Any videogame that I make is, of course, going to have mountains in it. The Crossing, though, is mainly an arrid world. The group of islands and small continents is surrounded by uninhabitable dryness. A fisherman would not be able to steer his boat far from the central regions, without finding the ocean to be barren of life, and the air too hot and dry to breathe.
Travelling North, most of the land is desert, and once you pass the northernmost city in The Crossing, the climate becomes increasingly unforgiving – it’s like trying to survive in high altitudes, and if you aren’t fit for it, then even standing still and breathing can be mortally difficult. At the point of crossing – up in the farthest islands – the climate is completely inhospitable to life, and the land is littered with the dust-preserved corpses of heroes who have attempted to become gods, and died at the threshold.
If you begin the game as a human character, you will emerge through one of five gates. You can see on the map that they make a sort of semi-circle around the central region of the world. Playing as one of the gate people, you may choose to begin in a city, most of which are situated close to one of the gates. If you start the game as a simulacrum, you will find yourself on the edge of the Bonelands where you were created, and you must travel onward from there.
Cities, of course, are natural gathering points. They have merchants, NPCs that offer quests and training, as well as crafting facilities and player housing. In the Crossing, by the way, there is actual real estate. If you buy a house in a city (or a village), then it exists as a real location on the map, and another player’s house would have to be in another location. And you all know who you’re dealing with by now, right? House customisation would be, to put it mildly, extensive.
The mythology of The Crossing describes a race of giants who were the original inhabitants of the world. Vast, cyclopean ruins lie half-submerged and mouldering throughout the land. Many of these ruins, naturally, mark the entrances to particularly deep and interesting dungeons.
Travelling from place to place, you can walk, ride camel-like creatures, navigate skiffs over bodies of water, and so on. I think that multiplayer games have to have some sort of instantaneous-travel system, whether you opt to use it or not, so there would be that as well.
As I said in my first post, my ideal game is not a multiplayer one, so it will be no surprise that I would want the multiplayer aspect of The Crossing to work on a less massive scale than most MMORPGs. I would want individual servers to have a very low population – as low as 50 people (however infeasible that may be). In any case, the world should feel quite sparsely populated, relatively speaking.
Solo and multiplayer experiences in a game like this should be equally rewarding, and offer equal depth of play – in fact, it seems crucial to me that they would. I often read arguments to the effect of: “it’s an online game, so you are forced to cooperate with people and that is the whole point”, and I have no problem with that being the case in some games. It just doesn’t suit my needs. Sometimes I want to log in and go do stuff with friends. Other times I want to log in and fiddle around in the world by myself. Indeed, often that’s the only option available if the people you know are offline.
Ideally, The Crossing would be balanced such that going out and exploring or fighting monsters is equally fun and challenging, and rewards the player with equal relative experience, whether done in a group or singly. In many online games, two or more players of widely (or even slightly) mismatched levels cannot play the game alongside each other – it’s simply too imbalanced, and nobody gets much out of it. This seems a shame to me, and I would want there to be ways around it.
The Crossing would perhaps be a less fighting-centric and more exploration-centric game than most, and this would lessen that imbalance to some extent. In many cases, the benefit of going through a dungeon with multiple people wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with fighting. Certain regions would require several people to access. Certain sheer walls would be scaleable only with three or four players. There might be puzzles requiring more than one player to unlock. That sort of thing.
MMOs frequently have a way of making you feel like every second not spent fighting to gain levels is time wasted. Enjoying the world gradually or extensively only slows your progress, and places you behind your peers in terms of levelling-up. This is particularly the case, perhaps, in games that require a continuous grind – games in which you have to repeat the same task or action over and over and over again in order to slowly gain ground. Taking a break from doing so only prolongs the end result. It’s no fucking fun.
And games should be fun. It should be the main reason we play them. If you take away the motivation of being a higher level, or visibly more well-equipped than other players, then the game shouldn’t lose all meaning. Those are good motivators, of course. That stuff has its place. But it should be the icing, not the whole damn cake.
Yesterday, I briefly described an apprenticeship system for crafting items. I think that something similar could work for levelling your combat skills (including magic, stealth, etc.) as well. Here’s the general idea, once again:
If you want to fight with a sword, you can equip one from the get-go, but you won’t be able to use it very effectively, or do very much with it. In order to progress, you have to find a mentor in that skill – an NPC who can teach you swordwork.
The NPC can train you, which involves having to pass a test or challenge – something appropriate in relation to your abilities (low, in this case), and once passed, you gain a level of Sword Skill.
Having gained skill, you can go out and use your sword more effectively than before. Once you have played for a while, and whacked a fair amount of stuff with it (gained experience with it, you might say), you will be ready for more mentoring. The same NPC might be able to help you out. If you have seen him several times already, you might need to find a more advanced master.
The idea, here, is that you level-up in specific encounters, rather than by endless repetition (which works fine in single-player games, but is subject to abuse in MMOs). Between encounters, you can go out and explore the world – you need a little bit of experience in order to be eligible for another training session, but nothing grind-worthy. A master won’t train you too soon after the last session, and there is plenty to do while you wait.
This obviously isn’t perfect exactly as I’m describing it, but I feel that something to this effect could work well. I do like the idea of specific skills having levels, as a less restrictive alternative to the job system which has become more or less standard. You would still be able to approximate classic roles, like tank, healer, etc. if you wished. But you would not be bound by them while playing on your own.
I can’t even pretend that I’m capable of inventing a working combat system out of nowhere, so I’ll talk briefly, and in more abstract terms, about what it should feel like to play.
The Crossing should have combat that is at once tactical and immediate. It should feel like a live thing in your hands. Building in-game skills will make you more competent, but you also have to meet them halfway with your own abilities as a person holding a controller or sitting at a keyboard. It should be more than simply inputting a stream of attack commands until the thing in front of you is dead.
So what I’m describing, in practical terms, is more like an action RPG, but with much more depth. What I want is the complexity of a tactical game, with the immediacy of an action one. And it should be fun to play for its own sake – not something that you get bored of quickly, but continue to slog through as a means to an end.
I’ve talked about NPCs who offer you training. They would also be merchants, quest-givers, and potential companions.
NPCs in multiplayer games seem to be one-dimensional as a rule. After all, you are interacting with real people, so they fall naturally into the backdrop. I don’t think this has to be the case, however.
It’s difficult to believe that you’re building any sort of one-on-one relationship with an NPC, when you and several other players are crowded around him, all being given the same quest and engaging in the same dialogue. So in The Crossing, it would work a little differently. Every player would have, say, a dozen NPCs who acted as his or her main quest-givers.
That way, both you and your friend would be able to do the “deliver the fish” quest (or whatever), but it would be a slightly different experience. It wouldn’t feel so cut-and-paste. Of course, this would only work to a point, and there would have to be some overlap, but it would be a way to avoid the constant gigantic gaps in immersion.
I also think that having an NPC companion is an excellent way of balancing multiplayer gameplay for people who, for any variety of reasons, prefer to play the game solo. There’s no reason that a companion in a mutliplayer game couldn’t be an interesting and well-developed addition, with his or her own dialogue and story and background.
A companion would be somebody else to make armour or clothing for, giving you more incentive to develop your crafting skills. There could be extra quarters in your home, where he or she lived. It would be enormous fun (I think), and of course completely optional for anyone who considered it to be a waste of time.
Playing the Game
When I intiailly planned this series of posts, I intended only five parts. But having speculated about how the game might work, I’d like to pull everything together with a description of actually being in the world, playing the game.
So, for Part 6 I’m going to design my own character – the character I would play the game with. And I’m going to talk about my own experience playing the game – the strengths and weaknesses that I would cultivate and neglect, and so on. So I’ll put that post up in a couple days, once I’ve prepared some art for it.
Note: The above photographs are taken from various old Time Life books, and National Geographics. All rights belong to them, and so on and so forth.