GDC08: When Love came to town

Barb Dybwad
B. Dybwad|02.26.08

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GDC08: When Love came to town
Every once in a while you have one of those unique experiences where you catch a glimpse of inspirational human intelligence. We were lucky enough to have such an experience at GDC in the hour we spent with Eskil Steenberg, the gifted programmer behind the fledgling one-man MMO project, Love. Once you get past the stage of incredulity at the idea that anyone would even attempt to create a massive game as a solo effort in the age of WoW-sized development and content teams, you start to get a window into exactly why this work in progress is unusual, preciously unique and extremely exciting.

Starting with a caveat: Love is not yet in production (indeed, there's no solid guarantee it ever will be), nor is it glossy and polished like most of the blockbuster AAA titles we feature in our list of core titles -- but the latter tends to work in its favor. It's not like any MMO you've ever seen; what we saw shimmering and dancing on Steenberg's laptop was otherworldly, breathing, and dreamy -- more reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting or of Waking Life than of any massive game we've ever played. The video embedded after the break is somewhat crude, having been shot off a laptop display (and occasionally featuring a reflection of Eskil himself, which you can decide for yourself whether it enhances or detracts from the experience), but captures the essence of the strange world in motion with its breathtaking landscape and day/night cycling as you wander about the planet.


Love is programmed in C using a collection of open source tools (including Verse, a tool that allows applications to share data in real time) that are publicly available, including several that Steenberg programmed himself. The remarkable world we saw was created in little over a year ("with a 3 month break somewhere in there"), which will likely astound anyone who watches the above video. The world is a round globe of somewhat small size, which means that depending on how rapidly the day to night cycles are set you can actually run fast enough to keep up with the sun (it was set fairly rapidly in the demo we saw).

The important takeaway here is that the world is not "built" as we think of MMOs being built by content teams -- it's generated by an algorithm in real time. Being a one-man show, Steenberg had to develop unusual techniques for world creation that didn't involve a lot of top-down content-creation gruntwork from him. He showed us a demo of some of the tools he uses to create plausible differentiation between objects in the world by employing a few small customizations such as variable corner structures, such that two given trees are unlikely to look exactly the same without having to create them both painstakingly by hand. Other tools we were shown were reminiscent of gamelike interfaces themselves moreso than programming environments.

The overall goal of Love is to create a story-based game where the story isn't written a priori by the developers, but is affected by players and actually emerges as an effect of what happens in the world. You can check out more about this concept in the video above; essentially player actions can have a real impact on the lore of the game.

The UI of Love is ineffably simple: there are 4 slots in the interface, controlled by the number keys 1 through 4, that allow you to key specific actions like shooting a weapon or creating an object, much like any typical action bar. Players are actively building objects in the world through the use of object "tokens" which represent the ability to do something. If you discover a tree-creation token and bring it back to your home city, it generates an object that allows you and everyone in your base to use it and create trees around the world. You can bind the tree-creation token to one of your 4 action bar slots and run amok as Johnny Treeseed once your city is in possession of the right token.

In terms of actual gameplay, Love's combat system operates generally under typical first-person shooter mechanics where you wield weapons and try to gun down AI rivals. As Steenberg explains it, it's a quasi-FPS mechanic in the sense that Love is more like an adventure or action game set as first person (think Metroid Prime, e.g.). There are also some quasi-RTS elements involved where your clan or group is focused on building up and defending your city. There will be a tension between expanding the world and protecting what you already have.

What Steenberg has in mind for the business model is perhaps unsurprisingly unique as well. He envisions the possibility of organic growth for the game, wherein about 400 players would fit on one server or shard, and once a server has been filled the money would be available to start a new server or two. The goal isn't necessarily to find a publisher to put out the game -- "I don't need a publisher. The goal is to make the game." He imagines a subscription model where a month's playtime is worth about 10 Euros, and once that initial server is full a new server can be brought online. Much like we see emergent organic business models on the web, Love represents a departure from the blockbuster paradigm we see today.

The size of the client download is almost unbelievably small, only about 12 MB. However, that's with no sound at present, and as a self-described audio enthusiast Steenberg expressed interest in composing sound for the game at some point, although right now the "gameplay is most important." As far as player interaction goes, a text chat interface is planned for users to interact within the game. However, Love takes a unique approach to identity in that you can't actually see yourself in the game -- the idea is to get away from the current model wherein you acquire the visual trappings that represent a role more so than actually playing a role. The game is "not about ego" or character customization; you don't get to choose even a name for your character. "It's not a personal chat room," explains Steenberg. It's about being immersed in playing whatever role you take on without the usual visual trappings that get you there.

Steenberg readily admits that not being able to choose your name is a radical concept in game design -- "no publisher would ever support that" -- in fact, even most players would probably say they don't want that either. But what if that type of concession actually made the game into something completely different that players might deeply enjoy? There are many gameplay elements in Love that remain undecided, but Steenberg has an open and creative approach to many of those questions; for example, how much can people behavior in the game be influenced without a writer for the narrative? What would happen if you replaced the word "bye" with "godspeed" every time a user typed it -- would players eventually start using the phrase "godspeed" in their own? How much can culture be influenced in that regard?

A truly experimental game asks such experimental questions, and inspires a sense of wonder that other games tend to obfuscate with grind. The Love project is inspirational in its audacity, scope, business model, tools and appearance. Companies who give lip service to innovation while simultaneously squashing it when they actually see it would do well to pay attention to what's happening here: a revolutionary idea in game design quietly generating momentum with complete disregard for publishing dollars. Players too will find something unique, unexpected and compelling in Love, a title we hope lives to achieve its goal of sustainable organic growth in a crowded big-budget MMO space.


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