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Alternative gameplay: a high level GITS MMO design

Posted by Chris Jones
On April 5th, 2006 at 15:17

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Posted in Cyberpunk MMO

This post has been superceded by a reviewed and improved design. Feel free to compare the versions if you wish.

Ghost In The Shell:  Stand Alone Complex Gig 2I’ve been thinking about a Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex MMO lately. It’s a better setting than the Ghost In The Shell movie for an MMO, with more characters and player character roles demonstrated. It even provides a mechanism for measurement of character progress through ranks, and rewards for progress, such as a new or better cyber body.

Consider a character like Major Kusanagi Motoko to be at the end game: only politicians and department heads are higher ranked than she is, and as an individual combatant she outclasses all but heavy military equipment. How do you continue to provide interesting gameplay when end-game players are much tougher than most anything else in the game, especially in a setting where random violence will cause the character to be hunted down, removed as a threat, and imprisoned or destroyed?

Missions
The anime series provides an answer: investigation and negotiation. Simply because the player has capped his character’s rank, body, and skills doesn’t mean that the game had ended. Investigations into crimes and terrorism are still needed, and while individual opponents are outclassed, the scale, consequences for failure, and need for finesse are greater. Missions can be designed such that as a character becomes more powerful, the player needs to exert more self-discipline and control to succeed. In early ranks, defending NPCs from obvious assaults while using lethal force is a suitable task, while at higher ranks, the player may need to only injure or incapacitate enemies, and at the highest ranks, combat may be seen as a way to fail the mission. Stealth, information gathering, working as a team, working undercover, and non-violent solutions to dangerous investigations would be key to success (unlike the 2004 PS2 FPS GITS:SAC release, which would be a trigger-happy “fun” mission).

Would it be better to hand-craft threats and investigations as most quests are done in MMOs today or should a procedural process be defined to let the server generate them? At the least, details would need to change (NPC names, ages, sexes, locations, and roles) with each assignment so that players don’t walk through the rank-appropriate material. How should characters receive changes in rank (number of successful missions, the degree of success in a given mission, time spent in game, completing optional objectives in a mission)?

Failures
Depending on the type and scope of failed mission, the impact on the world could be greater or lesser. A government player character attempting to limit criminal access to military equipment who fails a mission could find not only criminal NPCs equipped with better gear, but also non-governmental player characters could find more available and less expensive military gear available from their fences. A high rank government player character who prevents a building from being destroyed may face not only losing rank, but a change to the game environment (replacement of the building model with ruins, later replaced with new construction and eventually a different building model or texture).

Death penalties would be first, the failure of a mission unless other agents or officers were sharing the mission; second, the time required for the character’s ghost to adapt to the new shell; third, monetary or rank impact, including the loss of rank for multiple failed missions. The risk of failing missions and losing rank (and getting a less advanced cyber body after death) may be enough to encourage players to group. Non-government players may find themselves walking up in a hospital with a big bill and penalties to actions because of lingering wounds.

Unique PvP
Player versus Player activities can take place in the context of players belonging to one of multiple organizations:

  • Section 9 (Public Security),
  • Section 6 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs),
  • various crime syndicates and terrorist groups (in-line with themes from GITS:SAC),
  • refugee or aid groups, or
  • foreign intelligence agents.

Players can be put against each other in missions:

  • different ministries or investigation teams attempting to complete a mission to get the credit and discredit other ministries),
  • law enforcement PCs attempting to stop criminal PCs,
  • terrorist PCs given orders to prepare for an activity, and law enforcement PCs are sent to stop it, or
  • foreign intelligence agents seeking entry into government ministries, where PCs are to stop and capture them using non-lethal means.

Some missions may require player characters from different organizations to work with each other against similar teams of player characters from multiple organizations.

A player economy
Depending on the organization, players either have money or worry about money. Higher rank players in government positions can have access to virtually unlimited funds: cyber bodies can be replaced, whatever weapons or special equipment is needed can be obtained, and as long as the character has a record of success in missions, there won’t be any real problems with unavailability. Lower rank characters may have to work within a budget–lose a weapon in one mission and the player may have to succeed in two others to get it replaced.

Players in other organizations have to worry more about money. To purchase replacement cyber bodies on the black market is expensive, and even foreign agents will have limited budgets and access to materials. Refugees have it the worst off, with their only support coming from themselves and aid agencies. To choose to play a non-governmental character (to be evil, in a sense) is to make the game much more difficult. Methods for obtaining funds and items should be established through missions for these characters. Only the highest ranked, longest surviving players outside government will have access to similar resources, and those will be necessarily limited in quantity and quality.

Government players will receive smaller cash payouts for successful missions. The money can be used to purchase off-duty lifestyle items (available to all players): housing, civillian clothes, and status gadgets. Non-government players will receive larger payouts for successful missions (either from a mission sponsor at low ranks, or through the course of the mission itself at high ranks) and will need to purchase both civillian and professional equipment (weapons, armor, vehicles, upgrades, etc.).

Government player characters may wish to sell government equipment to non-goverment player characters. If discovered (and they will eventually be discovered–lost equipment may cause them to lose rank or be investigated, possibly by players from another section), they will be given a basic cyber body (no better than a normal human’s) and discharged from government service–at that point, the player will have to start over in rank in a new non-government organization, likely without their cash.

Non-govermental player characters can sell goods directly to any other player character, through fences to pawn items for cash, or through brokers for off-line selling.

Grouping and guilds
Characters working together in a group or team have a higher chance to successfully complete most missions. They will share a common chat channel and will appear to each other on any maps displayed. When a mission is successfully completed, the reward will be evenly split among the players on the team with a bonus based on the number of characters in the team ((reward / characters) + (5% * characters)). Teams with many characters are more likely to complete bonus objectives and will tend to receive higher rewards for that as well. Teams should be between two and five players for most missions, although solo missions must also be made available.

Characters belong to a meta-guild through their organization, sharing a chat channel.

Finally, characters may create two different kinds of guilds: families and clubs.

Families:

  • are the smallest kind of guild,
  • require at least two player characters to start,
  • cost no money to create,
  • have only two officers at any time,
  • have the least amount of control over the shared communication channel,
  • have the least number of control mechanisms over how resources are shared (everyone can deposit and withdraw from the family funds),
  • share a last name, and
  • can belong to different organizations.

Clubs:

  • are larger and require at least five people to start,
  • require a modest amount of cash to start,
  • provide tools to allow better officer management (with multiple levels and roles),
  • provide tools for chat channel management (mute, for instance),
  • have more control over sharing resources (tied to levels and roles),
  • provide fun benefits (such as unique outfits and sequences of animations for secret handshakes),
  • have names that are visible as a tag under the player’s name, and
  • can belong to different organizations.

Players may belong to one family and one club simultaneously.

Other social tools
The net in GITS differs from the Internet of today: it’s primarily a way for various machines and ghosts to communicate with each other and query for specific data. Websites and entertainment are secondary. In game email is provided, as are limited message boards (which may be posted to be subscribers of the game from a website forum).

Players may elect to allow instant messenger clients connect through the game client. These messages will not be routed through the game server and are provided as a convience. Likewise, IRC conversations may be conducted through the client, as is pluggable support for Teamspeak or Ventrillo. Consider also a hook into an SMS network.

Flavor
Edit: To get a feel for the city of Newport in Ghost in the Shell, download this clip from the film. (26.8 MB, mp4/Xvid)

Characters with cyber bodies can remotely communicate over chat channels or private tells either through thoughts (cyber brains) or subvocalization (organic brains). Neither has any animation associated with it. Characters with normal bodies can communicate through phones or walkie-talkies, which do have associated animations.

Private vehicles are an important way to get around town to various missions. Characters who can’t afford a van, car, or moped will have to make due with taxis, trains, busses, people movers, and boats. In order to speed transportation between different districts of the city, private vehicles should be able to enter an intra-city highway and be instantly deposited in the destination zone or section of town. NPC road traffic should adjust to player activity: if PCs are driving, traffic should be made relatively light. If no PCs are driving, traffic should become heavier.

Environments should be moody: between missions, characters may experience bright sunlight and crowded, colorful NPCs. During missions, characters have dark clouds and heavy rain, or the neon city lit under a black sky.

Signage should be polyglot, depending on the part of the world or city players are in. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English share many signs, although Japanese and Chinese tend to edge out the other two languages. A little German, French, and Spanish may make its way into the game, but not as prominently.

Background music should vary based on the mission and situation. Between missions, players will hear upbeat pop-like music in public places, soulful downbeat music in bars, and busy music while travelling. On missions, driving techno, metal, and suspense filled themes can be used to drive player reactions (a suspense theme while a character is using thermoptic camoflauge to sneak into a building; metal for combat; techno for a chase through a crowded street or from rooftop to rooftop). Likewise, background sounds should be appropriate: quiet rooms with a quiet air conditioner, industrial areas with heavy machine sounds, crowds with a confusing babble of voices, etc.

Players should be encouraged to spend their money on apartments. These provide a way for players to show off character accomplishments and spend excess cash. An in-game directory should allow player characters to find other player apartments. Player housing should always be near transit hubs (such as where trains and busses intersect at a common stop). In general, player housing should be evenly distributed throughout the city and highly accessible–it should take no more than five minutes of real time to get from one apartment to another.

Downsides and risks
This game could be removed from the IP, although names and some concepts would need to be changed. I don’t know what the cost of licensing a GITS:SAC MMO would be, or if the current rightsholder has already sold the rights (possibly as part of the FPS game).

In terms of a next generation MMO, this would have several features:

  • world deformation,
  • player impact on the world and economy,
  • avatar customization (gadgets and clothing),
  • multiple social channels, including ones that lead out of game,
  • player housing and housing customization (as in EQ2),
  • in-game vehicles (it sounds so easy. . . ;)), and
  • alternative gameplay (non-combat or non-lethal missions)

It misses in terms of:

  • player world customization (no player towns),
  • limitless world (a big city, but it sill has limits), and
  • non-repetitive gameplay (many varieties, many changes, but the core is still mission/quest based).

Finally, the biggest risk (non-technical) is the setting. Most players seem to prefer a medieval fantasy setting, at least based on market figures. The audience for anime is growing, but if this is not or cannot be marketed as an anime game or can’t tie into the GITS:SAC name, it will be more difficult to introduce the game to otaku to generate buzz. Mitigate this risk through aggressive marketing, with the identification of key opinion makers in both the on-line gaming and sci-fi/anime communities–consider crafting any NDA with exceptions for screenshots, chat logs, etc., while protecting mechanics and game- or genre-unique features. Encourage the opinion makers to produce good press for the game (which means that as soon as this is made available to them, that is be solid while not feature complete). Publicize moving into different stages of alpha and beta leading to a public release. See also Massively Multiplayer Game Development 2, edited by Thor Alexander, “Small Fish In a Big Pond…” by Mike Wallis, pp. 409-424.

Edit: added thematic clip from GITS film. See above, beginning of Flavor section.

5 Responses to “Alternative gameplay: a high level GITS MMO design”

  1. Technocrat Says:

    Hallelujah Chris!

    I’ve been dreaming of just such a MMOG.;) But, unfortunately, to do it right, it would require a level of commitment far beyond the will of the industry…the one I’ve come to know at least.

    I give the GITS: SAG MMOG idea an enthusiastic two thumbs up! But I’m afraid the timidity and incompetence of the MMOG industry, as a whole, would only ruin it. I vote to shelve it ’till 2010, or so.

  2. Chris Says:

    Obviously, I’d love to see it as well, but I also haven’t passed this high level design to my wife for her “sniff test.” She’s in the majority of players who look first to fantasy/medieval games for MMO entertainment and showed no real interest in this idea, except for watching the movie clip.

    I imagine the licensing could be rather messy. If I were to do something like this, I might try to create new IP: the anime/manga market is absolutely huge, but there’s still plenty of room for a game without giant robots. What’s attractive about GITS and GITS:SAC is how well developed and consistent the IP and characters are, so there would be a real push to match that level of development without stepping on uniquely GITS themes or ideas.

    Because of the lackluster performance of AO, SWG (“But we’re number four in the market!”), MxO, and Neocron in the US/European markets, I expect getting funding for anything but a fantasy/medieval game would be difficult, especially when it’s not as fantasy/sci-fi as Tabula Rasa or RF. While some of the elements of this game could translate to a game like NYPD Blue: Online or The Shield: Online, especially the investigation, rank, and mission aspects, I believe it loses a lot of flavor by being put in a modern rather than cyberpunk mileu. As a small (<15,000 subscribers) game, it could probably work just fine, but unless the mass market is very tired of fantasy/medieval games or investors are willing to step out of their “comfort zone” (“If it looks like WoW, you’ve got my funding.”), I can’t see this being made in the US yet.

  3. Technocrat Says:

    The whole issue of fantasy being more popular than Sci-Fi is highly dubious! In every other category, whether it be books or movies or TV shows or childrens toys, Sci-Fi is, hands down, far more popular than fantasy. So I’m not not buying the idea that fantasy is somehow more popular than Sci-Fi (but only) when it comes to online gaming. Yeah, right!
    Rather, Fantasy-is-better-than-Sci-Fi is a meme being pushed by the industry at large because it’s easier to do fantasy than it is to do Sci-fi.

    The “lackluster performance” of AO, SWG, MxO, and Neocron can easily be traced to the lackluster and incompetent performance of the developers themselves. AO was a train wreck when it launched and basically unplayable; it got better with a few patches but the bad press and the atrocious CS had already destroyed the game by that time. We all know what happened to SWG. I didn’t play MxO or Neocron so I can’t comment on those. So, IMO, the “look at their performance” argument is disingenuous at best.

    It’s time for the industry to face the facts (rather than manufacture them); A MMOG project should be a massive undertaking, far bigger than
    anything we see now, I mean after all, their supposedly building a “living, breathing” synthetic WORLD! Right!? On average, development teams should be 5x bigger (mostly artists and designers), development budgets should be 3-4x bigger, and development times should be as long as it takes to produce a polished, top quality, true AAA product. In my mind Blizzards “secret” of success with WoW is a no-brainer…They spent way more than anyone else ever has, had way more people on the dev team than anyone else ever had and spent alot more time getting it right than anyone else ever has.

    I gotta go…nice work Chris, keep it up man! 😉

  4. Mischiefblog » Blog Archive » GITS:SAC MMO design (revised) Says:

    […] My wife reviewed my Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex MMO design and had a lot of good suggestions. The next revision of this may remove the GITS:SAC theme completely in favor of a “generic” cyberpunk setting which could then be expanded in directions not present in Masamune Shirow creation. […]

  5. Shaun Says:

    Very Very good ideas. I would love to see an MMO game based on GITS. However the rights to it are currently held by Bandia in America atleast. If you really want to see this game followed through you should present it to a stand alone commite (not GITS stand alone complex). Anime fan based games are becoming more common and if you present it to the commite they will consider it. If they accept they will follow through to your vison as best they can. Seeing as what you have listed is probably going to be next-gen I would say they could probably do about 70% of your vison. Just look at what they did with the FullMetal Alchemist MMO game and the Gundam MMO