Categories
Media Technology + Computing

Project Star Trek

A Consulting result I wrote for one of my customers in July 1999. This porposal was neither accepted nor rejected, somehow just died…

ULTIMA ONLINE COMPETITOR

BACKGROUND

Paying only $3,000 for a castle would make anyone jump for joy. But most people would find it absurd to pay the same amount for a piece of virtual real estate. Yet, some folks are doing just that. This virtual land rush is being fueled by Ultima Online, a medieval fantasy game that combines aspects of multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and role-playing games (RPGs). Players create characters and accumulate virtual assets over time. And these assets can become quite valuable in the real world. Auction sites such as eBay have seen Ultima Online assets go for as much as $5,000. (Business 2.0, 1999)

Unbelievable, but true: People are paying huge amounts for virtual land. Ultima Online is one of the most successful MUD-RPGs (Multi User Dungeon/Role Playing Games) in history, at least from a financial point of view. MUD, a well-known category of games, was already very popular in the character-based world of the Internet – way before the WWW was introduced. RPG, also a very popular game category, allowed players to be “someone else”, play the role of a soldier, magician, sorcerer, king, prince or what so ever. But the gamer was mostly alone or had to play with some friends altogether sitting in front of one PC and passing the keyboard to each other. Gamers had to actively meet each other – personally, to be able to play RPG together.

The combination of MUDs with RPGs allows all the gamers to be in the game virtually. The gamers don’t need to meet outside of the game anymore, i.e. in the real world. They play whenever they have time and whenever they want to. They are connected over the Net to a main server somewhere on the world simulating the world of the gamers.

PROBLEM

The main problem in creating a competitive service for Ultima Online (UO) is the gaming idea. UO is so much successful that every game, which promises online MUD-RPG functionality, has to be measured against UO. On the other hand, Origin (creator of UO) had – and still has – a lot of problems regarding the servers. They go down every now and then, tend to be slow or the limit of the servers is reached very often, so gamers are becoming more and more frustrated. Even after setting up servers in Europe and Japan, Origin cannot maintain the huge number of gamers trying to connect and play; there are daily (scheduled) downtimes for every server. This seems somewhat silly or archaic in times where no downtime is necessary and some of the big industries already show us that downtimes are not necessary at all: banking, accounting, etc. The networking of the different worlds in different countries is also another problem: even though Origin licensed translation software to translate between different game languages, the problem of worldwide networked gaming is not yet solved in Ultima Online.

Still, our problem is to find a good gaming idea. The technology enabling a MUD-RPG is not the key issue. I do believe that we can set up a MUD-RPG gaming server with 24×7 online time, without any scheduled downtimes and with international networking.

The market for a second, third, etc. gaming server comparable to UO is there. As a true believer of “Panem et circenses”, I do think that the need for networked role playing is enormous and we should consider investing in this segment (Internal: I don’t know the source anymore, but I read last year an article about the gaming industry being one of the biggest in the near future with as fast a growing as the Internet itself).

OPPORTUNITY

One idea might be to talk to Paramount Pictures to create a SciFi-World based on Star Trek. I do believe that there are enough Star Trek fans (especially Klingons, 😉 who would be willing to play in a MUD-RPG like Star Trek (continuum?).

We need to create a new world in Star Trek Continuum, in which Humans, Klingons, Ferengi, Borgs and so on can “live, fight and do business” with or without well known characters (if with well-known characters, we may need to have professional players paid by us for playing these characters).

Way back in the 80ies there was a RPG on Atari ST, which was so successful like no other game. It was a single-user game about doing business in the vast areas of Space. People tended to compare their financial, political or gladiatorial success in BBS’s. I know of three BBS in Berlin, which kept record of the success or failure of the player. The gamers could save their game status and keep playing later. The gamers had their game-name shown up in the record kept by the BBS’s; they had their status, score, money, etc. It was more like an offline version of a MUD-RPG (the drawback of this way of playing a MUD is that the players have to be honest and report their correct status 😉

UO charges $49 for the game and $9.95 per month for every player; and according to the news they already have signed up some 100,000 players (which is roughly 0,08 % of the 130 million estimated number of Internet users worldwide; 8 in every 100,000 Internet users are playing Ultima Online).

In the case of Star Trek, we could cooperate with Paramount Pictures to develop the game by a professional game development company. I believe that it is possible to develop a game like this in roughly 12 months. Technologies for RPG and MUD are already available in different formats and ways. We have to define the Star Trek World we are going to create, define the rules, participants, methods and tools. Paramount must have most of this already for their movies and sequels allowing as an even faster start-up.

THE GAME IDEA: HOW TO START

We have to convince Paramount Pictures to cooperate and make them create a pilot movie, which incorporates a new Star Trek world. It can be a story like this: Some very well known characters from the current season (DS9?) find a new world with intelligent species somewhere in Space, so they go there to visit this world.

This world (planet, solar system, or what so ever) will be in fact the world of the game – a new Star Trek World. In the movie we can set up a base on this world including these well known characters and leave them there as members of the game (the problem is that they shouldn’t show up in the current movie season anymore).

These characters have to be played by paid players. We could also, from time to time, show up some of the very famous characters in this world, like Spock or McCoy or whom so ever – also played by paid gamers.

I think combining the virtual real world of the movies with the virtual virtual world of the game could be perfect PR to launch the game and I am sure that we could get at least a 100,000 players in about 3 months playing this game – if not even faster.

The more one thinks about the idea the more one is convinced that we should do this — if we don’t someone else will do.

Some of the things people could do in this game:

  • Buy ships
  • Hire crews
  • Explore the Space and/or planets
  • Settle down on a planet and raise a family (we would need to create a character of type “child” so people can play the role of children, too

People will love this game and they will not want to leave the game anymore.

We could charge some $8.95 ($1 cheaper than UO) per month for playing. With this pricing we might be able to get 1 million players in 12 months to subscribe to the game around the world (please don’t forget that most of the Internet users are still very affined to SciFi or Fantasy 😉 Inside the virtual world of the game, we could also sell advertisement for real-world products.

SUMMARY

If we compare the idea of this game to the film industry, it could be described as a “Fast Soap Opera”. Soap Operas are – as I recall – slower than the real world. This game would be in some way faster than the real world but still it would be more like a real, live Soap Opera seen from a million different viewpoints – an interactive Soap Opera (I don’t really want to say so, but I would classify Star Trek as a SciFi Soap Opera, anyway ;-).

And I do think that the long-term future of the film/movie industry might be somewhere in between current movies and interactive Soaps.

WHEN IS A GAME IDEA A GAME IDEA?

The ideas, which promise the most success for a game, seem to be coming from the movie industry. But for an idea to be useful for gaming, it has to correspond at least to following criteria:

  • It must not have heavy weight heroes (see “Why is Star Wars not possible?”)
  • It must have more than just heroes, i.e. it must have re-appearing characters in it
  • It must not have an end already, i.e. either the end is open or the story has the possibility to create new worlds (see “Is ‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ a Game Idea?”)
  • It must not be limited to a small, specific area, i.e. building, farm, etc.
  • It must offer “real-world” possibilities, i.e. business, work, play, fight, …

IT MUST NOT HAVE HEAVY WEIGHT HEROES

A story/movie with heavy weight heroes has – as in most of the movies – usually a story around these heroes, which prohibits setting up a world with a lot of diverse characters as required by a MUD. A MUD is like a movie which is not viewed but directed/produced by each player from his own perspective. The game therefore represents a kind of interactive movie produced with hundreds of thousands of “actors”, each of them playing the main role – being the main hero from their perspective.

IT MUST HAVE MORE THAN JUST HEROES

This is derived out of the above thesis, that it must not have heavy weight heroes. When we imagine having a movie/story like most of the movies, we can see that they are story-telling, which is perfectly true for a movie but not for a MUD-RPG. Stories usually have 1-3 heroes (the good guys), at least one big enemy (the bad guys) and – for the romance of it – one or two side-actors from the opposite sex as the main heroes. So, we must ask ourselves the question: “Who of the millions of the gamers is going to play the main heroes?” There must be space enough for side-actors that the story can live without main heroes.

IT MUST NOT HAVE AN END ALREADY

If the story has a beginning and already an end, then it is a story and not a world, which can be used for the game. Nor can the story create a new world. A story/movie must be more like a soap opera to be useful as a basis for a MUD-RPG: No real beginning, no real end which allows gamers to enter the game and declare this as the beginning of the story for them.

“Dallas” is one of the examples of a soap opera, which you can use to create a world around it after the story was finished. This is because there was not a real story, each of the sequels had their own story .the story of “Dallas”. The main story is about buying and selling Oil Wells and trying to “outperform” the competitor in any way.

“Dallas” can live without the main characters, because the story has enough basis to provide ideas to create new worlds. This is one of the reasons why the Soap Opera Industry created “Dynasty” just right after “Dallas”, and derived from it the soap opera “The Colbys”.

IT MUST NOT BE LIMITED TO A SMALL, SPECIFIC AREA

One of the main problems of Ultima Online is the limited world in geographical terms, i.e. the world of Ultima Online itself cannot handle more than a limited number of players because “Britannia” is an island without connections to any other ‘worlds’.

If the story/movie is limited to a small and specific area like a building, farm, island or even a country, it will be difficult to expand it later on. One exception to this if of course if one starts creating multiple worlds (countries, etc.) already at the beginning of the game and connect them later by means of “exploring” .

Science Fiction (among ‘History’) is of course one of the best genres to keep a world as open as possible, but there are ways to make it even more open (see “Is ‘Hitchhikers Guide…'”).

IT MUST OFFER REAL WORLD POSSIBILITIES

One doesn’t need to start a MUD-RPG without offering all the real world possibilities in it. This includes doing business, working, playing, fighting, etc. Most of the stories in movies don’t allow this possibilities, because they tell stories, movies are fairy tales of the modern times.

But a MUD-RPG needs all ways of expanding itself. At some point, the game will expand and direct itself, recreate a complete new direction without the developers having planned it. But one has to think of all possible ways of acting in a story while creating it.

The game creator must make sure, that the limit for the game is set by the imagination of the player(s). This will be very difficult technically but one doesn’t need to develop all possibilities at the very beginning, instead develop the game further, to not only have added revenue streams but also meet the expectations of the player in a fast changing world. Especially the technological advances in the next years will allow the developers to implement more sophisticated logic in the game.

POSSIBLE AND NOT POSSIBLE GAMING IDEAS

Possible gaming ideas are (among others):

  • Star Trek
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
  • Stargate
  • The Human History
  • The World of Fairy Tales

Movies which cannot be used as the a basis for a MUD-RPG are (among others):

  • Any movie telling a story with an end, e.g. Star Wars, Mummy, …
  • Any movie having one or 2 main characters
  • Any movie which bases on “Good vs. Evil” idea, i.e. two-clan idea

WHY IS ‘STAR WARS’ NOT POSSIBLE?

Star Wars is a Science Fiction fairy tale with a small number of heavy weight heroes. It already has an end to it and the main idea behind it is to fight against the empire.

That doesn’t leave much room to evolve for the gaming idea. There’s Evil, and there is Good. The Evil already died or destroyed, respectively. The Good triumphed over the Evil.

And, least not last, it doesn’t offer any real world possibilities besides fighting. Star Wars is a perfect gaming idea for one person in the “Strategic Gaming” genre. And even in this case, gamers would “re-play” stories out of Star Wars directly, but not new stories, new worlds, etc.

In some way, it is also limited to a small world, there is no exploration, no business, no transactions. One could use Star Wars also for creating adventure games, but all of these gaming ideas would be for single-user or single computer games.

IS ‘HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY’ A GAME IDEA?

The answer is – in anticipation of a well-known radio station – a ‘Yes, principally, but…’

First of all we have to make sure that the four major characters don’t show up often, especially Arthur P. Dent must not show up at all, he is the major “hero” of the story.

We may let Zaphod, Ford and Tricia show up from time to time and we have to make sure, Marvin also shows up very often.

But that’s not the major problem in ‘Hitchhikers’. The major problem – and this time it is a problem – is that the rules of physics don’t apply at all in ‘Hitchhikers’. In a world like ‘Star Trek’ one can assume that travelling at speeds higher than that of light is possible, especially since Kip Thorne and his colleagues already showed a way, how to do this 😉

In a world as described in ‘Hitchhikers’ if one wants to ‘have a table reservation in The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe’, one can just travel there and make the reservation after travelling back into the own time which would mean one made the reservation before going to The Restaurant after on went to The Restaurant.

In plain English: We happen to have a fourth dimension called ‘Time’ in which people can travel with all the problems derived out of travelling in time… Either we don’t allow travelling in time or we have to somehow make sure that everything fits well in the whole story.

Travelling in time causes some problems and some opportunities as well for a MUD-RPG: A player, who needs money, can just travel back in time some 200 years, put a cent on a bank account, travel ‘back’ in his time and have some millions on his bank account. On the other hand gamers will not want to have their gaming fun destroyed by players travelling around in time, so they may create rules by themselves in the game prohibiting or regulating time travel.

‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ is a perfect game idea because it does not really have big heroes only – indeed there are Arthur P. Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Tricia McMillan and Marvin. But the most stories happen around them, not only with them. Arthur P. Dent is the only major “hero” in the story and he already settled down on a completely re-furbished Earth, therefore leaving the whole story.

Douglas Adams created a huge world which can survive without the heroes, but which would be funny if the main “actors” like Ford, Zaphod, Tricia and Marvin would show up from time to time, but not Arthur. It’s in this case comparable to Star Trek with James T. Kirk having died in “Generations” and new seasons created already.