Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In My Ideal Star Trek MMORPG....

The question came up on the official Star Trek Online forum of what our "ideal Star Trek Online experience" would look like.

After some thought, I realized that I did, in fact, have some fairly specific items on my wish list for this particular online gameworld. This essay is an enhanced version of the items I noted in that original list.

Before I go any further, it's important for those reading this to understand that the things I ask for describe only the gameplay experience I consider personally optimal. They're not necessarily what I think the play experience should be for all players... though I do believe -- and numerous comments on the STO forum confirm -- that I'm not the only person who'd enjoy playing the Star Trek MMORPG whose key features are outlined below.

So, that being said: in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, I'd like to be able to log in and enjoy gameplay that engages my head and my heart as much as my hands.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the iconic elements of Star Trek would be the starting point for developing gameplay. Conventional MMORPG mechanics (such as the class/level model of character advancement or the combat-centric tank/DPS/support+aggro roles) would under no circumstances be mindlessly cloned from other games and simply renamed with Star Trek terms. Let the mechanics of this game be inspired by what's uniquely fun about Star Trek. If it's fun gameplay, then it's fun gameplay regardless of whether other games do it or not.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the game would launch with a balance of combat and non-combat content, and the developers would commit to sustaining that balance throughout the lifespan of the game in all of the patches and expansions released. The gameworld would be designed to be experienced through the functional disciplines of Science/Medical, Tactical/Security, Engineering/Ops, and Command/Helm (and their non-Starfleet faction equivalents). There would always be roughly equal amounts of content available for every one of these four distinctively Star Trek modes of play throughout the entire advancement path of a character.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the rules of play for Starfleet-faction characters would actively promote the emergence of cooperative, creative, perceptive, thoughtful, and supportive behaviors in my fellow players. I'm tired of games that are nothing but nonstop killing and mindless chest-thumping competition; the gameplay in my ideal Star Trek Online would reward Starfleet characters in proportion to the degree to which they work with each other to defend and promote their factional values of reason, tolerance, curiosity and cooperation.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, Starfleet is the primary faction, and the core principles of the Federation (including tolerance and respect for the individual person and for other cultures) are unreservedly and unapologetically presented as the "right" principles when they are forced to come into conflict with competing principles. Non-Starfleet factions, beginning with the Klingon Defense Force, will be presented as having their own distinctive and consistent internal logic, and faction-related content will be created to be fun for those players who create characters in those factions. But Star Trek always focused on Starfleet, and my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would do likewise.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, exploration would be the primary gameplay motivator for Starfleet characters. Physical exploration would be supported by a large or semi-infinite number of star systems and worlds (whether pregenerated or generated on the fly). Intellectual and emotional discovery would be provided by a profusion of lifeforms and civilizations that can be discovered on new worlds and in space, all of which have highly varied characteristics, and the process of cataloguing these characteristics would be implemented as enjoyable gameplay. These variations would also be used to spark story-based gameplay in the Star Trek mode. The quest to expand knowledge would be valued as fun in and of itself, and not solely for its value in economic competition.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, many of the places and objects, lifeforms and cultures, and looks and sounds from Star Trek episodes will be replicated with reasonable fidelity and respect. The art and the lore -- the "feel" of Star Trek -- would be treated as though it was important to get it right. The "worldiness" of a MMORPG is no less important to me than the rules-based play set within that world, and in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG world content will not always be the loser in any conflict between the needs of "live in" and "play in."

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, both space and planetary surfaces would be rich in environmental phenomena. These phenomena would be the particles, energies and other natural and artificial effects mentioned in the many episodes of Star Trek, most or all of which would have specific action-oriented functional effects on the characters and objects in the gameworld. Making these phenomena an active part of all environments in a Star Trek MMORPG would provide outstanding support for multiple forms of play: visual beauty, surveying and cataloguing, storytelling, puzzle-solving, and tactical combat.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the characters matter as people. Understanding them as people, discovering their similarities to us as well as their differences, would be recognized as being both good Star Trek and good gameplay. Accordingly, this game would allow me to explore those similarities and differences through emotionally engaging stories. The stories in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would be about things that matter. They would never be didactic, telling players what to think or feel, nor would the NPCs through whom these stories are told ever be used as mouthpieces for some developer's personal political opinions. The storytelling in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would treat players as adults who are capable of feeling and thinking like adults, and giving us opportunities to do so through interacting with well-characterized NPCs in storylines that resonate with all of us as human beings.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, science and engineering in particular would be treated with respect and appreciation. Gameplay involving the Science and Engineering divisions of Starfleet (and their non-Starfleet counterparts) would be created by people who understand science and engineering and appreciate their importance in the Star Trek universe. The developers assigned the task of designing and building gameplay around the Science and Engineering divisions would be enthusiastic about the opportunity to create constructive, creative, logic- and technology-based gameplay in a massively multiplayer persistent-world environment.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the starship is the central mechanism through which the content of the gameworld is accessed and experienced. Starships would be implemented with some key locations rendered as interiors; players would experience shipboard activities as an avatar interacting with other avatars in 1st- or 3rd-person perspective; and while no player would be forced into a support role on someone else's ship, friends who want to play together on one ship in specific roles would be able to do so. Away team missions would let players enjoy highly varied environments as a way to break up the shipboard play experience, but one's starship (of which there should be only three or perhaps four during a character's lifespan) should always feel like "home."

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, starships would be implemented as complex systems. That doesn't mean complicated interfaces, nor does it imply constant micromanagement -- it means that there would be depth in the functional behaviors of the subsystems and interconnections between subsystems that comprise the incredible artifact of advanced technology that is a working starship. Implementing starships as complex functional systems would create opportunities to solve problems in thoughtful and clever ways through the perceptive and creative use of those technological systems.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, the high-level design of all combat systems would be assigned to someone who actually understands the military arts, preferably in both personal and theoretical settings. "Combat" would be understood to be not merely the artificial one-versus-one duels or small-group "boss fights" of other MMORPGs, but as tactical, operational, and strategic levels of lethal conflict in which each level requires and rewards very different playstyle interests. Combat in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG would be designed from the ground up to distinguish between these styles of conflict resolution and make each one a distinct area of gameplay that supports and enhances the others.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, operational gameplay (helping to lead groups and player fleets) and strategic gameplay (long-term, wide-area management of resources valuable to one's faction) would be gameplay modes that are consciously designed to be distinct from tactical gameplay. The ranks in each faction would be keyed to each of these three gameplay modes, with the rank of Captain being the normal endpoint for advanced tactical play. Players would never be forced to accept promotion beyond Captain, which would shift them out of tactical play and into operational or strategic play, but those players who wished to take on greater levels of responsibility for the fun of other players would be supported by the rank structure and the overall design of conflict-based gameplay.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, starship combat would be designed to play out over a span of several minutes, with many opportunities for true tactical gameplay through applying the various technological systems and crew capabilities of a mighty starship to the environmental phenomena that exist in a particular location. Engagements would last long enough for smart decision-making to play a much more meaningful role in resolving combat situations than just who's got the bigger stick (as in current MMORPGs).

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, crafting would be implemented as a game of constructive creativity that is fun in and of itself, not as a game of manufacturing and sales where your gameplay products only have whatever value other players give them. While it can make perfect sense for other games, in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG crafting would absolutely not be a game of using fleet resources to crank out thousands of identical products to try to "win" some economic competition. Instead, there would be a limited game economy in which players are encouraged to use their personal creativity and the skills of their characters to individually handcraft new things for trade to other player characters.

In my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, all of these things would be designed and implemented to create a total gameplay experience that is highly satisfying to people with different playstyles. Those who enjoy the simple competition/accumulation-oriented play so prominent in current MMORPGs would definitely be able to enjoy that kind of content in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG. Competition and the (limited) accumulation of value items are important aspects of the human condition and deserve a place in a well-developed gameworld. But in my ideal Star Trek MMORPG, competitive/destructive gameplay will never be allowed to dominate the gameworld to the exclusion of cooperative/constructive content. Both are fun; and in the game I'd like to play, both would be energetically supported with a long-lasting balance of enjoyable content.

Those are the main things I personally would like to see in Star Trek Online.

Am I going to be disappointed to some degree when the Star Trek MMORPG that Cryptic is making finally ships? Sure. But I expect there'll also be plenty of things from this list that do appear in their game.

Hey, I can take "yes" for an answer. :)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Does Every Gamer Really Want WoW's "Directed Gameplay?"

In a presentation at GDC 2009 [note: this links to some salty language], Wrath of the Lich King gameplay director Jeffrey Kaplan discussed a number of issues in quest design that the Lich King team considered to be problems. Kaplan says that all of these issues are things that Blizzard will be actively avoiding in all future quest designs.

Examples of these perceived quest design defects are:

The Christmas tree effect: quest hubs activate lots of quests, which players take in any order that they like.

Too long, didn't read: most WoW players skip even the 511 characters Blizzard allows for quest text, so why bother?

Medium Envy: "Art, literature, drama, film, song have all embraced story" but gamers don't care about any of that artsy stuff.

Mystery: "[E]ven if you're on a mystery story, we should never going to put you on quest where we say 'Something's wrong in [the forest]. Go figure it out.' At the end of the day it needs to say 'go kill this dude, go get this item.'"

Why am I collecting this [stuff]? "You never want the player to even think somebody made the game. You want the player to think only of himself."

My reaction is that all the things Kaplan describes as problems probably make sense for Blizzard. Blizzard has enthusiastically embraced the "directed gameplay" notion of game design, in which no player at any time ever lacks a blindingly obvious answer to the question, "What do I do next?" All of Blizzard's new content, including quests, is being designed to be consistent with that assumption that everyone who plays World of Warcraft needs their moment-to-moment gameplay to be strongly directed by Blizzard.

Is that really a good assumption for all other MMORPGs?

Should all of the quests and other content of every MMORPG be designed so that no player at any moment in time is ever in any doubt about what they're "supposed" to do next?

Or is there room in the MMORPG industry for games that provide guidance and assistance but not constant direction?

For my part, I think of these two service models as similar to those of the late Circuit City and Ikea, respectively. Forget for a moment about the products sold: think about the shopping experience.

I used to hate going into a Circuit City, so much so that I simply stopped going there years ago, because I detested being swarmed by vulture-like "sales associates" who wanted to direct my consumer experience. They treated everyone as uninformed, and they pushed their ideas of what was desirable on every consumer. No sale, thanks.

By contrast, I love the Ikea shopping experience -- there is an incredible wealth of products to explore, each of which is clearly described. On the rare occasion when a customer needs assistance, it's easy to find the centrally-located customer service area. When I shopped at Ikea, the low-pressure environment allowed me to find specific things that I wanted in my own time, and through exploration I often found (and bought) things I didn't even know I wanted.

I'm not suggesting that following the "we'll tell you what you really want" Circuit City approach will cause WoW to fold like Circuit City did. Obviously there are a lot of gamers who are perfectly happy being told one place to go and one thing to do at a time.

What about the gamers who value choice and freedom and the ability to explore a gameworld in their own way and at their own speed?

WoW already exists for the gamers who like lots of direction.

Why should every MMORPG try to compete with that service delivery model when there's an alternative model that can satisfy gamers who are willing and able to direct themselves?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Engineering Crafting Modes in a Star Trek MMORPG 2

As a result of some discussions, I've updated my design concepts for Engineering-oriented crafting in Star Trek Online.


There are two key changes:

  • added Fabrication mode -- how do devices get created in the first place?
  • changed Maintenance mode to Optimization mdoe -- "maintenance" implied "recover from item decay"
To help keep these modes clear, I turned to my industry experience -- I came with an acronym. :)



So the overall model for how Engineering crafting might work in a MMORPG based on Star Trek is as follows:

Fabrication: create a device with standard capabilities using standard components
Optimization: modify the internal connections between components to improve the numeric performance of a device's or system's current capabilities
Repair: fix or replace damaged or destroyed components to restore basic functionality of a device or system
Enhancement: replace standard components with exotics or add optional components to give a device or system non-standard capabilities


To allow the player to easily learn and perform all of these gameplay functions, a single presentation system would be used.

The main window would display an aesthetic dark gray representation of the type of device being created or device/system being modified. This representation would be surrounded by numerous slots for the components of which that device or system is comprised. Any fully functional components already placed into component slots would be displayed with a green background; damaged components would be shown in yellow; and destroyed components would appear with a red background.

A side window would display a tree-structured hierarchy of device types and components, which can be double-clicked or dragged into the main window to be displayed there. Existing components in the character's personal inventory will be visually distinguished from standard components that can be replicated.

The main window would also display connections between components. (It will be useful if every device/system always requires at least two or three connections so that the player will understand that they exist.) Players will be able to click on the ends of connections between components to move those ends to different components.

Finally, there should also be two display-only subwindows. One would present a graphical depiction of the device as it will look when the crafting process is complete, and the other will display textual and numeric information describing the device's functional characteristics.


In practice, several of the Engineering crafting modes would interlace. A character wanting to create, modify or repair a device would bring up the crafting interface, which would consist of four subwindows within one overall window.

For example, maybe your character, who has specialized in Engineering, is asked to provide to a newly-encountered culture a genetic sequencing analyzer for medical research that is capable of an 93% level of codon discrimination. If you weren't an Engineer, you could look to buy or contract for the creation of such a device. But since you're an Engineer, you figure you'll try to create such a device yourself.

You check your manifest and find that you don't have an existing analyzer that you could Enhance or Optimize to a 93% discrimination level. So you decide to Fabricate one from scratch. You pull the schematic from the Federation Engineering database, and replicate the standard components you need... but the resulting analyzer provides only an 89% level of codon discrimination.

So you start Optimizing the device by tweaking the internal connections between the components of the analyzer, trying to find a combination that improves the codon discrimination level (preferably without degrading any other feature too badly). Eventually you're able to see the pattern, and your analyzer develops a 95% discrimination level. Now you can give the analyzer to the appropriate NPC.

Alternately, you might have chosen to try to Enhance a standard genetic analyzer with non-standard components, some of which could provide a bonus to codon discrimination (though possibly to the detriment of some other operational capability).

Should the analyzer break for some reason, a character could attempt to Repair it. The player would right-click on the device and select "crafting" (or a more Star Trek-y term) to bring up the crafting window. The standard window would appear, and any damaged or destroyed components would be easily visible through the color-coding described above. The player would then be able to attempt to repair damaged components (perhaps via some minigame). Alternately, the player could choose to replace damaged or destroyed components by replicating standard components and dragging them into the appropriate component slots, or to replace damaged or destroyed components with non-standard components from the character's personal inventory. (Another way to look at this is as Fabrication or Enhancement mode gameplay, just on an existing device or system rather than a new device.)

Note: in this system, I'm assuming that players would be able to Fabricate new devices, but not new systems. I'm thinking of "systems" as large fixed installations, either on the ground, in a starbase, or mounted on a starship. Players would be able to Optimize, Enhance, and Repair such systems, but creating large systems from scratch should probably not be part of player crafting -- new systems should, I think, come from a different gameplay interface. For ships, this would be a "ship customization" interface. Once a ship system is installed, a character would then be able to attempt to Optimize, Enhance, or (when necessary) Repair it.



One of the goals of this design is to support both the reliable crafting of specific objects as well as "creative" crafting.

Reliability depends on the same inputs, connected in the same ways, always producing the same output -- that is, devices that always have the same functional characteristics. Since there's nothing random about this model of Engineering crafting, reliability is guaranteed. The internal rules by which specific inputs lead to specific outputs may be quite complex, but they would be invariant.

At the same time, the complexity -- or "depth" -- of those internal transformation rules would, in combination with having a very wide range of input components and component characteristics, allow for the possibility of surprise. Trying a new component or a new way of connecting components should produce new results (that is, new functional capabilities or new levels of performance of specific capabilities). These things should be comprehensible. Certain types of components should usually lead to certain recognizable kinds of capabilities in the devices constructed from those components, and connecting certain types of components together should generally lead to roughly consistent optimization results.

So there would be some level of predictability in a player's crafting choices. It's OK for a system to appear complex as long as it doesn't appear to be random. But that internal transformational complexity coupled with the large number of possible inputs would still allow for surprise, which should keep the crafting system fresh and interesting while still allowing reliable production.

It would be possible using this system to intentionally make a specific device to achieve a specific purpose. But those gamers who enjoy tinkering would also be able to use this system to explore creative possibilities.


More to come on this subject, I suspect. :)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Designs for Permanent Character Death

How could the permanent death of a character be made more palatable to gamers?

The main problem of game-ending character death stems from the player's perception of the return on their investment of time and effort. The more time and effort the player puts into improving a character's intrinsic assets (abilities, knowledge, relationships, progress), the higher the perceived cost of the loss of that character.

So the key questions related to permadeath are all related to the amount/number of personal assets that a character can accumulate in a game:
  • How long does a typical game last?
  • How much can a player invest in a character? (In other words, how much "character" can a character have?)
  • Can accumulated player character assets be transferred upon death to another character?
These questions suggest ways that games can be designed to make character death, if not desirable, at least tolerable:

1. Make the game so short that reloading feels acceptable. In a game that's short enough to minimize the sting of permadeath, it probably won't be possible to have a character who's well-developed enough to be interesting. But very clever writing might make this possible.

2. Minimize the number and importance of assets that the player character can accumulate. Multiplayer shooters take this approach. Again, the "character" is not developed as such. Characters are essentially vehicles intended to be occupied temporarily; they're never given names or opportunities to collect assets that are intrinsic to them as people. (Players may be awarded badges for achievement, but player != character.)

Another example of this would be a game I imagined a few years back (before Spore was announced, incidentally): you'd be a cellular lifeform in a tidal pool trying to support the development of a particular kind of complex lifeform. (This would be similar to teams in an online shooter or factions in a MMORPG.) In this world, cells die all the time, so the gameplay would support players jumping into and out of cells at will, including into complex cells already hosting other players. The "character" of a cell (i.e., its abilities) would be intrinsic to the type of cell the player chooses to inhabit. So the death of an individual cell would be relatively trivial; the player would simply jump to a new cell. Again, though, this severely restricts the opportunity to create a fully-rounded "character."

3. Allow accumulated assets to be transferred to a new character. In this model, characters can be fully developed with both intrinsic assets (names, personalities, skills, story progress) and extrinsic assets (money, equipment), some or most of which can be transferred to a new character if the player's existing character dies. In a complex gameworld, it should be possible to provide some minimally plausible explanation for this: the magical restoration of souls in a fantasy gameworld, cloning or the transfer of minds in a science fiction setting, and so on.

One special note applies to roleplaying games in which "leveling" progress is a special type of intrinsic asset. In an RPG (including an MMORPG) that follows the usual class/level model, players invest considerable time increasing the level of their characters. This investment radically reduces the acceptability of permadeath. So eliminating leveling as an intrinsic asset would tend to reduce the perceived cost of permadeath.

This isn't as crazy as it might sound to people who've only played today's MMORPGs. There have been successful RPGs that offered virtually no leveling-driven character advancement as core gameplay -- the science fiction RPG Traveller might be among the best-known such game. In Traveller you don't spend any in-game time leveling up your character; all of your character's skills are generated before playing.

The cost of losing a level-free character in a game like Traveller is thus considerably less than losing a character in a MMORPG whom you've spent months leveling up. Only gear tends to be lost... and that could be "willed" to a new character.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Engineering Crafting Modes in a Star Trek MMORPG


What might Engineering-specific crafting look like as actual gameplay in Star Trek Online?

To put it another way, if he encountered a technological problem, what would Scotty do? In a game set in the Star Trek universe, what might those gamers who want to play an Engineer character like Scotty want to be able to do as gameplay?

To get a handle on that, we need to define what we mean by "Engineering" in a Star Trek MMORPG. As a rough definition, I'd say that means wanting to be able to change the functionality of technological systems in ways that are fun as pure gameplay, and to experience mission and story content from that technology-manipulating perspective as set in the distinctive Star Trek universe.

On that basis, I suggest that Engineering in Star Trek Online should be focused on the repair, maintenance, and enhancement of technological devices. In essence, STO Engineering would be three games in one. (There'd also be a special fourth game for Engineers... but I'll get to that in a bit. Keep reading!)

So which of these is truly "crafting?" Enhancement is an obvious possibility... but what if all three activities, while distinctively different in their results, were so similar in presentation that we might talk about "repair crafting," "maintenance crafting," and "enhancement crafting" of devices?

First we need to consider the question: what is a device?


Devices would have several design features suitable for Engineering-oriented gameplay activities:

1. Every device would be an example of a device type, where each device type has a distinctly different predefined primary effect.

2. Device types would be part of a hierarchy of objects. For example, a Starfleet-issue Type 2 hand phaser would be a type of device at the end of the hierarchy: Personal Devices -> Tools -> Personal Weapons -> Pistols -> Energy Pistols -> Hand Phaser, Type 2.

3. Every device would be "complex," not in the sense of being hard to understand, but rather in that it's composed of multiple elemental components.

4. The types of elemental components used would determine the precise nature of the device's primary effect. Changing one kind of component for another component of the same kind but a different type -- with a different effect -- would be "enhancement crafting."

5. The quality of individual components would determine the basic effectiveness of that device. Repairing a damaged component or replacing a destroyed component with a similar component would be "repair crafting."

6. The connections between components would determine the extra effectiveness of that device. Rearranging and reweighting connections between components would be "maintenance crafting."

7. Elemental components would also belong to a specific hierarchy, allowing them to be grouped into families of components with similar purposes and form factors, but moderately different effects. For example, the hierarchy: Components -> Energy Sources -> Power Cells -> Power Cell, Small -> Small Plasma Power Cell would mean that any Small Plasma Power Cell could be plugged into a device whose schematic requires a "Power Cell, Small", but a Small Fusion Power Cell (as another child of the "Power Cell, Small" family of components) would also work, albeit with some moderate change in the device's behavior.


To see how those gameplay modes might work in Star Trek Online, let's take a look at an example of a device which an Engineering-oriented character might want to repair, enhance, and maintain: a Starfleet-issue Type 2 hand phaser.

If we wanted to make these things really fun to play with, we'd let them have an interesting number of elemental components:

  • barrel
  • receiver
  • grip
  • trigger
  • power cell
  • prefire chamber
  • phase emitter crystal
  • output controls
  • phasing regulator (programmable)
Standard versions of each of these components would be available from replicators (at whatever cost is normal for each type of component), while advanced and exotic versions could potentially be crafted or obtained as gifts or through trade (or, perhaps, as loot from destroyed foes). "Engineering crafting" (of any variety) would consist of breaking down the Type 2 hand phaser into its components.

I imagine this being done through a rag-doll interface much like that used in many games for equipping characters. The main window would display the slots corresponding to all possible components for that device, and each slot would be filled with whatever component is currently being used in that device. Another window would display an image of the completed device (which could be affected by the nature of the components used), while yet another window would show the various text and numeric information that describes that device and its effective characteristics.


Repair Crafting

For repair crafting, an Engineer would first need to disassemble the dysfunctional device in order to expose the faulty component(s). Let's say the prefire chamber of a Type 2 hand phaser has become corroded. The Engineer might want to try to repair the damaged component. If successful, the phaser could be restored to fully operational functionality. If the component is too badly damaged to be repaired, a replacement would need to be obtained.

On an operational starship or starbase, a new component could simply be replicated. But if such an advanced source of stock components isn't available, the Engineer might be reduced to trying to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins. :) In that case, the Engineer would have the option of playing the enhancement crafting minigame.

Enhancement Crafting

For enhancement crafting, an Engineer would deliberately replace existing components with different components, or add components to empty slots. Rather than trying to restore a device to standard functionality, enhancement crafting would be more exploratory -- the Engineer would be experimenting to see what happens when unexpected components are used, or attempting to compensate for necessary but unavailable components with improvised versions.

Using different components than the "stock" components, an Engineer could significantly alter the primary effect of a device. The device would retain its basic function -- a weapon would still be a weapon; a sensor would still be a sensor; and so on -- but the specific form of that effect could be changed greatly.

For example, by replacing the stock Small Plasma Power Cell in a standard Type 2 hand phaser with a Small Fusion Power Cell, a directed-fire effect similar to (though differing from) that of a Klingon disruptor pistol could be produced. Perhaps such a weapon, if it were also modified to replace the stock phase emitter crystal with an exceptionally rare modified crystal from Varos IX (and had some unusual maintenance changes made as well), could become a rare and terrible Varon-T disruptor.

Maintenance Crafting

Finally, rather than restoring standard functionality or producing new functionality, an Engineer might want to try to optimize or maximize the existing functionality of a device -- this is where maintenance crafting would be useful. In this mode, an Engineer would manipulate the connections between the components of a device. This would simulate adjusting the fittings and tweaking the notional "glue" that holds together a device's various components.

I imagine this looking something like lines drawn between some -- but not all -- of the components existing in the Component Window of the Engineering Crafting screen for a given device, with each line drawn in green, yellow, or red to indicate the strength of that connection. The player of an Engineering character would be able to change which components are connected by moving the lines between components. And the strength of connections could also be modified.

In either case, the gameplay in this mode would come from two design features: first, the specific connections between the specific components in a device would be filtered through a complex calculation to produce an efficiency rating for that device. And second, moving a line (i.e., taking away a connection between two components to make a different connection) would, through a related calculation, adjust the weightings of all other existing connections.

The combination of these two rules would create an interesting minigame of efficiency maximization for devices as players attempt to find the optimal combination of connections and connection strengths for a device. (This would be similar to the kinds of efforts Geordie made in TNG: "Force of Nature" as he competed with an old classmate to see who could achieve the highest warp power conversion level.)

Note 1: In most technologically advanced (Information Age and later) devices, at least one component should always be a programmable component (such as the "phasing regulator" I proposed for the Type 2 hand phaser above). Including a programmable component would allow Science-oriented characters (or Engineers with the appropriate Science skills) to create and modify subroutines that condition the inputs or alter the outputs of devices in useful ways. If playing with components is "Scotty crafting," modifying a device's subroutines might be considered "Spock crafting." Perhaps I'll write another essay soon on that subject.... :)

Note 2: The suggestions I've made for an Engineering crafting interface might need to be tweaked somewhat to allow users of console controllers to easily perform the kinds of component manipulations I've described.


Some players are uncomfortable with gameplay that relies heavily on player skills. There are gamers who enjoy being able to play any part of the game to a high level of effectiveness as long as the attributes and skills of their character allow that level of effectiveness, even if they themselves don't personally possess the requisite attributes and/or skills. So it's useful to think about how character skills might play a role in each of the three Engineering Crafting modes I've suggested above.

An obvious skill for a repair crafting mode is a Repair skill. Perhaps a higher level of skill in Repair might allow an Engineer a better chance of restoring a damaged component to its stock state. As another possibility, we might imagine a Logistics skill that allows a character to improve their odds of successfully using their faction's requisitioning system to obtain needed replacement components. (A character with a high Logistics skill level could be fantastically useful as a "scrounger.")

Enhancement crafting might benefit from a character skill such as Improvisation, which would allow the use of more kinds of components in a component slot. Even simpler might be to disable some components slots for a device for any character without an Improvisation skill -- earning subsequent levels in this skill could switch on additional component slots in a device, allowing the player of an Engineering character with this skill to produce a much wider range of novel device functions than a character who chooses not to acquire levels in that skill.

As for maintenance crafting, this mode has a more apparent opportunity for character skills: increasing levels in a Maintenance skill (perhaps under some other more interesting name) would allow a character to add more connections between the components of a device, and/or could reduce the amount to which changing a connection reduces the strength of other connections. In other words, there could be a character skill that allows any player to become very good at tuning any device to its highest possible level of functionality.


What, you didn't think I'd forgotten about that, did you? ;)

In addition to individual devices (both portable and ship-mounted) that an Engineer might enjoy repairing, enhancing, and maintaining, there's one device in particular that is special: a starship.

In a similar way to how devices are made up of elemental components (and their functionality determined in large part by the nature of those components and their interconnections), a starship could be thought of as being a collection of interconnected complex devices. So: what if Engineers could play the same sorts of repair, enhancement, and maintenance games with the devices that make up a starship as they could with the individual devices themselves?

What if starships could be treated by Engineers as big devices, and the subsystems that comprise a starship -- hull, engines, sensors, computer, weapons, etc. -- could be manipulated as the "components" of that starship-device? How would the repair, enhancement, and maintenance modes work in this special Engineering gameplay environment?

Well, it's worth noting that the "enhancement" game with respect to starships has already been confirmed by Cryptic: it's the "ship customization" game! From what's been said, it seems that players will be able to trade out existing ship systems for new ones. If so, I think it's not unreasonable to believe that we might be able not only to improve existing capabilities in this way, by trading out different systems for new kinds of systems we could be able to give our ships new capabilities. Doesn't that sound like the enhancement crafting I described above for individual devices?

I think it's also pretty likely -- although to my knowledge no details have been mentioned on this subject yet -- that Engineering-oriented characters will be able to perform damage control (i.e., repair) on ship systems. If so, would that use the same ship systems interface as the "ship customization" feature?

And if that's the case, then would something like the "maintenance crafting" concept I described above (which similarly reuses one crafting interface for devices) make some sense as gameplay for maximizing the effectiveness of starships themselves?


Obviously this proposed gameplay feature has a number of detailed requirements. It could be a lot of work. Is it worth the effort? If something had to be cut in order to get any part of this idea, what's negotiable?

If the constraints of time until Launch Day prevent implementing all three of these modes of Engineering-oriented gameplay, I would suggest that the most important to implement is repair crafting, followed by enhancement crafting, followed in turn by maintenance crafting.

This doesn't mean I think maintenance crafting wouldn't be fun for many players naturally drawn to Engineering gameplay. I believe there are gamers who enjoy optimization minigames, which is essentially what a maintenance crafting mode is all about. This mode just isn't quite as valuable in a massively multiplayer game based on a technologically advanced IP as a gameplay activity based on repairing devices. Repair is both a very visible activity of engineers in Star Trek and a highly useful ability in a game that's obviously going to offer lots of combat gameplay, so if anything would make the cut, I'd think it would be a repair capability.

Another element I didn't cover in this proposal is how Engineers as commanders of their own vessels would use their skills when in space grouped with other ships. Repairing, enhancing and maintaining devices is relatively easy to understand as an avatar on an away team. And crafting the features of one's own ship seems equally desirable. But how should an Engineering-specialized character be allowed to affect the ships or devices of other players? This needs to be considered further.


Taken all together, these three modes of Engineering crafting -- repair, enhancement and maintenance -- would each offer a different but related set of gameplay opportunities. Each gameplay mode would not only provide pure rules-based Engineering-oriented gameplay activities, these three modes would also be fun for the knowledgeable Star Trek fan who has seen all three types of Engineering activities in the various TV shows and films.

Finally, because all three modes would share the same interface, some code reuse could be achieved (as opposed to developing three completely dissimilar systems). I believe this outline for a "Scotty crafting" system captures many of the wishes I've heard mentioned by those who've expressed an interest in this kind of gameplay. But I certainly don't expect it will satisfy everyone!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

In trying to reconcile real-world economics and what's been said in and observed in Star Trek, the best I've ever been able to come up with is the notion of "intellectual capital."

So my theory of Trekonomics -- and, by extension, the kind of gameplay economy I'd hope to see in a MMORPG based on Star Trekk -- depends on how we get from the production-oriented society we still have today to a society in which intellectual capital is by far the primary source of economic value.

Human technological and economic history has been a progression from the immediate and tangible to the long-term and abstract. We've gone from pure moment-to-moment survival mode (hunter-gatherer) to subsistence permitting cities and codes of law (Agricultural Revolution) to complex societies (Industrial Revolution) to a world of interconnected individuals (Information Revolution).

That last change is the one we're in the middle of today. Yesterday, capital was created by smokestack industries cranking out tangible mass-produced products. Today, we're experiencing the initial shocks of what I call "virtualization" -- the process of transforming the information that defines real, tangible objects into ones and zeros. The legal wrangling we see today over copying music; Kindle letting you read thousands of books; services for creating 3D sculptures of species that you create in Spore... all of these things and more are examples of the ongoing process of shifting from an economy based on mass-production and physical distribution to one based on the generation of unique ideas that can be duplicated and spread world-wide in mere minutes as virtualized concepts.

Now take that process and shift it forward two or three centuries, adding to it technologies such as anti-gravity, fusion and anti-matter power, faster-than-light travel, matter transporters, and matter replicators.

Question: In a society like that, where does "value" come from?

When basic material needs are all cheaply/easily met, when physical capital has lost most of its value, when mass-produced goods are no longer as desirable as individually-tailored services, what's left as a source of value that a person can contribute to a society in order to receive the advantages of participation in that society? (That is, assuming we want to try to set the Federation inside any kind of capitalistic economic environment, and not just give up and call it a full-blown Marxian communist utopia.)

All I can come up with is intellectual capital.

I guess that in the United Federation of Planets, your social rewards are somehow made proportional to the intellectual capital you contribute to that society. If you want to sleep all day, you can do that, and you'll get the essentials of life you need to do it: food, water, shelter. If however you create new things, if you demonstrate an aptitude for and interest in generating intellectual capital of some kind, then you're provided with whatever tools and services you can use to support your creative efforts.

And that would hold true whether you're an artist or a scientist or a starship captain. If you can demonstrate that you'll effectively use those tools and services to generate intellectual capital for the Federation, the Federation will allocate resources to you to insure that you're able to contribute to the maximum extent possible. Both you and Federation society (i.e., every other Federation citizen) win when the full creative potential of every individual is nurtured.

So that's the theory, which tries to explain Star Trek within something like a plausible real-world framework of economic behavior (albeit one extrapolated into a technologically-advanced future).

What about the practice? I have severe doubts that this could actually work.

My guess is that the trend toward replacing physical capital with intellectual capital is real, and that virtualization will not only continue but intensify. (The legal battles over who owns easily-distributable virtual assets are only going to intensify.) So intellectual capital could indeed become the basis for a new economic expansion -- in fact, I believe this process is already underway as an Information Revolution -- that will lead to a vastly better quality of life for most people on our planet. (Though it will also widen the gap between those who embrace the democratic capitalism that enables an Information Revolution and those still trapped in more repressive communistic, socialistic, and despotic cultures that promote statist power over individual rights, including the right to personally profit from one's creative labor.)

But even in Star Trek we still have that age-old practical problem of coercive power: who decides? If I labor creating works of art or doing science or flying a starship, who decides whether that creative effort is good enough to warrant handing me the keys to an efficiency apartment or a luxury home in the mountains? Who controls the rewards for achievement? Who judges what the creative effort of an individual is worth? And who's in charge over the people making these decisions, insuring that their decisions are fair and accurate?

This is where I see the "humanity has changed" argument (which Picard made a couple of times) as a necessary condition for Star Trek to work as an economic system. Without some critical change to what it means to be a human being, I see no reason to believe that Lord Acton's observation -- power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely -- has suddenly ceased to apply to us as a species.

Maybe the mostly-global transition to an Information Society will be enough to cause a dramatic shift toward altruism and trust, allowing a distribution-of-rewards system like that seen in Star Trek to work.


Finally, it seems to me that this theory of intellectual capital, which distinguishes between Industrial Age mass-production of physical capital and Information Age creative expression of intellectual capital, is very -- and not coincidentally -- similar to the difference between the manufacturing/sales and creative/exploratory models of "crafting" in MMORPGs.

It seems to me that many MMORPG designers are satisfied with simple pre-Industrial Age economic systems. For the feudal-era games set in fantasy milieux they usually crank out, that's perhaps not a problem. (A bit boring, but not a real problem.)

For a game set in a science fiction milieu, however... that's a problem. In what way does it make any sense at all that a technologically advanced society would still be using a barter-based economic model that's already antiquated today in 2009? Shouldn't the currency of a science fiction game be intellectual capital created by characters in the gameworld? Shouldn't letting players add to the total of wealth inside the gameworld be baked into the design of a game set in a near-term star-spanning future?

This is part of the reason why I advocate a crafting system for Star Trek Online that's based on players creating new kinds of objects and subroutines. It's a system based on the production of intellectual capital, rather than on the consumption of physical goods. I think this not only fits better in any science fiction MMORPG than mere barter, it fits much better into a MMORPG based on Star Trek for all the reasons described above.

For the truly hardcore gameplay designers still reading this novel :), I go into this subject in more game-specific detail in my essay Economic Stages in MMORPGs. For now, though, suffice it to say that I'd enjoy seeing Star Trek Online offer some gameplay more appropriate for its futuristic setting than just another medieval-era barter economy in which the concept of "banking" is considered far too advanced to implement....

Monday, March 2, 2009

This Is How the World Ends

In his gaming blog today, Brian "Psychochild" Green offers a thoughtful discussion of the difference in "feel" between how the lights went out for earlier games versus today's games, prompted by the termination on Saturday of Tabula Rasa.

In considering Brian's reflections, I can't help but see this difference in feel as yet another expression of the difference between the "play in" and "live in" preferences of gamers.

I've described this theory here before, but to put it another way: some people naturally look to MMOGs for their rules-based gameplay. Their focus is on the mechanics of play in a MMOG; their rallying cry is "it's just a game!" To the extent that they see a MMOG as a place, it's just a location to "play in."

Others see a MMOG for its worldy qualities. They talk about "immersion"; they like having houses and emotes and complex systems to discover over time. The rules-based play of a MMOG is less important to these gamers than that it feel plausible as a place they can pretend to "live in."

Where this intersects with shutting down gameworlds is that the latter kind of gamer, who tend to form the deeper and longer-lasting communities within one particular world, were more prominent in the dawn of MMOGs than in today's gameworlds. More of the few MMOGs there were catered more to the interests of "live in" players than today's games do.

Maybe there were always more people who wanted "play in" than live in, and game developers just got better at satisfying the former group. Or maybe game developers started making more "play in" games, creating more of those gamers as kids get old enough to start playing. (I suspect that both processes occurred.)

Either way, MMOGs shifted from being about "live in" to focusing more on "play in." Thus, when earlier "live in" games shut down, their players wanted to come together as a community to say goodbye to the world in which they'd lived. Later "play in" games, which focused less on supporting that type of emotional investment in a sense of place, saw a different kind of send-off. For the "play in" gamer, gameplay is gameplay; if one game shuts down, you just find a new game.

I think this theory not only explains the different feel of turning off a M59 versus a TR, it also puts the "New Gameplay Experience" of Star Wars Galaxies in perspective. If the goodbye for M59 felt like a wake, the NGE seems to have felt to the "live in" players of SWG like a doctor pulling the plug without giving the family members a chance to say their farewells. For the "live in" gamers, the worldiness of pre-NGE SWG has become a Paradise Lost -- it was the last, best expression of a theory of MMOG design that says "live in" is as important as "play in." Losing that unique place for scratching the "live in" itch generated intensely emotional reactions that some players are still expressing to this day.

Perhaps if they'd been given a chance to say goodbye -- "closure" as we call it today -- the gamers who most enjoy the feeling of "living in" a secondary reality would have been able to let go with less drama. They'd have felt more free to look for some new gameworld in which they could put down roots.

... Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
SWG's dispossessed have never found their Happy Isles, since the MMOG developer gods in our age have elected not to create anything like pre-NGE SWG's worldiness. But that's another topic. :)

The point here is that MMOG sendoffs today may feel different than they once did because games -- and the majority gamer type these games attract -- have shifted from "live in" to "play in."