I’ve asked the pre-alpha players to turn themselves into cows and test out the cow-form curse for a bit. They’ve found some serious problems, like cows not fitting into doorways, and higher-level cows were accidentally invincible… so, testing is going well! Thanks, guys!
As I mentioned before, being turned into a cow is one of many curses in the game — like being turned into a pig, or even into a werewolf, or being unable to enter water without melting, or having the voices of evil demons locked into your head. They’re bad things — fates worse than death, in some ways.
Cows, though, are the newbie curse. You get this curse just by tasting rancid milk in an insane wizard’s laboratory. The game tries pretty hard to stop you from doing that — mentioning that it’s probably going to cause a fate worse than death, and that it would be really stupid to eat rancid milk — but you can do it anyway.
Why do I let you do that? Expectation management. I need to convey to new players that there are things that might happen to their characters that are not easily repaired. At the very least, they need to know to pay attention to warning screens, and when an NPC says something’s scary, they mean it’s really scary. Death isn’t very scary in most MMOs. (Especially mine!) But we still occasionally want something scary to be afraid of.
Having the cow-curse right here in the newbie experience also teaches players another important thing about the game: there are lots of ways to play. Being a cow is a difficult journey, but if you wanted to, you could eventually become a moderately competent fighter-cow. You won’t be able to wield weapons, but you’ll be able to use abilities like Mentalism and Combat Psychology, along with a barrage of kicks and moos.
Since it’s a newbie curse, it’s not too hard to lift. But not trivial! (Because that would completely screw the expectation management if later curses were hard to remove.) So removing the cow curse takes an hour or so of grinding, during which you unlock the various cow powers and see what it’s like as a cow.
I don’t expect many players to remain a cow indefinitely as it’s quite restrictive with very few up sides. But I do want some up-side to every choice you can make. Being a cow means you look harmless to other animals, so deer and similar animals don’t run away from you. (Thanks to whoever had that idea in the forums, I forget!)
Cows are also able to collect grass and heal themselves with it — which turns out to be a cheap, potent self-healing mechanism.
As for non-combat experiences, cows are kind of screwed — with hooves instead of hands, they can’t use a saw for carpentry, for instance. But with a little imagination we can envision a cow planting vegetables and growing a garden, so they can do that, and a few other things.
I wanted them to have their own crafting niche, so higher-level cows can create milk, which is useful for all sorts of cooking. Low-level milk is plentiful anyway, you can buy it from NPCs, but only player cows can create higher-tier milk. If they chew only top-quality grasses for long enough, they create better milk.
Seems perfectly logical, right? And it fits perfectly into the skill spreadsheet. But when I got it into the game, it … uh, felt a little weird.
First, I’m not sure I want newbie players to be accosted by other players roleplaying talking cows, saying “here, drink my milk, newb”. It’s a little unsettling to think about drinking milk that came out of another player. And the notion of higher-quality milk takes us further down that rabbit hole.
I just about chucked the whole idea, but then I decided, you know what, screw it. This is not the weirdest thing in my game, for better or for worse. Milk-obsessed cows fit right in with sex-obsessed elves and hate-obsessed undead and everything else. At least you won’t mistake it for WoW! Yes, it’s a little freaky in the Douglas-Adams-talking-dinner kind of way, but so what?
And having reassured myself that it was fine, I then logged in as a male character, and realized that male cattle can also create milk. Sigh. On the one hand, we’re already doing a lot of hand-waving with the whole cow experience. Can we hand-wave this one, too? I decided: no. If “drink my milk, I made it fresh for you” is disturbing, then “drink my boy-milk” is completely out of the question. Would people go there? Of course they would.
So I decided all cows are girls. It isn’t particularly obvious (the cow model lacks gender-specific anatomy, of course), but the game mentions it, and NPCs will refer to you as female for the duration of your cow experience. I… guess that fixes that. Sure! Moving on!
For the record, most cow-oriented mechanics ended up on the cutting-room floor. One of the most fascinating things about real-life cows is their digestive system, and I wanted to model that with grass that gets chewed up and regurgitated into cud. But I decided that the cow experience didn’t really need reminders about how cows vomit up grass 24/7. See? I know the limits of tastefulness! Really!
Next Up: Death in MMOs