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MMO Blender: Matt's immersive cyberpunk monstrosity

Matt Daniel , @MVMatt
Let's take a look at the acronym MMORPG for a moment. If you're reading this site, you surely know what it stands for: massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Ever since World of Warcraft hit the big-time, MMOs have been cropping up left and right in more shapes and sizes than many would have ever guessed. Swords and sorcery: check. Spreadsheets and spaceships: check. Roman orgies: coming soon.

But somewhere along the line, game developers have forgotten something. Before there were MMORPGs, there were just RPGs, played by folks gathered around the kitchen table armed with nothing more than pencils, paper, and their trusty dice. I'm not going to pretend that "I was there, man" because -- being a '90s kid -- I didn't get into pen-and-paper games until my teens in the 2000s. But even I know that those games put an emphasis on the "RP" part of RPG in a way that MMORPGs simply don't, and in some ways, can't. But I'm sure that I can't be the only one who still wants to escape to another world, to become fully immersed in that world and in my character. So in my Frankenstein's monster experiment today, I'm going to try my best to meld modern MMO features into an immersive fantasy roleplaying world. Won't you join me?

Before we have a game, we have to have a setting, and before we have a setting, we have to have a genre. Personally, I think high-fantasy and soap-opera sci-fi are covered by enough games as it is, so I'd like to see something that takes a more unusual route, such as the criminally underused subgenres of steampunk and cyberpunk. For the purpose of this imaginary creation, I'm going to go with cyberpunk because I've been on a William Gibson kick lately. So let's imagine this as our game's premise: In the dystopian far-future, countries have merged into super-advanced megacities (think Tokyo, but everywhere) run by greedy and conniving megacorporations, and players can play anything from lowly hackers to corporate mercenaries. Sound good? It does to me, so let's move on.

Now then, character customization is very important. After all, for many people, the first step toward immersion is crafting a character that they can "identify with" so to speak. If you don't believe me, hang out with someone who's dressed up like a superhero for Halloween. You better believe that guy dressed as Spidey is imagining himself swinging from building to building. So I'd combine the character customization systems of Champions Online and APB: Reloaded. Champions' system allows unparalleled clothing customization to ensure that your character's style is exactly as you imagined it, while APB's fantastic body modification and tattoo features handle the rest. To top it off, let's bring in Guild Wars 2's dye system for further clothing customization, and we've got a set of customization features that can be used to create a huge number of unique characters.

Dynamic Events
Guild Wars 2's dynamic event system is absolutely a must. Nothing makes a world feel alive quite like the feeling that something can happen at any time, whether you're planning on it or not. I especially like the idea of these events having an effect on the greater world, as well, perhaps influencing the economy. Perhaps the rogue AI shuts down important bits of technology that players rely on if it gets too out of control? I think you get the idea.

Skill progression would be done via a bizarre cross between The Secret World's ability wheel and traditional skill-based advancement. Here's my idea: The skill wheel is set up just like TSW's, but instead of gaining ability points by gaining an arbitrary amount of experience points, you gain the points by using abilities from the category you want to gain points in. For instance, if you want to become a master gunslinger, you'd have to start by utilizing the basic pistol skills (available by default, of course), which would in turn gain ability points spendable only in the pistol category, allowing you to unlock more potent abilities.

Non-combat classes
Crafting and non-combat classes would play a huge role in this game because the world of corporate espionage and megacorporation politics isn't just about who has the biggest guns. In light of this, I can't think of a better non-combat class system to adopt than Star Wars Galaxies'. Unfortunately, I never really got into the game while it was still alive (which I now regret), but anyone who's taken even a cursory glance at the game knows that it was renowned for its myriad tradeskill and non-combat options. Most gear and items in the game would be created by players, meaning that these roles would be absolutely essential to the game's economy, and interactions between buyers and sellers would add another layer of vitality to the world as a whole.

For PvP, I'm quite fond of The Secret World's system for a number of reasons. For starters, we have the lovely Fusang Projects, in which players battle for dominance of a number of control points. This would transition wonderfully to our imaginary world of warring megacorps. A Fusang-inspired persistent warzone would scratch the open-world-style-PvP itch, while smaller objective-focused warzones would provide a quick-fix. As in TSW, the outcomes of these battles would affect the world as a whole, providing bonuses and penalties to corporations depending on performance.

Oh, I guess if we're going to have all this fighting, we'll probably need a combat system, huh? For that, I'm going to choose TERA. Frantic, action-packed, and largely skill-based, TERA's combat is (just about) everything I'd like. Of course, for this particular example, since we're involving firearms, it would play much like an FPS for players who chose to go the gunner route, while playing more like a hack-and-slash for anyone who cares to get up close and personal. I wish I had more room to go into detail on exactly how I envision the combat system, but alas. Suffice it to say, TERA would make a solid starting point at the very least.

EverQuest II's housing system is probably the best there is, and giving players a private space to call their own does wonders for immersion. I'd also like to implement a system that allows players to purchase utilities for their residences, such as crafting stations, auction house access, and so on to give housing a kind of bonus to players who spend some time upgrading their digs.

Live events
Now to tie all of this together, I'm going to reach back into the past a bit for some help from Asheron's Call and The Matrix Online. These games utilized in-game events in a way that to this day is unparalleled in any modern MMO. In Asheron's Call, wars would be fought with the outcome deciding the direction the story went, and this, to me, is the pinnacle of immersion. It's hard for players to get invested in a world that they ultimately have no control over, but when they can personally influence the story and the world around them, they have a purpose in the world beyond "get better gear so I can go get even better gear."

That about wraps up my time in the blender, but tell me what you think. Does this have the makings of an immersive, absorbing world, or do you think you could do better? Of course you do, so let me hear your opinions in the comments.

Have you ever wanted to make the perfect MMO, an idealistic compilation of all your favorite game mechanics? MMO Blender aims to do just that. Join the Massively staff every Friday as we put our ideas to the test and create either the ultimate MMO... or a disastrous frankengame!