Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

29 July, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Sci-Fi
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:23 PM

I’m going to cheat a bit and steal from a colleague just as all good artists do. ;) Scott Jennings posted a bit about creating Battlestar Galactica online. It’s an interesting look at exploring alternative types of gameplay that could be the focus of an online RPG based on Battlestar Galactica. Highly recommended reading for people who want to think about these things. Although I have been one of the people derailing the discussion to talk about the relative merits of EVE Online. ;) (Sorry, Scott.)

So, this weekend’s challenge is to discuss what would make a good Sci-Fi online RPG, particularly for a licensed world.

My thoughts below.

One of the things that is appealing about Sci-Fi is the possibilities: You can discover new planets and civilizations. Even in a closed system, you could have undiscovered parts of planets, or major shifts that cause new places to explore. This is similar to how you can have alternate planes or “newly discovered” dungeons added to a fantasy game. Sci-Fi also does better than other genres in “mainstream” entertainment. Until the recent LotR movies, Fantasy had been confined to B-grade movies and straight-to-DVD releases whereas various flavors of Sci-Fi are a perennial favorite.

The disadvantages are that Sci-Fi has never done as well as fantasy games in the online medium. (And, yes, as I’ve said in the thread on Scott’s site, I know EVE Online has done well; pointing to them isn’t going to get people to give you a large budget) You also have the problem with vast amounts of space. Travel is even more boring in space than it is across land. Plus, planets are HUGE so you either need to abstract some of it out, or you would have to create vast amounts of content. Procedurally generated content has never been quite as well-received as hand-created content, so you run some risks there.

Adding a license on top of this can be problematic. You could have huge restrictions imposed upon you: if the setting is “hard” Sci-Fi, you could find yourself bound to conventions that make for boring gameplay. Also, licenses that are character-based instead of plot (or setting) based result in people wanting to be the “cool” characters. A majority of the people interested in Star Wars Galaxies wanted to be a Jedi because they’re just cool, and figure prominently in the movies.

For license, I think one of the most attractive ones would be Cowboy Bebop. (ObNote: I don’t have a license and I don’t know of anyone working on this type of game. If someone does have a license to work on an online RPG, here is how to contact me. *grin*) The game has an established setting, and a very avid fanbase. The world is “soft” Sci-Fi, so you can get away with breaking some of the laws of physics which can make the game unfun. The music is also awesome, which could be used to good effect in an online game. The disadvantage is that you would need a lot of different types of “engines” to make the game work right: space/atmosphere flight, driving, walking/fighting, computer hacking, etc. This game would absolutely have to aim for WoW-sized numbers in order to pay off the initial investment; this is likely possible given the international appeal of the series.

You would definitely have to do something besides the typical “tank-healer-DPS” type gameplay. I think something focusing on bounty hunters where you get a “quest” to hunt a bounty, then some people do research and investigation, and you climax with a big battle to bring down the bad guy (that would probably feel more like God of War than an EverQuest raid) would work best. Players would need a variety of skills from computer hacking, investigation, piloting, to good ol’ knuckle-sandwich delivery skills. Characters would have to have a variety of abilities in order to avoid people getting “bored” during certain parts of the hunt for the bounty. In addition, you could allow for activities for downtime: fighters could “train up” while the investigators are out and about, giving them a temporary bonus for the climactic fight. And, some people might need a little physical “encouragement” to give up the info. Hacker types could do crafting stuff, improving their tools while hunting future bounties. Lots of possibilities.

There’s my brief thoughts, and a brief idea. Any other thoughts about what would make for a good Sci-Fi online RPG?

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  1. “computer hacking” – Could you enter a virtual world within your virtual world? Kind of like shakespear’s play within a play.

    How would such a sci-fi world be any different than pirates of the burning sea? (Other than dressing changes from wooden sailing ships going from island to island, to spaceships going from planet to planet.)

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 29 July, 2006 @ 9:06 PM

  2. My wife and I watched the movie “Trekkies” about 4 years ago, and as the final credits rolled I exclaimed, “There’s the perfect massively multiplayer RPG design staring you right in the face. These people are already PLAYING it, just in their imagination!”

    There are people creating their own starships for the clubs, and assigning each other roles based on the franchise (Weapons officer, security, communications officer, etc). Now they don’t have anything particularly star-shippy to DO, but they dress up in costumes and go to cons, and do service projects. Because that’s what the Federation would do.

    Build a make-believe world AROUND their fantasy that supports them, and what could you get?

    Unfortunately, I fear that the upcoming Star Trek Online will probably end up trying to be World of Warcraft With Klingons instead. But one can always hope.

    Comment by Jay Barnson — 30 July, 2006 @ 4:13 PM

  3. Well, one of the potentially large restrictions dealing with licensed content is dealing with restrictions from the owners. I only have a tiny bit of inside information, but I’m sure that Lucas had a long list of restrictions about what could and could not be in Star Wars Galaxies. I remember Raph once saying that he couldn’t get some reference materials for the latest trilogy which were coming out while they were making Star Wars Galaxies; these sorts of restrictions can really hurt a project.

    I think you might run into the same problems with the Trekkies. Sure, these people might make starships in their free time and try to make them as close to canon as possible, but that doesn’t mean the designs will be approved by the people who own the Star Trek license. It’s one thing to make a ship and talk about it with fellow geeks at a convention, it’s another thing completely when that person is contributing their work to something officially recognized by the owner of the property. Unfortunately, it gets much more complicated when large amounts of money get involved.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 July, 2006 @ 5:48 PM

  4. From what I know of the trekkies and their “starships:”

    1) They focus mostly on personnel, not specific ship configurations.
    2) Its far far more likely that you, the developer, will make a non-canon starship than these people. In fact, it’s far more likely that the fans will discover the noncanon content long before the license owners.


    As you said, Bebop should be a break from the tank-healer-dsp combat template, but I think I’d take a different approach on how combat would differ.

    Granted, I’ve only seen a few Bebop movies, but it seemed that, like many space epics, the pursuits were rather fast-paced with the the hero often winning through perseverence & luck. At the end the hero is spent, exhausted, and many of the memories aren’t just what the hero did, but the conditions he did them under.

    (“Blade Runner” is a good example. Heck, most Harrison Ford adventures emphasize this grim determination to persevere… as do Bruce Willis’ Die Hard movies. You didn’t see John McClain or Rick Dekard stop the action for a quick heal, only to get the glass out of his feet or wrap a bandage or two.)

    The game engine’s “combat” should support this, but SWG showed exactly how a Cowboy Bebop-titled MMO could ignore setting and use a conventional MMO combat system. SWG, like Bebop, could have had ground vehicle “game” engines (vehicles that had actual game performance mechanics /combat built into them, and not merely a time-saver for travel). It could have had fast-paced, fast-resolution ranged combat that reflected the movies, and made (most) close combat action situational (close quarters of jabba’s barge or lightsabre duels). Most of all, it could have tried to make damage and injury more akin to the movies.

    Rather than risk millions more dollars and make an engine that suited the movies, they altered the story to fit the game. They needed rez-spots; they adopted “cloning centers.” The “damage” and “wounds” element tried to offer some degree of impact for long-term injury, but otherwise doctors could have been “clerics” or white mages in any other MMO. Combat Medics were fireball-throwers disguised as “bioweapons” of disease even when there was no relevant parallel in any of the fiction. In a world where injury was grave and life-threatening, they added AOE heals for damage and instant in-field wound heals.

    It was, however, closer to its predecessors… closer to what worked then. It also didn’t have to deal with the incredible ranges that vehicular ground combat would bring to a game- both in movement and in detection (the max blaster range in the game was something like 70 yards. An M1 tank cannon engages targets at 2-3km, terrain permitting.)

    If the market supported a bit more change, I’d like to see what can be done without the “healer”– mid-battle “heal” or for that matter, the mid-scenario heal. (Note: minor “bandaging” could be allowed, but the idea is that the health is not fully replenished.) Can we make a balanced game that adds the sense of pushing oneself over the course of the adventure, rather than experiencing just short bursts of near death only to be healed fully after each mob?

    In this system, injury is far less frequent- and far more debilitating- than what we have in a traditional MMO. Now, people don’t like “missing” alot, so we have to give them some sort of result, rather than a 95% “miss” rating. Something like that would make hitting seem less like a preventable “game” action and more like a 00 chance on a roulette wheel.

    For this, we look to a “luck” bar that replaces the oft-used “endurance” meter as the pace-setter. Luck is a common element in adventure movies. Since one bullet could kill, it was more important for the hero to be winged, or the bullet hit the doorway inches from his head, or shatter the glass he’s holding. We often include “luck” as a hidden mechanic within a game engine, but it loses the dramatic flair when it’s just another “to hit modifier.” There’s no visible “lucky break” for the hero to encounter… and truth be told, for the number of bullets that fly- luck keeps the hero of the sci-fi epics alive alot longer than our combat modifiers let on. By making “luck” more of a damage meter, we’re adding a visible “wow, that could have finished me” as well as a sense of “my luck is running out.”

    We have are 2 status bars, much like “endurance” and “health.” They’re “health” and “luck.” Health is an ultraslow-regeneration bar that’s not that durable, and not subject to many in-mission “heals.” Any hits that make it to health have a short-term accuracy/defense/move debuff (pain) of a few seconds, and a bad enough health has a longer term debuff (injury). Perhaps getting to 1/4 or less hp leads to other debuffs. The best you can do in battle is reduce the debuffs and continue the fight, even if you’re ready to collapse. Teammates might have ways to counter debuffs (inspire you) or briefly shrug them off (force of will) but these are secondary- you’re always aware that you’re fighting through an injury. A good, solid hit could do you in, if you got unlucky.

    Luck takes the brunt of the attacks but luck regenerates much, much faster than health. When any attack would constitute a hit, the game determines whether luck prevails and by how much. It could be a 100% lucky break, a glancing blow, or a full-on health hit. Odds can be adjusted by player conduct (proximity to protective items), buffs, the “fullness” of the luck meter, or similar effect. Certain “heroic actions” (combos, sidequests, etc) could buff the luck meter. Conversely, it can also be expended seeking a “lucky break” in attacks. An overly-aggressive player can “use up all his luck” if he’s not careful.

    This has all been written out on the fly, so I don’t know if it would test out at all.

    The goal would be a combat system that supported the “atmosphere” of a gritty, exhausting pursuit that challenged the heroes to push beyond their limits. By using a “luck meter” to mitigate damage, the conventional feeling one has to “hits” should be satisfied, rather than seeing just a chain of misses. By making real-health injuries become “glancing” and infrequent, we’re able to use weapons that really should kill in one shot, without making the game feel like a quake arena rez-fest.

    Now, I just don’t want to have to code the ai to work with that… or balance the mission spawns against a constantly-worsening-injury group….

    Comment by Chas — 31 July, 2006 @ 10:25 AM

  5. Cyberpunk 2020. Heck, it’s practically MADE for it. Just don’t touch that nasty Cyberpunk 203X. I mean it.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 31 July, 2006 @ 10:39 AM

  6. Star Frontiers Online.


    1. Existing IP that has nostalgia to a small crowd — and yet is dormant enough not to cause any issues with the story behind the onilne game (no concurrency issues).
    2. Shouldn’t cost and arm and leg to acquire.
    3. Foundations of the setting supports a character based approach with advancement mechanisms built in.
    4. Existing game mechanics could be used to fill/inspire video game mechanics.
    5. Large amounts of unexplored territory for adventure/story embellishment.
    6. Not ‘hard’ Sci-Fi, so the focus can be on fun and not a simulator.
    7. Not based on Earth — free to ignore our silly world and it’s ‘backstory’ as well!

    Comment by Grimwell — 31 July, 2006 @ 2:16 PM

  7. Chas wrote:
    From what I know of the trekkies and their “starships:”
    1) They focus mostly on personnel, not specific ship configurations.
    2) Its far far more likely that you, the developer, will make a non-canon starship than these people. In fact, it’s far more likely that the fans will discover the noncanon content long before the license owners.

    Yes, but on the flipside:
    1) You (hopefully) have access to the creators of the license. Perhaps any issues that come up can become part of the “Expanded Universe”.
    2) If something does directly contradict canon, guess who gets blamed? (And possibly penalized, depending on how the contract was written.)

    I’m not saying that game developers are infallible, but there definitely is a difference in motivation and expected output between fan-made stuff (which can be very good) and developer content (which must be good according to the contract as not to damage the value of the property, otherwise the lawyers get to practice their legal force choke on you.)

    As for the rest of your ideas, it’s interesting to note that the d20 Star Wars system does something similar: separates hit points into two pools: one that regenerates easily and represents your ability to dodge damage, and another that is harder to heal and represents physical damage.

    I was also thinking of an alternative mechanic, though. Instead of just defining more types of hit points, what if we changed it around and made the “Luck” bar increase as the combat goes on. Once the “Luck” bar is full, you can cause an incapacitating wound on your opponent. So, during combat you do the things you talked about, Chas: you wing your opponent, you lodge a bullet in the door fame near his or her head, etc., and all these actions fill up your “Luck” bar a bit more. You could still choose to use standard RPG type combat for this: the amount of “luck” you earn each action depends on your ability (skill + equipment, etc.) modified by your opponent’s ability (defense + equipment, etc.) Or, have it so that once the luck bar fills up then you do real “damage” to the opponent instead of simple incapacitation, especially for boss battles. As bosses get harder, it might take more “Luck” to fill the bar.

    I think this would fit our metaphor for two reasons: First, you can wipe away any “Luck” the enemy accumulated between battles, so our heroes don’t have to heal up every time; healing could still be done over time, and healing skills could modify the rate of healing instead of just adding raw hit points to the characters. Second, you get a lot more interesting combat that goes for a while without a ton of misses.

    Some interesting thoughts, though.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 July, 2006 @ 2:22 PM

  8. I am concerned that the ‘depleting luck’ analogy would just appear as a ‘second hit point bar’ so I like your alternative spin.

    While reading, I’ve come across some references to “market studies” suggesting that at less than a 60-70% accuracy rate, the market got frustrated. If that’s true, we’d have to be careful that the ‘near misses’ that built up luck were recognized as a success, and not a failure. Markets can be rather set in their (often misled) expectations, I’m told.

    Comment by Chas — 31 July, 2006 @ 2:58 PM

  9. Something In SPAAAACE Online!

    [...] Last friday Lum had a great post looking at why Galactica Online would never work. Psychochild then turned around and scraped out the insides of my brain by talking a little bit about the Cowboy Bebop MMOG I’ve wanted desperately for the last two or three years. These two discussions are wonderful to see; I haven’t said much this month but I’ve definitely done a lot of thinking. [...]

    Pingback by MMOG Nation — 31 July, 2006 @ 5:50 PM

  10. Different MMO mechanics

    [...] Psychochild’s latest design challenge is about making good, sci-fi online-RPG’s. There’s some nice discussion about trekkies and licenses going on over there. One interesting idea from there though is Chas’ Luck meter. It got me wondering if there are other possible mechanics to be used in combat. Just something different to health, ability to do special attacks(mana, energy, rage). Maybe an interaction mechanism, or a completely new type of meter (a la toejam and earls funk-o-meter) [...]

    Pingback by JpokiBlog — 2 August, 2006 @ 8:11 AM

  11. “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.”

    Comment by Dragon — 4 August, 2006 @ 7:24 AM

  12. Hope it’s not too late to add my two cents. I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now. My suggestion would be: If the problem is the audience is used to 1 hour of content every week or so, and 20 new content blocks a year, why not provide just that? Well, probably closer to two-hour adventures that need to be completed in order. Add a lobby area, for trading things and other between-fights-stuff. People could help friends with episodes they allready completed once before , aka “Reruns”. As far as how to keep them from doing all 20 episodes in one week, simple, just release one a week. No, most people wouldn’t end up spending 80 hours a week in such an enviroment, that’s the point, to mirror the style of the TV viewer.

    Comment by Rik — 14 August, 2006 @ 11:53 PM

  13. Why is innovation so hard? All you have to do is think of new ways to kill stuff. SciFi should be the perfect environment. More things to kill, more places to kill them in, more powerfull weapons to kill them with. What’s so hard about that?

    Huh? A game that’s NOT about killing, killing again, and then killing some more? BOOORRRRINNNNGGGG!!!

    Comment by Mikyo — 6 September, 2006 @ 9:29 AM

  14. So why does scifi work at the box office and the bookstore, but not in games. Because it offers the player choices. Sauron does not share power. Conan does not compromise. Nerdmann of Gor does not negotiate.

    A fantasy story is a simple, linear series of death duels. Each battle offers only two possible outcomes, and one of the outcomes amounts to a simple restart (“your party is all dead.”) Thus we avoid trying to plan for more than one possbile continuation for the ‘story.’

    Comment by Mikyo — 6 September, 2006 @ 9:58 AM

  15. How about starting out with Travellers as a base, put in cup of Elite, a dash of Stargate, a good bit of space opera like Star Wars, a nice bit of Trek, and top it off with the IP of Timecop and Aliens vs Predator!!!! And throw in gritty superheroes like Batman and we got a nice meal.

    Here’s the formula:
    1. Travellers got a good system of science-base extrapolations (just don’t use their character system!!!)
    2. All the hardcore PC players know of Elite and it’s form of space gameplay (ah I loved that game)
    3. Stargate got that nicely structured squad-based land-based quests
    4. Star Wars got that space opera thing
    5. Star Trek got that happy spacetopia thing with very interesting and detailed characterization that adds to immersion
    6. Timecop got the rationale for keep repeating some ungodly difficult quests (without getting an “under construction” message)!!!
    7. Aliens got the mass market awareness and Aliens vs Predator is just so cool.
    8. Oh, throw in Space Hulk or any GDW sci-fi stuff as they are also very cool (excellent tight quarter spaceship combat gameplay).
    9. Oh, throw in Mechs!!! We need mechs..

    Darn, this is probably going to go over budget.

    Ok, here’s a smaller formula.
    1. Start with EVE
    2. Add in the land-base instanced gameplay
    3. Add in the Space Hulk, Alien vs. Predator, tight quarter ship combat
    4. Add in the crazy variety of Space Ranger
    5. And Make it more like Elite (or Darkstar One)


    Comment by magicback (frank) — 10 September, 2006 @ 11:12 AM

  16. Thoughts on designing for Sci-Fi

    [...] that people wanted to be Jedis and were always cranky when Smuggler never lived up to expectations. My idea for an SF MMO, Cowboy Bebop, has a recognizable group as well: bounty hunters, which are a surprisingly diverse [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 23 July, 2007 @ 10:43 PM

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