Champions Online Musings

I understand the ridiculous audacity of an outsider with no particular fame posing as a fountain of brilliant ideas in the field of game design. My purpose in composing this document is to demonstrate a depth of understanding as well as a capacity for clear and compelling writing. I intend to establish a firm grasp of various issues related to game development. If any of the ideas themselves should be both novel and of interest, I would consider that icing on the cake.


Fostering Roleplaying

I’ve noticed in the forums some calls for a variety of ways that one or more dedicated roleplaying servers might screen against players who are oblivious to concerns like an In Character/Out of Character distinction. Though providing an idyllic haven for dedicated online roleplayers is a noble goal that could generate some buzz for the product, the narrow appeal of such a feature seems as if it would not justify a labor-intensive response.

One of my complaints about the City of Heroes/City of Villains experience was the limited support for a character write-up. I get the sense that Champions Online will have more fields and more space for text in each. It also seems to me that an effective way to make a particular server “dedicated to roleplaying” would be to require a non-trivial body of content in areas like Background, Secret Identity, Personality, et al. to generate a character on that server. Obviously, I understand that the game would suffer if it were not possible for new players to dive right in without making a literary effort. So normal servers should raise no such barrier.

An up-front warning would guide players uninterested in any sort of write-up away from the RP server(s). If a hasty click-through bypassed that, the filter against empty or minimalist write-ups would provide additional guidance to a more appropriate server for that user. Of course there is no perfect solution to an issue like this. However, code as simple as form validation based on input quantity could do much to help keep roleplaying server(s) focused on serving active roleplayers. If the approach was judged valuable enough, a more sophisticated procedure could also screen against gibberish and excessive repetition.


Player Interest in Non-combat Skills

Depending on what systems are included in the product at launch (such as variable NPC reactions, crafting systems, team tactics, etc.) the usefulness some Skills may be limited. However, a modest effort could overcome this limitation as it applies to player interest in building well-rounded characters. The idea here is to provide fun or decorative ways possessing a particular skill would register in the game.

Consider a scenario in which using social Skills to influence NPCs was planned for implementation in additional content after launch. Persuasion, Oratory, Interrogation, Seduction, etc. — the set would influence the course of game play (at least in some areas or quests) after this implementation occurred. Now imagine that from the beginning, characters with social Skills were given a simple goody like the option to toggle on an alternate font in local communication. Depending on the complexity of keeping the text legible across a broad range of user settings, this feature could apply only to balloon text, only to local chat windows, or both.

Presuming these social Skills were priced below the level of a significant power or power upgrade, it seems many players would be drawn to pick up one or two for the purely cosmetic ability thus gained. Use of stylized text would help define the personalities of the characters as they interact. Later implementation of game mechanics driven by social Skills would benefit from a pre-existing base of characters already possessing such abilities.

Yet this approach also has the potential to motivate the acquisition of Skills that will never play a part in game play mechanics. For example, Artist Skill: Musician (or simply Musician) could be a prerequisite to a slowly growing set of special emotes. Acrobatics and Tumbling could also be linked with emote outcomes whether or not they were involved in the mechanics of fighting and falling. Perhaps some Skills would unlock special costume pieces, while others would permit particular honorifics to be applied to a Secret Identity.

A particularly appealing notion would be to intertwine skills with some very basic casual games built right into Champions Online. For example, one or more social areas might facilitate a handful of basic card games for players clustered around specific tables. Yet a character with the Gambling skill would be presumed to walk around carrying a pack of cards. The character could then help companions pass the time while waiting for a scheduled activity to begin or an absent group member to arrive, without the need to travel to any particular lounge or bar.

Of course, no treatment of this subject would be complete without considering the role of skills in crafting and commerce. The application of Trading may be as obvious as something like Lockpicking. On the other hand, the role for players in crafting (or discounting) costume pieces, putting together bases or vehicles, designing NPC followers, etc. seems like it should be driven more by the particulars of those features in Champions Online than the structure of the existing HERO System core rules.


Archetypes Unbound

Perhaps no other aspect of MMORPGs causes players to speak out in venues beyond the game like discussions of the applicable Class or Archetype system. If development has not past the point of no return regarding Archetype implementation, I believe there is much to be gained by going with a completely open process. By this I mean permitting players to build their own Archetypes through assigning levels of priority to whatever Characteristics, Powers, et al. may define an Archetype.

Establishing these priorities could involve a simple ranked list, an allocation of abstract points representing level of interest, or even a detailed ability purchasing system with specific costs attached to specific levels of baseline and growth rate values. Players would also be able to look at the applicable data shaping an existing archetype, then personally make changes. As the developers of the Freedom Force games observed when their work was compared to the HERO System, instead of expending much energy to balance a small set of possibilities, a wide open field would engage the creative energies of thousands of players. The flavor of the moment would only last as long as it took for someone to craft an effective foil to that build.

Where this becomes problematic is presentation. Thousands of Archetypes to choose from could intimidate some players. Also, some Archetype designs may be deliberately poor, given vulgar names, etc. I believe tossing a dash of the spirit of Wiki into the mix would minimize the profile of problem Archetypes. For game purposes the feedback mechanism would be much different than open editorial oversight, yet the idea is to strive for a similar outcome.

Players with no wish to share their Archetype may keep it personally linked to that character, with the specifics unavailable for review by other players. For those who hope to be the creator of a popular Archetype, two ratings would influence such an effort. An index of utilization (how many characters and total character-levels [or level-equivalents] are defined by the Archetype) and approval (how many players took the time to activate an “I like this Archetype” button while reviewing an Archetype’s parameters.)

In character generation or respecification, a pair of sliders would enable users to filter the Archetype list by utilization and approval values. Perhaps an initial core of Archetypes could be given impossibly high values to insure that certain standards always make the short lists. Yet players up for trying something new without doing any actual Archetype design could pour through a vast array of the newer and less popular builds.

If the potential burden to staff of pruning unsightly garbage seems problematic, one way to deal with that could be a finite lifespan for Archetypes that fail to rise above a certain standard. Adding an audit to periodic maintenance procedures would drive the least-used or least-favored Archetypes of a certain age from public to private status, simultaneously freeing up those Archetype names for future creativity.


Games within the Game

MMORPGs draw many users for many reasons. Unless I am way off base regarding player behavior, obviously adventuring and combat should be the main attraction. However, a fairly small investment in the implementation of competitive non-combat activities could pay a huge dividend in terms or attracting and retaining players who are only borderline MMORPG enthusiasts.

The most obvious approach would be to implement methods of working with playing cards, dice, chess sets, etc. This sort of sideline could start small and grow gradually as overall content expands. Simple video-game interpretations of pool, air hockey, foosball etc. may also be worth considering. Of course the overall effort need not be huge for it’s own sake. the idea is not to add “casual gaming hub” to the core features of Champions Online, but to provide some light fun ways for players to pass the time when they seek a break from questing and combat without actually taking a break from their characters.

That said, it may also be worth exploring a more grand approach in the context of creating special in game activities like racing or ball sports. If some sort of “checkpoint” mechanic existed, then it would be possible to use questing procedures to provide rewards for participation and exceptional placement in metahuman marathons. With more ambitious programming, sporting field areas and ball handling features could make it possible for characters to clash in a range of games from superpowered soccer to full contact basketball. Perhaps that sort of thing would put a strain on the narrative credibility of the setting, but it could also offer up a thrilling middle ground between player vs. player combat and purely cooperative activities.


In closing . . .

I whipped this up at my blog as a matter of convenience. I have no problem with professional standards that exclude politics from workplace and work product alike. That said, roaming the site will provide plenty of writing samples. I believe the most appropriate post for assessment purposes would be my unconventional review of Civilization IV. Better still, my contribution to the Player Guides at City of Heroes/Villains may deserve a look.

Of course, none of this content is meant to be secret. I simply wanted convey the absence of intent to promote sundry opinions when I know they are not relevant to the matter at hand. I hope these musings have left a positive impression. I also hope a time will come when I will be in a position to hear musings of bona fide game developers of your caliber.

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