted to what they're playing, "said Robert McCrie, a professor in the law and police science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"You observe people playing these games -- it draws out a kind of aggressiveness and competitiveness in their behavior," he said. "There is a concern for people who become obsessively involved with cyber gaming."
The ridiculously aggressive, trash-talking behavior seen in online games has IMO several components:

a. the thuggishness in other parts of the culture (the NBA, for example) becoming more tolerated
b. the hypercompetitive design of these games themselves, which attract the more aggressive gamers
c. the possibility that the hyperaggressive people in these gameworlds are testosterone-rich to begin with
d. the reinforcement of aggressive-posturing behavior by observing that one's peers in the game are all acting that way
Throw all those things together and frankly, no, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone who's a loud-mouthed bully in an online game world behave the same way outside the game -- or vice versa.

Now, does one of these cause the other? In particular, does acting aggressively inside an online game world lead to more aggressive behavior in the real world? Does playing these games lead to people behaving more aggressively in the real world than they otherwise would have done if they hadn't played?

That's a lot harder to say with any certainty. I don't imagine there'll be too many professionals who'll choose to go out on that limb -- not without a lot more peer-reviewed science to back it up.


In summary, I think computer games are a part of our culture, just like other artifacts, and may similarly have some potential to affect what behaviors we choose to tolerate as acceptable. To mock that possibility seems as wrong to me as to ascribe to it power it doesn't have -- in both cases, the chance to learn something useful about ourselves is lost.

As pieces of our culture, computer games probably do affect the behavior of some individuals... but no, probably not as much as some people (who may have agendas) want to believe they do.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Randydandy:
Maybe a good way to facilitate this would be to have a gain/loss approach to promotions. In the larger scheme of things, your graph outlines this. But to make it practical, maybe you could set the promotions up so that you GAIN potential skills,xp, etc. but LOSE a few skills, xp, etc from. You would loose skills or advancements in certain skills in the area you are moving away from. For example a character promoted from Lt. Commander to Commander would lose advancements made towards tactical skills and gain the potential to increase those skills necessary to perform duties in operations.
Taking things away from characters is always problematic in these games. Players tend to regard it as a kind of punishment for success, and usually react very badly to it even if it's an otherwise functional mechanic for gameplay balance.

Still, you've got a point. One of the unhappy possibilities of a Star Trek MMORPG is to see grizzled old admirals leaping over their desks with a phaser in their teeth to do hand-to-hand battle with NPCs. If advancing in rank means retaining all the old tactical skills while adding new operational and strategic capabilities, then that unhappy possibility of admirals going tactical on NPCs exists.

My assumption was that the game itself would counter that by the kinds of challenges offered to characters at particular ranks -- admirals just plain wouldn't get offered tactical content. But that sort of begs the question: what's stopping captains and admirals from seeking out tactical content on their own? Should the game try to prevent these characters from taking a break from the leadership and planning content?

This is something for which I don't yet have a satisfying answer. I'm still inclined to try to think in terms of an emergent approach, in which it's not necessary to impose game rules to get some behavior because the game is designed such that most players themselves will want to express that behavior. I'd like to think that if you like strategic play, and if you became an Admiral to gain access to that kind of content, and if there's so much strategic content that you don't run out of it, then you won't be interested enough in tactical play to revert back to it.

Lots of "ifs" in that, aren't there?

Is there some other way to minimize the "two-fisted Admiral" situation other than taking away skills when a character is promoted?

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

What would happen to the gameplay of a Star Trek Online if its design allowed everyone to eventually become Captains and Admirals (in much the same way that characters in most MMORPGs eventually hit the level cap)?

I put together some ideas in my "Combat Modes and Starfleet Ranks" blog entry to address this issue.

The basic idea is that if you key gameplay to rank, then players will voluntarily choose not to be promoted further once they get promoted to the rank that brings them the kind of gameplay they enjoy most.

Here's a picture showing how I'm thinking the ranks might best be sorted by gameplay content type:

To make this work, I propose three things:

1. Make the gameplay encountered in the first ranks (Ensign, Lieutenant, Lt. Commander) about fast-paced, exciting, hands-on tactical action; make middle rank (Commander, Captain) gameplay about organizing players into groups and leading them to complete operational goals; and generate gameplay for the highest ranks (Admirals and perhaps Commodores) that calls for logistical thinking and long-range planning in pursuit of strategic aims.

2. Let players decide when to stop accepting promotions. If they like tactical play, they can stop at Lt. Commander. If they enjoy leadership, they can stop at Captain. And if they're into thoughtful strategic play, they can keep going until they earn promotion to Admiral.

3. In addition to allowing increases in rank, also allow players to become better at whatever their current rank is. If someone wants to stop at Lieutenant because they like the kind of gameplay generated for them at that rank, they should still be able to become a legendarily good Lieutenant. The kind of gameplay generated for them would remain the same; only the difficulty level would increase to meet their increasing level of capability at that rank.

I believe that if you put all three of those features together, you'd find that players would be happy to stop at the "lower" ranks because that's where the content they enjoy most could be found. Since most gamers prefer tactical play, and some gamers like leadership, and only a few gamers are into strategic play, the number of players would naturally wind up smaller at the higher ranks. No arbitrary limitation on how many of a given rank there can be would have to be imposed by the developers. Instead, players would voluntarily sort themselves out into a pyramid with lots of players at the early ranks where the action is and only a few players at the big-picture ranks.

It's likely that there'd be some players who would ignore the association of rank with gameplay content out of a belief that they "have" to have the "highest" rank. For these folks, it might be helpful to allow voluntary demotions so that they can return to the rank that offers the kind of fun they really prefer.

I'd also suggest (and notice that my illustration above follows this idea) that players wouldn't always just get one kind of content created for their rank -- they'd also see the next higher kind of content so that they could try it to see if they like it. If they do, they can accept promotion once they've earned it; if they don't, then they can refuse promotion and concentrate on improving their skills at their current rank. It's sort of a "try before you buy" feature.

So how about this? Would something like this work to address the concern that there'll eventually be too many Captains and Admirals and not enough Ensigns to order into the nearest Jeffries tube?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by ReniriAirion:
Maybe the answer to the Admiral conundrum is to use a similar system to that employed in BF2142 i.e. the player with the best stats for that month in the ranking system is "crowned" Admiral for the period of one month.
We've been looking at Admiral (of whatever degree) as a more-or-less permanently earned rank for a character, but this is a pretty interesting alternative approach.

Assuming it could be extended to apply to however many admiral roles are available, I might could go for this method of promotion/demotion as well, provided that the stats controlling a role are determined according to what the admiral in that role is responsible for.

If we're talking Fleet Operations, then I could live with "best stats" meaning "most kills." I wouldn't be thrilled, since I don't think trying to rack up kill counts is very Star Trek-like at all. But I could live with it.

I don't think I'd want it used to pick the admiral in charge of Strategic Planning, or Logistics, or the Science or Engineering departments, though. "Best stats" ought to mean something more specific to each of those roles, as well as any other roles that require a character with the rank of Admiral.

Spock for President!

Originally Posted by writerguy731:

Would Spock make a good President? I find myself, now that it has been presented to me, thinking about this.

Look at it like this... while we love Spock, and he has a great love of non-violence and logic - non-violence and logic describes millions if not billions of Vulcans. And among those, surely there are Vulcans with far, far more experience in government, politics, social work and bureacracy than a Starfleet science officer.

Not only that, when we last left Spock (to my knowledge), he was in the middle of quite a heated pet project that would - if not kill him - at the least require all of his attention. How do you make the leap from there to UFP President?

Also, and I hate to say it, but... the last time I watched Reunification, I found myself with a bit of sinking feeling, especially when I remembered the TNG episode with Sarek. Here was Sarek, a Vulcan filled with remorse and regret, succumbing to a deadly (and possibly hereditary, I'll remind you!) disease in which he loses control of everything that, as a Vulcan, he holds dear - namely self-control. As I watch Reunification, it's as though there are shades of that episode everywhere - here is a half-human, half-Vulcan man with a troubled past, faced with a living, talking reminder of his father's not only passing, but humiliating passing at that (humiliating for a Vulcan anyway). And this man is embroiled in a battle which is totally illogical, and refuses to be swayed by logical argument. Spock (to me) seems as though he is losing control, projecting his anger, frustration and impotence into at best a lost cause, and at worst a suicide mission.

Meaning, to me, it sounds like Spock is already starting to exhibit symptoms of his father's illness. And if that's the case, should we elect a psychologically, emotionally, and perhaps physically ill/unstable man President? My instinct says no.

So, after further thought, though I love Spock... I don't know. I can't see him as UFP President in STO. Or just Star Trek.
Just for fun (not because I hold any strong opinion either way), let's see if I can come up with some points on the other side of the ledger. (Note: It would be too easy to read hints of U.S. presidential politics into comments in this thread. I will not be going there.)

1. As a half-Vulcan, Spock is unlikely to make decisions based on emotion, and would normally require the information provided to him to be of demonstrably high quality. He could still be wrong, but so could anyone else.

2. Spock is also half-human, and can tap into the strengths of that species as well. This gives him a remarkably broad perspective from which to decide how to execute the laws of the Federation.

3. Regarding the possibility that Spock may some day be diagnosed as suffering from Bendii Syndrome, should we reject him for something that might never happen to him? But let's say he did discover himself in the early stages of this disease -- he would simply resign the Presidency at that time before his self-control began to slip. This would, of course, be only logical.

4. Although Spock enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Starfleet in the Science division, he has since accumulated a great deal of political experience as a full Ambassador in the Federation's diplomatic corps. It should also be noted that Ambassador Spock's diplomatic experience uniquely includes forming valuable relationships with forward-looking members of one of the Federation's most powerful neighbor states.

5. Any concerns that members of the former Romulan Star Empire's council may have had years ago in regard to Ambassador Spock's willingness to listen to alternative voices within the Empire would surely be considered minor relative to the improvement in relations following the unfortunate events of the Shinzon Incident some years ago. Certainly they did not prevent Captain Jean-Luc Picard, former commanding officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, from being appointed Federation Ambassador to Romulus. [According to the storyline from the previous Star Trek Online developer, Perpetual Entertainment -- this may no longer be true.] Why then would Ambassador Spock be held in less esteem?

6. Spock's exemplary service record in Starfleet's Science division in no way bars him from also serving with distinction in diplomatic and political fields. His own father, the highly respected Ambassador Sarek, was an astrophysicist before joining the Federation diplomatic corps.

In summary, as a highly decorated Starfleet officer and a distinguished public servant, former Ambassador Spock has established an unmatchable set of credentials. His extensive experience with the Federation's member states and many of its neighbors, both friendly and otherwise, gives Spock a direct personal understanding of galactic affairs second to none. And as for his trustworthiness to faithfully execute the laws of the Federation, Spock's probity and sense of honor are legendary.

Vote Spock in 2400! :)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Persistence vs. Perception +

In my earlier Persistence vs. Perception essay, I discussed the simple distinction between gameplay that ignores failure, which allows players to achieve ultimate victory through sheer persistence (often referred to as "grinding"), and gameplay that penalizes failure, which encourages players to perceive the features of a problem in order to develop an efficient solution.

After some further thought, I believe these two approaches to problem-solving actually fit neatly into the four-fold meta-model of playstyles. The "Persistence" style of problem-solving seems to be favored by Guardian/Achievers (and built into the core design of most MMORPGs), while the "Perception" problem-solving form looks like something an Rational/Explorer would tend to prefer. So what about Manipulators and Socializers?

I believe my meta-model of playstyles can be extended with an emphasis on problem-solving to appear as follows:

Keirsey TemperamentBartle TypeGNS TheoryProblem-Solving Style
ArtisanKiller [Manipulator][Experientialist]Power

(Note: The "Manipulator" and "Experientialist" terms are my own creations, and are not part the original models.)

In the light of this struction, let's now reconsider the Persistence vs. Perception choices for gameplay design.

Someone who enjoys systems that appear to be designed so that everything fits together for a reason, and which need to be understood in order to exercise effective control over them -- in other words, gamers who enjoy simulation content -- are going to want to win by dint of superior Perception. They're not going to think much of systems that allow people to win through Persistence; they're going to call that grinding and not mean the term as a compliment.

That lack of respect and tolerance of other ways of seeing the world runs the other direction as well. Any gameplay suggestions that don't involve combat and/or looting are met with the weary retort, "but what would there be to do?" or, even less charitably, "but that's just a simulation, not a game."

Persuasion and Power as problem-solving styles get the same kind of response. That may be understandable... but is it good game design?

I think not. I like the idea of designing a game so that all of these styles get content, and all the content works together to help people with different styles cooperate for maximum gameplay enjoyment. To me, that sounds like a good way to maximize a game's appeal.

Take the question of losing "prestige" for certain kinds of in-game actions taken by one's character, for example. Some people would hate that. Others would prefer a game with consequences. But why think about prestige as though there can be only one approach to providing it that will equally satisfy every gamer? Why not let a gamer's preferred gameplay style determine (through consistently applied game rules) how they gain or lose prestige?

In general, why believe that every gamer likes the same reward and is motivated to avoid the same penalty?

Rewarding persistence is appropriate for some gamers. Other gamers are more motivated by other kinds of rewards.

So why not design a game accordingly?

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

The more I think about a "no money" scenario in a Star Trek MMORPG, the stranger I find the idea that a purportedly advanced civilization would revert to swapping stone knives for bearskins....

[transmission initiated by Station X-17 on trade channel 21]

Dockmaster Bob: "Ah, Captain, how good to see you! I have the five containers of blorbocite you requested. All that's required to complete our transaction is for you to transfer five thousand credits to the station account."

Captain Jack: "Umm... we're an advanced society -- we no longer use money?"

DB: "Hmm. Interesting. Advanced society, you say? Well, no matter. We're flexible here; we accept hard currency."

CJ: "We're back to that 'no money' thing, I'm afraid."

DB: "I'll take a certified check."

CJ: "We don't have checking accounts."

DB: "I'll take a bank draft."

CJ: "No banks, either."

DB: "How about a credit note from your government?"

CJ: "Which part of 'we don't use money' was not clear to you?"

DB: "Well, what do you have to offer me, then?"

CJ: "Twelve goats? Very fine goats, you'll love them."

DB: [stares]

CJ: "No? Well, do you like beads? Ooooh, look at the pretty beads...."

[transmission terminated by Station X-17]

(And a tip of the cap to the "bookshop sketch" from "At Last the 1948 Show" featuring John Cleese and Marty Feldman.)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Visual Style of a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by [a fan]:
There are several reasons for a more simplified approach when it comes to graphics:
1. Ensuring an "E" rating - This is essential in a game that is trying to appeal to the masses. Violence that looks more "fantasy" or "animated" and less "real" will help with that rating.
The vast majority of Star Trek episodes featured lifeforms being phasered and starships being blown up (and not in a cartoonish or stylized way), and yet Star Trek somehow managed to become very popular. The biggest blockbuster movies of today -- which appeal to the masses or they wouldn't become blockbusters -- have lots of violence. And the computer game industry makes billions every year despite (or, perhaps, because of) the violence in many of the games released.

Also, if you're implying that WoW's success is due in part to its cartoonish art style, that's highly speculative.

So the notion that cartoonifying a Star Trek MMORPG will make it more popular is an interesting theory at best. To call doing so "essential" is to word that theory much too strongly.

Originally Posted by [a fan]:
2. Availability for lower end computers - This has been mentioned several times throughout the thread, but is still an important thing to remember. Not everyone has quad-core processors and SLI. MMOs usually are behind the times graphically compared to their non-MMO counterparts. If you want Crysis/Bioshock-level graphics, then go play Crysis and Bioshock.

I don't really disagree with your larger point, but why phrase your conclusion so dismissively? I could just as easily say "If you want cartoonish graphics, then go play Serious Sam and Mario Kart." But to say it like that would be to presume that I know what's best for Star Trek Online and anyone who disagrees is just wrong... and that's not only flawed thinking, it's not conducive to friendly discussion.

How about this: it would probably be good marketing to design a Star Trek MMORPG's graphics so that the game runs acceptably in its default graphical settings on the hardware that's expected to be common on the day it launches. Not photorealistic, nor cartoonish, but somewhere in between that fits what we've seen in the various Star Trek TV shows and movies.

Originally Posted by [a fan]:
3. It feels more like a game - Most players don't want to be immersed in a reality, they want to play a game. With emphasis on "play" and "game". Rest assurred, this will be a Star Trek game, not a Star Trek simulator.

First of all, "most players don't want to be immersed in a reality" is a guess on your part. If you've conducted or are aware of a methodologically sound gamer survey that backs up this assertion, I'd sincerely be interested in learning about it.

Otherwise, it might actually be correct that some majority of current gamers are more concerned with gameplay rules than with feeling like they can immerse themselves in a generated reality. But what about people who aren't playing any of the current online games because they like immersive games and aren't attracted to the "kill it and take its stuff" MMORPGs that are the only things available now? What about the fans who have been waiting for a gameworld that brings the Star Trek universe to life for them, and who'd be willing to pay to enjoy that experience whenever they want?

Again: I have no doubt that ST:O will offer plenty of the usual hypercompetitive, accumulation-driven, rules-based gameplay that many current gamers do seem to enjoy. That's a Good Thing. It's necessary. Commercial success for any generic MMORPG requires attracting these gamers.

But this isn't any generic MMORPG. It's a Star Trek MMORPG, and in my opinion -- which is no more or less valid than yours or anyone else's -- that means more is required. It means a significant degree of design attention given to immersive and social content could lead to even greater commercial success by appealing to the existing fan base of the license as well as to those who are turned off by the mindless mayhem of today's MMORPGs. I don't know that for certain and wouldn't presume to state it as a fact; I'm saying I think it's a reasonable analysis based on the available information, and as such it's at least as valid a position (if not more so) than implying that only pure gameplay matters.

Secondly, the "it's not going to be a Star Trek simulator" thing is tendentious and lazy and old. If anyone has specific reasons why they don't think it's necessary or useful to make some feature of this specific game look sufficiently Trekkish or behave plausibly, let's hear them. Otherwise, "it's not going to be a Star Trek simulator" is merely a handwave exercised to avoid stepping up with a serious defense of the assertion that gameplay has to trump everything else, and to hell with what any other potential subscribers might want.

That's not just bad logic and bad game design, it's bad conversation. I don't expect you or anyone else to agree with my opinions, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't dismiss what I (and, I believe, many others) want from a Star Trek MMORPG as mere "simulation" that by (some) definition is automatically not permitted.

Originally Posted by [a fan]:
4. It's easier/quicker to develop - Do we want dev time spent on bump-mapping and anti-aliasing, or intriguing gameplay? If you think graphics and powerhouse logic algorithms are important, compare the Wii sales to the PS3.

Of course not every game needs Crysis-level graphics... but we're not talking about some random game; we're talking about a specific game based on a particular bit of very well known intellectual property: Star Trek. So even if other games don't need semi-realistic graphics, maybe it's important for a Star Trek MMORPG to offer semi-realistic graphics applied consistently throughout the game.

If so, and if achieving semi-realism means spending some time on graphical shininess, then so be it. Is there a point of diminishing returns? Of course! I'm happy to agree that Star Trek Online doesn't need to be and shouldn't be designed to require Crossfire or triple-SLI setups to look right to most potential subscribers. I think most of us here are in complete agreement on that.

But I don't believe flat pastel graphics are right for this game, either. Of course it might be quicker/easier to develop such graphics -- that doesn't necessarily make them appropriate.


To sum up my personal position so that it's not mischaracterized again: I'm using the word "semi-realistic" for the art style I think would work best applied consistently throughout a true triple-A Star Trek MMORPG. It doesn't have to include all possible graphical bells and whistles; that would be excessive. But it should try to render all things -- ships, planets, structures, humanoid lifeforms, etc. -- in a plausibly realistic art style in order to be faithful to the license.

I truly don't consider that an extreme or unreasonable perspective on this question. If people have reasons for disagreeing with it, OK, we can discuss those differences of opinion, or simply agree to disagree. But I don't think there's any value in or need to try to misstate this position as some kind of "demand" for "realism" to achieve "simulation."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mission Generation in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I've taken the liberty of adding a few more ideas for mission types to the excellent set initially suggested by Polt, and then reorganizing and color-coding the various missions by department.

(Note: In this list I'm sort of assuming that in space, you are your ship, while for ground and hub missions you'll play as an avatar. If that turns out not to be the case, then some of the "away missions" might also be available in space.)

Space Missions (Ship Based)
  • Combat

    • Science

      • Assess Vulnerability

    • Medical

      • Surgery

    • Engineering

      • Damage Control

      • Electronic Countermeasures

    • Tactical/Security

      • Destroy

      • Disable

      • Defend

    • Command

      • Blockade

      • Fleet Command (Captains or higher rank only)

  • Non-Combat

    • Science

      • Scan

      • Communicate

      • Stellar Cartography

      • Planetary Survey

    • Medical

      • Analyze Space Lifeform

      • Identify Disease

    • Engineering

      • Construct Device

      • Miscellaneous Repair

      • Enhance Efficiency

    • Tactical/Security

      • Assess Threat

    • Command

      • Patrol

      • Negotiate

      • Deliver

      • Intimidate

      • Race

Away Missions (Ground/Hub Based)
  • Combat

    • Science

      • Counterprogram Device

    • Medical

      • Triage

      • Field Medicine

    • Engineering

      • Field Repair

    • Tactical/Security

      • Destroy

      • Disable

      • Defend

      • Capture

      • Rescue

    • Command

      • Inspire

  • Non-Combat

    • Science

      • Scan

      • Communicate

      • Data Analysis

      • Reprogram Device

    • Medical

      • Analyze Planetary Lifeform

      • Cure Disease

      • Counsel

    • Engineering

      • Construct Structure

      • Miscellaneous Repair

      • Analyze Device

    • Tactical/Security

      • Recon

      • Espionage

    • Command

      • Negotiate

      • Resupply

      • First Contact

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Crafting in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Samodelkin:
I briefly explained a possible crafting system in this long post ... To summarize it, everything is made of simpler components all the way down to elements.
I'm also a fan of the idea of building complex objects from simpler components, as I noted in my Starship Operations in a Star Trek MMORPG blog entry. If every component has the same basic function but differs in some slight way from the others of its kind, players would be able to create unique new objects by connecting alternate components together. It creates the possibility of creating a new kind of item that everyone else would want, which could be pretty cool for everybody.

In addition, I suggested allowing players to write their own subroutines that could be inserted into objects to modify their behaviors. I'm sort of thinking of Engineers being the ones with the skills to modify objects, and Scientists being the ones who are skilled at writing programs. It's not perfectly in line with what we saw on Star Trek, but it's close and I think it lines up well as gameplay.

I agree with you on this approach to crafting.

Originally Posted by Samodelkin:
As for making beautiful things, if a model/graphics editor is introduced, it may become necessary for developers to filter out inappropriate content; this is not essential in the utilitarian sense, but necessary if players are to make something with a touch of their own individual personality, like sculptures or oddly-shaped vessels.
If I were making a game I wanted to finish, and that wasn't too exploitable, I don't think I'd go so far as to allow players to actually create and import their own 3D meshes and textures. You just know there'd be some moron who'd insist on fouling things up for everybody else by constructing an enormous 3D phallus.

If this is to work, I suspect there'd have to be limits. It might be necessary to say that players can change out the components of types of objects, but that they can't actually design new types of objects. That would be a pretty severe limit to creativity, but we have to consider it if we're talking about a design that has any chance of being implemented by a professional game development studio.

Perhaps a slight weakening of this design might work -- what if you could change just one component of a predetermined object type? (And once one component has been changed, no other components can be changed on the new object. This would be necessary to prevent people from coming up with completely new types of things by changing one component at a time.) Being able to change one component -- if most objects are reasonably complex -- could open up a decent amount of opportunity for creativity without exposing the whole system to abuse.

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

"Fun" is not the same thing for every gamer. These MMORPG things would be more popular if their designers tried harder to accommodate more than one kind of gamer.

Some people like game-y MMORPGs focused on rules-based competition; some people want to be free to explore immersive worlds; some people like low-stress socialization such as chatting and roleplaying. My view is not that current MMORPGs "suck"; it's that they could be better by offering a more inclusive feature set. What I believe I see is an opportunity to make MMORPGs that are more successful than those currently available because the new games will offer more features that are attractive to the explorers and socializers who really have nothing worth playing right now.

That doesn't mean completely replacing rules-based play with sandbox content; that's a silly objection since no one is calling for any such thing. It means offering different kinds of play for different kinds of players. It doesn't mean taking anything away from people who are happy with existing MMORPGs; it means making better MMORPGs by building on today's features with additional features that are appealing to other kinds of gamers as well.

Of course there'd be practical concerns in implementing such a game. But that's not an indictment of the overall thesis that we're not yet making much use of the full potential of MMORPGs.

That's my larger argument, and I would hope (now that I've explained it better) that it's an argument that no one feels is an attack on their preferred style of play.

My more specific argument -- that Star Trek Online would be an appropriate choice for the kind of deeper and more broadly appealing MMORPG I've described -- probably seems like more of a threat since it does affect other people's conceptions of what they think ST:O ought to be. I won't say any more about that here, but I should mention that I believe my opinions on this subject are as valid as anyone else's. I hope we can trade views on this subject (or any other) without getting too heated about it -- the last thing we should want is to cause people to stay away from this important conversation because it got emotional.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
LCARS is filled with stuff that's just blatantly [useless]. Most consoles on the television show have to be big because the camera is several feet away, and they can feature gibberish because there's nothing really important there. The LCARS for ST:O is the opposite on both counts, and Perpetual (rightly) hasn't forgotten that. They cannot and should not pull LCARS shapes and sizes from the television show simply because it would be useless to the game, and simply the fact that "It was on the show!" isn't sufficient cause to ignore that fact.
That's clearly sensible, but I hope it's not taken too far. Yes, much of what appeared on displays in the TV shows and movies was "chrome," but that chrome contributes in some measure to the overall Star Trek vibe. As such, I suspect LCARS-ness is something that many people looking forward to a satisfying Star Trek experience in a Star Trek MMORPG will expect to see to some degree, if not actually use.

What that degree should be is, of course, completely debatable. I expect we'll be having this "not enough LCARS!" "too much LCARS!" conversation for a while.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Crafting in a Star Trek MMORPG +

While I'm thinking about crafting, I have to say that I'm a little ticked off at online game developers who implement a "crafting" system that's basically just a manufacturing and sales system. It's gotten to the point where gamers are starting to think that the word "crafting" as used in online games just means "trading," which is bogus.

I think there's also an important argument to be made for crafting as defined to be a creative art. When we talk about (for example) a "finely crafted violin," or say of someone that he's a good "craftsman," what we're saying is that the process involved is about more than just cranking out five million copies of something and selling them -- it's about artisanship, about making a new thing that meets an unmet need, or is unique, or is beautiful, or is all of these things.

So when I put on my wannabe online game designer hat, and cogitate on what I'd like to see as a "crafting" system, manufacturing and sales are part of what I come up... but they're not the whole story. I'm also going to make sure that the artisans, the creative types, the artists all have features that support the creation of new and unique and beautiful things. Not everything has to be new or unique or beautiful, but the opportunity to achieve those things ought to exist in these gameworlds.

Because they are much, much less interesting when "crafting" is allowed only a cramped and inaccurate meaning of "make more stuff than anyone else and make more money selling it than anyone else."

And I especially don't think that definition is right for an online Star Trek gameworld, where the imagination that sees opportunities to bring new intellectual goods into being ought to be more valuable than the urge to pwnz0r everybody else.

Let's see crafting implemented as a craft!

The Visual Style of a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
The main hooks of [Team Fortress Classic's] stylised look are that not only is it very crisp and looks great, so it's visually interesting yet comfortable on the eyes, it also allowed the developers to inject some uniqueness into the characters: you usually tell what any class is from a decent distance away, you can see what weapon they've got out and so on. When they taunt, it's turned into something amusing instead of something to get stressed about. It makes the game a more playful and fun experience, which for adults can be very important even though we might not freely admit it because of "cartoonish" and "childish" associations, because you're not led into taking the game far too seriously and burning out.
I think a critical distinction between where you may be coming from and how I'm looking at Star Trek Online is "game" versus "world."

Looking at ST:O as being most similar to a game-y game like TFC naturally leads to being OK with stylized characters. If it's just a game, with no literary or artistic pretensions and therefore no intention of being useful for storytelling, then obviously it's not meant to be an immersive experience. A highly stylized art style is fine.

But as I've argued before (and no doubt will do again), a massively multiplayer online persistent-world game is more than just a game -- it's a place. And there are plenty of gamers who want to "live in" places, not just "play in" them.

And I'm pretty sure that this is especially true in the case of Star Trek.

So to imagine an online Star Trek as nothing more a multiplayer online action game (even a good one like Team Fortress Classic 2) so that a stylized character model is good enough is to miss an exceptionally important aspect of what I think a lot of potential players are going to want from it.

Yes, I read what Daron [Stinnett, producer of Star Trek Online for Perpetual Entertainment] said (on the now-defunct fan discussion forum) back on Nov. 22, 2006:

Originally Posted by Perpetual_Daron:
Come on guys. If you don't like MMORPGs, you're barking up the wrong tree. I love to play MMORPGs as do the STO team. We play WoW, EQII, Guild Wars, EvE Online, etc. If you're looking for an MMORPG without combat at its core, give Tale in the Desert a try. It seems that a few thousand enjoy it but it's not my cup of tea.

Did you have this combat debate for the Elite Force games? I guess I can understand it a little more for MMORPGs given that the genre is so new and their intensely social nature tends to compel some to play gameplay mechanics they don't enjoy. But I have to chuckle when I think of the same debate going on for other genres.

If you don't think you could ever enjoy a mainstream MMORPG, I'm not sure why you think STO will make you suddenly start enjoying the genre. Sure, we'll make improvments to the state of the art, and as I've said before, Star Trek does make us think of traditional mechanics in new ways, but the botom line is that this will still feel and play like a member of its genre. Whether we'll hit the few things on your particular shortlist of MMORPG mechanics you don't like, I can't say. But rest assured, that even though we are MMORPG fans, belive it or not, we're also intense Star Trek fans. We think long and hard about how to stay true to ST and still make a great MMORPG.

I think everyone here already knows the direction we're heading. And I really wish there was a way to please everyone. But I'd hate for non-MMORPG fans to stay with us through the development process only to be disappointed that in fact, we really are an MMORPG. This group needs to stop thinking of STO as the uber Star Trek simulator and come to terms with the idea that this is a game.
I understand and accept that a Star Trek MMORPG has to be and is going to be a game, first and foremost. I will be very unhappy if anyone tries to claim that I'm pushing for a "pure Star Trek simulation" or any such thing -- I'm not for that; I don't believe it should happen; I don't believe it will happen.

What I'm saying is less extreme: I'm saying that in addition to fun gameplay, worldy-ness is also important in MMORPGs, and it's particularly important for an online game world based on a license that has created fans who've wanted to live in that world for 40 years. That doesn't mean everything has to be about worldy-ness. It means that too much emphasis on gamey-ness is a mistake because it'll fail to attract the many people who want to imagine themselves living in the world of Star Trek, who are eager to tell their own Star Trek stories. Some amount of development attention to environmental depth and plausibility beyond mere gameplay is necessary to maximize revenue by attracting more than just core gamers.

That's why the cartoonishness of the alien image concerns me, and why I take the pro-stylization argument seriously.