Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Building a Better Superhero MMO

My experience with DC Universe Online has me daydreaming a bit more about what would make a great Superhero MMO. So, I decided to write down my design notes. If I ran the circus, here is what I would do...

Design the heroes and villains that will populate this world. Create about a dozen of each. Give each a name, an origin, an identity, a bit of back-story, and a general power set. Each character also gets a general arc. The character’s destiny may be to become earth’s greatest defender, or to have his revenge, or to rule the world, or to become king of the underworld. Each character starts at the beginning but has a different destination. Players will be able to edit their costumes, and choose how a character’s powers evolve. But you you choose to start as one of these predefined heroes or villains.

There is also a set of core NPCs that operate in the world. Some of them might be mob bosses, and dark overlords. But mostly they will be the normals: kindly neighbors, classmates, love interests, brilliant scientists, dogged detectives, intrepid reporters, hired muscle, and other reoccurring characters.

The game runs a number of these worlds in parallel. When a player signs into a game session he gets added to one of the worlds. The engine has the general mandate to get one (and only one) of each of the predefined characters into each instance. Social networking algorithms would be used to keep groups of players together and let you play with your friends. But your Mongoose is the only Mongoose. On a given day, your archenemy the Master Mime might be a low-level frustrated artist being played by a new player. Or he might be a high level criminal mastermind holding the city hostage.

In-game missions are generated by pulling players together with a matchmaking algorithm. A villain is given the chance to embark on some criminal enterprise. Selected heroes are alerted via sky signal, news bulletin, or thought bubble. They can decide to take the case and try to stop her. There would be some environmental adversaries run by the game - thugs, mercenaries, security guards etc.. but they would all but added as part of a dynamic ongoing mission, and not as an eternally respawing part of the scenery. The core of the action would be when the player-piloted heroes and villains square off. Then they succeed or fail, stand or fall. No dying and respawning for them either.

Because the game knows the hero’s name and identity, the NCPs can be woven into each of the missions as informers, hostages, and plot devices. The game can track the each character’s relationship with each of the other characters. It can go beyond costumed adventuring and explored the characters underneath the costumes as well.

Most MMOs pit a vast supply of bland characters against an unchanging environment. The game isn’t about the characters because it doesn’t know who they are. The rich potential of an MMO comes from the interaction and relationships between the players. I want a game that combines engaging characters, played by real people, with an actual storyline that recognizes these characters and lets them tell the story of their journeys together. That game might not exist yet. But I can dream.

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