Atul told me about Metaplace a year or two ago, but I've only tried it out in recent months, and I want to tell you about it.
What's Metaplace? It's a flash game... except it's not really a game, and it's built to support multiple clients, of which Flash is only one. Um, let me start over.
It's an MMORPG, of sorts, but with all content including game mechanics being user-created. Or to look at it another way, it's a game-development platform with a social networking component. When you sign up for an account, you get a small chunk of virtual real-estate, where you can build whatever you want, plus there's a scripting language that lets you make interactive objects and impose game rules on your virtual space. So another way to look at it is that it's like Second Life, but with a Flash client that runs in your browser, more cartoony graphics, and more of a focus on making games rather than just hanging out.
Here's an interview in The Escapist (a great online gaming magazine, by the way) with Raph Koster, creator of Metaplace.
His big idea is that making a virtual world should be like having a blog - within easy reach of anyone with a good idea, freely hosted, easily interlinked with other virtual worlds or with other kinds of web pages, able to be embedded or integrated with other forms of web content. He says, "It's really the equivalent of Blogger, but for virtual worlds." He's sick of every MMORPG, and he's worked on several, having the same old gameplay, and he wants to open it up so that people can innovate.
When you create a Metaplace account, you get a virtual home world with its own URL, and you can link people straight to it or you can embed it in another web page. Every object in your world has a unique URL too - like, there's a URL for 'this here chair'. I'm not sure exactly what that's for, but it shows a very forward-thinking design sense: at some point, as Metaplace interoperability with the web, continues to advance, there will be a use for this. And that chair itself could be rendered using images that are linked in from third-party sites. You can import images from anywhere to use as sprites or surface textrues, and even import 3-d models from the Google Sketchup warehouse. You can embed YouTube videos in your virtual world. You can sell objects that you create for virtual cash in a marketplace and buy objects made by others.
Also very forward-thinking is the Metaplace terms of service. An excerpt:
Rights of World Creators
4. Own their intellectual property.
5. Create and destroy their own world at their discretion with no liability to Metaplace or users.
6. To be the sovereign power of their created worlds and subject to rights reserved by others to have full power and authority in their created worlds.
7. Earn and extract economic value from created worlds.
etc. Seriously, go read that thing. It reads like an artifact that fell out of a time warp from some future epoch where wars have been fought over the rights of virtual citizens. Read it and contemplate the possibilities alluded to by the enumerated rights and enumerated responsibilities of world creators and world users.
OK, OK, so idea-wise, Metaplace is all very cool and exciting and ambitious. But is it good? Is it fun? Is it worth getting invovled with? Does it live up to its lofty ambitions?
After playing around with it for a while, I have to reluctantly answer 'not yet'. There's a lot of potential, but the current implementation is kinda... crummy. Everything is slow, laggy, and buggy, there are glaring interface flaws, may features don't work at all, and it's hard to find documentation on how to make your world do stuff. I still haven't been able to get friend requests to work, and one time a buggy script attached to a monster truck statue in the main hub area teleported me off to the edge of the world, on the wrong side of an invisible fence, and there was no way to get back in until I found an admin who could hand-edit my entry in the user database.
I've only found a few worlds that are even attempting to have any semblance of gameplay, and those are barely functional or playable - more proofs-of-concept than anything you would want to play for fun. And a lot of the worlds are... well, like this:
The whole thing is still in beta, and everybody who's on there so far seems to be in the 'just trying it out' stage. So maybe in a year it'll be awesome; or maybe it'll be abandoned. Who knows?
Thus far, I've been using it mainly as a way to chat with Aleksa. Her hearing aid makes it hard for her to use a phone, and she gets bored easily with text chat. But Metaplace gives us something to do together, which gives us something to talk about. So Metaplace is helping me be a big brother, which is cool. But I could do that with any random online game - I'm not making use of the features that make Metaplace unique.
If you ever want to meet me on there, my username is Jono_X and my world is here, though there's not much there yet - the few times I've worked on it, I've just been trying to figure out the scripting language (a Lua variant) that's used to program behaviors into world objects. If I manage to make something interesting (perhaps a point-and-click adventure game) I'll let you know.
Wizard 101 - Focused Like a Laser
At ten years old, Aleksa is already a serious gamer. She discovered an MMORPG for kids called Wizard 101 and asked if I would play it with her. I don't normally like MMORPGs, and Wizard101 looked like a total Harry Potter knock-off, but I thought it would at least be fun to have something we can play together when she's in Illinois and I'm in California.
It turns out that not only is it a great way to play together long-distance, but Wizard101 is actually quite a fun and well-designed game in its own right. The more I discover about it, the more respect I have for the game designers (a small Austin, TX company called Kingsisle, with about 100 employees).
They have over 10 million players - in other words, Wizard 101 is only slightly smaller than World of Warcraft! Given that, I don't know why we don't hear more about it. I suspect it flies under the radar due to the fact that it's "freemium" rather than subscription and the fact that it's aimed at 6-14 year olds.
But under the bright, cartoony exterior, Kingisle have made a pretty serious game, with hundreds of hours of content and surprising tactical depth for obsessive optimizers to explore. Years of polish have gone into this thing.
This is going to be another lengthy post, since I think Wizard 101 has interesting things to say about game design and I want to delve into them.
1. The designers learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering.
First of all, the core game system is a turn-based collectible card game; all combat is done by playing spell cards, which makes it feel quite different from the typical aggro-based MMORPG combat system.
There are seven schools of magic: Fire, Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Myth, and Balance. You can pick one, or you can take a Sorting Hat -esque personality test, but either way you are then locked into your choice. (I took the test and got Death School. Awesome, I'm Slytherin!)
You'll be able to learn every spell from your main school if you reach the right levels and do the right quests. But you also get Training Points as you level up which can be used to learn spells from other schools. Training Points are rare, and better spells have prerequisites, so the decisions are tricky. Focus on a single secondary school, or pick and choose cheap utility spells from all over? What will combo well with the big spells from your main school? The possibility for customization means that no two wizards will play exactly the same, even in the same school.
Since everybody is wizards, obviously there isn't the typical set of character classes. Each school has its own specialties -- Death loves life-draining effects, Myth loves summoning minions, Storm has mega-damage with low accuracy, etc. etc. But every character gets enough damage and self-healing spells to be soloable. You don't NEED to form a party of tank/healer/nuker; everybody's a generalist.
Between battles, you can customize your deck. You can put in up to three copies of any spell that you know; you start each battle with a random hand of seven cards. Like Magic: the Gathering, each school has color hosers against its enemy schools, and monsters are often resistant against one school, so there's good reason to tweak your deck based on the enemies you're facing. Unlike Magic, you can discard freely and you always draw up to 7 each turn, so there's little penalty for including very situational cards as you can always cycle them.
Each spell has a "pip" cost equal to its mana cost. You build up pips one per round. That means you can cast a 1-mana spell every round; or you can pass three times and then cast a 4-mana spell, for instance. There are also 0-cost spells, which typically don't do damage but instead buff and debuff, cause or remove conditions, etc. So you can cast 0-mana spells for three rounds and then cast your 4-mana spell. Much of the fun lies in choosing 0-cost spells that will set up effective combos for your big spells, so that you can do something useful while charging up.
The pip system accomplishes something similar to the land system in M:tG (but without mana screw): gives you a reason to include a mixture of low-cost and high-cost spells in your deck, and ensures that the basic cheap spells you learned at the beginning of the game always remain useful and are not eclipsed by the bigger, costlier spells you learn as you level up.
(PvP is allowed, but only by mutual consent within a special PvP arena. I haven't tried it out yet.)
2. Grouping is low-cost, low-committment
Battles take place in a magic circle, clearly visible to others; if you enter it, you join the battle. That means that if you're running by and somebody calls for help, it's very simple to pop in and help them out; if you don't want to fight, you just avoid the circle. Joining the circle generally causes another monster to join the circle as well, keeping the encounter balanced at about the same difficulty level no matter how many players are working together. If you're collecting monster drops for a quest, *every* player who participated in the battle gets the item; that means there's no fighting over loot. Finally, everybody's a wizard -- in the absence of the usual healer/tank/nuker paradigm, anybody can make a useful contribution to any group.
All of these design choices add up to an environment where helping out a stranger is a very casual, low-cost decision. Nobody ever has to wait around town spamming "L32 rogue LFG"; you don't have to stop playing when your healer signs off for the night. You just start soloing your quest, and while you're battling maybe you run into someone else on the same quest and help each other out; when the quest is done you might friend each other or just say thanks and go your separate ways. Easy breezy.
3. No Death Penalty
When you reach 0 hp, you can't fight anymore. You have the choice of fleeing, or waiting around in the battle for a friend to heal you (any healing spell will put you back in the fight). If you click Flee, or if you die alone, you instantly respawn in a safe location with 1 hp. You lose nothing but the time it takes to recharge your health. Health regenerates while you're in safe areas, so you can do some quick run-around-talk-to-NPC town quests and earn XP while you're waiting. Or you can drink a potion for an instant refill; potion bottles are a tightly limited resource, but you can refill a bottle by paying gold or playing minigames. The minigames aren't bad (they're mostly re-themed versions of old arcade classics), they're a nice change of pace, and they give you mana and gold too.
You can always teleport to anyone on your friends list, so if you have a friend in the dungeon, you can heal up and then rejoin the quest instantly. Sometimes you can even rejoin the very same battle that killed you! "Hey, I'm back, what did I miss?"
So the worst you ever suffer from dying is having to play a round of Dig Dug or Tetris Attack. Think about how not frustrating that is compared to typical MMORPG design: No corpse runs, no equipment damage, no XP penalty. Obviously, when you're aiming at kids it's important not to be frustrating. But ask yourself: why do we think "serious" games need harsh death penalties? Wizard101 proves that treating death lightly does not, in fact, ruin the rest of the game. So why do game designers feel the need to punish players?
4. Cool Setting
The game's multiverse, called "The Spiral", is pretty cool. The spiral is a collection of floating-island worlds which reflect different mythologies. The first world is Wizard City, built among the roots of the World Tree, and serving as this game's Hogwarts / Diagon Alley; I've also unlocked Krokotopia, an ancient-Egyptian world of talking reptiles, and Grizzleheim, a Norse world of bears and wolves. I hear rumors of Marleybone, a steampunk Victorian London of cats and dogs, and other worlds like Dragonspire and Celestia. It's almost like a cartoonier version of the Planescape multiverse or something.
The initial "wizard school" setup is extremely Harry Potter-ish, true, but as the story goes on it draws on a wider range of fantasy tropes and inspirations. It's not exactly the most original thing, but so what? Some of it may be old hat to us jaded oldsters, but the implementation is pretty good. And for the target audience, it may be the first time they've seen some of these tropes in action.
5. Seamless First-Run Experience
The technical implementation is amazingly well done (aside from only running on Windows, cough). They made the path to start playing as seamless as possible. You can start playing without paying anything. You can start making your character using a flash app on the website. While you're doing that, the game installer starts downloading in the background and installing the absolute minimal data to start playing. By the time you're done making your character, the game client has your information and is ready to go. It dynamically downloads the rest of the game content while you're playing around in the starting areas. Mad props to the programmers who pulled this off; it's the kind of achievement that sadly most people won't even notice or think about -- except when they play another game and wonder why it takes so long to start.
The slickness continues once in the game. The tutorial quests do a really smooth job of teaching you the interface and basic mechanics while introducing you to the main mentor and villain NPCs (aka "Definitely Not Dumbledore" and "Definitely Not Voldemort") and the main storyline. You can break off and explore at your own at any time, but if you just follow the dotted line of the starting quest chains, they'll take you through the first few levels while teaching you everything you need to know. This is pretty important for getting new players into such an open-ended game.
6. No Subscription Needed
The pricing model is "freemium", i.e. you can start playing free, but certain features cost real money. Payment is in "crowns", i.e. you pay (or get your parents to pay) like $10 on the website for 5000 crowns or whatever, then you spend them in-game to unlock stuff. Certain areas of each game world cost like 1000 crowns each to unlock, but once you buy them they're unlocked forever. This ties the cost to the progress you've made rather than to the raw number of hours you've spent.
It works really well, as parents can control the total spending while allowing the kid to make the decisions about what they want. You can sample the gameplay before committing to anything, and there's no feeling of a time limit -- it's not like you're "wasting" money if you don't play for a couple weeks.
Or, if you prefer, you can pay a monthly fee to unlock everything. Whichever makes more sense for you. Kingsisle is happy to take your money whichever way you want to give it to them.
You can also spend crowns on vanity items like flying broomsticks, rare pets, fancy hats, etc., and to "respec" your character (i.e. buy back all training points).
7. Focused Like A Laser
If you read interviews with the designers, it's obvious that they had a very clear vision for Wizard 101. Most of them had just come off of working on a very dark, violent, M-rated, hard-core MMO called Shadowbane (which died in 2009), and they wanted to do something different. They saw that there was an unmet demand for an online game that families could play together, i.e. something kids could play, but with enough depth not to bore adults to death. So they focused like a laser on that concept, and threw out everything that didn't fit.
I think this is one of the most important things for a designer to do; there's so much temptation to put in everything you can think of and try to please everybody, but it doesn't work. In Wizrd101, every decision they made supports their vision of something that the family can play together. Everything from the art style to the interface design to the combat system to the chat filter, like it or not, exists to reinforce this concept. The final product has a level of coherence and consistent feel that you wouldn't get any other way.
Stuff I don't like:
Not everything is roses, of course. Aside from the standard MMORPG gameplay flaws ("Oh how exciting: another kill-ten-rats quest. Sigh...") there are a few "features" that I could really do without.
1. Long attack animations
Every non-trivial attack spell in the game uses a Final Fantasy-esque summoning animation. These animations take.
They're fun the first or second time you see them, but by the tenth time I played a Ghoul I wished there was a way to fast-forward it. And your enemies are also attacking with summoning animations. So the battles move quite slowly. It's good to have someone to chat with while you're fighting.
2. No item trading
With the exception of Treasure Cards, items can't be given to or exchanged with other players, which is lame. You can give items to alt characters on the same account, so I don't think it's a technological limitation; it seems to be a conscious design decision. Maybe they didn't want to worry about kids getting ripped off in unfair trades and then complaining? I find a lot of item drops that I can't use, and it would be more fun to give them to players who could use them rather than just selling them to the auction house.
3. Inaccurate magic names
This is a really minor pet peeve, but the names some of the magical specializations are just wrong. Necromancers and Pyromancers are exactly what you'd expect, but then they go and call Storm wizards "Diviners". What? They're not diviners! Diviners use magic to predict the future and learn secrets beyond mortal ken! Storm wizards don't see the future, they just summon lightning sharks!
And Ice wizards are called "Thaumaturges"? What the heck? "Thaumaturge" is Greek for "Miracle worker", and it's been used for a lot of different kinds of magic in various fantasy fiction, but I've never heard of it being associated with ice or cold in any way.
You're abusing my obscure fantasy vocabulary! NERD RAGE!
4. Severly restricted text input
You can't name your character freely, for instance; you have to mix-and-match morphemes from a list. That's why my character has such a twee name (um... "Corwin Lotusweaver". Ahem.) On the plus side, this does mean nobody's named things like XxX_N00B_sLaYeR_XxX... but it is kind of boring how many Stormcallers and Dragonfires there are running around.
Chat is primarily menu-based. (Thankfully, the menus contain names of items and quests you might be looking for help with...) It's nice for kids who haven't learned to type yet. There's also text chat if it's enabled in the parental controls, but even there, any word not on their whitelist is blocked. That's right, they don't use a blacklist, they use a whitelist.
I understand why they did it that way, but it's still unpleasantly draconian. (I bypass the whole thing by running Skype in the background so I can talk to Aleksa with my actual voice.)
Work for a game company? No. Start my own? Hmm...
I got contacted by a recruiter from some Facebook game company called Kabam. She wanted to see if she could lure me in for a job interview. I politely turned them down because I'm not looking for a different programming job. And because, Facebook games? eww.
I did a little bit of research on this Kabam company and found a hilarious quote:
"Unlike Zynga, Playfish and other social gaming juggernauts, Kabam doesn’t focus on the millions of casual gamers that permeate Facebook. Instead, the development firm is honing in on 25- to 35-year-old males who are looking for a deeper and more competitive in-game experience."
Oh yes, because 25-to-35-year-old male gamers are SUUUUCH an under-served audience, amiright?
Anyway this was kind of interesting because it's the first time a game company has reached out to me. It reminded me of how badly I wanted a job making computer games, back when I was a teenager. It got me thinking about whether I would still want to do that.
I think the answer is "yes, but...". I wouldn't want to join an existing company to toil away in their coding dungeon on somebody else's game idea. Pretty much the only way I would do it is if I started my own company to work on my own game idea. Hmm. I guess I could do that, but building a startup company is an incredible pain. I've been through that once already and it's totally life-consuming.
Also, it seems like most successful startup companies don't end up making the product they were founded to make. Or rather, to be a successful entrepreneur you need to be willing to drop your original idea as soon as you spot something more profitable. Aza tells me that venture capitalists call this "pivoting". I'd make a terrible entrepreneur because I would care more about developing my idea than about chasing the most profitable thing. As a startup company, you don't have the luxury to do that.
Still, "Start a game company" is kind of floating around in the back of my mind right now as a scary but intriguing possibility.