Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 August, 2010

Cyberpunk as a setting for an MMO
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:30 PM

Over, I wrote a pair of posts about Cyberpunk as an MMO genre.

Cyberpunk is a terrible genre for an MMO
Cyberpunk is a terrific genre for an MMO

Since these are arguably about MMO development, I figured a few of you might find them interesting.

Some more developer-specific thoughts for the audience here after the jump.

Note that I posted the “terrible” version first. I wanted to spur some discussion, and there’s nothing like a bit of controversy and contrariness to draw people out of the woodwork. Obviously, people who care enough about cyberpunk (and likely MMOs) to read a site like that are going to come to the defense.

The first interesting thing is that there are a few opinions about what cyberpunk really is. I advocated that cyberpunk is essentially dystopian in nature, and a few people disagreed. (I later wrote a comment that postcyberpunk (like Ghost in the Shell) is often not dystopian, but at the core cyberpunk itself is a very depressing setting.)

The other interesting thing is that people were ready to say that these were challenges, not really reasons why it’s a bad idea. While I appreciate the enthusiasm, and while I don’t necessarily agree with my “terrible” reasons 100%, I think one needs to be careful here. Saying that obstacles just need to be conquered may lead to not taking those obstacles seriously. Now, obviously, I’m not going to get strenuous arguments from the readers about why cyberpunk is a terrible setting for an MMO, but a good designer does need to put some critical thought into the negatives as well as the positives of a design aspect.

Anyway, if you have thoughts about cyberpunk as a setting head over to and leave a comment. For this blog, let me ask this question: What do you think would be a difficult literary or cinema genre to translate to an MMO? What would be the biggest obstacle? How could you work around that obstacle?

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  1. Challenges, by definition, are to be taken seriously :)

    Comment by unwesen — 20 August, 2010 @ 12:33 AM

  2. Westerns. I haven’t actually played Red Dead Redemption yet. (Not a console man) but I heard a lot of great things about it for about a week or two. Now I don’t hear anything anymore. Did the gameplay dry up, or is it because of the fickle nature of console gamers. :)

    Westerns would make a difficult genre for an MMO. It shares (and perhaps actually compounds) the issue with ‘real-world’ MMO’s. How do you advance? If you can gain tremendous strength. If you’re stuck with a ‘six-shooter’ as practically the ONLY weapon, so you can’ itemize. How do you advance or grow your character. What happens when you ‘ding.’ Nothing? You get a different color hat maybe?

    When you move into the ‘real-world’ you’re often stuck with ‘real-people’ as your avatar, and obviously real-people have the same boring limitations as … real people.

    (On the flip side, a genre that I’d love to see done well (that means my way) as an MMO is Zombies. In that case the avatars would also be real-people, but I’m ignoring the fact that it would make character progression very very difficult. Dreams are best enjoyed unblemished.)

    Comment by Marc Hawke — 20 August, 2010 @ 6:47 AM

  3. Genres that are heavily story-based tend to be hard to shoehorn into games, since player choice throws a hammer in the works. That’s why we get a glut of shooters rather than romantic comedies.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 August, 2010 @ 9:00 AM

  4. Re:#3
    Came to mock RomComs; leaving happy.

    Comment by DataShade — 20 August, 2010 @ 5:32 PM

  5. There are a couple of things I’ve thought of, regarding cyberpunk, since I generally agree with one of your points: no one really wants to play a game where they’re the downtrodden losers. Only… some of the most poignant “losses” in dystopian fiction either directly lead to, or at least strongly imply, some kind of victory – if only a pyrrhic one. The plane at the end of Running Man, the death of V in Vendetta, etc etc.

    1.) Instead of rolling up a character, you roll up an organization: the wetwork division of a megacorp, a street-gang, an ecoterrorist cell, an urban primitive community. Not a player-character, a player-character-collective.
    2.) Treat the PCs as resources – valuable, but expendable. Make them valuable enough to make the player regret losing them, but make their losses inevitable enough that the player doesn’t resent you for their setbacks.
    2.a.) Making PCs valuable means maybe something like the original XCOM – let them level up, let them get better at what they do. Maybe incorporate something like the EVE-Online skill training or the Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1) tavern jobs – take the character out of the collective for some amount of real-time, let them improve their skills in a way that won’t get them KIA.
    2.b.) Making the loss of a PC surmountable means tracking player performance and ‘power’ separately from character power. Looking at XCOM again, track PCC wealth or reputation with other groups, and stress the advancement of the PCC over the PC. Disassociate rewards from the characters who earned them, push the rewards to the PCC as often as possible, even if those rewards can’t be pushed 100%. If there’s a mission to unlock a skill, once one character unlocks it, it’s unlocked for the whole PCC; maybe for every two tiers in a skill one character unlocks, everyone in the PCC gets one free tier: “Joe’s not half the demolitions expert Bob was, but since Bob got picked up by the cops in that fake-ID bust, he’s the best we have.”

    Comment by DataShade — 20 August, 2010 @ 6:24 PM

  6. In the way that some people idly speculate to themselves which raindrop will hit the sill first I idly design MMO systems around unlikely inspirations. I’ve worked out systems for Charmed, The Niebelungenlied the British electoral system and the Premier League.

    There’s only one that I struggled with. I decided I wanted to design a MMO based around the themes of The Smiths’ first album and I struggled with that for several days before inspiration struck. In the end I came up with a points based system where you get points for desperate platonic unrequited love but also accumulate lust points which can, in certain circumstances, lead you to consummate your passion and lose all your points. The system would support gankers, ie people who are willing to go all the way, such people being obviously disastrous to meet in such a game. Add in the album’s sub-themes of the Manchester environment and the pure love of grown-ups for children and you have something that could make an interesting MMO.

    Compared to some of those cyberpunk is a breeze.

    Comment by Stabs — 21 August, 2010 @ 3:16 PM

  7. The genesis version of Shadowrun, though generally considered inferior to the Nintendo version, provided an elegant template for a cyberpunk CRPG. If you don’t find it fun for at least a weekend, turn in your nerd card. Randomized missions that could be solved via violence, stealth, or hacking, and a 3D cyber world that was completely disconnected from the main game. It could be used for hacking, but there was little need to enter it if you did not wish to.

    Ten years later, I have yet to see a better cyberpunk game part from Deus Ex. Even that one is arguable, it does not mimic a lot of the Gibson tropes as well as this mediocre Genesis game that no-one has aver heard of.

    Comment by Yeebo — 22 August, 2010 @ 5:37 PM

  8. To the final question about a difficult subject for a MMOG, I’ve been thinking about that over the weekend. Like a moth banging into a lightbulb, I keep coming back to one subject in particular: mysteries.

    Making a mystery-solving game isn’t impossible. But the nature of the mystery as a form of fun means that making a mystery game that’s replayable is pretty darned hard. Structurally, replayable mystery-solving games all want to turn into Clue — [Professor Plum] did it in the [Ballroom] with the [Wrench]. Not awful, but not exciting.

    How do you then go beyond that to make a mystery game that’s not only replayable but constantly playable, and that is being played by potentially hundreds of people in a shared space at the same time?

    I find this interesting because it’s not the content (like a Smiths album ;) that makes it hard; it’s the structure, the need to provide a variety of intellectually-stimulating puzzles of deduction, where there are always enough clues to “win” but the clues are disguised so that the puzzles are neither too easy nor too hard… and how do you wedge actual stories in there?

    Would it be necessary to hand-craft every mystery? Is it even conceivable that *good* (i.e., non-Clue) mysteries could be pseudorandomly generated?

    What gameplay mechanics would be necessary to support cooperative mystery-solving? (“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if…” etc.) What would player-versus-player gameplay look like in such a game?

    I don’t have a lot of answers yet. But the questions, at least, seem interesting.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 23 August, 2010 @ 9:02 AM

  9. #8

    Well, I’ve been told that Dwarf Fortess generates a thousand or more years of history to set the background for each game. Seems like you could procedurally generate family histories, secrets that people try to hide, and, with AI capable of at least rudimentary handling of motivations like shame, fear, and the Seven Deadlies, you could get started.

    Comment by DataShade — 23 August, 2010 @ 5:59 PM

  10. #7
    I owned a Genesis growing up, not an SNES, so maybe that’s why I prefer the S/G Shadowrun to the SNES. I’d just add that “sneaking” actually involved primitive social engineer – violently faking an illness, using forged papers, etc – and that hacking terminals made it infinitely easier to sneak or to stop a lockdown after violence.

    Comment by DataShade — 23 August, 2010 @ 6:02 PM

  11. If Shadowrun’s “party” system could be reliably implimented in a virtual world it would make for an amazing game. The PnP system is particularly well suited for a MMO with a few minor tweaks to how the mechanics work. The party system with its decking, astral magic and physical combat could literally break the holy trinity tank-dps-healer mindset by providing a set of coordinated roles that need to be performed to beat a mission(think instance). There’s enough detail and lore in the world to support a few expansions and there’s enough “fantasy” injected into the IP to keep it fresh and distinct from the other space shooters.

    The only reason why a Shadowrun MMO has not been released is, IMHO, because of the current state of the IP. One company owns the PnP rules. Microsoft and Infogrammes own the rights to computer games and another Wizkids owns the lore. The IP is a mess of ownership that wants to offload it but isn’t willing to be the first to let go for fear of getting screwed out of value. So the IP stays in seperate hands and remains idle. The only people that lose are fans of the game. Aside from Shadowrun, I don’t think a cyberpunk game has a chance without looking like Shadowrun.

    Comment by Derek Licciardi — 24 August, 2010 @ 9:29 PM

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