I had a long post planned.

Instead I'll just say this. In the MMO biz there is a saying that perception is reality. This means that a nerf is a better tool for balancing than a buff, at least in terms of reducing general forum noise.

Look at it this way, if you nerf one class you then have to deal with the mindless droning of the members of this class who are pissed that they won't have their uber power skill anymore. Buff a class and you now have every other class in the game pissed that they all just got nerfed. Not, of course, that they actually got nerfed, but because they perceive their class as being less effective than the newly buffed class.

This annoys me. That is all.


MERCs is undergoing radical changes

I am currently redesigning MERCs. I simply haven't been able to find enough play testers, so along with buttoning down the rules there will be a significant focus on creating the ability to play test it online through chat, forums or blogs. That will not be a program but rather a set of tools to translate the tabletop experience online.

As to the game itself, I'll be refocusing it downwards. The unit cap will be a hard 8, officers and non-coms will be either added or reworked to fit in the new format. Choices for basic infantry units will be streamlined into a more approachable but heavily varied framework. Their inventory slots will be cut down to 3 total, each hand and the chest, while three completely unusable skills will be removed. Stealth and spotting will be removed for the time being and electrical, explosive and mechanic will be bundled into a single skill and insight will be removed all together in deference to officer abilities.

Thank you for your patience as this change progresses.


Activity Types in MMOs (Yes I bring up WoW)

Richard Bartle wrote his treatise on MUD player types back in '96. His assertions have been rightfully questioned and we have generally found them to not be a robust enough platform for player motivation. They do have another purpose for which they need only minor tweaks however. Activity types.

However, Bartle gave each one certain connotations in terms of how they interacted with players, the world, or each other, for my purpose we will be tossing those out wholesale. For instance, a killer activity is any activity in which the player kills another player while an achiever activity is any activity in which the player is put in direct competition with their peers. As you can see there can and in fact must be some overlap. However I would also like to add one more group before we begin, creators. Creators are most directly related to crafters, but can also be player housing, armor painting, or pet raising.

So why go through all of this, well primarily to better understand the current MMOs on the market. This group of activity types is fairly limited, but it still covers the vast majority of what we want to go into. First I'll take a quick look at some of the games I have played well enough to comment on.

WoW is the obvious starting point to any MMO discussion so I thought I would go ahead and get it out of the way. What I have seen from WoW is that they are the epitome of mainstream, streamlined, generalist, easy and shallow. Probably one of the most amazing facets of WoW is that they actually did manage to strike an incredible balance of everything but killing, and then worked that in later. WoW's fundamental mechanic, grind to x so you grind faster, gave it a very single minded purpose without distractions, and built on the corner stone of achievement game play. Exploration was given slight xp bonuses as well as slightly out of the way quest givers allowed explorers in while not fracturing game play focus at all. Social elements were added in the forms of instances and dungeons again feeding back into the main achievement style and finally creation was an alternate form of advancement as well as adding certain buffs. Killing, while existent didn't receive it's real focus until battlegrounds and even after addition was polished and demolished until it became as easy and focused as the rest of game play.

WoW is not, however, by any means a perfect game. Not even for achievers. The problem that WoW has, which will not effect their bottom line but certainly does effect a large portion of their player base is that they gave up a great deal of depth to make access particularly easy. There isn't enough to explore nor enough of a reward for doing so to keep focused explorers engaged, there aren't enough social tools nor enough reason to connect to please fundamentally social players, creators are required to hit their highest possible levels before they see any real use and even then have to compete with hundreds of others on their server if they are lucky enough to have so little competition. The killers don't get to feel as though they've done serious damage, and achievers are faced with the brutal reality that their greatest achievements were well and truly worthless.

To add insult to injury, it only really takes you wanting more of any one activity to make the game start to feel hollow to you, and most people who are reading this blog are fairly far into multiple groups.

EVE may seem to be the opposite far extreme, but I would posit that it is really not. It's done something very similar to WoW in fact. They took a corner stone of killer activities and built the entire game around it, keeping the activities in check and focused back into that. What they did very differently however was they exchanged ease of access for depth. An explorer can spend an entire career in EVE and not see it all, and certain types of exploring are very very profitable. Creation in EVE, in terms of crafting, is very well designed and thought out. Creation activities in EVE carry a certain amount of gravitas with them as well, since they have a direct effect on the capabilities of the killers. Achievers aren't given so much a set of activities as they are a form of expression and they make use of it to the full extent. Best off all in terms of achievement, whether it's piloting a titan or getting a 6:1 Kill/Death Ratio it is all dependent on your own skill making the achievements worthwhile.

Social tools are probably where EVE has consistently fallen shortest. Despite their excellent community the number of purely social constructs in EVE has remained relatively low. I believe this is a large part of why so many players are looking forward to Ambulation, it will be a chance to better explore the social side of the game. It may also be a chance to explore the social side of creation.

Of course EVE paid a heavy price for all this, their barrier to entry is at least exponentially higher than WoW's. While they certainly maintain an excellent player base they don't stand any significant chance of breaking the multi-million subscriber barrier in the next few years.

I could go on with Guild Wars or Tabula Rasa, but for now I'd rather focus on how we can use this when making MMOs. What exactly are these measurements useful for?

A good starting point would be cornerstones. Both of the examples I used above created a focus within their game that is truly inescapable. No matter what you are doing in WoW it's to achieve the next macguffin and no matter what you are doing in EVE it is built on/funded by the frozen corpses of dead player characters. In TR it's actually about exploring, but it's an exploration of the lore and literature rather than a literal exploration. Guild Wars is built schizophrenically around exploring or killing while neither incorporates more than a cursory creation mechanic but both contain fairly robust social and achievement mechanics.

Another take away is that MMOGs are, presently, lagging far behind in the social component. There are more than enough meta game tools to sate player's appetites, but we could still do with a certain grouping of advancements. In game message boards are a very good example, I have seen only one usage of these, however. Any sci-fi MMO can leverage these to the benefit of RPers and much the entire player base. Fantasy games can have an option to disable the menu to increase immersion, but they can still benefit from these as well. If you add on a program such as PlayXpert (PXP) you may find that players become more socially engaged with your game as friendships grown in game are fluently translated to out of game and vice-versa.

As much as I know I have certainly missed more activity types or have shoe horned them into these, they have worked reasonably well as a group of quick and dirty metrics from my perspective. Perhaps most importantly, since I am not a scholar and am simply trying to state what I have seen with a relatively broad brush, they should be judged as a speedy and stylized way of expressing the complex relations of players and activities and not as a comprehensive list or set of metrics.


In the space of an era.

In the year ninteen hundred and fifty nine something very hard, moving very fast impacted with the moon. It crumpled like a tin can, assuming anything was left of it at all. But if you were to rewind and freeze time for long enough to read the writings emblazoned on it's side, the letters "CCCP" would most likely make an impression upon you.

It was seven years later before a ship flying under the banner of NASA and the USA dropped a small craft that made a significantly softer landing. A man exited the craft, and humanity stood, for the first time in the sea in the sky, the place which they had so long studied and worshipped. A footprint and a flag were left to commemorate the occaision.

It was ninteen hundred and seventy seven when the first copy of traveller hit the shelves. The Third Imperium invaded the homes of sci-fi fans, and role players. It lit a spark, though small at first, bright all the same. So bright in fact that it held it's light for ten years to set our stage, the opening night in ninteen hundred and eighty six.

There in the corner of a room far apart from the busle of everyday life sat a BBC Micro. Not so different from any other computer of it's type, though perhaps shinier as it was only bought in the last several days. The father gives his daughter a tape and stands over her shoulder pointing out all the little gadgets and woodads that still mystify the young girl. She inserts the tape and loads the thing on it, program was it, waiting patiently for it to load, or else jump out of the screen and bite her. But then it comes up, and the splash screen plays, proudly proclaiming the title ELITE!

Elite was a mammoth unto itself, though perhaps we wouldn't think of it as such today. It's gameplay was open, fighting and trading, together in a single title. A huge universe to explore and so much to see, on top of that... it was in three dimensions, and allowed you to move in relation to all three dimensions.

Soon after spawned Wing Commander, the brain child of one Chris Roberts at Origin studios. World War II in space he called it, and in the opinion of this author, he well delivered. Three years later X-Wing was released by Lucasarts, though in the annals of video game history it was soon overshadowed by it's sequel Tie Fighter.

Two distinct styles began to emerge, that of the open ended world in which players could trade and fight often attempting to acquire bigger or better ships and fleets, and that of the space combat sim built around close and hard dogfighting with capital ships often merely tactical tools or backdrops.

In the first category the torch of Elite was used to light a myriad of fires. Privateer, a Wing Commander spin-off, Escape Velocity, a mac game developed by Ambrosia Software which, though 2dimensional, had all other hallmarks of elite play, X, by German developer Egosoft, and Freelancer, Chris Roberts return to space simulation.

The second was kept alive by Wing Commander's sequels until a new competitor entered the game, Freespace. Freespace was a sequel of sorts in it's own right, originally intended to be built off the Descent engine which powered the popular shooter Descent. The first Freespace game was perhaps the most successful, while the second was set on an incredibly tight schedule of one year, and even released a month early to little in the way of marketing despite being met with critical acclaim. Star lancer closed out the genre, the last new ip to see release, and in many ways the last true single player space combat sim to hit shelves.

In the MMO Realm, three titles hit shelves in this order, Jumpgate ('01), Earth and Beyond ('02), and EVE Online ('03). All of these titles faced hard times, though only one was kept on by it's publishers and developers, EVE. Perhaps it was CCP's relative size, and their dependance on the success of their title that helped them through the lean years. Whatever it was, the rest of the industry walked away with the concept that it was somehow an untennable concept for games.

When EVE upsurged in recent times, building a player base that others had considered lost, it caught some few people's attention. At first it was simply a shot in the arm for those patiently waiting for the inevitability of Elite Online, but then Space Cowboy was given a second go under the name FlySIS. Now Jumpgate, the first of the three brothers to hit shelves, is seeing it's own revival. Built again and billed as the fast paced pulse pounder to EVE's, at best, ponderous pace, perhaps it will build it's own empire in the Niche.

Perhaps this time the entire team behind it will have learned what has been true of deep sci-fi games all along. No matter how bad it seems, have faith in your product and tend it well, the players will come.


EVE Fire - A tale in Haiku

Space ships
burning in

Dawn in EVE has come
at a dusk you wait for me
EVE begins again.

Nano in the North
building war with blood and tears
working in havoc.

Worlds apart in all ways
come together in violent haze
our frenzy silent.

outside pod
burning away.


Birth - The Basis of Faster Than Light Space Ship Combat

For those of you who don't know, Birth was the game I was working on when I first started this blog. It's console based C++ and I may in fact pick it back up some day, just because.

The basic concept fueling Birth was that you were a ship bound AI in charge of running the basic functionality of the ship and dealing with both the moment to moment upkeep as well as writing and testing scripts for advanced targeting, heat management and communications. Exciting? Probably not for most people, but it was meant to be more of a simulation anyway.

As much fun as Freespace is, if we were to step back and take a look at the reality of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel mixed with warfare there just isn't any semblance of reality in it. So what would be our biggest concerns with FTL travel? Firstly it would be the war of information. On the communications front we already have a theoretical method of instant communications that would impossible to intercept mid transmission. With the vast majority of those communications being handled by ship board AI, there simply isn't any way besides old fashioned spies to crack the majority of closed communications.

The real valuable information though, is sensor feeds. When traveling at FTL, a ship the size of a moon could pass next to you and you probably wouldn't see more than the slightest blip on radar as it would be traveling too fast to bounce back more than a very small amount of waves. Likewise if you could fire a projectile at the speed of light it could travel an AU (Astronomical Unit (The distance from the Sun to the Earth)) in roughly 8 minutes. Meaning that you can have ships within hundreds of millions of miles of each other placing perfectly accurate shots into each others hulls assuming they could attain correct targeting information.

Therefore the way I see attack fleets breaking down is thus, four classes of ships: Carrier, Cruiser, Freighter and Frigate. Basically the Carriers work as a supply and communications center, constantly on the move except when picking up a frigate for refueling. The freighters work as troop transports and supply ships, connecting the various carriers and cruisers, being military issue they would be built of for stealth and speed over maximum hauling economy. Cruisers are gun boats, also constantly on the move, but trying to keep their firing arcs open and staying close enough to the front to be within firing range at any given moment. The frigates on the other hand would be sensor boats with minimal armament, their purpose is to cover as much ground as possible dropping sensor buoys and recording sensor readings over time.

The basic job a frigate would be to attain the readings then plot a firing solution based on readings back over time, probably within a second due to the speeds involved. Since turning at those speeds will be comparatively slow it basically just needs to identify the pattern of an almost straight line of sensor readings. That line would then be extrapolated out into a firing solution and transmitted to the nearest cruiser. Even under almost ideal conditions there will probably a large number of misses due to the distances and speeds involved, but due to those same factors it will most likely be a matter of a single hit since if the sheer kinetic energy didn't rip through it at a million times the power of a hydrogen bomb, a punctured hull would most likely rip itself apart from the inside out.

In all likelihood the biggest concern in most engagements would probably be the fear of one of the combatants turning their guns on a colony, rounds traveling at such high speeds could easily cause devastation equal to or greater than an asteroid the size of Rhode Island impacting on a planet. Of course it's unlikely they would stop at a single round.

Much like nuclear power though, it would most likely be considered at best a weapon of last resort as all sides are equally vulnerable to the tactic.