Thursday, December 29, 2011

That's Crazy Talk

Probably my favorite line from Dilbert. It’s usually right before that statement that is so alien and out there that it can only make sense in bizarro world. So, why start with that?

You start at the end of the game:
Yep, there’s the crazy talk. Most games, you start before a great war, at the time of a great catastrophe, a new era. Here? Nope, all that already passed. Your living standard day to day life AFTER everything went to hell. So, what was with my talk of letting people play through the calamity?

Training. Above and beyond normal training. Because it’s in the past, and a different time, I’ll let them have access to most everything in the game. Imagine the newbie missions in EVE letting you use a fully outfitted Drake or racial similar ship? Maybe if the newbie zone in WoW let you play an 85 through a simulation raid? That’s what I’ll do. You start off as one of the colonists in the landing of the ship, you pick your name, and you do your best to survive…

Only to flash forward and it’s an old man telling the story to his grandson or old woman telling the story to his granddaughter. Then, you’d choose whether to keep the first name to honor them, or change it. This gives you a real tangible connection to the story. Let’s be honest, In a situation like this, training someone with some tutorial based around ‘solving’ small day to day tasks with in-game functions is, well, overdone. EVE does an acceptable set of tutorial missions, as well as Skryim/Oblivion. They attempt to teach you the skills you will use in the way you use them.

However, as part of the tutorial, I’d like to throw in a feature that I don’t ever see. Keybind-on-the-fly should be part of any tutorial. If you are learning to do X by hitting the b key, but instead you want to use the h key, then you have to interrupt the tutorial and figure out how to change keybinds, usually something tutorials don’t even cover, much less explain how. By adding in something like when it says ‘Press the WASD keys to move Forward, left, back, or right respectively, or hit the F4 key to change the default movement keys’ I feel could give some quality of life to some people. Also, at the end, a quick sheet to say what was changed and if you’d like to move them around. After, it would give you the keys on how to get to the game control configs for later.

So, there you are, you are just an average joe/jane. Two hundred years after any real action. The environment is essentially set here with this, and you can go any way with it, from all out war to straight-up survival. Which way to go?

Well, wait right there, a very important key is missing. Size. That's the next topic.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Environment Driven Story

This is perhaps one of the most basic concepts that has been born out of the MMO industry that, for some odd reason, they keep trying to run away from. It, I believe, is solely responsible for EVE’s rise as an MMO, despite its spreadsheets in space description. For these systems, the ‘end-game’ is not a boss, it is a place. Moving to that place is the ‘goal’. By making this a place, you remove the ‘Well, I killed the last boss, guess I beat the game’ mentality that is rampant in World of Warcraft, and any other game with a boss-focused-raid-end-game. But the question is, how do you implement this?

Well, the simplest approach here is best. The side effect is also very nice, being able to forgo balance as a whole. If you are finely tuning a single encounter, yes, balance is needed to make all classes feel useful. However, if you expect players to act as a community, you can skip balance because skill itself becomes your balance.

The Story So Far:
You are a colonist, your colony can not leave the planet, cannot call for help, and there is no space travel due to a universal (literally) fuel outage. Your technology is running out of its own fuel, and soon your society itself will be required to become self-sustaining.

From there, you can easily craft a variety of devious environments to continue the story. However, here we run into the first technical hurdle. How large a gaming world? Well, we are hoping for planetary based, so we’re looking at land-mass. Above ground and below ground should be considered. Now, a way to add some suspense factor is to go underground. Underground is always an under-used bit of the sci-fi genre, one need only think of Pitch Black to see how effective underground can be used.

So, now that I’m at the first technical aspect, we have to start thinking player amount. That will be tomorrows tidbit, since it will take a bit of math and some hard thinking to get right.

Sometimes, I need to end posts a bit early when there is way too much going on inside this brain. I'm trying to go over environment layout and I'm already designing individual zones in my head. At times like that, slowing down is best.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Logic or Lore?

So far, we have the focus. We are going after the Science Fiction Genre focusing on things happening to the world and population, not to the single user.

So, Logic, or Lore? Which is the basis for the game is a very…hard…question. I feel one always ultimately wins out. Most, if not all games, EVE included, always fall back on Lore. This is what gives us the MMO’s of this generation, belief that the story itself pulls in members, and not mechanics or features. Wait you say, feature bloat and constant balancing our everywhere, how can that be? Well, it’s like that now because of this flaw. When you focus on your story and then features, the story will drive the features. Let’s take WoW for example, and then EVE.

Vanilla WoW:

In Vanilla, they brought across the warcraft feel that, instead of being the ‘hero’, you were the grunt/shaman/bear/peon of WC3. Yes, you are important to the whole, but replaceable. Essentially, you felt like on day one as an orc warrior that the barracks just popped you out and you’re itching to get your axe dirty. While a lot of quests did focus on you helping out the locals, there was very little ‘you saved the world/day, or did something that NO ONE else could have done!’ and a lot more ‘Thanks, you helped us out, now when the real troops get here it will be even better!’. Instances were more about exploration and fighting a relentless onslaught then helping save the world. Slowly, they shifted more and more towards being the hero instead of the supporting cast.

Now, the world is ‘saved’ every instance, every time, every day. You, and specifically you, are saving the world from some calamity each place you go. While it feels ‘cool’ to fight alongside Thrall in the Hour of Twilight, it is markedly different then fighting next to him in Undercity after the Wrathgate. Or with Mograine at the fight for light’s hope. The situation was epic, but your part was still the part of a normal player. Now, most every instance you are helping some major lore character in an intimate setting. This causes something I like to call Lore Burn Out. Your epic faction leaders become less epic when you have to keep saving them, just as saving the world gets boring after the umpteenth time.

EVE, Loreless Lore:

EVE took a different approach. Essentially, they sandboxed lore. Instead of mapping out all this crazy stuff, they started with a small set of backgrounds, racial ties, and specific events in history, and let players kind of ‘write’ the lore. Each encounter, war, battle, or even economic espionage and if it’s big enough, it becomes part of the history. Anyone who’s played EVE more than 30 minutes knows what JITA is. Or even Goons. However, the opposite problem of WoW caused the same problem, feature bloat.

The idea of Incarna was so alien to your average player, it’s no wonder the backlash was huge. The entire ‘lore’ of the game focused around that you were expendable, replaceable, and ultimately your single accomplishments were minute while the stars of lore were the mega-corps and alliances. Then, suddenly, they began to focus on You. Ship insides, looks, captains rooms, they wanted to make us all feel special and unique in a game where you were supposed to be just another capsuleer. Thankfully, EVE on the programming and deployment end is a good bit smaller than WoW, and less storyline driven.

This is where people give WoW a bit less leadway than they should. EVE can make sweeping changes and revert a bad program choice a lot faster than WoW. You could probably add all the lines of all the personal, in game, and website spreadsheets for EVE, add in EVE’s database, and you probably wouldn’t even be close to the size that the Monster that is the WoW server databases. This is why we see games like Rift, F2P games, or EVE make fast changes to player needs, and games like WoW (and most likely SWTOR due to content quality) take much longer to adjust.

Striking a balance:

Since I am going with a sci-fi theme for my project, I’ll want to keep rooted in true sci-fi beliefs. Things have to add up and be realistic in the environment that is given. This means I’ll have to figure out the environment before deciding Lore or Logic, and let that dictate things. First, we need a good starting point. People like to feel important. How about, Man goes to the Stars. So, Space will be a backdrop. Now, some intrigue. The fuel used for space travel was extremely limited, and the people managing the supply either miscalculated or outright lied how much they had. That sets up man going to the stars, building up a network, meeting a few other races, and then finding out that this unique fuel allowing space travel has a deadline.

Now to make them feel really important, you are part of a ship designed to go to planets that are as similar to the environment the mineral was found on, and replenish the resource. However, let’s add some tragedy. Whole families are used, because there is no guarantee that a resupply will be found, and then the realization sinks in that none is found at all, space travel ends. This forces our environment to be planet side. Now here is where we can get some interesting ideas as to what ‘kind’ of game.

So, Lore or Logic?:

Easy. In this situation, we’re going to buck the lore trend and go with logic. Yes, you are stuck on a barely inhabitable planet, no way off, and the power source for the big technology used is, well, going to die out soon. Well, there are bound to be some smart people, so you can get pretty crafty.

Project so far:

Sci-fi backdrop of space travel that is suddenly halted by a fuel shortage, forcing last-ditch efforts to find such fuel by sending out massive mining colonies. None of the colonies succeed, travel stops, and they are now forced into a situation that is close to post-apocalyptic (Can you do a post-apocalyptic theme that encompasses the entirety of sentient life? I think I just did….) situation on every colony. The player would be one of those colonists.

I've always enjoyed using this tactic, I consider it the "silent apocalypse". It's much cleaner than a plague. Plagues always feel too convenient, like divine intervention. Doesn’t fit for me in the series of science fiction. There’s a reason zombie movies begin with things like a falling satellite. So, now to figure out one of the most important parts of an MMO in the next post. The rest of the Hook, otherwise known as the starting experience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sandbox or Themepark? That's a bad question to start with...

Essentialy, the idea behind a sandbox MMO is to be as nonlinear as possible. However, a theme-park MMO is one where you are essentially led around on a string as far as what to go to. But, let’s be honest here. It’s not that. Here’s what we are really debating.

Stated End-game or Open End-game:
That’s what we are really talking about. Or, an easier way to put it, developer stated end-game or user stated end-game. When you finally look at it in this light, you see that you can actually combine them. A common term for an MMO that achieves this balance is a ‘sandpark’ mmo. EVE could be considered this of sorts, as there are factors that give players enough influence that allows them to create their own end-game through wars and economy. In a game like WoW, in stark contrast, you hit 85 and are directed by item levels which way to go. It’s kind of the gaming worlds nature vs nurture. However, I think that these days, it’s time to build a better mouse-trap

The Cheese:
First, you have to have a good hook. I think this hook is where you become a specific type of MMO, and commonly what happens in blogs and possibly just normal chatting is people think of the type of game they want to play first, and it just doesn’t work that way. You need a good launching point for your story. From here, you can go a few ways, the most common being something realistic and believable, or something completely fantasy based yet following a story. Science Fiction usually follows the believable, with Fantasy choosing to follow ‘lore’. That’s what I’ll be focusing on tomorrow, Logic or Lore, since that single choice nudges you toward a specific genre. This is typically where most games start. The ‘What’. Or if you prefer the cheese.

The Project:
What, you thought I was just pontificating about MMO’s? Heck no, I’m out to make one. Logic and Lore aside, it comes down to open ended story or a fixed story. Now, I’m not really a fan of fixed story, so open ended definitely seems the way to go. This is going to probably end up being more sandbox less theme park, but here’s where you have to stop and back up three steps. You have to make some hard choices that you might have already made and not even thought about, but will color the entirety of your project. Are you going to let the type of MMO dictate further choices? If I choose sandbox now and try to push myself in that mold, I’ll run into issues later if I need to add in theme park pieces. Alternatively, if I paint myself into a corner with theme park pieces, but suddenly need a feature with randomness and lack of repetition, will I already be too far into a theme park design to even back up? So, before painting ourselves into a hole, let’s go back those three steps to what real game makers think of first.

See? I said three steps back. Before design, before genre, you need to pick a person. Rather, a personality. This also comes down to how large do you ‘want’ your game to be? WoW size? EVE Size? Rift Size? Angry Birds size? Here’s another common pitfall to those in the blog world. They tend to think of what they specifically want out of a game and rate it from that, however, they usually fail to see what they like and merge that with their original ideas. Now, we know mechanics that work. Leveling, Items, and Abilities. These have been around since DND, and they still exist because they truly are the most identifiable signs of ‘progress’ in any game. Stretch one of them out too much though, and you have the dreaded ‘grind’. So, how much is too much? How many levels before you dread having to get the next 5, 10, or 20? Of course, that’s hard to say till you drill down your audience. Now, instead of going after say the ‘WoW’, ‘Rift’, or ‘EVE’ audience, let’s do it the old fashioned way. Let’s go after the Sci-Fi RPG player.

As far as Sci-Fi genre goes, there really has been a void of good MMO’s in this area. Fantasy ones seem to outweigh the Sci-Fi ones in this field, but I don’t believe it’s because there aren’t many Sci-Fi lovers out there. Recently, you do have SWTOR pulling ‘some’ Sci-Fi fans, but here is where theme park takes an ugly turn. If you don’t like the lore, you’re left out. Especially with so much emphasis on the ‘polish’ of the game, or immersion.

So, how do you fight this? Well, my tactic is simple. I’m going for 0 immersion. Anything that happens above that is a bonus. By not forcing myself into trying to force the player into the world, it lets me focus on the mechanics that need focused on. If the world is rich in the right ways, and you make the interface non-intrusive, immersion takes care of itself. Here is where, many times, MMO’s fail. They try to hard making you feel like the hero, only to remind you in 4 seconds that the server is full of heroes.

The Ruling:
To start, I am working on a sci-fi based MMO that will focus on the player’s plight with things happening TO them, not them trying to save the world like a lone ranger.

Monday, December 19, 2011

About the author.

I’ve played video games since they basically existed in the PC format. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the absolutely wretched that never even saw the light of day. Since my first round of playing Dark Castle and Elvira’s Castle, I’ve known I want to make these. I still do. And, I will.

Whenever I pontificate about upcoming features, a common reply to my words is ‘It would be great if they did that, but they won’t’. Well, I’m tired of ‘they’ not doing what should be done. When it comes to the future of MMO’s, I swear the computer game design world is wearing bifocals and I’ve got 20/20 vision. While I understand everyone has ‘ideas’ from time to time to ‘fix’ games, I’m sure no one has ideas this often and this innovative. I’ll be honest about my ego here, I sometimes feel I’m the Steve Jobs of MMO design, I know what people need and it’s not what they want.

I’ll be going over ideas, plans, possibilities, and balancing here, drilling down the points of an MMO you’ve probably thought of yourself, but even more that you haven’t thought of. So, if I have so many ideas, then one might ask why post them?

Plain and simple, someone might be able to pull one or two ideas off here, but without someone with real vision you’ll just implement a watered down version with none of the bite it needs. Of course, there’s also the shameless self-promotion plug, I will make these ideas a reality, but I’m not going to say no if some company wanted to hire me for this vision. I can guarantee you, no one can match what I can offer in the creativity field.

With that shameless self-plug over, back to the background. Yes, I’m a geek, nerd, whatever you’d like to call it. I don’t subscribe to TV, I prefer my entertainment to be interactive, not sitting and laughing/crying/answering questions at things on a non-interactive display. While I did dabble in consoles most my youth as most other geeks, I’ve grown almost entirely towards the PC, just because you can’t do a lot of things on consoles that you can do on PC’s. The only way that will change is if consoles become PC’s, which, let’s be honest, they are on their way there anyway.

My first MMO, which I fondly remember, is not even a graphic game. Dragonrealms, which I’ll often refer to as DR, was amazing, complex, and rich in content. Playing it on AOL, and then finally on the web, it had almost everything I wanted in a game. It’s actually still alive and well today, a subscription based mud that still has some players. Never heard of it or Simutronics, the company that makes it? Well, that same company also makes a little thing called the Hero Engine. I think we all know what current MMO uses Hero Engine. Hint, it’s star wars related.

Everquest was my first real graphic MMO. DR had thankfully taught me etiquette the proper way in an online game, as well as how to do complex classes. Ruins of Kunark was when I joined, and the class I played was a high elf enchanter. If you don’t know what that is, let me try to paint a picture of what that class was at that time. Pure crowd control. It was perhaps the only class that let groups take a lot more than one mob at a time, as well as the best at preventing a wipe. A pure utility class, soloing was rough but grouping quite easy. Everyone wanted you.

About halfway through Scars of Velious, I had returned to DR again to play with friends, but got enticed by my favorite genre, Science fiction made form in an MMO called Anarchy Online. Its story and ideas were quite good, and finally a game did instancing on a massive level with missions, not to mention random with rewards that you could ‘choose’. Again, I went utility, and chose an Engineer. My droid tanked so many things it was crazy, but in that same game I explored my love of crafting, even writing a guide and copyrighting it for said game. I explored using crafting as an experience source, even as a money source. So much was in this game, yet squandered so fast by bugs and what I believe bad direction. After a bit, there was another return to DR, and then onto another game which bad direction killed.

Yes my friends, I played Star Wars Galaxies at launch. Hands down, that resource gathering system still gave my crafting sides goosebumps I had only ever gotten in A Tale in the Desert. I don’t put that MMO in the list because I’ve never really played it long enough to count it, but it showed me what crafting could do, and SWG showed me what gathering could do. Alas, SWG didn’t keep me long, and lost me soon before the space expansion. Then, another return to DR, yet another return to EQ, and finally, the invite that changed a lot. My friend got me a beta invite into World of Warcraft Beta2.

WoW taught me a lot, and while they get a lot of stuff wrong, they do also get a lot right which I think they just don’t get credit for. While number of accounts is a number everyone throws around, I wonder how many vanilla’s are still around, or how many BC’s are still around. I’ve noticed somewhat of a natural progression in myself though in WoW. Yes, I rolled the hunter in vanilla. Leveled all the way to 60 in fairly good time, and then began gearing to raid. At that point on icecrown, though, the server raiding community essentially imploded after a big-guild sucked up most of the raid-ready 60’s and then collapsed, leaving a massive vacuum that forced a lot of people to desert the server. At this point, I had convinced friends to try the game, and moved with them to an RP server of all things (Three of them were heavy RPers).

There, I soloed, tried classes, grouped a bit, and found out very fast I have a completely different way of doing things. No one I have met has quested the same, leveled the same, not even approached their class the same. I thought I was just odd, or maybe my beta experience gave me an edge. Now I know that’s not the case, but that continued through BC. Toward the middle of BC, I joined a casual raiding guild, and began the quest into Karazhan. Here is where I think I really found out I was different. I consistently saw people being told what to do and how to do it, but, never me. I was even an oddly geared tank, going for avoidance over the then-king-mitigation. I pulled it off. Soon, I was an officer, which let me tell you, this is a scary thing to happen to someone who is more on the anti-social side. Now I know that I’m not antisocial, just asocial. Officer life was actually more fun for me, even with a guild-sundering and having to start a raid group from scratch, I continued to enjoy it, even becoming the raid lead. While we never made it too much past Zul’Aman’s third boss, we had fun. Then, enter Wrath.

In Wrath, my guild basically threw away raiding (being RP centered), and I floated over to a raiding guild I had done a few things with in BC. We were a 25-man guild, and I stuck it out all through Naxx and Ulduar. Ended up becoming an officer yet again, even a raid lead again, but soon after ulduar another shift in things and soon it was packing up and leaving for a new home. On my new server, I quickly found that starting my own guild just did not work.

Here is where I will say Blizzard does it wrong, guild creation, management, and advertising is wretched.

Soon after that failed attempt, I again sought out a raiding guild. Actually ended up being a decent one, got the third-server LK kill. However, even though I ended up being an officer, I had finally decided to go to the other faction after months of just no longer enjoying the current one. So, joined another guild, guild burned, reincarnated, burned, reincarnated again, and I find myself an officer and a raid lead yet again.

So, without further ado, let’s get to business here.