Friday, February 13, 2009

Game Mechanics for Faster-Than-Light Travel

Some time back while working on a game design, I toyed with some ideas for an interstellar travel mechanism that didn't copy the hyperspace/warp or "folding" metaphors of well-known science fiction.

One approach, though perhaps a little too close to Douglas Adams's "infinite improbability drive," was based on the quantum-mechanical notion of particles existing as packets of probability: locations where something has merely a high probability of existing, but bumped up to the macro level similar to the box where Schrödinger's cat lives (or doesn't live).

In this model, "moving" is a matter of minimizing the probability that a macro-level-sized object (and everything on or inside that object) exists in one location and maximizing the probability that it exists in another, desired location. If the universe can be made to believe that rather than being where I seem to be right now, I'm much more likely to be in Paris, or on Mars, or somewhere deep within the Messier 13 globular cluster, who's going to argue with what the universe says is true?

This was sort of cute, and could work as written fiction, but I didn't feel it was quite right for a game in which the theory behind superluminal travel should be a bit more mechanistic, allowing it to be translatable into functional gameplay effects.

So another idea I liked better was something I called "temporal space," or "t-space," wherein the dimension of time essentially doesn't exist. To put it another way, anything that exists anywhere in t-space can exist everywhere in t-space simultaneously. Since t-space maps onto our normal space (albeit in an extremely complex way), if you could move an object from our space into t-space, then determine the point in normal space at which this object could be made to exit t-space, you should be able to travel between any two points in real space in only the time it would take you to perform the entry and exit transitions.

The limits to this were three: interface junctions between normal space and temporal space are rare and hard to find; calculating the precise flow of energies necessary to exit t-space at the desired location is extremely difficult at best; and normal space momentum is preserved within t-space, meaning that the further away you exit t-space from your entry point, the greater the delta between your velocity and that of objects at your target position.

Obviously all this stuff is what the wonderful rulebook for Paranoia would likely have called examples of "pseudoscientific gibberish." It's utter rubbish, but there are enough scientific-sounding phrases to create an illusion of plausibility sufficient for literary or gaming purposes.

Fun to invent and play around with, though. :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Five Ways MMORPGs Can Be Fixed

Tom Chick, over at, put together a very interesting list of his "Five reasons MMOs are broken." He concludes by saying, "MMOs have failed me and I have no idea how they can get me back into their good graces."

Like Tom, I also feel that the MMOGs available today (and most of the ones known to be in development) have failed me. He mentions some of the reasons why I feel that way; I have others. (*cough*balance of content for different playstyles*cough*)

But before I launch into my own suggested "solutions," I'd like to express the optimistic view that this journey to discover new frontiers in online game design is worth making. These online game things have only been around for a few years now; we have only just dipped our toes into the ocean of possibilities awaiting us.

This is because online games, in addition to having rules of play, can be worlds. There are certainly going to be limits to the size and depth of a gameworld -- in a commercial game particularly, time and budget are always constraints. But in terms of creative expression, there are no limits. Designers of MMOGs get to create entire universes!

In which case, how can we reasonably assert that the few online games created so far have already exhausted all the possibilities?

I go into this in more detail (and offer a visual guide to what hasn't been tried yet) in my essay, "It's All Been Done? No Way!" Recommended reading if you need a fast way to get to sleep. :)

So with that said, let's get to the five problems that the author sees in MMOGs (or, more accurately, MMORPGs) today.

5) The problem: subscription fees

What needs to be done to fix it: The subscription fee is brilliant, insidious, and tremendously effective. It is single-handedly responsible for the immense success of MMOs. I have no idea how to overcome that sort of fiscal momentum. I have no answers here.
I think the tremendous success of paying the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month for unlimited play time is a pretty good clue that this revenue model is not a problem requiring a solution.

To the extent that it forces game developers to be creative in finding gameplay that's so much fun that it discourages subscribers from canceling their accounts... how is that a bad thing?

4) The problem: aggro

What needs to be done to fix it: Search me. Someone hurry and invent a new gameplay model that doesn't rely on aggro.
I've agreed with this one before. As pure gameplay it's not inherently evil. But as an attempt to model interestingly aggressive conflict resolution methods, "aggro" is a cheap hack applied to avoid implementing environmental depth.

A sufficiently complex environment creates opportunities for competitive success that don't require abitrary and artificial gimmicks like "pulling" and "taunting," not to mention having to jam the entire play experience into a few stovepiped classes based entirely on bizarrely restrictive roles like "tank" and "DPS." The fact that some people mistake this stuff for actual tactical gameplay does not mean that MMORPG developers must mindlessly copy these tropes in every single game from now unto eternity.

3) The problem: button lock

What needs to be done to fix it: Can someone replace all the math with action? Is there some way to do this? Is it even possible? Or should I just stick to Diablo?
See above re: environmental depth. Button-mashing is not, never has been, and never will be "tactics." And the problem with button-mashing isn't that it involves math -- it's that the mathematical calculations are being applied to the intersection of character-inherent "special moves" instead of to how each character interacts with functional elements of their local environment.

So I conclude that MMORPGs won't support interesting tactical gameplay until their developers abandon this belief that cheap game-rule gimmicks are an adequate substitute for environmental depth. For example, an environment whose features are selected to highlight visibility and detection would enable stealthy play as a viable alternative to the silly special-move-spamming slapfights that pass for "combat" in today's MMORPGs.

Bottom line: spending the time to build a gameworld with a broad spectrum of environmental phenomena that can be detected, created, and countered by characters will reduce mindless button-mashing intended to game some mathematical calculation in favor of action that rewards perceptiveness, adaptability and creativity.

2) The problem: static worlds

What needs to be done to fix it: Beats me. You can't very well have evil get vanquished by the first hero to come along. Is this just an innate problem by virtue of the word "massively" in the genre?
Actually... yes. I think it is. Fairness mandates that everyone have exactly the same opportunity to enjoy exactly the same content. Most MMORPG developers interpret that requirement by implementing the "respawn" mechanic.

But what does "same" mean? Exactly the same in every inherent respect? Or just the same kind of content?

If being able to experience the same kind of content is (in some cases) acceptable, then one solution to static worlds is to rethink how content is generated. Rather than hardcoding every piece of content to specifically reference some existing physical object within the game world, developers could try instead to create "fill-in-the-blanks" content. Content that references a specific NPC could instead reference any appropriate NPC, allowing NPCs who have different qualities and goals to come and go. Rather than specifying particular objects as targets of quests/missions, different objects from one specific class of objects could be permitted as targets of a mission, allowing many players to have a highly similar but still distinct play experience.

In effect, a fill-in-the-blanks approach would allow some aspects of a massively shared world to change over time while preserving the general actions defined in each piece of quest content.

Another -- and possibly better -- solution to the problem of a massively multiplayer gameworld that doesn't change: give up. Stop trying to allow multiple people to share the unchanging assets of a gameworld. Switch to making massively single-player games, whose worlds can and should change over time depending the actions of the player's character and the NPCs in that world.

I explore the possibilities of this option in my "Living World" essay, also guaranteed to cure insomnia.

1) The problem: you can't play with the people you want to play with

What needs to be done to fix it: Something. Anything. For pete's sake, if I can't play with my friends, I'm just going to go mess around with horde mode in Gears of War 2.
I think this is not quite as bad a problem as the author makes it out to be, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if playing with friends could be made easier.

One possibility may be found in the gradual transition away from hardcore games to games with a more casual set of rules. More granular gameplay makes it easier for friends to drop in and drop out with a minimum of negative consequences.

Another possibility, albeit one much more difficult to contemplate or implement, might come from a greater level of integration among all MMORPGs. Imagine if one game-building system were to completely dominate all MMORPG development -- in that case, it might be possible to design every game on the same foundation, making it relatively much easier to jump between gameworlds. That way if you're playing Game A but your friends are over on Game B, it's quick and easy for you to join them.

There could be some severe creative problems in that kind of environment. I'm not convinced it would be a good thing to have One Platform To Rule Them All, and I certainly don't want to see one company controlling the means of (game) production. But maybe that's what it would take to lower the perceived barriers to friends playing with friends.


To sum up, I'd say all of these perceived problems with MMORPGs are symptoms of a more systemic disease, which is that their designers are much, much too focused on providing Achiever-oriented play to the exclusion of other content. The "play" in these games is wrapped almost entirely around formal rules enshrining zero-sum competitive/acquisitive economics. In other words, they're mostly about "winning" by killing others and taking their stuff.

It should be noted: there is nothing inherently wrong with Achiever-oriented play! The only problem with it is the degree to which this one playstyle is permitted to overwhelm every other possible kind of fun. At best, narrative and exploration play get implemented as mere support systems for combat and object-collection. But without treating those other playstyles as worthy of actual content, attracting other kinds of gamers and creating a healthy diversity of player types within a gameworld, the fun of the competitive/acquisitive style of play gets concentrated down into mere grinding: fun for a while, but eventually stale.

Aggro, button lock, static worlds, and content so hardcore that it's necessary to schedule one's fun time... all these things are typical of highly Achieverish designs. If they're perceived as problems, they can't be fixed by going after them piecemeal. They are -- and they need to be understood as -- part of an overall pattern of design. And the solution to them is to change the pattern. It's to stop making yet more excessively-Achieverish gameworlds, and instead design gameworlds to have a broader appeal by offering richer physical and emotional environments, creating a gameworld with a far better balance of gameplay opportunities for more potential players.

To put it another way, most of the things that Tom Chick describes as problems are artifacts -- side-effects -- of focusing the design of MMORPGs too much on the hands of players, and not enough on their hearts and minds. When developers finally decide to change that pattern, then the problems mentioned here will begin to recede... be replaced with other problems. :) But that's just how it goes when trying to make any system in which lots of people can interact in relative anonymity. There is no perfect solution for imperfect human beings.

Which is probably just as well.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Player Ship Interiors and Star Trek Online... Again

Well, here we go again.

Cryptic, the current developer of the Star Trek Online MMORPG, has mentioned in an interview that player ship interiors would probably be viewable only as instances during certain missions. The potential feature of letting characters walk around and interact with key locations of starships, such as the Bridge and Engineering, is now being described as unlikely to be included in Star Trek Online when it launches.

From the interview with Craig Zinkievich conducted by Irdnova on behalf of Hailing Frequency:

HF: We know from the Vegas trailer and from discussion on the STO Forums that ship interiors are going to be available, however we still do not have many details on these, so can you tell us how much freedom will players be allowed in their ships – are we just going to see key areas like the bridge and engineering available, or will corridors and turbolifts and all of the other locations that are typically on a ship, be available?

CZ: At launch, we are probably only going to have ship interiors available during mission instances, however we hope to add the ability to players to freely walk around their ship and host gatherings in an expansion pack.
Over on Cryptic's official Star Trek Online forum, this comment has already spawned the same responses and counter-responses and failures to listen to what anyone else says that went on for months when Perpetual, the former developer of Star Trek Online, made its similar announcement.

These responses come in a few distinct forms:

1. This feature was absolutely critical for me. The developers are a bunch of liars; they obviously don't understand Star Trek or value Star Trek fans. They're just rushing a WoW-clone to market to make a quick buck. If the game that ships doesn't implement key locations of our personal starships that we can walk around in whenever we want, I'm not going to play it, period.

2. This feature was very important to me personally, and its loss is a severe disappointment to me. I don't mind rules-based gameplay, but I really wanted a Star Trek MMORPG that created the world of Star Trek for me to "live in." For me, a richly detailed (and graphically semi-realistic) world isn't an alternative to gameplay, it is gameplay -- it's just not the arbitrary following of formal win/lose rules that other people enjoy. I was really hoping to get to do things like perform sensor sweeps and align phasers and have detailed diplomatic negotiations with alien races, so a ship that's just a "mount" is pretty upsetting. Without being able to walk around as my character through the key locations of the starship I command, this game just won't feel enough like the world of Star Trek. I'm considerably less likely to play it now as a result of this design decision.

3. This feature was important for a Star Trek MMORPG and for the MMORPG industry as a whole. Starships were virtually starring characters in Star Trek. So cutting both the player crew feature and player ship interiors (outside of some mission instances) is a failure to understand that this is one of the most iconic elements of the entire Star Trek IP. Not richly rendering starships is a failure to take advantage of what's probably the last major opportunity to create a richly realized IP as a major MMORPG. I'm somewhat less likely to play this game now.

4. This would have been nice to have, and I wish they'd included it, but I figure the developers know what they're doing. Maybe not implementing key locations on player ships makes sense given their previous design decision (such as Cryptic's decision not to allow players to work together as crew on one ship). Without that capability, there's probably not enough value in letting individual players walk around key locations of their own ship. So I suppose cutting this feature is just the developer being realistic. I guess I'll probably still play it as long as they don't cut anything else.

5. Huh? I don't care about walking around on some ship, I just want to start shooting stuff. What's all the complaining about? Where can I download this game? Can I be in the beta, like, right now?

6. The developer is going to give us interiors as instances for missions. So for you few oddballs who claim to like that kind of thing, you can do all the walking around and staring at consoles you want -- you'll just have to do it as part of a developer-provided mission. I'll definitely buy this game, and I'll probably play it for at least a year or so while I level up my main character and alts.

7. All you people who say you want interiors are just a bunch of whiners. IT'S NOT GOING TO BE A SIMULATOR! SHUT UP! The only valid definition of "gameplay" is flying places and shooting people and taking their stuff. All that other stuff like stories and sandboxes and how long a day lasts is just a distraction from real gameplay content. The devs aren't going to spend a single minute making that crap that only a few weirdos want, and I'm glad. SHUT UP! Go back to your mommy's basement, you retard trekkie losers! This is MY game! MINE! MINE! I'll buy this game, but I want to play for free forever, or at least until I beat it in a couple of months and quit.

8. Everything this developer does is wonderful! Anyone saying anything negative about this or any other decision they make about Star Trek Online's design should go away. We should only talk about the things we're all happy to see announced. The only way I would not buy the Collector's Edition of this game is if it gets cancelled.
I'm probably around a 2.5 in my reaction. I understand that things get cut when making a game; I just don't think it should always be the features that make the gameworld more interesting and that are iconic to a licensed IP that lose that contest.

The Star Trek IP would have been a terrific basis for a major AAA-quality MMORPG that deliberately gives equal weight to story and world and rules-based play.

It's too bad Cryptic aren't going to be the ones who profit by making that balanced gameworld.

Who will?