Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Innovation in a bottle

Just a couple of days ago I downloaded Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar and DOSBox to run it. As it happens, this is one of the games which really did it for me on the computer games, even though my early experience of games had been more or less the same arcade games as for anyone else. To be honest, first RPG I played was Ultima III, in which we just were all oohs and aahs how a computer game could be so like our tabletop RPG's. (Tells a bit about our early gaming group, really.)

As I started the game, I realized that it is exactly like I have been saying time and again in this blog, in some commentary on other blogs and in Twitter: the more the games get eye candy, the less depth and meaning they convey. Take Ultima 4 for example. The quest to fulfill the eight virtues is the game. Still the virtues, being so basic human ones, are pretty hard to come by. In a way, pushing the player through the virtues in the virtual world Richard Garriot - who wrote and designed the game - pushes the player to think about the virtues themself. Even if the player doesn't think them actively, the mere ideals are planted in the player.

It's a bit like what they say in Inception.

In a way, Ultima 4 put the quest for good into the games for a short while. Before - and after - the quest has been to kill the bad to save the world. More or less, of course there are exceptions. And yes, you know who you are, to whom this is pointed at. And in many ways Ultima 4 was a sort of turning point in many ways in RPGs as whole.

What happened next in Ultima series is history, too, which culminates into the conception of Ultima Online. Now I got so interested in Ultima series that I read through the whole history of it (in Wikipedia, but anyhow) and what struck me seriously was the fact that they had all these neat things already prepared which they took off the game because the players broke them. Like the Artificial Life Engine:
Starr Long, the game's associate producer, explained in 1996:

Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The 'virtual ecology' affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources (e.g., deer). When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.
Which they had to take away, because the players ended up killing everything faster than they could spawn back, thus voiding the neat AI behind it all. So - in words of Garriot - they had to rip it out of the game.

As the years have gone by, MMO's have evolved in many ways. Still the main quest of the hero-to-be is to kill the big bad ugly meanie, who is trying to destroy the world. This is theme is repeated ad nauseatum in all major MMOs out there, fantasy especially and even doubly so.

It's time for a MMO with quest for good. With intelligent, living world, for intelligent players.

Rift, with it's dynamic world events, is still doing the same old in a bit different package. It's doing it well, though and with variation, but there is still raiding in the end of the levelling tunnel, it still has gear dependent advancement and there is still bad meanie to kill to save the world. But Rift has shown that the 800lb gorilla isn't the only solution anymore, and that there are other possibilities to go about. If its possible to come to the same turf and challenge the giant - not saying that they won or anything - then it's more than possible to come outside of the field and do something quite differently. And win.

Now to the title. This is all what if and what might be.

As it happens, all the MMOs are based on the fact that people play the games through the internet. You don't actually pay for the game box nor the game client as such anymore, but for the privilege to use the game content which is actually on the game publisher's servers. The content is what is valuable, not the game the player has on the hard drive.

This means simply that there is no actual need to purchase the game as such, but only the right to use the game content. Yes, many free to play games use this already, and as it happens, most of the big MMOs, too.

Lets start from small. Take Minecraft for example: no box sales, the game is in beta and it's still generating good revenue from the beta sales. What if this was a homebrew MMO with a good, solid idea which worked? Like Artificial Life Engine to take care of the environment, challenging the players to begin with? A game in which the character would challenge the world in search to become better, to fill the virtues, to champion for the good?

I wonder what are the reasons that the nasty people in fantasy very seldom go about and kill everyone, like they tend to do in MMO's with open PvP. Maybe they don't want to work for their bread, tend their gear by themself or dig for their precious alone? Why aren't the games already such that the way of a ganker is the lonely, shunned and depressive way, not the glorified and revered they currently are? This could be worked out that by fulfilling the quest for good you actually get to see the "Game Over - You Win!" for the character. Why not?

What if the game also spawned the players randomly into the cities and towns around the world, much like people are born, but with the tools to become a hero? This would greatly lessen the impact of thousands of people entering the game in waves. Thus the environment might survive to a point where the players started to take note of how the villager who was first offering money for wolf pelts would ask them to get rid of the rabbits pestering the fields, later to paying for deer meat as the village is suffering from famine due to rabbits which had eaten all the grain?

The big problem with the publishing - both print and online - is that everything has to be now. Even then the games are opened in 'beta' stage, which is in fact a powerful marketing tool instead of actual beta. So what if the opening of the gates to this game was a trickle of alpha, beta, open beta and ongoing beta stage with constant improvements as the economy permitted?

I'm sure there would be room for a game with good idea, innovation and drive, without the huge marketing machinery around. But only as long as the idea is good, the base game works and people like what they see.

Minecraft wouldn't be what it is if any of these parts were lacking. Why couldn't this be achieved by a MMO, too?