Friday, August 31, 2007

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Marcellus:
Basically, the Collective tells them what to do, and they figure out, among themselves, how to do it
That is precisely how I imagined this working.

"The Queen" (really just the game itself) would transmit the primary objective of the cube -- for example, "Assimilate the units of species 4971 in sector 271.38" -- and the individual characters (players and NPCs) aboard that cube would take whatever steps they felt were necessary to achieve that objective. That would give players some freedom within the limits of what they're allowed to do on a cube to decide how to achieve an objective.

If necessary or appropriate, control could go down a level as you suggested -- perhaps specific goals for achieving the overall objective could be defined by the game, and players would be able to coordinate their separate ideas for how best to achieve that objective.

The idea is to provide players with just enough gameplay things to do so that they don't feel they're simply riding in a drone-shaped vehicle, while defining that gameplay in such a way as to remove any notion that they have value as individuals. You can act; you can do things -- it's just that those things don't matter on an individual basis. They only matter when they're combined with what a lot of other drones (player or NPC) do.

I think it's really important to note about this suggestion for gameplay that not only would players give up control to gain power, they would also be giving up responsibility. When all you can do is go along with whatever the group chooses to do, how is anything that happens specifically your fault?

There is, I think, a valuable lesson nestled within this gameplay. Life free from responsibility sounds inviting at first, but what if the price of that freedom was giving up all the benefits of life as an individual? Would it still be worth it? What does that tell us about how we live our real lives?

I tell you, Borgplay is a gold mine of possibilities. For all the problems of implementing it (and I don't pretend there'd be none), the payoff in entertainment value -- and perhaps something more -- looks enormous to me.

Religion and Politics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by psyonic:
Fictious religions is perfectly ok. its no problem. but trek has avoided to use real religions, and for most part, is humanity depicted as atheists, same with vulcans and klingons. The two later ones got some supernatural element, but they is not RELIGIOUS, in the words real sense. Spiritual? yes, not religious.
Originally Posted by Atlantians:
False dichotemy. Spiritualism is religious by nature.
This probably isn't the place to take this discussion much further, but I don't agree that it's a false dichotomy to distinguish between spirituality and religiousness. It's actually a fairly common and well-understood distinction: "spirituality" is used to describe an individual's personal faith expressed as a general belief in some form of spiritual world beyond the one we see, while "religion" (especially when stated as "organized religion") describes a social and doctrinally-structured observation of one's faith.

If you just mean that there's an element of spirituality in religion, sure. But for better or worse, the word "religion" today connotes more than just spiritual belief; any religion is considered to have rules (i.e., doctrine) guiding one's worship that simple spirituality doesn't have. So I don't believe the point that psyonic's making is as obviously bogus as you imply.

Originally Posted by Atlantians:
The Christian-esque comments made throughout TOS would indicate that religious beliefs certainly do exist, just more underground than anything.
Or perhaps not so underground. Uhura does not appear to be dismissive or offended or in any way embarrassed when in TOS: "Bread and Circuses" she points out to the puzzled senior officers that the slaves of Magna Roma aren't "sun"-worshippers: "But don't you understand? It's not the sun in the sky -- it's the Son of God."

It's actually quite a powerful moment. But possibly too powerful for an online game.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Or'ab Ibo:
As far as how a player would be able to achieve becoming a drone. I thought it could be handled the way Jedi was handled before NGE. You unlock Borg by getting assimilated!
I think that's exactly how it should work. I can already hear the ominous music playing to underscore the shock of realizing that you've just been assimilated into the Collective.

Talk about delivering a memorable gameplay experience...!

Originally Posted by Or'ab Ibo:
I think the unlocked account idea makes more sense. Plus it allows you to play both sides depending on what the player is in the mood to play that day.
I like that approach, too. It's easy to understand and maximizes fun. I'd hope some marginally plausible justification could be invented (maybe something like the way Thomas Riker was copied from Will Riker?), but the mechanic sounds great.

Now, on to some objections to "Borgplay."

One that I've heard is that while the hardcore gamers might enjoy playing as a Borg, casual gamers would hate it, presumably because it would allow casual players to be abused against their will by other players

My response to this is that I'm thinking of Borgplay as a PvP game. So even if some players choose to play as Borg, they wouldn't be able to affect any player who doesn't deliberately opt in to PvP.

As long as playing as a Borg is treated as a special case of PvP, and if PvP of any kind requires opt-in, then I think casual players are adequately protected.

Another objection is from people who want the abilities of Borg without the lost of free will -- they want to play "recovered" Borg.

I don't think there's anything especially wrong or bad with that idea. I just don't find it as fascinating as the idea of getting to experience the Borg as Borg. What would that be like? What's it like to be a part of something that's only powerful when everyone gives up their individual identity within the group? What's it like to gain power at the expense of your humanity? (Or whatever the word would be for non-humans.)

Playing as an ex-Borg, or freed Borg, or evolved Borg (etc.) which some people have suggested could be interesting. But that would no longer be the Borg we fear. It would no longer carry the threat of soulless power, and it would thus be vastly less interesting as an entertainment experience.

A final objection, and probably the strongest, is the concern over how the loss of individual agency is handled. "I don't want other players to be able to make me do things!"

I wanted to address this separately because it's a really interesting question -- in fact, I see it as what could make this feature unique to Star Trek Online.

First, being part of a collective aboard a cube would not be about directly controlling other players. You'd actually be giving up individual control over anyone, including yourself, in order to gain significantly more power as part of a group. Instead of the usual 1-to-1 relationship with your personal starship, where you think it, you give the command, it happens, being a drone on a cube filled with drones would be more like you think it, it's integrated with what everybody else is thinking at that moment, and the averaged-out desire is what happens. You don't get exactly what you personally want -- you don't control other players -- but in return for going along with the general will of the group, the effect of every decision made by the group is increased in power and efficiency.

So I don't see playing a Borg drone as being about controlling other players. I see it more like having a special way to act in harmony with other players. Harmony in the collective mind is like making light coherent: it gains the power of a laser to cut through opposition.

(How a Borg collective resembles democracy taken to a Platonic extreme is something that might bear thinking about.)

Second, if it's voluntary, why not let players choose to give up some control in return for power? To me, that is an absolutely fascinating possibility, not just for MMORPG gameplay, but as a mechanism for exploring what it means to be human in an age of advanced technology. Not only was Star Trek about that kind of exploration, I would argue that the best science fiction has always been centered on that question: when we gain the power to alter the very definition of "human," what happens to the individual human, and what might societies of such transhuman individuals look like?

If we had the power to merge with machines, would we even choose to be individuals any more? That, right there, is the Borg question. Some of the best stories in Star Trek focused on that question -- shouldn't Star Trek Online have that same opportunity?

To me, this seems like far too cool an opportunity to pass up. Not only would it be pretty amazing as art, I suspect it would be very useful as a marketing point. ("Be the Borg!") But it's possible that I'm being overly enthusiastic about whether this could be made fun enough to be worth implementing.

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by K'ShaQ:
If Perpetual made it so you could control mulitple charachters on the same world (or whatever it is called), you could simply pack a Borg Cube with your own charachters to make it uber-powerful, and then wield it in one voice.
I think this is a great example of how practical questions always have to be considered when suggestions for active gameplay content are made. You're quite right, K'ShaQ; there'll definitely be some players who multibox with multiple accounts.

I'd hate to think this one fact could fatally cripple this idea, though. Things like this are why I included the suggestion that every cube would be considered to have many, many NPC drones on it. As long as the player drones are acting within the reasonable parameters of cube operation, the NPC drones will just sort of contribute in the background to the overall player direction. As players start to stray from acceptable uses of cubes, however, the effect of the NPC drones can increase, acting as a kind of damper on abuses of the system.

For that matter, the developers could always just code a test to see if the characters on a cube are owned by one account, and scale down the effect of that player's choices proportionately. That's kind of a hack, but the situation is one that should be rare enough not to require a major investment of development time and effort to prevent it.

On the other hand, that's just one unhappy possibility -- I'm sure there are others.

So the question is, bearing in mind that (as with darn near every feature that allows players to interact in any way with other players) there'll have to be some special case code written to limit what players can do, is there enough value in the general concept of "cube power directly proportional to the number of distinct player-controlled drones" to make it worth considering for implementation?

Originally Posted by K'ShaQ:
If we really want to be Borg Drones, as your thread's name suggests, couldn't we all take on the role of either rebels from Unimatrix One or some Borg Drones who lost their connection to the Hive mind (the four kids) or gained their individuality (Hugh's Borg)? They could still be big and dangerous but have more power.
That's a popular idea. I personally can't work up too much enthusiasm for it, however, because I think it loses the soullessness that gives the Borg their power to creep us out. An ex-Borg character is basically just a racial (human, Vulcan, etc.) character with some special Borg capabilities -- mildly interesting, but not nearly as interesting as experiencing "WE ARE THE BORG" from the inside.

I'm not opposed to the idea of ex-Borg characters. I'm just a lot more interested in finding a way to allow players to play unreconstructed Borg drones.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by Redding:
Well, the Borg are a No go player wise, this has been discussed several times in other posts and generally its understood that to turn them in to players would take away from what they are. No one yet has figured a way to make them playable and still be Borg.
Now how am I supposed to resist a design challenge like that? :)

Turbine allows players of Lord of the Rings Online to play as monsters (calling it, not surprisingly, "monster play"). Why not use something similar for the monstrous Borg in Star Trek Online?

The big challenge of letting players run a drone character is the loss of free will. How do you make that fun in a Star Trek MMORPG?

Here's my suggestion: All player drone characters spawn in a single cube somewhere in Federation space. Every cube comes equipped with several features:

  • engines
  • weapons
  • regenerative shields
  • lots of NPC drones
  • a reasonably specific objective from the Borg Queen played (usually?) by an NPC
Control over the ship and its systems would be exercised by a kind of uberdemocracy -- the ship would travel at impulse to the average position selected in real-time by all drones aboard that cube (players and NPCs); it would fire a particular weapon at the target chosen by the greatest number of drones for that weapon; and so on. For each and every action, the cube would carry out the collective will of all the characters aboard it.

Here's the kicker: the fewer players playing as drones, the more control those players have over what the cube does (subject to some limits, which is why those NPC drones exist), but the less power the cube has. Conversely, the more player drones, the more powerful a threat that cube becomes, but the less control any individual player has over what the ship actually does from moment to moment.

Naturally there are some practical questions that would have to be addressed. For example, to keep player characters from hijacking a cube, the NPC drones would be programmed to be able to take appropriate actions to assure that the Borg Queen's objective is satisfied -- perhaps warp drive isn't under the control of player characters. It's also interesting to speculate on what might happen if a group of 100 or more players got together (with some VOIP communication) on one cube -- what could they do with it if they actively collaborated?

Also, what happens when a Borg cube is destroyed? I'd suggest just respawning a new cube somewhere and letting all players who still want to play drones create new drones on that new cube.

There are plenty of other practical questions, but the big point here is the collective control mechanism. I believe it's a workable mechanism as gameplay that communicates what it means to be Borg. Borg power is collective power, not individual power. Playing a Borg should be about that experience of gaining fantastic power, but only at the cost of one's individuality.

"For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"

I think this would feel true to the spirit of the Borg as fictional characters in Star Trek. That said, I freely acknowledge that not everybody would like it as gameplay. In particular, the gamers who want to play Borg because they think they're supposed to be "more powerful" than every other player would probably hate this idea with a fiery passion because it confers power only on the group, not the individual.

Is there a better approach that meets the criteria of communicating that Borg hive-mind creepiness while still being both fun to play and not excessively disruptive to other players?

Or is Redding right, and the concept of playing as Borg is just not really practical?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Questions for a Star Trek MMORPG FAQ

[updated 2008/08/11]

The question came up of what things people might like to know about a Star Trek MMORPG... assuming anybody ever successfully develops one.

In thinking about the questions others might ask, I realized that I was actually developing a pretty extensive list of questions for a FAQ. Next thing I know, I've dashed off over a hundred questions.

I get enthusiastic about things sometimes. :)

So here's the list of FAQ questions I came up with for Star Trek Online.

Who is the target audience for Star Trek Online?
What features will make Star Trek Online different from other prominent massively multiplayer online roleplaying games?
Will having some Star Trek knowledge be required to fully enjoy the game?
Will having some Star Trek knowledge make some parts of the game more fun?

Who will be the publisher of Star Trek Online?
What is the funding structure for Star Trek Online? (This is a legitimate question given the failure of previous developers of a Star Trek Online to secure stable funding throughout the development phase.)
When will Star Trek Online launch?
When will the beta testing phase start?
How can I be invited to participate in beta testing?
Will the game be available for retail purchase, as a digital download, or both?
How much will the core game software cost?
What will the game cost to play on a recurring basis?
Will there be any kind of microtransactions?
Will there be any kind of "premium" subscriptions?
Will the Terms of Service prohibit the out-of-game sale or transfer of in-game assets, and will this prohibition be backed up with legal action in addition to permament banning?
How frequently will the game be updated after launch to correct bugs and add content?

How many characters will be allowed on one account?
How many characters will be allowed per server?
How many servers will be enabled at launch?
Will there be European or Asian servers?
What ESRB rating will Star Trek Online be designed to have?
Will a paper game manual be available?
How much in-game help will there be?
Will customer service and/or tech support be outsourced to overseas providers?
Will there be effective tools for monitoring the game's economy on an ongoing basis to catch dupers and farmers?

On what systems (other than PCs) will Star Trek Online be designed to run?
What are the minimum PC system requirements likely to be?
What are the maximum PC system requirements likely to be?
Will Windows XP still be supported, or will Windows Vista be required?
Will Linux or Mac OS be supported?
Can I play with a dialup modem, or will I need a broadband connection?
What control/movement devices will be supported? Keyboard & mouse? Game controller?

How realistic will the art style for space gameplay be?
How realistic will the art style for avatars and ground-based/ship-based gameplay be?
Will any art assets be reused from the TV shows and/or movies, or will all art assets be created for the game?
Will any sound effects be taken from the TV shows and/or movies, or will all audio assets be created for the game?
Will Majel Barrett perform as the voice of the computer in Federation starships?

To what degree will the game interface resemble the LCARS interface of post-original series Star Trek?
How much control will players have over what information about their characters is revealed to other players?
How much control will players have over how information about other characters is displayed?
Will there be some Star Trek-ish form of "radar" map that shows landmarks, waypoints, and mobile objects?
How much will players be able to customize their user interface to the game?
Will 1st-person viewpoint be supported for player avatars?
Will 3rd-person viewpoint be supported for player avatars?
What viewpoints will be supported in space?
Will sectors be implemented as standalone "zones"?
What map types (local, sector, quadrant, galaxy) will be implemented?
What types of information will players be able to see on each map?
To what extent will a player character's available technology determine what can be seen on a map?

What is the overall storyline of Star Trek Online?
How will players experience this story through gameplay?
Who will be the primary antagonists in Star Trek Online?
Will players ever be able to "win" a large-scale conflict? If not, how will the constant stalemate be explained?
Will players be able to meaningfully affect the internal qualities of their chosen factional organization (Starfleet, Klingon military)?
Will any specific stories from the TV shows or movies be recreated?
Will player characters be able to visit the Mirror Universe?
Will player characters be able to travel backward or forward in time from the game's primary time setting? Will that be "real" (within the game setting), or only inside a holodeck?

What is the planned ratio of combat content to non-combat content?
How much of the content in Star Trek Online will be instanced, and how much will be in a single common area?
Which parts of the game will be FPS-style, and which parts will be RPG-style?
Will players have to be "twitchy" gamers to succeed in Star Trek Online?
Will there be an "end game?" What does it look like?
Will it be possible to change any large-scale aspects of the game world through cumulative gameplay?
Will there be a tutorial phase of the game, such as progression through "Starfleet Academy" for Starfleet characters?

How large will the gameplay universe be? How many planets/systems/sectors will there be?
How realistic will space be? Will the stars in Star Trek Online be the same stars in the same locations as in the real Milky Way galaxy?
Will stars have multiple planets? Will they be orbited by different kinds of planets (rocky, molten core, gas giant) and other objects (planetoid belts, comets, etc.)?
Will Star Trek Online have all the subatomic particles, energy fields and so on so frequently encountered in Star Trek?
Will space phenomena be just for looks, or will players be able to use their ships to interact with objects and effects in space?
How plausible will the physical aspects of planets (gravity, atmosphere, hydrographics, length of day, etc.) be?
What size will world surfaces be? A few square meters of airless asteroid? Millions of square kilometers for a large planet? Billions of square kilometers for a ringworld or Dyson sphere?
Will planets have temperatures, atmospheres, and weather that are more or less scientifically appropriate (in a Star Trek context, of course)?
How plausible will the forms and behaviors of alien plants and animals be with respect to the specific environments in which they evolved?
Will some humanoid-habitable worlds have plant and animal life but no intelligent life?

What are the playable races?
Will many of the different species of the Alpha and Beta quadrants seen in Star Trek be implemented?
Will many other species of the Alpha and Beta quadrants not seen in Star Trek be implemented?
How will the unique cultures of alien species be represented? Will different species represented as NPCs have different languages, customs, dress, and behaviors?
Will different cultures also have their own unique architectures, spacecraft, and other artifacts?
How will the laws and rules of the various cultures apply to characters?
Will NPC cultures pursue their own independent behaviors with regard to each other (treaties, wars, commerce, etc.), or will all cultures be static?
Will cultures on different worlds have distinct forms and levels of technology?
Will each political territory in the galaxy have its own "faction" that player characters can gain or lose?
If faction is implemented for individual NPCs or NPC groups, to what extent will a player character's positive or negative faction with an individual NPC or NPC group affect their gameplay?
Will diplomacy be a viable option when interacting with organized NPCs?
Will there be content specifically created to support diplomatic gameplay or the use of diplomacy-related character abilities?
Will the Prime Directive have a meaningful role in gameplay?
To what extent will players who choose characters in Starfleet be rewarded or penalized for the degree to which they "act like Starfleet officers?"
Are those interfering Organians still around?

Will the characters from the TV shows appear as NPCs? How will they be used? What gameplay functions will these major and minor Star Trek characters fulfill?
Will the actors from the TV shows lend their voices to "their" characters?
Will dialogue written for NPCs be branching, with multiple possible outcomes? Or will dialogue typically be single-threaded with only "success" and "failure" conditions?
How diverse will NPCs be? Will they tend to be mostly humanoid, or will they often be non-humanoid?
Will NPCs have abilities that aren't available to player characters?
Will some NPCs be available as crew ("pets") under a player character's command? When will they be available? on the ground? in hubs? in personal ships?
Will crew NPCs be able to improve their own abilities? To what extent can specific NPC crew improvements be determined by players?
Can NPC crews be given tasks that they will perform while the player is offline?
Will mobs be able to move to any location (on ground as individuals or in space as ships) that player characters or their ships can reach?
Will mobs have their own lives that they lead regardless of what players do, and their own motivations for doing so?
Will mobs be able to react plausibly (based on culture, role, equipment) to environmental stimuli (run-away, attack, call-for-help, trade, offer-mission, repair, etc.)?
Will mobs be able to communicate information about environmental or internal states to each other?
Will mobs have AI that's good enough to allow them to effectively plan and carry out organized group actions?
How will players give orders to crew NPCs? Can orders be queued? Can orders be conditional (if X happens, then do Y)?
Can a player take over a specific station from an NPC (presumably to improve on an NPC's AI actions)?
Will crew NPCs need to eat or sleep?

Will characters have classes and levels, or will abilities be implemented as player-selectable skills?
Which of the different Starfleet departments (Command, Engineering, Medical, etc., and their Klingon equivalents) will be available to player characters?
How will characters advance in their departmental abilities?
What Starfleet ranks will be available to player characters? Will Commodore and Admiral ranks be available to players? What will players have to do to achieve flag rank?
Will characters advance in rank simply by earning XP or prestige? Or must some special action be completed to receive a promotion once other requirements are met?
What effects will rank have on gameplay?
What effects will being promoted to a new rank have on gameplay?
Can player characters ever be demoted? If so, how might that happen?
Can player characters ever be cashiered from their factional organization completely? If not, how will Cryptic insure that players play their characters with respect to the principles of their factional organization?
To what extent will operational and strategic gameplay be available beyond the usual short-range, short-duration tactical action?
Will characters require training from unique NPCs to learn new abilities? Or will they gain new abilities automatically when they increase in level or rank?
Will any specific forms of gameplay be required to gain new abilities?
Will there be a hard upper limit on departmental level, or a practical upper limit on the number of skills that can be learned?
Will player characters need to eat or sleep?

Will players be able to form small groups (2-8 or so) for moderately difficult content?
Will players be able to form medium-sized groups (10-40 or so) for very difficult content?
Will players be able to form large groups (50-100+)? What features or content will be offered for these organizations?
Will players be able to serve as crew aboard another player's ship?
To what degree will Star Trek Online be designed to support solo play?
How will solo play and group play be balanced?
How far can a solo player progress?
What rules will be implemented to prevent large fleets from blocking access to content by other players or groups?

Roughly how many missions are planned to be available at launch?
How often will new missions be added on an ongoing basis?
Will every mission be of a specific type (destroy, fedex, recon, escort, etc.)? Or will missions be generalized so they can successfully be completed using any of several approaches (combat, stealth, diplomacy, trade, scientific or engineering or medical assistance, etc.)?
Will all missions be pre-written and taken from NPCs, or will there be some way to randomly generate missions?
Will players with higher-ranked characters be able to create missions for lower-ranked characters to take?
Will more than one group be able to perform the same mission at the same time?
Will there be a timer (if time runs out, the missions fails) on any missions?
Will there be a counter ("you may only take this mission N times") on any missions? Will any missions be infinitely repeatable?
Will it be possible to fail some missions permanently?

What features will Star Trek Online offer to support roleplaying?
Will there be separate roleplaying-enforced servers?
Will the use of out-of-character comm channels for OOC conversations be enforced on roleplaying servers (if any)? How?
In what ways will players be able to define the initial appearance of their characters?
Will players be able to choose their character's clothing, or will every character wear standard-issue duty uniforms?
Will players be able to accessorize their character's attire with rank insignia, badges, medals, awards or other wearable objects?
How much and under what conditions can players alter their clothing?
Will characters be able to disguise themselves, and if so how will that work?
Will it be possible for more than one player on a server to have the same name? What about personal ship names?
Will there be a name filter for characters? What about for personal ships?
Will there be sports games like parrises squares or dom'jot?
Will there be gambling games like dabo?

Will players be able to explore strange new worlds? Will they need special ships or equipment to do so?
How much of a planet's surface will be explorable? Will the entire surface be rendered, or will players only be able to travel within and between a few locations hand-crafted by the developers?
Will players be able to discover new worlds and new civilizations?
Will a player who starts a new character two or more years into Star Trek Online be able to discover new worlds and civilizations?
Will a player who discovers an uninhabited star system be able to name the star and/or the worlds orbiting that star?
Will there be strategically important resources (in space or on planets) that players can discover? Once discovered, how will these resources affect gameplay?
Will players be able to make official First Contact for their faction with a unique new civilization?
Will making First Contact benefit the player's faction in some gameplay-meaningful way?
Will players be able to persuade new civilizations to join their faction?
Will players be able to persuade existing civilizations not aligned with their faction to change their alignment to the player's faction?
Will diplomacy be a viable option in most missions?
Will there be character abilities specifically supporting exploration gameplay? What about abilities for diplomacy?

Will players be able to use tricorders and ship's sensors to observe their environment and collect data?
Will players be able to use computers to analyze data to reveal the operating principles of the Star Trek Online universe? How useful will a starship's main computer be in gameplay (beyond being a glorified help database)?
Will players be able to write new programs for equipment to detect or generate particles and energy beams/fields for special purposes?
How will Science officers be able to meaningfully participate in diplomatic or combat situations?
Will there be alien diseases to cure?
Will medicine be limited to "click-to-heal-damage" and buffing/debuffing? Or will it be more of a diagnostic, "solve-a-medical-mystery" kind of game?
How detailed will pre-scripted holodeck programs be?
Will players be able to create their own holodeck programs? Can they be shared with other players?
Will ship systems have efficiency ratings that Engineering officers can optimize as a kind of minigame?
To what extent will Engineers be able to monitor the various systems of a starship?
To what extent will Engineers be able to enhance the performance of the various systems of a starship?
Can players discover alien technology? Can we somehow integrate it into our own systems? Perhaps mate with it? (I'm just asking to see if anyone is still paying attention....)

Can players produce complete items such as phasers or plasma flow regulators?
Will equipment items be unitary objects, or will they be complex assemblies of components?
Can complex objects be broken down into elemental components?
Can players assemble components in new ways to create new kinds of items?
How will new objects be acquired? Assignment from HQ? Crafting? Or as loot scavenged from defeated enemies?
Will looted objects ever be superior in quality or function to the best crafted objects?
Will equipment become damaged through use?
Will equipment decay over time?
Can players or NPC crew repair damaged equipment or maintain equipment to prevent decay?
Will buildings and fortifications be constructible?
To what extent will replicators provide desired objects or components?

Will there be money? Will characters be able to buy things, or requisition things, or just be given what someone (maybe a player, maybe an NPC) thinks they need?
Will characters be able to exchange money or items with each other?
How will large fleets be prevented from gaining and wielding too much economic influence?
Will characters be able to own items (as opposed to being assigned items owned by their factional organization)?
What kinds of personal inventory will player characters have? Pockets? Teleporter buffers? Personal quarters?
How many items can characters store in their personal inventory? Will size/weight matter?
Will the notion of "prestige" be implemented? How can it be gained? Can it be lost? Can it be transferred between players? What can be done with it?

What types of spacecraft will there be? (Starships, runabouts, shuttles, sub-light craft, etc.)
How will ships be provided to characters? Under what conditions can player characters gain access to new/better ships?
Can players design their own ships?
Can players build their own ships?
Can players direct NPCs to build new ships?
Will players experience/control ships in interior locations as 3D avatars, or from the outside as disembodied spirits, or both/neither?
Will starships be implemented mostly as unitary objects with a few capabilities (move and shoot), or as assemblies of systems benefiting from good teamwork?
How many players can be on one ship?
Will the size of a ship determine the minimum number of characters required to operate it and the maximum number of characters who can operate it?
Will multiple players be able to operate a single personal ship?
What are the ships that a solo player will be allowed to operate?
Can players modify the equipment and systems of their personal ships? If so, to what degree? Will certain character skills be required?
Will players be able to reroute power or computer functionality around damaged/destroyed ship systems?
Will some starships be able to land on planetary surfaces, or operate within planetary atmospheres or stellar photospheres?
Will players be able to set their personal ships to self-destruct? Will there be any gameplay repercussions from the player's factional organization for doing so?
Will Cryptic's version of Star Trek Online implement the "hub" concept? If so, what form will hubs take, and what will be their purpose?
Will players be able to name their personal ships? Will this name be displayed to other players?
To what extent will players be able to customize the appearance of the interiors and exteriors of their ships? How will this be limited so that each faction's ships are still recognizable as belonging to that faction?
Will there be starbases that provide useful facilities?
What role(s) will starbases play? repair? replenishment? territorial defense?
Can characters manage starbases? What gameplay features are offered at starbases?
Can characters cause starbases to be constructed, or participate in building starbases as a group crafting activity?

How complex will controls be for combat? Just a few distinct, easy-to-learn actions, or lots of actions with different modes and options?
For space combat, will tactical action be slower and "naval" in style, or will it be more "twitchy?"
For ground combat, can specific body parts be targeted? For space combat, can specific ship systems be targeted?
How "tough" will characters be? Easy to kill, dramatically hard to kill, or is toughness dependent on rank or skills?
Does taking damage on the ground affect a character's abilities and skills? Does taking damage on a ship slowly disable ship systems?
Will player characters or crew NPCs need to be healed during combat?
Can damage to ship systems be repaired during combat? Will some damage be significant enough to require a starbase or time in drydock?
Will the environment (on the ground or in space) be complex enough to provide meaningful tactical options in combat?
What effects will terrain or environmental phenomena have on combat?
Will stealthy play be supported? Can the environment be used to hide characters (fog, smoke, stealth gear) or ships (cloaking devices)?
Will piracy in space be allowed? Will it be possible to board other ships? Can other ships be captured as prizes?
Under what conditions will PvP combat be supported? Will it ever in any way be non-consensual?
Will consensual "tactical simulations" (combat that does no actual damage) be supported?

Will there be permadeath?
Will there be meaningful negative consequences for Leeroy Jenkins-like behavior?
What happens to our character if we get disconnected on a ground-based away mission?
What happens to our character if we get disconnected in space?
What happens to our character if we lose a fight in space?
What happens to our personal ship if we get disconnected in space?
What happens to our personal ship if we lose a fight in space?
Will characters age? If so, what gameplay effects will aging have?

Will players be able to drop out of warp anywhere in the implemented galaxy? Or will traveling between worlds be restricted to clicking on a planet in the current sector and moving there automatically?
Will there be any form of "instant" travel? Will players need to have visited a destination by more conventional means before being able to skip to there?
Where will players arrive for away missions? Can they choose to land anywhere, or will their avatars spawn in specific predefined ground locations?
Will transporters be allowed/required for traveling between a starship and other locations?
Will shuttlecraft be allowed/required for traveling between a starship and other locations?
On the ground, will it be possible to ride in vehicles or on animals?
What are the rules for player/player, player/mob, player/structure, mob/mob, and mob/structure collidability?

Will players be able to communicate instantly with anyone in the game regardless of where their characters or ships are located in the game world?
Will there be multiple text channels for various forms of real-time communication (server chat, ship chat, guild chat, trade, etc.)?
Will characters be able to learn and use different languages, and will these be supported in real-time in-game communication?
Will there be an in-game email system?
Will third-party programs like Ventrilo and Teamspeak be supported, or will an in-game VOIP feature be offered? Will any gameplay require a voice chat capability?
Will there be quick signals (e.g., "go to location X," "fire on my designated target") that text-mode players can send each other individually in groups? Will players be able to define their own quick signals?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Travel Times in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Fraek:
... considering the fact that there are over 70 star systems within 17.5 [l.y] of Earth ...
Just to follow up, while this is accurate it's somewhat misleading in that it describes the number of stars within the volume of a sphere centered on our sun with a radius of 17.5 light-years. That's not the same thing as the average distance between any two stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is what's important in discussing travel in a space-based game.

I may actually have been a little off on my recollection; most online sources give the average distance between two stars in our galaxy at about 5 light-years rather than 7. (However, one apparently good source indicates that the average distance between stars in the neighborhood around Earth ranges from 5 to 10 light-years, so perhaps my estimate wasn't far wrong after all.)

And "star systems" is also a little misleading. For many of the stars near Earth, we simply don't know yet whether they have planets orbiting them or not. In other words, the presence of a star does not imply that there's a "system." A star might have objects orbiting it, or it might not.

So I think I will stick with my original statement: if a Star Trek MMORPG goes with a realistic map of the stars of the Milky Way to determine the stars in Federation space, and if habitable planets are somewhat rare, then it's likely that players could need to travel 20-50 light-years or more to go from one humanoid-inhabitable world to another. The association of a ship's warp speed with real time would then be what defines interstellar travel times.

At one minute per light-year, the in-flight entertainment had better be really good.

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

This question of how to implement the economy in a MMORPG based on Star Trek is one of the more fascinating intersections of real-world economics, Star Trek, and MMORPG design. I'd hate to see the value in it get lost in the personal views that all of us (myself included) hold concerning real-world economics, though. So maybe a better way to focus this discussion would be to let go of the "why" for a moment and focus on the "how."

How should a Star Trek MMORPG be designed to implement either the money or no-money economic philosophy? What would such a game look like; what would the typical player's experience be like?

For those who'd like to see Star Trek Online follow the possibility that citizens of the Federation don't use money, how would that work as a massively multiplayer online game? How would such a game satisfy those players who do enjoy the mercantile subgame of current MMORPGs while staying true to the concept of characters living in a world where the pursuit of wealth is explicitly rejected as a primary raison d'etre? What kinds of features would such a game have, if the economic subgame usually found in MMORPGs is not developed? How will your game explain the lack of manufacturing and sales features to potential ST:O players who don't feel it's a real MMORPG without them? Could crafting be fun in such a game? How?

For those convinced that a moneyless game is both unrealistic and unfun, how would you implement your vision of Trekonomics in Star Trek Online? What should a massively multiplayer game based on Star Trek look like where players are able to make value exchanges with each other but where the acquisition of money is clearly not a driving force in the lives of most Federation citizens? How will your game explain the existence of a trade-based economy to potential ST:O players who don't feel it's "Star Trek" enough? How would the economic features in your vision for ST:O address the problem of gold-farming, which disrupts gameplay as designed by the game's developers? What would crafting look like in your Star Trek MMORPG?

I think if we could see two competing designs and compare them, that would be a much more practical way to understand the pros and cons of both approaches than batting them around as theoretical possibilities. I happen to like discussing possibilities, but maybe this discussion would benefit from taking a more practical tack.

Of course no one is obligated to put forward any such description of the game they'd want to play. I'm not implying that it's somehow a "proof" that anyone's wrong if no one offers a vision of how ST:O might play with or without a production/exchange/consumption economy.

But I do think it would be a more constructive way to explore this question.

That said, there's a specific question about crafting to which I'd like to respond:

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
How does money improve the gameplay in the context of a Starfleet setting? Your answer so far: People love to make money. They do not craft or trade for fun and joy. They trade for virtual currencies, to rise the value of a number that states the characters currency possession. They craft to say: "I have 50.000 virtual banana muffins, while you only have 10.000, you nOOb!"
The theory I operate under says that yes, there actually are people who like to craft just for the joy of making new things.

What I think has happened is that MMORPGs have been designed around consumption as a subgame. To give combat players more things to do, games are designed so that items are either destroyed in use, are damaged or decay over time, or become too weak compared to the character's advancing level. Constantly acquiring new high-value objects thus becomes something else one must do to play the game.

In some games, the developers allow player themselves to supply some, most, or all of these objects by "crafting." Not surprisingly, then, crafting in these games tends to look like a combination of manufacturing and sales. When one says "crafting," most MMORPG players today will instantly translate this into something like "making a bunch of objects in order to get rich by accumulating the money received from other players in exchange for those objects."

I get funny looks from some people because I question whether this is all that crafting should be. By coming at crafting from a more personality-oriented perspective, my perception is that there are a lot of people who try crafting in a MMORPG and are immediately repulsed by it because it bears no resemblance to their translation of "crafting," which is closer to "imagining and constructing unique new objects to better understand the principles of construction."

These people are completely turned off by the Achiever-like, accumulation-focused design of manufacturing/sales crafting. What they want is Explorer crafting: the exploration of design and building principles through the creation of new kinds of objects. For them, they do want to craft for "fun and joy!" For them, it's not about making money at all; money is just a means to an end, not the end in and of itself, which is to express a kind of practical creativity. For them, it's not about cranking out a thousand identical copies of some simple thing, it's about the joy of being surprised when an experiment doesn't turn out as expected. (As Isaac Asimov once observed, the real moments of progress in science are almost never "Eureka!" events -- they're someone in the middle of the night scratching their head over some experimental results and saying, "Hmm, that's funny....")

Whether anyone else finds value in the actual objects these crafters produce is irrelevant...

...that is, it would be irrelevant if any developer ever actually built such a MMORPG whose crafting system understood and valued Explorers-as-crafters. (Or perhaps I should say crafters-as-Explorers.)

As a practical matter, any MMORPG with a player-run production/exchange/consumption economy pretty much has to design its crafting system to enable manufacturing and sales. I get that. What I'm saying is that MMORPG developers so far are failing to appreciate that crafting can and should be more than this, that crafting should be designed so that it goes beyond mere combat support and becomes a viable form of gameplay in its own right.

A truly great MMORPG will offer not just manufacturing/sales to appeal to the Achievers (who already have combat gameplay). It will also offer the creative/surprising crafting that is appealing to the Explorers who will happily discover all manner of neat new kinds of objects (and thus expanding the entire game economy) not to make money, but simply because they enjoy tinkering to increase the total amount of understanding of how the (game) world works.

That philosophy sure sounds like the Federation's to me. So, regardless of whether we think the Federation uses money or not, wouldn't Star Trek Online be a particularly good game in which to offer such a broadly-appealing crafting system?

The Interfering Organians

I always thought it was interesting that the Organians were presented as this very advanced race with the power to interfere in the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire... but apparently they didn't have anything like Starfleet's Prime Directive to constrain the use of that power against less advanced beings.

This makes the Organians intriguing from a real-world historical perspective. TOS: "Errand of Mercy", which (according to Memory Alpha) introduced the Klingons to Star Trek, was written by Gene L. Coon. It's interesting to speculate on whether his US Marine Corps experience in Korea gave him a personal view of the Cold War that led him to conceive of the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire as stand-ins for the United States and the Soviet Union respectively.

If that was the case, then Coon's Organian "solution" is pretty fascinating. Rather than concluding that a sociopolitical system based on recognizing the dignity of the free individual was intrinsically better than one based on the power of the state to compel obedience, Coon treated both parties as morally equivalent and their real differences as little better than the petty squabbling of children. The Organians are basically the equivalent of a disapproving parent who says, "I don't care who started it, I'm sending you both to your rooms for a timeout."

If "Errand of Mercy" was wishful thinking on Gene Coon's part regarding the US and the USSR, it's a good thing he never got his wish or there'd still be a wall in Berlin; the Cold War would never have ended in the West's favor (at least for a few years); the major powers would still be trying to prop up and knock down smaller countries as proxies; and everybody who had 'em would still be trying to stockpile nukes for the day the bad guys came across the "neutral zone" in force.

I consider this an example of the impatience common to those of a particular political persuasion. "You're not doing what I think you should do fast enough, so I'm going to make you do it right now" seems to be the attitude... the only problem with which is that people don't learn when "solutions" are imposed on them. Children need direction, but functional adults learn from solving their own problems. That's one-half of the reason for something like a Prime Directive. The other half is that if history shows us anything, it is how easily we slide from using power to solve the problems of others "for their own good" to accumulating and using power for its own sake. Best not to get into the habit of interfering with the internal problems of others.

(For those determined to see inconsistency in that principle regarding recent actions undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq, please note that there's a difference between "interference in someone else's purely internal disputes which they can solve themselves" and "intervention in our own self-defense when nothing else will work." Intervention is a rational middle ground between isolationism and interference, and can be justified by evidence that one's security is meaningfully at risk. Having said that, I agree that reasons for action should never be allowed to become mere rationalization. A culture of intervention can too easily transmute into a belief in the rightness of interference, into an unquestioning acceptance of "we should because we can" thinking. That is a real threat, and it is right to caution against it... but setting a blanket policy that all intervention is forbidden is as childish as a policy that interference in internal civil matters is justifiable merely because we have the power to do so.)

All in all, the actions written for the Organians in "Errand of Mercy" has always seemed to me like an aberration in the otherwise consistent message of "might for right" in Star Trek. I never liked the moral equivalence the writer seemed to be drawing between democratic-capitalism and communism. I never liked the way that civilizations of intelligent adults were treated like children. (Shades of how the Vulcans treated Earth for years after First Contact, no?) And I never liked the deus ex machina ending to "Errand of Mercy" just from a pure storytelling point of view.

There was a deeper, truer and more satisfying story to be told here. Perhaps someday there will be an episode of a new Star Trek series that tells it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Travel Times in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by hudi:
Ok I was thinking if this game is going to come as close as it can to being realistic how long it it going to take to get to a destination. Say 7 light years away. Don't scream at me if I am wrong but if you were going at Warp 1 that would take approximately 7 hours.
To me, this depends a lot on how densely stars are packed in a Star Trek MMORPG.

If it's realistic (and why shouldn't it be?), seven light-years would probably be in the ballpark (though on the low side) of the average distance between any two stars in Earth's neighborhood. (A cluster would have more stars, and the average distance between stars would be a lot greater in the space between two arms of the Milky Way galaxy out in Federation space.)

So let's say 10 light-years is the average distance between any two stars in Federation space. Assuming further that not every star will have a nice, friendly Minshara-class planet orbiting it, and that a Star Trek MMORPG will have some stars and planets that aren't seeded with explicit content (pre-warp civilizations, advanced lifeforms handing out missions, pirate bases, etc.), then very goal-focused players who only want to take missions could wind up needing to travel for 20-50 lightyears or more to go between star systems with local civilizations. At one light-year per minute, we're potentially talking about needing an hour of travel to get from one populated world to another.

Now, that doesn't bother me, since I'm hoping that interstellar space won't be completely empty and that player ships will be full of interesting systems -- this combination will give players plenty of things to do while traveling from Point A to Point B. But that's me --- today's typical MMORPG player is notorious for loudly throwing hate at any kind of "delay" in leaping from one source of content to another. I don't agree with catering to that kind of complaining or attitude, but these folks will be paying customers, too. So it's appropriate to give their interests fair consideration in design.

It looks to me, therefore, like the big question in terms of travel will be a choice:

Option 1: Travel will be free-range, where players can drive their starships wherever they want in space whether there's "content" there or not.

Option 2: Travel will be a point-and-click kind of deal where the only way to get anywhere is to bring up a sector map, click on a destination world (presumably one that's been pre-rendered and populated with NPCs), say "GO!", and then getting there takes you only the time required to load audio/video assets. You'll go from Point A to Point B in a few seconds and never see anything in between.

I personally much prefer Option 1. I think it works better for exploration. But I expect there'll be a lot of people who think it's blindingly obvious that only Option 2 is acceptable.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by Frederickkay:
I still want SF to be a goodguys orginasation and all, and morrality to be a main subject, but to make that interestin STO should ask players questions about their own morrality. People do like luxory items and people do tend to fight. This thread is about if we should concidder adjusting canon to make STO more fun and make ST more realistic. How far should we go? how dark should it be?
My take on this is that Star Trek Online needs to be a unique new blend of both Star Trek and a MMORPG, and not just one with some flavor of the other. For that to work, the Star Trek side is going to have to give a little bit... and so will the MMORPG side.

In general, I think that means Star Trek ceding some ground on the utopianist vision. I don't think we can turn the Federation into a bunch of utterly amoral dealers of random death -- that would be going too far -- but they do need their principles challenged, and sometimes we might fail those challenges. Despite being better people than those crude 21st-century types, humans at the dawn of the 25th century are still human.

At the same time, the MMORPG/game side also needs to yield some ground for it to be able to coexist with the core Star Trek vibe. To my mind, a Star Trek MMORPG simply cannot just be another shooter/looter -- there must be strongly realized characters; there must be stories with heart to them (not just thinly-veiled excuses for action); and, most importantly, there must be less emphasis on destruction and winning-through-accumulation.

I'm not saying Star Trek Online shouldn't have combat or interesting items to acquire. That would be asking the MMORPG/game side to give up too much. What I'm saying is that the ratio of those things to the rest of the game can't be as extreme as is the case in pretty much all other AAA-title MMORPGs -- not if the "Star Trek" part of this game's title is to mean anything. For this game to properly leverage that part of the Star Trek license, there must also be significant content that lets the better angels of our nature emerge.

That doesn't mean everybody has to be a goody-two-shoes all the time. It means that a character's making the harder choice not to solve every problem with violence ought to generate the greater rewards to that character over the long term.

So to answer your question directly, no, I don't think Star Trek Online would be more fun if players can be as "dark" as they are in other MMORPGs, killing randomly and constantly just to collect more stuff. In fact, I think that would make this game much less fun than it should and can be. As you said, content that forces us to confront hard questions about our morality is a good idea. I'm just going a little further to say that this game should allow the answer to sometimes be more than just power growing from the barrel of a phaser.

A truly memorable game would include not only content that acknowledges the evil of which humankind is capable, but would also offer at least as much content that unapologetically says that peace, justice, freedom, understanding, and a proper respect for sentient life are preferable (even if we fail sometimes to measure up).

Other games are all about the darkness. Star Trek Online can be better -- it can admit the darkness while showing that light is better.

In summary, I think a Star Trek MMORPG can have plenty of action and excitement without turning every player character into a mass murderer. There are already enough games out there like that.

It's time for an alternative. And Star Trek Online can and should be that alternative.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Demographics for a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
The material question you asked did not go unanswered; Perpetual should be going after exactly the audience they're going after, and have stated they're going after which is a combination of MMO fans with little Trek experience, hardcore Trek fans, latent Trek fans, and general games. That's why I've been saying throughout this thread that this debate is actually over nothing, and making an academic distinction that's unwarranted.
It's possible that this accurately described Perpetual's intentions. I don't believe that necessarily makes our discussing it entirely academic, however, since:

1. Intentions can change, in which case our having explored the driving concerns might contribute something useful to the discussion of the new design/marketing plan. [Addendum 2008/03/27: I would say that Perpetual Entertainment losing the license to make Star Trek Online is a pretty good example of how "intentions can change," possibly leading some other developer to adopt a different marketing strategy and therefore a different game design.]
2. Someone might make such a great point in disagreement that Star Trek Online's developers could adjust their own intentions. (Not likely, but possible.)
3. Discussing it, even if it's exactly what the developer already plans to do, could help us non-developers and amateur designers better understand how and why these design/marketing decisions are made.
It occurs to me that the kinds of questions I've been asking about ST:O's design and marketing are really "why" questions, not "what" questions. When a developer says, "we're going to do X," then there's little point in arguing that they should do X or Y or Z... but there is, I think, value in talking further about why they might want to do X or Y or Z.

Maybe when I say, "ST:O should be like X because 1, 2, and 3" you feel I'm focusing on the "should be like X" when in my mind I'm focusing on the "because 1, 2, and 3." Is this possible? It might explain why to some it seems silly to keep talking about a decision they think the developer has already made, while to others there's still value in exploring the reasons behind various development decisions.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
is it your contention there are no notable and significant barriers to drawing people across media, particuarly to MMOs, regardless of age group? I think it's a question that still hasn't yet been appropriately addressed in the thread, and probably the most important one.
As I said earlier, I think passive entertainment consumption will always exceed interactive entertainment consumption. (At least until we have real holodecks!) In other words, no, I certainly don't think it's possible to get everyone who likes a particular movie or TV show or book to play an online computer game based on the setting and characters of those passive entertainment forms. For reasons of both human nature and the time available to the typical person in our society, active entertainment is less popular than passive entertainment -- no franchise can ever reasonably expect to achieve a 1:1 ratio across media.

But that doesn't means some amount of penetration into the numbers of those who currently don't play online games isn't possible. With the right design, and with enough of the right marketing, I think an online game that taps into several generally untapped markets could bring in more gamers than even WoW is currently enjoying.

In summary, my argument is that a Star Trek MMORPG can attract more subscribers than other MMORPGs from the passive license fans and from the general public if it takes the usual MMORPG feature set and completes it by adding the following:

  • design and marketing for casual (30-minute to one-hour) players

  • design and marketing for social players (engrossing gameplay-based stories, and chat -- with perhaps live Web links -- with a light Star Trek feel)

  • design and marketing for Explorers and Socializers (key motivators IMO within self-identified Star Trek fans)
I don't think a gameworld like this would look like your typical MMORPG. It certainly wouldn't be your typical hardcore, gameplay-uber-alles MMORPG that exclusively attracts hardcore gamers. Which is precisely why I think it would have considerably broader appeal than the typical MMORPG has (among Westerners, anyway).

Pulling across age groups and across media is almost an incidental side effect of the focus I'm suggesting, which more than anything is about recognizing how people today want to spend their entertainment time. Most people will prefer to watch TV or see a movie or read a book... but a game that's not too far removed from these things has a chance to capture the attention (and pocketbook) of those entertainment consumers who would be willing to try an online game that didn't demand too much from them.

I see no reason why Star Trek Online couldn't or shouldn't be that game.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Religion and Politics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
Remember that one of the cultural legacies of Trek (if you'll forgive the up-with-people, touchy-feely stuff) is that it presented an optimistic, progressive (left-wing, if you must) view of a future society transformed by technology, at least as much as by social development and change.

I think that the point of this thread, that we're dancing around -- is that believers of Christianity, Islam, Judaism -- whatever -- would like to believe in a future that validates their present beliefs. That humanity hasn't done away with faith. That a positive view of the future has space for spirituality.
I think we have at least two important points of agreement:

  • a core feature of Star Trek is its optimistic, we-can-be-better outlook

  • believers in current faiths consider their beliefs positive and hope for them to still be around in the future
The thing is, I think I can agree with you on these points and still come to a different conclusion regarding a Star Trek MMORPG and real-world religions because there's an additional point to consider, which is that Star Trek Online will be a massively multiplayer online game.

If you've read even a few of my posts here, you'll know I'm an unapologetic defender of the idea that a Star Trek MMORPG needs to have distinctive Star Trek characteristics in its core feature set. But that doesn't mean I can ignore the special constraints and opportunities that being a game, and being a game that's played by many people in a persistent world, will impose on Star Trek Online.

Being a computer-based game means that it has to be interactive fun, first and foremost. And being played by a lot of people means it has to be designed to satisfy the entertainment goals of as many people as possible as far as possible given that different people define "fun" very differently.

One way to accomplish that is to push the "magic circle" concept. By choosing to keep real-world stuff out of the game world, you minimize opportunities for one person's passions to interfere with someone else's fun. Of course that's not a perfect solution since for some people exploring religious and spiritual beliefs is fun. The problem is that this is extremely not-fun for other players... and making a commercial multiplayer game is about trying to maximize fun for the maximum number of paying customers.

If the goal was to build a Star Trek simulator, I'd actually be on board with including real-world religions. I'd probably even go for "ethical scenarios" in the Star Trek style, even though I retain my suspicion that no developer would long be able to resist going completely Aaron Sorkin on players by turning NPCs into self-righteously frothing mouthpieces for some "up yours, bourgeoisie!" ideology.

But regardless of who makes it, Star Trek Online will be a game, not just a Star Trek sim. That being the case, I wouldn't be surprised if they choose to keep many real-world things -- including religion -- out of the game.

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
... particularly if they collapse below a particular threshold point. I'm thinking of SWG's economy -- once widely touted as the most sophisticated and detailed crafting systems in any MMO (and possibly still is) -- the Auction House in SWG is arguably one of the hardest hit sectors of that games' mass-exodus. The troubled relationship of that failed economy to its already beleaguered playerbase only compounds the problems of SWG.
Indeed -- a fully player-run economy is a double-edged sword.

As long as you've got a critical mass of players on every server and a crafting system that's actually fun to play, you're good; there'll always be enough crafters making enough items for supply and demand to control prices. You don't have to stick a thumb on the balance scales with NPC vendors who magically create goods out of thin air in order to "stabilize" prices at some "fair" point -- if your crafting system is effective, your players will do that for you.

But when you lose too many players (or just crafters), a fully player-run economy can no longer support itself. Prices start bouncing because there aren't enough crafters consistently filling demand. So, to insure a constant supply of what your players are (loudly) demanding, you add high-value items as loot drops and quest rewards. (Which is precisely what SOE/LA started doing around the time of the Combat Upgrade, despite having told players several times in the Elder Days of SWG that crafted items would always be better than anything that could be looted.)

Result: crafters left the game. Why would players want to do a bunch of little things to make money to pay a crafter for an item when it's easier to do a quest or kill a few mobs and score something even better? Why would commerce-oriented crafters stick around in such an environment?

But of course now that you have fewer crafters, you need more loot drops, which further drives off crafters, etc., etc.

I won't say this means that every game might as well start off with NPC vendors, or that fully player-run economies can't work. They can work; SWG's economy worked just fine before combat was allowed to utterly dominate the game (leading to high-end loot and quest rewards).

Instead, I think I would say the lesson is that if you're going to have a fully player-run economy in your game, you'd better make a point of always treating your crafters as first-class citizens and not mere support systems for combat gameplay. And don't drive off so many customers that your servers turn into ghost towns -- that's bad for business, both real and virtual.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Player Ship Interiors +

As just one more conception of a Star Trek MMORPG, I think there's room somewhere in between "an entire game ... needs to exist before player ship interiors become useful" and "nothing more than a ship-based recreation of a Trek episode".

I favor designing player ships with a few key interiors. Absolutely there is a cost to doing so; the question is whether the potential benefits sufficiently exceed the likely costs to make them worth accepting.

A big chunk of my "yes" answer comes from the following beliefs I hold:

1. Serving aboard a powerful and complex starship is one of the two or three most crucial aspects of all of Star Trek. Hub ships with interiors and operable systems will help offer that in a Star Trek MMORPG, but not enough if most players spend most of their time aboard player ships. To maximize their value, key license features need to be implemented where the players are... and players in Star Trek Online will, I think, be predominantly in player ships.

2. Gameplay consisting of working with a few other players aboard a vessel with segmented systems would positively distinguish ST:O from SWG and EVE, its main competitors in the science fiction genre. Those games are mostly about single-player fighter craft, giving Star Trek Online a legitimate chance to be the only mass market AAA online RPG offering a richly detailed multiplayer shipboard experience.

3. Interacting with the other players on board a ship solely through an outside-the-ship "viewscreen" metaphor will not deliver the same You-Are-There feeling provided by a 3-D interior model that allows characters to interact with other characters as avatars. Tactical efficiency is not the only thing that matters in designing the character interface model for a game.

Overall, I think a measured selection of features that are likely to pay off their development cost is exactly what ST:O needs, for the question of player ship interiors as for every other design question.

Others have expressed their opinions on what would be the best measure, and that's fine. For me, that measure comes with implementing a few key interior locations -- say, Bridge, Engineering, and Sickbay -- aboard every player ship big enough to reasonably have such locations. Let those interiors house controllable ship systems, and populate each ship with enough NPCs of the right type to offer interesting content for each location based on the ship's current mission.

At that point I think you have a game design that makes effective use of the license.

Religion and Politics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Frederickkay:
I dont immidiatly believe internal debate would be bad for the game, what do you mean with breaking the magic circle.
The "magic circle" is just the idea that when you're playing a role-playing game, when you pretend to be a character in an imaginary world with other people, it's as though you're all inside a magic circle within which all that stuff is treated as though it were real. The other side of this is that everything outside the magic circle -- the real world -- should not be allowed to break the circle; when it does, it prevents people from enjoying the feeling of being inside the game world.

This doesn't matter to everyone, but it's really important to some gamers. For them, a lot of the fun of the game is wrapped up in the stuff behind the gameplay. It's not just about increasing a number or owning somebody -- it's about experiencing the story and logic of the world in which the gameplay occurs.

So when these gamers are trying to play the game that way and somebody starts talking about last night's football game or their English Lit homework, it breaks the "magic circle." It makes it impossible for them to get the value out of the game that they're paying for.

Bringing real-world religions inside the magic circle of a Star Trek game would produce the same effect. Instead of doing Star Trek stuff, people would sometimes focus -- out loud -- on "their" religion, or on putting down someone else's religion. Next thing you know, there's a big fight and nobody anywhere near it can just play the game.

Some people are jerks, so this kind of thing is going to happen no matter what. The question is whether any MMORPG developer would decide to make it more likely to happen by actively bringing contentious real-world religions inside the magic circle of the game world.

Originally Posted by Frederickkay:
The only thing I think should be implemented is a good way to channel this debate. A special philisophical chat channel with poll questions and good chairs to guide the debate would help allot, keeping regular channels free from people flaming each other for their believes.
It's good to be constructive, but experience suggests to me that people simply will not restrict their opinions to OOC channels. There'll always be people who want to make religious remarks in public channels just to stir up trouble, and there'll always be people who feel they have to respond aggressively to such remarks.

And then the whole thing snowballs. By the time a GM steps in, the damage is already done.

Overall, it's a cost-benefit thing. As I see it, the potential benefits of having real-world religions inside the magic circle of the game world are considerably less than the likely costs (including actual financial costs) of building features around those religions and managing the flame wars that are bound to erupt when people feel their real-world religious identities are being questioned in the game world.


On the possibility of ethical questions as part of gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG, I'm still thinking carefully about whether or not any game developer can be objective enough to pose such stories fairly. Moralizing (as Star Trek sometimes did) is bad enough on a passive-entertainment TV show; I'm pretty sure I don't want my character penalized with negative XP for choosing the "wrong" answer -- i.e., the one that doesn't conform to some game developer's real-world sociopolitical biases -- in an online game.

Skill Training in EVE Online +

Something I haven't said much about is why, despite its negative side effects, I generally like EVE Online's offline skill training model.

The answer is pretty simple: because the negative side effects produced by the online XP collection model are worse.

Here are some of the problems that come to mind when considering an online-XP design:

1. It promotes mindless grinding behavior instead of exploring the gameworld and story behavior. It damages immersion to run into a bunch of people just cranking through some trivial action over and over and over again for XP... and that kind of design actually attracts such people, making the problem even worse. (No, not everyone considers this a problem, but some do, and they're paying to play the game, too.)

2. It allows players to level up quickly. Once they're at max level, unless they like raiding (assuming the game even has raiding) or want to start up a new character (and not everyone does), they're done with the game. They leave, and stop paying a subscription fee.

3. It's rare, but there have been some cases (esp. in South Korea, where it's estimated that something like 30% of the population plays online games) of people dying from neglecting their health to play for three or more days straight.

4. A design that lets people level up as long as they keep playing can't possibly be good for their hygiene....

Demographics for a Star Trek MMORPG +

It looks like we're not going to see eye-to-eye on this one, so I won't belabor it. You did directly ask a few questions, though, and courtesy suggests that I offer at least brief responses. So here goes.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
you should probably [provide] backup for this assertion that disposable income and wealth automatically increases in a linear and progressive fashion through life. There's certainly nothing that says that's universally or even necessarily true, and it doesn't account for increases and decreases of Americans considered to be under the poverty level, without jobs, in financial crisis, fixed incomes, etc.
I didn't say "through life," nor did I ever characterize it as "linear" -- I said, "30-somethings still have more money to spend than 20-somethings; 40-somethings still have more money to spend than 30-somethings; and so on for at least one or two more decade brackets."

If you truly find it impossible to believe that people who earn more money have more money to spend (even after taxes and necessity costs), please see this Catosphere report (in .PDF format).

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
The reason the counterarguments presented so far have been unsuccessful is that they don't actually address the substantiative point: that there are notable and significant barriers to drawing people across media, and particuarly to MMOs. Is it your contention that there are no such barriers, regardless of age group?
"Unsuccessful" to you -- let's let other people decide for themselves which argument they find more persuasive.

As to the specific question, here's what I said:

Originally Posted by Flatfingers:
I agree with the observation that passive entertainment (movies) will probably always be more popular in raw numbers than active/interactive entertainment (online games), so I'm definitely not saying that movie attendance numbers will translate directly to MMORPG subscription numbers.
So I've already agreed with you on that point. What I'm saying is that it's not the only point to consider when deciding how to design and market a game. Although no game developer should expect to capture everyone who likes a particular movie or book, it's not unreasonable to think that some can be persuaded to try a game based on the strength of the license... otherwise why pay a bunch of money to license any property to make a game out of it?

To me this leads to what seems like a perfectly unobjectionable conclusion that Star Trek Online needs to be designed and marketed beyond just current MMORPG players.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
And specifically relating to age groups, if we're generally talking about a population that's mid-20s and older, where does the common conception of the MMO/game population as being in a teenaged-early 20s bracket originate from? Merely bad conventional wisdom? Are we all merely not paying attention?
I put it down to the enthusiasm of youth: They seem to dominate these games because they're the ones who are most vocal about them. We hear from them most often (and most energetically), so we tend to perceive them as the entire population. There's nothing about this that merits ridicule; it's a natural kind of shorthand we all engage in (myself included). I've just observed, talked to, and seen academic references to too many older gamers to unquestioningly accept the "all gamers are young" perception.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that 30+ gamers are a kind of "silent majority." (In fact, I definitely wouldn't say they're a majority of the gamer population -- not yet, anyway.) But I am persuaded that they now exist in such numbers as to make it commercially smart to design and market to them to some meaningful degree.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
the alternative to the existence of a stigma is merely that nobody finds Trek particularly interesting anymore. Which is it?
I would say "an" alternative, not "the" alternative. People and society aren't so monolithic.

Another alternative is that Star Trek, including its nerdiness, is part of the mainstream culture now, and is subject to the same standards of entertainment quality as anything else. People can and do still enjoy Star Trek as a unique product while still holding to such standards as exist in entertainment, starting with good writing (the number one complaint I have seen and heard lodged against Berman & Co.).

Star Trek is still a valuable franchise with considerable goodwill among entertainment consumers, and CBS and at least a couple of game developers appear to agree with that assessment.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Demographics for a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
Now, not to get too technical, but I think it's somewhat inaccurate to say that people in their 30s, on average, are primed to have more disposable income. This may be true in some cases, and may have been true in more prosperous times, but it's terribly unlikely to be true now. Real wages are down in the United States, credit is difficult to find, jobs even among the middle class and white collar sectors are being sent abroad, costs both for basic necessities (gas, milk) and major investments are up dramatically, new homes purchases are down dramatically - in other words, in the present economy, you're far more likely to struggle with money in your 30s than you are to have it to spend.
Not to get too technical myself, nor to open up an economic-political debate, but I consider your list of woes a) incorrect unless one cherry-picks particular moments in economic history to make today look bad by comparison ("down" and "up" are relative terms), b) incomplete versus the general trend of economic activity today (regardless of how the major media prefer to report only the economic news that damages an administration they don't like), and c) irrelevant. If economic matters were as bad as you imply, people would be leaving WoW, not still paying to play it in record numbers.

More importantly, this analysis confuses two slices into the economic data. The perceived amount of disposable income across time (months/years ago vs. today) isn't applicable to this thread. What we're talking about here is disposable income across age brackets today, which is generally independent of how good or bad we think the U.S./world economy is doing today versus some time in the past. Even if today's economy is as bad as you claim it is, within today's population 30-somethings still have more money to spend than 20-somethings; 40-somethings still have more money to spend than 30-somethings; and so on for at least one or two more decade brackets.

Overall I don't think it's unreasonable at all, if you're making a product for sale, to design it at least in part according to who's more likely to have money. 20-somethings, with lower-income jobs, have time but not money... so why design the features of games to appeal so particularly to them? Being able to spend lots of time in-game is irrelevant to revenue if having less disposable income means one person is less able to pay for a subscription-based game than another person who has less time but more money.

Plus the people who'll pay for a whole subscription but stay logged in less of the time are actually more valuable customers. If there are enough of them -- and that's an open question -- then from a purely business perspective, reaching out to them with features seems like a good idea.

Consciously designing a Star Trek MMORPG (and perhaps any modern MMORPG) to appeal to people with more money than time doesn't really seem to me to be such a terribly objectionable suggestion. So if 30-somethings and possibly even 40-somethings are not who Star Trek Online should be aimed at, then who should be targeted and why?

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
It's not like EVE and WoW are overrun with 30 and 40 year olds, though of course there's going to be a higher percentage of such in WoW due to a larger subscriber base. It doesn't scale down to STO in the way you might suggest.
That, I think I'm correct in saying, is a matter of opinion, not fact.

I'd actually be OK with assuming that the average age of WoW's players is mid-20s. But I'd bet the average age in EVE is higher -- not by a lot, since the full-frontal PvP of EVE probably appeals to a younger player, but I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that the typical EVE player is nearly 30.

And I'd bet the average age of a SWG player one year post-launch -- when it was still a thoughtful game but after the younger gamers with shorter attention spans had already moved on to something else -- was low- to mid-30s.

The people who grew up with the Atari 2600 and who've played games ever since are not far from their peak earning years. (And the people who started watching Star Trek with TNG aren't far behind.) Overall, then, there are more older gamers now than ever before, and it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that process to continue for at least another decade... during which time Star Trek Online (assuming it ever gets made) will be active.

Again, I truly don't see this idea that the features of online games should adapt to reflect the reality of aging and wealthier gamers -- i.e., going where the customers are -- as either surprising or deserving of strong dissent.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
And Flatfingers, I'm still interested to know - what makes you think these people that you feel Perpetual ought to attempt to bring in won't be "Achievers", as you've put it?
Some of them will be, of course. The general population appears to consist primarily of Achievers and Manipulators (their non-gameplay-specific personality style equivalents, actually). If you buy my theory that Achievers = Guardians (in Keirsey's temperament theory) and Manipulators (Bartle's "Killers") = Keirsey's Artisans, then there's some evidence (from Myers-Briggs surveys) that Achievers and Manipulators are indeed a significant majority of most Western populations.

That being the case, I'd certainly also expect to see Achievers and Manipulators in Star Trek fandom... but Star Trek fans aren't the general population (surely we can agree on that! :) ). Star Trek, despite the action sequences, still appeals strongly to the Idealists and Rationals -- the Socializers and Explorers, respectively.

By offering social and exploratory features as Actual Core Gameplay -- not as a mere text/graphics/audio skin cynically intended to bring in the marks, nor as mere support features for a combat game -- the developers of a Star Trek MMORPG can pull in more of the Star Trek fans. Up to some reasonable point, that would be commercially smart; otherwise why agree to be limited by the Star Trek license with all of its restrictions and lore requirements (and rabid fans)?

In summary, I don't think there's anything inconsistent with the position that it's possible to offer Achievers and Manipulators and Socializers and Explorers a gameworld they can all enjoy. I believe it can be done, and done well; it would make some games better; and games with richly detailed "world" backstories -- and a persistent-world online game based on Star Trek must IMO be such a game -- require this depth to achieve maximum appeal to likely subscribers.

That's sort of the point of seeing gameworlds as game "worlds." The chance to build a world with wide popular appeal -- a place that people can both "live in" and "play in" -- comes along so rarely that none of us should be satisfied with a game that caters to just one or two styles.

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
Star Trek XI is an experiment and a test, rather than proof of strength.
I think it's reasonably regarded as evidence that the IP still has some strength when you look at what Hollywood is willing to bankroll. The money people are known to be highly risk-averse. So if the new Star Trek movie truly is charting a new course for the franchise, if in addition to being a sequel it's also an experiment, that's actually evidence that its new owners and financiers think there's more support for Star Trek as an entertainment franchise than the mere numbers suggest. Otherwise they wouldn't risk multiple millions of dollars making yet another movie based on this franchise.

Whether they will be proven correct is another question. But what we're discussing here is whether declining numbers for Star Trek on TV are evidence of such a loss of popularity for the franchise that focusing an online Star Trek game on the "game" part is justified. My view is that the willingness to make another Star Trek movie suggests that someone thinks there are still Star Trek fans, existing and latent, who will be interested in it as the core of an entertainment product, whether movie or game.

It's probably worth mentioning here that I'm not suggesting you think anything like, "Oh, Star Trek is dead; Star Trek Online should just be a generic MMORPG." At the same time, insisting that Star Trek is a property in serious decline ("stigma"?) raises the question: if Star Trek is really such an untouchable property now, why should any game developer ever agree to make a game with "Star Trek" even in its title, much less in its features?

I've actually made two suggestions: one, that there's enough of an active and latent fan base for Star Trek that ST:O should be designed in part to satisfy those people, and two, that there's enough general-purpose entertainment value in Star Trek to design ST:O in part as mass-market entertainment (i.e., imagine and implement some features appealing to non-MMO fans regardless of whether those features break with the conventions of most current MMORPGs).

If that's not the right target for Star Trek Online, if it shouldn't be designed and marketed in roughly equal proportions to fans of current MMORPGs, Star Trek fans, and the general public, then what is the proper balance of a target market for this online entertainment service?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Cheating in a Star Trek MMORPG

For an unhappy picture of just how far some people are willing to go to "win" in an online multiplayer game, take a look at Gamasutra's excerpt from Exploiting Online Games by Greg Hoglund and Gary McGraw.

What a nightmare that online game developers have to spend any time designing their game to counter this kind of stuff....

So what about Star Trek Online? How far should its developer go in defending it from exploitation by macros, sniffers, code injection, aimbots, speedhacks, and other such cheats?

Where should the line be drawn between reasonable automation and botting?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Religion and Politics in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by Irdnova:
I was wondering if a game of this dynamic as Star Trek Lore does should have a place in it that has Religious and Cultural beliefs as a major part of how you (your character) or the world and species you interact with have these traits.
There really are two questions here. Religion and culture are different enough to be worth treating separately.

Firstly, concerning religion in a Star Trek MMORPG, there are two choices: real-world religions, and made-up Star Trek-y religions (though these could possibly be stand-ins for real-world religions).

The main point I'd like to make here is that IMO a game developer would have to be out of their collective minds to make a mass-market online game that included actual real-world religions as any kind of official feature. The potential payoff for doing so (whatever that might be) is so unlikely to come anywhere close to the potential downside (people harassing each other in-game for horrible real-world PR and potential legal action) that the odds of it happening seem pretty low to me.

Having made-up religions takes a lot of the sting out of that problem... but not all of it. This is particularly true if Star Trek Online's developer elects to do what Star Trek's various writers and producers did, which was to science-fictionalize current-day issues for dramatic purposes. Star Trek on TV could get away with a certain amount of that. For a passive medium like a TV show, generating external debate is not necessarily a bad thing. But for an interactive medium like an online game, that debate is guaranteed not to be external at all -- it will happen in-game, and as such real-world argument intrudes it will destroy the "magic circle" of the game's story and setting.

So although I think it might be possible to have made-up religions in ST:O, and even to use them to pose (but not "answer"!) questions about religion in our real world, I suspect that ST:O's developer will choose not to implement even made-up religions, either, unless as non-interactive text to flavor a story. I could be wrong about this, of course, and I'll be interested to see how it's handled.

Secondly, there's culture. This, I think, would be a great addition to a Star Trek Online -- in fact, it's hard to imagine alien races feeling really alien without them having unique cultural attributes and behaviors.

The question of "what is culture?" is a little too big to get into here (though it might be fun to bash around elsewhere). But for our purposes, let's say it's things like customs, attitudes, beliefs, aesthetics, artistic and philosophical views, and generally shared assumptions.

So how could those things be implemented in an online Star Trek game in a way that's fun for most players most of the time?