Game Design

Kweekies!

If you follow my rambling thoughts on this blog, you know that I am very critical and ranty about some things. This is mostly because I expect more, and I’ve been greatly annoyed by what seems to be industry wide apathy, lack of innovation, and very little ambition. I’m tired of old tech being heralded as new and innovative, or something generic and simple paraded around as noble prize worthy. And I really don’t want to hear about how another Facebook widget will change the world or fix the so-called global warming.

Having said that, there are occasions where someone surprises me with an interesting idea, a well-designed product, or something really forward looking. This hasn’t happened for me in a very long time in tech, virtual worlds, or even MMORPGs. But this week, I heard about Kweekies.

Check that out. This, even in it’s early development stage, looks fantastic, slick, original, and fun. I’m not a big fan of markers, but these guys really put some effort and thought into it. And, instead of just looking pretty (I’m sure you have seen dozens of augmented reality demos on youtube with some goofy looking animated creature waving or whatever), Kweekies looks like it has some decent story and gameplay in it. I am actually looking forward to seeing this first hand, and I’d like to send a shout out to the developers. This is arguably one of the best AR demos I’ve seen in a while.

Kudos guys.

[Edit: hat tip to Games Alfresco where I heard about Kweekies]

 

NASA MMO Workshop

I attended the NASA MMO Workshop on Monday in Baltimore. I have a few comments on it that I’m going to post here, but first, I want to point you to my blog post over at killtenrats.com  There is a lot of misreporting about the NASA RFI/RFP and the project in general, and I thought it would be better to comment on that over there (more traffic hah).

Anyway, my overall analysis is that more than half of the attendees simply did not pay attention to either the original RFI, the website, or even the slides shown at the workshop. I guess everyone was expecting NASA to cut a fat check to fund a whole MMORPG and get a free ride. I was surprised at how few people there still seemed excited and full of ideas by early afternoon and the sheer amount of whining and complaining people who just didn’t get it. Not really shocking I guess if you have had any experience working in the industry. I complain about the stupidity a lot, and there is good reason for it. I’m not just being bitter, I speak from experience.

So, if you can look beyond the misinformation and all of the “space cadets” out there, the NASA MMO project is actually a pretty sweet opportunity for the right company, consortium, or team of people. 

I think the larger picture here is the chance to do something entirely different than the usual generic crap the game industry has been feeding us, and really make a difference. It isn’t every day that you get an opportunity to get deep access to NASA like this for one thing…and second, Space is one of those things that has a vast potential to really captivate the imagination. If done right, NASA and their partner could have a real blockbuster on their hands, as well as the chance to really make a difference and inspire kids and teenagers to aspire to greater things.

It won’t take $50M or $500M to make a solid successful MMORPG, and there are probably a dozen non-game industry companies that would be more than happy to join a consortium and provide funding…for either a percentage of the royalties, or simply the chance to contribute to a worthy educational effort (tax deductible maybe? or purely for the PR?).

The big risk here isn’t the business model, or even the graphic engine, but rather how fun and engaging it will be. There are half a dozen ways to approach this (I have my own ideas here, and yes, I have a team that is submitting a proposal…we welcome any interest in partnering from developers, publishers, or aerospace companies interested in funding)…the trick is to make it fun and engaging without *directly* teaching (no one wants homework right?). Also, scripted repetitive quests are a no-no. While there should be some guidance and direction, there has to be an equal amount of “sandbox” and freedom to experiment. And finally, the winner here will have a easy to use intuitive suite of tools that any educator or game designer wannabe can use to make their own content, missions, whatever. 

Facilitate! Learning will occur on its own in the right environment with the right content. Don’t shove it down the player’s throats, and make it fun.  I guarentee that the market is actually larger than just high school kids, particularly if it is designed *properly*.

Maybe we will get lucky and my team will get a shot at this. We have been building a killer platform (for augmented reality, mmorpgs, virtual worlds, and simulations) that would make this NASA project just SING. Seriously. I really want to talk more about the tech, but I can’t (at least not yet).

Ah well. Soon enough my friends, soon enough.

I’m going to be out of town for most of the next two weeks. I’ll blog more when I can.

“Walled Gardens” are not the problem…

Maybe it is just me, but my experience has been that most people I talk to don’t have their own websites anymore. Instead, they have a page on myspace, a profile on facebook, a gallery on deviantART, items for sale on EBay, or they have a blog on one of the hosted blog communities (like wordpress or blogspot). In a similar fashion, gamers usually have distinct characters in multiple MMORPGs (and not always the same class or even gender).

One of the problems that everyone faces, is trying to manage all of these identities and profiles. It is a real pain in the neck creating a new account on the latest social networking site (fad!) or some other website. In the Web 2.0 world, there are a few options for creating an ID once and using the same login for other places, and a few social sites make it easy to import your basic profile data or even entire friends lists (sometimes even sending out email invites to everyone in your address book).

In the virtual world sector (including MMORPGs) several ideas have been bandied about concerning avatars that easily migrate from one world or game to another (where you create a character or avatar once and use it anywhere), and some virtual world platforms boast the goal of breaking down the so-called “walled gardens” to create hundreds of thousands or millions of virtual worlds…one for every user.

This sounds good on paper, but I wonder if anyone is considering problems this approach naturally creates, particularly given the social and psychological natures of humans.

First, I should probably define what a “Walled Garden” actually is. The term, particularly in regards to the internet, refers to an exclusive or proprietary environment or community that is “closed” or that requires membership of some type. AOL is a good example of a walled garden, in that you had to be a subscriber to access most of its content, and the whole thing was pretty much setup as a network within a network. For MMORPGs, each of them is, by definition, a closed garden. You need a unique client application to access the servers and game network. The client handles everything from rendering the world’s graphics to acting as the interface for chat and gameplay interaction with other players. You cannot use the client software from one game to access the virtual world of another game.

There are more than a few benefits to the “walled garden” approach. A few examples include security, management and moderation, contextual consistency, advanced features, “uniqueness”, easier access to the flow of traffic of other users, etc. etc.

The problems are also plentiful, but generally ignored (or perhaps unrealized by designers and evangelists?). To help make my point, let me go back to web communities and social networks which are all technically walled gardens at one level or another.

  • Ease of use and content generation

It is easier to setup a profile on any given social networking site or a hosted blog than it is to setup a server, register a domain, and set it all up yourself.

  • Easier to network and find traffic

It is deceptively simple to do a basic search and find friends that are already on a particular site, find new friends with similar interests, share just about anything, and so forth.

  • There is a strong sense of community or belonging

While the strongest feelings of belonging are based on smaller social circles, being a member of a particular site or community can engender similar feelings (even if they are very subtle or subconscious).

Remember, these are walled gardens…supposedly a bad thing in the minds of a lot of experts in virtual worlds, cyberspace/metaverse, etc.

But what are the problems if everyone can have their own virtual world? This is the same as everyone having their own website.

  • Traffic is harder to find and drive to your site. Without an overarching and all encompassing community or world, you basically have to use the entire internet as the replacement. Instead of being able to leverage internal stats, tracking, referrals, and other features and functionality, you end up trying to compete with everyone on the web for attention.
  • Client and Server applications must be open and freely available. The lowest common denominator wins the day for the greater market saturation and standardization. All content must be as simple and generic as possible for a truly open metaverse/internet. As soon as you start having to worry about downloading billions of modules, extensions, or versions so you can access one location over another, you realize that this misses the point, and it becomes a turn off for a lot of market share.
  • Open = unregulated and unmoderated. If anyone can make an avatar or character that can go to any virtual world or game, it becomes an imbroglio of issues to sort through when e-commerce becomes involved, not to mention hacking and security headaches. Sure, this isn’t an issue with the internet so much right now, but we are talking about webpages, not immersive worlds…this is a whole magnitude of difference in complexity and elements.

The better approach, I think, is a walled garden of many gardens. Yes, I think that at some point there will be a truly open and ubiquitous platform that is pretty much ungoverned and the transition from web 2D to cyberspace 3D will occur, but I think it will quickly denigrate into chaos and become a useless mishmash of crap. The true successful ventures will be the massive ones that are indeed a walled garden, but are also composed of nested worlds/gardens. You belong to Myspace, but you have your own unique page that you can customize to your heart’s content…but ultimately, it is moderated and controlled by Myspace.

Maybe I’m drawing too much of a distinction over what might be nothing more than a fine grey line. I dunno…I just think that trying to make the whole internet into an open (in all senses of the word) 3D universe isn’t the great idea that it sounds like. While I don’t like the idea of one company pretty much owning and controlling the virtuality that we have been dreaming of (particularly if it isn’t MY company), I think that this is exactly what is going to be required, at least in the interim of the next decade or so to push the industry forward, establish the standards, build the market, and so forth. Also, at least as far as MMORPGs go, making them all so generic as to allow characters to move from one to the other seamlessly is a really stupid idea. Then again, most of the titles coming out these days are virtual copies of each other in the most generic way possible, maybe it isn’t so bad…after all, they are starting to look alike, and you can find the same old static quests, missions, creatures, and classes in each one. Perhaps I’m getting bitter in my cynicism.

I feel like the voice in the desert sometimes…I have a clear vision of how things could and should be done, what the missing pieces are, where the convergences of various technologies needs to occur, and how to build “IT”. But the money flow keeps going towards the same ideas, the same people, and the same failing models…both in design, business, and execution. I’ll say it again for the hundredth time…where are the pioneers, innovators, and dreamweavers? Ten to fifteen years ago there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air and new ideas were constantly being explored and pursued (not just in the internet sector mind you). Now? It seems like the only exciting thing is another social network, another mobile phone, another way to shove ads in your face, or another MMORPG that is more static and single player oriented than a truly immersive world full of engaging experiences and a sense of wonder.

One way or the other, I’m going to shake things up (or at least get a damned good start at it) this year. 2007 was pretty crappy in many respects, but 2008 still has promise.

Yes, you will see me using “hybrid”, “convergence”, “adaptive”, and “evolving” a lot this year. Good stuff is coming.

PS: Yes, I realize that I sometimes ramble my way through these blog posts. Most of them are brain dumps and they aren’t intended to be edited and polished articles that follow a strict outline. So, if I need to clarify something, or I missed a point, feel free to comment or email me.

NASA MMO RFI

As you may have heard, NASA has put out an RFI (Request For Information) in regards to developing a MMO (well, MMOEG…Massively Multiuser Online Educational Game). The deadline for submissions is tonight at 11:59PM eastern, but for some reason the webpage with all of the submission information and link went offline much earlier today, and the page is now password protected. I’m beginning to wonder if someone made a mistake and turned things off at 11:59AM. Fortunately for us, I had already written down all of the information and successfully sent of our reply this afternoon. Hopefully we will make it to the next stage, which is invitation only RFP (Request for Proposals).

NASA has a unique opportunity here to do something new and truly “next-generation”. Looking at their requirements, it seems that they want to build an MMORPG (MMO Role Playing Game) that has strong educational elements, but they also require significant features and functionality for simulations (emphasis on realistic physics) and collaborative tools. This can be construed as either abilities for users to collaborate on missions (content related quests) or collaborative tools in the vein of what you would expect from your typical virtual world…shared files, integrated media (video, voice, etc.). My guess is the latter…especially if they want a platform where their own scientists and engineers can use for various simulations, meetings, and so forth. Now that I think about it, the RFI specifically states: “This new synthetic world would be a collaborative work and meeting space…”. Again, what they are looking for is more than just a NASA themed MMORPG.

Most game developers (and other interested parties) will likely respond and suggest something that is heavy on role-playing game elements and miss the larger picture of what NASA wants, and what could potentially be developed here by saavy designers. For more than a few years now, I have been evangelising the convergence of virtual worlds, MMORPGs, social networks, collaborative tools, and a few other things. To some people, this may seem either nuts or visionary. Personally it all seems pretty common sense. I mean, really. MMORPGs are nothing more than Virtual Worlds with engaging and immersive content, story, and gameplay, while virtual worlds are like barren MMORPGs but with better tools for collaborative features (to some degree) or user generated content. Other things like advanced collaborative tools (which the corporate sector really wishes Second Life actually had and did correctly) or robust social networking features and intuitive drag & drop user content creation are things that should be part of the standard set of both virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

Anyway, NASA has an opportunity to bring about industry shattering convergence…but only if someone is smart enough to tell them about it. After glancing around the internet, I’ve found some interesting comments and ideas (both perplexing and depressing to me in several degrees). On one forum, a poster implied that NASA and Linden Labs (makers of Second Life) were in discussion to build a research corporation inside of Second Life for the purpose of researching the viability of a NASA MMO. One of the commenters that replied to the post expressed some befuddlement at why NASA would even consider building anything “virtual” outside of Second Life, and that SL would be the perfect platform for having a space station that had information about NASA programs in it. Did these guys even bother to read the RFI that NASA issued?

Another thing that surprised me, was that Penny Arcade mentioned that they had been contacted by someone at NASA to announce the RFI and post it on their site. This really surprised me. Penny Arcade is (among other things) a community of gamers (yeah yeah, I know about the webcomic and PAX). The RFI is explicit that “The purpose of this RFI is to solicit information from organizations with proven immersive synthetic environments expertise who are interested in potentially forming a MMO platform development partnership with NASA.” Wow, that really describes the Penny Arcade community, doesn’t it? What NASA should have done, IMHO, was go directly to the International Game Developers Association and reach out to developers there, or even through other venues like gamasutra.com. I’m willing to bet that NASA got a lot of responses to their RFI from “Joe Gamer” talking about space boobs, missions against aliens on mars with weapons and ships, and probably suggestions about making the MMO(RPG) like Halo, Eve Online, Tabula Rasa, World of Warcraft in Space (Starcraft?), Star Trek Online (RIP), or even Jumpgate.

My fear is that most (if not all) of the respondents are going to miss the point entirely, and even worse, NASA will be snookered by a publisher/developer that does a real nice song and dance on paper, but will ultimately deliver another miserable and mediocre excuse for a MMO or a Virtual World. I’ll probably puke my guts out if they seriously consider something based on the SL platform.

In my opinion, the ideal approach is a hybrid one. The NASA MMOEG should first be designed as a robust Virtual World platform loaded to the gills with powerful content creation tools and collaborative functionality (both of which better be damned easy to use and intuitive). This makes it easy for users (players, academics, scientists, whatever) to continually create new content, areas, missions, etc. and share it, as well as help both NASA and the eventual developer partner, quickly prototype and deploy new content. Second, the world should have the most kick ass physics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life built in. This should be server-side based, and not client-based. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but it is the way to go. Taking this a step further, some sort of easy to learn scripting language (think LEGO Mindstorms or Actionscript) should be developed as well. All together, this makes creating dynamic content much easier and puts a lot of power into the hands of designers, developers, and end-users. The ability for anyone (NASA Engineer or High Schooler across the street) to play around in a virtual sandbox with scriptable AI-driven bots and creatures, or setting up mini-environments (think instances combined with nested worlds) is incredibly powerful…nothing like this exists, and if it is done correctly, it would be the dream app for many educators and future scientists. Hell, I’d love to play around with something like this. Anyway, this is key for making very interactive, immersive, and engaging educational content…particularly when it is tied into the fourth part…the game content.

NASA can go in multiple directions here when it comes to the game. If I was NASA or their partner developer, I would simply do it all, and segregate it. Over here, we have historical content…let players run through simulations of historic events, launches, and missions. Lots of fun, plenty of educational value. You could also do current day stuff combined with near future…lunar base, mars base, explore planets, fly the shuttle, etc. etc. The list goes on and on, but I’m not going to give you all my ideas haha. And finally, future…what happens if we introduce faster than light travel? Biodomes on Mars? Rogue AI taking over mining droids in the asteroid belt? Ok ok, what about ALIENS? I’m sure there are many people out there that would kill for a well designed Star Trek MMORPG (perpetual screwed that up royally, and I don’t think it will see the light of day anytime soon, and if it does get released, I have zero expectation for it). Anyway, my point is that there are a lot of fun, interesting, and really badass things NASA could pull off here with a bit of imagination and some great designers.

So what is left? One of the key goals (apparently ignored by most of the posters and bloggers that have commented on this) is that the NASA MMOEG needs to provide opportunities for players to explore and investigate career options in STEM fields (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This is a challenge to be sure. Personally, I don’t think that any MMORPG developer out there has the right combination of talent and skillsets to pull this off, especially from a design standpoint. Seriously, imagine trying to learn about Engineering or Math through World of Warcraft or Eve Online styled gameplay. You must solve this equation 200 times before we will let you solve the next equation, and then you have to wait 14 days to earn a point in your Algebra IV skill. Great, gee thanks. I do think that this is where casual game design can come into play (pardon the pun). Take a look at some of the puzzle games over on kongregate.com…many of them teach things like physics without really trying to, and they are fun and replayable to boot.

Many “traditional” design methods for contemporary MMORPGs will not work well for a MMOEG, particularly one that needs to emphasize collaborative meeting spaces, educational elements (i.e. things that TEACH math, physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, etc.). Slapping on pseudo educational elements on a traditional MMORPG platform is a very bad idea. Similarly, trying to ram gameplay elements onto a typical virtual world platform (all of which are severely lacking in multiple areas in my opinion) is just begging for failure.

I’ll be interested in seeing what NASA and their eventual partner end up creating here. I think it will either be a dismal failure (giving NASA another black eye) or it will be something utterly spectacular that energizes innovation and new design in the interactive media sector. I’m hoping for the latter.

Robert Rice 

The Power of Names

Names can build up or destroy. They can inspire and be a cause of pride, or they can wound deeper than any physical attack or be a cause of incredible fear and shame.

Names have the power to shape perceptions, set expectations, or exert subtle control over something.

Names are also the very basis of how we communicate. Everything in our world has a name. A name can capture the essence of something because of the meaning, or even how it sounds. Names (and labels) are also extraordinarily powerful and have the ability to literally change the world…particularly in religion, politics, marketing, and public opinion.

Names are important. As individuals, they help define our identity. Our surnames (“last names”) signify our familial and cultural identity. Titles, as an extension of names, determine how we relate to others, both in conversation and in situations.

Why then, are names treated in a trivial manner by writers and designers in MMORPGs, and why do gamers give very little thought to the names of their characters, clans, and guilds?

Names in MMORPGs

Writers, designers, and players in the game industry have all become very lazy when it comes to names and naming. Writers frequently ignore the typical rules for naming things when writing fiction, designers tend to use generic or repetitive names, and both commonly use pop culture names and references (sometimes purposefully misspelled or spelled backwards). Shortcuts abound in poor attempts at originality, or because of the confines and creative direction of the game.

Players are even worse. Character names are embedded with numbers and symbols, or used mixed capitalization. Players also try to add in titles or phrases in some kind of puerile or narcissistic attempt to be important (“Lord”, “Duke”, “Princess”, “General”) or emulate someone (“Darth soandso”, “Neo”, “Drizzt”, “Aragorn”) or something (usually vampire related for some reason). Guild names are not safe from this treatment either, although the tendency there is usually something completely out of place, crude, ridiculous, or anachronistic.

When it comes to character naming, people confuse names and nicknames. Picking “bunnylove” or “hotpants” for your female elf sorceress isn’t a good idea. Sure, your boyfriend might use one of those as a private pet name for you, but it doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of your enemies, or get you any respect on the street. It also doesn’t make sense.

One of the marks of genius in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the depth and consistency he used in naming the characters and giving each race unique and well defined cultures and languages. Elves have names that just sound Elvish, as do the Orcs and other races. They feel real, and as such, are more believable. Believability draws people in and it reinforces the sense of immersion.

MMORPG designers and writers need to put more emphasis on naming when they are creating their worlds, and they need to give players better tools for naming their characters and organizations. Maybe an option for a “nickname” or “alias” (Elanorea “Bunnylove” Sylvanias, the dark elf sorceress) that can be used in place of the formal first name for private messaging. I would also suggest the ability to randomly generate a name for people that have a hard time being creative or simply can’t think of a good name at the time. Writers should also limit the usage of pop culture names and references. Sure, it is cute and funny to use them, but usage should be the exception, not the rule.

The Fine Art of Naming

There is a fine art to naming something that few have mastered. Writers struggle with this on a regular basis with their characters, places, races, cities, cultures, etc. Meaning, sound, and feeling are all important.

Which of the following do you think is most suited to be the name of an epic hero? Why?

  • Guy Baker
  • Alexander Castle
  • Guile Blackheart

What about a forest filled with dangerous creatures and deadly traps? Why?

  • The Twilight Forest of Gefahr
  • The Willow Woods
  • The Green Wilds of the Western Reaches

Resources

The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook is one of the best out there and something that should be in the collection of any regular gamer, role-player, or writer. Good names enrich worlds and experiences, as well as enhance immersion.

By the way, my name is Robert

It is Old German in origin, and generally means “Bright Fame” or “Bright Shining Fame” depending on the academic source. My father goes by Bob (I am a Junior). My family calls me Robbie, and my friends usually call me Rob or Robert. Everyone else calls me Mr. Rice. There are a few nicknames and pseudonyms that I use online; “Nicodemus” is probably the most recognizable one.

So, what do you think about names in MMORPGs?

~ Robert Rice / Nicodemus