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Developer Journal #1

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Editor's Note: Periodically, we will bring you an article written by a developer behind The Chronicle from Rapid Reality. In this first installment, Lead Creative Writer, Game Designer and Community Manager Nathan Knaack examines the concept of main and regular characters, a defining feature of their game. Please also note that the enclosed images are renders of actual in-game models, but not screenshots from the engine itself.

"Main and Regular Characters" by Nathan Knaack

For years now MMORPG developers have been coming up with new and inventive ways of appealing to both the casual and hardcore gamer, from splitting them up into their own designated servers to putting artificial-feeling restraints on advancement to ensure that they’re never far apart. While these solutions are technically feasible, they do little to perpetuate the overall immersion of the game, further distancing the players from the world they exist in. For example, dividing players up into distinct servers that specifically target their gameplay style tends to give you niche worlds where just about everyone acts the same way, does the same things, and packs into the same areas. Good luck getting into any decent arena on a high population PvP server, and try understanding anyone on a role-playing server that speaks in the near-ubiquitous perversion of the language sometimes called Ye Olde Gamere Englishe. With the community so divided, some servers can seem empty while others have lengthy queues.

The Chronicle, as well as the rest of the games Rapid Reality creates, will offer a unique new system that attempts to bridge the gap between different play styles, allowing them to coexist in one world without forcing a particular style on the other. During character creation, players will choose to be either “main” or “regular” characters. Regular characters are just like those found in any other MMORPG on the market today; they have a broad selection of customization options, can explore the world, fight monsters or other players, complete quests, join guilds, and gain all sorts of perks for advancing their abilities. They suffer the same kinds of penalties too, things like temporarily lowered stats and perhaps even some lost equipment when they die, but nothing terribly drastic or lasting.

Main characters are an entirely new breed, unseen so far in the MMORPG market. They’re a bit hardier than their regular counterparts, able to sustain a bit more punishment before falling, but their benefits go far beyond that. Main characters are offered a wide variety of advantages, like an increase in attribute and skill advancement rates and caps, access to powerful new abilities, and epic quests. Main characters are also the only ones that can form and lead guilds, hold rank in NPC factions, and own land for developing. What’s the catch, you might ask? Permanent death.

If ever a phrase struck a sour note in the mind of an online gamer, it is most certainly “permadeath.” In a genre where it commonly takes months or even years of monotonous level grinding and currency farming to reach any reasonable degree of competitiveness, the thought of having to start over and do it all again after one wrong move or untimely lag spike usually makes gamers reflexively discount any game that hopes to include permadeath. It’s unfortunate, too, because permadeath opens up so many doors in game design that would otherwise have to remain closed and funnel characters down the linear progression model. We have two systems that shorten the range of permadeath, giving main characters a few more chances to avoid it, but don’t go so far as to dull the pain so that permadeath becomes meaningless and easily ignored.

With the main/regular character split, we offer two choices: a “normal” life of reasonable risks and worthwhile rewards, or a high-stakes adventure with heart-pounding action with a chance to achieve glorious victory, but sometimes heart-breaking loss. What we’re doing is allowing each player to choose a curve they’re comfortable with on the risk vs. reward chart, which coincidentally lines right up with the spread between casual and hardcore gamers. In this way, Rapid Reality’s games endeavor to appeal to both camps, yet allow them to experience the same world and add to the same storyline, ensuring its diversity and longevity.

Some of our pre-order beta community members have misinterpreted the split between main and regular characters as the game being set up as main versus regular characters, which is completely untrue. The division isn’t supposed to represent a real, physical difference between characters, but rather the same defining trait that applies to characters literature or film. Sure, a regular character can do fantastic things like fly a space fighter, swing on a rope between pirate ships, or charge into the breech in a castle wall, but they’re not the focus of the story. As the audience, we’re far more concerned with what the main characters are doing because they’re the heroes and villains; they’re the ones putting everything on the line in dramatic situations.

On the game mechanic side of things, it is important to note the properties of main and regular characters, obviously regarding death as the most important factor. It should first be noted that no character simply switches from alive to dead the second their hit point bar reaches zero; they instead enter a “near death” state, more commonly understood as “mortally wounded and bleeding to death.” Depending on the character’s durability attributes and skills, he or she would spend between three and thirty seconds slowly decreasing into negative health. This situation could end in one of three ways: either the character naturally stops bleeding, and thus begins a slow healing process, the character is aided by another with professional or magical healing, or the character dies. While this “near death” state is common to main and regular characters, the former will have a much longer time in which to be rescued. Additionally, main characters are a bit more difficult to disable in the first place than regulars. In player versus player situations, main and regular characters can fight normally, but it takes a main to kill a main. Regular characters may disable and loot main characters, but never permanently kill them. Naturally, most people immediately conjure up scenarios in which gangs of regulars drag around a main character just to land the killing blow, but rest assured that we’ve developed systems to at least balance out, if not entirely counteract that occurrence. One simple factor that limits this practice is that there is no visual distinction between main and regular characters, which significantly cuts down on the amount of grief that will be directed solely at mains.

Another unique system that only main characters will experience is what we’re tentatively calling the “second chance” situation. With how advanced our global artificial intelligence is going to be, we’re able to coordinate almost every aspect of the game world into one database, allowing NPCs to behave differently at various times of day, wildlife to fluctuate and migrate, and factions to interact in more ways than just war. As such, we’re able to track each main character’s progression so that when one is nearly killed, he or she can be whisked away to encounter their second chance. The example we commonly use that the MMORPG community can immediately identify with is: A group of characters, one main and several regulars, is out in the wilderness hunting orcs. During a battle, the group is overcome and defeated by the savages, resulting in all of the regular characters dying. They respawn normally back at their nearest bind point with some temporary penalties and expenses. The main character, however, is rendered unconscious and dragged back to the orc camp, where he is locked in a cage and told he will soon be eaten. He could try to pick the cage’s lock and sneak out of the camp, negotiate with his captors using his social skills, outsmart them by causing a distraction, rely on his magical aptitude to overcome them, or just sit back and hope his companions find him in time. If all else fails, he can always resort to just battling his way out.

So what’s the point of permadeath if main characters always get a second chance situation? The short and dirty answer is: they don’t always get that situation. Orcs are semi-intelligent enough to save a prisoner to eat later, usually, but wolves will just tear apart anyone that falls in battle. Tumbling off a rooftop in a crowded city might result in a main character waking up at the infirmary, but falling off a lonely cliff miles from civilization is another story altogether. Main characters will never be able to predict or rely on the second chance system, which keeps the risk high enough to justify all of the benefits they enjoy.

- Nathan Knaack, Lead Creative Writer, Game Designer and Community Manager - Rapid Reality

Many thanks to Nathan and Rapid Reality for providing this look inside their game's design.

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