Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Perils of the Prime Directive

I’ve been pondering the new MMO-in-development, Star Trek Online, and it occurred to me that there’s a serious obstacle in designing content for that game.  It’s familiar to all Trekkers (and Trekkies) as the most fundamental rule of Starfleet, also known as the Prime Directive.

The basic idea behind the Prime Directive is that societies should not be interfered with; Starfleet explicitly orders its members that there must be “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.”

Naturally the Prime Directive was broken again and again in The Original Series (TOS), though subsequent series have tried a bit harder to maintain what is after all the first and most important rule of Starfleet (else it wouldn’t be “Prime”).  Kirk, Spock, and Bones beamed down again and again to new, unexplored planets, and typically identified themselves as Starfleet officers, often, in the course of an episode, mentioning that their ship was in orbit.  When they beamed out, often to avoid danger, they almost always had witnesses who if nothing else knew that some sort of disappearance or teleportation technology was used.  That alone would be expected to alter a society.

In terms of a Star Trek MMO, the Prime Directive seems a serious barrier to interaction with new cultures.  If e.g. the crew appear alien to the residents of a planet, how are they to explain their presence, and what should they claim is their origin?  Even attempting to lie can have unforeseen consequences – say the crew claim to be visitors from another civilization on the planet.  The culture that witnessed the Starfleet members might well be inclined to seek out their imaginary neighbours, which again could easily change the culture.

A Star Trek MMO would be expected to rely heavily on the themes of the franchise, most especially exploration and diplomacy.  Exploration without interaction would be dull indeed; point your tricorder at an object, scan it, rinse and repeat… or better yet, just do it with the ship’s sensors from orbit.  Yawn.  Without interacting with natives, players could learn relatively little about a planet’s culture, meaning exploration would be limited to biology and geography.  So it seems interaction must occur to keep the game interesting.

How then can this be dealt with?  There are two simple solutions that come to mind, but neither one is precisely canon, which is I admit a sticking point.  First, and most obviously, a technology similar to the Neuralyzer from the Men in Black franchise could wipe the memory of those who had witnessed the wonders they were not meant to see.  Second, and with greater difficulty, a disguise technology could allow Starfleet members to pose as residents.  This latter option is complicated by Starfleet’s desire to gather information about new worlds, information that residents would presumably already have – thus asking questions to which answers are generally known could easily blow one’s cover.

Diplomacy has the advantage of dealing primarily with cultures that have already been exposed to Starfleet, and thus the Prime Directive is less restrictive, though the doctrine of noninterference in a planet’s societies would still be a thorny problem for players. One could imagine that part of the challenge of diplomacy in a Star Trek MMO would be deciding what actions are allowed under the Prime Directive, and which would lead to censure by Starfleet.  Designers could continually tempt players with easy solutions that violate the Prime Directive, and this could lead to some difficult, and thus interesting, choices.

You say you want a revolution?

“You say you want a revolution?  Well you know, we all want to change the world.” – John Lennon

““I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

The status quo in MMOs is, honestly, a bit dreary.  Anyone who’s played WoW has a pretty good idea what the core gameplay of LotRO, AoC, WAR, CoX, and virtually every other mainstream MMO is like.  I don’t mean just the juicy DikuMUD core, which admittedly needs to be freshened, but more essentially the idea of a static world.

In any mainstream MMO, players don’t really change the world in any appreciable manner.  Instead, they get static quests from static NPCs, they kill monsters that respawn immediately, and at the end of the day everything is exactly as it was before.  Oh, there’s some negligible lip service paid to the idea that the world changes based on one’s actions, but this is a facade hiding the true static nature of MMOs.

Why is the content static?  Why aren’t players allowed to change anything?  Fundamentally, it comes down to the way content is currently generated.  The prevailing model for quests, for instance, has quests given by NPCs, to serve the interests of said NPCs.  Players come and go, but Joe NPC will always be there, and he’ll always speak to every new PC in the same manner.  Joe NPC has an errand he needs someone to run, and a fair amount of work went into designing the errand; quest design, writing, coding, building the assets needed, etc.  Since Joe’s quest is prefabricated and static, it stands to reason that Joe needs to be static as well.  Though players might want to, they cannot remove Joe from the game; at best, they can kill him and he’ll respawn soon after.  After all, what’s the point in spending time and effort creating content if that content won’t be available to players?

I’ve spoken before about why I don’t like the Quest Log.  Let’s take that idea one step further here.  If, instead of a log full of static quests with no meaning to the player, whose text few players will bother to read, and whose outcome is binary (success/failure, where failure usually means you can repeat it until you succeed)… what if MMOs offered players the chance to customize their own goals?

Say I’m playing some type of warrior in a fantasy setting, and I want to get a new piece of equipment.  Currently, I would go to websites that tell me where I have to go, what static content I need to consume (typically, which instance I need to go to and which boss must be killed) to achieve this goal.  At the end of the process, I’ve done exactly what everyone else has done, and I have the same item.  Yay for individuality and immersion!  But instead, I’d strongly prefer to have a quest created for me – just for me.  I’d input the general goals (e.g. I want a nifty sword with some vague attributes in X general range) and the game would provide me with a customized quest, with a series of subquests, tailored to my character.  If I succeed, I’ll have a unique item.  If I fail, that quest is gone forever and I have to request a new one.  The better the sword I request, the harder the quest will be; it shouldn’t of course be possible for a newbie knight to gain Excalibur.

There’s a massive change in approach needed to make this feasible: static content would need to give way to procedurally generated content.  This is difficult in that static content can be lovingly crafted by hand, with every detail worked out in advance to optimize flow; in short, it has great opportunities for polish.  Procedurally generated content is created in response to circumstances that the designers might not always have predicted fully, so there’s potential for strange errors and glitches.  Dialogue approaches would have to be fundamentally revised, for instance, using massive tables for e.g. greetings, exclamations, dialectical uniqueness, etc.  instead of the dialogue trees now favoured by most designers.

One of the more difficult things to figure out is how much agency to allow players.  If they can e.g. kill everything and destroy everything, then rest assured that some players will just seek to destroy and ruin everything, reducing the enjoyment of other players.  Safeguards need to be in place to discourage, punish, and sometimes outright prevent abuses (depending on the abuses in question).  More importantly, all players would need to feel they had something to lose; this is what prevents people from acting in wantonly destructive manners in real life, after all.

The advantages here are several and I think impressive.  Most essentially, the world would no longer need to be static.  If e.g. a player completed a quest to kill an NPC, that NPC would stay dead by default (in some fantasy settings it might be possible to raise the NPC from the dead, but someone would have to do so, instead of the game, by design, doing it automatically).  If a house were burned down completely, that house would remain gone, though a new house might be placed there in time.  Players could shape the world according to their desires, again with safeguards in place to make sure the world doesn’t become dominated by the ruthless.  Above all, the game has to remain playable for all players, especially newbies.  It’s not always desirable to give full agency to players, so maybe most buildings couldn’t be destroyed completely; that way towns would retain their basic shape and maps could remain basically static.

In order to create a dynamic world like this, a wholly new approach to design is warranted, which is I admit a major hurdle.  But at the end of the day, I think players would be far more immersed and interested in what’s happening.  Nobody would skip quest text because that quests would actually mean something.  Great heroes and terrible villains could meaningfully impact the world, and people would care about and remember their actions, because those actions would lead to changes everyone could perceive.  Perhaps most appealing of all to the designer is the ease with which the game could then be expanded; the greater the reliance on procedurally generated content, the simpler it is to make the world larger.

Maybe someday this’ll catch on, but it’s a drastic change to approach and this industry isn’t known for embracing change.  Instead of revolution, we have tiny iterative steps.  The investors who fund MMOs don’t want something new; they want a refined and better-polished version of what’s already popular.  Sadly, that’s led us to a lot of games that are essentially clones of each other.