[In this installment of the long-running design column, author and game designer Ernest Adams sketches out a design for a new kind of MMOG -- one which takes a specific moment in history and hopes to educate and entertain audiences by bringing it into the light and building sensible, accessible play mechanics around it.]
Persistent worlds are great places to play around in, but they're problematic venues for storytelling. Most of them let players do a vast number of things: make stuff, sell stuff, kill stuff, collect stuff, explore, socialize, and so on.
The one thing players can't generally do is change the world forever, and that's something that storytelling games need. Most persistent worlds are full of opportunities for interaction, but they offer no sense of agency, of doing something that matters in a visible way. If you accept a noble quest to go kill a vile doom-chicken, it'll only respawn a few minutes later, leaving you wondering why you bothered.
In many persistent words, the only thing that changes permanently is you -- you gain experience points and treasure. (There are exceptions, such as A Tale in the Desert and Minecraft.)
More sophisticated stories are about the hero changing himself rather than changing the world, so there's a vague similarity; but for this experience to feel story-like, the hero must engage in a series of adventures that are unique to him.
It's not the same if you know that thousands of people around you are marching along the exact same path to enlightenment. Nor does it feel meaningful if your personal growth is expressed entirely in numbers.
In many persistent worlds the whole universe is alleged to be in some kind of dire trouble, but the player can accept or reject quests, take as much time over them as he wants, or abandon them in the middle, without any consequences.
Because the world is essentially static (apart from infrequent updates by the developers), the game creates little sense of urgency. Time-based quests don't solve the problem either, because failure has no consequences for the wider world.
I want to make an MMOG that tells a story with a beginning and an end. In this game, every player participates in a single global storyline, each player's experience is unique, and every action matters. For this to work it needs to depart from many of the usual conventions, and I'll explain how and why later on.
I propose to make a quasi-educational, free, historical MMOG called The Blitz Online. The Blitz was a period early in the Second World War during which Hitler tried to break Britain's spirit by mass bombing raids targeted at civilians. It failed, and in the end it proved to be self-defeating because attacking civilians diverted the bombers from attacking factories and airfields.
But the human price was terrible, and it gave birth to a legend -- the "Spirit of the Blitz" -- an idea, actively promoted and ardently prayed for by the British government, that the people of Britain could not be broken; that they rolled up their sleeves, pulled together, and came through it united by patriotism and a stiff upper lip.
The truth was both less and more than the legend suggests. People went to extremes of heroism and self-sacrifice beyond what any propaganda machine could dream up. Neighbors helped each other and shared scarce resources in a way that should make today's so-called "survivalists" ashamed of themselves.
On the other hand, there was a fair amount of profiteering, in spite of the laws against it. In the blackout conditions, and with a police force reduced by conscription, petty crime thrived, and of course there was some looting of bomb-damaged buildings.
The chaotic circumstances and limited duration of the Blitz make it ideal for a storytelling MMOG. I want to make a game that reproduces some of the challenges and social conditions of the Blitz, to let people get a sense -- in a limited, virtual way -- of what it was like.
Gameplay and the Object of the Game
The Blitz Online will be non-violent, at least so far as player actions are concerned. (In other respects it will be extremely violent.) Each player will perform a civil defense job, ideally in a first-person 3D environment. The collective object of the game is to keep morale high so that Hitler abandons his strategy of civilian bombing.
The more lives and buildings that the players save, the sooner Hitler will give it up. In this respect it differs dramatically from most other persistent worlds, which go on indefinitely. Even if morale drops, The Blitz Online will last for a maximum number of days, which I haven't yet decided on.
The game will include commissions ("quests") as well as ad hoc challenges, but I have made it a key design principle that every commission will be playable only once, by one character. This guarantees a unique story-like experience for each player. Players will perform certain routine duties more than once, but I expect these will feel different as the continuing bomb damage throws up new obstacles to completing them. There will be no grinding -- no commissions of the form, "Go find me 15 of these objects," although in some jobs there will be value in collecting things like scrap metal.
Players won't be able to join a game in progress after the first day has ended, another difference from most persistent worlds; and a given instance of the game will support only a limited number of players -- hundreds or thousands, but not tens of thousands. This guarantees that there are enough unique jobs and commissions for everyone. There will always be too much to do, and failure to get something done will have consequences -- determined mostly through the mechanics rather than a prefabricated plot.
The ad hoc play will often be collaborative, like raiding in a more conventional MMORPG. When a fire crew is called out or a mobile kitchen needs to be set up, the players will have to cooperate to get to the site and do their work. The more efficient they are, the better the work will go and the better the results. I want the game to feel like one giant common enterprise, in which the players have individual responsibilities but all contribute to its success.
London is the iconic city of the Blitz, thanks in part to famous photographs and the radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow. This isn't fair; Coventry, Hull, Birmingham, Belfast, Liverpool, Bristol, and many other cities were severely damaged by the bombing, and their citizens often resented all the attention that London got. But the game has to be set somewhere, and the distinctive buildings of London make it the obvious choice. After the war the London County Council compiled a series of maps of the bomb damage, which will be invaluable for determining the areas hit and the extent of the devastation.
Players will be dispersed all over the city and in many jobs they will be assigned specific regions to work in. This won't prevent them from wandering elsewhere if they want to, but heaven help the character who is AWOL when something bad happens in the area he is responsible for protecting!
I want The Blitz Online to feel as if no place is truly safe. The player may have a home to go to, but it's at risk of bombing like every other place in London. Even the air raid shelters aren't completely safe, and in any case the players will have few opportunities to use one.
Game time will run faster than real time, as is normal in such games, but the game will take place primarily at night. Each night the city will experience an air raid, and these will vary in intensity and duration. Play will continue after the all clear sounds and into the early daylight hours so that players can continue to fight fires and rescue people.
In order to keep the game fresh, the air raids will not follow the exact historical sequence of the original raids. They will be similar in magnitude and location, but take place on different nights from the originals. During the daytime, which passes instantly, the players will automatically get some (but never enough) food and sleep.
The Blitz Online will include few character attributes and most of them will not change. There will certainly be no buffs apart from drinking tea. (Tea is more than just a mild stimulant to the British; it has psychologically restorative effects on them that other people do not feel.) Every action will have an energy cost, and players will always be somewhat overworked, rather like the characters in The Sims.
At low energy levels, some activities will not be available and others will be more likely to fail. Obtaining food and sleep are the main ways to recover energy, and both are in short supply. What little sleep there is takes place during the daylight hours that are not part of the game. On some nights the air raids won't last as long and players will get more sleep before the next night.
There won't be any character levels, but players can earn a good reputation through their actions, especially if they are efficient or heroic. Those with a particularly good reputation might get a promotion and the opportunity to change jobs, which isn't normally available. This won't mean much in gameplay terms -- just more danger and work.
Unlike conventional experience points, players can also lose reputation if they shirk their duties or perform them badly. Severe incompetence will cause a player to be fired (and thus kicked out of the game). Since players can only join at the beginning, if a fired player wants to play again he will have to join a new game from scratch. This should keep the griefing down somewhat.
One more peculiarity: glory-hunting is frowned upon. Players who consistently seek to maximize their reputation will eventually start to lose it instead. (They're also likely to get killed.) The British don't like pushy, self-aggrandizing people, and that kind of behavior is counterproductive in wartime.
Jobs in the Game
There will only be one race: human. Both men and women were active workers during the Blitz, although some jobs were confined to one gender or the other. The jobs will be:
Rescue workers. Just as in natural disasters, rescue workers try to dig victims, alive or dead, out of the rubble. They also shore up buildings (or tear them down if they're teetering) to make them safe. Only men did this job.
Ambulance drivers. Many people who were not eligible for military service for medical reasons were pressed into service as ambulance drivers. These people have to negotiate bomb-blasted streets and fallen masonry to get to the injured and take them to the overburdened hospitals. Both men and women drove ambulances.
Air Raid Precautions wardens. They patrol the streets during quiet periods checking to make sure that every window is blacked out and no lights show anywhere. They also report incoming aircraft and bomb strike locations, mark unexploded bombs, and dump buckets of sand over burning incendiary bombs. While most people were getting under cover, ARP wardens had to stay outdoors. Both men and women worked as ARP wardens.
Firefighters. Horrendously overworked, they put out burning buildings as the bombs fall around them. Like ambulance drivers, their trucks were often blocked by debris, and their job was made more difficult by broken water mains. This was a male-only profession.
Police. They keep order and prevent looting. They walk their beats at night, arrest petty criminals, guide people to shelters, and reprimand anyone who comes out without a gas mask. Not open to female characters. (The entire nation only had 300 women police officers, and they didn't walk beats.)
Women's Voluntary Service. This female-only organization performed a wide variety of critical services, particularly in providing food, clothing, and shelter to people who had been bombed out. The volunteers also set up mobile kitchens to feed and hydrate the fire and rescue crews.
Food will be a critical requirement for every character's energy level, and the WVS will be the principal source of food. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this job is just about making tea, however; they did many different kinds of things, often in dangerous conditions. This job will offer the largest number of commissions.
I realize that this leaves only three jobs for female characters: ambulance drivers, ARP wardens, and WVS volunteers. It reflects the social realities of the time, which I think would be important for modern players to understand -- bear in mind this is supposed to be an educational game about the real Blitz, not a fantasy. Players would of course be welcome (even encouraged) to gender-bend.
As in other MMOGs, players will spend a lot of time on the move -- I have deliberately chosen roles that require it. I'm considering adding bicycle couriers to carry messages when the phone lines go out. These teenage boys and girls could get through areas that were impassable to motor vehicles.
I didn't include doctors and nurses because they mostly stayed in their hospitals. (Paramedics as we know them today did not exist. Ambulance drivers were just that: drivers.) Medical personnel will appear in the game as NPCs.
I've also left out three military roles: anti-aircraft gunners, fighter pilots, and the sappers who defused unexploded bombs. Anti-aircraft gunnery is too static a job, and besides, at the beginning of the Blitz it accomplished almost nothing because the guns lacked radar fire control. You'll see and hear AA gunnery, but won't participate.
Britain had few night fighters early in the war, and flying a fighter plane is too solitary an activity for what I have in mind. The contributions of the fighter pilots will be modeled as a reduction in the number of bombs dropped.
Realistically, the sappers are the biggest loss. Their work was vital and horribly dangerous, but there's no good way to convert its intricate nature into mouse clicks. I haven't included utility (water, gas, electricity and telephone) repair crews for the same reason. Like the medical personnel, I'll build them in as NPCs.
This is a tricky one. With bombs falling out of the sky, the characters are naturally at risk of death all the time. On the other hand, it's bad design practice to kill players off at random. Large numbers of NPCs will die, but I'm inclined to make player characters invulnerable to actual bomb blasts. They will, however, be vulnerable to death from secondary causes that they have some control over -- entering a burning or unstable building, or driving at speed into a bomb crater in the dark.
The instant healing found in most RPGs is inappropriate for this kind of game, and a character who is properly limited by his injuries won't be much fun to play, so I'm inclined not to bother with health points at all. A character who dies (or is invalided out), leaves the game permanently; there's no respawning. However, the player will be given a new character, possibly in a different job chosen for her, to play in the same instance of the game.
Finally there's the question of the gore factor. During the Blitz, people saw unimaginable horrors on a daily basis. How much gore the game will depict depends in part on whether it's intended for children, something I haven't decided.
If it is, I might be inclined to keep some blood but not show the more appalling injuries such as decapitations and disembowelments. If the game is for grown-ups, well, one may as well tell the whole ugly truth. Our media today insulates us from the dreadful realities of war in the name of preserving the privacy of the injured, but I think that's a cop-out. As citizens of a democracy, how can we make informed judgments about war without having some sense of what it really does to people?
The last day of the real Blitz was one of the worst. I would like to ratchet up the game's intensity right to the end too, probably with a daily report of bomb tonnage dropped or bombers sighted. Players will be able to feel that it's getting harder and harder, and if they can just hold out long enough, Hitler will call it off as a hopeless effort.
At the end of the game I would like each player to see a daily diary of what she's done, and statistics about her personal achievements as well as the collective ones. The personal statistics won't be available during play because I don't want the players trying to game the system, but I think it would be nice -- and informative -- to know the numbers of lives saved, fires suppressed, unexploded bombs marked, people fed, and so on after it's all over. Above all I want the players to end the game with a sense of what the civil defense forces really did, day after day, under appalling conditions.
Of course, this is just a high concept, not a design document. Will the game work? I don't know. There are major technical challenges, since the buildings must deform and degrade realistically under fire and blast effects. We wouldn't be able to model the entire city of 8.6 million people, and might have to choose specific areas to construct.
So far as the gameplay is concerned, I'm not an experienced MMOG designer and I realize that I'm flying in the face of an awful lot of conventions. But I think The Blitz Online can be exciting, challenging, moving, and informative all at the same time. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about a business model.
All I need now -- easily said! -- is some money and a development team.