Wednesday, 18 April 2007

The MMMO

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a disappointment for me. Not because the game wasn't any good, on the contrary, it was a lot of fun and I had many hours of enjoyable questing solo and with friends; I loved many of the features of the game, such as the spell combo. system, where you could trigger greater effects by having members cast the right spells in the right order in unison, something we're seeing emphasised in more recent MMOs such as EQII and LotRO. What disappointed me about FFCC was what it didn't do, and this is entirely my fault, because my overactive imagination went to work on a snippet of information before anything substantial had been revealed. Now this sort of thing happens all the time, the difference being that when my idea of what this meant didn't come to fruition, I didn't find the first forum that was vaguely related to the game and post an 'open letter to the devs' about how wrong they were, and how I knew everything about their game, and clearly they didn't have a clue. I was just a little disappointed for a missed opportunity, and then realised that I was probably being a bit overambitious with the idea anyway. As usual.

The snippet of information was that the Gamecube-exclusive game was going to have Gameboy SP connectivity.It seems pretty obvious that Gameboy == Portablilty will always evaluate to true. So the conclusion I jumped to was that FFCC was not going to be one game, but in fact two. Essentially I saw the Gamecube game being the main game, where you'd spend most of your time, but that there would be a Gameboy game that would allow you to continue the adventures of your character without having to lug around a console, a portable diesel generator and a reasonable sized CRT TV. I envisaged the Gameboy game having sub quests that would allow you to maybe gain slightly better items, or maybe prestige and nicety items that had no real effect on your character's prowess in combat, and perhaps to just play through various levels or stories for your character that had no bearing on the main plot. When you plugged the Gameboy in to the Gamecube to play the main game, the two would sync the items and events performed, and thus you would have those items in the main game. The reason I thought it might only be prestige items was that not everybody who had a Gamecube would have a Gameboy too, so making character advancement be based on the Gameboy game too would be a little unfair, although an awesome marketing ploy if you could make a game great enough that people would buy a Gameboy just to play the added content (which is certainly a phenomenon known to happen within the gamer market).

Of course, after being vaguely sensible I then went off on an imagineering-fest, where I had the Gameboy game being part of the main adventure, that you could play linked Gameboy adventures with other people and trade items with them. A lot of the enthusiasm for this was fuelled from my old Dreamcast. Ah, Dreamcast, how I loved thee... but down that road lies reminiscence of epic proportions, so I'll not travel there for now. Amongst the Dreamcast's awesome features was the fact that the memory cards had a little display and controls, and essentially doubled as a mini game console, we're talking more Tamagotchi than Gameboy, but it was pretty clever nevertheless. So in, say Sonic Adventures, you would have mini pets that you could collect, and you could do various things in game like race them, but you could also download them to your memory card and take them out and about with you, and essentially you had a mini Tamagotchi game that you could play. When you uploaded the pet again, the new and improved pet would be able to win tougher races, but also you could breed it with the stock of pets you had in the main game and pass on some of its new traits to other pets.

And so I was reading on Virtual Cultures about Richard Bartle's keynote presentation, and it reminded me of all the time I spent in MUDs at University when I was meant to be coding, and how text based adventures were great fun - still are great fun - and wouldn't it be good if we could encourage people to enjoy the wonders of text-based adventures. Now this could mean MUD, or it could mean Nethack, either way, the player's imagination is forced to work a bit harder, and seeing as some people seem to think that this is the only way to develop the 'player as hero' in MMOs - you know, it's the player's fault, they just aren't trying hard enough to imagine themselves as a hero - then this might be one way to develop that.

Mobile gaming could be a wonderful way to do this. The mobile device that is most accessible to players, and that a large majority of players will already own is the telephone. As technology develops in leaps and bounds, these devices are already capable of playing quite complex Java games: my current 'phone is quite basic by top-end standards, and yet has a Java implementation of SEGA Megadrive (Genesis to you leftpondians) games that look and play pretty well, certainly they're entertaining enough for me to play whilst sat at a station waiting for public transport, for example. So a text-based approach to a mobile MMO is easily achievable on the most common mobile device, and considering MMOs generally equate to some non-trivial level of time investment, going for a medium that isn't processor and hence battery intensive would be wise. Now, a 'phone's screen isn't the largest area to be reading swathes of text, so it would seem that a Nethack-a-like game, as opposed to a MUD would be more appropriate, with perhaps slightly more user friendly sprites than @, # and co. Ok, so not text-based in the end, but keeping the philosophy of text-based games like Nethack in mind.

The other great opportunity here is that a large proportion of mobile 'phones these days support wireless connectivity, and Internet connectivity; so the potential for wireless link-ups, or updating your character's progress to the main game server are there to be explored.

There are horrible complications with client trust, if you allow people to play a game offline and then update the online world with data from offline play, so that's a nasty hurdle to have to overcome, but I firmly believe it can be achieved.

Once you break out into the mobile world there are lots of fascinating ideas that can be thrown in to the mix. How about having the real world location that you're in effect the game in some way? Then there's the opportunity to have extra functionality when in close real-world proximity to other players. Players could have certain monster mobs associated with their copy of the game, if two people are playing nearby, the game could grab new monsters from the other player and introduce them in to your game. In fact, a clone of one player's character could be copied across and become an NPC for the other player to fight, and perhaps one of the cloned player's (now NPC) items would drop as a reward for defeating them.

The synchronisation between the platforms could be two-way as well. In the constant MMO, i.e. the one you would play at your PC, you could earn new content to adventure in for your mobile game; perhaps successfully defeating a dungeon would open up a version of the on the mobile game, which would allow your character to then explore. The 'constant' dungeon would require a group perhaps, whereas the mobile version was soloable. The mobile version wouldn't give you the great items that you would get in the constant one, but would allow you to play for prestige things, such as character titles or vanity items that you could in turn, transfer back to the main game.

The mobile game could be as simple or as involved as designers thought the market could handle, it would seem that the majority of mobile play would be in 'dead time' such as a long train journey or waiting at an airport, where people want to hop-in and play a quick burst of something, but be able to drop it quickly as well. Tobold recently posted about tradeskill improvement: you could easily have the mobile part of your MMO encompass several mini games that allow the player to create items and improve their character's tradeskill, which will then get synchronised to the main game, in an attempt to avoid the 'staring at a progrss bar' style of tradeskills of the moment. One advantage of this is that you could make the mini-games along the lines of Puzzle Quest, which are essentially Bejewelled with an RPG system tagged-on, without breaking the immersion or continuity of the main game.

There's no doubt that mobile gaming is a big industry and that people want to play games even when they're away on holiday; whether such 24/7 gaming is healthy or not is another debate, but if that is what people choose to do with their lives, why not cater to it. Even narrowing the field down to mobile 'phone gaming, their are multitudinous game companies that do very nicely from the downloadable game market, so gaming on 'phones is in no way a novel idea.

Tapping in to that market by tying it in to an MMO franchise might be an interesting adventure, though.

1 comment:

Chu-chu said...

The idea of having different monsters in different versions of a game has been done before in Pokemon on the Gameboy. The Red and Blue versions, and I'm sure there were others after them, had pokemon unique to their coloured cartridges, and the only way players of the other version could get those pokemon was to share with another player.

As for location having an effect on the game, it depends on what you mean or how you think it should be implemented. It's one thing for it to have a superficial effect on they way the game looks, it's quite another for it to affect gameplay directly. You have to bear in mind just how few locations people will generally play in, and that they will tend to be the same locations and times for the most part.

It's quite nice to play World of Warcraft and head to Feralas in the evening most of the time, to see it in dusk or night lighting, and then turn up first thing in the morning and see it in all it's glorius colour. It's quite another to play Rogue Leader on the Gamecube and, because you work each day, play only in the evenings, only to encounter a level that depends on the time of day to play. I wasn't even aware that an arguably easier version of the level was available if played during the 'day' (in scare quotes because it didn't matter if the Sun was up locally, just what the programmers had coded as daytime) because I never got to play it at that time. The way I got past the level was by changing the time on the Gamecube so that the game thought it was day.

I would rather not have to find a type of location to get a buff or some other benefit to make getting through a level easier, although having it present the information to me differently, in a way that doesn't affect gameplay, would be interesting.