Airways and Ethics: Skys of Mondea

Back on the Bus
So here we are, my first return post to MMO design. Before I get too far into this, the goal isn't to "make a game". At the end of the day this is a glorified thought experiment, but the constraints one might apply to a real design are a useful set of constraints for this thought experiment.

This is not intended to be a wholly solitary endeavor. I'm accepting not only constructive criticism, but also brainstorming and design collaboration. If you see some way it could be improved, just throw it out there. No guarantees it'll make it into future discussions, but then I tend to never guarantee anything.

The Foundation
Title: Skies of Mondea
Base Gameplay: Flying Airships
Core Conceit: Players/Player Characters as Moral Agents
Constraints: No quests/writing. In other words, no content design.

So lets take this from the top.

The landscape that makes the most sense to me is to simply not employ a ground level at all, meaning no method of landing or transversing the ground, to the point of keeping land hidden below a cloud layer at all times. Instead the landscape design will be one of drafts, updrafts, down drafts, east/west/north/south drafts, which apply directional motion to the player. In other words to sit in a north draft will cause an unmoving ship to always drift north, will increase the acceleration and maximum speed of a ship moving north, will apply a northward drift to a ship moving east/west/up/down, and decrease acceleration and maximum speed of a ship traveling south.

Ships come in 3 classes, light, heavy, superheavy. Lights are fast and maneuverable but are heavily subject to drafts. Wandering into particularly turbulent areas will typically cause extreme loss of control, these areas should be clearly marked. Heavy are slower ships that see less effect from drafts, capable of ignoring all but the strongest, but also not particularly benefiting from complimentary drafts. Superheavy ships ignore all drafts, in fact if dynamic drafts are supported they would create drafts around themselves. A Superheavy is actually capable of moving quite quickly, but has terrible maneuverability and takes a particularly long time to slow down.

Lights are capable of leaving colored smoke trails, and can drop smoke cannisters to mark resource deposits hidden below the cloud layer. Heavies are capable of resource acquisition, permanent marker buoy deployment, hauling, and are an ideal platform for diving competitions as they can fight updrafts and acquire downward speed more easily. Superheavies function more as home bases with lots of storage, a place to park yourself, and can move swiftly across vast distances. Certain heavies can also act as modular attachments to Superheavy ships, providing services such as player housing.

Ships can never run out of fuel so as to be completely stranded, they can only enter a state at which their speed and maneuverability suffer severely. Weapons are not currently planned, sorry sky pirates.

Moral Agents
A moral agent must fit a certain set of criteria. They must be able to make choices, they must form an opinion on the morality of those choices, those choices must be what game designers would call interesting, in other words they cannot be foregone conclusions. Interesting choices implies scarcity, for instance there is no ethical choice in deciding whether or not to steal a resource if that resource is infinitely available in infinite quantities. It also implies soft rules, there is no ethical decision in not stealing resources if there was never an option to steal resources. And finally it implies consequences, as there is no ethical choice in stealing a resource if doing so has no consequence to any party involved.

When players interact with each other, they are always acting as moral agents, that's the good news. Our job then is to make them interact with NPCs and the game world as moral agents, a significantly harder task as the NPCs themselves cannot be moral agents. However, the non-player characters can be used to simulate the behavior of moral agents. Alternatively they can be used as a quite literal "voiceless and powerless" population, which has ethical implications I won't go into here.

For now there are two major items that must be removed from the table, the win state and the unnamed instance. There can be no win state because having one makes winning the overriding moral imperative within the context of the game. The unnamed instance is also, by it's very nature a non-entity, a pure object to be used as befits the current goals since it's existence is limited purely to the context of those goals. An example of an unnamed instance would be any mob or npc that is considered not as an individual, but as merely an identical instance of a particular archetype.

This does not have to mean that every NPC needs to have a full life simulation, but they need to have some persistence both as an object within the game world, and as an engine of choice. Say for instance we gave players the ability to tip NPCs with variable amounts of cash, then a flight deck attendant who was regularly given very large tips would eventually leave the flight deck and reappear in a higher status in society that required some starting cash, such as a shopkeeper. Alternatively, a flight deck attendant who is never tipped despite having a salary that relies on tips will soon disappear and reappear at some similar level in society, while their job will likely take longer to fill due to being unprofitable.

Ethics is, at it's core, a complex subject. It cannot be our goal to define what Ethics are, or what is/is not ethical. The goal is to create the depth of field and necessary conditions for there to be issues of ethics and morality at all. This is why I began not with what a moral agent is, but rather what is required for one to exist. However, if I were to lay out a heuristic for what sort of choices would be needed in order to have interesting ethical choices, I would avail myself of two kinds of decisions first and foremost. Decisions of short term loss for long term gain versus short term gain for long term loss, and decisions of personal gain at others expense, versus others gain at personal expense.

I'm not going to go into specifics in this post, there will be plenty of opportunity to expound upon this in later entries.

Why No Content?
I choose to add a constraint against content design in this in spite of the fact that it is actually very useful for our purposes. The problem is that it's more likely to be used as a band-aid than as an actual fix. Once you have a band-aid solution in place, problems begin to rise from it and you eventually find yourself arguing in circles about something that isn't terribly important to an actual working model.

In this case, I'm really looking for a ludic solution. Once you have a ludic solution in place, we can then began to create deep, rich content that takes advantage of it. Without that solution though, your content will almost always be ineffective and will largely be chaff to be ignored as people play "the real game".


  1. Careful, quest content isn't the only type of content. You still have to design content for ships, cargo, and other elements of your game. Not having quests is an interesting choice, though, and something that may work out in a game that allows for a lot of exploration.

    As we chatted about, I think one of the hardest elements for making moral decisions meaningful is separating them out from gameplay decisions. The ultimate decision in a game is how to play it to have fun, so moral decisions tend to seem a bit hollow.

    Another issue I thought of is how to make actions affect the individual more than they affect others. One common problem is that a lot of decisions may harm the individual making the decision, but it also tends to screw other people over at least as much. A common example is the overhunting on UO's original ecology design. How can you make a decision affect the individual and be meaningful to that person without affecting other people (and giving some malicious people a reward in causing suffering to others)?

    Some interesting things to think about. :)

  2. i totally agree with Pychochilds comment above..for example..I actually played Roma Victor and in that "game?/simulation?" you had to acquire certain things in the tutorial which would allow you to build a hut. One of those things was cow dung to use as mortar to hold the hut together. The downside to this, is that cow dung, comes from cows, and cows also have other uses. Two of which is milking, from a farm and Skinning/butchering for armor/clothing and meat for sustenance.

    In the case of RV, the players in the world 1st decided they would be nice enough to slaghter all of the cows in the world which were limited based on the historical accuracy to those that were brought in by the romans to fulfil a farming niche. So in my case, I could not progress due to actions of other players and I had not other recourse to fix the situation and the developers were unable to "spawn" more cows because they were limited by historical fact to the amount of cows brought in by roman culture.

    A fatal flaw, in the case of RV's design...