January 3rd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

If I Were Designing a Cyberpunk Game (#01)

I liked Neocron, which was a German company called Reakktor Media's heavily hyped "first ever cyberpunk MMPORG." I liked it ... but I complained all along that it didn't feel very cyberpunk, that it seemed to owe more to Judge Dredd than to the Mirrorshades Group. I've commented before that one of the things I like about City of Heroes/Villains is that the parts of it that are cyberpunk, mostly the stuff related to a very cyberpunkish super-powered street gang called the Freakshow and an out-of-control evil ultra-tech research company called Crey, do a pretty good job of capturing the cyberpunk feel. But the game itself isn't very cyberpunk. The thing is, the economics just aren't there to make a truly cyberpunk massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. The cost to develop one of these games runs well into the tens of millions of dollars. Most of the monthly subscription fee goes to run the server farms and to continue the development you need to do to deliver the ongoing stream of new content it takes to keep people subscribed. The return on investment in this class of games frankly sucks, and can only be improved upon if you aim for the lowest common denominator. You have to design your game to match a world that many many millions of people already want to fantasize about being inside, and that's why nearly every MMPORG on the market is a Dungeons and Dragons knock-off.

That may be about to change. A relatively new startup by a bunch of Netscape veterans has just started beta testing on a product called Multiverse. The goal is to do for 3D graphical MMPORGs what MUD, MUSH, and MOO did for multi-user text chat and command line adventure games. Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a new one of those, you had to code it from scratch. Then teams came out with a couple of generations of generic client and server software combinations where all you needed to edit were some text files to describe the game world, and some text tables to define the various character abilities and the various items in the game world. It still wasn't trivially easy, but it cut the development cost of multiplayer text-based adventure games by 99% or more, and a whole universe of different text-based shared worlds sprung into existence nearly overnight. So similarly, the Multiverse team are working on writing a generic server, and a generic client, where the "only" part you have to do is use a 3D graphics editor to tweak the characters, the maps, and the game world objects, and maybe write some simple Python or Java scripts to customize how things act. Their goal is to make it possible to produce a simple variant on a D&D game for in the low tens of thousands of dollars, and a full-fledged complicated game with tons of new functionality for under a million. I'm not sure that their engine is flexible enough to do the kinds of things I want to do, but the comments I've read in their developer forum sound promising. And the gods only know where I would scrape up the venture capital to hire a staff of, say, half a dozen programmers and half a dozen 3D modelers, painters, and sound effects producers. But it has got me fantasizing about what a cyberpunk online graphical roleplaying game would look like if I got to design it, or even just to have a whole lot of say over how it got designed.

The first obstacle seems to be that most of the people doing these kinds of games don't seem to have read a whole lot of cyberpunk, and they sure as heck don't seem to have read any of the cyberpunk authors' commentaries on their fiction. So based on my reading, let me start by saying what I think a cyberpunk world would be like, what a cyberpunk hero is like, and therefore what the theme of such a game would be. The first thing you need to understand is that cyberpunk, like most science fiction, is not really about the future. The cyberpunk fad originated with a single writers' group in the early 1980s, and the themes are the themes of the 1980s. A cyberpunk world is an exaggeration of the early 1980s. It assumes that the recession that had been going on since 1973, and that Reagan managed to make at least seem worse in the first couple of years of the 1980s, was going to continue to get worse and worse, that huge chunks of the population would be determined to be unemployable, disposable, and left to fend for themselves. In that economy, the cyberpunk authors assumed that there would be only four sources of income for the half or so of the population that wasn't lucky enough to land a lucrative corporate job: on the government dole, scrounging and scavenging a living from garbage and industrial debris, being one of the lucky few artists or musicians to make a good living by getting famous for it, or working in one or another criminal enterprise such as smuggling, drug dealing, and so on.

Technologically, it's all about how the definition of "normal human" and, more importantly, "normal human functioning" changes as technology becomes less and less something "over there," along a trajectory that goes "right here," then "that I'm wearing," then "that's attached to me," and ultimately, "that modifies my body itself." Mainframe computers become desktop computers become hand held computers become what? Eye glass computers? Implanted computers? The concert hall becomes the huge stereo becomes the boombox becomes the Walkman becomes the iPod Nano becomes what? Music that directly gets beamed into your brain, played through some surgically implanted stereo, what? Crutches become casts become replacement joints become what, large-scale replacement of the skeleton, maybe with something power-enhanced? Eye glasses become daily wear contact lenses become extended wear contact lenses become what, replacement eyeballs?

The other "invasive technology" of cyberpunk is illegal drugs. The cyberpunk authors were themselves kids during the 1960s and 1970s, and grew up during the then paradigm-shattering discovery that introducing even one twentieth of a single milligram of a chemical into the bloodstream is enough to change the way the brain and the sense organs perceive color, motion, duration, emotional impact, and importance including presence or absence of threat. Their parents and grandparents had been the first generation to march off to war wired on amphetamines. From the viewpoint of the 1980s, it seemed not impossible that the then-dawning science of receptor-site chemistry through molecular modeling would lead to ever more precise ways to modify human perception; where LSD is like a hammer shattering glass, some later drug might be like grinding a lens. Where steroids build muscle mass in general, later drugs might be able to control or enhance muscle function temporarily and on demand. I could make a case that the recent increase in off-label marketing of Provigil as a sleep substitute is a partial down payment on the cyberpunk world view. The ability of someone like the Shulgins to customize hallucinogens to something as narrowly specific as MDMA seemed fascinating to the cyberpunk authors, too. They couldn't imagine that even if such drugs were illegal, in a world with a thriving criminal class and plenty of abandoned cities and factories for that criminal class to operate out of, the desperate and motivated wouldn't enthusiastically turn to precision mood-tuning drugs and performance-enhancing drugs (or even sloppy ones) as a way to try to get a leg up on the other competitors trying to claw their way up into the privileged world of the employed, or even better yet to that long-shot chance of becoming so wealthy that you didn't have to have a job and you still wouldn't have to live in a slum that the shrinking upper and middle classes have turned their backs on.

From that, it's not hard to describe what the game world should act like, and who the players are, and what their goals are. More on that later.