Imagine a game which followed the freeform ideal
to the limit. A game that incorporated all genres from first-person shooters
to space trading
sims to 4X space operas
A game where someone could fight as an FPS grunt, in a battle directed by a tactical squad commander, as part of a wide battle front directed by an RTS general, which was but one part of a planetary war planned and executed by the ruler of a galactic empire.
A game where you would never go on a cookie-cutter mission stamped out upon request by a vending NPC, because all "missions" would be requests from other players for a particular service, such as transporting a combat team to an enemy stronghold, designing a corporate headquarters, or tracking the movements of a spy working for a foreign power.
Picture this, if you will:
You are the legendary adventurer Corona Saturday Ibn Friday, discoverer of the Bog'Hara Triangle, liberator of the Vyrtt'sa Hyperspace Bypass, and amateur zero-gravity pet arranger.
With the rest of the crew of the privateer ship Other People's Business, you have been climbing around a crashed Utopia Corporation dreadnought for two days, searching for an infocube containing the schematics of a secret executive facility.
This system, only recently discovered, has no other obvious human activity, so you're not expecting any trouble apart from the vicious native predators, the dreadnought's automated defense systems, and the unknowable dangers of the frontier.
Finally, on the messy corpse of a high-ranking courier, you find the right infocube, have a celebratory discussion with your crewmates, and call a dropship down from your starship. Already picturing the fancy new gear you'll buy with your share of the ransom, you head for the exit with the others.
However, on the way out, you get a call in your earpiece. The panicked voice is that of your captain, who stayed in the command ship to direct your search and monitor the surrounding area. His only words are "Get out! Get out of there!" and a glowing green line is laid over your vision, showing you the captain's hastily calculated shortest route to the dropship's position. All attempts to reach the captain come up with: "The player is offline, undergoing resurrection, or has engaged their privacy filter."
The team heeds the captain's last warning, racing for a hole blasted by some unknown weapon in the ship's hull, conveniently providing an emergency exit for people using antigravity.
You're the last out, covering the rear. Fifty metres away from the ship, floating out into the night, your initial relief turns to sick realisation as your radiation counter suddenly starts chattering wildly. Unable to stop yourself, you turn around and look up to see a second sun falling out of the sky.
A cluster of kinetic spears, glowing like a rock in a blast furnace, end their hundred-kilometer powerdive in the dreadnought's guts. The explosion almost fries you through your expensive field-reinforced combat suit, and wrenches you through the air out into the jungle. You end up a kilometer away, battered but still alive, and luckily your synaptic implant still holds a copy of the plans for the Utopia Executive Harem, where all the Utopia execs go to "unwind".
Seeing unfamiliar dropships screaming overhead, heading for the crash site, you float carefully under the canopy towards a Precursor temple mentioned by your captain when he did the preliminary scan. Once there, you will hopefully be able to find some sort of transport off this rock.
But since it's 3AM, and you've got to take the kids to fencing practice at ten, you hide the information cube under an otherwise unremarkable rock and log yourself out of the game, knowing that it will probably still be there tomorrow when you return.
Then, with the money that you'll get from selling the infocube to Utopia's major rival in the entertainment industry, Paradise Unlimited, you'll be able to break into the Utopia shipyard to steal back the Other People's Business.
After all, the captain will pay a lot to get it back...
The difference between this and your standard MMOG is the sheer depth and dynamism of the gameverse. All the characters in the world would be played by human beings. The only "NPC"s would be player-created robots, genetic constructs, or AI programs, all built using an in-game scripting language.
The main challenge facing such a game would be interface design. You would have to have a sufficiently interactive gameworld that a character could conceivably crawl through the ventilation ducts into the enemy's fortress (if the enemy is dumb enough to have ventilation ducts big enough for people), kill everyone in the war room, give the enemy forces displayed on the tactical map false instructions, place explosives, and flee, leaving behind a shattered mass of rubble.
This person should then be able to flee to their waiting spaceship, launch themselves into orbit pursued by enemy fighters, and fight their way through the newly hired mercenaries around the local wormhole and return to their ultra-secret base hidden in an asteroid belt to while away their time designing booby-trapped pleasure gardens with poisonous water features, explosively ornamental shaped hedges and acid-coated rotating knife seats.
Of course, you couldn't just jump right in and command lots of people. Everyone would start as a recent colonist (perhaps from another dimension, to explain the sudden new people in-world) with player-customised appearance, abilities, etc, and work their way up by whatever means.
Now, why the hell would an individualistic geek want to take orders from some other geek? Doesn't it go against our nature?
No! A group/clan/culture/hive (call it what you will) would be much more effective in battle if its actions were co-ordinated using a tactical RTS-style interface by a suitably hardcore commander, using information from spies, airborne drones, satellites, distributed sensor networks, smart dust, turncoats etc. Anyone who just rushed at the enemy using no co-ordination beyond group chat would be outclassed.
A game like this would need to begin small, then build up. Possibly it would open a portal thingy in lots of places all over one planet, and otherdimensional colonists (from an overpopulated culture with cheap four-dimensional field technology) would walk out of them with the free gear given to them by their government.
Each portal would seed the growth of a player-built city. Thus, the first players would get to build a civilisation from the ground up. Of course, since they'd start with pretty high-tech stuff, they wouldn't have to plough fields or anything.
New elements of the scripting system would be released by the developers at certain intervals, allowing them to carefully control the level of tech in order to let the player-designed equipment, vehicles, spacecraft etc mature sufficiently without being overwhelmed.
And the admins could make it even more interesting, if they brought mysterious aliens into the mix. Scripted telekinetic space-going cacti, anyone? Maybe the gameverse could be made even more varied and interesting by magic being discovered on some "primitive" planet, enabling new types of gameplay, or if someone found a portal which seems to lead to the afterlife, making it possible to conquer death itself...
Grand Theft Auto, Privateer, Half-Life, Warcraft, The Sims, Master of Orion 2, and more, all in one game! Wouldn't it be grand?
Here is a little portrayal of the experience that you could expect from this MMFG, how that would integrate with other player's experiences, and how this would take multiplayer gaming to a giddy height of truly revolutionary gameplay:
From Grunt to Galactic Overlord: A Whimsical Journey
You're a gamer of the near future. You've played a lot of multiplayer. You were there when Doom came out, when Quake's first internet server came online, when Ultima Online started telling everone they could kill Lord British, ya know, in theory.
You've OBLITERATED thousands of town guards on dozens of MUDS, killed uncounted numbers of cute fantasy creatures on several Everquest clones, neatly thrown grenades right through the door of uncounted enemy flagbases, and fought numberless legions of the walking dead.
But you're bored. Playing Grand Theft Auto made you realise what you've been missing: Freedom. The freedom to fight battles your way, or not fight them if you feel so inclined, or destroy your enemy before the batttle is even joined.
Therefore, when a new MMOG comes out, promising freeform gameplay, unprecedented scope, and the chance to shape a new kind of online world from its very conception, you sign up, suspecting that it will turn out to be just another Anarchy Online.
You download the client, lovingly french-kiss your ADSL router (for without it, there's no way you could play this game) and log in for the first time.
After tweaking your appearance, you step through a portal and emerge on a high bluff, overlooking a lush valley filled with rainforest, surrounded by tall mountains. A few clearings are near the base of the bluff, and in them you can see a number of buildings, as well as some holes, with the unmistakable forms of fellow players wandering around between them.
As you stand there and inventory your gear, you notice something strange. Players keep stepping out of the portal behind you, every few seconds, but instead of standing around some head straight off down the valley.
Curious, you follow one, readying your government-issue taser. After a little while your quarry enters a clearing, and like a newbie dumbass you follow him. You just have time to see a shallow tunnel slanting into the ground with shiny metal streaks at the bottom before the guy turns around, says "Welcome to our clan, buddy" and shoots you in the head with a shotgun you hadn't noticed before.
Before you respawn from the portal, after reading a little how-to on saving your current character in the transmat portal's near-infinite memory, you wonder where he got that gun, and what he meant by his cryptic, boom-click-click greeting.
Soon, you find out that the shotgun toting guy's clan, called "Legion Of Our Half-Inflated Dark Lord", only recruits people it has killed in battle, and that the whole "shotgun blast to the head" thing wasn't personal, man.
You also find that one of the devices you arrived with is a combination prospecting/digging/mineral extraction tool, enabling you to locate minerals, gems or obsidian or gems within ten metres horizontal and two metres vertical, slowly strip away soil at any angle in a wide swathe, and extract anything useful from the soil as it expels it into the air, which simultaneously masks your view of the surrounding area and makes a big, noticeable fountain of dirt that anyone for a hundred metres around can see.
First Person Shooter
Deciding that you don't want to bother travelling far enough out into the valley to avoid being seen by hostiles while you mine dirt, you decide that you will most easily be able to have some fun as an FPS grunt in the illustrious ranks of the LOOHIDL clan. You are inducted into the clan, given a badge to wear, and a shotgun just like the one that greeted you to the clan. As you wait for people to attack, guarding the mine's entrance alongside "Mr Shotgun", he tells you how that shotgun came into being.
"See, the clan designer, after designing the shotgun on his infopad, detailed me and a few grunts to escort him to the transmat portal's backside as he carried a heavy load of minerals from that mine down there."
"The portal, which doubles as a replicator, took the design from the infopad and the raw materials mined by the clan, and spat out a brace of shotguns, charging a set amount of gold determined by the size of the order and its complexity."
You are attacked just as Mr Shotgun is telling you about the designer's ideas for a grenade launcher, and suffer your second death in the world, but not before taking out five of the attackers.
Since you saved yourself in the portal, and your first dividend was stored as credit in the transmat, you are unfazed about respawning and heading back to the mine. As it turns out, the attack was repelled, and you are now accepted as a full member. You continue to have fun as more people arrive, the clan expands its operations, and new weapons are designed for you to play with. The first couple of months go well.
Vehicles are involved in almost all modern FPS games, and rightly so; the experience of running Hunters over in a Warthog has a special kind of satisfaction for anyone who's been stuck with no ammo when one of those bastards is coming for you.
Therefore, when an imagineer joins your clan and, as a sign of trust, shares his design for a giant pogo jeep that kills people by squashing them and simultaneously lets you see the surrounding terrain from an elevated position, you happily volunteer to test-drive the thing.
After a few messy high-speed impacts with the canopy, it becomes clear that the pogo's combat effectiveness is rather limited in the jungle, but it is still great for getting the drop on an enemy clearing if you haul it up a tree nearby.
More designs, including a quad bike which unfolds into a quad-mortar and a meticulous reconstruction of Leonardo's wooden tank, except made of titanium with autocannons in place of cannons, make the jungle an even more interesting place. The clan starts cutting roads between its mining sites, bringing faster travel along with an increased risk of ambush.
A self-declared pacifist makes a lot of gold by building an armored combat ambulance and driving through ongoing battles promising "a quick evac or your money back!" He proves to be a remarkably good driver, and soon attracts a following of loyal ninja paramedics, who have specialised in healing other characters without any thought of non-financial reward, and somersault, leap, and crawl through battlefields healing the dying without fear or favour.
All this means that you get killed in novel ways all the time, but at least you're not bored.
Deus Ex: Vice City
It's six months since you entered the game, and the world is waking up. The jungle valley is now dotted with little settlements, and your clan controls several of the biggest.
You've demonstrated your real ultimate power through countless battles with waves and waves of the enemy's own men, and you feel the urge to get involved in higher things, like assassination, "explosives testing" in locations specified by discreet financial benefactors, stealing prototypes from the secure labs of imagineers, and terrorising small towns, enslaving their population to mine gold.
You start getting niggling little worries about being labelled a complete and utter bastard by half the planet's population, and decide to dedicate yourself to protecting peaceable types from the game's less ethical players.
You even forgo a fee, because you are a kind and decent altruist who knows that the equipment on an assasin's corpse will be easily convertable to gold at one of your clan's guarded market halls.
This is where the game starts to have real depth,as you use intrigue, espionage, and politics to make a true reputation for yourself, not only in the valley but in the wider gameworld.
Okay, so you've done well. You've amassed a ton of loot, your gear is the very latest thing from those quasi-elvish weaponsmith types over in Forest Primeval, and dozens of soldiers now follow your banner into battle. In fact, so many players have joined what is now your clan that you're starting to have trouble co-ordinating your troops in ever-larger battles.
However, just yesterday you got a private message from a whizzo scripter regarding her new product: the Mr Starcraft(tm), a display screen with a stylus, remotely linked to an airborne drone, which can allow a commander to monitor a battle from above and translate on-screen unit directions to a little pathfinder arrow in a simple soldier-worn HUD, also available from the soon-to-be-rich whizzo scripter.
With the new advantage over your enemies that the device gives you, you start taking more interest in directing battles and less interest in being there, until you give up FPS action entirely and direct the actions of your mercenary force from your secure underground lair, hidden under a ski resort inside one of the mountains around the valley.
(Another route to RTS glory is to become a designer of scripted robots, and use the cash you gain from selling them to fund your secret cyborg army of the night, composed of hordes of genetic constructs upgraded with nanoware and slaved to a Mr Starcraft.)
You aren't having as much fun directing combat as you used to, and one day you are approached by some clever wag who has used the results of a painstaking study of the gameworld's physics to build a simple, fast, maneuverable, flying vehicle called a "spruce moose" for some arcane personal reason.
When you hear about this, you just HAVE to have a go, and you have a newly bought spruce moose fitted with a high-velocity automatic flechette cannon.
With a bit of practice, you learn to fly the thing without careening wildly into a mountain, and start assisting your troops by bombarding enemy positions from the air. Initially, you have a merry old time wasting enemy troops with strafing runs and laughing maniacally.
However, the enemy soon starts using shoulder-mounted homing missiles, giant net cannons, and air-defence lasers, and the first time your craft explodes in mid-air, disgorging your relatively flimsy self to be roasted by laser fire, you realise that perhaps piloting isn't your thing. Your mind is definitely made up when your enemies start using aircraft themselves and prove to be remarkably good at dogfighting, and you go back to directing your army.
Still, you are now newly intrigued by the tactical complexities introduced to your battles by air power, and a fleet of powerful, diverse aircraft becomes a mainstay of your strategic capability.
You've done very well. Your little protectorate, with its own army, police force, resource mines, research teams, air force, and jetpack baseketball team, controls the entire valley, successfully fending off attacks by other clans and ejecting internal separatists.
You spend less and less time directing your army, which is now taken care of by your trusted generals, and more time juggling the various balls of power: constant expansion, resource acquisition, public confidence, economic growth, technological prowess, and stopping all those other wannabe emperors from doing so.
As a result, you set your most highly-paid designers to come up with a strategic interface, through which you can give orders to generals, monitor market activity, access your vast array of armoured surveillance zeppelins, order mass consignments from the transmat, plan new construction, and talk to leaders of other clans.
With this innovation, your protectorate becomes a true empire as you direct a grand strategy of expansion against neighbouring protectorates, using the advantages brought by your new interface to co-ordinate entire armies like chess pieces. Your expansion is only slowed when news of your strategic interface gets out and every good leader gets one, and you focus on consolidating your power across the vast area of terrain your armies now occupy.
Expand, Explore, Exploit, Exterminate, Privateer?
The planet's frontiers, though still quite huge now that some bright spark has started building submarines, not to mention the recent discovery of a world-girdling maze of twisty huge passages (none alike) by an overenthusiastic demolitions expert, are becoming claustrophobic.
Though your empire is great, many others jostle for position on the various continents and islands, now well-explored. Your population is becoming restless, since there are increasingly few places for them to explore and stake out, and instability threatens all your hard-won power.
Luckily, another empire's chief imagineer, in a fit of rapturous generosity, releases his plans for a space drive across the hypernet, beginning a wave of spaceship building and a new expansion into an infinite frontier, each empire scrambling to expand into the galaxy, explore its wonders, exploit its resources, and exterminate their rivals, and hundreds of thousands of individual players looking to find their apotheosis in the depths of space.
You feel like it's all beginning again, as your newly humbled empire is confronted with the jungle of worlds, stars, asteroids, and stranger things out there in the gameverse.
Still, at least you're not bored...
Fin. (not the shark, the French kind.)
This article is dedicated to 5pectre, because he told me to write it down after a conversation on #kuro5hin involving, among other things, the amazing smash-hit cross-genre game "Halo vs Barbie Home Makeover".