MMO Blender: Eliot's Copernican dream

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|08.31.12

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MMO Blender: Eliot's Copernican dream
Whoops, that was apparently the place I lived.  Well, spilled milk.
When I tried Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for the first time, I fell in love. Not with the story, and not with the art, but with several elements of the actual game itself. The idea of having all of that brought into the MMO space filled me with a lot of excitement, but I had a feeling that we'd never actually see it come to pass.

For those of you who missed out on what happened with 38 Studios, possibly because you read the internet on some bizarre time-lapse system, here's the deal: We're never going to see Project Copernicus come to pass. Oh, sure, we might wind up with something that vaguely resembles that game, but odds are low. More likely the franchise is going to be sold off by the state of Rhode Island for a pittance, and if the game ever resumes production, it'll bear only the faintest traces of its origins -- some art assets and little else.

I'm not shedding tears over the world, though. In fact, I'm not going to shed tears at all because I think there's something to be built upon from the ideas of that single-player game, ideas that could make for an excellent MMO. And like any good gestalt, it reaches out to be something much more than the sum of its parts.

I'm actually not a fan of Todd McFarlane's art, but that's neither here nor there.Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's progression system

What was the truly unique part of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? For all the talk about art direction and storytelling, its most distinguishing feature was neither of the above. Nor was it most noteworthy for its combat, which was well-done but not unheard of. No, what it did that was truly remarkable was in the way that it set up character progression and classes, which was a direct inversion of the more common model.

In most fantasy games, you pick a class. The big three (fighter, mage, rogue) are always represented, with other classes coming and going based on the game and setting. You then get access to a variety of abilities to further specialize, so you can be a rogue that uses bows or a rogue that uses daggers or whatever. Some games give you more or less room to specialize, but it's always the same basic layout: choose a field, then choose a narrower subfield.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, by contrast, gave you all the tools you could want right out of the gate. If you wanted to specialize in two-handed weapons and caster staves, you could do so. Your class came after you had started picking out your specialties. Like using roguish skills? You're a rogue. Prefer to wield heavy armor and magic in equal amounts? You're a battlemage. Your class doesn't define your available abilities; your abilities and how you choose them define your class and its accompanying benefits.

This is something that has a lot of potential for an MMO. Heck, it has a lot of potential for games, period. It manages to catch some of the flavor of a more open and skill-based system witout falling into the trap of making only the best skills viable; you can focus into a single tree or branch out with equal viability.

So many refined ways to hurt things in this model.Combat of Guild Wars 2

In terms of a pure action combat system, Guild Wars 2 does not do the job better than every other game. I'd argue that TERA actually has better move-to-move combat. But Guild Wars 2 has a system that places a high emphasis on two things: playstyle defined by player choices and a broadening of options rather than increasing power.

Weapons make up a big chunk of your active abilities in GW2, and that's something that would translate very well. It would also give room for the class-selection mechanic to really have a place -- your sword-wielding character is going to have different abilities if he's focused solely in physical combat versus focused on exploring both physical and magical arts. GW2 also avoids ability overload, which fits nicely with the existing feel of KoA (in which you only had a handful of active skills) along with the needs of an MMO (you're never going to mash just one button endlessly).

Area events of RIFT

Mechanics for progression and killing things are all well and good, but what do we do once we have all that? That's a bit more dicey, especially given KoA's rather bog-standard questing that made up most of the content. So let's start by ensuring that areas are in some degree of flux at all times.

I'll go ahead and say that I'm not always a huge fan of how RIFT's various zone events force players to stop what they're doing and deal with spawns that may very well require more people than are around at the time. Despite that fact, I do like the core conceit, and I like how these elements can play off one another for an extended period of time. You can have multiple enemy footholds just waiting to be torn apart throughout the zone, and that's fun. Give enemy forces major points of origin and a clear overall objective and players will have plenty to do in the open world.

But why stop there? As long as we're starting in on a model with NPC forces invading, let's push it up a notch.

I will defend this land with my life.  Also with my ridiculous hat. Territory warfare from Warhammer Online

One of the things that always bothered me about RIFT's model is that the invading forces have nowhere to go. Footholds are established, but they're not established toward anything. They're just sitting there and hanging out.

Why not shake that up with some mechanics from Warhammer Online's RvR combat? Yes, it's adapting a PvP system for PvE content, but it also makes things much more exciting. Footholds lead to enemies attempting to capture a major location. When that location is captured, it stays under the control of the enemy forces for a time and frees them to push forward elsewhere. Leave an invading force alone long enough and the zone could be covered with footholds, all sending troops in to smash at the walls of the local fortress.

This also plays nicely with the idea of multiple invading forces at any given time. Sometimes players might want to provoke an invasion from one group not because it's advantageous but because it'll stymie the other invading force. Or sometimes players will find themselves locked in a siege mentality, fighting down waves of enemy forces and sending out small parties to take out individual footholds so that the zone will become safe again. All of this would lead to a big open world with a lot of stuff going on at any given time, making for elements that feel very organic.

Does that mean we're going with a standard quest model? No. I think there's something that actually suits this particular goal a little bit better. After all, I just mentioned how it can be a pain to try to do quests when there's a full-scale war outside, so why not give players a better option?

Mission structure of Star Trek Online

OK, it's not quite going to be the same structure as in Star Trek Online. For starters, you won't start out in a spaceship. But there are two tricks that Star Trek Online uses that I think are worthy for adaptation here, the first being that missions are instanced and thus not subject to outside chaos. The more important one is the simple fact that you have a lot of level-agnostic quests that aren't really tied to a specific zone or two.

In other words, as you go through the world, you're not questing in Zone A. You're going to locations in a large general area, which might involve something in Zone A, then Zone B, and then back to Zone A to finish your objectives. And there's a lot to do along the way.

Scale all of these quests to levels and suddenly the invading forces and open-world adventuring take on a new dimension. Maybe you have a mission in the woods and they're calm enough for you to reach your objective easily. But maybe that area is a full-on war zone right now. Do you sneak past the enemy forces? Do you get a group together to punch through the line? Do you start working to take the area back in order to clear it for yourself and others?

It's a lot of player choice, a lot of different options, and while it's not truly dynamic, it creates a convincing illusion. But you need something to do other than just fighting.

This is the strangest workshop I've ever seen. Crafting from Ryzom, Final Fantasy XIV, and Star Wars: The Old Republic

Final Fantasy XIV has several things going for its crafting, most notably the fact that crafting is a minigame in its own right and the fact that you have not a list of recipes from a trainer but a variety of options based on ingredients. Ryzom does none of that, but it does have an interesting system in which ingredients have very individual properties -- a tooth from one sort of animal isn't necessarily better or worse than another animal's tooth. Last but not least, Star Wars: The Old Republic has a robust system of reverse engineering, a process by which making and disassembling a basic recipe leads to understanding better versions of the same recipe.

Now let's stitch all of that together.

I find the idea of a crafting system in which you make a silver sword specifically because the silver does extra damage against undead monsters to be quite interesting. By adapting Final Fantasy XIV's minigame and adding in some of Ryzom's ingredient properties, you wind up with an involved system of crafting that rewards you for using different materials. (Both would likely need to be simplified, especially Ryzom's insane ingredient lists, but the core ideas are solid.) Add in the option to learn more by taking it apart and you can easily see yourself crafting and unmaking potions or weapons or armor just to try to refine your understanding of the craft.

Complex? A little. But once you understand how it all works, you could spend hours building and rebuilding swords in the hopes of learning just a little more about crafting one. And when you level up more, you don't necessarily learn how to craft a better sort of sword; you learn how to craft a sword with properties more suited to your current tasks. It's the option of diving in full-time or just dipping your toes in the pool.

There's more to think about. I haven't even touched on housing, and the game would need some form of housing system. There's no mention of PvP up there, either, and you can bet that it might work wonderfully with factions fighting amongst one another as well as NPC factions. And there's nothing about gear, races, or even setting.

But I think it captures some of the energy that came across when I first fell in love with the game that was the antecedent for an MMORPG that never came. And if I'd had my way, this is what it would have looked like.

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!
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