Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Potential of Always Online Games

There's a tag series I use sometimes, things like "Erik Shouldn't Be Allowed To Design Video Games" to jokingly indicate that a lot of my ideas are probably pretty wacky or would never work.  I plan on similar tags for writing comics, making movies, and other such projects in the future, because seriously, you all deserve to know my pitch for Resurrection Man movie and video game tie-in (spoiler alert: you die a lot).

But with all the noise made about the Xbox One's complete reversal on their stance on used games and constant checking-in, I felt I could throw out my two cents on one of the ideas that I think has real merit: always online games.

I loved how Microsoft originally pitched the positives of this.  Suppose you're playing a single-player game where you're a mercenary fighter of some kind, and there are multiple sides engaged in combat over a large region.  Maybe three nations are fighting for a middle ground they all have claim to.  Perhaps you're part of a group trying to stake claim to resources on a newly discovered planet.  Perhaps you're characters in a world filled with zombies struggling to stay alive.

In fact, let's work with that last example.

There's a free massive multi-player text game you can play online called Urban Dead.  It's pretty simple, you either play as a zombie trying to kill all humans or you play as a human trying to survive the apocalypse.  As a human, you reinforce barricades, kill zombies, and search buildings for supplies and weapons.  As a zombie, you try to smash down barricades, and kill humans.  It is possible for a human to die and rise as a zombie (in fact, it happened a lot to my characters) and zombies can be "cured" of being a zombie and become human again.  In either case you can level up to gain new skills and increase your odds of performing certain skills and getting things done.

Now, back when I played this game, survivors would usually try to band together in buildings to survive easier.  There'd be shifts of people logging on to reinforce barricades, find fuel for generators, stock up on ammo, and occasionally wander out to kill some undead.  There were also mobs of player-controlled zombies that would stalk the streets like the massive wave of death it was, searching for buildings with any sign of life, smashing down the barricades, and killing everybody within.

Imagine this as a game built with today's graphics and online capabilities.  Maybe you're a new player, and as you make your way through the game, you stumble upon one of the malls in the region.  You manage to find a way in, mingle with some of the other survivors there, stock up on some supplies, and then make your way back to a warehouse where you found a room you can barricade shut to "log off" in. 

Suppose a week goes by.  You toss in the game again, you head to the same mall, only now you find it deserted, all the lights are out, the doors hang open, and you hear the moans of the undead from within.  The players for the other side claimed the building while you were away, and the game has updated to show this.  You can either run away to find shelter somewhere else, or you can get to work to try to clean out the zombies, secure the building, and make it possible for other players to use it as shelter again.

Or, as you stand on the rooftop, you see the mob of zombies heading towards a bank that has its lights on, maybe you want to rush over there to try to help keep the zombies from claiming another building.  Maybe you want to hit one of the science labs to work on creating some antidotes to bring some zombies back to your side to bolster the human forces.  There would be numerous opportunities for the game to not only work with you to give you options in a constantly shifting world, but also work against you.

Maybe if you were hiding out in a warehouse and it got overrun by zombies, you log in and the game shows you a quick little movie showing you waking up in the middle of the night as the doors smash open, and you barely scramble out a window and escape as the zombies claim the building.  You run until you're exhausted and have no idea where you are, and you climb into a dumpster before passing out.  When your eyes open, you have control again, but you have no idea where you are.  Or maybe there's a percentage chance your character didn't make it out, and when the game gives you control again, you find yourself lurching down the street towards either a feast of brains or trying to find one of the "cure" spots where people will help you regain your humanity.

Now, obviously, a game like this would not only require a server able to run it, but Internet connections able to allow it to constantly update areas in real time.  Maybe certain areas (financial district, shopping district, suburbs, whatever) are separated from each other, and you have to leave one "stage" to enter another.  Insides of buildings would be their own stages, since you would be reinforcing them and setting up barricades as you, at the same time, work on setting up generators, stockpiling weapons, or building food supplies.  As a zombie, there'd be a barrier you'd have to "attack" and reduce the hit points of in order to access the area, at which point you'd be able to break equipment, destroy supplies, and kill any online players you find.

Obviously, there'd be issues.  Suppose you don't have many friends to play with, and you just want to play a single player game in this world against computerized zombies?  Well, sure, they could make a single player version of the game, but I'm not sure what would make it any different from all the other zombie FPS games out there.

However, if you didn't have many friends but still wanted to influence events in the game, you still could.  With an online connection, the game would send out information based on your actions to the central server, which might use that information to help influence things in the game, as well as update the world in your game.  Your character doesn't have to worry about being taken out in your safe base between times you can play, but the world itself changes to show what's happening online.  If you work at fixing things in your game, if there's enough stuff happening online to support it, you can help make areas better, even if it's something as simple as cleaning graffiti off a building, fixing the doors of a house, or setting some traps for zombies, these items might show up in the online world and help you get experience in your own game world.

Now, what about people who don't have Internet connections?

Well, there's options.  Something Microsoft mentioned was that their "24-hour check in" could, presumably, be done with an app on a phone or tablet since the file was only a few kilobytes.  Perhaps you could have an app devoted to the game on your phone or other device.  You use it near your game system to have it store all the changes you made to the world in your own game.  You go somewhere that acts as a "hot spot" for the game (c'mon, tell me there wouldn't be theme bars opening for players to show up, mingle, and discuss strategies face to face while having hot wings and drinks) where you can get a game update.  You connect your phone or flash drive or whatever to the server, it transfers your data in so it can update, then sends a new file to you for you to transfer to your game so you can see what the world currently looks like.

There are so many opportunities with this kind of real time online play beyond the current set-up of "well, it's a good thing everybody gets a chance to fight the boss in their own mission" like so many MMORPGs.  When I played the DC Universe one, I remember being told an early mission was to fight Bane, a man who regularly fights Batman.  My character was a low-level light combat character who did piddly damage.  My initial reaction was "great...let me grab some other people since this game is filled with players and bring them along and we'll get this cleaned up right" ... but no, the game wouldn't let me do that.  I had to face him alone and spend the next twenty minutes whittling down his health while running in circles and dodging having support beams thrown at me.

With an always online game of this scale (and don't tell me it'd be too expensive to run the servers, so much money gets spent on free-to-play games, I'm sure that if you wanted to have shops lying around in game where players could purchase in-game ammo, protection, or supplies for humans or boosts to strength, ability to tear down barriers, or something that let zombies "smell" which buildings have people hiding in them, players would pay), you would have tight-knit communities of players that would learn the importance of teamwork, would be forced to interact if they wanted to progress (maybe certain goals requires multiple players to access, like a safe house on the upper story of a building, but you need two people to push a dumpster to access the fire escape, and later zombies can push it back to cut off access).

The game style wouldn't be limited to zombies.  You could have an always online game set during a war, where opposing sides are trying to lay claim to several major cities, and your character can "transfer" to another unit in a different city to help in the fighting there, or completely change sides and go mercenary.  You could have a game set in a Cthulhu-like world, where investigators battle cultists, and the world is nice, sunny, and clean when under the control of the investigators, but it looks like a Tim Burton-inspired Gothic mess when the cultists claim areas.

Oh, and if one side simply outclasses the other in every way?  Well, that's when there could be in-game events.  If the zombie horde gets too big, perhaps the military does an air-strike that sends bodies scattered across the map to disperse their power.  The humans are reclaiming too much space, perhaps a "special" infected (like some kind of Resident Evil-inspired monster) surfaces in the city and simply wrecks an entire city block before heading back underground.

There are so many options available in the future when more and more people have online access and systems get more and more powerful.  Perhaps that app on your phone lets you access the server and pick a location, and you can either simply earn points towards something by tapping "help reinforce" or "help destroy."

I've thrown out a lot of ideas, but when I see the advances happening in PC games and seeing consoles constantly striving to reach that level...and I believe there will be a day when we get to this point and can have hundreds or thousands of players on servers working with and against each other this quickly.

In the meantime, you can still simulate something close to this.  The Walking Dead kept track of decisions players made to show how you performed with every other player.  If everyone had a single-player game (or limited multiplayer) like we currently have, but their systems sent regular updates to a server and, once a week or so, received updates back, you could see where the efforts of everybody else in the game went and your game would adapt.  You wouldn't have real time updates, but you'd still feel like part of a constantly shifting, evolving world.

It will happen.

1 comment:

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