Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MMNG: Content Generation

All right, folks, here it is: the craaaaazy part of the game. Content generation.

Classically, creating a story is a royal pain. You have to design characters, places, and objects. Then painstakingly place them. Then animate them, script them. Then you can start to tell the story.

That's an entry barrier which is pretty absurdly high, I think you'll agree. Even reducing the complexity of the tools (to, say, SecondLife level) doesn't change the dynamic. It just makes the entry barrier slightly less absurdly high.

So, my whole purpose in designing this whole "MMNG" thing was to lower the entry barrier to as close to zero as possible. The other bits you've read about are put in to balance and enhance this "easy content creation" system.

Let's take this from a player just starting. It'll be first person, for ease of pronoun use.


Well, I just created a new account, "SpaceWarrior". Now it says, "welcome blah blah blah". The top of the screen says "Prep". I'm sure that's explained in the welcome dialogue, but it looks like some kind of character creation system, so we'll just wing it.

On the right it has a number: "Points". It's at 100.

Also on the right is an empty box with the gray silhouette of a person. It's labeled "Quick Start".

Beneath that is an empty box spanning most of the width of the screen, labeled "edit".

The upper portion of the screen contains a tabbed, scrollbarred selection area with things in it. In this case, half a dozen people.

I click on a person, and he appears in the large "edit" box. Also appearing is some text telling me a bit more about the character: "name: Warrior Bob", "cost: 100", etc.

I can change the camera angle and rotate Bob around. I also find that by clicking on various parts of Bob, I can pull up specifics for Bob's equipment. "name: Generic Sword", "cost: 20".

I drag the sword away, off the edit box. Suddenly, Bob's cost drops to 80. Seems fairly straight forward enough. I notice that a few new tabs have popped up on the upper "select" section: "valid weapons" and "valid items".

Clicking on those pops up a number of pretty generic-looking things that fill the niche. Sword, bow, ax, staff, gun, laser pisol. I notice that I can tweak the sort and filter of this, so I put a "max 20" on the price. The gun and laser pistol fade away.

That's kind of cool, but I really want a more unique character. So I give Bob back his sword, then click the "evolve" button.

Suddenly, there are half a dozen tabs on the "edit" box. Swapping between them, I see subtly different versions of Bob, ranging in cost from 80 to 120 points. Faces, body shape, clothes, sword - each varies from a little from Bob to Bob.

I drag my favorite Bob onto my "quick start" box, and the game dumps me into the center of a town.

At first, it feels like a normal MMORPG, but I quickly notice that the other players are rather more highly varied than the normal "elf, barbarian, troll" standards. There are angels, blobs, a tiger, some kind of dragon. Names above their head.

Clicking on them shows their owner, stats in terms of "more than you, newb", and point cost. Surprisingly, many of the more impressive avatars have a fairly low point cost - I notice that they have very unimpressive stats. Probably specifically to keep the point cost low.

(Later, I would be told that you can directly edit the files containing data, and therefore many people have a cheap and expensive version of their avatars.)

I go back to "prep" and have more fun. I learn to mutate specific aspects - from a stat to only his shirt. I learn how to drag new elements on - I give him wings, a second head. It's fun. While things can be carefully placed, by default they are placed in an "intelligent" place: the wings are put on his back, but I drag them to his shoulders. I move his heads to the elbow of his wings. Now I've got a weird headless, two-headed, winged warrior Bob.

I decide to make something else. I go to the "plot" tab and pull down "kidnapping" into the edit box.

It becomes a diagram. Gray figures populate the diagram, labeled with things like "victim", "villain", "primary enemies", "location", "base", "rescue path challenges".

Clicking on them pulls them up, superimposed over a grayed-out diagram. The "victim" is "Princess Anne", a generic-looking princess. But she's grayed out, as the text explains, because she's a "seed", rather than a "final character". I guess that means any given run through will have Anne be a slightly different princess.

I click around. I notice that it's put Winged Warrior Bob in as the main villain, supported by bats and guardsmen in black. The location is "generic field" and the base is "generic tower". The "rescue path challenges" are a little less visual, but instead show a twisted path through half a dozen challenges. Each challenge is things like "300 point fight", "200 point jumping puzzle".

I can edit all of these. I can mutate them, too.

In fact, I can mutate the whole thing at once, if I want. I can nail down elements of it, let other elements free.

I notice that each character has an "automation" selection. Clicking on that overlays the edit area with a map of the character's response patterns. It looks complex, and a warning box pops up. It says, "warning: automation is very complex. We suggest you evolve it rather than edit it."

I back out, then I click on the characters "dialogue" selection. Suddenly, there are text boxes within frames. Each frame is labeled: "faced with danger", "losing", "winning", "taunt", etc.

The text boxes contain really bad dialogue. "You don't stand a chance!" "I'll get you, #enemy!" "I am unbeatable!"

There are also other tabs - we're on "general", but there are tabs for each individual challenge as well. Plot-specific tabs. There's also a "replies" tab. It turns out to be filled with complex stuff.

That's rather more work than I care to put in, so I back out.

I drag the whole mess into the "quick start" box.

The screen background changes to a rather dramatic "fuzzy shot" of Bob grabbing a princess with a tower in the background. The top changes from "Prep" to "Prep for Mission". The "points" section changes to "120". I remember seeing that in the mission parameters. "Quick Start" turns into "Launch".

My winged Bob is more like 300 points, so I simply take one of the more pricey mutations of the original warrior Bob.

It plays through like a standard MMORPG, except with significantly more NPC chatter. I don't lose. Winged Bob has vastly more maneuverability, but is not significantly better in combat. After a tense fight, I win, rescue the princess, and fade to "prep".

A little more experimentation shows that I can put that mission up on my personal land and let people play through. Apparently, everyone who plays through will give me points, although there is some weird wording in there.

But I don't have any personal land, because this isn't a paying account.

I spend some time exploring other people's personal land. Some people have rolling hills, or underwater lakes (it turns out that, yes, Bob can drown), or even asteroids and space ships. Most of them have missions, not all of which are combat related, but many of which string on to other missions, rather than being standalone.

I also find a lot of free stuff. Dialogue tries, automation and response engines, dragons, clothes (oh so many clothes).

People have created rudimentary ecosystems - wildflowers, animals, even cities. Some personal lands are downright dangerous.

Then, I got the PM asking for help.


This system relies on some rather complex algorithms - the 3D animation is probably the hardest part. But the underlying idea of using mutations and automatic fill instead of careful editing... that's solid. Sure, he could manually place every goblin in the dungeon... but it's preferable to say, "500 point combat challenge" and specify it happens in a dungeon, with goblins. Let the game place the gobbies.

Also, you can spend all your time breeding new gobbies using the "evolve" button.

Next time: Narrative generation and interplayer connectivity. :D


Patrick Dugan said...

I think this is a very promising future direction. However, I assume you concede that a fairly large budget, maybe less than WoW's but still large, would be required. Also, I think this would be best delivered as the summation of an IP that began with narrativist single player gameplay. My third thought is that "focusedly multiplayer" is superior than the massive variety because by definition social play and emergent narratives will be stronger, like a mediated role-play session. I look foward to seeing this addressed in the next essay.

Are you trying to implement this in the near future? I think building a company/IP/experience/reputation is a prerequisite to something this ambitious.

kestrel404 said...

I heart the evolve button. If I ever write a game, it gets one of those.

As for graphics - 3D is fun, but terribly time-consuming. Do yourself a favor and start off with sprites. Also lowers the entry-level raw creation from 3D modelling & texture mapping, down to GIF images or BMPs. The sequel can be in 3D.

Everything else sounds great - even if some of it would be a bear to code.

Word of the day: xwxivdoi

Craig Perko said...

The problem with sprites is that you can't "evolve" them very well.

With a 3D object, you can evolve by changing textures and reshaping bone/mass parameters. There's no need for the player to create anything at all.

WIth 2D objects, it becomes necessary to not only draw them, but animate them by hand. :P

Anyhow, this is obviously not something I plan to do in my spare time. It's a MMORPG. The idea of making a MMORPG without major funding and an experienced team doesn't tickle me...

Patrick Dugan said...

Just checking. You've reaffirmed my confidence that you are sane both in the brain and membrane.