Sunday, January 30, 2011

We Did Big Things

After the President’s State of the Union address President Obama was kind enough to send me an email that suggested that, with a small donation, I might be entitled to a t-shirt emblazoned with the their new slogan. I noticed it is a limited edition t-shirt. That’s probably appropriate. I fear the doing of big things will to be limited to Obama’s first two years and unlikely to continue into the next two.

I found the speech to be solid, agreeable, and well delivered. I didn’t disagree with his tone or topics or priorities. But I don’t think it will it serve as a rousing call to action. The reasons for the pending era of inertia are political and financial.

On the political side, the President’s large Democratic majorities were swept away in the last election and replaced with addition representative from the party of NO. This was partially an electoral reaction to rapid change during an uncertain time. The people have demanded gridlock and they shall receive it. But if the last two years were about using legislative majorities to get get stuff done, the next two years might actually be about changing the tone in Washington and finding common ground. The mixed seating at the speech was a good start. I’ve always believed in Obama as facilitator-in-chief. If the new GOP majority actually wants to address any of our problems they will find a willing partner.

Of course there isn’t any money to do big things. We’re still running trillion dollar deficits. And the big tax-deal-giveaway during the lame duck really needs to be the last big splurge. Closing that trillion dollar difference is a worthwhile focus for our government. With taxes too low and spending too high we can look forward to less money, more public-sector layoffs, and a protracted battle as everyone clings to what they already have.

Some of the things that are broken in America could be fixed without additional costs. We could institute a guest worker program that rationalized our immigration policy. The millions of undocumented people living and working in the US could be offered a legal status in a way that increased revenue. We’re sleepwalking in the face of catastrophic global climate change. A carbon tax is an overdue and obvious money-maker. Our corporate and personal income taxes could both be restructured in a way that radically simplified reporting, reduced rates, eliminated loopholes, and increased revenue.

There are plenty of big things left for us to do. But the “we” will not be the Obama administration or a Democratic congress. “We” means all of us now, left and right, Democrats and Republicans. If we can agree on the problems and work towards the solutions, then we’ll do big things. If not, the big things that bedevil us will remain undone. And they will only get bigger.

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.