OK, time to finally continue my story of this jarkkovuori-project I’m involved with. As I told you last time, I met Jarkko at Ropecon and we agreed to keep in touch; I sent him some old conceptual work I’d done for computer games, and he told me about the kind of game he’d want to make. In short order this resulted in me writing a couple of concept documents for a hypothetical massive multiplayer adventure game called Theomachia. It seems like an interesting little game concept, and I’ll tell you about it after discussing the process of concepting a bit, first.
What is a concept in game design?
An interesting coincidence: I read Ville Vuorela‘s nice book Pelintekijän käsikirja (it’s a Finnish book about the process of creating a game; Ville’s main thesis is that all games, regardless of medium, are created through the same fundamental process) a while ago, a bit after meeting Jarkko Vuori. (Here‘s me commending it, in Finnish.) Then, when I started discussing the game creation process with Jarkko, I started getting constant flashbacks to Ville’s book from how Jarkko discussed the topic. The reason quickly became evident: Jarkko has read the book as well and obviously it’s been a huge influence, to the extent that now he’s put it in the “recommended reading” list for the project participants. I found this funny, but clearly it just shows how much interest and need we have for books in this genre here in Finland. Jarkko seems to be a fan of Ville’s in general, he asked me at one point to seek Ville’s feedback on our project. I’ll be happy to do that when we have settled on the project we’re going to do.
Anyway, concept design: when we get together to make a game with a large group, it’s important that the work is bootstrapped in discrete, controllable phases. This way the back-and-forth within the studio (group of game creators, you know) can be directed in a reasonable manner and everybody knows what we’re doing. “Concept design” is the first phase in this process. The “concept document” is a shortish description of the game to be made, written in rather general terms. The idea is to depict what we’re trying to do. How it will be accomplished will be figured out later in the process.
My concept document for Theomachia is four pages long after I answered all questions Jarkko asked about the first version. As of this writing the concept’s been lying dormant for a week or so, while Jarkko’s been working on putting together the programming crew and I’ve been doing other stuff. The crew has not yet accepted the game for development or anything, so I don’t really know if this will be the game we’ll be doing. On the other hand, I don’t care that much either way; quality design can be stored and recycled, so any design work I do is not going to waste even if it will not be used right now.
(First, a sketch of a splash page for the game. Note the anglisation of the game’s name.)
Chaos beget Erebos off himself, the darkness-shadow-void…
Erebos beget Aither off Nyx-his-sister, the Protogenos of Space…
Aither beget Ouranos off Hemera-his-sister, the Father Sky…
Ouranos beget Kronos off Gaia-his-sister, the Titan of Time…
Kronos beget Zeus off Rhea-his-sister, the God of Storm…
And when all is said and done, of their blood raised blood of heroes, blood of monsters, blood of humans and their kind.
I have a full concept document for the game, too, but it’s in Finnish, so I’ll just sketch out the main points here. If you’re reading my blog you can’t be too much of a dunce (acquired taste for a refined palate my blog, I’m sure), so you’ll figure out what I’m going for here.
- A massively multiplayer online adventure game (others call these “roleplaying” games, but that sticks to my craw) rooted in Greek myth in terms of genre. Retool the typical interaction to remove progress-via-repetition and addictive reward structures. Retool the social structures to make it more about the game and less about community. I want an adult game that uses player interaction as a genuine enrichment of the play experience, not a chat with funny clothes and annoying 133tpeople. I also want a game that can be played long-term, in small bites, not a fully immersive experience that panders to teenagers and people willing to sacrifice their other hobbies for this one game. In other words, I want the virtues of a single-player game combined with the virtues of a massive multiplayer game, but without the poisonous billing structures and childish hamster wheel game design. Leveling up cannot be the only thing the game is good for, and digital opium cannot be the only thing the game designer can achieve.
- Serious commitment to the artistic endeavour of depicting the mythological Greek world as an inspirational and poetic environment. We want to communicate with our players, not recycle the same geek culture cliches they get from everywhere else. Personally, I’m outright sickened by the way gaming depicts violence, leadership, women, wealth and a multitude of other things that are twisted beyond recognition by a self-centered subculture that rarely even notices how strange the heavily armed stickballoon sexual fantasies used in high-level game advertising might seem to people outside the teenager mindset.
- Pretty visuals without the digital 3d appearance of modern games. The actual interactions in the game can well be represented without a heavy 3d engine because the game is not about that, so it’d be stupid to work with this, frankly, lower-grade visual paradigm. Static bitmaps suffice for our purposes, because the game uses heavy boardgaming metaphor: adventuring happens on a game board, fights are card games and so on. Prefer mature technology over the new, because I don’t really believe that an unfinanced indie production could compete on the high-end tech market anyway, even if we wanted to.
- I should probably have a note about the core activities of the actual game: like this kind of multiplayer games tend to be, the game has plenty of functionality for gods to compete in various different areas; I really have to be more wary of cutting the excess than not having enough. The main content, however, can be broken down thusly:
- Gods play a managerial game of Greek heroes: while the heroes can be used as traditional player characters who go to adventures, they can also rebel against their gods and get into all kinds of trouble, depending on their nature and how the godplayer treats his hero. Several heroes can be owned and traded with other gods and so on, but ultimately the heroes also have their own wants and needs. So it’s a managing game to keep and develop good heroes. Not so much about killing chicken for xp, but about keeping your heroes happy with you and each other.
- Heroes go on adventures for their gods. When the Greek world is in disarray and monsters roam the earth, a Hercules-like figure is needed to tame the wilderness and make room for civilization. These adventures take place on a modest-sized game board and take around 1-2 hours per adventure to finish. Discovery, fighting and such stuff, with surprising rewards for gods and heroes both.
- Heroes rule their city-states and go to war against each other on the bidding of their gods. When the monsters and titans draw back and civilization re-establishes itself, heroes turn their attention to leading their people and ruling. The “monsters” are something that comes up when war ravages the game world, and “titans” are basically computer controlled gods, like the players. The balance of the game shifts between the adventure and rulership based on how warlike the players are: devastating cities lets the wilderness and it’s monsters encroach, necessiating heroic adventuring, and adventuring makes room for establishment of cities and rulership. A balance between the modes of play, in other words.
- The macro-level interactions of the players are channeled by a system of god organization: gods may start pantheons, and pantheons may join together as mythologies. Each step in this organization marginalizes gods that are left outside, encouraging them to start their competing organizations. The goal of ruling all gods is frustrated in genre-faithful manner: if gigants do not attack and rip apart the fledgling monomyth organization, then new player gods are born and rebel against their elders. World plunges back to disorder, and only very skillful play might maintain great mythologies for a long time. Like Great Dalmuti, success is temporary.
The observant reader might notice that I’m not really thinking up anything phenomenally revolutionary here. I just want a game that’s one half computerised Talisman and one half King of Dragon Pass, with Greek myth as a serious genre topic. The funny part here is that my experience of playing real, modern massive multiplayer games is extremely limited, so for all I know they don’t really have the weaknesses I perceive. I’m more of a single-player type guy when it comes to computer games, as the multiplayer games feel exhaustive in their pace, downgraded in their design and horrid in the social culture that has developed around them.
One important design constraint I’ve taken upon myself here is that I need to create the separate activities of the game as modular, independent designs. Jarkko wants a MMOG because he believes it the best market for a fledgling game design studio, but that doesn’t mean that it’s very practical. I’m hedging my bets a bit by designing the different activities of the game as detachable systems. I’ll write later more about the combat system, which I call Karta Machiton, and which is a fine example of what I mean here. I’m hoping that by modularising we can create something playable and fun for a short single-player game much sooner than we could create the whole game. Publishing smaller games separately might also work as advertising for the more ambitious overall project. And if it proves that our team can’t keep it’s shit together even long enough to create a computer card game, then it seems pretty clear that making a whole MMOG is a pipe dream. I’ve been in many enough imploding game projects to know to expect that.