Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 July, 2007

Thoughts on designing for Sci-Fi
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:40 PM

Over in the thread about design, there was a really interesting question in a comment. I had written about science fiction as a setting for games, and someone asked a very interesting question.

n.n wrote:
Sorry if this is drifting back to already-explored territory, but I’m curious as to what exactly you consider to be the most crucial issues with designing an SF MMO…

I thought this was worthy of a full blog post. (Well, it was also almost too long too be “just” a comment, too. ;)

The mark of a good setting for an MMO is a detailed world. I one of the problems with SF, as you point out, is that the galaxy isn’t always that interesting of a place. It’s mostly empty, and the worlds are huge. Note that most SF, even the really good stuff, tends to gloss over the exact scale of things; for example, aliens tend to be a lot more homogeneous than humankind. Consider the fate of SWG, where they had to create whole planets when the movies only really covered a small section of each one. All that we saw beyond Mos Eisley was a bunch of sand dunes, and that kind of scenery gets boring quickly if you’re putting it all into the game. It was easy to gloss over large parts of the universe in Star Wars because it didn’t matter to the original story.

You have a whole other set of problems if you focus on hard SF instead of soft SF like space operas. In hard SF, the world tends to take a very secondary role to explaining the science behind the universe. This can be offputting, especially to non-scientific types. Note that when people point to SF being popular, they usually refer to soft SF.

Anyway, even the most cliché fantasy world has a lot of variety: the Black Caves of Darkness is different than the Black Castle of the Evil Black Knight. Or, to pull from LotR, Rivendell is very different Lothlórien, even though both are inhabited by pointy-eared vermin. …I mean elves.

Worse, most great SF stories tend to be very highly character-focused. To pick on SWG again, the big disappointment was that you played more ordinary people trudging along in the galaxy. The most common criticism of SWG when it first launched was that it was an “Aunt Beru simulator”, because you weren’t playing one of the swashbuckling heroes. But, someone’s gotta slog through the deserts of Tatooine and harvest the Kryat Dragon pearls.

The best you can hope for is to have a recognizable group that the main characters belong to. And, to kick again SWG while it’s down, consider the most popular protagonist characters from the original trilogy of movies: Luke/Obi-Wan and Han Solo. So, it should come as no surprise 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 group of people.

Again, look at fantasy; every character is an “adventurer”, a special class set apart from everyone else. Players can do things that other mere mortals cannot.

So, my two most crucial issues are:

  • Limit your scope. A whole galaxy seems too empty. Even a whole planet is too huge, let alone multiple planets. Figure out how to make engaging locations for people to visit. People want some diversity.

  • Find a category of people the players can belong to, especially in a licensed universe. This helps set the players apart from the commoners. It tells them why they’re special.

So, am I on the money? Or, are there other important things to consider?


  1. So…what, you want Star Trek or Stargate? Humans (mostly) visiting small sections of different cultures and returning to the familiar (the ship or homebase) each time.


    Comment by Ophelea — 23 July, 2007 @ 11:58 PM

  2. There’s also the issue of urban development to consider too – In a fantasy environment you can easily get away with relatively small scale towns, in sci-fi you expect sprawling urban cityscapes (which are boring – ala matrix online). You’d probably also expect things like trains or spaceships or machine guns. In a fantasy MMO you’re quite happy to walk, ride horses, have guns that shoot just one bullet at a time and it makes sense within that setting. It’s harder to keep consistency in a sci-fi setting.

    At the same time perhaps there are sci-fi settings where it might be easier to design for – e.g. post-apocolyptic areas (fallout), exploration of ruined civilisations (the DIG). Here you can kind of get away with having small encampments and towns and limited technology.

    Comment by Jpoku — 24 July, 2007 @ 2:15 AM

  3. The limit in scope is something I totally agree with. I think it is tricky to limit it without designing “LoTR with ray guns”. A lot of the natural limits in fantasy should disappear in SF, here is two:
    1. Travel speed – if you limit people to slow overland travel it is not very futuristic. (See SWG again). It feels wrong for mechanized transport to become less common than it is now.
    2. Communications – how SF is it to not have GPS + satellite mapping that is easily available with everything already marked, public directories of business and people. It is the “K9″ factor. So many questions that are really tricky in a fantasy setting become easy when you have an all knowing robotic dog to ask. How do you design a quest when you really should have thottbot built in to the game?

    How do you fix this? One option is the Star Trek one. Strand people on a planet, take away their toys and make the overall quest/plot “to get back” to the ship or planet. They can then go ahead and make pathetic bows and arrows, argue about who is in charge and learn more about their human side. The SF has gone though, it is only in the background. Another option along this road is the “Fallout” one.

    Or maybe subvert the problem and make the communications and the travel the game. Eve is all about politics and movement of people and stuff. Maybe this what is left when technology has taken away a lot of the day to day problems. Eve felt quite cold and impersonal to me though. I expect this goes away if you are involved in 0.0 space but in that case I view it as a design for the minority.

    Antoher option is to make the setting have loads of alien stuff. Then you can go straight for the “magic” tech and the strange settings and end up back with D&D in the future where all your players are trying to work out the SF equivalent in your game of “Cor Por” is.

    Comment by Dominic — 24 July, 2007 @ 2:30 AM

  4. Anarchy Online originally limited the scope by having the game take place on a half-terraformed, sparsely-settled planet. Even with infinite nanotech & gadgetry it wasn’t safe to go beyond the outermost zone walls, which were “there for your safety”. This also gave them a clean way to expand the world, but instead they did this odd floating islands in the sky/extradimensional kind of thing so they could have less-natural terrains.

    Comment by Tom H. — 24 July, 2007 @ 7:04 AM

  5. CHARACTERS: I agree with your point about scope, but not with your point about characters. Everquest started players out as simple people, but it allowed players to do extraordinary things and feel heroic (I’m not the only one who hated the fact that high-end characters were demi-gods). Even at a very low level, you might receive a quest to kill a “named” NPC, a kill that will supposedly aid the local town in a way beyond culling the neighboring beetles or harvesting flax for some clothes. In SWG, the problem with character identity wasn’t that the player’s started out as everyday folks or that they never became jedi. The problem was the difficulty in finding something your character could do that would be extraordinary.

    The catch is that extraordinary actions don’t have to represent extraordinary abilities or status. Not all heroes are superheroes, and not all heroes are made idols of society for their deeds (I’m still talking about fictional heroes). Many players don’t feel the need to save the universe. That should be obvious, considering that few popular MMOs have provided many quests beyond simply helping individual NPCs; often NPCs with little social relevance.

    One of the foundations of Star Wars‘ success is that many of the heroes are simple human beings in terms of power. Hans, Leia, and Lando are have no abilities beyond strengths of personality. Even the jedi in the original trilogy were marked by human weaknesses. They fear. Hell, Luke was take captive by Ewoks. Ewoks! And there were times when he would have died if he was not saved by a non-jedi.

    Anyway, my point is that SWG didn’t make a mistake in making player-characters mere mortals with humble beginnings and limited expectations for power. That game’s was mistake was the lack of opportunities for heroic adventure, the avenues of action provided for those humble characters. There was too much tedium, not enough opportunity or reward for heroic action. The adventures were mundane, not the characters.

    SCOPE AND VISION: The unique challenge I see with sci-fi is trying to create a cohesive and believable vision of the future. I love rusty sci-fi, where spaceships can have mechanical problems and the cities still have slums. But a lot of sci-fi makes the mistake of imagining one great technological leap while leaving other technology and parts of life curiously and obviously untouched by time. A lack of imaginative unity is a common problem.

    One of the benefits of limiting scope is that you can saturate the environment with awe-inspiring objects and events. That sort of saturation is largely responsible for the success of the Harry Potter films, I think.

    Comment by Aaron — 24 July, 2007 @ 9:25 AM

  6. Everquest started players out as simple people, but it allowed players to do extraordinary things and feel heroic (I’m not the only one who hated the fact that high-end characters were demi-gods)”

    I’ve got to disagree there. High level EQ characters were pansies not even capable of taking on a single green most of the time. The closest I came to feeling powerful in that game was as a level 5 bard one shotting yellows as fast as I could run up to them, and bards ran fast. But they were only rats you say? Yeah well so were the slightly different colored rats kicking my ass up and down when I was level 60.

    Comment by Makaze — 24 July, 2007 @ 3:20 PM

  7. The big problem with most SF MMOs that have been tried to date is that DIKU style roll the dice combat mechanics suck with ranged combat. EVE is entertaining not because of its combat, which is just standard DIKU with positional and angular velocity modifiers thrown in. Instead it’s the rich meta game surrounding that combat that makes it worthwhile (to a niche community of insane rabid PVP freaks, that is)

    So to me even more important than setting or scope is making the actual gameplay fun by coming up with a better system. Course that is assuming you’ve got combat as your primary activity, not an unreasonable assumption but also not guarantee.

    P.S. Bebop’s ending was good beyond words

    Comment by Makaze — 24 July, 2007 @ 3:31 PM

  8. I think your scope is dependant on how you want players to interact in the setting. The best sci-fi MMORPGs (the very few that there are) are the ones that really push group play and metagaming rather than the ones that push individual character achievements. In other words, the value of your character is determined by his value to the group, rather than the challenges that you overcome on your own. As a designer, you need to set the game up so that you’re giving each type of character a inique role that is beneficial to and needed by other players, and you need to design challenges that are suitably large-scale so as to be classified as metagames. At the same time, you need to insure that single-player and small-group activities are fun in and of themselves. It’s a tall order. A lot easier to have someone go slaughter orcs in a cave.

    I think it’s possible to really do sci-fi justice though, and I think it can be done in a way that appeals to all kinds of players too. I’ve got more specific thoughts, but I will post tomorrow – for now I need to sleep :)

    Comment by David (Tal) — 24 July, 2007 @ 9:02 PM

  9. Ok.

    Here is the full list of things that I think you need to do to succesfully design for a sci-fi setting.

    1. Stay away from sci-fantasy. Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. A great example of this is Anarchy Online. It’s basically a fantasy game. Guns replace swords. “Nanos” replace spells. There’s pleny of other examples of fantasy games done in “sci-fi” settings out there. Not saying there isn’t a place for this, but if you want to really be seen as sci-fi, and not fantasy, you need to stay away from it.

    2. Space is vast. But it’s not empty. If your setting has ships that can travel to other star systems, then players need to be able to travel to other star systems too. However, there needs to be plenty of stuff in those star systems and along the way for them to see and do. One of the key questions that you should ask when you first look at the setting is “what do we envision players doing here?” If you can’t answer that question, or if the answer you get is “it’s a place they pass through on their way elsewhere” then you’re missing content and it will hurt you down the road. You should try to make every place have something worth stopping for.

    3. Epic challenges. The best sci-fi stories aren’t about one guy defeating a single alien fighter in a dogfight. They’re about that one guy (and his friends) defeating the massive alien fleet before they invade earth’s colonies. Much more so than fantasy, you need to provide large-scale challenges to your players. Things that really feel epic. Case in point: Earth and Beyond. E*B waaas a pretty good game, all things considered – but it lacked any content that felt epic enough to give high level play a purpose. You weren’t fighting fleets of crazed alien spacecraft, you weren’t saving worlds from destruction. Instead you were just killing individual space pirates still. Consider that in Star Wars, the big reason the Empire was such a threat was that they were huge and unstoppable. They built space stations that could destroy whole planets.

    4. Exploration. The reason we are drawn to sci-fi is our desire as humans to explore the unknown. When you’re building a game around a sci-fi setting, you need to take this into account, and allow players to explore, progress and conquer. If your setting can allow it, make sure to let them build space stations. To let them make discoveries. To let them find new worlds and technologies. It doesn’t have to be easy – it can be prohibitively hard and still work. But you need to let them try.

    Those are my thoughts for now.

    Comment by David (Tal) — 25 July, 2007 @ 4:21 AM

  10. David said, Space is vast. But it’s not empty.

    Um, maybe not in your fantasy, but uhh… yes, it is empty. It is very empty. That’s the point. EVE gets around this by dropping stargates everywhere, which is system-to-system teleportation.

    Very much in agreement with #1, though.

    I disagree with #3. Epic is entirely overrated, both in fantasy and in sci-fi. Epic has to be continually concocted by the developers, and as a result, has to trump the last one every time. This gets tiresome and eventually impossible and, furthermore, isn’t even what is desired.

    People don’t want epic. They may want escape in the form of glory, but epic crosses the boundary of being a bit too visceral: it requires the real possibility of loss. You can do epic in controlled narratives, like Star Wars, because you can create empathy with the Heroes and feel the weight of potential loss through that without risking anything yourself. But you can’t do it in an MMO unless. You can do it if it’s another player providing the part of the villain. The potential for loss exists on both sides, which gives a megaton of meaning to the conflict that cannot exist when the enemy is faceless and incomprehensibly massive and unquestionably a gimmick created by the developers. =P

    David also said, The best sci-fi MMORPGs (the very few that there are) are the ones that really push group play and metagaming rather than the ones that push individual character achievements.

    I think that’s a key insight, but at the same time, I don’t think it has to do with sci-fi. Notice that, in EVE, I have never heard someone annoyed at the necessity of joining a corporation. It has a lot of “alone together”; my friends and I gang up, but we generally don’t do missions together.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 25 July, 2007 @ 4:59 AM

  11. I think a key design issue here is that designing ‘fantasy’ games is quite a retro-active process when it comes to technology. The kinds of items you find in fantasy game are swords, bows, simple guns, crazy steam contraptions etc… These are things that we already know about or can deviate from quite simply.

    Designing for ‘sci-fi’ is the opposite to me: you can go off things that we know about already, but essentially you’re imagining how it might evolve. That means the realm of possibility is greatly increased and so it’s much harder to remain consistent – does melee combat for example make any sense in sci-fi designs? Aside from post-nuclear or colonisation settings where you can excuse anachronistic technology, not really.

    I imagine it this way: Could you now, quite happily create an MMO of *our* world 1000+ years ago. Probably – it would be similiar to designing a fantasy MMO to me. At most I expect to be able to travel to a few countries on horseback/chariot. At least I want to have a sword to fight with.

    Could you do the same of today’s world? The scope just went up 10x – you’d now expect to travel the world. Hey it’s set in today’s society I should be able to hop on a plane. I also want to ride a tank! I WANT GUNS! I want complex building interiors….

    And the future world? Well, what is the future world first? Then, if it’s as awesome as people expect… I want a spaceship. I want to land on ANY planet. I want that planet to be interesting. I still expect to bump into other users all the time. I expect cities to be all Futurama like.

    Like you say, scope is crucial. I imagine the AVAILABLE number of features remains consistent accross genres, but the EXPECTED number of features increases based on the time period of the game setting. AVAILABLE features being determined by the budget and time allocation given to a project. EXPECTED features coming just from player expectation. In one way, a fantasy setting naturally limits what a player can do, where a sci-fi setting means you need to force limitations on player. And players will notice this distinction.

    For all of that, I expect that the most successful Sci-Fi MMORPGS of tommorow will be based in universes where limiting what a player can do makes sense. (e.g. Post-Nuclear)

    Also, fantasy has Elves… ANCIENT ELVES > FUTURE ELVES

    Comment by Jpoku — 25 July, 2007 @ 3:17 PM

  12. That’s a great point. But, rather than make sense of limitations by a loss of technology (like in a post-apocalyptic setting), it might be possible to do it through technological counteraction.

    What good is radar or satellite imagery if the enemy has developed a better camouflage through light refraction? What good are missiles if the enemy can shoot them down?

    Perhaps melee is necessary because technological advances have lessened the efficiency of ranged combat. But I’d ensure that sci-fi melee feels fundamentally different from historical or fantasy melee. Mass Effect seems to have take a step in the right direction with gravity-manipulation combat skills.

    Comment by Aaron — 25 July, 2007 @ 10:46 PM

  13. What about the development of one colony? There is a home-base planet like Earth. And then the players are all on the first colony being inhabited by earth. Sustaining the well-being of the colony, exploring the world that is inhabited by an alien species.

    A nice democratic twist could be the decision to deal with the aliens militarily or to work with them (I wonder if having them be NPCs would make this even more intriguing).

    My big gripe about Sci-Fi MMOs is that they always seem to avoid the depth of culture that is possible in a really advanced society. One thing to expand would be to add many many different groups with different ideologies about politics, aliens, life. Different cultures that fight to survive within even one city! Exploring always seems to be confined to a frontier/edge-of-the-world/expiditionary sense and not in the richness that is avoided within large metropolises (sp: metropoles?).

    Comment by Jake — 31 July, 2007 @ 8:12 PM

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