While attending the seminars at the Indie MMO Developer's Conference, I attended a talk by Celia Pearce from the Emergent Game Group where she serves as the Faculty Director on their MMO in production, Mermaids. Yes, that's right, I said Faculty Director. The Emergent Game Group is based out of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech where they are working on Mermaids, a non-standard MMORPG.
A game being made by students and teachers at a college or university has its advantages. For one, they are able to think more outside the box than other companies because beyond having a finished, playable game at the end, they have no responsibility to investors, enormous loans to pay back, or anything of the sort. In short, the motivation for this game isn't money at all. Rather, according to their website, they "want to know what game rules and constraints account for twinking and other cultural developments in multiplayer games. Knowing how virtual culture emerges from game designs will help us understand how culture at large is affected by interactive media."
Basically, Pearce and her team hope to create a game that will allow them to study what kinds of things the players do with it. As a result of their unique situation and goals, their perspective, and therefore the game that they are creating is something interesting and different. Pearce, herself an accomplished developer, educator and author, seems very interested in using Mermaids to challenge the conventions of the current MMORPG industry in a way that few others are even in a position to try.
The thing about "challenging the conventions of the current MMORPG industry" is that in order to do that, you have to know the conventions that you are challenging. When Celia told us that Mermaids was an MMORPG without any sense of, for example, death, we knew about the process of making that decision. It isn't enough to simply say that "our game won't have death." The designer has to understand why most current MMORPGs involve death in one way or another.
During her presentation, Celia provided us with the "credo" that she uses while working on her project with her students:
Some of the conventions that Celia and her team have looked at include:
Celia told us that, among other things, leveling systems create a "linear value system", from point A to point B to point C, etc. She also thought that levels as a system for MMORPGs keep experienced players from playing with new players (she also acknowledged the current systems in games like City of Heroes / Villains that offers sidekicking, etc.). As a result, Mermaids will be an MMORPG without levels.
Uneven Rewards for Different Play Styles
Celia and her team (and really anyone who stops to think about it for a few minutes) realized that in our current batch of MMORPGs, the act of killing is always rewarded "exponentially higher" than other game activities, like exploring. A game convention that everyone takes for granted, like socialization, is rarely, if ever rewarded in MMORPGs, and is often, according to Pearce, penalized.
She said that there are some players who only worry about the numbers behind their characters. What is my chance to hit, how much damage will I do, and how much XP will I get for the action? Some of the players like this are so wrapped up in keeping track of the numbers that they stop paying attention to the game on the screen in front of them, which was the point in the first place.
Now that we've talked about some of the theory behind Mermaids, let's talk a little bit about the game itself. The goal of Mermaids is to rebuild the lost mermaid culture and to rejuvenate the eco system. In doing this, Mermaids makes design decisions that are both challenging and innovative. Here are a few:
I know that swimming isn't exactly a new concept for MMORPGs, in fact, most of them support this in some way or another. That being said though, they don't all take place entirely under water. The challenge here is that players can navigate in a truly 3D world. Instead of being rooted to the ground, players can move all over the game space. This provides a number of new design challenges as even something as conventional as a mini-map becomes more complicated as you're no longer dealing with a flat surface. When you're on the ground, a simple arrow on a map does the trick. When you're essentially flying, it's a totally different story. Mermaids is taking concepts that have existed in previous MMOs and turning them on their ear.
With the Wii now released and upon us, players are becoming more and more familiar with the idea of physically doing the things that their toon on screen is doing. It shouldn't be surprising that Pearce and co. are exploring the idea of a "gesture interface" in Mermaids, because, as Pearce herself said, our hands are our main interface as we use them to move our character, look around, and pretty well perform any action in the game. In contrast, our toon's hands do almost nothing.
Using games like Myst as inspiration, the Mermaids team has devised a Gesture Interface that allows the player to control the arm and hand of their mermaid. When a mermaid casts a spell, he / she does so by waving a wand in a pattern. The pattern is created by mimicking them with your mouse, which "draws" the pattern.
Non-Linear Progression (no levels), allows players open-ended character development. In most MMOs, you choose your fate from the beginning of the game, as you choose to be either a Priest, Fighter or Mage (keep in mind that this is a generalization to be used for an example). Mermaids, on the other hand, allows players to combine a variety of skills and lets players change their emphasis so that if they had a character tricked out for fighting, and suddenly wanted to become a healer, they could.
This feature, Pearce feels will allow more experienced players to play with new players, something that a level system, by its very nature, doesn't allow.
Listening to Pearce speak really brought home the "Indie" side of gaming for me. In a world where you were allowed to make a game, and make any game that you wanted, where the driving force wasn't worrying about making a profit at the end, but in making sure that there was a finished game at the end of it all, wouldn't you look at the conventions in current MMOs that you don't like or that doesn't work, and turn them inside out? Wouldn't you want to try to create something new and different and interesting?
I'm not saying that Mermaids is going to be the next World of Warcraft. I'm saying that projects like this allow developers to stretch their imaginations and try new things without the weight of millions of dollars on their backs. The innovation that happens in projects like this, will have an effect on the games that are made tomorrow. Personally, I look forward to seeing what else Mermaids has to offer.