Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Opposing View

Here's an excellent and thoughtful e-mail from "Aaron Daily" (an alias) in regards to Chris Crawford.

My most recent shipping title was Tiger Woods 2006. Ok so that’s just a sports game, but having shipped recently, let me take a second to back Mr. Crawford up.

I recently visited a relatively new startup company for a couple of interviews.

Startups have got to be about the best place in this industry to find a fresh, innovative spirit. This particular company was all amped up to pioneer the future of massively multiplayer games, and they were very interested in discussing new ideas.

Now to put things in perspective, it should be understood that I am an engineer. I am generally not solicited for gameplay ideas. It’s not that I don’t have any ideas, or that they aren’t worth anything, it’s just that at most companies there are people who get paid for that kind of thing, and - you know - I wouldn’t want the testers dabbling in the code would I?

So anyway, I was surprised to hear them asking for my ideas on the future of massively multiplayer gameplay. Now, having not put much thought into the subject, here are some of my thoughts:
-- This ‘genre’ has definitely not found its gameplay yet. What’s being made at this point are essentially adventure games to be played in parallel with lots of other people. There are fundamental problems with this. In an adventure game, you are supposed to be ‘The Hero’ and you can’t have ten thousand ‘The Hero’s' running around. At the heart of it, there’s really no reason for all those other players to be there. Sure, you can try to allow/make players play together, but their presence isn’t justified or driven by the underlying gameplay. They’re really just playing ‘near’ each other. The reason there is such a high degree of ‘cheating’ and ‘griefing’ is that players are looking for something fun to do in the setting they’ve been given. Cheating would probably happen anyway, but griefing is done when people find it more fun than whatever else they might be doing in the game.

-- MMOs are in desperate need of a paradigm shift. I think that at some point they will have to undergo a shift technologically, and it would probably be best to mirror that with a parallel creative shift. Currently, they are implemented with massive server farms and enormous network pipes which make them extremely expensive to maintain. Eventually this will have to change. In the future, each connected client will act as a little piece of ‘the server farm’. Every connected machine will contribute to ‘hosting’ the world in some way. Wait! Can you really sell a game in which the players’ experience is so vulnerable to the actions of other players who are hosting part of the world? No, of course not. Well, at least not any more than you could sell an FPS where players have to sit out the rest of the game after being killed (aka CounterStrike). Impossible? Sure. But it’ll happen anyway.

-- I think that rather than fighting technology, you should make the technical limitations into fundamental aspects of the game design. Imagine a (semi) persistent game world in which little pieces of it were hosted by all the connected client machines. Would a given client have different latencies in different parts of the world? Make latency part of the gameplay. Do character positions ‘pop’ when they have a bad connection? Fit it with a warping effect and make it make sense in the context of the game. Make a game where you have a natural advantage in the piece of the world hosted on your machine over parts of the universe that are ‘far off’.

Do pieces of the world pop in and out of existence (as players join and leave)? Make that a fundamental part of the gameplay.

Now my ideas may be a bit radical, and making a working design as I’ve described might be easier said than done, but I’m pretty sure thats the point of paying people to do that.
When it came down to it, I didn’t end up sharing any of these ideas with that startup company because they started talking about their radical new ideas like:
- Do you think maybe spell cast times should be a little longer/shorter?
- What if this class had that attribute?!?!?!?!
- Etc.

It was pretty clear that these ‘pioneers of the future’ weren’t anywhere near ready for my new ideas, never mind the ideas of someone who actually thinks about these things.

In my mind, while startups have an innovative spirit, they're not necessarily the best place to find innovation. Much like the film industry (as DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Person in the World Ben Ormand has explained to me), a new production company's primary goal with their first film is to be able to make a second one. It also seems like it would be much easier to find venture capital for a game that was "different" but not "unique."

As always, thanks to you guys for sending such thoughtful e-mails. It's always appreciated.

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