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Tycho / on Wed, Oct 10 2007 at 12:00 am

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As Seen In Modern Lair

Today’s comic outing can be found here.  A reader sent us a link to an eBay auction for a decommissioned Titan Missile Base a couple weeks ago, and we’re still completely obsessed with the possibilities.  We felt confident that once you learned of it - and truly considered its fabulous subterranean potential - these fantasies would become a universal affliction.

Today’s post is by Raph Koster.  Raph Koster is…  well, he’s Raph Koster.  He’s also Raph Koster.   He’s had his hand in so many MMOs and been the engine of so much player controversy it would be hard to summarize him in a couple italicized paragraphs.  It’s fair to say that he has considered the systems unique to persistent, multi-user environments as much as any person alive - probably more.  He has his own company now, making something called Metaplace, which is both the mechanism behind his new game
and a platform for people to make their own multiplayer experiences.

I used to go to a toy shop in the mall and play with the Rokenboks there, when I had the time to go to toy shops in the mall for hours and not buy any things.  I’m excited to see what shakes out with the NetDevil’s LEGO MMO, but I had so much fun playing with those weird little toys that I’ve always wondered how a cooperative game based on civil construction might work.  I’m lucky to know someone who could actually answer this question. 

So there I was, at the San Diego ComicCon, sidling past the Penny Arcade table on my way to say hi to Scott Kurtz at the PvP Online booth, when suddenly this Tycho person grabbed me and pulled me aside to rant and rave. He had an idea, he said. A crazy idea.

I should have known. Another wannabe game designer. But hey, this one has this semi-popular website and regularly trashes developers he doesn’t like. I had to stand still and listen, or risk professional doom.

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.

Great, I said, humoring him. I’m working on this thing called Metaplace, and you can make it yourself, and…

“No, no…” he said. “I want you to write up a design article. For the site. Like, a guest spot.”

Hoo boy.

OK, enough of trying to be funny on Tycho’s turf. After all, the challenge he gave me is non-trivial. And I have until midnight tonight to try to complete it. Obviously, I am going to fail.

The first question is, “What is the game?” And I don’t mean “large-scale construction.” I mean at a more fundamental level. I mean, a hundred people using the building tools in The Sims at the same time in the same plot of land would presumably qualify. It wouldn’t be fun, but it’d meet Tycho’s admittedly vague criteria. Or maybe it’s a game of resource management, and your goal is not to get buried in cement. Hell, it’d probably be more fun to play demo ball instead and get to smash buildings.

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.

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.

I ended up with a tiered set of games after my doodling, and that’s when I realized that my take on a construction MMO is kind of large. At the high level, I wanted a city-level view so that there could be different locales and challenges for places to build. At the low level, I would want users engaged in setting up the wiring, grading the land, and collaboratively designing the building. Each of these is basically a game that must be made fun in its own right.

And for each game, we need to have a range of challenges. What’s more, ideally these challenges need to not be just “beatable,” but they should be “winnable with style” so that you can come back to a challenge you have already won and try to do it better, faster, in a different way, with a personal stamp on it, and so on.

This means that there’s no way I am designing all of these systems right now, not when Tycho gave me a 500 word limit and I am at word 677.


Individual players or groups of players, henceforth called “firms,” take bids from a “job board” of sorts. This board consists of real estate owners who want to build buildings of various sorts. The buildings might range from houses to marinas to office buildings to skyscrapers to museums. Each bid is actually auctioned off, and they can be resold between players later (a secondary market for bids).

Each project comes with a budget based on the bid. The firm has to work within this budget – overruns come out of their hide, and if you have cash left over, you get to keep it. (There’s probably a “rescue” mechanism – projects with bonuses for time-to-completion, a fake “loan” system to keep people from flaming out, etc).

Projects happen on a real map – probably multiple maps, representing neighborhoods or cities. Each one is divided into lots based on a simple grid. Each grid square has factors like desirability, real estate value, and so on. They also each have their own heightfield and topology that will affect the building process. In fact, they may already have buildings on them.

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.

Once your firm has a project, it’s time to get to work. The firm can work together to develop a plan – this consists of a blueprint, which any member of the group can work on. Basically it is a proposed layout for the building. Oh, you can just start jumping into the lot and doing stuff, but without a plan, you will likely fail. You’re going to be working with a lot of moving parts: landscaping, foundations, skeletal infrastructure, walls and ceiling, lighting, electrical, plumbing, flooring… all of these things cost money from your budget. So making a mistake is costly. You want to use the blueprint facilities, which are kind of like a guildwide forum plus scratchpad with tools, to plan as much as you can.

Then you get to the actual process of doing stuff. And here, it really depends on what exactly you are doing. If it’s grading the land (and hey, you might not want it all flat. Maybe you want a pond, or a cool split-level thing, or whatever), then you drop into a bulldozer and literally go bulldoze. The thing to realize is that each minute you spend in the ‘dozer is going to tick away cash from your budget. That said, nothing is stopping you from having your whole firm hop into bulldozers and play bumper cars if you have the cash to burn.

The same is true for each of the different sorts of tasks involved. You might have some folks doing flooring while others do drywall. The challenge is different in different cases; you have only so much money to spend, and so much time to build in, and you might by trying to hit milestones (the people ponying up the cash will want to stop by every once in a while to see if you are on track). In the case of paint, for example, the game is one of precision and efficiency; in the case of lighting, it’s about purchasing the lights and placing them and making sure that everywhere is actually lit. I have no idea what makes for a fun drywall subgame, sorry.

Yes, you have to purchase the supplies. Yes, that comes out of your firm’s budget too. And there’s tons of choices there, lots of sorts of things to choose from. Fancy Italian marble, or fake Linoleum marble? Buying in bulk may be cheaper. Whatever you have left over goes into the firm’s inventory to be used on future projects… and if you patronize specific ones of the NPC suppliers, you could eventually get deals because of your past buying history. Don’t forget to account for delivery time!

You (the firm) can divide up all of these tasks. Have someone be a purchaser, someone else be in charge of decorating. Everyone will want to drive cranes that smash existing buildings to clear a lot, of course. Maybe there’s a user-created content system for making flooring and textures, but you have to send off for the stuff to get made, and it costs lots of extra money but might put your project over the top.

Some big tasks, like lining up girders, might actually take four of five people. One at each end, plus a crane driver, whatever.

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…

OK, so now we have a whole resource management game of budget, supplies, choosing challenges, auctioning for bids, keeping your firm afloat, and actually building buildings. Or walking away from disastrous projects.

But then what? Well, your building, if completed, gets assessed. This happens in a couple of ways; one way is that the folks in your firm get a bit of experience with whatever tools they used. This makes those folks cheaper to use in the future. (Think of it as leveling up in leveling ground – each player earns XP in different specialties).

The neighborhood also changes a bit. For example, the value of a lot that lost its ocean view because of the giant condo you built will probably go down. The houses might go up if you built a community center with swimming pool. Or might go down if what you had to make was a chemical plant. This way the gaming landscape is always shifting for the future. A lot that used to be terrible for housing now gets better. Old buildings get destroyed, new ones spring up. Ah, urban renewal.

But really, it’s about keeping the customers happy. You see, each thing that you put in the building – be it unpainted drywall, really nice stippled leather wall coverings, tacky plastic shades or teak flooring, will be invisibly generating fields of data. And we’re going to let loose a bunch of little AI people, the folks moving into the building, in there. Think of them like a bunch of small Sims type people running around trying to find the bathrooms, complaining about the carpeting, and so on. And they are going to return a verdict on how well the building accomplishes its purpose. If the family is happy with the house you designed, then you might get a cash bonus. You’ll also have more experience in housebuilding, which will cut costs for future houses (see, the firm levels up too, in skill trees based on building type).

Finally, there’s social stuff. Rankings of firms, overall, by market, over time with graphs, and so on. There’s even a social metric ranking, where people can visit any completed building, check out the stats on how it got made (cool graphs of spend over time, player participation, etc), and more importantly, take cool screenshots to post up. Buildings people admire for their aesthetics can enter player-voted architectural competitions with their screenshots, and win cash prizes for the firm, and “architectural genius” badges. The system also awards badges to firms for stuff like “best beautification project,” “coolest marina of 2009,” and so on. A good collection of badges means that they get better treatment on their bids.

And of course, let’s not forget that players need ranks too. Part of the budget is going to player salaries. The firm can adjust them, and players can hop firms if they so choose. Lots of firms will be tight groups of friends, but some might be made up of free agents, or poorly paid newbie slave labor. Players get ranked based on their cash, their awards, their skill at the tools…

Now, is this fun enough? I don’t know. Too much is dependent on the moment-to-moment gameplay of actually building stuff (can girder-laying with a group actually be cool?). It’s easy to see lots of ways to make bulldozing and demolition fun, and less easy to see painting being that way. But each of those is essentially a design project of its own. I’d prototype each one as a single-player game, and see if I can make it fun. But I don’t have room to do that in this article.

OK, I’m over 2500 words now, so I will shut up. I just want to say, this was cruel and mean of Tycho to ask for (an MMO about industrial construction??? wtf??), and involved incredible mental pain and suffering, plus the consumption of more Red Vines than is strictly healthy. So I dare him to now go build it. I’ll get him a Metaplace account, and Gabe can do all the art.

Oh, and if you think you can do it better, have a better design, great. This isn’t really a design anyway, it’s more like a sketch that could become a design. Not like I actually know the construction business. Given that I dashed this off in three painful hours, I am sure it sucks and has completely ruined my professional reputation anyhow. What little rep I had, anyway. Just like I thought Tycho would do if I snubbed him.

Hmm. Next time, I’m walking down a different aisle at ComicCon.


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