Developing a Fantasy MMO
In my last column we began talking about the origins surrounding my novel, The Holder’s Dominion, and its MMO, Edannair. But just how do you go about developing an online game from the ground up? Let’s take a look at one possible answer!
I’ve been asked quite a few times which scene or characters in The Holder’s Dominion were the most difficult for me to write and why. And I’d have to say developing the online game world for Edannair was super challenging. Some nights I’d wonder, “How am I ever going to create an online world on my own for this novel? This is a job for teams of people!” There are thousands upon thousands of details that go into designing games, so writing and creating an online game that doesn’t yet exist was intimidating. There were many late nights of “blue sky sessions” plus research and development, but it was a blast creating new elements to show how the gaming experience enlightens people’s lives.
So why invent a fantasy MMO to base The Holder's Dominion around rather than, say, write a straight fantasy novel set in Edannair? Although writing a fantasy novel set in Edannair is a really cool idea, what inspired me to create this MMO goes back to the goals for this story—connecting people together. Even if a reader has never touched an MMO, he or she can read The Holder’s Dominion and experience a glimpse of what an MMO offers, what it’s like to collaborate with others on such a world-wide scale, and ultimately see a new perspective to why gamers game. A speculative thriller like Holder’s is an approachable form of entertainment for communities unfamiliar with fantasy novels, and fantasy worlds in video games.
What’s the secret to developing a fantasy MMO like Edannair? Well, I don’t have the secret, but I have a method that worked for me, and I hope that this quick overview might enhance the development for your design projects as well:
Name of the Game?
Determining the title of your game will help set the foundation for your MMO. Once you know the name, you know the answers to quite a lot of other things. The MMO title in Holder’s is Edannair, so instantly we know it is fantasy. Determine what MMO you are developing by ruling out what you are not developing: Fantasy? Real-world? PvP and PvE? Modern? Renaissance? Mystery? Comedy? Tragedy? Focus on the basics of how the world will look and feel, and then what is at stake for this world. Is it evolving? Deserted? Other details like the races, classes, spells and abilities, names of bosses, and quests will come later.
Reference and Research:
Once you know the genre of your MMO, you can build from there. Immerse yourself in the worlds you’re attempting to create. Jot down notes as you play and read about MMOs and use these notes for reference. For example, Final Fantasy XI is my favorite video game because of how much it changed my life and my perspective on video games. It was the first online video game I ever played and it showed me how interactive and social gaming can be. In Final Fantasy XI there is a translator function where the player can tab through phrases in different languages and select the appropriate questions/responses. So, even though you’re playing from one country, you can still meet and forge friendships with players from all over the world. This aspect of the game absolutely inspired ideas for how Edannair could come alive, and was the driving force behind my goal to illuminate the team-effort and collaborative communication that MMOs produce.
Let the Blue Sky Sessions Unfurl:
Imagine anything. As you play your favorite MMOs think about what you could add to enhance the game-play. Listen to other players as they discuss what they also wish existed in-game. “See a Need, Fill a Need.” This quote from the movie Robots has stayed with me since the film’s release. As I imagined the MMO world for Edannair, I tried to focus on a few main changes. What things could enhance MMOs even more? What game mechanics would I invent? The three areas I decided to focus on were more fan inclusion for PvP, a different approach to exploration, and a new raiding twist.
Create a Bestiary:
As you build your MMO, your ideas may become pages and pages of notes. Starting a bestiary is a great way to organize elements of your world. This way you have a central hub where you’ve compiled all your research, plus it will help with your style sheet during the final development and editing stages. We’ve all seen those in-depth and thorough bestiaries in our favorite RPG strategy guides, right? Now, you can spend extra time creating your own guide and have a tangible document to compare. This is also when you’ll start developing every minute detail of your MMO. It is now the time to nail down each race, class, spell and ability. As well as maps, zones, bosses, and quests… Examine your creatures, elements, and game-encounters, and then compare them to your MMO goals. Spreadsheets and whiteboards are great tools for seeing the big picture overview. Get inspired by the art form in design, and above all, have a blast!
Map the World:
Don’t be afraid to break out the napkins and scribble out maps and zones. Visually connect your zones together. Think about the flow from one map to the other, and how the history and lore affects those areas. What countries or continents are thriving? Who first inhabited these lands? How did the world evolve and change? Edannair’s world became more and more alive as I determined the world’s details. It really helped pull the overview together in a tangible way that inspired even more aspects of the game.
Here are some examples of notes from Edannair’s early development:
- Planet name: Ylora. The first inhabitants on this planet were the child-like Elowfons. The Elowfons were invaded by the Mirinkai. Aiding the Elowfons were the sea-elves, etc.
Examples of zones and continents:
- Edannair = central “main” continent
- Orexia’s Sea = the ocean that separates the island of Vile Xors from Edannair
- Vile Xors = the island in Orexia’s Sea (where Demon Paths Converge is found)
Below is a zone in Edannair brought to life by the incredibly talented Senior Matte Painter, Fabio Barretta Zungrone. His talent in the video game industry continues to bring the most impeccable matte paintings in some of our most beloved games.
This will become a must. As you develop the details of your MMO, you’ll need a way to keep track of specific editorial decisions. Lists, charts, and graphs will be your very dear friend when you open the Pandora’s box of a new world. A disclosure for your style sheet could look like this example from Holder’s:
Specific Editorial Decisions:
This story has a variety of invented names for specific species, unearthly creatures, places, roles, spells, and ranks. What follows is a general system for deciding capitalization.
- Names of peoples should be capitalized along English-language patterns: cf. human, dwarf, demon, etc. If it is a name that people apply to themselves, capitalize it. If it is a description of the kind of being, lowercase.
- Items in the game are capitalized per the author’s decision on whether a proper noun is involved. Thus, “furwoven cloth” is a mere description and not capped, but “Dirambic ruby” involves a placename and is capped appropriately (cf. “primrose” but “Abyssinian primrose”). Same pattern applies to animals.
- Spells are a specific combination of ingredients and movements and should be capitalized. (I patterned them along the lines of dances, in which generic steps are combined into unique patterns, i.e., the waltz step BUT the Electric Slide.)
- Skill-sets are lowercase: ranger, shadowlock, paladin. Ranks are capitalized: Highmark, Shade, etc.
Next your style sheet will have alphabetical lists like so:
- Ames, Bruce
- Ames, Emma
- Ames, Kaylie “Kay”
Spell and Challenge Names
- Augur’s Cry
Species and Creatures
Edannair Word List
- Alabaster Hills
- Archnigh officer
This guide represents one way to jumpstart your MMO design. It takes hundreds of hours to develop the tremendous amounts of history and lore for these vast worlds, and I hold so much admiration for MMORPG designers. When creating something as large as an MMO, there will be a lot of decisions to make. It may sound odd, but the more boundaries you set for your world, the easier it is to create. Envision your story, and it will evolve. It is a massive amount of work, but worth it in the end.
Part of what makes the world of Edannair so unique is the PvP twists. Find out more about this possible future for PvP in my next column!
Over to you: What methods do you use to design MMOs, other types of video games, or novels?
Until then: Game On, and Lark Your Life. <3
Every week, Holder's Dominion author Genese Davis opines about MMO gaming, the issues the genre faces, and the power of shaping online worlds.
- Read Genese's inaugural column Gamer Fiction - The Holder's Dominion