A couple of days ago a friend shared a book with me, called Erebos. I'm currently in the middle of reading it but wanted to share some of the thoughts I'm having on this while reading ... so, here we go:
I'm currently on page 138 of Erebos by Ursula Poznanski
, an Austrian author and it seems like there's no English translation available, yet. In fact, it was published just 9 months ago, January 2010 - so any English speaking readers might have to be patient but maybe not too long. The reason I'm blogging about it is because one of the key concepts in the book is blending virtual reality with physical reality - a thing I'm planning to make pretty heavy use of in RaMtiGA.
I'm not exactly sure when I had this idea but it's probably many years ago, at least three years. And it's pretty interesting to see how these ideas seem to be on the "collective mind", popping up in various individual's minds. So, usually when you have an idea, it's very likely that others have the same idea. That can be pretty frustrating at times when you feel you have a great idea and then other people create an actual product out of that idea and it's a big success. Well ... instead of getting frustrated you can realize that we're all one anyways and as long as the idea is great and it's done great, it doesn't really matter who's the one who did it (unless you need to be the one for Ego gratification).
One thing is: An idea by itself doesn't have much value. It's about how it gets implemented - or whether it gets implemented at all. One person I very much respect and appreciate that took this idea of blending game realities with our physical reality is Jane McGonigal
. I think she is totally awesome. Seriously. Once you've finished reading this posting, make sure to take the 20 minutes to watch her talk Gaming can Make a Better World
. I'll post the link below to make sure you do - this is really inspiring stuff, no matter if you're a game-designer, a gamer ... or just someone who cares about this world.
But ... I digress ... reading Erebos. I won't spoil the story for you. I couldn't because I'm still in the beginning of the book. It's the story of a guy named Nick, living in London, who starts playing a game called Erebos. One special thing about that game is that it has both "in-game quests" and what I will call "physical world quests" in RaMtiGA. Physical world quests are quests that you receive in the game - but you have to do something in the physical world in order to complete the quest. The reason I'm doing this in RaMtiGA is because I really don't want to keep players in front of their computers all the time. Btw, I'll be adding a couple of other mechanisms to prevent excessive playing over longer periods of time (while honoring different individual play-styles). Erebos also has mechanisms implemented to prevent players from playing the game ... but the motivation seems to be different and not quite as friendly towards the players.
Erebos also has a close and pretty spooky connection between the game world and the physical world; like: The game knows the players' real name (and forces them to use it when signing in but prevents them from using it in the game), and even knows pretty intimate details about the players. So far, I only understand part of how the game gets this kind of knowledge (well, asking people, for instance ... and ... just a speculation: doing some "research" by checking the players' harddisks and likely even their Internet communications).
I had spent quite some time thinking about how far I will be going there with RaMtiGA but obviously I'm not planning to spy on my players outside the actual game. I will do some mining of in-game data for some checks to avoid cheating but that's about it. The thing is: I wouldn't want to spy on the players, and even if I wanted to, legally, I couldn't.
But Erebos is different. From what I've read so far, it feels intensely dark. The techniques the game uses to make the players "play by the rules" are just as out-of-place as the rules themselves ("don't talk to anyone about this game"). It feels pretty much the way I would expect it to feel in some kind of dark cult or dictatorship. Manipulation through fear and lots of that. Actually, reading the book feels a bit like draining my energy. Not exactly a pleasant experience - but nevertheless interesting, especially from a game designer's point of view.
There's also a couple of pretty interesting ideas in the book that I might consider using for RaMtiGA. One is that sound is used to intensify the emotional effect. Well, that's obviously what every good game does and I already know which musician I'll be asking to create the soundscapes for RaMtiGA (and have known so for years). But, a pretty interesting idea that I haven't seen implemented so far is that pain of the character in the game is represented through a sharp and very unpleasant sound the player hears. The way the users are motivated to keep listening is by having certain important hints available through sound only. So, you could just turn the sound off - but if you do, you might miss important warnings and that might kill your character.
Which is not a minor penalty in this particular game.
It's interesting that Ursula Poznanski explores the idea of permanent death in Erebos. According to Richard Bartle, there are a few games that implement permanent death (he explores the concept a bit more in depth in Designing Virtual Worlds
) ... but it's few, and even in those you can start a new game. In Erebos, if your character dies, it's a true game over - you cannot play again. Ever (keep in mind: this is just a book).
For RaMtiGA, I'm considering some sort of "reincarnation permanent death", based pretty much on what I perceive to be the real deal in our physical world: When you die, you lose pretty much everything you know. Obviously, everything you own externally, but even your memory is gone. What you keep, however, are tendencies. If you've learned something in one life, it'll be easier to learn the same thing in a later life. You still have to learn it again - but it'll just be much quicker.
I already have many of the details for this in my design document but it still needs to show whether I can include it in the game in a way that also is fun. The main motivation to implement this in RaMtiGA is to give the players a sense of consequence and value of life. I just don't want to communicate the message "if you mess it up, just start over and all will be fine". But, I do want to communicate the message "even if you totally fail, you always have a second chance, and with the right attitude, things get easier over time".
Another reason I consider adding this kind of "not-totally-permanent-but-certainly-quite-severe" kind of death in RaMtiGA is to be able to create "epic wins" (see Jane McGonigals video). The more is at stake, the more fun is winning. So, if I implement this, there will be a lot of situations in RaMtiGA which are pretty safe. You simply won't die in those situations. RaMtiGA is not primarily combat-based, so there's not as much reason to die as in many other games in first place. But even combat-situations will usually not put your life in danger. Losing most combat-situations will be much like in any other MMO: You just need a while to recover and everything will be fine.
But then, there will be those very special and important encounters that put your virtual life at risk. You have to very carefully weigh out the potential of an epic win against the potential of losing almost all you have created. This is stuff for the true heros who have no fear but know what they're doing.
As mentioned, in the book, permanent death is permanent in the sense of permanent game over. And it's one of the means to put the players under pressure. That's why I say this is a dark game. No surprise - if you don't know already, read who Erebos is on Wikipedia
Anyways, I'll see if representing character's in-game pain with stressful sounds works in an actual game. I think this is a really nice and interesting idea because it enrichens and deepens the experience. Probably, there already are games using this ... and probably it is something that has to be used very cautiously to not ruin the fun but I guess if done right, it can create a very special connection between the players and their in-game characters. As RaMtiGA is not primarily combat based, there won't be that many reasons for in-game characters to feel pain. And if a player chooses to focus on combat - well, they'll have to face the consequences of that choice. There's also many other areas where I can use this - so I certainly do feel inspired (going through the "my energy feels drained"-experience seem to have been worth it ;-) ).
Another thing that I find very interesting about the game design portrayed in the book is that the game starts immediately and defining the actual in-game character comes later when the players already have immersed themselves in the game world. I think this is totally the way to do this and I'll see if I find good ways to implement it in RaMtiGA as well. As RaMtiGA allows its players to change their characters in almost all ways during the game, this shouldn't be too hard but nevertheless taking it to this level was something I hadn't been thinking of before.
Integrating this won't be too hard because for example, there won't be fixed professions like in many games but instead there will be skills that you need to perform those professions. As you lose those skills over time when you don't use them, it will be very difficult to max up all skills for all professions. But if you decide at one point in time that you'd rather go into something else, you're free to do so. And just like with "dieing and reincarnating", picking up old skills will be easier even when you have lost them because you didn't use them over a long period of time and they wore out.
Eventually, you'll even be able to change gender and race. However, that won't be done as it is in WoW (pay and pick what you want). Instead, it will require some pretty advanced skills and as such will be very expensive in terms of what you need to do in the game. But that will be fully integrated in the game-story (just like changing servers), so if you decide you want such kinds of changes, it'll make sense for you to go through the big mission you're up for.
So ... for now, I'll keep on reading Erebos when I have time and see in which ways it inspires me. Primarily, I'll keep on working on Traces of Illumination and projects that keep my account in balance (argh, maybe I should do
some fundraising ... it's kind of painful to see time slip by with so little progress in the projects that are most dear to me). But RaMtiGA is always in the back of my mind, growing conceptually in little but significant steps.
Btw: If you've watched the wonderful movie Inception
, you might notice that when they "walk up the street" (going from horizontal to vertical when Ariadne starts to play with physics in one of her first shared dreams), it looks pretty similar to when you ride up the walls in Traces of Illumination, doesn't it? There's more similarities you might notice: Traces of Illumination has 12 levels, just like Cobb's dream of memories. There's more. So, until Traces of Illumination is complete, you might like to watch Inception ... I watched it 4 times so far ... and I'm glad that I at least had parts of Traces of Illumination implemented before that movie came out ;-)
Anyways ... now - go watch Jane McGonigal's talk Gaming can Make a Better World
. While I take my brother and his wife to the airport ;-)