Thursday, July 31, 2014

Designing Unique Characters in a Science Fiction Universe (part 4)

If you're having trouble deciding on how to make your character interesting and unique, there are options in our “Character Creation” chapter that might stimulate some ideas. Physiques and Personalities are traits you can choose for your character, and both of these have small, in-game bonuses and consequences. For instance, if you choose the “Good-Looking” physique, you'll have a bonus for persuasion attempts, but a penalty for stealth attempts to blend into a crowd (because you stand out so much!) This alone could spawn ideas for an interesting character—maybe your female Reln is so attractive that she draws attention wherever she goes, but she actually has low self-esteem, is an introvert, and doesn't like being noticed. Of course, the personality traits that are presented in the rules also can provide an excellent springboard for designing a fun character. For instance, your character could be a prankster, have a phobia, or be totally clumsy. How this plays out in the game could be very defining for your character. Maybe as a prankster, you've gone too far and made some enemies that are looking for revenge? Or perhaps your phobia has prevented you from living a normal life? What if your clumsiness has people avoiding you because you seem to have “bad luck?” Any number of creative designs can emerge for your character, and the physiques and personality traits in the game rules are a great starting point.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Designing Unique Characters in a Science Fiction Universe (part 3)

Cultural viewpoints in Solar Echoes from the various alien races are not necessarily there to serve as a template for a character, but they may serve as a starting point. For example, in the Krissethi culture, life is a competition and status is the measure of how you are progressing through the ranks of that competition. This is not to say that characters of each race must fall into a stereotype for that race, but it is to show what the majority of people in that culture grow up around. Does your Krissethi character swear off materialism and self-aggrandizement? Instead of following the status-quo, has this Krissethi decided to lend a helping hand whenever possible, donating all personal wealth to a good cause? If so, then you'll know what he or she grew up around, which gives you an opportunity to detail what motivated your character to go against the grain and how others around him responded to this behavior. Challenging established themes often makes characters very intriguing and multi-layered, but it is important to first understand where they are coming from and what the cultural norms are for that race.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Designing Unique Characters in a Science Fiction Universe (part 2)

In many RPG's, it is easy for the players' characters (the heroes of the game) to have a tendency toward single-minded, flat personalities. Characters quickly fall into a pattern of sharing all information together and generally agreeing on everything. To avoid this in Solar Echoes, it is important to understand how each of the races view the universe differently. For example, the plant-like Erwani are extremely patient and are always playing the “long game,” willing to sacrifice and suffer losses if their ultimate goals will be met in the end (and for this reason, many who fail to discern that foresight simply conclude that the Erwani are just “lucky” when things somehow always seem to work out for them.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Designing Unique Characters in a Science Fiction Universe (part 1)

The difference between role-playing games and just about any other game out there is the chance to develop a character and act out his or her personality. Creating an interesting character in a science fiction universe is an exciting opportunity, especially considering that there is a wider range of options than in most other scenarios. Characters can be shaped not only by the society they grew up in or the racial make-up of their surroundings, but also by their home planet, its sun, and how far it might be from other civilized worlds. Consider the Reln, for instance—they grew up on a planet resonance-locked with its sun, forcing them to endure harsh weather and dangerous levels of radiation. Not only has this environment shaped their physiology, but the Reln are not exactly outdoors-types as a result. Their level of education rivals all of the other races and they are extremely well-spoken, in addition to being one of the most technologically advanced races in the Union. The variety of alien races in Solar Echoes alone provides a unique starting point for designing an interesting character, but that is just the beginning...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Impressions of Destiny (part 5)

There are a few aspects of Destiny, however, that I wasn't fond of, though they're not deal-breakers in my opinion. One is problem (it seems intentional, but perhaps it is something Bungie intends to change) is the situation that occurs with weapon-switching. You have a primary, secondary, and even a heavy weapon that you can switch between at the press of a button, but the problem is when you want to use weapons you're carrying other than those three hot-keyed guns. If you go into your character screen and switch up what you have hot-keyed, the ammo disappears for that weapon, even if it was fully loaded before. This can be annoying for some play-styles. Another thing I wasn't fond of was that I could not join a team of players because I don't have “Playstation Plus,” a membership with a $50 annual fee that allows discounts on games and the ability to play multiplayer. My concern is that I might miss some aspects of Destiny's story, because in the beta, there is already one scenario I can't access. Something else I noticed was that when I was in an area where a team was playing, the Fallen that spawned for them seemed oblivious to me—I could shoot them and run around them, but it was like they didn't see me at all. Finally, the tasks that I gathered in the open-world environment started to get really repetitive: “Kill more Fallen because” we need to study their weapons, we need to study their armor, we need to study their genetics, etc. There sure seemed to be a lot of quests that were just trying to get me to kill more Fallen, when honestly, that's all you do in the game anyway. Hopefully, the story and missions will be more interesting in the full game, and consider that I've only experienced 4 or 5 main story quests in the beta. I'm not really on the fence anymore—the game is fun—I just hope that the beta is a limited snapshot of the scope of the game, rather than a warning of future repetition and drudgery like so many other MMORPG's out there. I'm hoping this one isn't all about the grind!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Impressions of Destiny (part 4)

What about the gameplay itself? I can easily draw comparisons to other games, such as Borderlands, where you are always looking for a better gun and equipment. There are always lots of Fallen and drones to shoot at, so if you enjoy FPS's even a little, there is plenty to do in Destiny. Fallen respawn in areas that have been cleared, so it appears that it is possible to just camp out and “farm,” slowly raising your experience points to level up. But honestly, I was much more interested in exploring that incredibly detailed and realistic world. It's beautiful, and so far, I haven't noticed any recycled areas. Everything looks like it was designed individually rather than cut and pasted, and exploring can be its own reward for a while. One nice feature early in the game is, after you complete one of the first few tasks, you can summon a hover-bike speeder and zip around the area more quickly. It is vast, and I like that, unlike other MMORPG's, you're given a means of fast overland travel really early in the game. The combat is very fluid, and the AI of the Fallen is decent—they take cover if you are aiming, they try to flank you (sometimes), and they react to your positioning well (if you're camped out in an area they can't get to without taking weapon fire, they'll toss a grenade over to you.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Impressions of Destiny (part 3)

After I finished designing my character, a narrative began explaining the story of the game. The opening was definitely intriguing. Most of the earth is now unsafe, with one last city watched over by a giant, hovering globe known as “The Traveler.” After the opening, the story shifted to a barren area filled with the frames of rusted cars while a floating, mechanical eye-ball device scanned each one meticulously. In the distance, strange armored humanoids with several eyes and odd helmets seemed to take notice of the floating device, and gave a battle cry as they grabbed their weapons to pursue it. At that moment, the story shifts to your perspective and your character wakes up, discovered by the eye which informs you that you've been dead for a long time and says most of what you see won't make sense to you. He then urges you to hurry, because “this is Fallen territory,” and you begin to run to an indoor area where you grab your first weapon, a rifle.

At that point, the game begins in earnest and you must get through the building to find a starship so you can fly to the city. All you have to do is survive the Fallen that hunt you long enough to reach the old starship. I could detail the story further, but suffice it to say that as far as openings go, I felt it was a solid start to a strong setting. As I played through the game, there were missions where I'd have to go back out into “Old Russia,” to find things that would advance the game further (a warp drive for my starship so I could eventually go to other planets, for instance.) On the way, I'd discover interesting bits of information that unveiled more about the history of earth and what happened. Though the story didn't get too far past the first 3 or 4 missions, it definitely has me interested and hoping that this MMORPG, unlike many of the others I've attempted, will have a story that keeps me playing and coming back for more.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Impressions of Destiny (part 2)

So let me walk you through the experience as I began Destiny. After a VERY long download and install process (a couple hours total), I finally was able to begin and as with most RPG's, the very beginning involves designing your character. There are 3 humanoid races to choose from: Human, Awoken (kind of mysterious, glowing-eyed, exotic looking), and Exo (powerful robot/cyborg like humanoids.) There are also 3 classes to choose from: Hunter, Titan, and Warlock. I've always been on the fence between magic-using types and stealthy, ranged fighters, but I made my first character a female Awoken Warlock. There are a few choices for customizing character appearance, so I was able to choose the face from a small selection, the skin color (light blue), eye color (bright, glowing blue), hair color (dark blue), hair style and facial tatoos. That's it, nothing else—no height or weight options, no changing facial structure and tweaking the positioning of the eyes, mouth, nose, ears, etc. It's a fairly quick process, even if you want to spend a lot of time on detail. In a game where you are wearing a helmet on the field and the only time you see what your character looks like is in town, your looks don't matter that much—most of what you look like will be visible by the equipment you wear and carry. This gives even more incentive to gather “loot” in the game, because it is ultimately what shapes the appearance of your character overall.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Impressions of Destiny (part 1)

If you're unfamiliar with the upcoming video game called Destiny, it's a very big deal. The game has been purported to be one of the most expensive to produce video games in history, and there has been endless hype surrounding the science-fiction first-person shooter open-world massive-multiplayer online role playing game (got all that?) I own a PS4, and was lucky enough to be given a code (thanks Chang!) to join in the beta testing process that is going on right now. The game is due for release in early September, and Bungie is testing the game to see how it handles lots of players at once. Unlike the alpha test that was done a while ago, the beta is in a much more polished state and what I'm seeing is probably very close to what the finished product is going to be. If you've read some of my other articles before, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of MMORPG's in general, but there are some reasons that I think Destiny might actually work for MMORPG enthusiasts and for people like me, too. This week, I'll be sharing my impressions of what I think works well in Destiny, in addition to a few criticisms.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weapons of the Future: Reality and Solar Echoes (part 5)

The Long Range Acoustic Device can be used by our military to send a warning message to someone suspicious that is approaching our troops. The device fires narrow beams of sound waves and can be clearly heard almost a thousand feet away. If so desired, the power can be augmented and a warning tone can be projected so loudly that anyone in its path would have no choice but cover their ears and run. In Solar Echoes, the Reln have developed a similar weapon—the Reln Sonic Striker. The sonic emitter on the weapon emits a loud burst of sound waves when fired, and this burst causes everyone within 50 feet to suffer a -1 penalty to all Skill checks for the following round. This technology was inspired by the Reln's own ultrasonic screeching ability, where they can naturally produce a high-pitched blast of sound harmful to the ears of other creatures, causing temporary deafness and the “shaken” condition (-1 to all Skills.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Weapons of the Future: Reality and Solar Echoes (part 4)

The military has developed a weapon known as the Active Denial System, which is a gun that shoots painful millimeter waves. If the gun is focused on a target, it takes only a few seconds before the target will feel extreme heat. This weapon can be used for crowd control at riots, but a carefully censored report from the Air Force in 2007 reveals that an airman was burned by the beam as well. He was playing the role of an enemy scout during an exercise intended to evaluate the weapon, and was blasted at full power for four seconds. In Solar Echoes, there is a similar weapon called the Tormenter. Each round after the initial hit, the attacker may continue to damage the target as long as he keeps the beam focused on the target. The damage done will increase by 1 point per round, and it ignores physical armor. In the Solar Echoes universe, the Tormentor has become a media target because of its use against mobs of protestors, many of which have received life-threatening burns on their bodies due to intentional beam-focusing by riot suppression forces.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Weapons of the Future: Reality and Solar Echoes (part 3)

A materials-research firm called Adherent Technologies has been charged with the task to create an adhesive polymer that can stop vehicles without harming the occupants. Squirting enemies with sticky foam has been explored by the Army. Goo guns also exist in Solar Echoes, from who else but the amorphous Omul? Omul Glob Pistols fire glob orbs, which explode into a sticky, organic substance when impacting a target. The victim will be slowed for a short time unless he spends a moment to scrape off the glob. Glob Pistols are made of an organic substance, so they do not show up on metal detectors and are quite easy for Omuls to conceal within their cytoplasm.

Weapons of the Future: Reality and Solar Echoes (part 2)

The Air Force has the Pentagon working on designing micro-drones that can secretly squirt their targets with a signal-emitting powder or goo. This would be used to either track the target and keep tabs on his movements, or possibly even serve as coordinates for a hellfire missile. In Solar Echoes, the Archaeloids designed the Tracking Rifle to compensate for their slightly lower Reflexes than other races (and as a result, they have a chance to miss more often.) Another weapon designed by the Archaeloids has an entirely different function, however, and is somewhat similar to the target painting that is being researched by the Pentagon. The Ink Blaster is a small pistol that functions as a paint-ball pistol. Upon impact, the ink-ball explodes and covers the target with a bright purple ink stain. Not only is this visually obvious, but the ink contains nano-tracers that can be tracked at a range of up to 2 miles. Once again, the innovative and persistent Archaeloids have used technology to compensate for a weakness—this time, their slower running speed.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Weapons of the Future: Reality and Solar Echoes (part 1)

Just this weekend it was announced that DARPA has had successful live tests of their self-guided bullets (see link below). The concept of a tracking bullet is a frightening one, for anyone on the receiving end of a firearms attack. Cover may be circumvented by such technology, and a sniper's attack will be more difficult to locate, not to mention increased range and accuracy with these bullets. In Solar Echoes, we have a slightly similar weapon—the Tracking Rifle—which enables the user to fire a tracking device at his target. If it hits, all attacks from that gun against the target gain a bonus to hit the opponent, though the tracker can be removed if the victim spends the time to do so. Regarding the self-guided bullets from DARPA, however, it is unclear whether such a tracking device would even be necessary. Perhaps painting the target with a laser, or even using some kind of IFF technology through a scope would enable the bullet to lock on to the target. Warfare is always changing, and it's at least good to know that DARPA is hard at work innovating ways for our military to be more effective.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Experience Rewards in RPG's (part 5)

Solar Echoes still has a very large combat component and players are likely to find themselves exchanging attacks with enemies in various combat situations. However, players are in the role of Union Guard agents—a special forces team that tries to uphold the law. There are negative effects in the game for players who earn the reputation of being overly brutal and bloodthirsty, as the Union Guard doesn't condone senseless murder. There are even several combat options in the game for players who want to subdue, not destroy, their enemies. For instance, a number of weapons in Solar Echoes are non-lethal. The net gun or bola entangles enemies and prevents them from fleeing or advancing. Stun rounds can be used with firearms and will daze an opponent long enough to capture him. Some martial arts talents enable the user to place a foe in a hold or lock, and a few cyberweapons are non-damaging, such as the scurrying trip-bot that likes to get underfoot or the magnetic disarming orb. Even the bio-status track (our way of measuring wounds and “hit points” in the game) has an unconscious/dying condition as the final sustainable point of damage. Enemies might be unconscious and injured to the point where they could slip away to death if left untreated, but the focus is on them being incapacitated for capture if reduced to the unconscious/dying condition. In the end, XP in Solar Echoes is rewarded for overcoming challenges in whatever way players can devise, instead of rewarding a hack and slash mentality.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Experience Rewards in RPG's (part 4)

So how do we handle experience point (XP) awards in Solar Echoes? We wanted to make sure that combat was still fun and rewarding, and yet we didn't want the focus to always be on killing everything that moves. Our goal was for Solar Echoes to be a mission-focused game, so that players would strive to work together on a team to accomplish the goals of the mission as the top priority, rather than worry about racking up XP to level up their characters. We actually borrowed a little from the Bioware concept mentioned earlier this week, where we decided NOT to award XP for killing something, unless killing a specific target was an actual mission goal (sometimes it will be, in assassin missions.) In the end, the result was much more successful than it would be in a video game environment—rather than just weave around enemies to avoid battle if there was no XP award for killing them, in a tabletop environment, players had to make choices. Can they handle a combat situation with the enemy, or would they rather try to outsmart the enemy with clever persuasion attempts in a dialogue encounter? Perhaps sneaking past the guards would be the best option, or if the guards are robots, maybe hacking them into submission would be the best approach? In Solar Echoes, we reward XP for innovation in the game and for achieving preset goals. At the end of every mission, XP awards are listed for each mission goal. If the goal was to defeat the gang of pirates and retrieve stolen firearms, “defeat” doesn't only mean killing—it also includes bypassing and outsmarting.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Experience Rewards in RPG's (part 3)

As I mentioned yesterday, I think combat is an essential component in an RPG. Combat allows players to dive into the action and put their characters to the test, utilizing the various skill choices and design decisions they've made for their characters. It almost seems that experience point rewards for defeating enemies is inseparable. In most games where experience points are given out for enemy deaths, players have no incentive to use stealth to avoid a battle—stealth is only used to get the jump on an enemy in order to deal more damage. Like stealth, dialogue is also rarely used in a lot of games to circumvent conflict, unless it is clear that the battle cannot be won (though players often jump into any battle, regardless of how outmatched they might seem to be, and then cry foul if they all die to a superior enemy.) Why do players always insist on such bloodthirsty, brazen approaches to every challenge? Experience points are quite often the incentive for this hack and slash approach, serving as the carrot on the proverbial carrot-and-stick. Although combat is an essential part of a successful RPG, it often seems that combat has become the primary focus for most players, and the other components of RPG's—namely roleplaying and storytelling—fall to the wayside as peripheral elements.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Experience Rewards in RPG's (part 2)

A computer game called “Neverwinter Nights” was released by Bioware in 2002. This game took the table-top role-playing environment to the computer, where players could join games online and adventure together, act out their characters, and have a game master run the show behind the scenes in pre-programmed scenarios, some that the game master himself had designed. It was an innovative approach—allowing game masters to make their own adventures and conduct them in real-time for other players. Bioware occasionally released official adventures for download, and they did their best to respond to player feedback. One interesting experiment was an adventure that was programmed to avoid the customary experience point award system. Everyone was excited—finally, a game that focused on experience awards for something other than killing! However, at least in my opinion, this experiment failed. As I played through the adventure, I found myself weaving and dodging through all the monsters like I was driving through an obstacle course. Part of the fun of an RPG is combat, but without experience point rewards for it, there was no longer a reason for it at all. Experience points in that adventure were awarded for discoveries and achieving quest goals, but without combat rewards, the essence of an RPG was somehow lost and the game felt like a story-book, with lots of running between areas. Did Bioware completely miss the mark (they never went back to that formula for future releases, so I don't think I was the only one who disliked it), or was there something salvageable there?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Experience Rewards in RPG's (part 1)

The traditional model for RPG-type games is to reward “experience points” for killing an enemy. In video games, it is common to see a system designed to present increasingly difficult enemies that are focused on killing the player's character. If the player defeats one of these enemies, a certain number of experience points are rewarded to the player's character for that kill. Once a pre-determined number of experience points are earned (usually this is represented onscreen by a progress bar or number,) the character in the game “levels up,” earning new rewards and abilities. This design works very well, and the carrot-on-a-stick approach of these rewards encourages the player to keep playing, slaying hordes of enemies to level up and make his character more powerful, usually so it is easier to slay hordes of enemies. Of course, as the character progresses through the game, the enemies become tougher to match the character's level, so it is a perpetual drive forward and challenge until the game is solved. However, is this formula the only way?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Human-controlled Robots (part 5)

In the Solar Echoes universe, it is possible to control robots remotely and use them in a number of different situations. Recon robots can be remotely operated and sent ahead to scout an area, providing relayed visual and audio information from a distance. Larger robots can be hacked and remotely controlled, using robotics talents such as Robot Servant. More advanced talents allow for multiple robots to be controlled at once—Robot Minion allows for 3 to be controlled while Robot Horde allows for 5 to be controlled Remotely. An extremely experienced character can eventually acquire the Robot Avatar talent, which not only allows for full control of a single robot, but enables the character to use his skills and talents through the remotely controlled robot. Just imagine a martial artist shadow boxing in the air, while his robot avatar is actually in a brawl, mirroring all the same moves as his operator!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Human-controlled Robots (part 4)

Robotic suits might someday exist, such as we saw in Aliens (the “loader” was a robotic frame a human could ride in, using the arms to lift heavy objects while walking around with robotic legs.) Working in harsh environments, such as in extreme temperatures, radiated environments, or biologically dangerous situations, would also warrant the use of a protective suit. Having robotic features, especially to substitute for the use of one's actual hands, would be ideal in such environments. Robotic suits in warfare could enable people to jump higher, run faster, and possibly ignore certain threats. Consider the robotic suit used in the sci-fi movie, District 9, and the protection it provided the user, plus the massive firepower and computer assisted targeting. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine that we will be seeing robotic suits, possibly for a variety of uses, in the very near future.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Human-controlled Robots (part 3)

Human-operated robots might exist for reasons other than the military. Already, robots are being used in entertainment. In the future, gladiators—such as in the movie “Real Steel”--might box each-other in competitive matches for entertainment. We already see this on a much smaller scale at MIT: just look up “MIT robot competition” on youtube for a sample, or look up “Robot Wars” for a more commercialized version. Some potential futuristic sports might be too dangerous for humans to compete in, so robots might be the perfect substitute. The way football is going these days, with the increasing concerns over concussions and other injuries, it's easy to wonder if we might see something like the Atari “Cyberball” arcade game from the late 80's, where robotic avatars played football against each other. Whether or not the football will explode, though, is another question entirely...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Human-controlled Robots (part 2)

I still remember cartoons like “Voltron” back in the 80's, and Power-Rangers were soon to follow. The idea of giant robots controlled by humans most likely originated in Japan, and has been so popular that it has earned its own genre title: “mecha.” Vehicles that combined to form the arms, legs, torso and head of a giant robot were quickly part “Transformers” lore, and this also made for very popular toys that stimulated the imaginations of youngsters. Those kids have grown up now, and with the advances in robotic technology these days, it is no wonder that giant robots are now a potential reality. Will we someday see giant robots stomping around earth as military weapons? In “Pacific Rift,” these giant robots were used to defeat gargantuan, Godzilla-like creatures, but it is hard to imagine they would ever be deemed as a necessary expense, even if we faced giant monsters (missiles would probably do the trick instead of a giant robot.) Furthermore, it makes little sense to have the robot operators housed inside the robot itself in a military situation, putting themselves at risk in a wartime environment.