How to design a Fallout MMO game that gets 1 MILLION of players within the first year

(this post may look very superficial but there’s an HIGH density of pure game design)

I started to gather ideas just for fun a couple of weeks ago and it’s when I decided that title you see. I did some brainstorming for a few hours but then forgot the whole thing and looked elsewhere.

Today I was thinking again about a part that I didn’t completely resolved, so I decided to put together at least what I had written (and that I partially posted on Q23). I love to brainstorming, in particular in this case that it is BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that this title is pure vaporware that will never be released.

So, pick up the challenge. Put together a sketch of a design plan for a Fallout title aimed at the mass market and that can reasonably aspire to get 1M of players within the first year of release.

As I said I sort of dropped this challenge, but here it is what I got during that initial brainstorming phase.

Inspiration: Mad Max, Army of Darkness and Cowboy Bebop. What I used for inspiration is already quite weird, but I think it works to visualize the kind of world and gameplay to mimic.

Ash Williams! Chainsaws, shotguns and dynamite!

I started to find some key values that are meaningful to that setting. Things directly “fun”, visceral. The cool factor. Basic expectations. The post-nuclear world.

– Ranged combat (getting ranged combat right in a RPG isn’t trivial)
– The setting: I see it like a flavor of cyberpunk, just more decadent
– Tribal nature (small outposts, gangs, local mafia etc..)
– Water, food, gas and ammunitions represent the “wealth”.

It’s also a bit steampunk. There’s technology, but a raw kind of tech. We don’t have spaceships and fancy computers, we have muscle cars, dune buggies, rust, heavy metal (not the music), screws, nails. Gritty world. Dirty. Both new and old. Sixties music could fit better than modern. It’s the “retro” feel. And the reason why I used Cowboy Bebop for inspiration.

The Fallout world has the essence of something strongly familiar. It’s more a distorted way to see the past, than an interpretation of the future. It’s actually more fantasy than sci-fi from this perspective (hence the reference to Army of Darkness).

One part I was considering is that the setting is somewhat “desolated”, few people around, most are dead. You really cannot portray a noob zone with hundreds of survivors whacking droves of mutated spiders, rats and scorpions.

How to preserve the post-apocalyptic mood and give an idea of a mean world where nothing is secure and where the personal initiative makes the difference?

That’s the main theme: there isn’t anymore a general government, so everyone is organized in smaller tribes, ala Mad Max. Everyone is more than ready to stab the other at the right time and steal what is possible to steal. And most of the gameplay should be about the smaller, unexcused wars between the tribes while the rest of the world goes to hell.

Now the overall scheme is where the game can be more interesting and it’s the easier part to realize as there may be so many good ideas and things to build around the concept. From this perspective the setting is ripe of good ideas and the possibility to step far away from the usual treadmills. So I don’t think it’s too hard to make an interesting, “fresh” game with a wide appeal.

The part that actually gave me more problem is about the combat itself. The gameplay. How do you realize this core?

Obviously you cannot go turn based. I discussed this on the forums. The premise of the challenge is to make a game that could be a huge success and a turn based game will be much harder to market. The other common mmorpgs are also turn-based, in a certain way. But instead of dividing “time” in regular segments, the division is more variable and the gameplay more fluid. I see this as a step forward, so I wouldn’t go back.

The first idea I had was to use a RPG kind of (ranged) combat that could feel “right”. Right meaning the opposite of SWG. SWG had ranged combat totally abstracted and weird. To explain what I meant I used the example of Company of Heroes. A kind of gameplay that feels “right” without the need of going “twitch”. But people thought that a CoH from a closer perspective would be boring. It’s actually hard to explain what you mean when you bring these examples.

The point is: no fancy particle effects and floating icons. Bullets, not rainbows.

It’s not just CoH that got ranged combat right. Even Gears of War is a good example of combat going in the right direction with the use of the “cover”. The cover is a basic element in the real ranged combat, and it’s exactly what you have to reproduce if you want the combat to feel “right”. The cover mechanic that is now popular in that game was something I asked *for a very long time* for SWG when I was criticizing its combat on the forums.

SWG was oblivious of those basic lesson and we got weird, fancy combat with colored bars and special attacks. THIS is what I never forgive to Raph and that I’m rather sure he still didn’t understand. The “metaphor” isn’t a dress. It’s EVERYTHING. And if you betray it, the game will greatly suck.

The second idea I had was to use squad-based combat, like a mini-RTS where each player controls four characters with different classes. I quickly discarded this idea for a number of reason. I believe there are many good reason to keep mmorpgs the way the are. One player = one avatar. That’s also a kind of visceral relationship that I don’t have the courage (or real motivation) to break. It would be odd to have a player with four different names and it also depersonalizes the game. It would look also odd seeing everywhere these squads of four guys going around, especially where games have problem with lag when every players controls just one character. All these problems could be actually addressed one by one. But I don’t think it’s worth the work. So idea discarded.

The third was about making it a FPS. So aiming and everything. Assuming the game has a huge budget we could dare to put aside all the technical problems and try to go in this direction. But in a realistic scenario this would mean focusing the WHOLE development on trying to make a good FPS. And in the end it would mean that we have little more than a FPS. So idea discarded because I think I could use better the resources available and focus on other parts to make this game an unique experience. Not just a FPS set in the Fallout world. That’s not interesting enough.

And this is the part that I didn’t complete. My design here branched in multiple directions between these various modes.

When I brainstorm stuff I use to repudiate the kind of gameplay of today’s mmorpgs. One good way to force things in another direction is by designing the controls on a gamepad. Not only you get rid of the typical “hotkey” kind of gameplay that BORES ME TO TEARS, but you would be also able to design a game that will be easy to port on the consoles. And if you want that million of players then every other market opening up is precious.

So. No aim-twitch because we care for the servers and cannot waste three years of development just on that. And a gamepad. Now design the combat. Ranged combat.

I usually try to portray things as a cutscene, then I try to translate that into gameplay. I was thinking of a bunch of characters with ragged clothes, all whacking mutated rats and scorpions. THAT’s what you expect from a Fallout mmorpg (Fallout 2 actually started like that). Then you hear a buzzing sound that seems increasing more and more. You cannot see far away because there’s a sand dune and all at the sudden you see a black shape that kind of takes off from that dune, leaving a dust cloud behind it. And it’s the classic dune buggy with one driver and another on a mounted turret controlling a vulcan. This dune buggy moves incredibly fast, jumps off the dunes, nearly turns upside down after a sharp turn. The poor guys killing scorpions see this thing approaching at them at an insane speed, they try to run away and the dune buggy passes right through a bunch of giant scorpions sending pieces and green stuff in all directions. Then the buggy does a sideslip and the other guy on the vulcan turret takes care of the remaining scorpions.

That’s the kind of clash I want between two kinds of gameplay. No sitting there and exchanging slaps with a poor creature. I want something fast (but not twitchy), something intuitive, immediate, with as little UI noise as possible. I want a kind of fun, arcade combat that still leaves a lot of freedom to the player. In particular I want vehicles and I want a realistic physics system. I want these vehicles to be fun to drive, even if you just do that. Driving, jumping off sand dunes, create spectacular crashes. Have you played Flatout? Company of Heroes has a very simple control of vehicles, but the physics system can do wonders to make the driving feel realistic.

I want the vehicles to have an important role in the game. We also solve the problem of travel. Today we are stuck in mmorpgs with mounts that go a bit faster than running speed. But even with a mount the travel still takes a lot of time if you have to go through a few zones. A vehicle completely reverts that perception because a car goes MUCH faster than someone walking through a desert. You can have a huge environment while making travel not a burden. And without the need of fancy teleports that aren’t appropriate to the setting.

Of course vehicles need gas, and gas is precious. The inspiration is Mad Max again. You need mechanic skills to repair and mod stuff. This part about vehicles alone already provides hooks for all kinds of interesting gameplay. You can also have race circuits, destruction derbies and whatnot.

You use Fallout to ridicule Auto Assault and demonstrate them how to deliver on the theme.

So: vehicles, physics system, turrets with mounted vulcans. Lots of bullets. Lots of Mayhem.

But this doesn’t complete the problem of the combat. It’s just a way to explain the direction I would like it to take.

Today I was thinking about this problem and I found a better solution. We use a control system similar to other arcades. Resident Evil, Tomb Rider, Metal Gear Solid. Classic third-person, non aim-twitch. You have a key that works as the “aim”. You hold the key and your character automatically targets what’s in front of you. No “target lock” as it depends on the direction you are facing, the position of your body. But we can also add a lot of interesting elements. For example lowering the precision if you are moving. Or the possibility to decide how to shoot between classic two/three types (single shot, burst and things like that).

It very simple and familiar but also different enough from current mmorpgs to feel fresh. Press a button to aim and then shoot. But without needing to aim yourself. It should be quick and visceral enough to be appreciated by a large public and at the same time it won’t scare away those who just cannot digest furious twitch FPS. It’s something in the middle that is intuitive and that at the same time retain a RPG depth, stats, kills, detailed character sheets, perks, professions and so on. You don’t have to be good at aiming to do well in the game.

Plus why not taking the best from current games. The cover mechanic of Gears of War again. You use a key that automatically makes your character take cover. You don’t need a real FPS to make a good use of a good mechanic (Company of Heroes, again, also uses cover mechanics). I say Gears of War because its a recognized example but surely not the first game to do that. Metal Gear Solid had similar functions and, again, it’s part of what I asked a few years ago for SWG. So aim, shoot, take cover. With simple, familiar, streamlined controls AND NO HOTBARS. No rainbows. We have already a good core. A basis of gameplay that can be used to define the rest.

No pulls also. I can integrate here all those design principles I bring with me from a long time. If I can see a bandit, then the bandit can see me and react accordingly.

In fact the success of this part of the game is all about the AI. Today the mmorpg AI just make a creature run or shoot at you. We would need instead an AI that also takes cover, uses the environment, cooperates and so on. The goal is to “simulate” a gunfight. If this part is well done then the game has already a good possibility of becoming truly successful.

The overall scheme

As I said, this is the part that offers more hooks for new ideas. There’s a lot to play with, perfect to push the creativity.

The overall scheme: The scheme of the “onion”. The more you move further away from the center, the more things go wild and only ruled by the players. “No Law” zone.

The idea matches the one of the original games. You have a central zone that is “known” and that is more secure. But the resources are scarce and you have to move out where it’s risky, build factories to produce ammunitions and weapons, vehicles and all the rest. Find oasis. Smoke dope. The hippie community, with the van painted with flowers and bright colors. Till they don’t find you.

It would lead to a structure similar to Shadowbane with the players-run outpost and everything, but with a predominant central hub where you can keep things under control (and directed).

You could also play with the concept of the “radiations” as a way to “shuffle” the game world and generate dynamically new things. You irradiate a zone and then the server regenerates it so that it will be ripe again for exploration. This procedure can be more or less tied with other parts, like the player’s settlements, PvP and more.

Balancing the servers

Starting from the idea of taking the deep scheme of Eve-Online, while replacing its slow, long-range, icon & spreadsheet combat system with a simil FPS where you SEE your target. Something frantic. Something strongly visual, immersive, visceral and with as less “interface noise” as possible.

All within a SEAMLESS world. From the room inside the building (and close combat), with a player-to-NPC dialogue, till the larger desert and larger battles. No loading.

Of course this is already a huge problem. Eve-Online worked as a massive world because it’s very slow and requires almost no bandwidth. So how to fit a large world, so that the players aren’t lacking, with a more fast and direct combat? First answer would be: instancing. NO. NEVERMORE!

A rough idea I had was to build the world like a “grid”. Now, normally you reach the limit of the grid and it would correspond with a “wall”. Instead I was thinking to something that was happening to older games. Instead of hitting the zone wall, you exit from the top of the grid and reenter from the bottom.

Yeah, lame :) But wait.

With one trick. Instead of exiting and reentering the same “grid” from top to bottom, you would enter a new grid.

Every grid = one server/shard. Every grid is a nearly exact copy of a shard (with the possibility to prepare slightly variated maps as it happened with Shadowbane’s shards). With its own “hub” and its own “wilderness”.

This would basically allow for a “seamless” world where you can add as many new “grids” as the population of the game requires. You could add new grids on the fly without affecting the remaining ones. You can expand or shrink the world depending on your needs. Every grid would work like an independent “shard”, as in current games, but with the possibility for the players to travel to the grid border and switch “server”/grid if they want. (permeable barriers)

It would work to “chunk” the players into more manageable units, while keeping the barriers between the servers permeable, so letting players meet each other in a global world.

It would also offer a perfectly scalable world that fits every need and that solves both overcrowding and desolation.

That’s pretty much everything I thought. And I really think it can be valid enough to go as close as possible to the goal and a broad market.

Of course only as a fancy dream, because this game will never see the light of the day. Nor in my interpretation, nor in another.

Leave a Reply