Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Warren Spector, Andrew Stanton, and Barsoom

Stop me if you've heard this one before: I have a great idea for a game.

For those whose eyes haven't glazed over already, let me explain... but I need to backtrack a bit first.

In 1992 I brought home a computer game that changed forever my ideas of what a game could be. It was Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and it has never gotten the positive notice it deserves for the features it offered.

Here's a partial list off the top of my head:

  • true three-dimensional environments and objects
  • numerous characters to interact with
  • hundreds of places to explore in eight large levels
  • thousands of objects to find and use
  • open-world design allowing the player to follow the game story at his own pace
  • intricate storyline set in the popular Ultima universe
  • branching dialogue system
  • "constructive" magic system with undocumented spells that could be discovered
  • music that changed depending on the player character's context (walking or combat)
  • a simple but completely new language to learn, with meaningful gameplay value
Bear in mind: this was 1992. A lot of these things seem obvious today in games like Oblivion, but they were astonishing innovations at the time.

It's also worth noting that Ultima Underworld shipped before Wolfenstein 3D. Where Wolf3D offered only a 2-1/2-dimensional world, players of UU were already enjoying a true three-dimensional gameworld. Of course the system requirements for UU were higher than those for Wolf3D, despite UU's relatively simple 3D graphics. id absolutely deserves credit for (among other things) Wolf3D's remarkable optimizations that allowed it to run on many more of the personal computers of 1992 than UU. (John Carmack, in fact, has said that Wolf3D's graphical engine was based on his seeing an early version of Ultima Underworld's graphics and feeling he could do better.) But in terms of providing a rich and highly immersive space to explore, UU blew the doors off that goal well before anything else.

(An in-joke reference to Wolf3d's greater success despite having far less depth might have been found in UU's sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: The Labyrinth of Worlds. In a section of the game rendered in a 3D wireframe style, the player character encounters a hostile goblin named C.I. Crunchowicz whose name bears a certain resemblance to that of the hero of the Wolfenstein games, B.J. Blazkowicz.)

If Ultima Underworld 2 improved on the features of the original, Looking Glass's next game, System Shock, came close to perfecting them.

Then came Thief.

Then, from Ion Storm, came Deus Ex.

So what do all of these games have in common besides setting their absorbing and intelligent gameplay mechanics inside huge and deeply-realized worlds?

Warren Spector.

Which brings me (finally) to the aforementioned great idea for a game, which depends on two facts I just put together today.

1. After Ion Storm, Warren Spector formed his own development company, Junction Point Studios. JPS was acquired in 2007 by Disney, and we were told that this would give JPS access to Disney's and Pixar's stable of characters and worlds.

2. Andrew Stanton, a long-time writer, producer and director with Pixar, has acknowledged that he's mostly done with a screenplay for Disney for a live-action film. This movie will be based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's first novel, A Princess of Mars, the first in the "John Carter, Warlord of Mars" series of adventure tales set on the Red Planet.

See where I'm going with this?

I've been suggesting for several years now that Burroughs's Barsoom novels would make a fine basis for a MMORPG. But there's no reason why -- in the right hands -- they couldn't also be translated into a superb single-player game.

Since both the movie and Junction Point Studios are Disney properties, why not take advantage of that synergy?

JPS is apparently already working on a game for Disney (the so-called "Steampunk Willie" concept). But aside from that admittedly large impediment, am I the only person who thinks a collaboration between two creative and smart people like Andrew Stanton and Warren Spector to bring Barsoom to life as a gameworld is worth pursuing as a rare commercial and artistic opportunity?

I could happily wait until 2012 for a game like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Distribution > Content?

Gamasutra reported today on the comments by game business analyst Mitch Lasky that distribution power is more valuable than developing good game content.

I think content matters more than that, but even so it's nice to see the value of a smart distribution model getting the attention it deserves.

I've been saying for years that id's success -- and the enormous kick-start their success gave to all PC gaming -- was due in large part to how the game design and distribution model for Wolfenstein 3D (not DOOM, which simply reused this model) were deeply intertwined. The game was built as a collection of levels with a boss fight at the end... and only the first collection was essentially free. Once you'd played the initial shareware levels, then discovered that there were two more collections of levels, each more over-the-top than the last, paying for "the rest of the game" seemed absolutely justifiable.

It was brilliant then, and it's still brilliant. All that remains to be seen is which developers and publishers will embrace it in its new "episodic content" form to work with the new broadband-enabled digital distribution portals coming into being, and reap the rewards thereby.

Some will naturally believe that retail sales of physical boxes have some special power that allows them to resist the allure of digital distribution. I think this misses what may be by seeing only what currently is. (The danger of straight-line projections, etc.)

Retail currently has two advantages over the ones and zeros of online distribution: one, it lets potential customers look at the game art and review blurbs on a physical box when deciding whether to buy a game, and two, it's still more comfortable than online shopping to older customers who buy games for their kids or grandchildren.

The second advantage is going to resolve itself with the passage of time.

The first advantage is one that digital distributors can counter in multiple ways, and some of those ways are unique to digital distribution. The obvious is to release each game with its own Web site full of glossy promotional content, and publishers are already doing that. I expect they'll become even more sophisticated at it over time.

Less obvious but perhaps ultimately more important will be the shift to design games for online distribution from the very start, allowing them to be designed to provide a small part of the game that can be downloaded and test-driven for free... which brings us back to the Wolf3D fusion of game design and distribution.

So who's going to control this brave new world of digital distribution of games?

I would be very surprised if the larger publishers like EA weren't already building their own portals. Their deal with Steam shows they're willing to test whether the retail channel retains its value.

In fact, I think it's a process that's already in progress across the computer game industry. Valve's Steam is just an easy-to-see example of the new "e-tailers" that are emerging as product accumulators. Sony Online Entertainment has been turning itself into precisely the same kind of one-stop-shop for MMORPGs for the past several years, either buying online games outright or making publishing/distribution deals with developers (through their "Platform Publishing" program) and making all the games available through their "Station Pass" system. CD Projekt recently introduced their portal. Even can be seen as an important player in this emerging business environment of product accumulators -- the choice of as the target soapbox for opponents of EA's DRM protection of Spore suggests something of its growing importance as a game source.

The visible scramble by each of the big three console makers to provide their own online game distribution portals is another important thread in this pattern.

Within the next year or two I expect to see announcements from EA, Vivendi/Activision, and Infogrames/Atari of their own online distribution networks to try to compete with Valve. If their stables of games (and whoever else they can get to sign up) can be made large enough without becoming shovelware, that's probably going to be a successful line of business for the next decade or so at least, especially for those which value-add most effectively.

Whether all these will eventually shake down to just two or three big players, I can't guess yet.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exploration as Survey Gameplay in Star Trek Online


With Cryptic's various statements that they intend for exploration-focused gameplay to play a meaningful role in Star Trek Online, I thought it might be fun to come up with some of my own notions for how exploration might work in this game. To keep from getting too high-level, I'll focus my suggestions on a specific practical gameplay activity that encompasses exploratory play: namely, Survey.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I consider "exploration" to be about more than just mapping physical terrain -- the true explorer is someone who enjoys discovering new knowledge about any system, whether physical or abstract. The point is not the excitement of travel or the stimulation of constant variety, nor is it racing to see who can visit the most new locations in the shortest amount of time; the point of exploration is adding to the sum of knowledge about the universe. To define exploration in some other way is to miss the point of what makes exploration uniquely valuable to a society and satisfying to the individuals who do it.

Jean-Luc Picard did not choose to remain captain of the Enterprise, seeking out new life and new civilizations, because he thought that racing from one new world to the next was a good way to accumulate XP for leveling up.

That said, drawing a chart of a star system or a map of a new planet is certainly one kind of exploration. As I suggest below, that's gameplay content I'd enjoy seeing in Star Trek Online. But cataloging the diversity of life on a newly-encountered world, and assessing the level of development of an alien civilization in several spheres of social activity -- those are also valid forms of exploration in a science fiction universe like that of Star Trek. They could also become fun gameplay features.

So what I'd like to attempt here is the outline of a gameplay system that wraps all those activities together in a coherent way as "Survey" content. I'll first provide simple descriptions of possible gameplay features in four areas of survey-related gameplay. Then I'll examine how the entire Survey feature could fit usefully into Star Trek Online's gameplay as a whole (as we currently understand it).

(Please note that I'm not saying I think every one of the ideas given below should be implemented in Star Trek Online. These ideas are intended as possibilities for a limited set of actual features -- just the things that would be fun if exploration in this game were to be designed around the concept that players are asked by their factions to survey new worlds.)


SYSTEM: "This system contains seven planets orbiting a G-type primary star."

The System-level survey consists of determining the nature of the stars bound together by gravity into a system and the non-stellar bodies orbiting those stars.

The basic information about the stars of a system themselves may already be known through high-powered telescopes. Most of the information obtained by a system survey will come from warping into a new system to gain first-hand knowledge of the various bodies orbiting the star or stars comprising a system.

A system survey will normally begin when a vessel drops out of warp above the ecliptic of a system (or the primary ecliptic if the system is composed of multiple stars). (The ecliptic -- more precisely, the invariable ecliptic plane of a star system -- is the imaginary two-dimensional plane along which the planets of a star orbit that star.) If a system contains space-faring lifeforms traveling among the worlds of that system, they will almost always move along the plane of the ecliptic for efficiency in fuel and time. So a survey vessel that drops out of warp well above (or below) the ecliptic will be well-positioned to detect local space vessels before the survey vessel itself is detected, or, if detected, before hostile ships can intercept it.

Once out of warp, if no anomalies or immediate threats are observed, the survey vessel can begin conducting passive scans across all bands of energy and radiation. This will provide simple information on the number and general types of all major orbital bodies in the system, as well as their orbital element data. If there are artificial bodies in space, they too will be detected by a passive scan if they are radiating any kind of energy or broadcasting an omnidirectional communication signal.

[Note: For more information on how a ship might use its sensors for active and passive scans in Star Trek Online, as well as for a detailed listing of the kinds of particles and energies that have been referenced in Star Trek, please see my essay Sensors and Star Trek Online.]

Examples of the kind of data that a System survey could collect include:

  • Stars
    • number of stars
    • class and spectral type of each star
    • luminosity of each star
    • orbital elements if multiple stars
  • Local Phenomena
    • gas/dust clouds -- location and composition
    • subspace anomalies -- location and type
    • temporal anomalies -- location and type
    • wormholes -- location (it is suggested that exploration of wormholes be left to specialized exploration vessels)
    • space-based lifeforms [special -- see World-Biological section below]
  • Natural Bodies
    • number of planetary bodies orbiting each star
    • general type of each planetary body (gas giant, rocky planet, planetoid belt)
    • orbit number of each planetary body
    • mean distance from the star they orbit
    • eccentricity of their orbit
    • size/density of Oort cloud
  • Artificial Bodies
    • location and characteristics of relatively stationary space-based artifacts (space stations/starbases, communication arrays)

WORLD-PHYSICAL: "It's an M-class world with rich deposits of dilithium."

Once the system survey is completed, if the survey vessel is properly equipped and any of the planetary bodies seems worth a closer look, the survey vessel can proceed to the next stage, the World-Physical survey.

Depending on personal style, natural hazards, or Prime Directive concerns (if applicable), a survey vessel may choose to begin a closer inspection of individual worlds either in order from innermost to outermost (or vice versa), or starting with the worlds that seem most interesting for some reason, such as a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of a star.

[Note: One possible mission type in Star Trek Online might be to travel to a newly cataloged star system to collect basic scan data for each of the planets in that system. The player would need to warp to the system, travel using impulse drive to within some reasonable distance of each planet, and perform the sensor scans necessary to "fill in the blanks" of a short list of planet features taken from the list given below. Another mission type might be to collect detailed survey information for a specific planet. In that case, most or all of the applicable items from the list below would be presented to the player, to be filled in by performing the appropriate sensor scans. Yet another mission could be to visit a number of star systems and scan all their orbiting worlds until a sufficiently high concentration of some specific mineral resource is detected on one of those worlds.]

Information that a World-Physical survey could reveal might include:

  • world type (large gas giant, small gas giant, rocky, planetoid belt)
  • Gas Giants:
    • number, orbital distance, and composition of moons
    • equatorial diameter
    • average density
    • general composition (hydrogen/helium, water/ammonia/methane ["ice giants">)
    • location and strength of natural field effects (magnetic, polaric, radio, etc.)
    • rotation speed (length of local "day")
    • axial tilt relative to orbital plane
    • surface feature map
  • Planets:
    • number, orbital distance, and composition of moons
    • location, size and composition of planetary ring(s), if any
    • equatorial diameter
    • average mass
    • average surface gravity
    • rotation speed (length of local "day")
    • axial tilt relative to orbital plane
    • general composition (iron-rich, silicate-rich, carbon-rich, watery/icy, carbon monoxide, hydrogen)
    • interior structure
    • tectonic/seismic activity (none, one continent, a few large continents, many volcanic islands)
    • surface topography map
    • albedo
    • location and strength of natural field effects (magnetic, polaric, radio, etc.)
    • atmosphere composition (nitrogen/oxygen, nitrogen/chlorine, methane, etc.)
    • atmosphere density
    • mean surface temperature
    • surface temperature bands (annual average)
    • average wind speeds
    • surface/subcrustal liquid composition
    • surface/subcrustal liquid coverage extents
    • average tidal height/frequency (if significant coverage by surface liquid and a sufficiently large/close moon is present)
    • detailed composition (including central location of concentrations of key elemental and mineral resources)
  • Planetoid belts:
    • width of belt along ecliptic plane
    • height of belt
    • estimated number of planetesimals
    • size distribution of planetesimals
    • orbital element data for the handful of largest planetesimals
    • composition distribution (carbonaceous %, stony %, metallic %, other %)

WORLD-BIOLOGICAL: "I just love scanning for lifeforms!"

On some occasions, a world will be scanned that has the potential to support life as we know it.

When a world is found that appears to be capable of supporting life, then a World-Biological survey may be initiated. This will normally begin by entering a parking orbit around the world to be scanned. Once in orbit, the survey vessel may begin performing both passive scans (such as infrared) and active scans (such as cloud-piercing radar) for identifying the types of lifeforms and their extent across the world.

Be aware, however, that if at any point at any time in a survey of a star system intelligent life is detected, all survey operations will be suspended and First Contact protocols will be in force.

[Note: it's possible that we may on rare occasions encounter forms of space-based life. If so, then this part of the system survey will be focused on filling in the "Photonic/Other Life" section of the information fields given below, rather than being down to a planet's surface... although it might be possible to beam into a sufficiently large space-based lifeform, such as "Tin Man."]

Assuming that no intelligent life has yet been detected, if there is interest in or need for a detailed World-Biological survey then the survey vessel may continue to perform scans from orbit to collect aggregate data on lifeforms. This process will normally require several days to complete [game time, not real time] for worlds on which life is abundant.

After careful review of the World-Biological survey data, the commander of the survey vessel may decide that a first-hand visit to the newly discovered world is desirable (usually to collect more detailed data on certain lifeforms). In this case, an appropriately outfitted away team or teams will be formed to travel to the planet's surface. There they will use science and medical tricorders to detect and classify specific aspects of the lifeforms they encounter.

Once the desired scans are complete, the away team will return to the survey vessel. At that time, each member of the away team -- without exception -- will submit to whatever decontamination procedures are deemed appropriate by the ship's Medical Officer.

[Note: as with World-Physical surveys, there are several different kinds of missions that players of Star Trek Online could take related to collecting World-Biological data. These could be to locate 5 new worlds within the habitable zone of a star, to take general scan data from 3 worlds capable of supporting humanoid life, or to take detailed scans of a new lifeform with a handheld medical tricorder. Again, items from the list below could be presented to players in a "fill in the blanks" format, where performing the appropriate sensor scans will insert the scan results into each field of the form. This could a very simple process that always succeeds the first time, or, depending on how energetic the folks at Cryptic are feeling, such fill-in-the-blank scans could be designed as a minigame.]

Information collected through a World-Biological survey could include:

  • general planetary ecosphere (desert, tundra, swamp, grassland, forest [boreal, temperate, jungle], sargasso, world-city)
  • mapping of individual ecospheres by location and extent
  • Viral "Life":
    • number and diversity of forms
    • number and distribution of individuals of each form
    • structure of each form
    • method of propagation
    • effects of each form on known sentient lifeforms (human, Vulcan, Klingon, etc.)
  • Plant/Algal/Fungal/Microbial Life:
    • number and diversity of forms
    • number and distribution of individuals of each form
    • physical characteristics of each form
    • chemical/molecular composition of each form
    • primary life-sustaining processes for each form (photosynthesis, absorption)
    • method of propagation
    • effects of each form on known sentient lifeforms (human, Vulcan, Klingon, etc.)
  • Animal Life:
    • number and diversity of forms
    • number and distribution of individuals of each form
    • method of propagation
    • physical characteristics of each form
    • intelligence level of each form
    • prefered habitat of each form
  • Photonic/Other Life:
    • number and diversity of forms
    • number and distribution of individuals of each form
    • internal structure
    • method of propagation
    • special characteristics of each form (structural basis, intelligence level, etc.)

WORLD-CIVILIZATION: "Veridian IV supports a pre-industrial humanoid society."

In some very rare cases, a survey vessel will encounter new life and new civilizations in a newly charted star system. As noted above, First Contact protocols will go into force the moment any new form of intelligent life is detected during the survey of a new system.

If those protocols (as defined by the applicable factional command) permit it, a general World-Civilization survey may be initiated. This may occur under either of two circumstances:

  1. if the newly-discovered intelligent lifeform is observed to be warp-capable, and the survey vessel is authorized and able to conduct First Contact operations, or
  2. if the new lifeform is intelligent but not warp-capable, and the survey vessel is authorized and equipped to conduct short-term covert surveillance and study operations.
Survey teams will collect general physical and sociological data related to the following key forms of intelligent behavior:

  • Military: aggressiveness, level of development of tactical/operational/strategic principles
  • Political: types and extents of governments (anarchy, democracy, republic, feudalism, bureaucracy, dictatorship, police state)
  • Economic: level of development of economic principles (money, currency, trade, banking, capitalism, ethovalunomics)
  • Social: individual/group orientation, xenophilia/xenophobia, altruism, level of health, level of education
  • Religious: atheism, agnosticism, deism, individual worship, communal worship, organized worship, missionary zeal
  • Ethical: philosophies, moral/ethical principles, art/architectural styles
  • Technological: inventiveness, development of military, transportation, communication, energy-generation, and medical artifacts
  • Intellectual: curiosity, level of development in mathematics, scientific principles, and universe-knowledge
Other general information useful to gaining an understanding of new intelligent lifeforms and civilizations includes:
  • number, boundaries, and forms of political entities
  • location and size of population clusters (villages, cities, megalopoli)
  • location and output of power generation facilities
  • transportation grid (types, locations)
  • communications (types, frequencies, modulations, formats)
  • planetary shielding/cloaking
Be aware that, as part of a standard survey team, you are not expected to obtain highly detailed World-Civilization data. Collecting that data requires the placement of long-term assets, who will consist of teams of specialists in the fields of diplomacy and long-term covert assessments [or just plain intimidation if you happen to be a Klingon ;)].

[Note: One special aspect of dealing with newly discovered intelligent lifeforms is the possibility of being able to "hire" new NPC bridge officers from among them. This might allow us to fill in more World-Civilization survey details about a particular world by having conversations with a hired NPC bridge officer. It could be an interesting way to integrate NPC interactions, bridge operations, storytelling, and survey gameplay.]


Some examples have already been given (in the notes for each survey specialization) for how players of Star Trek Online might enjoy Survey content. At this point, I'd like to consider some possibilities for how the Survey feature might help support the rest of the game and vice versa. While we still don't know much at the present writing (January 2009) about what the normal course of gameplay will be like in Star Trek Online, we've been told that there'll be things to do in space in a starship, things to do on planetary surfaces (and perhaps artificial locations in space such as starbases), that these things will include combat and exploration, that we'll have NPC "pets" serving as our bridge crew for operating our ship's systems, and that we will be able to group with other players in their own personal starships.

Based on this very rough description of the gameplay environment, it might be fun for exploration to be given some gameplay structure for players who want it. A Survey system like the one whose elements are described here would create numerous possibilities for gameplay, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • every player who finds new habitable worlds is allowed a one-time opportunity to name a new world
  • groups of ships could pool their survey data to more rapidly complete detailed surveys
  • talking with bridge NPCs hired from a new civilization could unlock new NPC abilities by revealing special world survey data
  • completing some number of detailed world surveys could provide some kind of Achievement
  • completing a detailed survey optionally spawns random events (valuable new resource, appearance of hostile claimant, etc.)
  • factional expansion as Realm vs. Realm (RvR) competition by identifying systems with useful resources or colonizable worlds
  • discovering habitable worlds permits colonization gameplay (if Cryptic feels that's worth implementing)
  • survey data about a system could provide a tactical advantage in combat in that system
  • survey data could be an economic commodity (probably not for Federation players, however)
  • survey data could be a diplomatic commodity (e.g., gifting star charts as a show of good faith)
As always when I unleash one of these novels, the patience of readers is appreciated. :)