[I meant to post this the day after my last post, but I got distracted and had to go to conferences in San Francisco. Back now!]
The Next Step
I’ve had nagging doubts because the MMO isn’t where I want it to be. It doesn’t feel quite “there.” You know the secret sauce that would take it from being a wacky EQ1-era game into its own unique thing? There’s not enough of that sauce.
If I was making this game the normal way you make games, what I would focus on now is combat innovation. I’ve got pretty typical classic MMO combat at the moment. But read this quote from Gabe of Penny Arcade, about the game Tera:
In the end I’m actually excited to play more. I think between the combat and the art I could probably play Tera long enough to max out a character. Would I stick around much after that? Probably not.
He loves the game for the combat. But it doesn’t matter: he won’t be sticking around. Innovative combat makes a great game, but it does not, on its own, make a world where people will happily live for 1000+ hours of their lives.
Obviously my combat needs to ultimately be better than average, but my designer-instinct is to iterate combat until I get it way better, focusing only on that. I have to fight that instinct right now.
Gorgon’s combat will be fun and somewhat unique with the systems I have: the vulnerabilities, the wacky powers, and a really hectic sense of group combat. I certainly won’t allow combat to be a boring slog. But I already know that it’s going to be traditional MMO combat underneath: there will be ability bars, and when you press the buttons the monsters will die. Gabe is never going to say he’s excited by how fun the combat is in my game. (Nor about the art…)
But I didn’t set out to rock the world with my brilliant new combat system. I need to deliver more on my promise of world complexity instead. I have this powerful MMO engine designed specifically to make crazy off-the-wall skill systems rapidly, and I keep forgetting. It’s the features I don’t have that always seem more important.
Pigs and Deer and Rapid Skill Implementation
Friday night reminded me of what the engine (and the ecosystem of skills and content I’m building) can do. A tester in pre-alpha decided to drink a potion of permanent pigification, testing what happens if you are cursed to forever be a pig. He complained that there are no pig skills, and the only attack pigs have go on the Auxiliary Bar, where the bonus skills go. That meant being a pig left half your bar slots empty. So I made a new Pig skill to go on the bar.
Being a pig is a curse — one of the most disruptive things that can happen to a person, actually — and not a gameplay choice I particularly want to encourage. (Though I’m sure some people will enjoy the uniqueness and challenge.) The combat abilities of a pig are pretty shoddy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some fun things going for them. Pigs can sniff out mushrooms (their abilities actually cause extra mushrooms to appear next to them — which anyone can then harvest). Pigs can also eat raw mushrooms to get health back, so they don’t need to cook or to buy health kits. And they have some handy get-out-of-danger skills like Piggy Dash. So yes, they suck at combat, but they have some interesting flavor skills — and since the anti-piggification cure is made from rare mushrooms, their mushroom-finding powers will help them cure themselves.
It took under an hour to bang out a set of pig abilities — and that time included adding some minor tech that I needed. Then I did another new skill for deer (being turned into a deer is the other “test curse” in the pre-alpha).
As it turns out, deer are actually pretty good off-tanks: they can stun with Antler Bash, and their Doe Eyes abilities make sentient creatures do less physical damage to them — they’re too cute to stab. (And hey, if you’re groaning about how cheesy Doe Eyes is, please feel free to offer better deer-related powers! I couldn’t think of too many amazing things a deer can do…)
However, when they aren’t using their powers optimally, deer are pretty fragile.They gain less health per level than, say, Werewolves do, and they don’t have any good quick-healing tricks, so they have to use their damage-reduction abilities (like Doe Eyes) very strategically to avoid taking big hits. Yes, it’s possible to be a good off-tank as a deer, but it will be very stressful and I wouldn’t recommend it as a career choice. Unless, of course, you’ve somehow found your way to being cursed as a deer and there’s no choice about it.
Again, that took maybe an hour in total. It’s not a big part of the game: most players will never experience it. But the design of the game (and engine) is to support tons of these quirky little ways to play — and hundreds of things to experience.
So that’s what I’m working on: more skills and niches. Lots of ’em. How many? I’m not sure, because I won’t know when it feels right until it’s there. I am essentially prototyping in the aggregate. Pre-alpha players have seen new skills such as Art History and Combat Psychology trickle in; expect many more in the coming updates.
This MMO design has many hard problems, like bad first impressions: if I don’t lay it all out in front of you to start, how will you know that there’s stuff to find under the surface? I’ll have to find ways to hint at it, to lead you to some of these niches so you can get the idea of how to find more.
Adding Inter-Player Complexity
I also want to focus more on the elements that help you interact with the world. Some of those are old hat, but now forgotten: vendors that keep the inventory you sell them and will resell it to someone else; the ability to drop items on the ground if you want to; crafted items that can be given names and inscribed with legends. These ideas are nothing huge, just a ton of tricky details.
Most MMOs skip this stuff because they don’t care about a virtual world — they want to streamline their game experience instead. But these mechanics aren’t just tools for group cohesion (giving players ways to interact), they’re also the grist for game world complexity.
Think about it this way: if you want to have a hundred niche ways to play the game, but the game is just a streamlined monster-killing experience, those hundred niches are going to be pretty similar. How different can they really be? You might get eight good distinct combat experiences. That leaves 92 niches to fill.
The game world needs enough complexity for me to riff on. And if I’m going to add complexity, I’d prefer if it increased player interactions when possible. (Inscribing messages on weapons is a great example. What happens if you inscribe a Word of Power? I don’t know… but presumably something cool…)
Focusing on the Game’s Goals
When I think about what is unique in this game, it’s that the game is supposed to get more engaging over time, becoming more complex and interesting the deeper you go down the rabbit holes and the more player-interaction tools become available. Project Gorgon is a game where players are rewarded for asking “what happens if I try this idea?”
I think that’s a valuable and exciting MMO experience, even if the combat is iterative and the art is blah. So I just need to keep my goals in mind and not get freaked out every time I notice that it’s not like other games. It will be its own good game, and soon: I just have to keep going.