The entire world where a decent computer and an internet connection is available. As many people as can be reached, primarily young ones, with a main focus on the lowest common denominators residing in industrialized countries.
It is a sad reality that the general public hates to be educated, specially when it comes to entertainment based media. The irony here is that entertainment media is the best conduit to education. So, how do we marry the two in an attempt to create social awareness for different issues or solutions to today's problems while at the same time challenging people to think differently?
Well, some TV shows and movies have tried it, but often times the message is either lost or it doesn't stick for very long. I think this is mostly because the audience's only role is as spectators. Games, on the other hand, not only make the experience last longer but also make the audience participants in the story, and therefore more emotionally and intellectually engaged. Since they last longer, the message has higher chances of sticking (while my least favorite of the series, FF7 had environmental themes that are in the minds of it's players to this day), and when making the audience more engaged in the experience it is easier to drop subtle lessons and nuances.
Not everyone will retain the lessons, however, so you want to be able to reach as much people as possible and engage them in working together. How to do that? Well, firstly you have to provide an interesting premise, secondly you have to provide an enjoyable gaming experience, thirdly, you have to have a game with plenty of "kewl" factor, and fourthly, that premise has to both make people want to work together and provide a framework to hide the actual paradigm challenges in the game mechanics.
How do we tackle all four on a single swoop? Well, people do tend to come together when faced with extinction. It is an instinct present in most of us, so an apocalypse would be the ideal setting. But not just any kind of apocalypse. We need one that our younger generations think is cool, can provide plenty cool game mechanics and scenarios, that is beloved by geeks of all ages and already has a myriad of internet memes to go with it. And there is only one type of apocalypse that fits the bill:
ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE ONLINE
Think I'm crazy? Well, I am, but that's besides the point.
A game like this has the potential to draw in tons of players if done right, and when basing a game on survival and lack of resources, many social lessons can be taught to people through play. After all, that is how we learn when we are children, and it is certainly something we retain as adults.
The idea is to challenge people's accepted paradigms and make them face these axioms through play. While, again, many of the lessons will not be retained by some, a good part of the acquired knowledge will stay with them, even if at a semi conscious level, and in the best of cases, they will have replaced their old axioms with new ones or at least learned to question them.
So allow me to go through the key points first:
It must be a fully featured 3D environment. While social browser games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars are hugely popular, they lack the ability to implement a lot of game mechanics and user immersion is minimal, decreasing the impact on their thought process.
It must have a built in way to communicate with social networks. While it should not be a browser game, it is important to have it communicate with the leading social networks, specially Facebook. This not only would allow the game to gather more users, it would also take advantage of the social networks themselves and create tighter social connections.
It must be free. And by free I really do mean free. Many free-to-play games currently available have pay features, which only help widen the gap between the haves and have nots and cause social rifts very much like the ones in the real world. The game should be supported by a mixture of donations, advertisement and product placement. Yes, product placement. After all, it would be extremely out of place to have a Pepsi sign hanging outside a building in Azeroth (World of Warcraft), but it would make perfect sense in a contemporary setting and it would help add another layer of realism.
Most game mechanics should pit players against a social problem. This doesnotmean they should be made to write an essay on how to procure safe drinking water in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, that they should invent new ways to filtering water or other on-the-nose mechanics. It means instead that they should be placed in the situation itself and then be provided with means of solving it, such as salvaging water bottles from a mall or a water processing unit from an abandoned plant. This is extremely important because, if the lessons are too obvious, the general public will tend to reject them immediately.
Players should be engaged by the game itself. By this I mean they should feel like the protagonist in their own zombie ridden story. Current MMORPG's have only half-heartedly tried this, the most successful of them being Guild Wars, which is scenario-based. On Zombie Apocalypse Online, players should be engaged from the moment they create their characters, and quest design should be more than "go from NPC A to NPC B, kill mob X, get item Y, go to NPC C and then get item Z". Quests should provide more freedom to allow players different ways of doing it and offering different dialogs accordingly.
The game should allow for PvP. While Player vs. Player combat may seem contrary to what is being tried to achieve, it is not. Firstly, it is an important aspect of MMORPG's that a lot of players care about, and proof of it is the flop that LOTR Online was. A good PvP system in an apocalyptic environment also provides a unique social opportunity: Letting people chose if they want to be a part of a survivor's enclave or a looter's hideout. This "cops vs. robbers" type of gameplay can let those who chose to be outlaws experience the ugly side and all that comes with it first hand, including having bounties on their heads.
The game should include character archetypes. The code word here is that nobody should be expendable. Every type of playable character should not only have something to contribute, but something that is necessary for survival. Some people love the WoW system that allows characters do a bit of everything, and that should still be present, but it should also be mixed with a class progression system like the one in Lineage 2. It should be a game where certain cla**** will be necessary because nobody else can perform their tasks.
The GM's and developers should play the game. The only way both Game Masters (admins) and game developers can stay in touch with the community and what the game will need in future expansions is by playing it themselves. This would be done through a special enclave that would represent the survivors from the top 1% of the population or alternate accounts without special privileges, where they can play with the rest.
Why is this important?
When discussing media that educates people, makes them confront issues or attempts to broaden their horizons it is necessary to remember that the average audience is resistant to change in their beliefs, axioms and paradigms. Whenever we attempt to change them by "creating awareness", it takes a lot of repetition and perseverance to even make a fact stick, and even more to make people truly care about it.
Making a game like EVOKE is a great thing, since it brings some brilliant minds together, but ultimately, it brings the wrong audience. And by the wrong audience, I mean us. We already acknowledge, support and believe in the causes EVOKE champions, but the general public does not or doesn't care enough to get involved. For instance, the target audience of educational games, are not children: it's their parents. This is because it is a well known fact that most children don't really care about educational games, their parents just want them to play them. In the case of EVOKE, some teachers are making their students play it, and for most, it is a school assignment. They are not truly engaged by and interested in the game. The end result is that the education and paradigm shift is only temporary, or worst case scenario, nonexistent.
The only path to affect the general public in a meaningful way is by providing something enjoyable that is easy to digest and that it is not something immediately recognizable as a challenge to their preconceived notions or that attempts to make them care about something they didn't feel as important to their lives before.
Of course, it would be naive to expect people to walk away with an entirely new set of beliefs and priorities. That would not be a realistic goal and that is not what I am proposing. What I am proposing is to make a dent big enough that it will make players receptive to new ways of thinking and more empathetic to world problems by placing them in those situations themselves.
Okay, so with that out of the way, let's get into a few of the details.
Players should be engaged by the game and story from the moment they create their character. Character creation should include gender and several preset hairstyles, facial hair, complexions, ethnicities, face shapes and others. More importantly, it should also include real-time birth date and different ages for each character model. By real time birth date, I mean you can enter your real birth date and your character will be as old as you and have it's birthday on the same day as you. Like most things on the internet, the game should only be usable by players 13 and older, so the avatars should have 4 models: early-mid teens, adult, middle aged and senior, possibly with a transitional model in between each.
Character creation should also involve, of course, the class of the character, which will be discussed below. But it should also include the question: "Where were you when the zombie apocalypse hit?". Some answers could include: At home, at work, at school, at a sports game, etc. This is where player immersion should really start.
Depending on their choice of location and class, players should be taken through a 30-50 minute "instanced dungeon" that will tell the tale of how their characters began life in the zombie apocalypse. This should start with a 5 or so minutes cinematic generated by the game engine with the player's own character.
Here is a quick example:
The player chose to be a teenager "geek" class and he chose to be "At school". When the game begins he is sitting in the cafeteria with his friends when the principal bursts in announcing that everyone has to go to the gym. The kids rush there and stare at a TV set where the news reporters are announcing the outbreak and give the background information of the game's premise. Then the president comes on the screen, and as he begins to talk the signal is lost. Wails and moans are heard and suddenly zombies start breaking into the gym. The character rushes to the side of the basketball court and breaks the glass hiding the fire extinguisher. He rushes at the zombies and sprays them with the extinguisher to block their eyesight and yells at everyone to flee into the school building. Once there, he helps secure the door, but it will not hold for long.
After the cinematic, now invested on what will happen next, the player will be allowed to go through the "instanced dungeon" as the game tutorial helps him figure out what to do. The "instanced dungeon" should have a countdown for when the zombies will break in, and it will be the player's goal to complete small missions inside the instance before then. By the end of the "instanced dungeon", the player should be presented with another quick cinematic of how he completed his escape from the school building and be told he has been struggling to survive ever since. The player can then be taken into the main game world at a specially designated newbie area.
After this, all quests and missions should be tailored for the character's class. Some missions should be only available to some cla****, and those that are available to all should have twists and variables that make them change depending on the character. They should be designed to make the player both feel the main character of his story and make him pay attention to what the NPC is saying and be engaged by it. A lot of lessons can be hidden in the dialogs, which most players tend to ignore in MMORPG's. A good and efficient way to do this would be to have the quests include variables that will randomly pick a mob to kill or an NPC to talk to. If the missions are dynamically generated, players will need to read the dialogs in order to complete them.
As a final part of the initial immersion, players should be allowed to chose what part they want to play in the game world: they could be part of an enclave, they could be looters or they could be lone wolves, and each path should make the players face the corresponding issues and challenges.
Ideally, there should be about 10 basic cla**** based on survival story archetypes, each of which could branch into 4 or more final cla**** through a class evolution system.
Here's a few of the rough first ideas:
1. The Geek
Good at basic science, computers and technology. The class could branch out into Scientist and Technocrat.
Capable of applying science and knowledge to his survival techniques. Unsure of how to implement this one yet. Maybe branch out into Chemist and Physician
Knows how to use technology and gadgets to survive. Has basic communication and reconnaissance skills. Can branch out into Reconnaissance Expert and Communications Officer.
Using his know how of compounds, the chemist can be an extremely resourceful character. The chemist not only is able to produce different types of medicine that Physicians use for treatment, but can also create drugs that can enhance the abilities of himself and other players. Additionally, his know how of chemical compounds allows him to create explosives and incendiary devices.
Treating injuries is a most vital part of survival. The physician has minor weapon skills, but with his knowledge of anatomy he can apply this limited knowledge to great use. He is able to treat injuries and diseases on the field quickly and effectively.
The Reconnaissance Expert
Able to use gadgets and technology to always keep one step ahead. Good with medium to low caliber long ranged weapons and capable of using gadgets.
The Communications Officer
A required class for a successful enclave or hideout. Can use communications gear and create items to keep his base connected with the world. Good with pistols and revolvers, capable of generating S.O.S. signals (prevent character death) and use social services only available in enclaves/hideouts when on the field.
2. The Tough Guy
The no-nonsense type of character, ready for action at any time. The class could branch out into Gunman and Martial Artist.
A great believer in the power of powder, and proud of it. Good at firearms of most types. The class could branch into Gunslinger and Sniper.
The Martial Artist
A character who thinks ammo is only finite, but a good blade and a set of fists are forever. Good at close quarter combat and bladed weapons. Could branch into Brawler and Swordmaster.
A knowledgeable fighter on all firearms. Specially really... big... guns. Great at all firearms and capable of using the strongest ones in the game.
A firm believer in "one shot, one kill" tactics. Great with long ranged weapons. Has long reload times, but increased accuracy and damage.
Brawlers figure that zombies are nothing more than diseased humans, therefore they should be as easy to knock down with a well placed blow to the old noggin. A veritable human tank capable of literally beating zombies to a bloody pulp while enduring large amounts of damage.
An expert in blades and swords of all types. Can use any bladed weapon with extreme speed and efficiency.
3. The Handyman
An everyman that is good with his hands. Has basic repair skills, represented as "buffs" and equipment "heals". Could branch out into Mechanic and Repairman.
When anything needs to be built or enhanced, these are the guys to go to. Has good equipment crafting abilities. Could branch out into Weapons Expert and Engineer.
Everything tends to wear down, including body armor and fortifications, and this is where the repairmen come in. Has good "buff" and "heal" abilities for equipment and vehicles. Could branch out into Renovator and Rebuilder.
The Weapons Expert
A master of all things that go boom. Capable of creating a myriad of weapons and armor, provided there are enough salvaged resources.
Some would describe engineers are builders, some as car guys, but they are actually a bit of both. Engineers are a main class for any successful base, since they can create fortification structure and restore vehicles into working order if they get enough parts.
Sometimes just having a great piece of equipment is not enough, and a little extra tweaking can be the difference between survival and becoming zombie food. Great at "buff" skills to enhance stats of equipment, vehicles and base fortifications.
While other cla**** are masters of creating, the renovator is a master of maintaining. They have great "heal" abilities for both equipment and vehicles. They can also repair damage done to base fortifications.
Again, these are just some of the basic drafts. A lot more ideas can come and cla**** can change once an actual game system is developed.
The life blood and main point of the game, where the social lessons and awareness exercises will be hidden. Nothing should be too obvious or too on the nose. The idea is not to tell players they should care about these issues, but to make them care about it on their own, in the very real hopes they would carry that knowledge with them in real life.
Dynamic Questing - Stage 1
In most MMORPG's, quests and killing mobs are equally important in the gameplay, but most players look up online walkthroughs and pay no attention to the hundreds of lines of text involved in making these quests. The only solution to this problem is to make it impossible for players to look up the answers, and making the quests be generated dynamically takes care of the situation.
It bears repeating that things should not be too on the nose. NPC's should not have dialogs like "We are running out of water. Did you know they used to go through the same thing in Palestine?" or "Our water filtering processes are bad, we need someone to help us innovate a new efficient and cost-effective way off doing things!". Like I mentioned at the beginning of my post, people don't like to be educated - and they like being told what to think even less. Things need to be subtle but still powerful enough that players will want to care about them on their own.
In other words, regardless of the lesson or awareness a specific quest is trying to convey, it needs to make sense within the context of the game world to make it stick in the minds of players. The moment the 4th wall is broken, the lesson is lost because player immersion was lost. If, on the other hand, they are given something that makes sense within the context of the game and is not directly preaching something or challenging their thought process, players will be much more receptive to it.
For instance, a player goes to an NPC in a survivor's enclave in search for a quest. Since quests are dynamically generated, he does not know what he'll be doing yet, but knows it will have rewards in XP and resources. (and mind you, this would only be a rough draft)
Let's say part 1 is selected from a pool of dialog starters.
NPC: "Oh, [player name], I'm glad you came! I have heard a lot about you lately. I am terribly sorry to bother you with this, but our water treatment unit broke, and I hear you do some mercenary work. Look, I will share some of our [dynamically generated, for this example let's say gasoline] with you! I beg you! We are dying our here!"
Of course, the player would have the option to accept or deny. Denying would have consequences, depending on the type of quest (more on this later), but for the purposes of this example let's say the player accepts.
Part 2, selected from a pool of possible continuations to part 1.
NPC: "Oh, God bless you [player name]!! Please, check in with [NPC name, for this example let's say "Willie"], he's the one who knows all about our treatment unit. Just make sure you don't get too close to him. The idiot went ahead and drank some contaminated water, so now he's caught a bug or something."
Player goes to Willie. Any dynamically selected NPC should be in the immediate area of the last one.to avoid player frustration. There is no need to send them halfway across the game world just to speak to an NPC.
Willie: "Hack!! Cough!! Oh, you're [player name]! That old fart said you'd come. Hack!! Hack!! Cough!! Sorry about that, I've been a little under the weather lately. Me and [random name, opposite sex to Willie, for this example let's say Maria] got a little desperate for water and must have drank something bad. Sigh. She's in the infirmary right now... and it's all my fault. Cough!! Cough!! HACK!! Uh... anyways, you're here for the info on our water treatment unit, right?"
At this point, the player has three choices, "Hold tight, I'll get some supplies and come back" (puts the quest on hold, no effects), "Yes, I'm here to help you guys fix it" (gets on with the quest, no effects) and "Wait... can you tell me more about your girlfriend?" (makes the quest slightly longer, provides x2 rewards + additional item)
For the sake of argument, let's say the player knows caring about Maria will give additional rewards, so he takes that option.
Part 3. Again, taken from a pool of options based on Part 2.
Willie: "Well... heh... she's not really my girlfriend. Cough! You could say we're... close friends... sort of... I mean... not that I wouldn't mind, I just... well... I never asked her. Sigh. I'd give anything to see [Maria] healthy again so I can tell her how I feel about her. Hey, would you do me a favor? Cough!! Cough!! HAAAAAAAAAAAACK!! There's a hospital not too far from here. The antibiotics she needs could be salvaged from there, I just can't go in my current situation. Plus, I don't want to leave her side right now."
Again, two choices, one to put the quest on hold and another to continue. Let us say the player agrees to the request and continues.
Willie: "Thank's so much!! Okay, so here's the deal. The treatment unit has some busted parts and it needs some new carbon filters. Thankfully, there is a hospital nearby that should have what we need in the storage room. While you're at it, you could see if you can find the medicine my dear [Maria] needs. Cough!! Cough!! Cough!! All the medicine cabinets there must have been looted by now, I'm sure, but I would think the nurses were carrying some during the outbreak. People were trying to treat the zombie infections with antibiotics, as you may recall. There's a bit of a tricky part, tho. Another one of our residents is the one who was in charge of salvaging parts from that place. Unfortunately, he never got back from his last assignment, and that is why we are in this situation now. Hack!! Cough!! He was a bit of a paranoid, so for security he locked the storage room with a special key. It cannot be picked even by the most skilled scout and he always kept it hidden in his clothes. I would guess by now he's a [Mob Name]. Good luck [Player Name]!! Me and my dear [Maria] will pray for your safe return."
At this point, the player goes off to the quest area. He should be able to get both the "Storage Key" and "Antibiotics" as quest drops. Once he has the items, he can proceed to the storage room and open the door with it. Turns out the storage "room" is actually a locker. Using the key on it will give the "Water Treatment Spare Parts" quest item.
The player returns to the NPC.
Willie: "Oh... you got the parts and the medicine... HACK!! COUGH!!! I will get to repairing the water treatment unit right away... you can keep the medicine, [Maria] will not need it anymore."
For the sake of keeping the player involved in the dialog, a single option: "What happened?" should be presented.
Willie: "She took a turn for the worse... the doc said it was ch***ra and she was too dehydrated. COUGH!!! In her last moments I told her how I feel... and she felt the same! If only I would have had the guts to tell her about my feelings before, when we were still okay... and now she's dead... from just a tiny drink of water... HACK!! HACK!! COUGH!!! Ch***ra... we always thought if we died it would be because of those damn zombies, not from being thirsty..."
Again, for the sake of player involvement, the dialog should have another single option: "Please, I know it will not help her now, but take the medicine anyway. No sense in losing you as well."
Willie: "Thank you, [player name]. Listen, I know I put you through a lot, but I have one last favor to ask you. I have to go repair the unit now, to make sure what happened to [Maria] doesn't happen to anyone else, so would you please go leave this on her grave? She used to love this. It was from a trip she took a long time ago. I was going to keep it as a memento, but it's place is with her. The grave is right outside the camp. I will meet you here after I finish the repairs."
Player gets item "African Lion Plushie" and uses it on the cemetery outside the camp. Then the player goes back to the NPC.
Willie: "It's done, now our water should be safe to drink. To tell you the truth, I asked you to bring the plush to her grave because I don't have the heart to visit it, yet. And we could have all had the same fate as her without you, [player name]. So as promised here is your reward. Also... [Maria] was saving this for an emergency, but now it is yours. It's the least I could do."
Player receives: +2 Renown, XP, SP, x4 Gasoline Jug and x1 Zombie Virus Antidote (from the "maria" sub quest)
To keep server load as low as possible, there should be a quest server that handles these quest requests and manages the dynamic generation script, preferably in the same machine where the NPC server is if it can handle the load. Additionally, quest progression, generation and path should be saved in the SQL database for that character itself in special table headers. Character should be able to have only 1 to 20 active quests.
Quests should also have other implications for the player, via the renown/reputation/fame mechanic. Depending on the nature of the quest, it would affect the player positively, negatively or not at all. Additionally, quests should not have an indicator on if they are positive or negative other than the text itself, providing another failsafe to make sure players read the quests. Both "evil" and "good" quests would affect characters differently through that "renown" mechanic.
I will elaborate more on this at a later time.
Dynamic Questing - Stage 2
After a year or so, once the game has gathered a large enough audience, it would be interesting to enlist a high profile foundation to get in on the action. How? By allowing players to create real world changes simply by completing game quests. For instance, by completing the quest above, the foundation could agree to donate one Lifesaver Bottle to an African community, or by completing a quest where players have to break their way into an infested school to retrieve items from a little girl's locker would make the foundation donate one textbook to an Afghan girl.
This would be a fairly simple and straight forward mechanic, but it is designed to interact with many other aspects of gameplay.
Basically, by performing "good" tasks, players would get positive (+) renown, and by performing "bad" tasks they would get negative (-) renown. The first step is quests, of course. Some quest options, such as denying help to somebody in need would reduce a players renown, while completing the quest and helping the NPC would increase it. Some of the dynamic quests paths should have options that change the final renown rewards to keep players on their toes. For instance, the quest from the example above could have a different path, where instead of trying to save the NPC's love interest, the NPC could ask the player to kill his rival. This would result in a renown decrease greater than the bonus the player would get for fixing their water treatment.
Another way in which characters can affect their renown would be PvP. For a "good" character (i.e., somebody with a positive renown), downing a chaotic character that has a bounty on his head would generate positive renown. Conversely, for a chaotic character with high negative renown, downing a player a very high level of positive renown would yield extra negative renown for him. For any character, regardless of renown stats, downing a player that does not have a bounty will generate both Karma and negative renown.
Lastly, players can also have the power to affect someone else's renown by using "thumbs up/down" actions. The amount of modifiers a player can get in a day would be finite, however. At this time, I am thinking 5, but any and all numbers will have to be tweaked and revised during development.
Now, at this point my idea would be to have renown cap at both +500 and -500, with bonuses being applied at each +/-100 mark. In the case of positive renown, for each +100 renown points, they would enjoy a 2% discount when trading at NPC shops, as well as a 2% increase in quest rewards. With negative renown, for each -100 points characters would have a c**ulative increase to the bounty on their name. If they didn't have a bounty before or their karma is 0, they would still get a bounty on them. Additionally, for each -100 renown, chaotic characters would also get a +2% bonus on the resources and money they loot from Enclaves and other players.
Now, about groups (clan/guild). Every Enclave and Hideout would have a renown score equal to the average of all it's members, and it is this average score what would decide if they are either an Enclave or a Hideout in the first place. Of course, the group would also get bonuses on their bases at each +/-100 renown, but I will get into this more after I get more ideas down for how the bases and other mechanics should work. Basically, the idea would be to follow the template of character renown, where positive renown yields good returns, while negative renown yields marginal advantages while at the same time something that sounds "kewl" but is still a detriment to the character.
While not much on it's own, this system would be the backbone of the game's morality mechanics. Also, for me, it's a bit of a social experiment. I'd love to be able to see what paths people take and how they cope with them while harvesting metrics on them at the same time.
Complimentary to the renown system would be the role a player can take inside the game world. This is not about what class they chose, but how they chose to participate with other players and the part they wish to take on the story of the game.
There would be three game roles: Survivor, Looter and Lone Wolf. These roles would be decided through gameplay, and the players would have the freedom to switch from one role to another if they are willing to take the necessary commitments or invest the time in changing their "renown" stats.
Allow me to explain a bit further:
These guys are part of Enclaves (A.K.A. clan/guild), or groups of other survivors that are generally helpful to other players, even going as far as providing sanctuary (respawn/trading) for other players that are not a part of their group (except for Looters). Survivors focus on "positive" renown, be it by moral fiber or game advantages (positive renown would grant no extra bonuses, but would make game progression easier). It is assumed that by the very nature of the game, most players would fit into this role. They would have no access to Hideouts, but they would be able to trade and barter with anyone else, as well as being able to collect bounties on chaotic players. In simplistic terms, in a world of "cops vs. robbers vs. everything else", they fit the role of the cops.
The so-called "bad guys" and I would expect the role of choice for PvP aficionados. They are part of Hideouts (A.K.A. clan/guild), or groups of other like-minded individuals that believe only the strong should have the right to survive. As is to be expected, they focus on "negative" renown, and as a result they have a harder time at game progression and they are unable to trade with Enclaves, ask for sanctuary (respawn/trading) in them, or talk to most NPC's. To compensate for this, they would be able to talk to more shady NPC's and their quest rewards would be higher. They can only offer sanctuary (respawn/trading) to other chaotic characters.They would also have the ability to perform PvP raids on Enclaves for resources, as well as "robbing/ambushing" other players through field combat. Once they down a character, he or she would drop part of the money or resources they are carrying. Conversely, however, when a Looter is downed, they would have a chance of not only dropping their money, but also any non-quest item, including weapons and armor. Killing another (non-chaotic) player results in an increase in Karma, which places a bounty on the player's head. In short, a "slightly higher gain for much higher risk" type of role.
The Lone Wolf
A player that is more comfortable going solo than in a group (A.K.A. they are not part of a clan/guild). These guys could have either positive or negative renown, and they would be able to interact with Enclaves and Hideouts accordingly. Lacking the support of a group, gathering resources, ammo and equipment would be the hardest for them. To compensate for this, they can sign up as mercenaries for any type of siege (defense, PvP, vs. zombies) without affecting their renown or karma and receive higher XP awards from quests.
This roles system, coupled with renown, is intended to make people aware of the advantages and disadvantages of taking a set of moral choices and the consequences of them. I will admit this is a rough first draft and it can be improved further once other mechanics are fleshed out better, but again, everything has to make sense within the context of the game world.
Living Economy - Stage 1
This mechanic would be very simple and straightforward, and yet, nothing I have ever seen in an MMORPG before. Most MMO players are already familiar with basic economic principles and are attuned to what makes a good trade/barter and what does not. However, they have never had the ability to generate a full impact on the entire server economy.
Firstly, and as is traditional of this gaming genre, the main economy would be based on three things: Bartering, Player Shops and NPC shops. So far it seems like the standard economics of an MMO, but the twist is on how each of those trading systems will work.
First, let us start with player trades. Players should be able to post items they wish to sell in a Community Ad-Board. Traditionally, players have to leave their characters sitting in a safe zone offering their items as if it was a flea market, but this system would resemble more an online store. For now, let us call it zBay because the name amuses me greatly.
First, when the player enters an item into the system, it should offer a small tool tip alert to let the player know if he is either j****** up prices or underselling. This would only trigger if the price goes 20% either above or below the base server price. After deciding on a sale price and posting an item on zBay, a side script will keep track of not how much each item is being set on sale for, but how much other players are actually willing to pay for it, and that is where things really get interesting.
Basic item prices from NPC shops would be hard-coded into the game as is the norm in these types of games, but every week or two (whenever server maintenance occurs), the side script that keeps track of what items are actually sold and for how much would kick in. It should average all completed trade prices and then set a new base server price to those items to match the player-created economy. It would also have a secondary effect with player bartering.
Whenever players barter items through a manual trade window, the cost of the items from both parties would be tallied, and a small toolbar at the bottom of the window would let players know if the trade is a fair one or not. This is a leap from current MMO trade systems, where players are left to figure out the actual game value of a certain item. This also adds another layer to player-on-player trades, since players would have an easier time managing the value of their possessions and could place them in a position where they have to give in to an unfair trade in exchange for something they desperately need. Of course, because of this barters should not be tracked by the side script. Not only the possibility of willingly accepted unfair trades is a possibility, but also many players will trade items with their peers just to hand them over to a friend who needs them, so tracking barters would yield inaccurate and false economic data.
This "zBay" trading network should be only accessible from Enclaves, Hideouts and the starter area (in other words, bases that serve the function of safe areas), with the only exception of the Communications Officer class, which can access it from anywhere in the game world by equipping the appropriate gadgets.
For now, and until I come up with a better idea, the main currency of the game would be Dollars. This is for four main reasons:
1. It provides players with a much better and clearer understanding of how their actions are affecting the economy by using a unit they already are familiar with. (i.e. they already have a good idea of what a dollar is worth and how much does it buy) Additnally, while the citizens of the world trade in a myriad of currencies, most have at least a very good idea of how much a dollar is worth.
2. Mobs need to drop some form of currency that players can use, and at this point the only thing I can think of that fulfills all the required roles would be the money they had on themselves when they became infected. For convenience, server lag and to avoid too much inflation, not only would the money drops be low (after all, who carries more than $50 on a regular basis?), but any and all drops would disappear after 10 minutes if they are not picked up. It would be assumed they were either ruined by combat or somebody else picked them up.
3. The sheer shock factor when players see how much a bottle of water or a gallon of gas goes up to, creating a more realistic awareness of how finite the resources are.
4. For design convenience, while the game area would not have a disclosed or recognizable location, it would be based off an american city. However, if the game grows enough to warrant the opening of other localized servers, this currency could be changed accordingly. (i.e., Euros for a European server)
MMO players already know a lot about basic economics, having acquired the knowledge simply by interacting with the same systems that are available in most games. An expanded system, like this one, would allow them to experience more fully how their market choices affect everyone's bottom line, and would also serve to illustrate why renewable sources are desirable. For instance, would a player really pay 20 dollars a gallon of gas to fuel their base's power generator and their vehicles? (and with a living economy system that makes prices fluctuate, the price could get even a LOT higher) Or would they decide on their own that making their base run on solar power simply makes more sense?
For both game balance and an added level of realism/immersion, the living economy system would also interact with quests to dynamically alter the rewards accordingly. For instance, as water prices go up, quests that give water resources would have smaller rewards.(because the NPC would also have less of it and the resource would be more valuable)
Living Economy - Stage 2
As mentioned in passing at the previous section, money drops should be low in the first place to slow down inflation as much as possible. However, as it happens with all economies (and most certainly MMO economies), inflation is not only a possibility but an expected event. So how to turn that around to add another layer of complexity, make players more involved with their virtual economy and help them become aware of real world economic issues?
For anyone familiar with this gaming genre, it is no secret that the top clans, guilds and alliances eventually get to hoard up plenty of resources, and it is often these affluent players the ones that help create cost increases in the first place. Sure, when they agree to pay three times the price for an item simply because they can afford it they are spreading the wealth around, but in doing so they are also creating inflation making the problem worse.
This is where subsidizing items comes in. By allowing wealthy Enclaves to subsidize specific items in exchange for better gear or other game advantages, we can show people the importance of economic balance and the role the top earners of society can take to improve conditions for everyone.
In the case of Hideouts, they could instead sponsor "Zombie Hunter Mercenary" NPC's, which would reduce the number of zombies that would spawn during Mob vs. Player sieges and make base defense easier for everyone.
Of course, these are just the first ideas for stage 2 of the living economy system. I would love to hear thoughts from actual economists and their suggestions to improve it and make the lessons to the players more poignant.
Resource Gathering - Basics
All characters in this game would need several resources for their survival. The first ones to keep into account would be Food and Water. Next to the character's main stats on the game screen, there should be "Thirst" and "Hunger" indicators. These would manifest themselves as "debuffs" (negative status changes) with several levels of need, possibly going from 1 to 10. Of course, they would be time triggered, depending on how long it's been since the character's last meal or drink, such as every 24 hours for hunger and 12 hours for thirst. For each level of the negative status change, c**ulative penalties would apply and should a player reach a total of 10 levels between both, he'll be so weakened that he would be unable of doing much more than walking very, very slowly and trade with NPC's/players.
The next resource of importance would be gas. This would not only be used to power vehicles, but also power generators in bases, flamethrowers and oil-based light sources. If the character doesn't have any, then he can't drive, power the lights on his base, lit a lantern or torch or burn zombies to a crisp.
Lastly, the next resource would be energy. Lanterns, gadgets, vehicles, base installations, some weapons, and radios would all have energy bars associated with them. When the bars run out, that piece of equipment cannot be used anymore. This would be extremely important because energy would power a base's defenses. Without power, resisting zombie raids would become much, much harder.
Alright, so with those basic concepts out of the way, let's get into the main event.
Resource Gathering - Stage 1
From all the babies I have in this project (and believe me, all my ideas are like my babies) this is probably the favored son and the flagship mechanic behind this project. This is actually the very first mechanic I came up with and the one that got me started on everything else right after the words "Zombie Apocalypse Online" first popped into my head, and it is at the very core of what this game is about.
Firstly, during the first year of the game, resources should not be abundant by any stretch of the imagination, but they should still be easily available for anyone willing to do the work for them. Right after a zombie apocalypse hits, it would be safe to assume everyone would be able to break into a convenience store and pick up what they need, such as food, water, medicines and assorted supplies, while gas could be easily available simply by sucking it out of the tank of an abandoned car or a gas station.
This first resources stage should last for a while, until the game at some 5,000 registered players, 2,000 active accounts (logging in at least once every couple days), or a year or so has passed since the game's opening, whichever comes last. To make this mechanic work as intended, the game should have as many players as possible.
The first stages of resources should be as follows:
Available from salvaging bottles, jugs and other drinks from different places. Also, some mobs would have a chance of dropping it when appropriate (Zombie Jogger, anyone?). Similarly, water deposits, abandoned pipes and other water storages could be used to procure liquids. For Enclaves/Hideouts that own a base, it would be possible to install a water treatment unit, tho this would be extremely expensive and would require very high level characters.
Similar to water, food can be procured by salvaging. Also, a minigame would be provided where players can actually hunt and fish for food. As before, Enclaves/Hideouts would be capable of making farmpunk installations, but this would also be expensive and the supplies would involve going into dangerous and infested areas to procure what they need.
At the beginning of the game, gas will be readily available, and it would be possible to salvage from many sources. From gas stations to the gas tanks in abandoned cars to dilapidated malls. As it is not a renewable resource, no base can install any form of equipment to replenish their supplies.
Again, another resource that will be easy to scavenge for in the beginning. Mostly, it will come from abandoned car batteries and salvaging in abandoned convenience stores, as well as being dropped by mobs. Additionally,. Enclaves/Hideouts would be capable of installing two types of power generators: fuel based and solar. While still hard to get, fuel based generators would be more attainable. Solar power installations would require more difficult hunts for the parts (for the trade off it would require no resources to operate).
Of course, as it is the case in real life, players will chose the easiest way to gather these resources. Scavenging what they can and neglecting more renewable ways simply because they are less convenient to attain. Here is where things will start to get very, very interesting.
Resource Gathering - Stage 2
This stage and further ones will not be implemented until it is considered enough people are playing the game. Why? Because the idea is to have players see the resources dwindle before their very eyes and then chose on their own how to solve the problem with the tools we give them in-game. (and that have been available since stage 1)
When stage 2 begins, water rewards from quests, drops and scavenging will begin to dwindle at a rate of 4% every month, until they peak at a 48% decrease 12 months later. Of course, it would be expected to see water prices shoot up.
Right after this stage is implemented, food rewards from quests and scavenging will decrease at a rate of 5% every month until they peak at a 50% decrease 10 months later. Rewards from the fishing/hunting minigames will decrease 4% every two months, until they peak at a 20% reduction after 10 months. Again, an increase in food prices would be expected.
During stage 2, gas supplies from quests and salvaging will go down a full 5% every month until it hits critical mass at 60% decrease after 12 months. Prices will skyrocket and players will have a hard time keeping their cars running and their power generators up.
For energy demands in stage 2, quest rewards, drops and salvaging will go down 3% a month for a full year, until it peaks at a 36% decrease after 12 months. Mind you, in this case we are talking about batteries only. Because of this, I expect to see prices on solar battery rechargers go up. At the begining of the game, these items should be relatively rare and a bit of a commodity, but by the time stage 2 hits, many players should have performed the necessary tasks to get them.
By the end of this stage, it is expected that many players will be actively working on getting supplies from renewable sources. Are we forcing their hand a little? Of course, but the important part is that we are doing it though the mechanics of the game and in a way that makes it both fit into the game world and fun by providing new tasks, quests, items and areas. This is designed 100% to challenge the paradigms they take as granted and make them chose a different course off their own accord, as opposed to simply telling them why it is a good idea to chose differently.
Resource Gathering - Stage 3
This should be the lead in to the full on post apocalyptic setting. Resources would continue to dwindle, but at a much decreased rate until they reach their final desired values.
After the rift caused by stage 2, most resources will have pretty high price tags, and here is where the final paradigm shift will assault players. What will the best part of it be? We don't have to do a single thing but sit back and watch it unfold.
From the beginning, players were given the choice of renewable sources, but: a) they were made intentionally hard to get; b) by their own nature and the convenience of other methods, it would be expected they would not chose them; c) quests themselves steered them on that direction. And it would be all to lead them into stage 3.
After prices on resources shot up, it would be expected that players would attempt to find renewable ways that would cost them a lot less. Specially if we give them a subtle nudge in the right direction by implementing new hunting areas where the items they need can be salvaged (and of course, some of the old ways of getting resources as well).
What will happen is that players, by being able to create their own resources, will start to trade them with other players when they start to have a surplus. Simply, it makes sense. If you have a lot of what other people want and you can make money by selling it, then you are going to sell it, and this is a behavior that can be observed in MMO's time and time again.
Prices will still be hight, to be sure. But what will happen when many bases are competing for their sales in the market and slowly start collecting more surplus resources? Simply, another proven and repeatedly observed behavior in MMO's when an item goes from rare to uncommon. Prices go down. And fast. Players go from shortage to sustainability, and suddenly, renewable sources not only look good, but desirable.
This is the true beauty of stage 3. In stage one, we gave them the accepted knowledge they already had and let them play with it. In stage 2, we challenged their axioms by reducing the resources and made them play through the shortage. Then, in stage 3 we watched them shift the paradigm 180º by themselves, and all it required was showing them the familiar stage 1 and then place them through a believable and realistic stage 2. And the reason this would work is because it does not challenge any of their currently held beliefs, but it instead uses them in a "what if" scenario to alter their own perception and priorities. And even if many will not retain a vivid axiom change in their real life, this will certainly make them receptive to other people bringing up these issues to them for one single and very simple reason: They went through it in a game and it made sense to them, therefore, it is possible and it can happen.
To complete the experience and further steer players in the course we want to for stages 1 and 2, pretend in-game news coupled with how chapters (expansions) are implemented would be key.
I will elaborate more on this later.
A large majority of MMORPG's have some type of Karma system, designed to punish players for engaging on what is known as "Player Killing", or PK for short. Many of these systems have only a minor importance in these games, however, and the penalties for the players killers are as minimal as the sense of justice their victims receive.
How to make this more important? Well, the first step is making penalties for dying a little worse, to create a bigger sense of how serious character death may be. The first step is not calling it "dying", but being "downed" instead. Characters in this game should not actually die. The second is to implement a "near death experience" debuff (penalty) that would decrease a character's abilities for a certain amount of time. Thirdly, it would be to increase XP penalties for being "downed". Most games have mild penalties that decrease over time as the character levels up. For this game, I am proposing to make them a standard 10% experience loss regardless of level. As it is common in this gaming genre, the higher your level the harder it becomes to progress further. By making it a standard 10%, it means lower level characters will catch up to where they were before than high level ones.
The fourth step would be to make the penalties for killing another player worse, and at the same time more fun. This is where the new way to looking at player karma comes in.
Whenever a player begins to attack another and the victim does not fight back, then they would get both karma and negative renown. The amount of karma and negative renown a player gets would depend on his or her level difference compared to the victim. For each 10 levels the killer is above the victim, the karma and negative renown would increase by a factor of 2. For now, I am proposing a base value of 1 karma and a -2 renown per kill as a base modifier. If the victim does fight back but still loses, karma and negative renown penalties are cut in half, rounded down. If the victim wins, on the other hand, no penalties are incurred by either party and the victim gets a bonus of +1 renown.
For now, it seems pretty standard, but here's the twist. Every player that has at least 1 karma will have a "$" icon next to their name. Why? Because every player with karma gets a bounty on their heads, and not only that, the higher their karma, the higher the reward. In this way, players can also become peace keepers against chaotic players, while at the same time giving those chaotic players bragging rights over their bounty. Having a bounty on their heads may be extremely cool for PvP players, but it does not offer any advantages, on the contrary, it makes them targets. This is designed to teach players, in a subtle way, that their actions have consequences they may not wish for if they make the wrong choices, however "kewl" those choices may seem. It may also make chaotic players feel ostracized by their peers, depending on how the server's micro-society develops.
Karma would not be a permanent numbers, of course. Players that have engaged in Player Killing, could have options at their disposal. For each time a bounty has been collected on their heads, they would lose 5 Karma points. Also, they would be able to reduce their karma score by successfully completing 10 "good" quests per karma point.
As it would be expected, karma would not be applicable during siege situations, PvP tournaments in the coliseum, or if a feud or war has been declared between the killer and the victim. (or each other's Enclave/Hideout)
Only non-chaotic characters (i.e.: non-looters) would be able to collect bounties placed in this way.
Lastly, for each karma point a character has, they get a 2% probability of dropping a piece of equipment (up to a maximum of 50%) whenever they are downed. This is stackable with the chance all character have of dropping part of the money and resources they may be carrying when they are downed.
To give chaotic players a chance of also getting back at those with high renown, they would be able to post "Hit Jobs" on lawful players at in-game networks that only chaotic characters can access (the black market, if you will). However, while bounties are automatically entered and paid for by the game server, chaotic characters would have to enter these "Hit Jobs" into the system manually and would also have to pay for it out of pocket.
In this game, players would actually be able to alter the game and be made feel as if they are making a difference. By banding together, they would have the ability of creating micro-cities that would serve and camps and new safe zones for all players to use.
In order to do this, players would need to accomplish a few things, not as a team, but as a community. These would be very difficult and would require several players to complete. Throughout this process, the keyword should be community cooperation in order to give the players a sense of what people can accomplish by working together, and for those with a community organizing inclination, what they could accomplish by rallying people together.
1. Getting the necessary NPC's via special "survivor rescue" quests. These should require around a dozen players to complete. Please note that these quests would have limited access and would yield higher than normal XP rewards, but no items or resources.
2. Procuring a place that can be fortified in order to create the camp. This task would require a large amount of players of all cla****, and it would involve a mass siege in order to secure it.
3. Once the siege is successful and the NPC's are in place, then it would be up to the players to donate the resources needed to fortify it and make it habitable.
4. Players of different cla**** will need to accept quests designed for them that would allow them to complete the work this new community would need and finish installations, fortifications and living areas where NPC shops, communication centers, boot camps (for skill training), trading kiosks, security lockers (for item storage) and Enclave/Hideout buildings would be.
The events should be heavily reported by the "fake" in-game news service which will be part of the "evolving story" system. For now, let's call it ZNN. The group leaders and those players who went off to complete the related quests should get special mention, and through an in-game forum, players would be able to vote on the name they want this new camp to have.
Again, this should be designed to make players act as a community, and it should give them a sense of accomplishment upon completion. After all, how many MMO players can say they fought for, conquered and funded a brand new "town" in the game?
The mechanics mentioned above are the main game components designed with paradigm challenges or awareness receptivity in mind. Besides those, there are many, many more I have in mind that deal mostly with play value and fun factors.
Here is a quick list of the most important ones:
1. Evolving Storyline
2. Innovative Mob vs. Player, Player vs. Mob and Player vs. Player siege system
3. Story/Quest driven raids
4. Balanced and inventive PvP system
5. Dynamic mob spawning
6. Player-influenced world development
7. Solid plan for a massive player base by the second year
8. Enhanced interactivity and social networking
9. Autofilter/censor for underaged players
A. Enhanced transportation system
B. Dynamic voice over system
C. Built in conferencing server support
Other Aesthetic Considerations
1. If possible, the best game engine for this game would be the updated Dreamworld Engine that Funcom developed for Age of Conan. However, it should be used in such a way that the game can run at a lower definition for those who own older systems and also at lush, realistic graphics definitions for those with state of the art computers. The point would be to make the game graphically beautiful, but still make it available for those who cannot meet the system requirements for a modern game. Since it looks like Funcom does not have any plans of licensing their proprietary engine and associated tools anytime soon, Unreal Engine 2.5 or 3.0 would be the second option.
2. Musically speaking, the zombie genre has 3 main flavors: Orchestral with a heavy abuse of piano, punk/grunge with some techno thrown in and heavy/death metal. For this project, what would fit it the best, both stylistically and in terms of it's versatility would be melodic metal, sometimes also knows as "epic" metal. Here is a very good sample of what it sounds like and the different emotional ranges it can have:
3. As nomadHAR pointed out, the game also needs a healthy dose of humor. Should not be overbearing to the point of looking like a comedy game, of course, but should still be there for relief, and should include many references to the genre. Jokes should never break the 4th wall.
4. Since zombies would basically be the only mobs in this game, variety is key. Right now I am envisioning a game that has everything the genre has ever offered, from the Romero types to the latest Resident Evil concoctions plus everything else we can come up with.
5. As a homage to the original zombie game, Resident Evil, which used Requiem for a Dream in it's soundtrack, I was thinking of something similar for the intro of this game and use a classical composition. After considering several possibilities, which would make it more poignant (like Stabat Mater Dolorosa), I decided for the surreal and now I really want to see it done with Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. I think it would set the tone quite nicely.
What would I do with the first $1,000 USD? I would use it to prepare a presentation and for commutes in order to present my idea to more affluent people than myself, in the hopes they would fund it. I cannot think of a single company or entrepreneur in Mexico that would want to take that leap, however.
The guesstimated final costs for a project like this, trying to keep them as low as possible in terms of equipment requirements, upkeep, staff costs, installations and other expenses, could top at a maximum of 5,500,000 USD the first year and 3,600,000 USD for each subsequent year, with an estimated development time of 2.5 to 3 years - for a rounded estimated total of 13,000,000 over 3 years (development only) with a staff of roughly 100 people. In the most pessimistic scenario, It would be expected to break even within the first 18 months after operating and expansion/continued development costs have been factored in.
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