Only one of many, really, that’s the trouble with we armchair designers – too many ideas rolling around, but no means to do anything about them.
Chris aka Scopique from LevelCapped.com and I were riffing in a discussion today that brought to light an idea I’ve had for the past two years. There’s zero chance of it being made, so I’ll just spell it out here since I have no fear some enlightened investor will run with it and find a development team. Chris did a similar post with his own online game idea, as well.
Being a jaded MMO junkie in partial rehabilitation, this will be a persistent world online game. You’ll notice I have not called it a role-playing game, because I don’t want the extra baggage that entails in this one game. It will feature most of the elements associated with role-playing games, however, just done a bit differently.
I’m a huge fan of virtual worlds. It is unfortunate that the MMOs that attract us so eagerly always disappoint due to the dependence on the vertical progression scheme of advancement. That, specifically, is what I wish to avoid with this game concept. I want a world where all of it is relevant all the time, not just the level-bracketed zones you happen to qualify for or the handful of level-cap dungeons.
Multiplayer. Minus the Massively.
Despite my unhealthy addiction love of designer drugs MMOs, I feel too many concessions have to be made under the current MMO paradigm, so I’d like to hearken back to earlier days: Neverwinter Nights, but not for the same reason Chris also mentioned NWN in his post. I am using NWN as the seed (and then discarding it) for the idea due to its (flaky, usually) player-created “persistent” servers that supported (if memory serves) up to 64 players. My game will support somewhere between 64 and 128, ideally. This is to foster smaller, more dedicated and tightly-knit communities as well as to increase so-called “immersion” by not having thousands of adventurers standing at mailboxes.
Virtual World Inspirations
As I stated above, I have been greatly displeased with the worlds of MMOs in recent years. Oh, to be certain, they are absolutely gorgeous to travel through, but they’re all semi-guided tours to the destination of the level cap dungeons. That’s why they’re called “theme parks” – we’re guided along by glowing punctuation marks beckoning with the lure of gold and XP. They end up being a mosaic of disconnected landscapes we may or may not remember fondly but have no reason to ever return to. We’ve already seen that attraction, and the guided tour is going the other way. Beyond here there be XP!
In the past two years, only two games have really made a distinct impression on me for their creation of virtual worlds: Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim. In each title, we are free to go anywhere and there’s always something to explore or some type of content to do. In short, they were two of the most immersive games I’ve played – ever — and there are always adventures to be had.
Red Dead Redemption dropped the ball, from my perspective, in its multiplayer game by only focusing on “multiplayer activities” such as gang hideouts or PvP. Other than the Survivalist Challenges, there was no use to gathering plants, where in the single-player game we could make medicines in addition to buying medicines, etc. from General Stores. There were never any “dynamic content” in multiplayer like the appearance of a “Friend” NPC who might need assistance, or who might be a bandit in disguise. There were no stagecoach robberies to foil in multiplayer. The only Bounties were against other players who were killing everyone else, there were no Bounties for Gang Leaders or Outlaws in multiplayer. That would have been fun to ride around with a few friends and suddenly some form of “dynamic content” appears. The six co-op missions that were part of the “Outlaws to the End” DLC were all instanced content completely separate from the world, so while they had their entertainment value and challenge, once you’ve done them, you’re done with them.
Despite all the objections of pretty much everyone, I still wish for a co-op Skyrim. I know it would make zero sense for the storyline that suddenly there are two or more Dragonborn? Plus Skyrim (and Oblivion before it) knows full well it’s a single-player game, so the dungeons are quite often narrow affairs that don’t leave room for another player or few. When I said I wanted a “co-op Skyrim” I did not mean that I wanted a “co-op campaign” like other games have, but when it came to the “wandering adventurer” bit, I absolutely would have loved for the ability to have a friend or two join me in clearing a dungeon or discovering a giant’s camp and fending them off, or the big attraction: co-op dragon slaying!
So, like the best armchair “Idea Man” designers, these two games will serve as the basis for my game concept, henceforth known as The Game, with a few nods to a couple others for good measure.
Despite my love for Skyrim, that is a unique quality for me when it comes to Bethesda’s RPGs. Usually I merely tolerate them. I finished Oblivion and am very slowly plodding through Fallout 3 mostly out of spite rather than enjoyment. Rockstar has had a much better go of things, starting with the GTA3 series, then ramping that up in GTA4. Red Dead Redemption put GTA4 to shame, though. I haven’t played enough of Max Payne 3 yet to learn if it’s a Rockstar Open World game or not, though what I have played has been extremely high-quality entertainment. Regardless, this is my imaginary game, therefore I am having an imaginary version of Rockstar create an imaginary studio just for handling this game, because it will be unlike anything they’ve done to date.
The Game will be a gritty fantasy adventure. It’s Rockstar, they only do gritty, after all. So there will be no whimsical brightly-colored neon world ala Reckoning or World of Warcraft even. It’s a “darker” fantasy world with environments more attuned to the semi-realistic appearances of Rockstar’s previous titles.
There will be a large single-player game featuring a typical Rockstar story written by the Houser brothers: a former “underworld” character has attempted to redeem his or her self and make a new and better life, but the campaign story draws her right back into the seedy environment she sought to escape. All the cinematic scenes, voice work, you name it. The same stuff that kept us all playing GTA4, RDR, to a lesser extent with Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, and now today with Max Payne 3. When it comes to the single-player campaign, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Game will be further supported with DLC expansions, offering more story to play through and all that. Rockstar’s DLC tend to be quite substantial, more so than most developers, and this will remain the case with The Game.
Onto the meat and potatoes of this post, however. The Multiplayer Game. This is where Neverwinter Nights served as the seed of the idea, which was furthered by simply playing Red Dead Redemption in 2010 and picking it up again this past week and lamenting what it lacked in multiplayer, plus my favorite aspects of Skyrim.
The Multiplayer Game will come in two flavors: Public servers, hosted by the developers or publisher, and Private servers leased by players. I’ll explain the differences in what to expect later, and why leasing servers could be an incentive for a segment of the player base. I’m old school, so I remember the days of developers giving the server toolset free for players to run on their own servers, but let’s be honest: all the “extras” like player-hosted servers, modding, custom maps, and the whole “mod community” is a thing of a lost era. Monetization is the new gaming industry, and it is the singular cause of why “MMO” no longer means what it once did, and why all the various sub-genres are blurring together turning everything into a Monetized Online Game. Whoops, sorry, that’s a whole other post. Back to The Game…
The Game will be multi-platform – PC, and console (the next generation hardware, not the PS360 generation). I say that because RDR worked perfectly well single- and multiplayer on console (is there still no PC version?) and other than MMOs the console has pretty much become my preferred platform for gaming. This is another reason for the (leased) dedicated servers: consoles have less memory than a PC, but even PCs can’t host 64 to 128 players on a Listen server while playing the game. Plus Listen servers are not Persistent Games, which is the goal with The Game.
The Game will be set in a third-person camera and will feature all the expected abilties of a Rockstar game such as climbing on various types of terrain, crouching, taking cover along with adding some of what we’d expect in a fantasy game. Stealth, archery, magic-wielding, and so on.
Mounts will be their own entities with their own AI, much like the horses in RDR. They can be killed (but recalled after a brief time) just like in RDR. Being a fantasy game, various types of mythical creatures can be acquired or unlocked as mounts during game play.
Players can choose from a set of classes which will determine your base abilities and style, such as being a big beefy warrior or a slender acrobatic rogue or the steady wizard. Your typical fantasy tropes, with a few unique twists to set them apart. From there, you’ll be able to adjust abilities or skills to some extent, similar to Skyrim. However, unlike Skyrim, you are not The Only Hero and therefore able to be the Master of Everything Simultaneously. You will not be able to be the Ultimate Warrior and the Ultimate Wizard. You can half-ass each of them if you want a warrior-mage, but you’ll be locked out of the ultimate tiers of each. Similarly, one player cannot “max out” any particular story faction. In Oblivion, I was the champion of the arenas and guild master of every single guild in existence. In this Game, again, you can half-ass a little of any faction but if you want to “max out” one, then that one is the only one you can do so with.
While you will choose your race and class, you will be seen in-game as your player nickname, not as a character name. It’s a multiplayer fantasy game, not a role-playing game. You can role-play all you wish, if you wish, but you will be seen in-game as your avatar not as your character. (Regular readers may remember I draw a not so thin line between the two.)
How Will It Play Out?
The short version: take everything you love about Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption – minus the cinematic You Are The Hero story bits (that’s what the single-player game was for) – and include all the “dynamic content” they featured, along with plenty of exploration and developer-created stories to play through as well. My vision is for the multiplayer “story” content to be comprised of what I’m going to call, for lack of a better phrase, “story events,” which will be partially developer-created and partially procedurally generated. [This Game is in my imagination, so in my imagination developers have also learned from the mistakes of the past and can now create procedurally-generated content that is actually compelling, up to and including procedurally-generated dungeons and landscapes.] Let’s say there is some Demon Overlord amassing an Evil Army of Goons. The “story events” process might start by Goon Invasions of local areas or towns. Players can defend and fight off the Goons, but if the Goons win, that triggers Phase Two which might have the Goon Army attempt to expand its base of influence, eventually introducing even more powerful or unique types of Goons. The process can be a tug-of-war between the AI Goons and players, either resetting phases or continuing the process. Eventually the players might unlock the Gateway to the Demon Overlord’s dimension (or dungeon, whatever) and fight him, ending the “story event” permanently. There will be a number of “story events” written and occurring in different areas of the virtual world at any given time to help spread the players out, as well as providing different content in various places.
The developers can write any number of “story event” routines, and the procedurally generated part can help determine things like who is the Big Bad Boss, what is his Goal, what are his Powers and types of Minions, and so forth. DLC expansions will add new areas to the world (or new dimensions, it’s a fantasy game) along with all-new “story event” types and monster types, new powers, new loot, etc. Everything you’d expect from an expansion.
In addition to the bigger “story event” types, plenty of smaller “dynamic content” like you’d see at random in both Red Dead Redemption or Skyrim will be present. Random people requiring assistance, and you can choose to help or ride on by. The bank robberies or a group of bandits try to hijack the players, that sort of thing that was unexpected; something that still adds to the immersion of the virtual world but smaller scope “one off” type content.
On a Public server, you will adventure, explore, and “level” (more on that in a bit) your class, which is persistent of course, and to be expected in any modern multiplayer game. The virtual world on a Public server may or may not be persistent, in that more players would be expected to be located on Public servers, so “story content” may be recycled eventually as a result.
On a Leased server, however, now the players with administrative access can set specifics. Do you want Normal or Hardcore modes, whatever those end up meaning. You can set which DLC are enabled on the server, which “story events” are allowed to play, is there “friendly fire,” is there PvP allowed, and so forth. In addition, territorial control is introduced. Players on the server can form Clans (I’d call them Guilds but that’s coming to have an “MMO” implication so I’ll just use the older term instead) and create their own cities. Players will have to maintain their cities, in addition to defending them from monsters or Goons and possibly against enemy player Clans, if PvP is enabled on the server.
The Game will not feature player Crafting, but being a Hunter-Gatherer will be important. You may need animal hide or various ores and gems for armor and weapons, or simply to sell. Plants and herbs for potions. Anything you’d expect from Skyrim more so than Red Dead Redemption, but players only gather things that NPCs will use to craft the items. I’m all for full sandboxes and all and a player economy, but this isn’t that game – besides, I feel that is better suited to an MMO “sandbox” — so no player Crafting. On Leased servers, gathering becomes important to maintain your Clan City. Normal NPC citizens will be attracted to any settlement, so your Clan City will automatically have those, but as your Clan levels up it will gain the ability to bring specialty NPC types into the city. Special vendors, special soldiers for defense, and so on. The more the City expands, plus the more it is attacked, the more resources it will need to maintain the citizens, the soldiers, the siege weapons, even the city walls.
Exploration will be a huge part of The Game as well. Red Dead Redemption had 94 locations for the player to discover, while Skyrim had over 300. A decent chunk of my time in Skyrim is usually spent being distracted by a black marker on my HUD so I go exploring until I find the location and the POI shows on my map and completely forget whatever I originally intended to do. I like exploring huge virtual worlds, so The Game will be more akin to Skyim in that regard, with DLC adding more areas to the world (or new worlds) with new POIs to find and new content located at each one.
AI will also feature into the world. Not only with better AI for the NPCs and monsters (as frustrating as they can be, I’m really a fan of the aggressive AI in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer) during combat but also their “server behavior.” In Skyrim if I clear a dungeon, gradually over time maybe bandits, orcs or some other NPC type will discover that dungeon and move in. The Game will work in the same manner. The longer that newly-squatted dungeon goes unchecked, the larger the NPC population grows to until eventually that dungeon could become a full-fledged Evil Threat again. The day/night cycle will also matter, as it does in both Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim. Most citizen NPCs will be asleep, most shops will be closed. Certain types of creatures might only come out at night, maybe certain content is only available at night or during certain times. If The Game has werewolves, maybe they only come out whenever there is a full moon on whatever server you’re playing on.
Here’s where my previous statements of “this is not an RPG” come into play. Rather than RPG “leveling” – specifically the vertical progression leveling that is unfortunately predominant in MMORPGs – The Game will use a more standard multiplayer leveling scheme. You get XP and you can gain levels, but mostly those levels are just for unlocks of various sorts, not the automatic power increase you’d get from a vertical progression RPG. I do this because at its core The Game is a multiplayer game. Anyone should be able to play with anyone else at any given time, regardless of “levels.” Additionally, PvP might be a factor so “levels” should not be an automatic “I Win!” button.
Red Dead Redemption does, in fact, feature the exact type of multiplayer progression I’m thinking of, but to expand on that I will use Modern Warfare 3 instead. In MW3 you get XP for kills, XP for completing Challenges, then XP that is determined at the end of the match on how well your team did compared to the opposing team. As you level up, you’ll unlock new guns, new Perks, and new gun camouflage. From there, completing Weapon Challenges gets you new unlocks for that specific gun, such as a suppressor or 4X scope and so forth.
I propose a very similar progression for The Game. Completing various general Challenges will unlock new outfits to wear as well as additional more in-depth challenges. Completing weapon-specific challenges will unlock new abilities for that weapon. Challenges can be combined with abilities from other content as well. Maybe you play a dual-dagger wielding rogue-type class, and you completed a “story event” against an evil spirit corrupting a sacred tree entity which was poisoning the surrounding area. That completion, combined with a certain rank on your dagger Challenges will allow your daggers to become permanently poisonous. DLC will also add new Challenges, new weapons, new effects, new outfits, etc.
One thing that was new to Red Dead Redemption was the Rockstar Social Club Challenges. I felt that it fell a bit flat, though, but hey, it was the first attempt at a new thing. The simplified version is that they provided a specific set of things to accomplish on each of the Gang Hideouts. If you managed to complete one, it unlocked a piece of a special outfit. A similar thing could work with The Game, and the beauty here is that not only could they be crazy or outlandish Challenges, but they could be the area Rockstar could leverage to provide “new content” for free, simply by piping in new Social Club Challenges every so often and some fluff vanity award to go with them to maintain replayability.
All of the Call of Duty games also have what they call “Prestige” where you can hit the level cap, but if you Prestige you reset to level 1 and start all over with the weaponry but you usually keep the titles you’ve unlocked plus get some new little graphic that lets people know you’ve Prestiged. Red Dead Redemption (and Blur, another of my favorite multiplayer games) have the same thing but they call it Legendary. Once you achieve Legendary status, you reset to level 1 again but you also gain a custom Legendary Mount (or in the case of Blur, a Legendary Car). The Game would absolutely reward players in a similar manner with custom outfits, mounts, weapons, etc. that can only be obtained from a Prestige or Legendary type mechanic.
If You Build It, I Will Come
Get your mind out of the gutter! I’m just saying if some genius developer with an angel investor wants to start up a Rockstar subsidiary specializing in the “Games As a Service” model (persistent world with RIFT-style rapid content updates) I will pre-order your Collector’s Edition and pre-purchase your DLC Pass. All I ask is my name in the credits somewhere. Oh, and some residuals… Yes, the residuals…