Monday, February 23, 2009

I Apologize to NASA in Advance

So, NASA's making an MMO. It's gonna suck.

Hey now, I'm not just being a jerk. I'm not just reveling in making asinine and obvious predictions. I want to talk about why, because that's where lessons can be learned.

The problem with these sorts of games are that they are "checklist games". It's not just NASA: most of these sorts of games are built this way, no matter who sponsors them. They're made by making a big list of all the stuff the group considers cool, and then sticking that stuff in the game. In this case, NASA's list will include "doing experiments on the space station", "launching in a rocket", "driving a buggy", and "space walks", along with a few dozen others. Not ALL of these things will make it into the game, probably, but the game is driven by this list.

The problem is that this kind of design doesn't lend itself to having an actual GAME anywhere.

This can sometimes work out if the things described are part of a complex, interactive system. For example, the military can make a military training sim that's somewhat fun to play because we know how to simulate and interact with the idea of people running around trying to kill other people.

But being an astronaut is not part of a complex, interactive system. Astronauts live remarkably uninteresting lives. The reason it's enticing is because it's on a frontier, not because of the amazingly exciting lifestyle of exercising three hours a day and spending ten more hours tweaking experiments.

There is no easy way to make the life of an astronaut an interesting thing to a gamer. This is why most such games focus on the things around the astronaut, like the space stations or crafts. You can create a fun, interactive system based around piloting a craft or building a station. Not so easy to make a fun, interactive system based entirely around fetch quests.

You can argue that the Sims made an interesting game out of this idea, but I would argue that (A) the gameplay was actually mediocre, (B) it was still more interactive than the life of an astronaut, and (C) you controlled a fair number of Sims simultaneously.

Now, it's possible to have mediocre, shallow gameplay and still have a fun game. The Sims is one example of this, and every MMO on the market is another. However, these games make up for their gameplay with their metagame aspects - they give the player a huge amount of freedom.

Being an astronaut in the realistic world of NASA is absolutely the opposite of freedom. Not only does mission control script out your life by the minute, but it's actually scripted out weeks in advance. Talk about freedom of choice!

Now, it's possible to make a near-future space-themed MMO that is interesting. However, it would require abandoning the NASA theme. NASA won't do that. It would also require some pretty fancy footwork in terms of game design, and NASA is nimble like a brick. Glued to a table.

Unless NASA is making a very new kind of MMO or abandoning their NASA theme entirely, it is simply impossible for their MMO to be any good. It HAS to suck.



Greg Tannahill said...

Isn't a more compelling reason simply that NASA aren't game developers? The reason a NASA MMO will suck is the same reason that Bill Gates isn't going to win a Best Director Oscar.

The other clue as to the game's quality is that they describe the gameplay in terms of "tasks" rather than in terms of "challenges" or "goals". Every description of an aspect of the game should involve conflict. Rather than "launching in a rocket", say "escape Earth's gravity". Rather than "driving a buggy" say "navigating an alien environment". Rather than "doing experiments" say "pushing the boundaries of known science". Each statement should have an action and an obstacle (escape/gravity, navigate/alien, push/boundary). That's a good way of giving you an idea where your gameplay is going to come from.

Then you need to be looking at whether you can do the tasks non-sequentially - can you escape earth's gravity, then navigate an alien environment? Yes. Can you do it the other way around? No. So maybe escaping Earth's gravity is not going to be a good use of development time, because we can't keep returning to it in the game. (This is the problem of the early stages of Spore.)

... and so forth.

Craig Perko said...

Well, they're hiring game designers to do their work for them. It's not like they're sitting a rocket scientist in front of Game Maker.

Other than that, aren't you saying the same thing I am?

Greg Tannahill said...

I am often saying the same things you are. I dress them up in new words and then steal the credit. If anyone ever catches on to the fact they can come here and get these ideas straight from the source I will be ruined. :-)

Experience suggests that very few people who hold themselves out as game developers actually know how to develop a game. A good sign is to look for previous things that they have made that didn't suck; I'm not aware of anyone who's gone from "nothing of note" to "successful MMO" in one smooth step.

Craig Perko said...

That's definitely true, but it may be a bit hard to track if they're getting outside help.

I mean, what do you start to think when someone says "it's a NASA MMORPG made by Blizzard"?

(Not that that's what's happening. Just, you know, thought experiments.)

Greg Tannahill said...

I'd trust a NASA MMO made by Blizzard to be a pretty good game. But if they were on board, you wouldn't be seeing this "launching in a rocket" crap, you'd be seeing stylised concept art and user-interface mockups and web-portal countdowns and some kind of awesome CGI trailer reminding you why you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid.

Sometimes real quality speaks in advance of itself.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, that's true.