Project Cyberverse: One Week Down

Since my muse was rekindled on Tuesday, I continued to invest a lot of effort into putting something together in BYOND.  I’m going to take a break this weekend and get back to work on Monday.

To an extent, I’m enjoying this enough that I don’t want to take a break, but I understand that taking a bit of guilt-free fun is actually an essential focus to stave off procrastination (at least according to The Now Habit).  This new “work M-F, play on weekends” gig will be my new schedule until somebody hires me.  Being able to self-motivate myself like this is perhaps the first real step of self-employment.

Project Cyberverse (tentative, not-at-all-precious-enough title to worry about registering a domain or anything) is not a humongous project.  I’m trying to keep it simple enough to finish it.

The design – my main hurdle – is largely worked out in terms of overall scope of how the parts are working together. In terms of overall scope, I’m about a quarter complete. I can’t see the future, but my prognosis is good.

So, let the tipping of my hand begin. Just bear in mind that none of this is set in stone. Most of what I’ll be saying is abstract, describing the philosophy behind what I’m making, so I don’t paint myself into any corners. What can I say? I like my creative freedom.

Turning the MMORPG genre on its head

Maybe that sounds a tad presumptuous, but technically, that’s what I’m doing.

Where the average MMORPG puts you in the role of being a single player in an expansive world, I’ve turned that on its head: All the players are expansive world manipulators governing several single player units.  They build the world, set up the encounters, they’re essentially what a GM is (but without unlimited power).

Why? Two reasons.

First, because the game masters have a whole lot more fun on a massively multi-player scale. A player can only see what’s right in front of them, but a GM can rapidly flit about the game universe as they see fit and see a lot more of it at once. Your initial impression might be that the disembodied GM perspective is less immersive, but actually what happens is the aperture opens, you take in a lot more MMORPG goodness than you can as just a single player.

Second, because being just a player character in your average MMORPG is monotonous and a waste of the players’ talents. Your average MMORPG interaction is to give the player a quest to kill ten rats, and so the player goes off to do it. The gameplay is simple, successfully killing ten rats may only require selecting the rats, turning on your autoattack, and waiting. It’s so simple, an NPC can do it… so that’s precisely where I put the burden. The players’ role is to direct, not just one NPC, but as many NPCs as they can, and then to reap the benefits of direction.

By putting the players into the GM’s perspective, I was able to satisfy one of my two major design goals: interaction. There’s plenty of meaningful, game-impacting things for a GM to do, it keeps the player well-occupied with meaningful interactions. In this regard, it’s a quantum leap ahead of what most MMORPGs offer.

Of course, the players are not literally as omnipotent as GMs – they are taking the role of players with GM-like powers balanced within the scope of a game. At this point, I was surprised to realize, the game automatically evolved into a somewhat real time strategy like focus.

I want to maintain that pervasive feeling of a living, breathing world that MMORPGs offer. So, unlike your average RTS, the maps are never cleared. Players are tasked with building or destroying dynasties – if they can.

This achieves my second major goal for this design: dynamic content. It’s also another major way in which I’m turning MMORPGs on their head – usually, you’re the only meaningfully changing thing in a static world – now the world meaningfully changes.

I’ve some really good ideas along the lines of just how that works, but I haven’t ironed them out well enough. So it looks like I’ve revealed all I’m comfortable revealing so far.

K.I.S.S. Vrs Overthinking

The “Keep It Simple, Stupid” principle is all well and good, but lets face facts: I’m a thinker.  Look at my blogs and it should be clear: I over think everything.  It’s just my nature.

Perhaps chalk it up to a lifetime of playing games, but my mind always wants to be occupied with something awesome.  Thus, if I simply created a puzzle game or something like a simple hack-and-slasher (less than 1 hour’s work in BYOND) I don’t think I’d be satisfied with the result.

On the upshot, a game in which a lot of thought has been put into – like any product wrought by human hands – is a much better product than one in which barely any effort went into at all.  The way things are shaping up, this game will be awesome.  That, even more than boredom, is what motivates my muse.

8 Responses

  1. What you talk about kind of reminds me of Second Life — everyone’s in control of their own game destiny and can create crap outta thin air.

  2. Brace for more overthinking!

    Second Life is definitely the poster child of extreme dynamic content. However, what I’m working on will differ from Second Life (aside from this being a 2D, tile-based game) because Second Life has no overriding purpose.

    This is because Second Life is, or rather it was built upon being, just a social environment. There’s some tools to build things, but they’re all there to forward the aim of being a nondescript social environment. Players can use these tools to build games, but these are often poorly received because Second Life is was designed as (and is largely populated by people seeking a) graphical chat room, not a game.

    Second Life brings one purpose with it (beyond chatting) and that is the players can sell stuff or services for Lindens. Lindens being exchangable for real money, it’s a powerful incentive. However, because there’s no real unified purpose behind why you’re earning the Lindens other than to earn them, players have to invent their own purpose.

    I visited there not long ago and discovered that, for most of the players I encountered, the path of least resistance was to allow the libido to be that purpose. It turned my stomach – because the incentives were set without proper considerations, Second Life descended into a crappy hell hole.

    Suffice to say, I’m definitely aware of the dangers of griefing or allowing the inmates to run the asylum. I know the dangers involved in giving players a great deal of dynamic content creation and power to sway the outcome of the game if the incentives are set wrong or not at all.

    Because I’m developing is a game, not just a chat room, in the foundation will be rules which define a purpose for the activities. This alone will probably be enough that my game won’t resemble Second Life – it’ll probably be a lot closer to EVE Online or Ultima Online.

    However, I think EVE Online or Ultima Online never really went far enough in realizing their ambitions. Ultima Online introduced dynamic content, but being a relatively new concept at a time, they didn’t really have a very good idea what to do with it, and (years later) gave it up in favor of cloning the competition. EVE Online uses dynamic content, but it doesn’t really drive a game, it just drives so much hording that it’s remarkable when something actually happens.

    I believe I’ve a solution to these problems and, if so, this could be the first game to make really good use of real dynamic content. At least that I’ve had the pleasure to play. (Of course “good” is a tricky label. It’s a judgment, but when judging my own products, I’m bound to be biased.)

  3. You should check out Darkfall Online, it’s very similar to UO in many regards and has a lot of what you are speaking of (from what I’ve read and heard).

  4. Remember who you’re talking to here: the unemployed over 2-decade gamer. There’s no way a game as heavily hyped as Darkfall Online would have avoided my radar. I’ve looked into it quite a bit.

    It’s interesting in that all this dynamic content discussion fished in a lot of very interested players to play the game. It seems a lot of players are very much looking for a MMORPG that dares to give them more freedom. They’re out there, and they’ve been looking for a long time.

    What this audience doesn’t know is that theirs is really a hazardous one to tap, and history has shown that any game that tries is ultimately doomed: Old school Ultima Online, Shadowbane, and any open PvP server all exhibit the same characteristic. Strong initial interest followed by rapid population decrease.

    The problem, as I see it, is that open PvP has always been a pretty lousy game because it has no real balance to it. Individual player power will be influenced by the player’s skill (which is good) but the foundation of that power is based on characters who earned it either by having the most time to play or best social connections to power-level them. This power base is problematic you expect players to test each other: a fair test of skill between two strangers is extremely unlikely.

    It’s multiplied because in open PvP people are free to join whatever side they want: now it’s not only an unfair one versus one, it’s an unfair one-hundred versus ten. When the empire’s army walks into your humble village and starts looting and pillaging, you might be able to pick off a few of them, but there’s really nothing you can do for your assets but watch them burn. Realistic? Sure. Fun? No, absolute helplessness is hard-wired anti-fun.

    As a gamer (read: one who plays games for the joy of gaming rather than for other reasons) I eventually came to realize that winning and losing in an open PvP game has little to do with how well I play. The balance is so fudged that an open-PvP game is a complete non-game. Once the illusion has been stripped away, you realize that open PvP is just a social activity with nothing of meaning to it – no real effort required to win, nothing you can really do to avoid losing.

    This is why tapping this audience is so ballsy. Gamers who play it eventually come to realize the futility of it all, and the fanbase is doomed to self-destruct. Anyone who hasn’t left isn’t there for a game – the game is a non-game – at best, they’re there for the drama.

    It’s interesting that EVE Online has managed quite well on the drama factor, but they’re the lone exception. They probably get away with it because they were never trying to be much of a game – you level up from not playing and all the best assets you get to use belong to you corp. The achievement model is completely different and PvP is regulated much differently than the typical game. In many cases, players have found workarounds to make their most important assets invulnerable.

    As well-chronicled in Lum the Mad’s blog, they keep repeating the same old mistakes. It seems the Darkfall admins aren’t offering this PvP freedom out of bravery, but rather because they really have no idea what they’re doing. Even before the game launched, I noticed their webpage demonstrated not a single feature that speaks “improved gameplay” or “well-managed dynamic content” to me. Put it all together, I chalk the game up as a waste of time.

    They’ve only done what everybody else has done: taken a persistent environment and let players attack each other in it. If they added anything, it’s that they provided cities to defend. That’s not innovation, nothing that Shadowbane didn’t do a decade ago. Simply having a persistent state environment with defensible objectives and players attacking each other could be put together under 1 hour in BYOND. Darkfall Online is not trailblazing the untapped wilderness of better dynamic content so much as foundering through central park with a blindfold on.

    What I’m working on differs drastically because I’m putting a good, balanced game first. When you succeed in shaping the world in this game, it will be because you’re a good player, and not because you simply joined the winning side. This starts by making sure it’s handled much differently than the typical open PvP game.

  5. Wow that was a long response. A simple “checked it out, I don’t think it’s really that great” would have sufficed. Hope your one man endeavors to create an online revolution go well.

  6. Expect long responses: I tend to overthink everything, after all. 😉

    All I’m really producing in BYOND is a small model. Still, if it works, it might be revolutionary in the same way that a small model of a fusion reactor would be. While it may not be the realization of the thing in itself, it nonetheless could prove the theory, and this opens the way for the industry.

    In that event, I probably won’t be the one actually producing the “thing in itself” because I lack the resources. I’m just one man using a free game development kit here. But at least I could play it without having to slog through another badly conceived game.

    Best case scenario, I prove my props as being one hell of a game designer and actually get paid to do it. If the failure of the vast majority of games to entertain is of any indication, there’s a definite shortage of real talent in the industry right now.

    Worse case scenario, it sucks and I suck for making it. Chalk it up to practice. Even worse than that is not trying at all.

  7. I’ll be curious to see how you apply your knowledge as an experienced 20 year gamer. Seeing as every MMORPG developer, regardless of prior development experience in mmo’s or not, need a multitude of years to create a “balanced” product, your ambition to create something on your own is admirable. The quick dismissal of games just reaching the market make me think that you are years beyond what everyone is thinking — could it be true, that you are, and what you create, is what everyone has been waiting for?

  8. The tricky thing about games is that everybody has different tastes. The games on the market right now, with few exceptions, don’t entertain me. A lot of this is justified contempt: the market has been heavily saturated with clones for decades. However, a lot of that it just personal taste: I’m an extremely hard-to-please gamer in that I’ve seen more games than most people will in a lifetime. I realize I’m an exceptionally finicky gamer, and perhaps developing games to please me is my edge.

    To be completely realistic, I know I’m a fair newbie at making games. However, after reading some books on game design, I don’t feel too bad about this, because the books basically confirm that there is no unified theory of game design. An experienced game designer might be great at managing a team and using the technology to produce a finished result, but their games still flop sometimes, because there’s not really a solid theory of fun yet.

    Jesse Schnell, who created some excellent games, chose to write his book, the Art of Game Design. as over a hundred “lenses,” and it reads as much a compilation of diverse life lessons and stories as it does a book about game theory. This is because, as Schell wrote, “[our Mendeleev hasn’t come]” Mendoeleev brought the periodic table that took Alchemy into true Chemistry. Game designers are still back in the realm of Alchemy, relying on patchwork guesses that sometimes produce results, but not sure how the magic really works yet. Game design is so very all encompassing right now, it’s like you have to be good at observing life to be good at game design.

    I’m attacking the fun first. I think that, by attacking the fun first, I’ve put myself on a much better footing than a lot of developers who are really more focused on technical goals or marketing pressures during development. That’s a large reason I sound so confident here: the very vestiges of what I’ve begun to develop seem a lot more exciting than most of the games I play, and it’s because I’ve developed it to be genuinely fun. It helps, for example, that I’ve taken a lot of effort to make sure this is not just a clone: even if the game itself is rough around the edges, that I’m here on new territory is a breath of fresh air.

    However, to reel that back a bit, it’s still a situation where everybody has their own tastes in a fun. Just because I think it’s awesome doesn’t mean anybody else will. Will the model I create truly be something everybody has been waiting for? I doubt it – it seems to me that a lot of gamers have been playing clones for so long that something different scares them away from trying. Popularity is a fickle beast – history has a great many artists who weren’t recognized in their time, that could very well be my fate.

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