Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Science of Magic

Magic is not magic, you know. It's a science! And like all good sciences, it ought to be observed, studied, theorized and explained. Magic should be something that makes sense in the game world, something internally consistent and explainable, not a plot device that is no sooner introduced that it is dismissed. And perhaps more importantly in an open world, it should be something the players can discover themselves.

Magic, as a natural phenomenon, should be discovered before it can be used. This might be the premise of the world : the formally barbaric, nomadic tribes first settled down when they discovered how to use the natural supernatural forces themselves. From there on, they unraveled, little by little, the threads of life, the elements and spiritual things, increasing the human presence in the world.

Then come the players, in their youthful enthusiasm, expecting incredible forces to be bestowed upon them with little more effort than the destruction of native life forms; and while studying indigenous creatures that have some forms of natural magic might indeed help pierce its deepest secrets, it is through the scientific method, applied rigorously, that players get to discover the new things of their virtual lives. When enough efforts have been applied toward the discovery of things supernatural, new powers can be unlocked, powers of creation or destruction; powers minute or gargantuan; powers shared or jealously guarded, which can then only be found by the same, rigorous process, or by multiple observations of its effects, typically of the painful variety.

All of this, of course, is not possible if the magical powers are simply throw-away elements, token acknowledgements of a fantasy world that is best left rigid and unimaginative, for there can be no science if there cannot be growth of knowledge, through observation and experiments. If, however, precious care is given that the world is not only malleable, but internally consistent, such that players can not only discover its marvels, but collaborate in creating such wonders themselves, then magic becomes not only a science, but also a whole realm of technology, where industries rise and flourish through the many needs of the players. Certainly, many will want the capacity to toss fire and its elemental cousins at undesired intruders, but many more will want simpler things, from constructions and convenience enchantments, to alterations and purely aesthetic creations. Slowly, the players will find ways to outdo themselves, marking the history of a rising magical culture or the downfall of an overambitious nation.

Eventually, beasts will be dissected and elements observed; potent powers will be weaved into fabric and metals; and grandiose spectacles both immensely useful and ridiculously eccentric will be presented. Players will gain power; for its own right, for themselves or for others, they will seek it. Conflicts, both ideological and territorial, will spark, until one or none remains, for it is the nature of men to seek what is unobtainable. And only after too much has been done will men realize the folly of their pursuit. Science is not good or bad, but there are always those who will seek it for either. Magic, then, becomes just one more way for humanity to doom itself. Perhaps their impressive ruins will serve as a warning to future nations, then, to not toy with the basic forces of nature? One can only hope.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Slow, Harduous Research

What I would like to see in an MMORPG is a system of research for acquirable skills; something that allowed players to spend some time, possibly involving another minigame, and learn a new skill or recipe, or receive a new enhancement, as a passive skill.

On the skill side, this would be akin to intense training, either in general, earning an unknown skill; or in particular, trying to design a skill from scratch. This would be a form of self-teaching, allowing one to gain a skill when no one knows or is willing to teach it. With great effort, a player would discover something new - or possibly understand something they have seen done - and be able to teach it to others. This would allow first-generation players to have something to strive for; and when basic skills have all been discovered and spread, new players will have an easier time catching up to the veterans, making the game more fun for everyone.

For recipes, the system would be similar, but require that the player actually input materials. Experiments using said materials would destroy them, but possibly teach the player some new ways of using them, potentially yielding a working prototype. Again, recipes would eventually spread in the community, if not by teaching, then by reverse-engineering, meaning new players can become useful crafters with less invested time.

As for passive skills, it's all about intense training - one could train themselves to withstand great mental fatigue, for example, hardening them against psychological effects or increasing some related attributes. Even without a precise goal in mind, intense training in their skill in general can yield small but welcome incremental bonuses, something that is always useful to have.

The whole idea here is to allow players to be pioneers in their chosen fields, permanently engraving their names in the history of the world - or perhaps just following the footsteps of heroes of yore, who learned every move people take for granted the hard way.

And darnit, they liked it!

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Realistic User Interfaces

When you look at the average MMORPG, you sometimes struggle to see the character through all the user interface elements taking up portions of the screen. While they are pretty much essential in creating a decent interactive game, they often take much from the immersive feeling of the game, preventing the players from feeling like they are in a real world instead of a computer game. With the proper elements, however, much of that immersion prevention can be eliminated.

The first step in making the user interface more immersive is not to decorate it with skulls, dragons and fairies, but to make it an actual part of the game. Make the interface something the character sees, a spell of sorts from which everyone benefits. The inventory screen? Part of the spell. Minimap? Spell element. Friend list, character stats, action shortcuts? All part of the character's magical GUI. You can even call the third person camera some sort of hallucination spell that allows a character to see themselves from behind.

With such a complex spell, you can even add new, interesting elements. For example, every character - and event the NPCs - could have their own helper avatar, taking the form of an illusionary butler or maid, or even a playful child; or they could be fairies, skeletons, bunnies, dragons, whatever the player wants. As long as you have the model in the game, you can make it the player's helper; and the helper does more than just help the player around with the GUI. They could act as assistants, reminding players of important events - for example, their own assigned sleep time. They could help the players customize their GUI, perhaps recommending customizations that would fit their needs. They could help players find new things to do - informing them of the best place to go to improve their skills, find mercenary work or go hunting, or any other number of tasks in which the player would like to participate.

Even better, as long as the player is within friendly territories, the helper could stay in touch with local events. They could get the player's magical mail, inform them of new bounties or track down potential party opportunities. With a magical GUI, the possibilities are plenty - and players will no doubt find more themselves, adding to the customization choices; perhaps a market could even develop for customization experts to sell their programming skills for some in-game currency.

With a GUI and avatar, the players can feel immersed, even when looking at a stereotypical game interface. There's nothing to stand in the way of their appreciation of the game, and it actually helps make the players happy, so it's a net win, right?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Game World

An MMORPG is defined first and foremost by the world in which its players are allowed to play. It can be a theme park or a sandbox, of course, but past those labels, there is so much more it can be.

In making a game world, one has to choose how everything will interact and, more importantly, how players will interact with the world. Any type of player one wants to find in their world must find something to do, and even players who defy categorization can be accounted for.

Do you make a game for achievement fans and player-killers? Drop the crafting and appearance differences, and make sure you display their appropriate numbers for all to see. If you want socializers, make sure it's easy for them to find each other and form groups. You want a mix of explorers, achievers and socializers? Make your world complex yet friendly, then, and you will find some of each.

But if one wants their game world to be taken seriously, they have to think further than the four Bartle categories. Which killers do you want in your world? You can pick the action-driven ones, and make mercenary work easily accessible. You can pick the ganker, who likes to prey on weaker players, and encourage the laws of the jungle, where only the strongest survive. And as you ponder your game world, you will no doubt notice that the categories just fill themselves; as if the world had taken a life of its own, so will the players fill the world before you even craft it.

In our game, for example, we had a magic-heavy, skill-based, complex world that encouraged player interaction. You'll find that anyone with some social needs will thrive as long as you make it easy for them to find each other; the merchant-like achievers will likewise do rather well if there is enough complexity to allow some speculation on the side; and the killers will find plenty to do if you make it easy for them to jump into the action for their side and get paid for their accomplishments on the battlefield. But, of course, each of them would do well to be explorers, of the world's geography and its basic rules.

If you craft a decent world, players will come; but if you make a deep, wonderful place in which they can live, they will be sucked into your alternate reality. Your world may be a roller coaster or a city builder, but in the end, if you stay consistent in the design, you will end up with something someone wants to play; and that is really the basic of making a game.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Art and Science of Combat

Although this is not a distinction often used to describe an MMO's gameplay, I feel it is one that deserves some attention. One should know which of the terms best describes their gameplay, which would undoubtedly help them tell if they're headed the right way in term of design decisions.

If gameplay elements tend more towards making the game a science, then people will have to study numbers and come up with the best formulas; characters will be optimized based on the setup of the day and there will be no decisions to take during the action - they will all have been made in advance, during the planning phase.

Should gameplay elements indicate combat as a form of art, then people should not overly worry about optimization - there will be many working setups, and anyone can contribute, no matter how odd their choices, as long as they have an idea of what they're doing. Decisions on the battlefield will matter more, and the initial plan will likely not survive contact with the enemy.

Although both elements can make for good games, they do not interact well; people will expect one and, seeing traces of the other, will likely complain that the game is not exactly how they wanted it. Combat should be thought of as an art or a science; getting both at once only serves to confuse people.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Importation and Teleportation

One way to add diversity from combat and crafting is to add the possibility of trading and importation, with the value of goods varying from place to place. Unfortunately, local supplies and demands lose some weight when you factor in fast travel modes like teleportation, flying mounts and machines and the various magical means. While modes of linear travel simply decrease the time between two points, teleportation essentially reduces it to a constant. With that in mind, a way to lessen the importance of teleportation for the transportation of goods needs to be implemented.

If one uses the concept of energy as money, then teleportation can use energy - using the currency itself to fuel the transfer. With that in mind, it would be quite possible to add a so-called teleportation tax, where items need to be prepared before they can be teleported; preparing items requires energy, depending on their weight and inherent magical power, such that using teleportation to trade goods between areas of supply and those of demands becomes financially infeasible, except for a few goods that are small, non-magical and highly priced. Items typically carried by adventurers, while often both heavy and magical, are less of a problem in this case, since said tax need only be paid once to prepare items for teleportation.

With such high burdens associated with faster travel, it would not be uncommon for players to travel between towns, perhaps forming caravans for mutual protection; and players of opposing nations will certainly do their best to disrupt caravans and appropriate expensive goods for themselves. There will be conflicts, politics, intrigue and death; a recipe for a great story to unfold before our very eyes. And when you let players in charge of telling a story, it can either end very well, or very badly, either case being quite interesting, to say nothing of lucrative. Maybe teleportation isn't such a bad idea after all...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Three-numbers attributes

A lot of depth and realism is lost in games due to the ability of just anybody to recover from near-mortal wounds; or for an exhausted person to be perfectly rested again after very little time. Attributes like health, stamina, mana and whatnot are fine for showing the immediate effects of their decrease, but fail somewhat short of realism for natural (or supernatural) recovery. As such, I propose the use of a three-numbers attribute system : immediately available, short-term recovery, and maximum (or long-term recovery).

Instead of showing attributes as current / maximum, they would be displayed as current / short-term / maximum. Short-term, in this case, is the amount to which the current attribute can easily recover; for example, if stamina shows 45 / 90 / 100, current stamina will naturally recover up to 90, then stay there until the short-term stamina increases.

This can be used to work with any attribute. A slash from a sword, for example, would not be quickly naturally healed, and would deal most of its damage on short-term recovery, prevent easy healing; a lash from a whip, on the other hand, can cause quite a lot of pain, but little actual physical damage - it would recover naturally, given enough time, making whip combat quite different from regular combat - and that's not even considering the value of pain. The various forms of health recovery would differentiate themselves, among other things, by their ability to deal with short-term and long-term wounds. Both would have their uses, and being short on one could be as devastating as being short on the other.

Stamina, on the other hand, would be something more of a long-term resource; the more you use it, the least you have later on. If you've been fighting (or crafting) all day long, you're likely to feel the toll. Your swings are weaker, your reflexes slower, and suddenly, climbing that hill doesn't seem like such an easy task after all. You'll be sitting, after another exhausting event, and watch as your available stamina makes its way back to the again-decreased short-term amount, wondering if now would be a good time to check your supplies, or perhaps sneak a little afternoon nap, hoping no nasty makes its way to your location in the mean time. If you are a crafter, you might want to consider calling it a day after the sixth time you dropped your instrument, and perhaps head to the local drinking establishment and kick back with fellow artisans after a day well spent.

And while we're at it, why not have short-term and long-term mana usage? Depending on the spell used, a magician's powers could be depleted for long-term or short-term; casting lots of smaller spells in quick succession, for example, would decrease the short-term mana pool but leave the long-term pool mostly untouched, while attempting word-shattering evocations would leave a magician looking forward to a day filled with very few spells. Abilities could be acquired which would allow to used more short-term or more long-term mana in a spell, allowing for magic usage tailored to the immediate needs of the wizards and sorcerers.

Should any other attributes be used, they might likewise be interpreted on the three-numbers scale. Morale? Sure thing. Concentration? Certainly. Rage? Perhaps, though it would likely start empty, and build up as the fight progresses. Intimidation? Nature affinity? Zen? They could all work, if implemented right. And what's more, there's little to lose but simplicity to the three-numbers system, and a bit of complexity would certainly be a small price to pay for the myriad improvements this could add to the average MMORPG.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Limits of Emulating Real Life

In the making of any game, the developers have to ask themselves how much some things have to be emulated, or how much they have to be real. Be it physics, lighting, spawning or AI, everything is important, and often a middle ground must be found, because usually no single concept offers the whole answer.

Take monster spawning, for example. The traditional way of handling respawns is to have creatures pop out of thin air, with no explanation as to why or how they do it; and the harder it is to explain something, the harder it is to suspend one's disbelief. At the opposite end of the scale, however, every spawn is explained in details (and education videos), which takes more hardware to run than all the players together; not really a position in which you want to find yourself, unless you consider the players to be a background upon which the NPCs play their carefully-orchestrated masterpiece.

Finding a middle ground, you want to spawn creatures within growing groups, away from a player's eyes. The circumstances surrounding the addition to a member - or more - to that group should be good enough that the birth of that creature should be obvious and predictable, so that total immersion into the game world can be achieved. You also want the nature of the spawned creature to fit with the game world; should it spawn a member of a species which starts young, then it should be young. Should it spawn within a species with castes, it should belong to a caste, such that the group will be better off with it. And, of course, you should apply a generous amount of randomness in the new creature's abilities, so it can be differentiated from other members of its group, within the capacities of the species and group, of course.

However, there's still plenty of room for deciding how to do things. Do creatures age at a continuous rate, such that you can observe it changing slowly over time, or they they hit stages of life and pop to their new form? Are the capacities of a member decided randomly, or are they affected by its environment? And, of course, do its belonging appear upon birth, or does your creature acquire them through hard, virtual work?

You might also want to compare with the current games on market. People are used to enemies popping into existence, and would probably not look twice if creatures appeared to change before them, without visible reason. The idealism of a realistic virtual world is laudable, but it serves little purpose if it takes you a month to create something the players will never see. Balance in all things also applies to game creation, it seems.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Laws

Countries have laws. That's how you make people behave because, seriously, half of them are savages. How you uphold these laws depends on your available resources. With magic, it's kind of easy; just make sure anyone who enters your country accepts a law spell, binding them to the laws of the country, with unlawful actions resulting it automatic penalties upon the lawbreaker.

That being said, what can laws cover? Murder and thievery, of course, at least as applied to lawful citizens of the territories. You'll want to make sure people feel safe in your country, otherwise you might have trouble getting citizens to want joining your country. If you want to establish global or specific taxes, that's entirely in your right. You also want laws which establish your system of beliefs, so that like-minded people prefer your country to allies' or rivals'.

Of course, nobody is forcing you to have fair laws; if you want thievery and murder to be legal (at least against people who aren't YOU), then by all means make them legal. If you don't want goody-two-shoes entering your country, then make it illegal for goody-two-shoesians to do so. Or tax the heck out of them; who said you had to be fair? You're the king (or president, dictator, comrade, what have you), and whoever finds it a good idea to argue with you will find themselves quite acquainted with the meaning of "full extend of the law".

Perhaps more importantly, however, you want to consider the laws of neighboring states; should one of them have strict beliefs regarding certain aspects, you should at least acknowledge them, otherwise no alliance would be possible. With conflicting laws, you will have to actually pick your allies, and it's never possible to satisfy everyone. Enemies will grow of former allies, and wars will be forced upon pacifists, stuck between enemies fighting over trivialities; war is never pretty, but it rarely gets worst than good people fighting for no reason than upholding arbitrary laws.

Yes, laws are important, even when there are none. They define the country and, ultimately, they define the people who live within it, from the humble peasant to the mighty rulers. It's what you believe in, it's the laws you decide to obey that show who you are, and determine your overall experience - be it as a noble paladin or cunning rogue, you will obey the laws, or suffer the consequences.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Mood Swings

You know you're an adventurer when you can go from the wildest berserker rage to a cowardly retreat within the beat of a heart. The way things work, your mood is affected by what you need to do to react correctly to your environment; how you feel at the moment has no effect on your overall disposition.

What if it was different? (Yes, I know, how unexpected of me). States of mind are not something people can normally easily manipulate; doing so requires monk-like training of both the mind and body. Better to just go with the mood.

But what ARE moods? Moods are anger, fear, love (or lust), hatred, sadness, and all other feelings that make the palette of human emotions. Moods also affect how you act; if a warrior manages to make you angry because of his taunts, then it's normal to want to hurt him. When affected by a fear spell, you'll probably want to run away, because your attacks will be slow and clumsy. Likewise, charms can be dispelled by reminding yourself that that thing over there has tentacles and mouths where they don't belong and are these bones and I'm going to die help me please...

Essentially, moods should move only slowly and over time. A fear spell might not be your best choice against a berserking warrior, just as trying to freezing the mage in his track would be a less than temporary impediment to your opponent, who would most likely not hold back on retaliations. Applied correctly, however, it can prevent the squishiest members of you group from losing the internal part of their favorite organs. Know your targets, and know your capacities, and you will succeed where the best would falter. Let the moods always swing in your favor.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Basics of a Game World

It's all in the crystals. Really, it is. Crystals have the intrinsic ability of being associated with magical powers, and nobody will ever question a crystal's abilities, because hey, you don't know what they can do.

So if I decide that, say, crystals have the ability to store energy, nobody will question it; it's such a basic concept that it would actually be accepted without any complain. With this, you can make energy your currency - it is transferred easily from crystal to crystal, taken as life energy from the bodies of slain foes, even discharged from items with magical potential.

Once you've established that crystals hold energy, you can make them do plenty of things with it. Want to travel to a remote location? Use energy. Want to enchant an item? Use energy. Died and need to be transported someplace safe? Use energy, if you have any. Every action could have an energy cost or benefit, and it would make a lot more sense than magically converting gold pieces to labor or materials.

Now, we're back to the crystals. See, crystals can do more than store energy - they can be your essential traveling accessory and companion. The crystal provides the game interface, opening holographic windows in front of your character in response to your keystrokes. It contains its own dimension, allowing you to store items as if it was a proverbial hero's almost endless backpack; better yet, with the proper training, material and, of course, energy, you can increase its capacity to suit your growing needs!

Your life crystal is what lets you send messages to far away people. It shows you direction and your surrounding. It records every location to which you have been so that you may travel there again. It knows the name of all your friends and records every last bit of information you might need - not to mention having access to an exhaustive library containing every relevant information one could want. It is your crystal that first greets you in the morning, and the last thing you will see and hear before falling asleep is what you programmed your crystal to show and sing to you.

Do you see the beauty? It's a simple system that encompasses concepts of MMORPGs that have stayed with us so long but which always seemed a bit out of place, as if they were added without much forethought about the impossibility of their presence. With a single concept, a single word, you can have a world that makes sense, from the first shiny to the last dragon; it's a self-contained world, all ready to be explored.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Rebirth of the Thoughts

So it was two years ago that these humble ramblings first appeared, and it is only appropriate that they should come back on the same day.

I could have posted sooner, but that would simply have resulted in a few sporadic posts. I don't think too many people would want to show up to see a post every month, so I instead kept ideas aside for a grand re-opening. Or something like that.

The point is, the Thoughts are back, and not much has changed, so I hope you keep enjoying my writings!