Monday, January 28, 2008

Starship Visual Design in a Star Trek MMORPG 3

Originally Posted by Perpetual_Todd:
The PE STO ship designs underwent many, thorough design reviews, and were based on many months (years really, in total) of design research. Okuda, Probert and Eaves were regularly consulted in shaping the PE STO visual exploration. Daron, Glen, Ken and the early design and concept teams (Ryan, in particular) arrived at a suitable visual evolution of the new large class ships and STO era Starfleet ship visual identifiers.
Todd, thanks for the comments.

I think maybe one of the problems we as fans had was that (for good reasons) we saw only a very few of the new starship designs from Perpetual -- basically just the Excalibur, the Sacagawea, the Tahoe and Iowa classes, and the unnamed science class ship. (I'm not including the Edison class runabout in this list, but I haven't forgotten about it.) Without access to your vision of how these designs fit into the overall post-Nemesis design progression, we can only compare them against what we know which is the "older" canonical ship design family.

So it seems to me that the only evolutionary path we can see as fans for major modern-era starships is (roughly):

Galaxy -> Sovereign -> Intrepid/Nova -> Prometheus

In that case, I think it's probably natural for us to expect a continuation of that path toward more wedge-like saucers, more streamlining, and more angular warp nacelles. Maybe the storyline that Perpetual developed for Star Trek Online included events that altered that path... but we out here weren't privy to that story.

Even so, I'm not sure that many fans here truly hated any of the new designs. The Tahoe class and Excalibur were certainly within the parameters of established Starfleet ship looks, even if they did add a few surprises. (And wouldn't there have to be some significant experiments in ship forms if the game's design calls for many new kinds of ships?) The science ship attracted more negative comments than the Tahoe or Excalibur, but even there I'd say the typical reaction was more "why does it look like that?" than "yuk! it's ugly!"

The one concern most of us here seemed to agree on was that several of the new ships sported what were pointed out as "greebles," little protrusions and curlicues and suchlike tacked onto (often kitbashed) ship models. I suspect that choice drew fire because it's a reversal of what appears to be a clear trend toward Starfleet ship designs becoming increasingly streamlined, even aerodynamic.

Again, though, maybe there's a story-based reason for even that, and we just don't know it. (I could bore everyone with a long discursion on how Spengler believed the artistic expressions of a civilization follow a path from vigorous simple forms through rococo and baroque variation to empty ornamentation, and suggest this as an explanation for why even the Federation might eventually decline toward mere ornamentation in its ship designs. But I won't do that. :) )

Here's hoping we'll someday see many of the other designs that Perpetual and its consultants dreamed up for Star Trek Online, whether on their own or as completed by another developer.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The LCARS Visual Interface in a Star Trek MMORPG

A number of people have suggested using the highly detailed GUI created by "Commander Atwell" as the basis for the game interface in a Star Trek MMORPG. Others liked the very sparse GUI that was offered by Perpetual as an early study in the interface for the game.

Are the functional aspects of interfaces important? Sure. But so is style.

Many "human factors engineers" (the fancy name for interface designers) can cite a long list of objective qualities that a functionally effective interface should have. And they're generally right.

But a game interface isn't only about function. It's also about form; it's also about feel, about style. An interface can be perfectly functional and still be as ugly as sin, or be boring (if it's a game), or fail to express necessary literary features (if it's a game based on some IP). That last item in particular is what I'm concerned with here. Star Trek Online is a game that -- if it ever gets made -- will implement much of the Star Trek universe as a persistent world, which means that in addition to needing to be attractive generally, the ST:O interface also needs to "feel" like Star Trek... and that means LCARS. Whether anyone likes it or not, LCARS is the recognized standard within the Star Trek universe for how Starfleet personnel operate complex systems. Not to use some form of that visual metaphor as the game interface in a persistent-world game based on Star Trek is to fail to exploit an obvious opportunity to extract value from this license.

That doesn't mean it's wrong to consider functionality. But "character," especially "Star Trek character," is also important for this game, and it deserves more than the brief mention you gave it. I'm pretty sure it's what started this thread in the first place -- Atwell's interface design is rich with Star Trek character, and that's very appealing to fans of Star Trek who'd like to see that universe brought to life as an online game.

I believe it's possible to have an interface for a Star Trek MMORPG that is unobtrusive, and is characterful, and (importantly for this particular game) subtly communicates to players that this is a game set squarely in the Star Trek universe. The Perpetual design was unobtrusive, which isn't a bad thing. Unobtrusiveness doesn't automatically imply a lack of style. OTOH, I also thought the Perpetual interface design we were shown failed utterly to reference the LCARS metaphor. And for this game, that was a bad thing. It was a failure to exploit one of the most obvious resources of the license.

Let's be clear: I see LCARS not as some hard-and-fast set of behavioral rules, but as a general visual metaphor that can be realized in any number of ways, either strongly as in Atwell's interface, or loosely as in the static loading screens of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. In other words, I've never said anything even remotely like, "I think Star Trek Online should just copy the LCARS interface from [insert show here] without deviation." My opinion is that ST:O should offer an interface that captures the spirit of the LCARS interface while making changes necessary to offer appropriate functional behaviors. It needs to be not just a good software interface, but a good interface to a Star Trek MMORPG specifically.

So I like the look of Atwell's interface. I think it does a much better job of capturing the spirit of LCARS than what we saw of Perpetual's interface, which seemed generic. At the same time, I also think Atwell's interface is probably a little too much LCARS for a MMORPG. Something a bit simpler and that stands out a little less would, I think, work well as the interface for a game with significant action elements as a typical MMORPG. (A single-player game, though, and in particular one that's designed to be about thinking as well as doing, might be exactly right for the detailed Atwell-style LCARS interface.)

So to sum up, if Star Trek Online ever gets made I'd like for it to have an interface that's somewhere in between the blandness of the Perpetual interface and the gorgeous LCARS+ of the Atwell interface. I think it's possible to have an interface that provides the functionality an MMORPG needs in a way that indisputably evokes the spirit of LCARS.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Starship Visual Design in a Star Trek MMORPG 2

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl:
Dang Flatfingers...This is the first time I've had to do a "WTF" where you're concerned. We're usually on the same page with most things, but I just can't believe you don't like all of those ships that I mentioned above. I also know you're not a fan of the Galaxy if we had it your way there would be what... only 3 classes of starships in Star Trek? (Constitution, Ambassador, and Sovereign) I'm sorry man, that's a pretty limited view IMHO.
I agree that that would be a severely circumscribed view of what seems "right." Fortunately, it's not my view of things at all.

Firstly, I did once mention that I find the Galaxy-class design boring and a bit unrealistic, but I don't hate the Galaxy design in either its form or its function. Like the Intrepid I find the warp nacelles of the Galaxy a little too stubby, but that's mostly a personal aesthetic reaction. And I'm certainly not opposed to the Galaxy having hundreds of science labs and quarters for non-Starfleet personnel (including children) -- I find that a refreshing change from the whole "warship" mentality. So give me a little credit for being open to a range of designs, please!

Secondly, where do you figure I only like about three classes? There's what I see as an idealized "Starfleet" aesthetic which I like my ships to approach, yes, but that doesn't mean they all have to look exactly alike with zero room for variation or flair.

In rough order (I mean very rough order; don't treat this as Gospel According to Flatfingers) of the most visually attractive designs that also showcase the idealized "Starfleet" look, I might rank the various classes thusly:

  • Intrepid
  • Nova
  • Constitution-A refit
  • Pandora (by kaden)
  • Legacy (by Galen/kaden)
  • Prometheus
  • Sovereign
  • Ambassador
  • Constitution
  • Yeager-type
  • Galaxy
  • Miranda
  • Nebula
  • Constellation
  • Saber
  • Elkins-type
  • Olympic
  • ------------------------
  • Defiant
  • Excelsior
  • Cheyenne
  • Centaur
  • Oberth
  • Akira
  • Norway
  • Steamrunner
  • Curry-type
(The ship designs I like or can tolerate are above the line. The ones below the line... not so much.)

This is obviously a highly subjective ranking. For 100-meter+ ships, "Starfleet" to me means saucer+nacelles-on-pylons (and the "50% visible" rule factors in here as well), while reaching the more difficult "attractive Starfleet" level requires a certain amount of streamlined elegance. (One of those "I know it when I see it" kinds of things.)

So a ship design can be more or less streamlined (like the Defiant), but still not rate too highly with me visually if (like the Defiant) it doesn't even make an attempt to fit into the defining motif of saucer+nacelles-on-pylons, which is how Starfleet ships are distinguished from Warbirds and K'Tingas.

Originally Posted by keptin:
Do we even know WHY they were shaped like that in the first place? Seems like it all stemmed from a 1960s "alien saucer" shape...great for entertainment, but terrible for all practical reasons (usable volume per materials) and filled with unnecessary stress points at the nacelle arms and 'neck' between the two hulls.
Granted, and the whole impossible-stress-points thing bugs me too (which is why I can't stand the Norway)... but the original Constitution is the spiritual template for all subsequent Starfleet capital ship designs whether we like it or not.

I don't mind busting out of that template for sheer aesthetic value; I can appreciate a pretty ship regardless of its fidelity to some design standard. But when fidelity to a visual design matters -- such as creating a ship that instantly tells us it's a Starfleet ship, whether in a TV show, a movie, or a computer game -- then pure beauty is not enough. It cannot break too far out of the visual mold; if it does, it will have failed to do its necessary job of helping to tell the story through characterization. (Big, complex ships are often treated as characters themselves; this was as true of Firefly as of Voyager.)

The case of the USS Dauntless is a great example. This was a ship that, because of the needs of the story, had to appear to be a modern Starfleet design. So while it took some liberties with the core concept (particularly with regard to the size of the "saucer" section and how the nacelles connected to the primary hull), audiences accepted the Dauntless as a Starfleet ship -- even though they'd never seen it before -- because it met their expectations of what a Starfleet ship ought to look like.

That, I think, demonstrates pretty effectively that good designers can be creative within the constraints; that it's possible to come up with interesting new looks without having to discard everything that says "this is a Starfleet ship."

Originally Posted by keptin:
Having a number of unique ship designs, many created for a specific purpose (ie exploration, assult, etc.) will make the game more interesting.....creating a game locked in cannon might be great fun for many of us, but tedious and tiresome for those who just want a fun space MMO.
I guess I have more faith in the creativity of my fellow fans (not to mention Professional Game Designers) to come up with new ship looks that are innovative while still being immediately recognizable as Starfleet designs.

Take a look at some of the great designs by fans. For example, check out the Pandora- and Legacy-class ship designs I mentioned above -- both of these break new ground within the established Starfleet design concept without ignoring it.

It can be done, and done well.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Some Ideas for Portal 2

I've been giving some thought to what a sequel to Portal might ought to look like.

The thing about sequels is simple: People want the same experience, only different.

So the idea is to take what was fun about the original Portal and ring a few changes on it (or as Portal's developers like to say, "iterate" on those key elements), and to do so in a way that extends the original story.

Accordingly, here's my rough outline for a vision of a Portal 2.

[NOTE: Some spoilers related to the story of Portal follow. Unless you never plan to play the game (in which case, why are you reading this?), if you haven't done so yet, you might want to do that before reading the rest of this post.]

  1. Player plays as a new test subject (not Chell).
  2. There are fewer (and slightly different) testing chambers. (Call it a separate section of the Enrichment Center.)
  3. Add some new mechanics to the original Portal's crate-on-button, energy-ball-in-cup, lifts, "unstationary scaffolds," and press-button-to-briefly-open-door mechanics. Examples: energy-ball-firing-turrets, movable energy-ball-receiving cups, and lifts that tip (to create Rube Goldberg-like actions with crates).
  4. GLaDOS is back, giving directions -- it turns out she had a backup unit.
  5. But while she's "still alive," she's not "feeling fantastic." (She exaggerated.)
  6. Her problem is that she only got one of her personality spheres automatically installed.
  7. It's the "nice" one, so she starts the game being helpful, if a bit confused.
  8. This time, GLaDOS is able to interact with some of the puzzles while the player's solving them.
  9. Perhaps GLaDOS has mobile minions that modify puzzle mechanics, or that have their own portal guns. (This could be a use for the flying robots of Half-Life 2.)
  10. What if GLaDOS could actively create her own portals inside the testing facility levels?
  11. At several points, the player finds additional personality spheres.
  12. Solving a sphere level transmits the new sphere to GLaDOS, who has a minion install it.
  13. Reintegrating the various spheres into GLaDOS is the primary story/gameplay motivator in Portal 2.
  14. Once a new sphere is installed, GLaDOS's personality changes, and she becomes... less helpful.
  15. "Less helpful" means that she progressively becomes a more active adversary for the player.
  16. Only GLaDOS can create a way for the player to escape the Enrichment Center.
  17. Only by restoring all her personality spheres will GLaDOS be capable of creating a "portal" to the outside.
  18. The endgame will be about "persuading" the reintegrated GLaDOS to let the player go.
  19. The endgame resolution will leave the door open to a (final?) Portal 3. People think they love trilogies.
  20. There will be cake. Somewhere.
  21. [Optional] Try to work small mini-songs by Jonathan Coulton (sung by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS) into the gameplay or story. That way it's part of the game, but not just another end-credits song. The original was so brilliant (and unexpected) that trying to copy it too closely could feel formulaic.
The main concepts here are to add a few new puzzle elements without changing the basic portal-creation effect, and to move the story forward by reversing the original storyline -- essentially, by asking the player to put GLaDOS back together again.

Same, but different.

[2008/04/20: On a happy note, at GDC 08 a few weeks ago Kim Swift acknowledged that a Portal 2 was in the works. Huzzah!]

Starship Visual Design in a Star Trek MMORPG 1

What is the "Starfleet" look? How far can a starship's design be removed from the Starfleet look before it's no longer recognizable as a Federation ship?

This discussion leads us into the realm of our various subjective notions of "beauty" and the relationship of individual shapes to an idealized form. It's a bit like arguing over "who's the fairest of them all," which is not a debate that can ever end in any kind of consensus. Still, it might be fun to go over some of the things we like and dislike about the various starship designs seen on-screen so far.

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl: one on here likes the Defiant Class? Or say...the Akira, or Saber, or Norway or Steamrunner or the Constellation or the Centaur or the Miranda or the Oberth or the Prometheus (it didn't have the "traditional" warp nacelle & pylon set-up) or the Intrepid or the Nebula? Because all of those ships do not have the traditional primary + secondary + pylons + warp nacelles thing going for them. I for one love each of those ship designs...Akira and Defiant most of all.
Speaking for myself, no, I don't like most of those designs because I think they throw away too much of the classic Starfleet shape, in particular the "saucer-plus-nacelles-on-pylons-plus-maybe-a-cigar-shaped-secondary-hull" design.

In fact, to reiterate something on which I've been consistent, I do not like the Akira, Norway, or Steamrunner designs at all. In fact to be bluntly honest the words that come to my mind when I see the Steamrunner is "hideous" and "bletcherous," but the Akira and Norway are also nasty IMO because of the unbelievable silliness of their pylons. With all due respect to the people who designed these ships for TV, I think they went too far in these designs; I find them ugly in the extreme. (For what it's worth, the Excelsior is ugly to my eyes as well because of its excessively long warp nacelles bolted onto a secondary hull that looks like a drunken seagull cast in duranium.)

As for the Centaur and Constellation classes, while they're nominally Starfleet-like, they stretch and shrink the nacelle lengths and positions in silly ways compared to more balanced designs. So while I'd grudgingly agree that these two ships look basically like Starfleet designs, they are not at all attractive.

As for the look of the Oberth class... the less said, the better.

But note that the standard I'm comparing all these ships against is my perception of the idealized Starfleet starship, which is a relatively saucer-shaped primary hull, an optional more-or-less cigar-shaped secondary hull, and some number of long warp nacelles separated from the primary or secondary hull by pylons in a reasonably streamlined way. By that standard the Intrepid, Nova, and Prometheus classes are within the acceptable range of Starfleet designs, although they do break creative ground in unifying the primary and secondary hulls (points for streamlining). Even the Saber is not too far off the mark as an evolution of the Miranda class. (I actually think the Saber is better-looking than the Miranda.)

As for the Defiant class, I can just tolerate it because it's treated (in how it moves on-screen) more like a fighter than an actual 120-meter starship. If it acted more like a real starship, I'd like its appearance less because it doesn't say "Starfleet" to me.

If I had to sign off on one design as most attractive within the idealized Starfleet model, I suppose I would have to pick the Intrepid as the finest example of the naval architect's craft. Perfect? No. I think the nacelles are too stubby to be in good proportion with the rest of the ship, especially the gorgeous saucer section. But of all the ships I've seen (and I'm looking at this very minute at multiple collections of many, many pictures of different Starfleet ships), the Intrepid comes the closest to taking all the elements of the ideal Starfleet design and putting them together in a graceful and elegant way.

Designs like the Steamrunner (and the abominable Curry-type) can't help but look wrong by comparison.

In my opinion, of course.

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl:
You (meaning people in general) cannot have it both ways...'give me new ships, but you have to do it my way.' No...let them be creative and let's see what we get.
I'm not opposed to creativity. As I've said (and others have disagreed), I sort of like the Yeager-type ship, even if it is a kitbash. It's a different take on a Starfleet ship, which I fully support, but it gets there without completely abandoning the fundamental design concepts that distinguish Starfleet's ships from everybody else's.

Pushing the envelope, good. Phasering it into unrecognizability... not so good.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mission Generation in a Star Trek MMORPG +

The suggestion has been made that it might be better for a Star Trek MMORPG if missions can be resolved successfully in multiple ways, rather than generating every mission to be a static Destroy, Recon, Fedex, or other type of mission. For example, a mission to "investigate subspace interference in Sector 12, subsector F" might turn out to be an encounter with a hostile ship, and you'll have the freedom to decide whether to resolve that situation through combat or diplomacy or science or engineering.

Let's say the folks developing Star Trek Online agrees that the latter approach is better. Here's my question: How should missions be written to allow for that level of flexibility?

It seems to me that this style of mission-writing is harder than "go there, do that." On the one hand, it necessarily has to leave the main description of the mission rather vague (which makes unique mission text documents hard to write). On the other hand, real-time flexibility means including a lot more active links to dynamic game information, such as the player character's chosen division (Science? Tactical?), their ship type (cruiser? science vessel?), the abilities of the people your character is grouped with (if any), the overall goals of Starfleet as they may be assigned by player Admirals, and so on.

So let's say you get the job of Lead Mission Designer for the new Star Trek Online developer. How would you define the mission creation system?

Would you stick with the simple Destroy, Recon, Fedex, etc. format? If you chose to try to allow dynamic mission resolution, how would you implement that as a mission design tool? How would you communicate to your staff mission writers the right way to write dynamic missions? Is there an outline or template you could develop for them to use?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Core Gameplay of a Star Trek MMORPG

I missed it originally, but back on November 28, 2007, Damion Schubert posted a blog entry on his Zen of Design site that asked a very good question about a Star Trek MMORPG: If you played this game all day, what would you be doing?

Here's how he put it:

"What do you do all day" is a surprisingly persistent problem, whenever the design powers-that-be considers exploring either new genres or gameplay paradigms. The answer that most MMOs have come to, combat and quests, is the chosen answer for a lot of good reasons, but it's not the only solution. Still, it merits examination of why combat succeeds, and what any other activity needs to do to supplant it.
As another example, consider Star Trek. At its face, it's a great license for an MMO -- geek friendly with broad mass market appeal. But there's a gotcha -- while there exists both ground combat as well as capital ship combat, both events are seen as a last resort. The Star Trek license is really one about politics and diplomacy. So the question is, what do players do all day? Do you create a combat engine, and push the players towards that? Or do you stay true to the license and push for the politics and diplomacy? And if so, what do you do to ensure that the experience remains repeatable?
So what about this?

Do you agree with Damion's premise that Star Trek is mostly about politics and diplomacy? If so, should a Star Trek MMORPG try to make that its central gameplay experience? Or must it be combat-focused like other MMORPGs?

What do you think the core gameplay content should be? What would inspire the typical Star Trek Online player to want to spend all day in this game?

Is there a single typical Star Trek Online player for whom a core gameplay experience can or should be designed?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Asynchronous Collaboration in Online Games

One of the most persistent myths of online gaming is that people who aren't gregarious don't contribute usefully in massively multiplayer online games.

I've observed more than once that being "massively multiplayer" is what's most unique about these online games, and therefore that this is what most needs to be leveraged through appropriate design features. In other words, designers ought to be looking for ways to iterate on the massively multiplayer aspect of these MMO games because that's where the unique value is to be found.

So making social games highly social is a Good Thing. But here's the sticking point: it's a mistake to equate "social" with "grouped." The goal of social activity is collaboration, but not all collaboration has to happen in real time to have value.

The question is whether someone can make useful contributions to a society without face-to-face grouping. A cursory glance at history is enough to provide examples of individuals who -- as individuals -- made world-changing contributions to the societies of which they were a part, even if they were not actively engaged with others. Isaac Newton, for example, made crucial discoveries (published later) in the fields of calculus, optics, and gravitation during the two years during which he had removed to a small hamlet in Lincolnshire while the Great Plague raged.

Fortunately, we don't have to be a Newton to contribute to a group without directly engaging with other group members. Discussion forums are another example of how individuals can play useful roles in a group while never chatting in real time.

So here's the phrase that sums up how and why non-social gamers ought to be welcomed in MMORPGs: asynchronous collaboration.

Most people tend to perceive right-here-right-now -- synchronous collaboration -- to be the only valid form of social interaction because it's the most visible form. But "asynchronous collaboration" benefits a society as well. Where synchronous collaboration features (such as pick-up groups) enable the local/immediate interactions preferred by outgoing gamers, providing gameplay features that support asynchronous collaboration creates opportunities for more socially reserved players to engage in the non-local/non-immediate interactions they're comfortable with.

And my point is that because asynchronous collaboration is a valid way of contributing to a MMOG, non-social players who participate in these indirect interactions absolutely do contribute to those gameworlds, just as people leaving messages on a discussion forum contribute to those discussions.

Probably the most visible example of this kind of interaction is crafting and auction house activity. How effective would the in-game economy of any major MMOG be without the non-social people who collect resources, make things with those resources, and buy and sell them via the game's marketplace system? The many indirect interactions of non-social players with other players directly benefit everyone in the game by efficiently creating and distributing goods.

So let's dump this mistaken belief that you have to be a "people person" to deserve to enjoy a massively multiplayer gameworld. That's bogus. And it's past time for developers to say so by providing more features that allow asynchronous collaboration.

Markets (auction houses) are one such feature. But auction houses shouldn't be the only way that more socially reserved players can be encouraged to contribute to a gameworld. What about other kinds of asynchronous collaboration? More specifically, what are some other game features that would allow players in a massively multiplayer world to collaborate that are either non-local, or non-immediate, or both?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is PC Gaming Dead? +

Originally Posted by Horizon:
PCs also have the advantage of being moddable.
This is a great point because it gets at why there are consoles in the first place.

All the major console manufacturers -- Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft -- are also major game publishers. If they can get you to spend several hundred dollars (or your local equivalent) on their particular hardware, it dramatically increases the likelihood that you'll buy their games. So it's to their advantage to do anything they can to make you believe that locking yourself into their hardware is actually some kind of benefit to you.

Because no PC game developer also owns the hardware, there's no megacorporation with a vested interest in promoting PC hardware as a game platform. Instead, all three of the major console makers collaborate (indirectly, I'm sure) to run down the PC as a gaming platform because they don't control it.

Personally, that's one of the reasons I prefer the PC as a gaming platform: I see consoles as nothing more than customer-control tactics. A truly good game would run on many platforms because it can be expected to sell well there; a game that's "exclusive" to some console is a naked attempt to decide for me what hardware and software I should use.

No, thanks.

I'll stick with the PC, where the big, deep, rich, sprawling, moddable games I enjoy still flourish, despite BioWare's shafting PC gamers for months with Mass Effect.

"They may take our games... but they'll never take... our KEYBOARDS!"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Programmers as Commodities

Originally Posted by [a gamer]:

I'm sure the "tallent" [the new Star Trek Online developer is] hireing is creative, not programing. programers are a dim a dozen, and not usefull over other programers.
Ouch. You're not a programmer, are you?

Your comment reminds me of something a manager at one of my former employers once said: "Programmers are a commodity; we can just hire them wherever we need them." In other words, the theory was that if a project got moved the company could save money by not paying to relocate the current developers to the new location. The belief was that programmers are basically low-value, interchangeable labor "resources" that can be found anywhere.

Those of us who actually did this kind of work did not agree with this manager's opinion.

There are a couple of reasons why, and they do relate to moving former Star Trek Online programmers over to some other development studio.

First, and most obvious, not every programmer will have knowledge of specific content-creation tools. "Programming" for games isn't always just a matter of cranking out a bunch of simple C++ code; it often includes using some particular scripting language like Python or Lua to define high-level behaviors. Since fewer programmers know these less popular scripting languages, it's not always possible to just grab those developers off the street -- if you want the advantages of a scripting language, and you want people to be productive without delay, then you have to be prepared to find and pay for the people who know that language.

A programmer who's already got experience with a specialized development tool is much more valuable than someone who has to be trained because the experienced developer can become productive much sooner. There's a diminishing returns curve on that, of course; eventually the cost of a very experienced programmer may exceed their value in productivity. (Or not, depending on the application.) But until then, some programmers are more valuable than others.

Second, while I generally don't make flat assertions of fact, I'm going to do so here because it's something about which I have specific personal and professional knowledge: anyone who thinks that programming is not a creative activity is wrong.

Not all programmers are equally talented. Some are better than others because they see solutions that other programmers don't. That comes partly from experience, but it's also a function of creativity -- if you can't imagine a solution, you can't program it. All programmers need to be creative to do a good job, but some are more creative than others.

Which brings me to the observation that if there are creative programmers who are about to be unemployed, and some other area game development house is about to get the chance to develop a major triple-A MMORPG, that new developer would be crazy not to try to hire those programmers.

In summary, the idea that any game development studio would say, "Meh, programmers are a commodity; we'll just round up some college interns" is completely unrealistic. There are no programmers just standing on street corners waiting to be hired by the hour -- as someone who is currently trying desperately to find trained programmers, I can promise you that this is not the case.

Programming isn't a creative activity? Programmers are a dime a dozen because they're all the same?

I respectfully disagree.

"Living In" a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by HoratioHornBlower (from
If you haven't played the RP games from the Elder Scrolls franchise (Morrowind & Oblivion were the last two), trust us: the notion of that same open-ended, in-depth, "alternate life" style of gameplay inside the Trek universe is something you would more than appreciate -- you would cherish every moment you had to play.
Originally Posted by Commander Blue:
If a player could "lead a Star Trek life" to the same extent you can "lead an Elder Scrolls life" the way Morrowind and Oblivion let a player, it would be the biggest Trek game success hands down.
I agree, but that's just me... and maybe some other people.

Not all gamers are interested in the same thing from these MMORPG things. As I like to put it, I think some of them want to "play in" a gameworld, while others want to "live in" a gameworld.

Those who see gameworlds as places to play in are the Achievers and Manipulators, the ones who focus on concrete rewards. They don't get wrapped up in the fiction. They're just there to follow (or break) the rules of the game. When frobbing the rules no longer generates interesting effects, they leave the game; there's no emotional attachment to it.

Meanwhile, those who see gameworlds as places to live in -- the Explorers and Socializers, the ones who enjoy good simulations and opportunities to experience emotionally interesting stories -- are the people like HoratioHornblower (and me) whose enjoyment comes from experiencing a different world as though it were a real place, from immersing ourselves in the systems and the lore and the relationships of the place. These are the people about whom the word "community" is more applicable. They're the ones who stick around the longest, but they're also the ones who are the most bitter when their "home" is radically altered (as was the case with Star Wars Galaxies).

So speaking just for myself, I see HoratioHornblower as correct; I think most Star Trek fans want a place to live in, rather than (primarily) a place to play in. I therefore agree that most of these folks would thrill to see a Star Trek MMORPG that feels as fully-developed and "real" as the Tamriel of Oblivion. But these aren't the only people who are willing to pay to play MMORPGs! The gamers who assume without question that these gameworld things are purely for playing in -- the gamers for whom all other major MMORPGs have been designed -- will also want a say in what a Star Trek MMORPG should look like.

I think that's exactly as it should be. I think both kinds of gamer add value to a massively multiplayer persistent-world game, and a good Star Trek MMORPG will be designed to satisfy both kinds of gamer.

So, assuming that Star Trek Online survives with a new developer, the first time some producer sniffs that "it's not going to be a Star Trek simulator," we'll know that the gamers like HoratioHornblower who would happily pay to "live in" a Star Trek MMORPG are about to get the finger again.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mini-Review of Portal +

I tend not to write fan mail, either. But it's hard to overstate my satisfaction with this song, both on its own merits and how it makes Portal a better game.

1. It's in my BRAIN. No, really -- it's playing in my headphones on permaloop right now. Of course, that just means I'm hearing the real thing instead of my audio memory of it, which is what's been cycling non-stop in my brain since I finished Portal.

2. I think I'm safe in saying this song is another case of a "jingle meme" -- a catchy bit of music that you can't get out of your head, and which is easily spread to other people. An observation of this effect is documented by none other than Mark Twain back in 1876 (!) in his short story "A Literary Nightmare."

Interestingly, in his comments on the Mark Twain story as an example of a meme, Richard Dawkins describes the words of the Twain jingle as a "ridiculous fragment of versified instruction." I find that funny, given that the "singer" of "Still Alive" -- GLaDOS -- is responsible for instruction in Portal. If there's a Portal 2, wouldn't it be interesting if GLaDOS 2.0 "teaches" your character by singing pieces of a JC-written song?

3. When I first caught "Code Monkeys" a couple of months ago on G4TV (and I was a code monkey in the ‘80s, so there's another grab), I soon found I couldn't get that theme out of my head. Now that I've visited this site/blog, I know why. So is having a gift for creating musical hooks a blessing, or a curse?

4. Like joemorf, I loved that the first split into harmony in "Still Alive" occurred at the moment when GLaDOS is describing her own experience of being broken into pieces. I'm such a sucker for musical jokes like these; this one reminds me of the best of "P.D.Q. Bach" (AKA Peter Schickele), like the moment you realize that the opening to a Mozart tune has somehow morphed into the first notes of the theme from "Jaws."

5. If you step back from seeing the Portal-specific aspects of the lyrics and focus instead on Ellen McLain's wonderful vocal performance (even in computer-modified form), it's easy to imagine this song going mainstream. Someone who didn't play Portal is going to interpret the references to game events as metaphors (because we humans are good at that sort of thing). The obvious mainstream interpretation is of a woman who's been emotionally hurt by someone leaving her, but who is going to enjoy the best revenge: outliving the source of pain. I haven't heard other JC songs yet (yet!), but from what I've read I can't imagine that the use of lyrics that can be taken as metaphorical by non-Portal players is accidental.

6. What really makes me so inspired by this song that I wind up writing and posting stuff like this message is that while the song works just fine as a mostly self-contained ditty, all the parts of the song work together on many levels to create a much more compelling experience for some listeners:

  • It's a reward for successfully completing Portal's pure gameplay. [gameplay level]

  • It's a reward for reaching the conclusion of Portal's narrative -- as others have noted, this song is the cake. [story level]

  • It speaks directly to the player ("you"), enhancing the personal connection made in the game. [emotional level]

  • There are numerous references to gameplay events in Portal. ("cake," "tore me to pieces," etc.) [play experience level]

  • There are references to other games (the "Black Mesa" reference for Half-Life players). [gamer level]

  • Making a "neat gun for the people who are still alive" reminds me of typical first-person shooter gameplay, including in Half-Life. By racking up a high bodycount of enemies, you-the-player get rewarded for surviving with successively more powerful weapons. Perhaps that's worth a comment in a song about a game. [game criticism level]

  • The references and rhymes and lyric beats ("for the good of all of us... except the ones who are dead," "that was a joke, ha-ha, fat chance") are funny. [humor level]

  • Including a specially-created and self-referential "end credits" song gives Portal the production value of a major motion picture. [entertainment product level]

  • It seems complimentary to science geeks, who get a kick out of believing that their special skill ("I'm doing Science!" "I've experiments to run") is being appreciated by an artist. [geek/scientist level]

  • It's subversively cautionary toward science in the same way that Valve presents Black Mesa and Aperture as researchers so hypnotized by the pure coolness of "doing Science" that they create problems they didn't anticipate and can't control. ("Aperture Science: We do what we must because we can," "a neat gun") [social conscience level]
I could go on, but you get the point. The music and words function in several ways on multiple levels, but all the levels snap together to create a uniquely coherent whole... sort of like the way Portal itself balances action and thinking and feeling to create a unique gameplay experience.

For me, this song elevated a very good game into one of the best gaming experiences I've had in something like thirty years of computer gaming. Many thanks to Jonathan Coulton, Ellen McLain, and the people at Valve for a terrifically satisfying moment.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mini-Review of Portal +

It's easy to get depressed about the game development industry. On the rare occasion when a really good game surfaces above the insipid Mario/Sonic console junk and the over-emotional Kratos/Dante killfests with their Freudian-sized weapons, it's followed by a bunch of me-too games with a few minor tweaks.

Portal is one of the very small number of superb games that come along just often enough to keep us sifting through the mud in the hope of uncovering a diamond. I'm glad I finally gave it a try.

But an interesting thing came to light for me recently. While trying the advanced versions of six of the training levels, I got stuck on the last one. Curious, I watched a YouTube'd speedrun of all six advanced levels... wow, was that ever a mistake. Because what it showed me is that these levels aren't optimized for puzzle-solving, but for mere manual dexterity.

Actually, "manual dexterity" is putting it waaaaaaaay too mildly -- the people doing these speedruns are aiming at and hitting openings for portals (while in the middle of a double fling) that cannot be more than maybe 30 pixels wide. In some of them I don't think their feet ever touched solid ground more than once or twice -- it's sick.

The thing is, Portal's designers seem to want to promote this kind of ape-like behavior. The game has "achievements" (console alert!), among which are six challenge levels, each of which can be attempted while minimizing things like time or footsteps. So it's pretty clear that they’re actually encouraging people to try to blast through levels as quickly as possible.

While I can admire the artistry, I wish there had been more levels created that rewarded insight and creativity and perception and planning. In other words, I'm thinking now that Portal's designers favor the Achiever-type gamer -- what about the Explorers like me, whose enjoyment comes from seeing how things work? What about levels that offer more interaction with GLaDOS or other denizens of the Aperture labs (even if through text only) for the Socializers who enjoy a richly detailed story with interesting characters?

This isn't really a jab at Valve or the Portal team; I still think the core Portal game is tremendously good. It's just a funny realization I've come to after doing some more exploration of the other features of the game.

Can't wait for the (recently-acknowledged) sequel!

Mini-Review of Portal

I just finished playing Portal. It's been one of the most pleasant surprises in all my years of playing computer games. (And I've been involved with these things since the Atari 2600, so there you go.)

I actually didn't know much about it until recently, when I noticed that this "Portal" thing seemed to be showing up on a lot of "Best of 2007" web sites and TV shows about computer games. Somehow it even won awards like "Best New Character" and "Best Story"... but I knew there weren't any people characters in it! How could this be? I'd also been hearing that "The Orange Box" (which contains Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode One, HL2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal) was selling really, really well.

So I've been sick the past several days. While picking up some medicine, I swung by Best Buy, and in checking out the PC games section saw The Orange Box. "What the hell," I thought. "Let's see if all the gushing about this Portal thing is warranted."

It was.

And now I'm going to gush, too.

Back in 2006 an indie game called "Narbacular Drop" won some awards. I watch that scene somewhat (because it's where so much innovation is lately), so I'd heard about the game -- something about playing with the physics engine. That's cool, I thought; not just a copy of some other game. And then I went back to whatever I was looking at.

Well, what actually happened is that several of the people who made "Narbacular Drop" went to work for Valve -- the makers of the Half-Life games. Once at Valve, they began using its considerable game development resources to build a top-of-the-line game around their earlier concepts. They called this new game "Portal."

It sounds simple: You have a "neat gun" that can make holes in walls; you jump through the holes to get to different places. And that's pretty much it...

...except that doing it is a wonderful set of exercises in observation, perception, timing, motion, problem-solving, creativity, and storytelling. The game is basically a series of 3D logic puzzles presented as a training course overseen by a research computer called GLaDOS. As she talks to you, telling you what to do, you begin to realize that there's a story here, that something interesting is going on beyond the combination of hand-eye control and the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzles.

And did I mention that the dialogue for GLaDOS is wonderful, and that the voice performance of that writing (by Ellen McLain, wife of fellow game voice actor John Patrick Lowrie who's also highly regarded) is among the best ever in any game? And that it creates moments that are really funny, and really ominous... and sometimes both at the same time?

And did I mention that there's a special treat for winning?

Portal really is a remarkable accomplishment. What could have been just a somewhat smarter-than-average platformer/jumping game (which wouldn't have been saying much) is actually one of the most nearly complete, balanced, well-paced, absorbing, and fun gaming experiences I have ever had. It's thinking, and doing, and feeling, all wrapped up in one consistent package.

Now I can see why it's earned all those awards. And while it's a little too short for me to put it at the top of my all-time greatest games ever list, it's cracked at least my personal top ten, and maybe higher. Yes, it's as good as they say it is.

So if you haven't played Portal, you should. And I offer this recommendation (which I don't usually do) for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a great game in its own right, assuming you're OK with the 3D hand-eye coordination part.

Secondly, it's also worth playing a game like Portal that's so well-done because it gives you perspective on how well-designed and fun all other games should be, but so often aren't. It's a fantastic case study in solid game design. (It even includes numerous audio commentaries from the designers and the key voice artist so you can learn what went into making it.)

In short, I believe Portal is so well designed that I think playing it and thinking about it could help improve our critical understanding of computer games generally.

Now, I think I'll just go try to solve a couple more of the challenge levels. I hear there might be cake....

Is PC Gaming Dead?

Originally Posted by Fried_Yoda:
The point I'm trying to make is that consoles have evolved into PCs. They don't serve as a replacement to the PC, but they do serve as a replacement to PC gaming. In essence, next-gen consoles are simply dedicated gaming PCs. Hell, if you can hack your PS3 to run Linux, then you have a PC.

PC gaming is dying my friends. Consoles are not taking over. Instead, they are assimilating the PC.

Although we will not see the end of PC gaming any time soon, one thing is for sure. Just like Hollywood studios are jumping ship to join the Blu-Ray camp, game developers will soon jump ship to join the console camp. It's a slow and painful death to an era that I am proud to have been part of.
I have a slightly different view, which goes more like this: "PCs are the cockroaches of computer gaming -- long after all lesser forms of hardware have perished, people will still be playing games on PCs."

1. There'll always be a need for a general-purpose computer... and as long as there are general-purpose computers, there'll be people making games for them.

2. I'm antique enough to have done some of my first computer gaming on an Atari 2600 console. I really enjoyed "Adventure."

And I can enjoy it again today (I have a copy right here) because general-purpose computers have gotten so fast that they can run an emulator for any Atari 2600 game. So console game makers can make whatever hardware-bound games they want. In a few years general-purpose computers will have gotten so fast (thanks to the continuing success of Moore's Law effects) that emulators will become available for today's console games, too -- something a dedicated console box will never be able to do.


In my considered opinion, "PC gaming is dying" is nothing more than a self-serving attempt by console makers to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say it loudly; say it often; say it with certainty; mock anyone who says otherwise; get enough people to repeat it (for whatever reason), and eventually the lie becomes truth.

I see that as manipulation by people who so doubt the desirability of their product that they try to get good people to help them distort reality to suit their interests.

Personally, I don't like being manipulated.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cheating in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Xiahdeh:
Does anyone know yet if this will be playable in a window and not just fullscreen? Window mode is a must!
No, windowed mode is not a must -- not when having it makes it easier to use hacks and macros to support the local equivalent of gold farming.

Everyone's free to have their own opinion on this, but I believe that full-screen only -- and a powerful set of server-based tools to detect cheaters and farmers -- is most appropriate for this game.

Best Chief Engineer in Star Trek +

Originally Posted by Blackfire:
Without a doubt it would be Scotty, la forge was a joke of an engineer.
I always saw Geordi (after his move to Engineering in TNG season 3) as more of a manager than a gearhead.

Although he did figure things out himself sometimes, Geordi's real talent seemed to lie more in getting people working together to solve a problem than in jumping under the hood himself. I think this explains why he once created a holographic character (Leah Brahms) to help him figure out a solution to a difficult problem, and why (in VOY: "Timeless") he appeared as the captain of his own ship: Command was always where he was really headed. Chief Engineer was just something he did on the way.

That doesn't make LaForge a bad engineer -- just a different kind.

But in terms of hardcore, "Yeah, I can make it work"... Scotty rules.

Loot as a Reward in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Let's say most people in general (and gamers specifically) are motivated by tangible, concrete rewards. (I happen to think that's true.) That should mean that a game that focuses on useful objects as a key reward type has a chance to do well. World of Warcraft probably backs up that theory. (I say "probably" because I don't think it's enough to account for WoW's success; I believe there's a Hula Hoop Effect at work here. But a factor? Probably.)

OK, bearing all that in mind... it doesn't support a conclusion that a Star Trek MMORPG should also make collecting loot the primary form of reward at any point in the game, including the "endgame."

1. A game based on a franchise whose emphasis has always been on the exploration of space and other cultures is not necessarily going to attract the same type of gamer as another elves-in-tights combat/accumulation game. People are assuming that current gamers will constitute a significant majority of Star Trek Online's likely players, but no one can be certain that there aren't a boatload of Star Trek fans and SWG refugees and social gamers and non-gamers with modems who've heard of Star Trek who might be willing to try an online Star Trek game... unless it's designed to be all about non-stop competition to kill virtual monsters and collect virtual objects.

In which case, those people won't play it. And within a few months ST:O will be just another niche game with a few hundred thousand players. Not bad... but not great.

Do millions of people like spending their time beating up virtual monsters to collect virtual stuff? Apparently. Would millions more like a game that is designed to place more emphasis on exploration and social interaction (without excluding the more concrete rewards)? I don't think anyone is in a position to say with any certainty that such a game, if polished, couldn't carve out an equal (or larger) market.

I can't guarantee that a game like that would score big. All I'm saying here is that copying WoW's core gameplay design is not guaranteed to produce a successful MMORPG, either... so why not be willing to consider doing something different?

2. The previous comments concerned how people in general might react to killing/looting gameplay. Now let's look at how Star Trek fans in particular might respond to making that the gameplay focus of Star Trek Online.

One of the most common complaints against Star Wars Galaxies from before it even launched was that it "didn't feel enough like Star Wars." That drove away people who came to the game because they were Star Wars fans.

Star Trek Online will face a similar situation with Star Trek fans. Design ST:O to similarly ignore the iconic "feel" of Star Trek that its fans care about in favor of making a game like WoW that focuses on killing things and accumulating wealth, and ST:O is likely to suffer similar critical and commercial difficulties.

A developer who doesn't understand or respect this part of the Star Trek franchise IP has no business trying to make a MMORPG out of it.

3. Social worlds attract more people than MMORPGs do. So the claim that a new game is most likely to do well by designing its content to appeal to just the core gamer population of people online today is dubious, because it outright ignores the larger number of people who prefer friendly social interaction over the constant hypercompetitive killing and the focus on the accumulation of objects that characterize current MMORPGs.

4. Why should anyone think that gamers who like the loot-centric gameplay of World of Warcraft, who already have so much time invested in "their" game, will suddenly decide to leave it to play some other game with the same loot-centric design? Making the same kind of product as someone else at the same price -- only more "casually" -- is not a plan for success.


In summary, just because WoW has done well (compared to other MMORPGs) and focuses on loot-collection does not mean that focusing on loot-collection caused WoW to do well. (See the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.) Nor does anyone know whether focusing on something else might not lead to even greater success in the limited realm of online games.

I don't think the argument that Star Trek Online wins by being yet another MMORPG that emphasizes loot-collection is a strong one.

Originally Posted by DOAM:
What could possibly be the point of a game, with no loot?
This reminds me of the story of Benjamin Franklin in France, where he watched one of the early experiments by the Montgolfier brothers with hot-air balloons.

Supposedly the guy in the crowd next to Franklin nudged him and said, "Well, I suppose it's interesting, but of what use is it?"

To which Franklin replied, "Of what use is a newborn child?"

The point being that the only way to find out the potential of some new idea is to actually give it a chance. We'll never discover the point of a high-quality MMORPG that doesn't focus obsessively on collecting loot unless somebody makes such a game. Simply assuming that such a thing could never work will insure that we remain stuck on the ground with yet more "kill it and take its stuff" games until the public finally gets tired of the same damn thing, decides that online games were just a passing fad, and moves on to some other fad.

I think somebody needs to step up and make a game that tests the commercial potential of offering more than just killing and looting. I'm not saying that stuff shouldn't be in Star Trek Online to some degree; all I'm saying is that this is going to be the last, best chance for many years to make a game where that stuff isn't the whole point of the game.

There are already a bunch of online games out there that offer people who like that kind of thing as much of it as they could want.

A Star Trek MMORPG can offer something different. In my opinion, it should.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I like deep games and I cannot lie; you other gamers can't deny....

Sorry. :)

Seriously, as I've noted in my Complexity series of posts, I do prefer games that go beyond mere killin' and lootin' and pretty particle effects to also offer brains and heart. And I further believe there are other gamers like me who are feeling underserved by the kinds of games generally and MMORPGs specifically that are being released these days. This is why I started talking in the first place about giving knowledge-power and people-power a place at the table alongside gear-power and skill-power.

Having considered knowledge power somewhat, let's now turn our attention to one of those other kinds of character strength: people power. What are some ways in which social interaction and dramatic narrative in a MMORPG can have concrete benefits (or penalties!) for characters?

To what extent should a Star Trek MMORPG offer features that treat socializing and storytelling as tangible, rewardable forms of gameplay?

I phrase it that way because it's easy to think of social features that don't actually do anything in terms of tangible gameplay: emotes, chat windows, friends lists, and so on. But those things don't confer any tangible in-game power on a character.

So what are some ideas for things that players in a game like Star Trek Online can do with each other that are primarily social but which confer real gameplay benefits on characters?

Complexity +

Is "depth" simply a code word for for "complicated?" I don't think so.

I tend to use "complex" as a synonym for "deep" since in many cases depth arises from complexity.

However, that doesn't have to be the case, and it isn't always so. Sometimes depth arises from a few simple rules that interact in interesting ways. John Conway's Game of Life, for example, has only four rules and a couple of metarules, but when you see it in action you'd swear there must be a huge -- and complex -- set of rules controlling the behavior of the visible elements.

In reality, there is complexity, but it's hidden -- it's in the rules that allow for interaction of the rules, and in particular in the metarule that says information about the previous state is used to generate the next state. The same could be said of the original SimCity. There aren't that many rules, but their interactions create the appearance of depth. Even so, the rules are simple.

That acknowledged, I think I'm safe in saying it's still the case that most systems that seem to have an amount of depth we might call "interesting" are based on complex systems that interact (and generate new states from information about the previous state) to produce even more interesting complexity.

Still, the point is well taken. I agree; a perception that the game is "deep" is what some people -- primarily, I would say, those interested in Knowledge power -- are looking for in their games. "Complicated" is usually more descriptive of the game's interface than the gameplay itself, so "deep" really is probably the better term for gameplay (regardless of the interface) that reveals more of itself as you explore it.

That's the kind of gameplay I hope to see in a polished MMORPG someday.

Civil Rights for Artificial Life Forms +

Originally Posted by Flatfingers:
The theory is that a sufficient appearance of sentience is sentience.
Originally Posted by Phillip:
I wouldn't subscribe to that. I would think that Dubito, ergo cognito, ergo sum (I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am) would be a much better litmus test, as it were, of sentience. Of course, especially with artificial intelligence, I would imagine there would be no blanket statements and every case would be handled individually.
But we're not talking about you evaluating whether you yourself are sentient -- the question is whether (and if so, how) we can evaluate whether some third party is sentient. And that's where the appearance of sentience enters into the discussion.

Let's pretend for a moment that I am an extraordinarily talented programmer; I can make many very complex changes to some piece of complex software in an extremely short period of time.

For some reason, today I decide to create a program that cannot be distinguished from a real person. I crank out a bunch of code and connect it to an ICQ channel or some other live text chat system over the Internet, where anyone can talk to it just like we talk to each other.

At first, my program's not all that great. It parrots what other people say (like Eliza), or takes too long to respond, or doesn't seem to understand basic concepts. It's pretty clearly not a real person, and everyone who interacts with it is quick to tell me why they were able to draw that distinction.

Now, because I'm such a whiz-bang programmer, I'm able to take all these criticisms and improve my program based on them. I put the improved program out there again; I get more explanations of why it doesn't seem "intelligent"; I improve the program again; and so on.

Do you think there will ever come a time when the program is so good that no one even wonders whether it's a real person or not?

If that day ever comes, that will be the point at which the appearance of sentience becomes the reality of sentience. A sufficiently good simulation will be functionally indistinguishable from the real thing.

Well, then. If it's indistinguishable from the real thing -- in this case, if that program seems absolutely like a sapient lifeform to everyone who encounters it -- then isn't that the point at which we have to say that it is sapient, and should be accorded all the rights and responsibilities of a sapient being?

One thing different between what I've just described and Data or the Doctor is that the latter two have not only physical forms, but humanoid physical forms. They look like people.

Does that make a difference in whether they're considered sapient?

Should it?

What about the fact that the Doctor can look like whatever he wants? Isn't he really just a very sophisticated program exactly like the kind I've described above, except that he has visible physical parameters that he can modify?

Well, if we're ready to say that the Doctor possesses the quality of sentience, don't we have to be able to say the same of the really clever program I wrote, even though we all know it's just ones and zeros?

"A sufficiently good simulation is indistinguishable from the real thing." Star Trek meets The Matrix. :)

Endgame Content for a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
The problem is not really what to do after having reached this and that Level, but what incentives remain to play the game, once all incentives are earned and used: Level, rank, abilities, items, credits, loot, etc.
The only incentive that is virtually endless and that I can think of is - surprise, surprise - story content.
As I think about this, I have to wonder if relying on developers to provide post-level cap story content might be too limiting.

What I'm looking at are these three facts:

1. As more time goes on, more of the game's population will hit the level cap.

2. Virtually every online game (even the small or bad ones) has far fewer developers than players.

3. Story content (especially if it's any good) takes time to develop.

Putting these facts together suggests that there's no way any game's developers will ever be able to supply enough story content to keep their max-level population satisfied.

Which is why the new buzzword-of-choice in game design is user-generated content.

There are a significant number of challenges involved in making user-generated content an explicit part of a game, both inside the game world (fairness, griefing, Sturgeon's Law) and outside (copyright). So I'm not going to go into all that stuff at this time; all I'll say here is that, for all its difficulties, only user-generated content would seem to have what it takes to provide enough content for a late-game population of maxed-out characters.

And note that "story" can be one of the things that players can create....

Endgame Content for a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
The problem is not really what to do after having reached this and that Level, but what incentives remain to play the game, once all incentives are earned and used: Level, rank, abilities, items, credits, loot, etc.
The only incentive that is virtually endless and that I can think of is - surprise, surprise - story content.
As I think about this, I have to wonder if relying on developers to provide post-level cap story content might be too limiting.

What I'm looking at are these three facts:

1. As more time goes on, more of the game's population will hit the level cap.

2. Virtually every online game (even the small or bad ones) has far fewer developers than players.

3. Story content (especially if it's any good) takes time to develop.

Putting these facts together suggests that there's no way any game's developers will ever be able to supply enough story content to keep their max-level population satisfied.

Which is why the new buzzword-of-choice in game design is user-generated content.

There are a significant number of challenges involved in making user-generated content an explicit part of a game, both inside the game world (fairness, griefing, Sturgeon's Law) and outside (copyright). So I'm not going to go into all that stuff at this time; all I'll say here is that, for all its difficulties, only user-generated content would seem to have what it takes to provide enough content for a late-game population of maxed-out characters.

And note that "story" can be one of the things that players can create....

Civil Rights for Artificial Life Forms

Originally Posted by Obi3of7:
I was just watching the VOY Episode "Author, Author" in which The Doctor has written a holo-novel and his rights to his work are questioned by the publisher and a judge because he was a hologram. In the end, the judge only rules in favor of The Doctor as an artist, not granting him Sentient Rights. The judge encourages The Doctor though to press on in his quest to be granted sentience once he returned to the Alpha Quadrant.

So this ruling in Data's case brings to mind the question of whether or not The Doctor achieved his goal of being granted Sentient Rights and if any other Holograms and/or andriods will pursue this same avenue.

In closing, these episodes bring to light the fact of constant pursuance of Civil Rights will be a long-standing fight in our culture/world and hopefully won't be as hard to attain in the future.
Setting aside the questionable assumption that "civil rights" are truly in jeopardy in Western society, the question of who merits what Milton Friedman called being "free to choose" has always been a source for good humanist science fiction.

It raises all kinds of questions worth asking, because trying to answer those questions reveals something useful about what it means to be human.

When you bump into a new species, how do you know whether they're intelligent or not? What constitutes "intelligence?" At what point is there enough of it to consider a species of life to be sapient, or sentient, or an individual of that species to be a sophont?

What about that notion of membership in a species -- is it possible to say that an individual entity is sentient if that entity is not a member of any species, but is unique? Yes, I'm aware that's how the script had things turn out for Data in TNG: "The Measure of a Man", but what about the larger case? In what meaningful way is the Doctor different from Data when it comes to the definition(s) of sentience?

When the Doctor or Data rewrite their own subroutines, is that really like what humans (or, presumably, other sentient biological lifeforms) do when they "learn" something? Human intelligence appears (according to some students of this subject, notably Douglas Hofstadter and especially in the phenomenal Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid) to be an emergent property. Intelligence generally, and behavior specifically, are not some specific low-level piece of code in our brains that we can find and tweak (at least not yet -- another source of interesting science fiction!), so maybe self-programming isn't a sign of sentience after all. (I don't necessarily believe that; I'm just raising the question.)

What about that old chestnut of AI researchers, the Turing Test? (The CAPTCHA test -- the image of swirly letters and numbers whose text versions you type into a textbox -- that some discussion forums use to determine whether the author of a message is a bot is a kind of Turing Test.) The theory is that a sufficient appearance of sentience is sentience. If that's the practical test, then clearly the Doctor and Data pass... but what about all those other high-fidelity holodeck characters? Professor Moriarty might pass, but why wouldn't (for example) Minuet? Why wouldn't the EMH Mark I holoprograms being used for mining operations be considered able to pass a Turing Test -- even without the Doctor's new programming they clearly have enough volition (as seen in VOY: "Author, Author") to form and communicate the suggestion to each other to read the Doctor's holonovel, Photons Be Free.

So where should the line be drawn?

How should the line be drawn?

For all the knocks that Star Trek takes from more "realistic" TV shows and movies, it is well within the grand tradition of science fiction in posing questions like these... and leaving those questions up to us to think about.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Complexity +

Some readers at this point may be thinking that I'm unnecessarily overcomplicating the design of a Star Trek MMORPG by trying to stuff more options than skills and loot into it. But I'm not convinced that apparent depth of play is a Bad Thing, especially for this particular game.

Firstly, it is definitely not true that all online gamers reject depth and just want something simple, obvious, and fast-paced. Some people enjoy complexity, where part of the play experience is found in figuring out how systems work. Others prefer simplicity; they want to jump right to the action without having to guess what to do or how to do it.

Where is it written that one game can't support both of these preferences?

Secondly, in general terms I think "too complex" is actually better than "too simple" for a MMORPG. If we're talking about a quickie online game like Bejeweled, OK, maybe simple is better. But a MMORPG is a world. It won't seem like a world, however, if it doesn't have at least some of the complexity we reasonably expect from a living, breathing, dynamic world.

I believe this holds true even if we're talking about pure gameplay in a MMORPG. Too simple, and people will show up, burn through your content, and then leave because they've seen everything there is to see. On the other hand, too complex a game will put some people off, absolutely, but not as many as if it's too simple because complexity slows down access to content. There'll be gamers who don't particularly care for having lots of options, but they'll stick it out (i.e., keep paying to play your game) because it's a challenge, and because they know that once they master the complexity of the game they'll have a major advantage over other players.

If it turns out that most people hate some bit of complexity, they'll often keep playing while you simplify that content -- after all, it's content. But if there's not enough depth to do to start with, they're unlikely to hang around long enough to let you add the more detailed content they want. They might... but probably not. And if they do, some of them will be very unhappy that you made "their" game harder.

So on balance it seems to me that if the developers of a MMORPG have to err, they should err on the side of creating interacting systems that are more feature-rich than feature-light. That doesn't mean they should go nuts and make everything insanely and arbitrarily complicated just for the sake of complexity. It means that areas of the game that would benefit from being designed as deep, rich content with lots of options (for the gamers who like that kind of thing) should get that effort, because not to do so is guaranteed to generate the "there's nothing to do!" reaction.

And that's the kiss of death for a MMORPG, far more so than "there's too much to do!"

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
Combat doesn't preclude gear power to the exclusion of all others, and in fact, depending on how you set up the gameplay, could include or exclude any of those power types in any configuration.
Writerguy, I agree completely that a Star Trek MMORPG could be written that way. I honestly hope it will be.

All I'm guessing is that it won't be, if other MMORPGs are any guide to the basic nature of a Star Trek MMORPG. Having some idea of just how much stuff has to be done to build a major MMORPG, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if gear was implemented very simply. I could see some character skills enhancing a few gear effects, but I really wouldn't expect anything beyond that. For various reasons, developers seem to be much more comfortable thinking in terms of conferring power on characters through gear, with skills only either gating gear use or enhancing it. And the most blindingly obvious kinds of gear are weapons and armor... so it's also not surprising that gear and combat tend to overwhelm pretty much every MMORPG out there currently.

As I'm trying to point out in this notion of multiple forms of character power, I'd like to see developers focus on some other ways that characters can experience the gameworld than just tool-use conditioned by character abilities. I certainly don't expect most tasks in a Star Trek MMORPG to be explicitly designed to be solvable in different ways by characters from different departments (to say nothing of characters from the same department with different specializations, as discussed above). Doing that is more complicated than just making most missions about blowing stuff up and justifying doing so by saying "There has to be lots of action." Given how much there is to do to get a big MMORPG out the door, I can all too easily see this gear-oriented, "action"-centric mindset being the core gameplay of Star Trek Online.

Again, though, I wouldn't mind at all being wrong about that. An online game designed from the ground up so that there are always different ways to solve most problems, whether with gear, knowledge, skills, or social acumen, would be legendary. The developers of such a game would deserve the Lamborghinis they'd be able to afford.

Rose-colored glasses set aside for a moment, does anyone honestly think they'll see a game like that any time soon, or think that Star Trek Online will be such a game?

Food Buffs +

Originally Posted by Krindorf:
It would be interesting to have your health and stamina deteriorate when on long away missions, which would require the use of consumables or buffs from your team medic. I agree with food to replenish lost hit points and stamina, but not to buff you beyond your base stats, enhancing your attributes in the thank you!
I wouldn't go so far as to equate healing damage with loading up on buffs.

That said, I'm in complete agreement with this:

Originally Posted by Saturn:
As long as they don't create another game where in order for me to enjoy any of the so called content, I have to first look up a medic to tag along with me.
Wouldn't it be interesting to see a Star Trek MMORPG that treated members of groups like characters in the Star Trek shows, where each of the major personnel from time to time got an episode that was about them?

Instead of every mission in Star Trek Online always being the same thing over and over, so that other members of the group are never anything but supporting cast, what if ST:O were designed so that everybody gets a chance to shine on a regular basis?

Mission 1 might be a combat mission; the Tactical officer runs the show while the Medical, Science, and Engineering characters in the group do fun things that support tactical operations.

Mission 2 might then be a medical mystery; the Medical officer is the star (and not just a vehicle for some useful support skills) while the other characters in the group help out.

(Mission 3 could be a diplomacy mission for the group's Command character; mission 4 an "alien artifact" challenge to the group's Engineer, and so on.)

By creating missions that highlight the abilities of characters in each of the major departments, and by creating incentives for groups to not take the same darn type of mission over and over and over again, Medical officers in ST:O wouldn't be relegated to being mere buffbots (or healbots).

The point being that, with some imagination, I believe there are ways to make Star Trek Online fun that don't create a BuffQuest environment. Food and drink that have no gameplay effects wouldn't be a problem, though.

I just really don't ever want to see "tea, Earl Grey, hot" delivering a +5 boost to Diplomacy for three minutes....

The Pace of Space Combat in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Having considered the big starships, what about fighter craft? They never appeared much in Star Trek, but perhaps they could play a useful role in a Star Trek MMORPG. It might be interesting if in addition to the engagement-of-maneuver kinds of fights between big ships, Star Trek Online also allows players to choose to fly smaller and much more maneuverable ships that can be operated like dogfighters.

I know a lot of people prefer that kind of fast-paced, seat-of-your-pants style of combat over the much more deliberate fight-of-attrition between two combatants with lots of subsystems that have to be taken down one by one to achieve a victory. I'm pretty sure that offering both fast and slow space combat would help Star Trek Online deliver a fun play experience that's also true to the TV shows.

The only thing I'm not sure about is whether letting players also fight in small, highly maneuverable ships imposes a significant price tag on the rest of the mechanics of space combat.

For example, we think players will get better (bigger and/or more powerful) ships as they rise in rank. But what happens to players who prefer the fast fighter craft over destroyers and cruisers? As they rise in rank, can they get more powerful fighter craft? What might those look like, and how powerful can they ever really be compared to even the smallest frigate?

Does a player who's commanded only fighters as she rose in rank to Captain get to issue orders to a Commander who's the CO of a light cruiser?

Should there be separate paths to advanced rank in the Command sequence: one for fighter pilots (up to Squadron Commander, for example) and another for line officers?

In short, is adding the capability for players to fly small, nimble ships worth the extra complexity it entails?

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Daedelus:
Everyone would have a basic skill but the more research/study and points you put into your knowledge of that skill would enhance or slightly alter the effect of a given ability.
I'm liking this idea a lot, Daedelus. Skill-enhancing discoveries... slick. Let's call them SEDs for short.

In fact, I'd like this idea even more as gameplay if you'll allow me to make the following tweaks to it:

  • Characters have only a limited number of slots for SEDs. (Maybe higher department level [not higher rank!] allows more slots?)

  • There are many more SEDs possible than slots.

  • SEDs will need to be balanced very carefully so that none are clearly better than all the others in most situations.
The value of defining skill-enhancing discoveries this way is that it creates opportunities for interesting choices, and it helps players distinguish their character from someone else's character. (That makes the gameplay a bit harder to balance, but it's very important for roleplaying.)

Suppose you and I both have Level 30 Engineers. (Rank should be irrelevant to this, but for the sake of discussion let's say we're both Lieutenant Commanders.) This means we both have (just picking a number out of the air) four slots available for skill-enhancing discoveries.

Let's further say that I choose to enhance my Engineer character's skills by making four discoveries related to Power Systems, while you focus on making your four discoveries in the field of Sensors. In this case, we're both going to be more valuable Engineers than someone with fewer skills or fewer enhancements. But we'll also be different from each other, giving us different play experiences that are a better fit for what we enjoy doing in these games.

There is a potential downside to this, which is that by no longer having characters with exactly identical gameplay capabilities, we're no longer "plug-and-play" for groups who want an Engineer. Now that we have specializations (from the SEDs), and those specializations can vary between characters, maybe we each become a perfect fit for one group but not quite as good a fit for some other group. And we're both not precisely right for some group that just wants a generic Engineer as a kind of Gear-Healer.

Maybe so. OTOH, I don't know about you, but I have zip point zero interest in being a generic anything.

So I find the notion of having a limited number of slots for making skill-enhancing discoveries (through solving puzzles of some complex kind) to be a pretty interesting possibility for how Skill power and Knowledge power can be combined in a game like Star Trek Online.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Pace of Space Combat in a Star Trek MMORPG +

My guess is that space combat in Star Trek Online will fall somewhere between the two extremes of hyper-realism and conventional MMOG gameplay.

I'm pretty sure it won't be a first-look, over-the-horizon kill kind of situation, which is the reality of combat today (and the likely reality of future combat). While that's realistic in terms of how technologically advanced naval warfare is conducted today, it probably wouldn't be much fun as a model for gameplay in the Star Trek universe. But I also suspect that space combat in ST:O won't be just a dumb, press-F4-till-your-fingers-bleed kind of thing, either.

What I hope to see are space engagements designed to typically last several minutes for starships. (Engagements between shuttles/runabouts and fighters might be faster.) I'm thinking about 2-3 minutes for frigates and around 5 minutes for the biggest player ships sounds about right, since starships -- with their many internal systems -- should be capable of collecting tactical intel, maneuvering, establishing the correct defenses, performing real-time damage control on key systems, and firing the appropriate weapons. Not only are all those things appropriate for a massive space-faring vehicle, they're strongly representative of the kinds of things we've seen starships do in Star Trek.

A pacing for the typical space combat of a few minutes would, I think, occupy the happy middle ground between one-shot-kill (unfair and thus not-fun) and spam-your-special-attack fistfights (boring and thus not-fun).

Perpetual seemed to be heading in this direction in their design. Here's hoping whoever follows them comes to the same conclusion: space combat should last long enough to constitute interesting tactical gameplay.

Types of Character Power in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Most people who voted (at the now-defunct discussion forum) on the kinds of character power they'd like to see in a Star Trek MMORPG thought that skill power should be given the most emphasis in Star Trek Online, followed by knowledge power.

So let's think about that for a moment: can these two approaches to action-enabling gameplay features be combined somehow?

How could intrinsic abilities and knowledge work together as gameplay? What if acquiring a new character ability (either as a skill or through gaining a character level) allowed you to collect and understand new types of knowledge? Would you be interested in skills like Computer or Sensors that can be improved, and with each improvement more information (and more specific/detailed information) becomes available to your character? Are there other ways in which gaining new abilities might open up new kinds of knowledge power?

What about the other direction: what if acquiring some piece(s) of information was a requirement for gaining a new character ability? If this was designed as a puzzle that was different for every character (so that there was no one "solution" that could be posted), would that seem like fun to you, or more like a stupid hoop to have to jump through? What if this was done only for Science- or Engineering-related abilities?

If skill power and knowledge power are what folks here most often hope to see in a Star Trek MMORPG, how could those two forms of gameplay be combined to create the most enjoyable and memorable experience?

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Nick Roman:
By the way, I personally I don't like the idea of "guilds" in STO. Groupings by speciality or by fleet or ship, OK, but not "guilds" in the traditional sense.
Just as another perspective, I won't be bothered if there are "fleets" (ST:O's likely version of guilds) as long as increasing size generates increasingly difficult challenges. Too many MMOGs ignore scaling effects, with the result being that bigger is always better. That just leads to guilds fighting with each other instead of on more serious external threats (bigger, badder groups of enemies).

What will serve Star Trek Online best, I think, will be to find a way to incentivize grouping that doesn't penalize soloing. One obvious way to do this would be to give characters bonus prestige when they complete a mission or task as part of a group. Another approach would be to create character capabilities that are only active when grouped -- sort of like "combo attacks," except that I'd hope that the special group capabilities weren't just combat-oriented.

I just don't want to see Captain and/or Admiral ranks made dependent on being the leader of a fleet, either.

I'm a proponent of the idea that the rank one earns should depend on one's level of service to other players. But I think there are more ways to be of service than leading a fleet. I would really, really hate to see Star Trek Online designed such that if you're not in a fleet, you can never advance. There must be a better way to manage rank advancement so that not everyone is a Captain or an Admiral.

To that end, I still like my suggested approach of changing the gameplay so that, instead of all ranks just doing tactical stuff, Captains get operational gameplay and Admirals get strategic gameplay. I think this kind of design would cause players to voluntarily choose not to advance in rank because their current rank offers the kind of gameplay they enjoy more. I believe this would be a more organic solution than an arbitrary, "You must be this tall to ride" approach. But that's just one way we might go.

Best Chief Engineer in Star Trek

This takes us into geek slapfight territory, but what the heck. :)

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:
I am looking for the community's take on who was the best Starfleet Chief Engineer.
Originally Posted by Federation:
I'll pick Geordi LaForge as he had to solve a great many problems and come up with ingenious ways to do so. Would have likely voted Scotty but I'd have to put him second because of when he said how else could he keep his reputation as a miracle worker when Kirk had asked him if he always multiplies his factor times.
When Cheops asked his chief pyramid engineer how long it was going to take, I'll bet you anything the engineer padded his estimate.

Padding estimates is what all experienced engineers do because that's how they account for the unforeseen things that always seem to crop up to slow down any complex project. If it's not a fire in a factory that makes critical parts, it's a labor dispute; if it's not a transportation delay, it's administrative interference, etc., etc. And even if none of those things happens, there'll be a few good old-fashioned mistakes. Basically, there's always something.

Engineers factor the likelihood of all those things into their estimates, then add a little extra for all the other things they forgot. Since any estimate for a complex project is guaranteed to be off one way or the other, it's better to estimate too high than too low... so that's what real engineers do.

Thousands of years of trying to get complex stuff built properly has generated a wealth of practical knowledge. The basic observation here is jokingly known as Cheops' Law: "Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget." One important reason why this is so is known as Finagle's Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will -- at the worst possible moment." (This isn't the same thing as Murphy's Law, by the way, which properly stated is "If there's a wrong way to do something, someone will do it that way." But engineers need to try to account for the Dreaded Mr. Murphy as well.) Also check out Hofstadter's Law -- "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law." -- and the planning fallacy.

Ultimately I think the "miracle-worker" thing was just Scotty trying to joke with Geordi, assuming that as a fellow Chief Engineer Geordi understood the need to provide captains with time estimates on the high side in order to account for the unexpected stuff that always comes up. And despite Geordi's "I never do that" reaction, I think he was mistaken. Otherwise in every case where he says "it'll take five hours" (or whatever) and Picard says "you have one," Geordi would object, saying "No, Captain; I said five hours and I meant five hours." But he never makes such an objection. So I have to think that Geordi was padding his estimates, too.

I'm sticking with Scotty as the ultimate Chief Engineer. There was never any question that it's what he always wanted to be, and that it was the role for which he was best suited by temperament and experience.

Plus he didn't take any lip from Klingons when they insulted his baby. :)