Monday, May 17, 2004

Crossing the Digital Divide: Stealing tools from the online world for our own pleasure.

posted by E. Burns

After many, many years of avoiding it, I have finally drunk the koolaid. I am now spending a vast number of hours a week playing in an online Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game. Specifically, I am playing City of Heroes, by Cryptic Studios.

It is glorious. It is glorious because it has an easy system which still contains depth. It has a system of missions, simple ad hoc team creation, in depth Supergroup creation with perks, and a mission tree that truly gives one the experience of following a plotline, but maintains the freeform aspect.

I am not here to review this game.

I am here to steal from it. Specifically, I am here to steal its character creation system. Because with all apologies to Champions, Marvel Universe, Brave New World, Marvel Super Heroes, D.C. Heroes, Aberrant, Mutants and Masterminds, Silver Age Sentinals, Villains and Vigilantes, Supervillains!, Superhero 2044, Heroes Unlimited and the plethora of other superhero games past and present than I'm forgetting, character creation in City of Heroes is the most satisfying character development experience I've ever seen.

It's not the powers, per se. There are limits that few tabletop RPGs would impose on a new character as far as power creation goes. Still, there is an element to that kind of thing in the game. No, it's the visual character developer that makes this thing a best in show.

In short, the costuming options are vast -- and if we include color schemes as 'options' seem practically infinite. With no training whatsoever, a person can create almost anything he can see in his mind's eye. No drawing skills are needed. You just... create.

How well does it work? Well, putting it through its paces, I created old RPG characters of mine, plus costumed a number of fictional characters from my Superguy days, plus created some original characters. And you can find the results here,, here, and here.

The game encourages one of the gamers' old vices, as you can see: character creation as a seperate and enjoyable element of the game. I remember back in my Champions days I used to create characters for hours at a time -- and using the 'humanoid outline' templates that they included with the game, I designed a few hundred costumes. This gives me that same experience, and improves on it tenfold. I'm downright happy just sitting back and designing characters and the costumes they wear.

Ladies and gentlemen, the game that can bring this experience to its players will rule the world.

The 'easiest' and most effective way to bring this experience to players is to actually create it as software and bundle the program with the game. I quotate that because it's only easy in terms of the end user -- he runs the software and jumps to it. Windows users around the world can jump right in with both feet. What's more, by handling the setup in a CoH style, players can be indoctrinated into the game -- CoH requires you to actually create your character's powers before you get to the shiny, shiny costume generator. As a result, the character isn't just a model in a costume, but is a character you're actively thinking of. Obviously, the software should be tailored to help players make their characters, probably with a 'beginners' mode that lets them do simple clicking and an 'advanced' mode that lets powergamers and grognards exploit the system to its fullest extent. Finally, after you're finished, you could print your character out -- both stats sheets and (to be blunt) model sheets of the character in various poses and from various angles.

This would be something people would love. This would be a game you could get kids to buy in Barnes and Noble, so they could make the characters and enjoy it.

The problem is, sophisticated software design is an expensive and time consuming process. RPG companies don't, as a rule, have the resources to create a tool like the one we're describing. And character creator software hasn't been a fantastic seller to date, as people have noticed -- in large part because the killer app we're describing isn't the ease of the mechanics -- it's the actual physical character designer. And that is a lot of money's worth of development.

So, what's option 2? Resource pooling. If several companies banded together, they could put together a standalone tool that had seperate modules for many different games. Alternately, a software company could license mechanics from several different RPG companies. Then, you'd have a common tool that people could run, with a menu of choices of genre and system. Keep in the hook that forces people to actually create RPG characters, but include modules for gothpunk, SF, Fantasy (many varieties), Horror, etc. etc. etc. By licensing from several different games, you get to include visual libraries based on those games. The basic engine could therefore have Drow alongside Cthulhu investigators, superheroes alongside Travellers in Imperial uniforms, and the fantastic alongside the mundane.

The problem of cost remains, of course. The graphics engine would take a lot to develop. If only there were a way to get rid of the heavy lifting....

Which brings us to option 3....


Cryptic's already built a seriously cool engine. Right now, as is, any Superhero game would kill to be able to bundle a standalone character designer based on it -- especially if it gives printing options. What's more, it's certain that creating 'costume' options based on different genres and games would be vastly less expensive with the heavy lifting work already being completed. Hell, the most expensive parts of the cost -- the animation of all these new options -- wouldn't even apply to this case.

So, let's say Alter Ego software, who makes Metacreator and who also made the GURPS (and I believe Hero System) character creation systems licenses Cryptic's engine. They've got the mechanics engine already built. Cryptic has an graphics engine that could be likely easily adapted. The core design needed would be interface -- something to make these two very different functions seamless. And then let's say the major companies begin licensing the software for bundles -- heck, White Wolf could bundle a Gothicpunk version with different tweaks for Vampire, Werewolf and Mage, for example, while bundling a Fantasy version with Arcana Unearthed and Everquest d20, and a Superhero version for Aberrant (hope springs eternal), tweaked for Gamma World or even for Exalted....

One way or another, however, being able to harness the sense of wonder involved with making your OWN heroes (vampires/travellers/mutated hellfish/doomed 20's pulp investigators et al) needs to get harnessed once more, for the 21st century, if we have hopes of broadening out of the niche. And it seems like the tools are right there to be stolen outright copied or licensed by tabletop companies.