Sunday, June 18, 2017

The combat-free environmental-survival MMORPG

Seltani was built, to some extent, on ideas I'd tossed into a 2008 blog post. Myst Online had just been cancelled (early 2008). I was interested in how such a game -- an MMO puzzle-exploration-adventure -- might have been built without MOUL's technical or scaling problems.
Neither the 2008 post nor Seltani really addressed the question of what players would do in such a game. (Neither did Cyan, of course.) I pretty much threw that problem into the "user content" bucket. People will build stuff and then explore each other's stuff! Well, I'm very happy with Seltani's world-writing model, but this is clearly not enough to feed an active fan-base.
So. This weekend I hung out with two friends who got to comparing their Guild Wars characters. (They're not serious about Guild Wars, but, you know, they raid.) I don't know the game, so their conversation was a cheerful torrent of opaque terminology, but I got to thinking about the depth of MMORPG mechanics. That's a genre which keeps the players coming back, right? It's not a solved problem: most MMOs fail. But we know it's a solvable problem.
This is the MMORPG formula, as I understand it:
  • A deep combat system with lots of options. (Different kinds of attack and defense, different character specializations with synergies.)
  • Long chains of equipment upgrades which require players to go out and complete many different kinds of tasks.
  • Big fights that require lots of well-equipped players to cooperate over an extended interval.
But does any of that make sense in a social, non-combat-oriented scenario? Spoiler: yes.
Consider that the Myst stories included the notion of dangerous Ages -- toxic worlds, ice worlds, airless worlds. (Myst Online only showed this tangentially. You could discover, but not really use, the heavy-duty D'ni environmental suits meant for exploring such death-worlds.) Let's try to adapt the MMO formula to this concept of exploring hostile Ages.

You link into an Age which is cold: hundreds of degrees below zero. You are standing in a small bubble of warmth, a pocket garden growing around a geothermal spring. But if you move more than a few feet away, you start to freeze. After five seconds, you "die" (panic-link out).
You can search around a Maintainer Age to find a parka. This lets you survive in the cold for fifteen seconds. You can walk far enough to see another hot spring in the distance. But you can't reach it. You need to explore other worlds to find better winter gear. With enough stuff, you can move far enough to reach the second hot spring (40 seconds away). There are now more target areas to reach. Some of them can be reached in under 40 seconds, which opens up more of the map. Others require higher-rank winter gear: full-body suits, face masks, electric warmers.
This all fits the structure, right? Gear has stats. (Multiple stats: what temperature can you survive, and how long can you survive it?) Gear improves in steps, each shifting a new range of challenges from "impossible" down to "difficult" and then "easy". You can find gear in remote locations, or collect resources to buy it, or (in some cases) collect resources to craft it. You can choose a tactical balance between cheap one-shot items (disposable hand warmers) and expensive permanent upgrades (aerogel long-johns). (With perhaps an in-between grade of clothing which works for a few days and then wears out.)
What about the MMO part? Players could specialize. One team member digs through snow drifts, another lugs a portable heat radiator, another keeps running back to base for hand-warmers and fresh batteries. In a larger "raid", you might need several groups manning stashes of gear and keeping paths clear along a lengthening trail into the unknown.
It's not just a reskin of Guild Wars. You have no direct analog of the damage-absorbing "tank" role. (Pause to imagine an ice-tank, sucking all the snowflakes out of the air in a ten-yard radius... no.) But you can set up mobile roles, support/buffing roles, and "DPS" workhorse roles. It should work out.

We have lots of distinct environmental conditions, so we need lots of different kinds of gear.
  • Cold: As described above. Clothing, full-body suits, portable heaters.
  • Heat: Water bottles, stillsuits, water-cooled underwear, aluminized suits for walking near lava.
  • Bad footing: Crampons, spiked boots, climbing ropes and axes. Shovels to dig through snow or sand barriers.
  • Toxic atmosphere: Face masks (depending on whether the air is low-oxygen, toxic, or corrosive). Oxygen supplies and recyclers which last for some period of time.
  • Vacuum: Requires a full pressure suit, plus the oxygen supplies and recyclers.
  • Radiation: We're not going to simulate real, gonna-die radiation poisoning. But we can invent fantasy-science effects which require custom countermeasures -- pills, magnetic shields, iridium-foil hats.
  • Darkness: A low-level challenge, since flashlights are cheap. There's still a distinction between your basic flashlight, a helmet light, and a portable spotlight or floodlight which can illuminate a whole area.
  • Intense sunlight: Various grades of filter goggles. (Sunglasses are not eclipse-grade!) How about auto-adjusting goggles that take ten seconds, or one second, to react to changing light conditions?
  • General utility: Gear which lets you run faster, climb faster, push through more obstructed terrain, survive more punishment. These improve your performance in all environments.
(Naturally, the full D'ni Maintainer suit is never available. That would be god-mode.)
Once the player has collected some gear, we can invent custom challenges:
  • Combined threats. Imagine a cold, ice-riddled world with blinding sunlight alternating with clouds of toxic smog.
  • Clearing rubble in a landslide. (This is an old idea on the list of replayable Myst-style tasks. Works well as a team job, too.)
  • A group of players must climb an ice mountain. Scouts climb a sheer pitch, set bolts, and lower ropes for the rest of the team. Ropes must be manned and periodically reset in the unstable ice. Temperatures drop precipitously at night, so the team must summit by sunset (on a sixty-minute day-night cycle).
  • A group of players must hack their way through a fast-growing fungus forest. Machetes are good, chainsaws are better, fungicide sprays are great. Everyone needs filter masks because of spores. Again, a large team is needed to keep paths clear all the way from the start point to the target.
  • Work your way across a magma pool, spraying water or dropping refrigerant bombs to freeze segments of the surface. Dress to avoid heatstroke, and, oh yes, the pool explodes in a lava spray every twenty minutes.
  • Garden raid! Plant enough space-peonies to make an entire field bloom the same color at the same time. The soil is dry and must be watered, but the plants hold water with their roots -- for a few minutes. So a group can work their way across the field, leaving reserve members to keep the backfield from drying out too fast. The plants flower in a red-blue-purple-white generational cycle, so everybody needs to coordinate and plant the right colors to keep the field in sync. Watch out for space slugs.
Again, the point is not just to invent a group task. We want a task which a group of people can whale on every Tuesday night, because the blow-by-blow mechanics are both fun enough to be satisfying and fussy enough to require careful attention. Newcomers will need to work their way around the world, gathering the best common gear, before they can join the large "level cap" events. The rewards for beating these are "legendary" gear; they make these events easier and also give you access to extra reward areas.
(As a matter of principle, we should never hand out an Age link as a reward for beating a high-level event. Every player, even newcomers, should be able to visit every Age! You may be stuck at the starting hot-spring, or -- for really nasty worlds -- stuck inside an insulated observation pod. But you can link in, look around, and dream of leveling up enough to explore the whole Age.)

I am of course describing a big-budget game. These deep mechanics trees require big dev teams; there's lots of custom code, lots of world-modeling, lots of art support for the various outfits and special effects. Cyan never had the resources to build this game. But it's still fun to speculate about design. I don't know if anyone will ever build it, but I think there's a workable niche for the full-scale combat-free environmental MMO.
Is anything close? "Survival games" are a growing Steam niche, and many of them are multiplayer. I haven't played any of them. I get the impression that they lean competitive (players or teams in conflict) rather than cooperative. They also tend to emphasize the overall hostility of the world, putting you on a permanent knife-edge of survival. MMORPGs usually have safe hubs surrounded by ranked challenges. That's what I'm aiming at with this environmental design: challenges which you jump into after a period of preparation and planning. Failure means you need more gear and more practice, not a gravestone and a new character.
The co-op board games Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island have exactly the kind of challenge mechanics I'm looking for. You have a variety of player roles and limited time to succeed or die. You just need to fit the player abilities and equipment into a game-wide mechanics framework.
I can't mention co-op MMOs without bringing up A Tale in the Desert. (Still going! Although under new management, and I sense that the game structure has ossified.) ATITD has a wide variety of non-combat multiplayer events. It was never particularly about exploration, but if we want our game to have an economy of craftable resources, ATITD is a great model.
Further examples?


  1. In my mind the hardest part is trying to work out something such that the players can't or won't want to do combat without frustrating them to no end. If you give me a machette to get through a jungle, and a jungle creature comes at me, then I'm gonna be pretty frustrated if 'hit the creature with my machette' isn't on the list of options.

    I think if you can solve that problem in a generic way, the rest becomes really reasonable to solve.

    1. Well, why would a jungle creature come at you in a non-combat-oriented game? That's a very weird thing to have happen, outside of the conventions established by traditional combat RPGs.

      You're right that players expect it to be a cue for combat; that's because it sets up a situation where combat is a reasonable response. So don't do that.

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  3. Puzzle Pirates was an mmo that had people cooperate on big ships, one running the sails, one navigating, one bulging, etc. Although fighting was a big part.-mathbrush

    1. I remember Puzzle Pirates, although I think I only tried it once. Still running, I see.

  4. An element of MMOs you may have overlooked that might be helpful is gathering and crafting. I know people who played WoW primarily for the nonviolent purpose of finding things, making things, and selling them for profit. There was a little of that with finding Great Zero markers in MO but this wasn't really directed toward anything useful. A set of ages jam-packed with unique and collectible artifacts and junk that could be taken apart and put together and crafted into useful things and decorative things might be one way to create non-combat quests and play in the vein of Minecraft, or even Second Life.

  5. One weakness that developed / became more apparent in _A Tale In The Desert_ is the disconnect between micro-game mechanics and game macroeconomics. Specifically, the crafting curve in ATITD was interesting for a new player to explore, but larger projects required so many resources that it quickly outstripped the ability of even a small group of people to build them.

    On the one hand this was "working as intended" because it encouraged people to band together into larger groups. On the other hand the practical result of this was the formation of huge meta-guilds where people basically didn't talk to each other because they were focused on recruiting more slave labor to make bricks and/or harvest flax. Put another way, it led to _interesting results_ with _intolerably boring mechanics_ and time commitments that were unreasonable for anyone who had to work for a living.

  6. Yes, crafting should absolutely be part of the system. But there's a clear divergence between "the goal of crafting is to gear up so you can join a raid" and "crafting is fun and the goal in itself". Guild Wars is on one side of that divide and ATITD is on the other. (Not that either is the only possible approach in its sphere, I'm sure.)

    I am of course no expert in balancing time/grind requirements for big MMOs. I'm not even an amateur! I'm just thinking about the top-level goals.

  7. Don't Starve Together certainly isn't massive, but captures much of the feeling you describe. That said, your model involves a lot of custom encounter-design and code. Environmental encounters seem harder to generalize and vary than combat - one reason that combat has been so sadly ubiquitous. Don't starve circumvents this by putting the focus on collecting, crafting, and equipping - on collaboratively managing the crafting tree. As you say, this might be a different focus. But its big advantage is that, like combat, it's a nice reusable system, on top of which they then layer custom encounters (procedurally) like those you propose. Maybe there is a generalize environmental-danger strategy game to be had here. I can sort of picture it. :-)

  8. That sounds too much like No Man's Sky method which feels like an empty grind.

    But if you are going to have powerful engineering abilities similar to EQ:Landmark maybe you can do something.

    Have a procedurally generated puzzle game where the worlds are represented as nodes. The game space game X3 Terran/Albion is similar to this.

    Every new world has resources you can exploit and a number of portals that lead to new nodes.

    The world would also be a puzzle you have to engineer and solve to reach the next portal.

    Your engineering abilities are based on resources and resources can be engineered to be moved from one node to the next but you don't have an inventory on yourself that you can collect stuff.

    The puzzles would be procedurally generated with a constraint method with a number of viable options and accounting for resources nearby.

    The environment may be volatile and some engineering parts might be vulnerable so your engineered structure might need to enter in a defense state and repair the damage.

    You can add your own puzzle elements that act as triggers to your engineering structure to enter and leave the defense state, switch to the different paths to different portals, use to move your resources to those portals.

    That means if another player is exploring the map you have been through they have to solve your puzzles.

    With special amount of collected resources you can create a new portal linked to a hub world with a player created city where a lot of players gather.

    You can trade resources with them and maybe there would be different classes that have their own specialization that unlocks new engineering structures that you might need. Crafting equipment and tools would also be possible.

    You can also have a mansion that you build in a city with the resources you mange and the house could store a certain amount of those resources to be used.

    Games that have this type of engineering gameplay Minecraft with engineering mods, Infinifactory, Factorio. The environment could be like Minecraft biomes but more hostile, weird/fantastical like in the Myst series and have a form of challenging impediments you have to overcome. Inspiration from levels like in Hexen/Heretic could also be interesting.

    1. All interesting ideas. Thanks for commenting.

      I wasn't thinking about procedurally generated worlds or puzzles; both the MMO genre and Myst-likes presume hand-authored environments. But procgen is a great road to look down.