For those of you who know me, and read Penny Arcade regularly, you’ve no doubt been waiting for this post since last Wednesday. (The) Raph Koster wrote a guest post for Tycho, it was about a game idea Tycho had and discussed with Raph at San Diego ComicCon which is an MMO Construction game of sorts. This is definitely a near and dear to my heart topic as I work in the construction industry and I concurrently very much enjoy not only playing games, but pretending to design games.
First off, Raph is apparently designing a type of game tool (which is itself a kind of game? no?) called Metaplace where people could get together and make a game like what we’re discussing. Someone please give me more information about Metaplace. Anyway, Tycho asked Raph to write up a whole design article for last Wednesday and boy did he.
Basically, he said, he had this idea for a construction game. “Like, SimCity?” I said. No, like with dumptrucks and demolition balls and cranes and architects with blueprints and everything. Like, real construction, Bob-the-Builder style.
And he wanted it as an MMO.
I am very curious why SimCity seems to be the only game that anyone thinks of when an idea like this is mentioned, and then I think for a short while and realize that it’s really the only game that comes to mind for me also. Why the heck aren’t there more games like SimCity out there exploring these different ideas? I know there’s Pharoah, and no doubt a few other technically just re-brands of the same idea, but are there more innovative takes on this concept that I don’t know about?
I deal with nearly every aspect of construction in my day job as an Architect, even the little decisions I might normally not think about can have hideous repurcussions months down the line, and you can quickly get a reputation for either being good at thinking ahead or causing a lot of trouble from the start. As I read Raph’s post my mind was ablaze with possibilities for this kind of game, but quickly I became concerned because a lot of what I deal with (or avoid dealing with ) are things which we’ll call “less than fun”. As usual, Mr. Koster has an excellent mind for design and goes about it with great direction:
Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down, until you hit the game that is so trivial and stupid it isn’t deserving of the name. In an MMO, we nest games pretty deep, because some games are short-term and some are long-term. In something like WoW, the smallest games are things like “hit Heal on time.” Then you get ‘kill the foozle,” and above that “kill a hell of a lot of foozles” and above that “make yourself stronger by picking the right gear” and in some cases “make your guild stronger” and so on.
Ideally, for an MMO, you want your highest level games to be ones that cycle naturally, rather than reaching an end. That way people can keep playing if they want to – the game doesn’t boot them out.
What is starting to jump out at me now is the idea of comparing how he is rationalizing the game aspect of the idea with how it is done in real life. We as a society have very specialized professions to deal with what would be considered the mini-games here, and so this conceptual game is immediately taking the player out of reality and putting them into the seat of the ‘everyman’. You can lay brick, you can nail up drywall, you design the building and inhabit it all in the course of the game. Naturally this is quite appealing, particularly the living or working within what you’ve designed part, but there are reasons beyond the obvious why this isn’t done in real life. For a player to participate in every aspect of construction, what might be considered an inordinate amount of game mechanics must be learned. That’s assuming you have a different method to laying brick as you do for painting, or raising steel. However, if you begin to make everything too similar you run into more problems:
Each of these games needs to have fun choices in its own right. It can’t be repetitive and dull. It’s very easy to accidentally make a system repetitive and dull, so you have to watch out.
At this point I could get into basically block-quoting Raph’s entire article, but I’ll spare you that and assume that you’ve done right and read it through or at the very least skimmed it. I don’t believe Raph ever even attempts to provide the level of detail that the game would need, because he would surely go insane in such short time, but he does propose a lot of excellent ideas for player interactions with one another and the overall interface of the game. Then he touches on what I consider a figurative gold mine:
In fact, it would be good if for each possible bid, you were given a choice of possible sites, so that choice of site made a difference. Then the location could affect stuff like what sorts of materials were required (gotta build classier in a classy neighborhood). Even better, as buildings are built and torn down, the neighborhood map changes, so building a really nice house in a depressed area will actually raise property values in adjacent lots, so that over time, the maps really shift.
We’ve jumped realms from a purely Construction game into what might as well be deemed Urban Design/Development. It would be very intriguing to see a game very closely mimic the real world in how neighborhoods interact and building design effects the overall built environment. As a player you could set your sights on trashy neighborhoods of abandoned or junky homes, set up shop, and go to work. Once you completed your beautiful remodel you could sit back and watch the adjoining property’s values begin to rise until the whole area is developed and a hub of activity. What isn’t mentioned at all is the actual Design aspect of the city, where a property or even a community’s value would be increased or decreased based on proximity to necessary and secondary services.
Certainly being beside a waste management plant is very undesirable, BUT the WM plant has to go somewhere. Do you place all of the undesirable services together in one big hunk of ugly, spread them out, or explore new urbanistic ways of making them more pleasing to live by or off-setting the displeasure with tax-cuts or other incentives. The opposite is just as true, everyone wants to live near a grocery store, post office, and restaurants and these can all help increase property value astronomically. Other considerations would be are there sidewalks / crosswalks that allow easy and convenient access to these services or does everyone have to hop in their car and take a 10 minute drive?
Raph seemed to focus more on the technical aspects of gameplay, which is expected and definitely not a bad thing:
At any time, you can pull up the blueprint and compare it to reality to see how well everything is working. See, the blueprint is so you can try to keep all the players coordinated. It’s not how you are scored. Oh – and keep in mind – physics matters. Your building has to STAY UP. Depending on the lot, you might get hit with subsidence, with expensive digging through bedrock, with possible earthquakes…
This is where I actually have a suggestion about the gameplay, in my mind if the players are building and then comparing to the blueprints in such a fashion then actually playing the game would quickly become a hectic and painful task where some people just throw things around and others have seizures as they attempted to follow plans they’d spent hours on beforehand. In a sense the entire planning step could be invalidated by the haphazard nature of a free-form construction process. Instead I would suggest that once the blueprint phase (clearly the best one) is done, approved, stamped, and signed that the player’s are relatively locked into the design. Certainly changes could and would occur, but that would be another aspect of the game which would add interested, however when the players go to raise steel I can see a faint / ghosted outline of their design’s structure appearing over the site and the “mini”-game mechanics then revolve around putting the steel up correctly. Perhaps Raph meant this to be the idea, but I didn’t get the sense it was conveyed as I’ve imagined here.
Raph is definitely the kind of great mind that could tackle this sort of feat, but I can’t imagine a game as encompassing as he’s proposed actually being produced. In all honesty it makes me more appreciative for my job, as I can attempt to view it for what it is – the real life version of this game. The advantage there is I get to be in charge of the aspects of where everything goes and roughly how it is done, and not have to do any of those things personally. What I’m really trying to say is that my job is awesome, probably awesome-er then your’s, simply because I get to play a big Construction MMO every damn day.
Also, It’s very awesome that some people ran with Raph’s ideas and there is actually a prototype dry-wall game over at his site.